Which came first, the rat or the mouse? Doesn’t really matter. Even though Kate DiCamillo’s book “The Tale of Despereaux” came out in 2003 – and won a Newbery Medal for outstanding children’s literature – the animated film version still feels like a rip-off of “Ratatouille,” which was only released last year.

That’s partly because of the premise: It’s a food-laden fairy tale about a rodent (voiced by Matthew Broderick) who must overcome his underdog status to save the day. But the bigger problem is its lack of comparative charm.

Whereas the gorgeous, sophisticated “Ratatouille” was both a crowd-pleaser and a critical favorite, duly winning the Academy Award for best animated feature, “Despereaux” feels obvious, preachy and heavy-handed. And that’s a surprise given that the script was co-written and produced by Gary Ross, whose previous screenplays include the smart, winning “Dave” and “Pleasantville.”

Aside from its muted tones, there’s not a whole lot of subtlety to be found here in the film from directors Sam Fell (“Flushed Away”) and longtime animator Robert Stevenhagen – certainly not in the way it shifts awkwardly among three plots, all of which are connected to Princess Pea (Emma Watson).

Roscuro the rat (Dustin Hoffman) accidentally falls into the queen’s soup, killing her and prompting darkness and depression throughout the kingdom of Dor. Roscuro is exiled for the act, but next comes Despereaux, a tiny mouse with giant ears who fears nothing. As such he’s also banished, but then along comes the crass, portly serving girl Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), whose jealousy of the princess threatens the palace and gives Roscuro and Despereaux a chance to redeem themselves.

Rated: G. Running time: 93 min. Rating: 1½ out of 4 stars.

– By Christy Lemire, AP movie critic

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