In 2003, a children's story arrived on shelves and proved to be a popular and critical hit, even winning a Newbery Medal for its contribution to the children's literature landscape. The story is called The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread and it was written by Kate DeCamillo. I was unaware of the book until the movie was released. Now it's arrived on DVD and Blu-ray and it seems to be as good a time as any to check it out.
I guess it should come as no surprise that the story traces its origins to the literary world; as I watched it I got a distinct "this is a book" feeling. It is a feeling I cannot quite put my finger on, but it is one that came through as clear as day. There is something in the dialogue, something in the way the characters are written and made to carry themselves, it is in the mannerisms they display — all of it points towards the written page of a book, much more than an original screenplay. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just the way it comes across.
As for the story itself, it consists of a trio of plot threads intertwined into a tale of hope, of breaking with tradition and forging a new path that says much about who you are. It also seems a bit unfocused and struggles to come together at its conclusion. I also find it a little odd that the film does not open with the titular mouse, but with a rat called Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) who plays both sides of the protagonist/antagonist coin.
Set in the land of Dor, we learn of the town's love for soup, the accident that causes the soup to stop flowing, and why the rats are banished to the underworld. In the midst of all of this is little Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a mouse with big ears who does not think like a mouse. Instead of cowering and nibbling, he dreams of being a gentleman who embarks on courageous quests.
His story takes him into the world of humans where he makes friends with Princes Pea (Emma Watson). Unfortunately, his journey is not looked upon kindly by the mouse council, so he is banished to the below, where he finds the dangerous Ratworld. It is here that he becomes friends with Roscuro and together they seek to bring back the soup.
Oh yes, there is also Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), a heavyset servant girl who dreams of becoming a princess. These tales come together as the desires of some are twisted and damaged while Despereaux remains true to his beliefs.
Overall, the story is easy to get, but I did find it a little confusing as everything begins to unravel towards the end. I am not sure if it is that I truly didn't get it, or if I wasn't interested enough to care. Something tells me it is the latter. As beautifully animated as the tale is, I found it on the dull side and felt it to drag on for good stretches.
Technically, The Tale of Despereaux is a triumph. The animation is beautifully rendered, smooth, and benefits much from the restrained direction of Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Robert Stevenhagen (veteran animator, first time director). Despite the sluggishness with plot movement, the direction has a nice realistic feel, more like what a live-action film would be than an animated one. Combine that with a muted color palette and realistic lighting and you get a movie that is well worth poring over for the sake of the artwork.
Voice acting is also rather solid. Standout voice performances include Dustin Hoffman as Roscuro, Tracey Ullman's odd little Miggery Sow, and Ciaran Hinds as Botticelli, leader of Ratworld. Hinds is particularly notable for the subtle evil he brings to the role, which at one time would likely have gone to someone like Christopher Lee.
Audio/Video. The technical specs of this Blu-ray release are absolutely stunning. I am still in my infancy when it comes to watching high-definition, but there is no denying how good it looks and how it stands over DVD with ease. The video is sharp, crisp, and includes plenty of fine detail in its 2.35:1 frame. Audio is presented in DTS-HD and is strong, full and clear.
Extras. This Universal release comes with a respectable complement of extras. (* indicates a Blu-ray exclusive)
- *U-Control. This section provides access to two in-picture features. First is a series of live action clips of the actors working on their voice performances in the studio. This appears in a small box in the corner of the screen and the shown performances sync up with the scene they are at in the film. This is pretty cool. The other option gives access to the film as a feature length animatic that you can watch along with the finished film. Unfortunately, this function would not play for me, continually locking up my player (which I hope is more a firmware issue than a disk production issue).
- *BD-Live. You are given a link to the BD-Live community, where you can bookmark favorite scenes to share with friends, view exclusive trailers, and more.
- Sneak Peek: Curious George 2 – Follow that Monkey. There is an exclusive sneak peek of the upcoming direct to video feature involving everyone's favorite little monkey. I am not terribly interested, but the hand/CGI blend of animation looks pretty nice.
- *Deleted Songs. There is a pair of songs that were cut from the final film prior to animation that are included here, accompanied by animated storyboards. Let me say that I am glad they are not in the film, they would not really have fit all that well. The first song is called "It's Great to be a Rat." I loved this tune, although it is rather disturbing, and I am not sure I would want my G-rated youngster listening to it. The other is called "Soup" and is a lot more innocuous, although it grated on me after a little while.
- The Tale of The Tale of Despereaux: A (Mostly) Non-Fictional Making Of. This takes a look at the work that went into adapting the tale and bringing all of the characters to the big screen.
- *Scene Progressions. This is a group of scenes that you get to watch develop before you onscreen, from screenplay, to storyboard, to animatic, to finished product. These are always cool to see, to see how closely the drawings match up, as well as all of the hard work needed to bring it together.
- Top Ten Uses for Oversized Ears. A series of stills from the feature accompanied by voice over telling of the uses, such as enhanced hearing and flight.
- *Make Your Own Soup Game. This opens with a sequence from early in the film before bringing you into the recipe book to try and improve the soup by selecting a variety of ingredients. It is mildly amusing, selecting pairs of ingredients to have the King try before he rates your creation.
- *Card Creator. This ties into your BD-Live account and allows you to pick an image of your hero, a background, a frame, and a message to send. This will be fun for the kids.
- Unfortunately, there are a number of extra features that dod not survive the trip from DVD, for whatever reason. These missing features include an Interactive Map of the Kingdom of Dor, Despereaux's Quest Game, Build-a-Boldo Game, and some DVD-ROM features.
Bottom line. Beautifully animated and featuring some good voice work, this is a film that should be a positive experience for children. Unfortunately, I found the exercise a little too slow going to truly get wrapped up in.