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01.07.09

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Phaedra

2008 Universal Studios
RODENTS RISING: Despereaux takes on the world in a new animated feature.

Mice on a Roll

By Richard von Busack


FOR OLDER and wiser children, the ones who would agree that it's "a cruel and frightened world," The Tale of Despereaux is a real treat. Its visual sources are an eon of French and Flemish art, mostly from the Middle Ages, but the images range from the towers of Mont-Saint-Michel to the fields of Millet. The Gothic, elongated royalty have the faces seen on stone effigies; their brooding quality is belied by the Kingdom of Dor's silly annual celebration: an internationally famous festival of soup-making. The film is a study in shifting viewpoints. The title belongs to the agreeable big-eared mouse hero—a brave reject in a colony of quivering rodents. In time, "he'll learn to cower," his parents say, hopefully. In fact, half the film is held up by a grubby sea-fairing rat, Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman); the rat's one fatal misstep into a soup bowl causes all the trouble in this story. Sigourney Weaver's narration is just about perfect. Narration is a trickier art than it seems, and this sterling performer excels in both sides of the task. She's the gentle mother reading a fable to her child. But she's also the calm figure who has to anticipate that same child's arguments about where the story is going and about the unfairness of things. One such unfairness is the underpraise of this full-length cartoon. Naturally, it will find its largest audience on DVD, but it's worth going to a theater to see its splendid palette and its satisfyingly mature perspective. All the villains in the film are made, not born.

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