'Seven Pounds,' 'The Tale of Despereaux'

Think of "Seven Pounds" as a jigsaw puzzle thrown on a large table. The various parts are scattered, each important, but at the outset impossible to know where they exactly fit. "Seven Pounds" is that kind of film. Nonlinear, offering up brief flashes of backstory, while a narrative develops that is both fascinating and mysterious.

It's always interesting when a film breaks the template of event A leading to event B and then C. In other words, most films are generally a clearly delineated, three act assemblage, familiar and comfortable to the moviegoing audience. "Seven Pounds" abandons the causative, straight-line story telling. And to good effect, for this is a tale that must be told with real time events leavened with glimpses of the past, layering more question than answers on top of each other.

In retrospect, it seems all but impossible that this narrative could have been constructed in any other way. Though at times it does feel as if coherence is thwarted, the filmmakers risking that the audience may begin to resist the initial chaos and fail to make an emotional connection with the characters.

Beyond that, this is a difficult movie to critique. To say too much about plot risks ruining what has to be a completely fresh viewing.

But there are a few things that can be shared. First, this is a character-driven film and the performances by Will Smith and Rosario Dawson are exceptional, giving extraordinary portrayals. Smith is IRS agent, Ben Thomas, who is in the process of conducting seven audits.

While he flashes his smile, we also see, in unguarded moments, an aguish which conveys that he is dealing with emotions which threaten to overwhelm him. Dawson as Emily, is a self-described woman with a broken wing, meaning she is living with a life-threatening congenital heart defect.

Their meeting only begins to assemble the puzzle. There are so many other scenes which seem, at the outset, strange and confusing. But though the audience has to work, all begins to fall together, however slowly. No doubt some will find the wait too long, and then decide that act three is simply more than the narrative can sustain. But again, this film delivers as we watch Smith and Dawson sort out their lives.

What is at the core of this film is the very human wish for atonement. It is a powerful but often elusive emotion. Can a mistake, one disastrous mistake or miscalculation, be put right? Throughout the film Ben Thomas struggles with that question.

The meta-question of how far to go to make amends haunts every scene in act three. Atonement is not a desire for redemption wherein forgiveness is granted; rather, atonement represents a need to do something that will all but alter what has gone before in a definitive, transforming way.

To say more about "Seven Pounds" would be to cross a line. This film may not leave the moviegoer satisfied — perhaps even a bit angry or unsettled — but it does ask a powerful question framed by the outstanding acting of Smith and Dawson.

The Tale of Despereaux

"The Tale of Despereaux" is a sweet fable about Despereaux Tilling, a small mouse who is unlike all those who he lives with in Mousetown. He is large of ears (recall Dumbo), unafraid, refuses to cower, and would rather read books than eat them.

He believes in honor, courage and truth, hence is the quintessential hero in a tale of challenge and, in the end, survival. If mice could be knights, then little Despereaux would certainly be chosen.

Though the film adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's book, a Newbery Medal winner in 2004, seems overly complicated with far too many characters and subplots, it is still richly rendered by directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen using state of the art CGI. The book by DiCamillo was 272 pages long and so some of its plot has been condensed or dropped altogether.

Kids, who are, of course, the target demographic, will be smitten by Despereaux and his quest to save the princess and restore sunshine once again to the gray and gloomy town of Dor, once the soup capital of the kingdom.

This small mouse, because he falls in love with Princess Pea and claims to have spoken with her (mice never talk to humans), is banished from Mouseworld to the dark and damp Ratworld. There he almost meets his end when he is served up as lunch to a huge cat in a shabby coliseum of sorts while the rats cheer and call for his demise.

Saved at the last moment by Roscuro, a maritime rat who is stranded, the two joins forces for a time, trying to find a way out of Ratworld and back into the light. Roscuro does lose his way and his honor, but that is temporary, for this is, after all, a fairy-tale where dreams do come true.

Will kids take to this film? Absolutely, if they're not too young. There are some scary moments. Is "The Tale of Despereaux" "Ratatouille"? No, it's not. But it's well done, rich in color and detail, and definitely the equivalent of another animation treat, the underrated "Flushed Away."

Of course, the debate still rages between the hand-drawn animation pioneered by Disney and now CGI. But as studios, to include PIXAR, refine their craft, artists sitting before computers instead of drafting tables is the future.

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