Haven't we heard this one before? Cute, French-inflected, animated rodents running around kitchens and getting into comic scrapes for essentially noble reasons? Last year's Ratatouille used that formula successfully in the story of a misunderstood rat whose ambition to become a great chef led to outrageous situations — instead of calling the board of health, the humans crowned Remy the king of cuisine. It was one of the most charming films of 2007 as well as a box-office hit.
Now along comes The Tale of Despereaux, another animated fantasy featuring another army of rats and mice with names like Andre and Antoinette, infesting another kitchen and doing things like plopping into soup bowls at the most inopportune time. But that's where the two diverge. In Despereaux, a mischievous rat fresh off a sailing ship and in search of a good meal accidentally lands in the soup bowl of the queen of the Kingdom of Dor, and instead of chomping on him — his name is Roscuro and he's voiced by Dustin Hoffman — the queen abruptly falls face first into her bowl, dead of shock. Gloom then descends on the Kingdom of Dor and particularly upon Princess Pea (voice of Emma Watson, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series), the sun hides, and there is no rain. The royal chef is even ordered to stop cooking soup.
That's a depressing beginning for a fairy tale about a juvenile mouse discovering romance — with a human being, yet — while remaining true to his conceptions of honor, justice, and truth, but the diminutive Despereaux Tilling (Matthew Broderick), who lives in the castle and who is small even for a mouse, turns the tale of woe into a story of personal triumph. The Universal release, directed by Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Robert Stevenhagen (animator on The Road to El Dorado) from a screenplay by writer Gary Ross (Pleasantville) adapted from the children's novel by Kate DiCamillo, certainly bears a superficial resemblance to Ratatouille, but it's a better film in several ways.
Young Despereaux is the despair of everyone in Mouseworld because of his fearlessness. He stubbornly refuses to scurry or cower, but more from natural curiosity and openness than from a sense of bravado. In giant close-ups with perfect, more-than-anthropomorphic details of whiskers, teeth, and even the pores on his skin, Despereaux could be the cutest cartoon critter since, well, maybe ever. You'd have to go back to Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse toon, Brave Little Tailor (1938), in which Mickey subdues a fearsome giant, to find a pluckier, more likable little guy. Despereaux simply cannot learn to be afraid. He also enjoys reading.
Des' fate is bound up with those of a large pack of vivid characters voiced by an impressive cast of actors, and the animations caricature still other actors. For instance, the Princess is a dead ringer for Julie Delpy, while green-suited Botticelli, villainous leader of the rats (voice of Ciarán Hinds), is vintage Donald Sutherland. The socially conscious subplot about a coarse-featured peasant girl named Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman) who secretly longs to be a glamorous princess harks back to the Shrek films, artwork and all. Portraying various rats, mice, and suitably grotesque humans are William H. Macy, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Robbie Coltrane, and Frank Langella — not a bad cast for a live-action movie. If the folksy, amber-toned Mouseworld resembles a miniature Provence, the chaotic dungeon kingdom of Ratworld could only be Bangkok, with a touch of Nero's Rome. There's a rat-size coliseum where they stage gladiatorial combats with a fat, agitated cat.
Long before the rat-led insurrection tries to overthrow the king and Despereaux declares his love for Princess Pea, we're completely enchanted by the artwork, the voice characterizations, and the story elements, even though we've seen versions of them before. One look into Despereaux's face is all it takes.
While Despereaux is achieving his destiny and rallying the citizens of Mouseworld to action, Walt Kowalski, grizzled everyman of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, attempts to perform his version the same thing in contemporary Detroit, with groan-producing results.
Senior citizen and recent widower Walt, a Korean War vet and retired auto worker who persists in living in his humble bungalow long after the neighborhood has gone downhill, is living out what smells like another About Schmidt scenario — except that The Man with No Name takes the theme of not going gently into that good night and gives it a violent Eastwood-ian spin it doesn't really deserve. Beer-chugging Walt is an old-school equal opportunity hater who not only disparages his "dog-eater" Hmong neighbors but also keeps the flame burning by confronting the local "spooks" and "gooks," teaching them who's boss. But wait, he's about to learn valuable life lessons from Thao (played by Bee Vang) and Sue (Ahney Her), the juvie brother and sister next door trying to make their way down mean streets.
That bit of medicine begins to go down soon after Walt catches Thao (Walt calls him "Toad") trying to steal his cherry Ford Gran Torino as part of an initiation into the local Hmong gang. Walt sizes up Thao and a bond develops, nurtured along by the persistent young parish priest (I'm not making this up) and the gratitude of the Hmongs after Walt stares down the bad guys. Twenty minutes in, we know Walt is eventually going to give the car to the kid. The only question is how.
It's been noted before, but Eastwood should have retired, or at least stopped starring in his own movies, after the elegiac Unforgiven. That was sixteen years ago, and he's directed fourteen films since — two good ones (Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima) and a few salvageable ones — so it's clear he'll never quit. The best we can hope for is that he resists costarring with an orangutan again. Gran Torino is the ideal Grumpy Old Men with Guns movie — they should sell fiber bars at the theater. Eastwood and writers Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson can't resist cataloging each and every one of Walt's faults before finally sending him on the road to glory, and the lovable racist redeems himself big-time, without any Harry Callahan ambiguity. That's called having your cake and eating it too. Of the two Eastwood films this year, we'll go with Changeling by default.
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