As the king wistfully strums a lute and Princess Pea stays holed up in a remote tower, a world of critters they never knew existed is scurrying underneath their feet. Deep in the bowels of the castle is a realm of badnik rats (headed up a nasty king played by Peter O'Toole) who've taken in Roscuro, who's still stinging with regret from the whole regicide thing. Skittering around a couple floors up is an entire kingdom of mice. Their society is anchored around cowardice and fear, so Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) -- who's tiny even for a mouse but is packing a courageous streak as huge as his oversized ears -- is kind of an outcast. Mousedom has a big stack of rules to follow, and when Despereaux starts reading books instead of eating 'em and pals around with Princess Pea, the plucky little rodent is banished to certain death in Ratworld. Roscuro, meanwhile, knows he's to blame for the kingdom of Dor being so dreary and dismal, and when he tries to make amends, Princess Pea doesn't exactly take him in with open arms. Scorned and seething with anger, Roscuro turns to a dumpy, double-digit IQ servant girl (Tracey Ullman) to exact his revenge.
The Tale of Despereaux never figures out what the heart of its story is, the movie never settles into any sort of comfortable groove with its overall tone, and it leans too heavily on clunky narration to try to guide the story. There are brief glimmers of inspiration, such as Despereaux's beautifully realized daydreams about a knight squaring off against a fire-breathing dragon, and I appreciate the fact that the film doesn't pander to the younger crowd. There are some particularly dark moments scattered throughout The Tale of Despereaux, its visual style takes its cues from painters like Johannes Vermeer rather than the CGI flavor of the week, and the scope of its story is remarkably ambitious, even though it winds up being more than the filmmakers can handle. Without any momentum, endearing characters, or even a vaguely engaging story to latch onto, it's tough for The Tale of Despereaux to warrant much more than a couple of clicks on Netflix for the kids. Rent It.
The Tale of Despereaux looks decent enough in high-def, although its restrained visual style and lower budget keep it out of the same league as Pixar and Dreamworks' best. The craftsmanship may not be quite up to par, but even though it's less polished than movies with twice the sticker price, the scope image is still bolstered by a strong sense of detail. The lighting is deliberately soft and diffused at times, and this obviously saps away some of the punch that usually goes along with computer animation on Blu-ray, although The Tale of Despereaux is generally dazzlingly crisp and clear. Contrast is unusually flat, though, and I'm surprised to see just how anemic black levels frequently are. As this is a direct-digital transfer and since fades to black are still appropriately dark and inky, I guess that's an intentional part of its visual style. Ditto for the muted palette that leaves The Tale of Despereaux looking like faded pages from an ancient storybook. The subdued colors are to be expected in an overcast world blanketed in clouds, but they aren't all that more robust when the camera zips inside or when sunlight does manage to beam its way through to this fairy tale kingdom. I don't want to make the mistake of reviewing The Tale of Despereaux's visual style rather than this high-def VC-1 encode, though, so I'll say that the movie's stylized approach translates about as well to Blu-ray as it realistically can and leave it at that.
Animated films almost always sound wonderful on Blu-ray, and The Tale of Despereaux's 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track is about as terrific as I could've hoped to hear. The surround channels are teeming with color: Roscuro's wooden ship creaking on the high seas, ominous drips of water in the underground catacombs, and the skitter of rats scurrying in the background. All of the dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly, not that it could ever really be overwhelmed by a low-end this modest. There's surprisingly little rumbling around in the lower frequencies, but the subwoofer does creak to life every once in a while thanks to pounding drums and claps of thunder. The lack of bass really doesn't seem terribly out of place, though, and the rest of the track is so spry and lively that I'd still point to The Tale of Despereaux's lossless audio as well above-average.
Also included are lossy DTS dubs in French and Spanish. Subtitle streams are served up in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.
The Final Word
Ambitious but aimless, The Tale of Despereaux piles on more characters and dangling storylines than it could ever hope to deftly weave together. So much of the film is fragmented and underdeveloped that nothing about it manages to pack much of a wallop, and even its stabs at colossal adventure are too routine to get any pulses racing. The Tale of Despereaux sounds nice enough on paper -- veering away from the Funny Talking Animals formula in favor of more of a wide-eyed fairy tale -- but there's just not nearly enough of a spark of life to it. Rent It.