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Mouse on a mission
‘Tale of Despereaux' has a look, feel that won't score big with kids

The Tale of Despereaux

(G)

1 1/2 out of 4 stars

Give "The Tale of Despereaux" filmmakers some credit here. Instead of the usual highly polished, ultra-slick CGI artwork, they've opted for a more modest, hand-drawn style. It's refreshing and original, but is also angularly brittle and not very kid friendly. Imagine a slightly less severe riff on Terry Gilliam's similar Monty Python work.

Told in a "once upon a time" fairy tale manner with a medieval backdrop, it recalls the "Shrek" franchise minus the humor and pop-culture references. To call it dour might be unfair, but in an age where animation zips along at breakneck speeds with nonstop laughs and wall-to-wall audio/visual stimuli, it's a little too quaint and stoic for its own good.

The packed Saturday morning preview audience was more than patient while waiting for something to kick in, and when it was clear that would never happen, the mostly under-10 crowd switched over to fidget mode and didn't stop until the movie was over.

Based on the Newbery Award winning book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, the screenplay tries to accommodate too many story lines and most of them are left dangling. The target audience here is relatively easy to please; going overboard with an overstuffed plot was not advisable.

Compared with last year's all-too-similar "Ratatouille," "Despereaux" feels like a quick cash-in, though it's not. The recycled feel is further compounded as it is co-directed by Sam Fell, whose far superior "Flushed Away" was also populated with mostly vermin characters.

If the tikes can get beyond the blasé presentation and unsure plot, they still might be able to embrace the late-in-arriving title character (voiced by Matthew Broderick). Born with oversized ears and a heart to match, the diminutive Despereaux is everything the typical mouse is not. Fearless, inquisitive and unfailingly upbeat, Despereaux bucks a system that rewards fear, reclusiveness and leaving well enough alone.

Bravely venturing beyond the underground confines beneath the kingdom of Dor, Despereaux befriends Princess Pea (Emma Watson), the lonely heir to the throne regulated to seclusion by her father, the king, after her mother died while eating soup. Soup is a celebrated food in Dor and the king's knee-jerk banishment of it, rats and fun in general leaves a dark cloud hovering over the kingdom. Sounds fun, huh?!

Perhaps in a move to finally show some signs of life, the third act does progress at a quicker pace, but also includes a kidnapping, gang violence, too-realistic visuals and a hulking caged kitty that will almost certainly lead to many a child's future nightmares.

In a year featuring close to a half a dozen mostly brilliant and memorable animated films, the desperate "Despereaux" ends it on a downbeat and uneventful note. (Universal)