*The Tale of Despereaux (G)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
He is smart and brave. He is adventurous. He is a gentleman. He is adorable and tiny. He's a mouse.
You would think there wouldn't be any more lovely stories to tell about cute, furry creatures who defy odds, embrace danger, find love and celebrate honor all from the confines of a cartoon. But there's at least one more, for The Tale of Despereaux is an absolute delight, sweetly inventive, surprisingly dark and dedicated to making you forget how many times you've seen similar stories in the past.
Of the many things to embrace in this charming movie, the animation stands out. It is luminous in a way that computer cartoons rarely achieve, eschewing photorealism for the kind of stylized, yet organic, illustrations found more typically in children's storybooks. There's something revelatory in the way the beauty of a simple drawing can deepen your love for a character. Something as ordinary as the moistness of Despereaux's pink little nose makes him huggably real.
That storybook look is perfectly apt for this film, too, with its knowing nods toward fairy-tale conventions and audience expectations. I have not read the Kate DiCamillo book that inspired the movie, but if Sigourney Weaver's self-referential narration doesn't actually pick up the author's tone, it certainly does the job of convincing us we're being read a tale.
It's almost as if the Grandfather of The Princess Bride were reading to us, tailoring the story to our particular needs ... and in fact, with its undercutting of narrative conceits at the same time that it employs them, Despereaux is very much like that film, but without the snark.
Not that everything is nice here, either. One tradition of fairy tales that has not been thrown overboard is the darkness, and this cute-little-mouse movie is grimmer than you might expect.
Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) is being pushed into a typical mouse life of terror, cowering and fear, when he cheerfully refuses to be a proper mouse in favor of a quest for adventure, even if it means he'll be banished from Mouseworld to Ratworld for his crimes. Despereaux's elders anticipate that he'll be eaten by rats, and Ratworld is indeed nightmarish (though ingeniously pirate-y). But instead, Despereaux unexpectedly befriends the rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman). The friendship takes a sinister turn, however, when Roscuro suffers a ... well, a disappointment.
Disappointment and bitterness loom large in the concurrent tale of the girl Miggery (Tracey Ullman), a servant in the castle under which Mouseworld and Ratworld exist. She is jealous of the beautiful but sad Princess Pea (Emma Watson) and resentful of the hardship of her own life.
I hesitate to reveal too much of a story that is less predictable than you'd expect, or of the turns it takes. All these twists come together in the end, of course, but they're joined by feeling, some of it sour and some of it soaring and all of it as authentic as can be.
As a movie, The Tale of Despereaux very much shares the sense of discovery you get from reading a book. As tiny Despereaux takes long walks across the pages of big books to read their tales of noble quests, so do we share that notion of questing ourselves to learn Despereaux's fate. That is a wonderfully startling feeling for a movie to leave you with, indeed.