Maybe the problem with Tale of Despereaux is the message, or at least one of clarity. Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) is a mouse with big ears, certainly adorable, but he lacks a sense of fear. His parents and teachers worry that he lacks a reflex to cower at the sight of a knife, yet he doesn’t understand why he should.
This leads to scenes of Despereaux rebelling against the leaders of his mouse-built village, almost as if the film is teaching young ones to disregard the rules. Granted, the rules of this fairytale world are ridiculous, something an adult will understand. A child, looking at things from a simpler mindset, will see it as disobeying all rules is okay.
There is also the message of being different, although different here means being sent down a well into a town of rats waiting to eat your flesh. While refreshing to see animation that does not pander to children, this is not going to help them either. Poor Despereaux can’t catch a break, and another message about being able to do anything despite being tiny is botched by the finale.
The human world is drab after their king takes away “Soup Day,” a large festival where a top chef creates a new soup every year. Throughout the film, he talks to a bizarre creature made from vegetables. This seems to be some manifestation, but in the end when Despereaux is unable to save the princess himself, he needs this odd creature to help him out. So much for being able to accomplish anything. Apparently, you need some unexplained veggie monster to help.
Animation is flat and rather uninteresting, with the sole exception of a brilliantly executed dream sequence. Here Despereaux imagines he is a brave knight, the animation taking on the style of a storybook, and in turn offering a unique, vivid, and original style the rest of the film is lacking. It’s a shame a studio wouldn’t take a chance to make an entire film in that look. It might have given some life to Despereaux.
Universal delivers a sharp, bright VC-1 encode for Despereaux, bringing out the flaws in the animation. Fur is usually flat and mushy, something this transfer is accurate to showcase. Human hair is a different story, the princess featuring vivid blonde hair with individual strands cleanly visible. Definition is superb as expected, including exceptional textures on clothing, cloth, and wood.
Contrast is typically bright, although the muted palette leads to intentionally flat black levels in the human world. Underground, especially in Rat World, the rich, inky blacks are superb in establishing depth. Images routinely surprise in their ability to add dimension to the frame.
No artifacting is visible, although minor aliasing is evident, Despereaux’s whiskers becoming a regular problem. Some light, barely noticeable ringing on high contrast edges is noted on the farm against trees in the background.
Universal goes for an adequate DTS-HD mix for Despereaux, one that performs admirably when called upon. Crowds in particular, whether in the city streets during the holiday or the chanting rats in their arena, are wonderfully full. A pleasing William Ross score is rich and lively, with fantastic bleeding into the rear surrounds, while clarity from the fronts is superb.
Bass is usually limited, but powerful when needed. Thunder is robust as pounds the LFE channel, and some dropped glasses rock the rat’s world late. A cat attack against Despereaux is energetic, if not terribly engaging. The track does do subtlety well, such as boats passing through front to back during the first full Rat World reveal.
A 10-minute preview for a Curious George sequel is not exactly the best way to begin the extras, but at least the simple animation looks spectacular in hi-def. Two deleted song sequences are followed by a making-of, The Tale of The Tale of Desperaux. While it does discuss the genesis of the story, this is otherwise bland and predictable.
Six scene progressions is the best thing here, beginning with the script, moving into storyboards, and various stages of animatics. They run over 35-minutes, and offer insight into the process, including those great storybook scenes. Top 10 Uses for Oversized Ears is cute for kids, while a soup creator and card creator will probably bore them.
U-Control offers animatics and live action on separate picture-in-picture streams, including some humorous dialogue recording sessions. BD-Live support is generic.