Animated films targeted at children fall into two categories. The first is where the story is king and the film doesn’t talk down to the audience (Spirited Away or most of the Pixar films). The second category is for films with lots of pop culture jokes and dialogue aimed at adults to keep them entertained because the story itself won’t (Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda or straight to DVD movies like Open Season and Space Chimps). The Tale of Despereaux clearly falls into the first category, but unfortunately does not succeed in reaching classic status.

Despereaux is the tale of a smaller than usual mouse who unlike the rest of his species lives for danger and adventure. He fancies himself a gentleman and his goal is to help the princess of his town. Initially this means cheering her up with storytelling, but eventually the stakes go up and his quest becomes to save her life from vicious rats living in the dungeon of her castle. Visually as beautiful as the best of Pixar, ultimately the film is not the classic it hoped to be.

Book adaptations are extremely difficult to pull off well. In this case, the screenwriters tried to please fans of the novel by keeping all the storylines and characters in the mix. We aren’t introduced to our lead character until quite late in the film and only after an overly long opening sequence showing the town’s annual soup festival.  This is the Achilles heel of the adaptation. Every character and subplot is kept in, but at the expense of the spine of the story. This is definitely a case where less would have been more.

Another weakness shows up in the pacing and editing. We lose track of key secondary characters only to have them suddenly show up when the plot needs them. The film cuts from the Princess and her maid going down to the dungeon to both suddenly imprisoned in cells with minimal explanation of how that occurred. In the end, all the subplots come together and the themes of forgiveness and redemption come through, but it’s an uneven ride to the payoff.

A near miss on the story side of things, I would still recommend seeing this on the big screen due to its splendid artistry. The color palette is muted and some have compared the look of the film to that of the Dutch masters of old. Quality and detail that I’ve only seen in Pixar work is evident here. A few pulled strings on the lace that Despereaux’s mother wears, subtle lighting and shadow effects as an overcast day becomes sunny…it’s too bad that with all the time and effort the artists took to perfect the visuals, more was not spent on adapting the story. So again, see it for the visuals and the cute titular character but don’t expect a Ratatouille or Wall-E.

*****SPOILER**** A final note for parents with small children. Note that some scenes could be a bit scarier than the “G” rating and a mother’s death is a major plot point as well.

In theaters now!