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New Movies With a French Connection


Now, two new movies with a French connection - the animated comedy "The Tale of Despereaux" is about a curious French mouse who loves to read and the French-language drama "The Class" tells the story of a middle school teacher who aims to inspire. Our critic Bob Mondello says both films offer life lessons but really different ones.

BOB MONDELLO: Despereaux, in "The Tale of Despereaux," is an almost unbearably cute baby mouse with enormous ears and a healthy curiosity about the world. You would think that's a good thing, but curiosity can lead to nonconformity and even boldness. And those are just not mousey characteristics, as Despereaux learns - or rather, doesn't learn - in school.

(Soundbite of movie "The Tale of Despereaux")

Ms. MCNALLY SAGAL (Actress): (As the voice of the Teacher) All right, settle down. Ready, class?

MONDELLO: The teacher holds up a picture of a piece of cheese.

(Soundbite of movie "The Tale of Despereaux")

Unidentified Voices: (As the Voices of mice students) Mmm. Ohhhhh.

Ms. SAGAL: (As the Voice of the Teacher) Good. Excellent.

MONDELLO: Then the teacher holds up a picture of a knife.

(Soundbite of kids screaming)

MONDELLO: The whole class dives under desks and stays there, except for our intrepid little hero.

(Soundbite of movie "The Tale of Despereaux")

Ms. SAGAL: (As the Voice of the Teacher) Despereaux.

Mr. MATTHEW BRODERICK (Actor): (As the Voice of Despereaux) Yes?

Ms. SAGAL: (As the Voice of the Teacher) You didn't cower.

Mr. BRODERICK: (As the Voice of Despereaux) Looks like a sword.

Ms. SAGAL: (As the Voice of the Teacher) It's a carving knife.

(Soundbite of kids gasping)

Mr. BRODERICK: (As the Voice of Despereaux) It's beautiful.

Ms. SAGAL: (As the Voice of the Teacher) It's dangerous.

Mr. BRODERICK: (As the Voice of Despereaux) Do you have any more?

MONDELLO: Something similar happens when he's taken to the library. Other mice are just hungry, Despereaux's hungry for knowledge. So while they devour pages, he devours stories about chivalry and courage, loyalty and justice. And in short order, he's integrating what he learns from the books with his life. He pursues, in other words, a life of the mind, which is not, let's concede, the stuff most animated movies are good at animating. He's not a kung fu mouse or a surfing mouse or one who loves to cook, he's interested in words and ideas.

(Soundbite of movie "The Tale of Despereaux")

Mr. BRODERICK: (As the Voice of Despereaux) Once upon a time - that's great, isn't it? Upon a time - and they don't even tell you what time that is yet, it's like you have to find that out.

MONDELLO: The filmmakers have given Kate DiCamillo's children's story velvety images, much like the ones in the book, and capable voices - Matthew Broderick as Despereaux, Dustin Hoffman as a duplicitous rat and Sigourney Weaver as a narrator who keeps prodding the story back to life.

(Soundbite of movie "The Tale of Despereaux")

Ms. SIGOURNEY WEAVER(Actor): (As the Voice of the Narrator) Did a book ever speak to you - almost like it was written for you? Despereaux loved it all.

MONDELLO: The filmmakers are a bit laid back about plot, trudging through a lot of exposition about soup and dark days in the kingdom and princess wannabes before they even get to the hero, which might make "The Tale of Despereaux" a little slow for the very youngest kids, though the messages it imparts are certainly ones you'll want them to hear.

The messages in the French film "The Class" are mostly ones no one wants to hear about educators and education, and if that sounds like a slog and a half, meet director Laurent Cantet. He has made absolutely riveting films about subjects like downsizing and unemployment, which I know sounds unlikely, but they feel vital and engaging and real because, in a sense, they are real. "The Class" is no exception.

(Soundbite of movie "The Class," French is spoken)

MONDELLO: Francois Begaudeau, a middle school teacher who wrote "The Class," plays himself as a middle school teacher and students who worked with the filmmakers for a year creating rougher, tougher approximations of their real selves play his class. Their neighborhood is immigrant heavy, multiracial, and these disadvantaged kids are inclined to push back, even when all the teachers ask them to do is write their names on a piece of paper on the first day of class.

(Soundbite of movie "The Class," French is spoken)

MONDELLO: Why should we write our names? Don't you know us? You had us last year. And so it begins. These 14-year-olds are plenty bright, but a teacher charged with making them aware of the imperfect subjunctive is going to have his hands full. Traditions, economics and of course language hold them back, but empowering them to challenge those circumstances means they will also challenge the teacher. Let him try to fix a problem and it's likely to get worse and yes, yes, I know this all sounds like "To Monsieur with Love," but it's so much smarter as it doles out tiny victories and huge missteps, winning battles but losing wars that society has to win if either it or these kids are to have a decent future. "The Class" often feels like a tail of desperation, not Despereaux, but it is real and vibrant and in every respect a terrific film. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.