‘The Tale of Despereaux’ is an animated children’s film produced and written by Gary Ross, director of ‘Pleasantville’ and ‘Seabiscuit.’It was co-directed by Sam Fell, a veteran of the beloved British animation studio Aardman and co-director of the severely underrated ‘Flushed Away’ (which was also about the subterranean world of rodents). It stars the vocal talents of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Robbie Coltrane, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins, Christopher Lloyd, and Sigourney Weaver.
It is also really, really terrible.
Running down the plot of ‘Despereaux’ is going to be tricky because it’s saddled with such a scattershot, unfocused narrative. Still, I’ll give it my all.
’Despereaux’ is based on a children’s book by Date DiCamillo, who also wrote ‘Because of Winn-Dixie.’ It takes place in a vaguely medieval world in a society obsessed with soup. One day, the queen dies after a rat gets into the kitchen. This dramatic sequence is preceded by a scene in which the top chef confers with a genie-like soup deity with the voice of Stanley Tucci. If you’re already rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. So anyway, both soup and rats are banished after this horrible accident, and the character we’ve been following, a swarthy, pirate-looking rat, is banished to a Dickensian underworld.
Then Despereaux is born, a tiny white mouse with gigantic ears. Despereaux, who sounds an awful lot like Ferris Beuller, is not like the other mice. The other mice are trained to cower in fear at the outside world of cats, humans, and loud noises. (I tried to read some Bush-era satire into this, but I failed miserably.) He’s fearless, curious, and likes to read. The storybooks he reads, which somewhat tell the story of the soup-banning king, are rendered in semi-2D sequences, which are meant to conjure up images of Mary Blair’s iconic work for Walt Disney, but instead just look like a half-rendered videogame.
And, of course, Despereaux befriends the princess, discovers what it’s like in the underground rat kingdom, blah blah blah… This movie is hopelessly dull, both dramatically and visually inert. There’s no sense of danger, or of compassion, really, and the whole thing is narrated to death by Sigourney Weaver, sounding more robotic than she did as the ship’s computer in ‘WALL*E.’
As a huge fan of animation, I know that this was supposed to be the big, English-language debut of Sylvain Chomet, director of the wonderful ‘Triplets of Belleville.’ I remember a quote that he made that as soon as he had finished a sketch of a character, instead of talking about it or working it out artistically, the sketch was whisked away to the studio’s marketing department, so that toys could immediately be developed.
Part of the movie’s awfulness could probably be attributed to production headaches like these. When the directors finally were installed (Robert Stevenhagen co-directed with Fell), they were never actually in the same room as any of the animators. The entire movie was directed via email or videoconference. This, as far as I’m concerned, is no way to make a movie. Imagine Martin Scorcese squeaking at Leo DiCaprio over a webcam as his production team shot ‘The Departed’ without him.
That kind of disconnect can be felt all over the movie. A brief example: in one of those opening scenes of the movie, knights are scurrying around trying to catch that pirate-looking rat (true to form, he’s actually a gentle and misunderstood soul). One of the knights hits another knight in the foot with an intimidating and multi-spiked mace. The knight who just had his foot walloped doesn’t react. At all. In a cartoon. It just quickly cuts to the next frantic, sub-Robert Zemeckis shot which zooms around at an impossible angle.
I can’t imagine this movie being rewarding for anyone. Children will find it horribly boring (I forgot to mention the bizarre subplot about a servant in the castle – who looks like Shrek and whose story we receive in extensive flashbacks a la ‘Lost’) and the sub-Ren Fair design won’t delight or dazzle more mature animation fans. It lacks subtext, or text really, in any real or compelling way. It’s a horrible mess and a savage waste of voice talent (I feel especially bad for William H. Macy, who was originally cast as Marlin in ‘Finding Nemo’ before being deemed too dour).
You want a great movie that involves vermin and cooking? Cue up ‘Ratatouille’ and be reminded of the true cinematic storytelling power of animation.
This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 VC-1 encoded image is pretty perfect. While it doesn’t reach the eye-popping majesty of, say, any of the Pixar releases, this transfer is direct from the digital source, so there are no instances of grain, popping, edge enhancement, or digital noise.
Keeping with the Renaissance Fair-y feel of the story, the film is rendered in muted colors, sticking closely to drab earth tones of tan and grey rodent fur. The blacks aren’t exactly the deepest, but that’s okay. The less reasons for me to re-watch this movie, the better.
The 24 bit, English DTS-HD lossless 5.1 surround mix is appealing, but it isn’t enough to make me want to watch this Blu-ray again. I mentioned earlier the kind of zooming camera movements that the movie is filled with – through the mix is where those sequences really come to life. The dash over and around a towering pot of soup, ducking underneath a parade made of bones in the rat world underground – these all sound lively, working front and rear speakers with a nice degree of ambience in between, although the lower frequencies are used sparingly.
That’s not to say that the rest of the movie is audibly inert. Even the slower, quieter scenes pop (there are a bunch of them), although many without the added emphasis of bass. Somehow the mix manages to be admirable without ever being impressive.
Some of these features are available via U-Control, which I will detail below.
I really found the entire Blu Ray of 'The Tale of Despereaux’ experience unpleasant and desperate. The movie fails, the audio and video are unexceptional, and the special features are far from stellar. This is a big ole FOR FANS ONLY (although that seems like a stretch).