Sidebar: I hate being sick. Hate it. Hate not having any energy. Hate not being in control of my body. Hate losing whole days (or several days) to just sleeping and waiting for everything to repair itself. I can't believe I used to WISH for this shit just to get out of school. The FUCK was wrong with me??
"The Tale of Despereaux" looks like it took forever to make, so it's probably unfair to suggest that it's bearing more than a passing resemblance to something a cynical team of executives would concoct if told to create "Ratatouille meets Harry Potter" is anything other than coincidence. Especially since, in spite of how it eventually shakes out (SPOILER ALERT: less than wonderful) there's a tremendous amount to be admired in it. Here's a non-Pixar animated film that takes itself seriously, doesn't talk down at all to it's young audience, nails a kind of lyrical fairy-story melancholy seldom attempted outside of Hayao Miyazaki and - best of all - doesn't contain a SINGLE obnoxious pop-culture reference. It's just too bad it's so structurally unsound.
It's one thing for a family film to have a deep, layered plot... it's quite another for it to have a plot so convoluted and confounding that it would be frustrating to follow in an "adult" film. There are about five major characters at the center of five individual story-arcs with their own origins, motives and goals; and aside from key plot-points they don't really connect to one another all that much. There's enough material here for an entire season of a half-hour TV show, and it's all haphazardly crammed into a single movie.
Briefly: There's a kingdom called Dor, where everyone loves soup. During a big soup festival, a friendly rat named Roscuro accidentally falls into the Queen's bowl, inducing a fatal heart. This throws the King into depression, leading him to banish all rats to the dungeon - where even gentle Roscuro is forced to join a barbaric feudal society of vermin - and ban all soup - which leaves the Royal Soup Chef despondent and estranged from his assistant, a ghost (unexplained) made of vegetables. Meanwhile, a big-eared mouse named Despereaux keeps getting in trouble because he wants to be brave and knight-like while mice are supposed to be timid and fearful. He befriends the castle's Princess, a no-no which gets him banished to the dungeon in time to ALSO befriend Roscuro and hatch a joint plan of attonement. Also involved are an evil Rat King (who's name I'm not sure was ever said aloud) who placates the rat horde with gladiator games and a miserably-backstoried servant girl with a creeping case of Princess Envy. If you're noticing that Despereaux seems to comprise the less-interesting part of his own tale, you're halfway there.
The movie has all the hallmarks of a lengthy literary adaptation being crammed into a "highlight reel" of a feature film, and a quick Google informs me that it's indeed based on a Newbury Award winning book... which, puzzlingly, seems to be summarized as a lot LESS convoluted than the movie. Either way, there's just not enough room for anything to BREATHE.
It all seems to be working fine up to a point, with a nice deliberate pace that takes time introducing Roscuro (who's really more of the movie, to be honest) and the rest of the supporting cast and their stories before even getting to Despereaux (who never really gets away from being Reepicheep without the entertaining egomania.) But the cracks start to show in the second act. Without spoiling, the story requires two of the good-guys to take an INCREDIBLY dark, tragic character turn that the film doesn't leave enough room to fully explore - instead of a natural progression of bad decision to realization to redemption, it seems more like two major characters go momentarily insane and then get better right away for the finale.
And I've STILL got no idea what was up with the vegetable-man!
It's a great looking movie and an admirable try... but it falls apart.