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THE STORY OF A MOUSE, A PRINCESS, SOME SOUP, AND A SPOOL OF THREAD


                The line above is the subtitle of “The Tale of Despereaux,” Kate DiCamillo's Newbery-Award-winning book from 2003.
    Fans of DiCamillo's gentle story and delicate, pastel-tinted prose will doubtless be surprised by the movie of the same name that's playing as a holiday attraction at Farmington's Narrow Gauge Cinema.
    They'll be surprised because the book has been expanded and punched up for the screen to the point that it's frequently unrecognizable. But I don't think they'll be horrified, because, while manifestly a different take on the book's themes, the animated feature is a pretty adorable and exciting story on its own terms.
    To begin with, while the book opens with the birth of the eponymous hero, the tiny mouse with the extra-large ears, the movie starts with the arrival of the rat Roscuro in the Kingdom of Dor by ship.
We then get the set-up of the royal family's dinner, ending in Roscuro's disaster and the death of the Queen, which means that we're locked into seeing Roscuro as a sympathetic character before we meet our hero.
    But the shift in the opening also means that we get introduced to the whole kingdom and its colorful pageantry, and some pretty nifty thematic and visual jokes as well, such as the kingdom's fame as a producer of soup, with citizens arriving for the annual soup festival wearing hats shaped like giant vegetables.
    It also introduces the theme of a gourmet rat who drops unannounced into a busy kitchen, but the similarities to “Ratatouille” are slight and fleeting. But the DreamWorks computer animation is instantly recognizable as being in the style of the “Shrek” movies, with self-consciously rounded figures and thin, very stylized character faces. The visual style certainly gives the proceedings a fairy-tale look, but I personally prefer the richer and more naturalistic Pixar style.
    Still, this movie is a delight to look at, with almost too much detail to take in on one viewing. So by the time we get to Despereaux's birth, at least a quarter of an hour into the movie, we're ready for a little quiet time by the crib, and a chance to stare at what is undeniably a Very Cute Mouse.
    “If you know anything about fairy tales,” says the narrator, Sigourney Weaver, “you know a hero doesn't appear until the world really needs one.” This at a stroke excuses the movie for tinkering with the book's structure, while subtly implying that DiCamillo didn't know what she was doing. Still, it's a small dig, and frankly, in my book Sigourney Weaver can get away with anything. Here she brings just the right touch of easy familiarity and compassionate involvement to a narration that's a lot more folksy and less formal than the book's narration, which I found to be sometimes precious and even a little patronizing.
    Despereaux's mother is still named Antoinette, though she has lost the charming French speech patterns she had in the book, because we've already met chef André, voiced by Kevin Kline, who's using the most outrageous French accent since Monty Python. André's partner in soup is a magical creature named Boldo who's formed out of vegetables, and is a marvelous reference to the Italian Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who actually painted portraits of such creatures, though without the benefit of Stanley Tucci's hilarious vocal style to bring them to life.
    Matthew Broderick voices Despereaux with a judicious mix of boyish innocence and adolescent brashness, which, added to his huge ears and adorable pink nose, make him the perfect hero for the K-through-6 set.
    And as the titular hero he gets a lot more to do in the movie than in the book, because the plot has been expanded to include, among other things, a rat Arena in the dungeon where they hold Roman-style confrontations with wild beasts – in this case a very ragged-looking cat – that might even be a little intense for smaller children.
    But all this plot expansion serves to turn the original story into a very colorful and entertaining adventure story with lots of visual humor and derring-do that fans of the book shouldn't find so different as to be offensive, because the book's themes of courage and forgiveness pretty much remain intact. And with the holiday movie season being pretty much a bust this year, it's nice that there's at least one film that families can enjoy together.