There are in children’s literature two beloved, gallant mice who love honor and chivalry, both of whom this year have found their way onto the big screen as computer-animated characters. One is Reepicheep, who appeared in this spring’s Disney-Walden co-production The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, now on DVD. And the other is the eponymous hero of Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, in theaters Dec. 19.

DiCamillo is also the author of Because of Winn-Dixie, which was honorably brought to the screen by Walden Media before the Narnia films, back when Walden still made faithful adaptations of acclaimed children’s books.

The Newbery Award-winning Despereaux, with its emphasis on the magic of reading and stories, is the sort of book that might have attracted Walden’s attention, though Walden would have done it as a live-action production with computer-generated imagery (CGI) mice and rats. Instead, it’s a computer-animated cartoon from Universal, a studio with limited experience in the form, other than the non-cartoony Polar Express.

While the big-screen Reepicheep, alas, bears little resemblance to the character Lewis wrote, Despereaux fares rather better. The movie, a quirky fairy tale with echoes of The Princess Bride, Flushed Away and The Secret of Nimh, is maybe two-thirds true to DiCamillo’s story, with strange, at times surreal, departures from the book.

As for Despereaux himself, DiCamillo’s frail, wide-eyed romantic has become a fearless action hero.

But where the big-screen Reepicheep is merely sarcastic and cocky, the movie Despereaux is endearingly sincere. Here is a mouse-hero who is truly serious about honor, devotion and courage, in a movie that feels like a storybook rather than an action movie — a movie about longing, imagination, resentment, contrition, forgiveness and redemption.

It is also a movie in which the kingdom of Dor celebrates the annual Soup Day festival like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, rain magically stops falling when the queen dies, and a magical food golem helps the royal chef create new soups. Excuse me: Did you say a magical food golem? Why yes, I did, and what’s more, he doesn’t just make soup: He gets an action scene late in the film.

What the heck? Who reads The Tale of Despereaux and thinks, “What this story needs is … a magical food golem.”

Perhaps it was French director Sylvain Chomet, creator of the bizarre The Triplets of Belleville, who began work on Despereaux before being kicked off the project. Or possibly Corpse Bride co-director Mike Johnson, who replaced Chomet for a while. Such a surreal conceit would certainly be more at home in Triplets or Corpse Bride than Despereaux. Certainly, it’s harder to imagine this invention coming from writer–producer Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) or from the final directing team of Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Robert Stevenhagen (Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, The Road to El Dorado).

Too many cooks in the soup? Perhaps. Fans of the book may be frustrated by Despereaux’s unevenness and sometimes odd storytelling choices. Even so, the strange and wonderful quality of DiCamillo’s story is honored, if imperfectly.

Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) is different from other mice: He’s born with his eyes open, and his ears are enormous. This sets him apart from his peers, but it also means he sees and hears more than they do. More disconcertingly, he doesn’t cower and scurry like other mice — and he isn’t afraid of humans.

In fact, he finds inspiration and elevation in human culture: To other mice, the books in the library are just so much edible glue and paper, but Despereaux reads the words “Once upon a time” — and is transformed.

It’s impossible not to think of Pixar’s Ratatouille, which also features a computer-animated rodent with highly attuned senses and an affinity for human beings and their culture (cuisine rather than literature). Like Remy, who preferred not to crawl on all fours, Despereaux even moves differently from other rats — and he has a French name, to boot. At the same time, the subterranean metropolises of Mouseworld and Ratworld may remind viewers of co-director Fell’s Flushed Away, with its miniature London underground.

But those films are essentially urban comedies, while The Tale of Despereaux is a fairy tale. What is most gratifying about the movie is that it’s actually a fairy tale. Not a “fractured fairy tale” — not an ironic deconstruction of the genre in the mode of Shrek, Enchanted and Happily N’Ever After — but a sincere morality tale in a folk storytelling mode, aided by Sigourney Weaver’s voiceover narration, often drawing directly from DiCamillo’s text.

Yet, the filmmakers subvert their source material in some ways. The book’s protagonist is precisely an unlikely hero: weak, sickly, less timid than other mice, but still quite capable of fear, and even prone to fainting.

By contrast, the movie Despereaux is a natural hero of the Hollywood sort: one who never feels fear, and whose speed, grace and reflexes would do him credit at the Jade Palace in Kung Fu Panda. Unlike DiCamillo’s hero, who is well aware of his shortcomings, the movie mouse not only doesn’t know he’s small, he thinks of himself as a giant. Even his portentous birth in the movie contrasts with his unpromising beginnings in the book.

All in all, though, The Tale of Despereaux is sprightly, charming family entertainment for the Christmas season — and a fine finish to a movie year of somewhat better fare for family audiences than we’ve seen in some time.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor

and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.


Content advisory: Moderate animated menace and scariness; some stressful family situations (parental death and separation). Might be too intense for younger kids.