The Tale of Despereaux is not merely the story of a very cute mouse named Despereaux, but also a story of a rat named Roscuro, a princess named Pea, a scullery maid named Mig who looks a bit like a pig, and soup. The soup is quite special, and so is Despereaux.
He is quite small, and his ears are quite large, even by mouse standards. He is a rodent nonconformist in other, more important ways too: he does not cower in fear, and neither does he scurry. When he is supposed to be nibbling away at a pile of books, he instead reads them, feeding his mind instead of his tummy. Devouring stories of chivalrous knights further emboldens the already too bold young mouse. He gets unmouselike ideas. He endeavors to rescue a fair princess -- that would be Miss Pea, a very sad princess whose mother died, fairly recently, in an incident involving a rat and a bowl of soup.
Speaking to a human and reading books gets Despereaux banished from wee Mouseworld. Over a hundred years ago, John Stuart Mill wrote: "Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time." The elders of Mouseworld would disagree with Mill's assessment of mousy men, but it's a fine message for youngsters to take away from The Tale of Despereaux. The mouse who dares to be different lives a life of adventure, but more importantly, he makes the world a better place.
Moral courage is something Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) never lacks, although others around him find their courage, resolve, and goodness occasionally lapsing. The Tale of Despereaux is based on Kate DiCamillo's Newberry Award-winning novel, and it's a complicated tale of simple virtues. Despereaux meets Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a seafaring rodent who has had the subterranean homesick blues ever since he wound up in the bleak underworld Ratworld. Roscuro is a nonconformist rat in need of redemption, and he meets Mig (Tracey Ullman), a peasant girl in need of a little kindness. There's a soup chef too, and an enchanted pile of vegetables, and a lot of unsavory, fairly bloodthirsty rats, and a great deal happens, much of it requiring a great deal of courage. The story is at times like a stone soup, with a little of this and a little of that, while the soup subplot itself is a bit too reminiscent of Ratatouille, especially since it involves both a rat and a snooty chef.
The animation in The Tale of Despereaux is quite lovely and lively, exhibiting great attention to detail -- from the mouse whiskers and wet noses, to the fine tapestries and delicately carved balustrades in Princess Pea's palace, to the shadowy, trash-strewn Ratworld. The Tale of Despereaux has an exquisite Renaissance glory and luminosity about it (and also a Boschian darkness). The characters often look like they've walked right out of the pages of a glossy book on Renaissance art (Princess Pea's late mother looks like a plump Botero, but her true ancestor is clearly Botticelli's Venus). The artwork shines even when the story turns dark and moody, which it often does. If The Tale of Despereaux has a Grimm Brothers grimness, it is also filled with exciting exploits and daring deeds and life lessons well worth learning. And like any fairy tale about a good, brave mouse, it is a tale that ends well.