Blu Ray Title: The Tale of Despereaux
Disk Release Date: April 7, 2009
Screen format: 1080P High Definition Widescreen 2.35:1
First theatrical release: 19 December, 2008
Previous releases on disk: Day and date with Anamorphic Widescreen DVD
Director: Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen
Starring: The voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Jenkins, Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, William H. Macy, Tracey Ullman, Emma Watson, and Narrated by Sigourney Weaver
Sound Formats: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Spanish and French DTS 5.1
Length: 1 Hour 34 Minutes on 1 BD-50
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Universal is not a household name when it comes to family-friendly animation, especially not Computer Generated, but The Tale of Despereaux is a good first step into the world of 3D visuals for the studio. The first product of a partnership with Framestore Animation, a European effects and animation house which has been producing shorts and contributing to larger projects for years, but this is its first feature animation as well. If things take off this could be the start of a successful challenge to the Disney/Pixar juggernaut and with nearly 100 million in the bank for Despereaux before it heads to the home market it’s a moderate success.
Depereaux (Broderick) is an unusual mouse, unafraid of the darkness, unwilling to cower in fear, and a true gentleman adventurer. His courage gets him banished to the dungeon of the city of Dor, where he meets an unusual rat, Roscuro (Hoffman), who is unafraid of the light and loves gourmet food, especially soup. Soup is an important part of Dor, it was once celebrated as the height of the artistry and culture. Unfortunately Roscuro happened to fall into a bowl of soup that was being eaten by the queen of Dor and when this caused her to faint and die, both soup and rats were banished from the kingdom. By joining together Roscuro and Despereaux undertake a quest to bring the soup and harmony back to the kingdom.
The one thing that struck me so much about this film is how Euro-centric it looks and sounds, without specifically citing any specific references, yet embracing and mixing in many. From the French sounding names to the Flemish old master artwork lighting that the animation so brilliantly captures, the look is very Euro yet the characters themselves seem very American. There’s an awful lot of Ratzo Rizzo in Roscuro especially.
The cast itself is a mixed bag, Broderick plays Despereaux with glee and Hoffman’s Roscuro is subdued but charismatic. Kevin Kline’s Andre seems to be a bit too reminiscent of characters from Ratatouille but when he and Vegetable Golem Boldo (Tucci) are together it’s quite magical. The royal family seems to be the biggest drag here, and the rest of the rats and mice have too little to do and too little to differentiate themselves from one another with few exceptions.
Viewed with my niece (4) and two nephews (7 and 9) I can say that the kids genuinely loved it and weren’t scared of the dark scenes in the dungeons but your mileage may vary. The story lost a bit of steam for them near the end, and they found that the message a bit to forced and too much like every other kids film. They specifically said to me that it seems like every one they watch is about finding your individuality and being happy with who you are. They loved the characters tho and found the look different to anything they had seen before noting the cool details of how human items were repurposed by the rats and mice and that the soft pastel coloring in many scenes was pleasing.
Sound Quality: 3.5/5
Despereaux has a fun and exciting soundtrack but it wasn’t nearly as immersive or as full of sonic depth as I was hoping it would be. Character dialogue is good for most characters (especially Despereaux and Roscuro, not so much for the Princess, who sounded off from the commanding heart that I’ve heard Watson produce before). William Ross’ excellent soundtrack backs up the adventures with great fanfare befitting the onscreen action, provides punch in the timpani section better than the effects channel. Note that the official soundtrack has two additional selections that didn't make the cut to the film, both very wisely excised, but which can also be found as part of the deleted scenes.
Visual Quality: 4.5/5
While the sound was slightly disappointing, the visuals were a real treat bringing Despereaux’s adventures in and out of a selection of masterful lighting setups and providing the crisp details that only CGI can bring, providing a depth that could only be likened to macro photography in the real world. The color palette ranges from subtle pastel hues in the outside to deep and foreboding shadows in the dungeons. While it doesn’t have the wow factor that WallE might have or the bursting color of something like Cars, it perfectly matches the tone and character of the story and which is unique among its peers.
Extra Features: 3/5
On the extras front there are a half dozen selections including the standard ‘making of’ which goes into the genesis of the project from book to film, but somehow manages to miss out on the turnover issues in the directorial department that the film had (the final pair were the 3rd set of helmers on the project). There’s also a 10 minute clip of Curious George 2 which has amazing visuals but a story-line that seems to be half the fun of the original (and no Will Ferrel either). There’s a poorly conceived ‘Top ten uses for oversized ears’ and a horrible make your own soup game which not even kids will like. The second best feature comes in the form of the previously mentioned deleted scenes and its fascinating to hear the really really really bad songs which were originally planned to be a part of this film.
Overall: 3.5/5 (not an average)
Overall I think Universal and Framestore are onto something here with the visual style they have engineered but I hope their next foray includes a deeper plot that has the “edges that adults can dig on in the kids story” that Pixar has down to a T and some more bumps and rumbles in the audio department to back things up. I genuinely liked Despereaux and my family did too, but I’m just hoping they kick things up a notch and give the House of the Mouse some real competition.