If you've seen the stories of the big green ogre (Shrek) and the courageous little rat that could cook (Ratatouille), then you've seen The Tale of Despereaux -- only in much more accessible forms to both its younger and adult audiences. It harps on courage and daring, cramming both of DreamWorks and Pixar's motifs into a haphazardly-assembled tale that, somehow, make a story of banned soup and banished rats a complete bore.
How was soup banned, you say? By way of a rat, a seafaring renaissance rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), that drops from the ceiling into a bowlful of the Queen's soup on Soup Day -- a day greater than Christmas or Thanksgiving in the Kingdom of Dor. After she suffers a heart attack and falls face first into the bowl, the King orders rats and soup (and bowls, apparently) to never fall into his sight again. With that, the shunned Roscuro dives into the lower levels of the kingdom into the rat-inhabited sewers. The King and Princess alike mourn the death of their mother, which casts a rainless, sunless cloud over Dor that seems as if it'll never disappear.
Fear not. Shortly after, a tiny mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) is brought into the world, growing up into a fearless little guy with giant ears that leaps into mousetraps to grab cheese for fun and reads pages of fantasy books instead of gnawing at the paper. He ensnares the very essence of chivalry and courage, both of which will come in handy as he dives into the RatWorld's catacombs underneath the city in a rush to rid the castle of its plight. Can he do it? Can he bring soup, sunshine and peace between rats and humans back to reality?
The Tale of Despereaux, loosely based on the popular children's story by Kate DiCamillo, never wiggles passed being a stiff and boring attempt at child pacifier CG-cinema, even considering its promising fantasy-minded ideas and built-in momentum from the source material. Most of it leans on the film's incapability to sell the book's youthfully-minded concepts, ones that could've been given charm if the tone wasn't so drab and lifeless. It doesn't matter if we're swimming alongside rat-sized boats underneath the city of Dor or skipping up the rail along a flight of stairs towards the Princess' bedroom -- the vibrant attitude that this "little engine that could" story needs just isn't there. It makes the numerous holes in Despereaux's theatrics a little hard to swallow, stuff we'd likely not logically worry with if more energy flowed behind their execution.
Part of the problem lies in miscast voice acting, especially in Despereaux. Matthew Broderick's monotone scruffiness simply isn't the right pitch for the dashing young mouse, giving very little life to the fiery, pint-sized hero. His magnetic mannerisms are appealing enough textually, but the charm carried over in the voice/design marriage from the likes of An American Tale or Ratatouille doesn't do so here once the little guy opens his mouth. Without the right fit there, the rest of the content seems to topple afterwards. Even as Emily Watson gets the Princess' voice down suitably and Sigourney Weaver narrates -- and narrates, and narrates -- with fairytale-esque charisma, they sulk underneath the humdrum hero's middling charm. The Tale of Despereaux even transforms Dustin Hoffman's voice, one with mousy vocal experience, into a dreary and uninteresting projection as the outcast Roscuro.
This is a shame too, because the visuals in The Tale of Dexpereaux really are quite strikingly-composed behind the blasť vocal punch. Using a smart "weighted camera" feel, Despereaux's movement is given a natural rhythm while tumbling behind his tough little pathway. Artistic design and influence from the source material also inks through the image, resulting in strongly conceptualized renderings of Mouseworld and, in its drab demeanor, the city of Dor. It's all attractively animated within its surroundings, but the semi-gripping character models tend to harp on previous influences -- such as the eerily similar presence of Shrek and Princess Fiona in Gregory the Jailer (Robbie Coltraine) and Princess Pea's servant Miggory (Tracy Ullman), as well as seeing the mini-sized villainous cook from Ratatouille inside, well, The Cook (Kevin Kline) in our story. However, I thoroughly enjoy the storybook portions when Despereaux "relives" the Sleeping Beauty-like tale of a knight who defeats a dragon for his damsel in distress, building the influence here into homage paid instead of a lackadaisical imitation. It's a shame the rest of the film couldn't be that whimsical.
Though filled with the ideas of pseudo-cannibalism between mice and rats, death, and an chained-up cat doing the cruel biddings of the rat populace, The Tale of Despereaux squeaks by with a G rating likely because of the tiresome bouillabaisse surrounding all of its darker elements. Though Disney's Snow White and Alice and Wonderland both garnish the same ratings (after the MPAA's decision around their '70s re-issues), there's something undeniably dark about Despereaux's journey that might not sit well with younger audiences -- which arises yet another dissatisfying question mark. It's obvious by the conversational feel and the blunt narration that it's sacrificing the attention of adults to sweep up the kids, but why wouldn't it try to keep it equally child-minded in its adaptation? Who knows, but The Tale of Despereaux doesn't completely satisfy either spectrum in this misfiring of skewed elements. It's attractive and fanciful enough, yes, but its successes in bringing everything together offer little more than watching Shrek and Ratatouille looped simultaneously.
The Tale of Despereaux comes in a standard-width white DVD keepcase from Universal with an attractive, raised slipcover that adds some alluring polish onto the packaging. Inside, there's a $20 Gift Card for Dale's Popcorn that sits alongside the bright blue disc. The menu design here showcases a strong effort from Universal in the standard-definition arena, animated with moments from the film that don't spoil too much of the surprise lying underneath.
Video and Audio:
At least The Tale of Despereaux is marginally ensnaring in the visuals design department, as this disc takes its 2.35:1 theatrical framing and pours it over beautifully in an anamorphic widescreen presentation. As with most recent computer-heavy animations, Universal's transfer looks outstanding. Detail is extroadinary, showing off the artificial fibers in hair and textures within backgrounds and clothing to immense degrees. It plays off of the warm yet subdued color palette nicely, providing a rich blend of bold and empty shades that mirror specific scene's moods. Some mild edge enhancement slips into the picture -- very light blooming, along with unobtrusive, murky pixilation along edges at times -- as well as some gray/blue shadows that seem somewhat unavoidable. But, altogether, The Tale of Despereaux looks rather stellar in this standard-definition outing.
It makes the Dolby Digital 5.1 track a little less satisfying, though it does its job to a proper degree. A few sound effects echo within the speakers to a nice degree and clarity remains pitched well for audibility, but the vibrancy that looks to be present in the sound design isn't as readily apparent as expected. However, vocal synching with the animation never falters and the dialog remains audible for most of the presentation -- reaching difficult levels only a handful of times. Rear channel usage is sparse and uninterestingly used, though the track does make ambient usage of the lower-frequency channel in a few spots. It doesn't quite match the visual rendering, but it'll serve its purpose for the audience it's aiming for.
The Tale of 'The Tale of Despereaux' (11:42):
As the disc's sole film-centric featurette, this little piece crams together the recognition author DiCamillo has received for her inspired book, voice casting, artistic design, and the inspiration for each of the three worlds (Dor, Mouse world, and Rat world) into one. It blends interview time with footage of the film, condensing it all into a short overview that rarely dives anywhere below surface-level sweetness directed at the film's source material.
Also included are a somewhat complexly-designed Interactive Map of the Kingdom of Dor that allows for child-friendly descriptions of each character and location throughout the castle, a cute little bit entitled Top Ten Uses for Oversized Ears (1:22), Despereaux's Quest Game, and a Build-a-Boldo Game. Also included are some computer ROM-based features, including a Card Creator, a Fairy Tale Fantasy interactive feature where you choose characters and items to tell your own Despereaux story, Coloring Pages, Wallpaper, and a Screensaver.
Worth watching once for the visuals and to give the children a nice little slice of anecdotal fantasy, The Tale of Despereaux fails to spread its ears at the start -- causing it to fall flat with a lack of momentum almost as quickly as it starts. Some disagreements between vocal styling and character models don't help the less-than-bubbly tone, making it a subdued and, at times, dark tale that stays beautiful while being somewhat emotionally stagnant. Still, it's a very attractive disc from Universal that'll offer up meager amounts of adventure and computer-generated pleasure, making it a suitable Rental for families.