Soup has a mystical quality that sustains us like no other food. We rely on it to warm us in winter (potato), to cure us when we're ill (chicken noodle), fill us in times of need (stone). For a truly good bowl, we'll gladly sacrifice our dignity (the Soup Nazi). And when our bowl is empty, we ourselves are empty.
It is into such a soulless, soupless world that Despereaux, a scrawny mouse with big ears and a brave heart, is born. Little Despereaux, who will spend his early days paradoxically trying to answer that age-old question: "Are you a man or a mouse?"
"I," Despereaux will thoughtfully answer in a world proudly ruled by the meek, "am a gentleman."
The Kingdom of Dor is an idyllic place, where the sun always shines, the people (and rodents) are always happy, and soup is abundant and adored. In fact, there is even a day in its honor, when a grand new soup creation is produced by royal court chef Andrew (with a little help from a magical vegetable man).
Alas, Roscuro, a well-meaning rat who can't resist a good bowl, inadvertently spoils the grand unveiling when he falls into the queen's soup and gives her what Fred Sanford used to call the Big One. Saddened by his loss, the king banishes soup from the kingdom, and a funk falls upon the land.
Enter Despereaux, whose inability to cower or scurry or flinch at the sight of a carving knife, raises concerns in Mouseworld. His fearlessness in a feckless world eventually causes him to be banished to Ratworld, a certain death sentence, as rats view mice the way a Cajun views a good crab bisque.
All rats but one, that is: Roscuro. An unlikely alliance forms between Despereaux and Roscuro that results in a quest to return goodness and light and, most important, soup, to the Kingdom of Dor.
"The Tale of Despereaux" is based on the book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, which spent 96 weeks on The New York Times' best-sellers list. Based on the frequent whispered reports from the 10-year-old I shared popcorn with during a recent screening, the movie may not follow the printed plot line scene for scene, but it is true to DiCamillo's overall intent.
That's one reason "Despereaux" works, but it's not the only one.
In addition to script writer Gary Ross's reverence for DiCamillo's creation, "Despereaux" has a visual appeal that captures the age of chivalry, of brave knights and fair maidens, in which the movie is set. The movie's painterly quality will have more visually sophisticated youngsters commenting on "Despereaux's" remarkable look of the Flemish masters.
And there are the voices. Sigourney Weaver gives the tale a gather-round-the-hearth-children storybook narration. Matthew Broderick's vocal innocence -- genuine here in contrast to his Ferris Bueller portrayal -- makes Despereaux all the more likable, while Dustin Hoffman's range does well by the mostly likable Roscuro.
"The Tale of Despereaux" is warm, comforting, filling. A ideal meal for the holiday season.