By MARTY CLEAR
They're the most hackneyed opening words in all of literature. But somehow, when narrator Sigourney Weaver says "Once upon a time," she seems to promise that The Tale of Despereaux will be refreshingly charming.
And from those opening words right through the concluding "happily ever after," that's exactly what Despereaux is.
It's essentially an old-fashioned fairy tale, and it doesn't try to avoid the conventions of the genre; in fact, it revels in them. There's the beautiful princess imprisoned in a castle, the unattractive servant girl who dreams of a better life, and the ostracized child who ends up being the hero. And, of course, there's a comfortable instructive and overtly stated moral.
But it never feels like a cliche, thanks to a reasonably compelling story, excellent performances by a big-name cast and literate dialogue.
The animation helps a lot, too. It's stylish but modern, impressive because of its detail and emotion rather than its technology.
The title character, voiced by Matthew Broderick, is an odd-looking mouse, much smaller than his peers in Mouseland. He causes concern among his elders because he refuses to learn fear. His teacher gives him failing marks in "scurrying" and "cowering."
Banished from his homeland, Despereaux befriends a kind-hearted rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman). The rat has accidentally caused the death of the queen, which has led to prolonged misery in the entire kingdom. The rat is remorseful and longs to apologize, and Despereaux braves all sorts of perilous adventures to help him do so.
There's a lot of narrative packed into a fairly short film so kids should be very entertained, and the messages about integrity, love and individualism won't be lost on them. But there's also some delightful acting, plus plenty of craftsmanship and intelligence in every aspect of this movie, and that should appeal to almost any adult.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.