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These days DreamWorks, Pixar, Fox (Blue Sky) and Disney kind of own the animation genre, which actually makes for a better landscape than the one that prevailed was when I was a kid and Disney was pretty much the only choice. Other studios haven’t had much luck breaking into mainstream success, but they all seem to try at least once a year, including Universal Studios, who gave it a shot in late 2008 with The Tale of Despereaux, a charming tale of a tiny hero (Matthew Broderick) who fights to restore balance to a small town that once shared a mutual love of soup. Along the way Despereaux must overcome the fearful nature of his fellow mice, the terrifying nature of the underground dwelling rats, and the distrustful nature of humanity.

Tale of Despereaux, The
The animation here is noticeable cheaper than the supreme budget stuff out of the genre ruling studios, but it’s not ‘cheap’, and it’s not flat. The problems come out of some stiff character movements and expression (think Star Wars: The Clone Wars), along with a few items that don’t appear to interact perfectly together. Otherwise Despereaux is a very handsome film, a painterly representation that isn’t common among CG animation. There aren’t many pastel colours used, rather the palette is aimed to highlight certain elements and characters, such as Despereaux’s hat. Despereaux’s reading fantasies are another world all together, lower in detail, and stylized somewhat like a 3D version of a Peter Chung cartoon.

The story is a traditional one, so it doesn’t feature a lot of surprises, but its firm in its morals, and is told in a surprisingly adult fashion. I’m sure the film’s paltry box office receipts had more to do with short attention spans than actual quality. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and the plot is so fluttery it’s difficult to get a grasp on the narrative, which has more to do with the style of modern storytelling than the skill of this story’s tellers. Many of the morals are universal, but some of the themes have specific allegorical ties to modern times, including obvious questions about blind trust of authority, blind loyalty to tradition, and blind trust in unnecessary fear. There’s a respectable leftist streak to the story, with similarities to Lang’s Metropolis mixed into the traditional ‘hero’s journey’ themes.

Tale of Despereaux, The
I haven’t read the book, but some major differences are pointed out in a Wikipedia article, and the adaptation does appear to account for some of the film’s pacing issues. It also seems that the book is even darker than the film, which is saying something (I’m unclear on how the film didn’t get a PG rating). But even the problems are unique enough to modern children’s entertainment that they become an integral part of the film’s success. The super star studded cast also adds to a lot to the film’s classy nature, but most of them act with a sort of abandonment that makes for a more dream-like production. Again, though, this shortcoming oddly adds to the appeal of such a strange and unexpected little film.

Video


The animation budget is noticeably lower than stuff like Wall-E, assuming you know what to look for, but it’s still a very beautiful film, and it’s classily framed in 2.35:1, a rarity for animation. In high definition the details are easy to enjoy, but do show more of their limitations, including fur and hair, which don’t move in an entirely realistic manner. Textures are still very impressive, and are nicely juxtaposed against the super smooth human faces. Colours are a bit muted, but in an artistically appeasing fashion, and the colours that are most outwardly represented are solid and natural, without any noticeable compression noise or edge enhancement. The transfer’s major hole is a lack of deep blacks, which seem to be a victim of the overall palette’s greying.

Tale of Despereaux, The

Audio


Despereaux’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is somewhat flat and empty for a studio animated film. Besides music, the rear and stereo channels get the majority of their work-out from echoing vocals (apparently the kingdom is quite spacious). The dialogue itself isn’t entirely consistent, and sometimes suffers a tinny quality. This may be because the directors’ insistence on recording the cast sessions in the same room. Sound effects are minimal and sparse, but work for the production in a sense of woebegone. William Ross’ score is an effective mix of traditional hero’s themes, and almost overwhelmingly melancholy. It’s a little low on the track, and is slightly lacking in low end representation, but the score is mostly warm and detailed.

Tale of Despereaux, The

Extras


Like many Universal disc’s Despereaux’s extras begin with U-Control option. This time around the audience has the option of either watching the entire film in animatic form with PiP, or watching a selection of PiP interviews with the filmmakers and cast. The interviews can mostly be found in the various making-of extras.

There are two deleted songs, ‘It’s Great to Be a Rat’ and ‘Soup’. I’m guessing the film was originally set to be a musical and that these were the only two songs that made it past the early editing phases, but I’m really just spitballing. ‘It’s Great to Be a Rat’ is a strangely modern tune with genuinely revolting lyrics, while ‘Soup’ is more of a marching theme. Both songs feature black and white animatic footage, rough sound effects, and what I’m assuming is demo version audio. They run four and a half minutes together.

Tale of Despereaux, The
‘The Tale of Despereaux: A Mostly Non-Fictional Making-of’ covers the process of writing the book and making the movie, from the mouths of many of the writers, filmmakers, and actors. It’s really another fluff piece EPK, but it gives us less than knowledgeable folks a bit of genuine behind the scenes information. Included in the mess are some of the filmed cast readings, which were made with props, story boards, the process of creating textures, and some of the specific classical art used as inspiration. The featurette runs about twelve minutes including credits.

The disc also houses six scene progression examples, which move from illustrated script, to story boards, rough digital layout, animation, and final lighting (all with final audio). These run a total of about thirty-five minutes and are followed by a silly little featurette called ‘The Top Ten Uses for Oversized Ears’, a ‘Make Your Own Soup’ game, a greeting card creator, and a sneak peek at Curious George 2: Follow that Monkey.

Tale of Despereaux, The

Overall


The Tale of Despereaux is a dark little fairytale, with some pretty strong allegories that some parents might not like, and the pacing might not enthral the littlest viewers, but it’s a pretty solid stepping stone to more adult fair. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s quite memorable in its unique approach to mainstream CG animation. The disc is light on intensive extras, and the A/V quality is pretty average, but I still strongly recommend at least a rent for curious parents.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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