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THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Voices: Matthew Broderick, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Hale, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, Christopher Lloyd, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Tracey Ullman, Emma Watson, Sigourney Weaver
Directors: Sam Fell, Rob Stevenhagen
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 94 Minutes
Release Date: April 7, 2009

“Are you a rat?”

“No.”

“A mouse?”

“I am a gentleman.”

Film ***1/2

I must admit, I didn’t have the highest of expectations prior to watching The Tale of Despereaux. Many of the reviews I read had labeled it as a weaker version of Ratatouille, which to me is one of the best animated films of all time. Having now seen the film, I wonder if the critics who made the comparison actually looked at the screen or were too busy coming up with cheap ways to knock the movie in their note pad.

If you saw the trailer, which illustrated a connection between mice and food, I can understand one assuming that it was an attempt to cash in on the success of Ratatouille. However, the two films couldn’t be any more different. In The Tale of Despereaux, food is only a minor character, as the story focuses on themes such as fear, courage, and forgiveness.

Based on the Newberry award winning book by Kate DiCamillo, this remarkably gorgeous animated feature is much more complex in its narrative than one might expect. Given its title, you’d expect the focus of the movie to be entirely on Despereaux. And while that’s very much the case, the story does take time in developing several additional characters, each of whom will have played a pivotal role by the film’s end.

In fact, we aren’t even introduced to the title character until about 15 minutes in. We first meet up with a rat named Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) in this fairy tale setting of the kingdom of Dor. He curiously sniffs around the annual spring festival of the kingdom, where in which the much cherished National Soup Day is celebrated. It is the yearly occasion where a royal chef named Andre (voiced by Kevin Kline) carefully prepares a revolutionary new flavored soup to be enjoyed by all citizens.

Roscuro’s curiosity leads him all the way to the kitchen where Andre is preparing his latest soup. Moments later, Roscuro manages to fall right into the soup, which is then served to the Queen, who then dies of shock upon discovering a rat in her soup. As a result, the grieving king decides to banish both soup and rats from the kingdom.

We then cut to the story involving Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick), whose been graced with larger than life ears ever since birth. But those huge ears are matched only by the size of his imagination, which triggers his appetite for stories about courageous knights saving damsels in distress. But what makes him different from all other mice is that he lacks the ability to cower, even by the sheer image of a knife or a cat.

However, it’s that unique quality that gets him banished from Mouseworld, in addition to that of defeating mouse traps and occasionally talking to humans, the latest of which is the very lonely Princess Pea (voiced by Emma Watson). He is then plunged to the underworld depths of Ratworld, at the same time Roscuro has been accepted into the community by the sinister ruler, Botticelli (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). After surviving an arena battle with a humongous cat, Despereaux is destined to suit up in knight-like fashion and come to the aid of the Princess, whose life is in danger.

The animation in The Tale of Despereaux is astonishingly beautiful in a most unconventional way. It’s hard to put into words how amazing the amount of enchanting detail is, which is present in just about every frame of the movie. It marks the first release from Framestore Animation, and after seeing the level of work that went into this movie, I can’t wait to see what they deliver in the future.

Of all the animated films I’ve seen, this has to have one of the biggest lineups of voice talents ever assembled. Each actor brings life to their characters, in particular Kevin Kline and Stanley Tucci, whose French accents are impeccable. Matthew Broderick brings his usual charm to the lead role of Desperaux, and we also get memorable voice work from William H. Macy, Tony Hale (aka Buster from Arrested Development), Richard Jenkins and Frank Langella.

The Tale of Desperaux is simply a well told animated tale, and a beautiful looking one at that. There’s plenty of adventure to spare, and the many themes that are dealt with are handled extremely well. I would definitely qualify it as the second best animated achievement of 2008, right behind WALL*E, of course.

Video ****

Had it not been for the existence of Blu-ray, I may have never crossed paths with this feature. But I’m glad I certainly did, because not only was this a splendid movie…but the Blu-ray presentation was nothing short of phenomenal. You’ve already heard my thoughts on the wonderful animation, but just wait until you see it come to amazing life in 1080p. Your eyes will simply be astonished throughout, as the many colors and detailed images will have your jaw hitting the floor. A glorious piece of animation that was basically made to shine in HD.

Audio ****

Matching the amazing video quality is a most mighty DTS HD mix. Just about every hint of sound is taken advantage of in sequences both quiet and action-packed. Dialogue delivery is stunningly clear. The playback of William Moss’ film score is quite fantastic, particularly in the adventure-laden climax of the movie. The lossless audio does a remarkable job bringing a fairy tale environment to vivid life!

Features ***1/2

For this Blu-ray release from Universal, we get the always intriguing “U-Control” feature, which provides two terrific picture-in-picture presentations. The first of which includes footage of the actors performing their scenes as they’re being played in the film, as well as various table readings and creative interactions with directors. The second picture-in-picture features a series of storyboard sketches, of which there are many. We also get a number of featurettes, all presented in HD, starting with “The Tale of Despereaux: A (Mostly) Non-Fictional Making Of”, “Scene Progressions” and “Top Ten Uses for Oversized Ears”. There’s also two Deleted Songs, and two interactive games; Make Your Own Soup and Card Creator. Lastly, there’s sneak peek at Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey.

Summary:

The Tale of Despereaux is perhaps the only animated release of last year that was unfairly overlooked. It definitely deserves to be discovered, especially in this most fantastic Blu-ray presentation. I also highly recommend it as a first rate feature for families.

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