Universal // 2008 // 94 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // April 6th, 2009
Small hero. Big heart.
Based on Kate DiCamillo's (Because of Winn-Dixie) kids' novel of the same name, The Tale of Despereaux is a computer-animated feature-length fairy tale. This Blu-ray release is the ideal way to catch up with the flick if, like most moviegoers, you missed it during its brief theatrical run.
The cuisine-obsessed kingdom of Dor has been blanketed in gloom since its queen died of a heart attack after a run-in with a rat on Soup Day, the most celebrated holiday of the year. Into this glum land is born Despereaux Tilling (Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller's Day Off), a tiny mouse with ears as enormous as his courage and aspirations. Learning codes of chivalry from books (the other mice are astounded that he reads them instead of eating them), Despereaux strikes up an unlikely friendship with Princess Pea (Emma Watson, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), the daughter of the fallen queen, and determines to release Dor from its cloudy curse. Despereaux is banished from the mouse kingdom for associating with a human, but this doesn't deter him from his quest. When an angry army of rats kidnaps the princess, Despereaux and a friendly rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate) spring into action to save the girl and the kingdom of Dor.
More than any other recent animated movie, The Tale of Despereaux has the flavor of an honest-to-goodness fairy tale. Like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, The Tale of Despereaux credits small children with being able to handle thematic darkness -- and it serves up plenty. A queen drops dead from a coronary, a homely human character named Miggery Sow (voiced by Tracey Ullman) suffers genuine neglect and abuse, Despereaux's oddness causes him to be banished from family and friends, and an army of rats hatches a scheme to eat Princess Pea alive. It's bleak stuff but it gives the story a genuine sense of danger, providing depth and texture to the moral lessons all fairy tales contain. Despereaux's heroism is all the more real because he's unflappable despite being expelled from his own community. Miggery's anger and eventual discovery of self-worth has all the more heft because of how cruelly she's treated early in the picture. The Tale of Despereaux may be peopled with talking rodents and imaginary monarchs but the emotional stakes of its story often feel real.
It's too bad, then, that the movie is structurally problematic. Its episodic nature is reminiscent of Disney's Pinocchio, but it doesn't have the same singular emphasis on a compelling protagonist (Despereaux is charismatic and likeable, but he's often pushed to the periphery of the story). Despite being a kids' book, DiCamillo's four-part novel proves too rich for easy translation to film. Screenwriters Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi (the duo behind Alvin and the Chipmunks) nobly tried to maintain much of the complexity of DiCamillo's narrative structure, but the movie would have benefitted from a streamlined focus on Despereaux and his adventures. To the extent that The Tale of Despereaux is an episodic film like Pinocchio, the screenwriters should have studied that film to see how unflinchingly Disney and his team bent Carlo Collodi's characters and story to the dictates of cinema. Some might argue that the Disney team didn't have proper respect for their source material, but Pinocchio is a classic. The Tale of Despereaux is not. It's a good film, but flawed. The flaws wouldn't be so annoying if one didn't feel a great film lurking beneath Despereaux's surface.
Despite its flawed story structure, The Tale of Despereaux looks flawless on Blu-ray. The movie has a rustic, European fairy tale storybook look filled with texture and fine detail. Colors are appropriately muted and entirely accurate. Blacks are deep and solid without succumbing to black crush. In fact, there are no digital artifacts of any kind whatsoever. The DTS-HD lossless master audio track is pristine and carefully mixed, though not as dynamic as one might expect. Dialogue is consistently excellent, but effects work is subdued compared with most modern animated features.
The disc isn't stacked with extras, but what's here offers background on the film's production as well as some fun and games for younger members of the audience.
Two songs -- "It's Great to Be a Rat" and "Soup" -- that were removed from the movie, making it a non-musical. The songs are accompanied by animated storyboards of the scenes in which they would have appeared.
The Tale of The Tale of Despereaux: A (Mostly) Non-Fictional
Making Of (11:41)
An electronic press kit featuring The Tale of Despereaux author Kate DiCamillo, producers Gary Ross and Allison Thomas, directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen, Emma Watson, Matthew Broderick, and others. Most interesting, the featurette shows how, in stark contrast to most animated features, the actors were recorded together so that they could play off of each other's performances.
A collection of six scenes followed through the script, storyboard, layout, animation, and final lighting phases of the production.
Top Ten Uses for Oversized Ears (1:20)
A silly, but tyke-friendly top ten list.
Make Your Own Soup Game (11:25)
A bizarre remote control-based game that allows kids to choose two spices from a selection of five. The game then tells them what kind of soup they've made.
Another remote-based game in which kids select backgrounds, character poses, borders, and quotations from the film in order to make a greeting card. Cards can be saved and, provided one's Blu-ray player is BD-Live compatible, emailed to friends.
U-Control Picture in Picture
Allows you to augment the feature with scene-specific animatics and live action production footage.
Preview of Curious George 2: Follow that Monkey!
This 10-minute preview of the upcoming theatrical feature looks more like a movie adaptation of the PBS television series than a sequel to the Will Ferrell flick.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled.
While The Tale of Despereaux never quite congeals into a fully satisfying story, its ambitious structure, fairy tale darkness, and earnest emotion make it a fascinating near-miss. On a technical level, the movie's animation is gorgeous. The Tale of Despereaux is worth seeing at least once, and there's no better way to see it than on Blu-ray.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Picture in Picture
* Deleted Songs
* Official Site