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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

The Tale of Despereaux [Blu-ray]


(Sam Fell & Rob Stevenhagen, 2008)






Review by Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical: Universal Pictures & A Larger Than Life Production & Framestore Animation

Blu-ray: Universal Studios Home Entertainment



Region: All

Runtime: 94

Chapters: min

Size: 50 GB

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: April 7, 2009



Aspect ratio: 2.35.:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: VC-1



English DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1; Spanish & French DTS 5.1.



English SDH, Spanish & French



• The (Mostly) Non-Fictional Making of the Movie (11:41)

• Scene Progressions (35:08)

• Top Ten Uses for Oversized Ears (1:20)

• 2 new Deleted Songs (4:36)

• Make Your Own Soup Game

• Card Creator

• Sneak Peak at Curious George 2

• BD-Live 2.0



The Film:

I have to get this off my chest: Animated feature films should not be about the actors who voice the characters. To place their names in the credits before the movie begins as if they are "in" the movie discredits the animation and it guides audience attention in the wrong direction.

When I saw Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty in 1958 I did in fact know who Mary Costa was. I knew what she looked like from her appearance as co-host of the CBS series "Climax" (and I would come to know her singing voice from the San Francisco Opera.) But none of the other actors' names were familiar to me then (as some are now.) When Briar Rose enters, speaks and sings, I did not think: "Mary Costa." Nor was I expected to. Why is that, I wonder?

On the other hand, the moment I hear Roscuro's voice, I think: "Dustin Hoffman" – a voice so distinctive I couldn't get the actor out of my head for the duration. Once bitten, I began to try to associate the other actors with their characters. I don't think this is what we should be doing. Not on our first encounter at any rate. But I couldn't help myself. I would like to not have known, for example, that Emma Watson was the voice for Princess Pea: She was outstanding in the part (as was the animation of her character), and knowing it was she kept reminding me of Hermione Granger. Similar associations took me out of the movie from one end to the other.




So right off the bat The Tale of Despereaux has two problems: the casting of Dustin Hoffman (who is otherwise terrific, by the way) in a part that starts off the movie and the listing such a list of luminaries before the movie begins. Of the first 14 names in the credits I can imagine the voices of 11 of them without a prompt. This does not auger well for a fairy tale experience.

Disney long ago and Pixar generally have demonstrated that it is totally unnecessary to have A-list actors in depth (though I wish they would X John Ratzenbegger permanently simply because he is too recognizable. It's not like he's a walk-on like Hitchcock.) When Pixar brings in the credits for Toy Story several minutes after the movie begins they are content to mention only the names at the top of the production. Randy Newman and Joss Whedon were probably the biggest names then, but of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, we don't hear bupkis until the end of the movie. These guys were picked because they are fabulous voice actors, not because their presence would bring in audiences. Of course, once word got around, it couldn't but help, but the audience's attention isn't deliberately drawn to them out of marketing or casting. There was none of "Tom Hanks IS Woody" garbage. In any case, neither Hanks nor Allen have voices nearly as distinctive as Hoffman's. It is unfortunate that the success of an animated film should ever have to depend on its vocal talent. I come down strongly on the side of the Pixar view that character and animation comes first, voicing comes second, and name recognition, last.

That off my chest, let's get move on to the screenplay. At the risk of overanalyzing a mere animated feature film, I found myself flinching at some of the lines. Try this one, spoken by the narrator (Sigourney Weaver): "Of course, destiny is a funny thing. We go out to meet it and we don't always know that we are." Are what, I asked her – and got no reply? Or, when our hero mouse is led away by a blind Charon, he is wrapped in a piece of yarn so that he can be lowered into Ratworld and from which no one has returned alive (Do they ever return dead?) As he binds Despereaux with the yarn, the blind mouse says: "So you're the brave one. There's no shame. It's good. It'll carry well down there." I assume the "it" here is bravery. But it's an odd usage and is confusing because of the yarn that will "carry" the mouse into the pit. The visual at this point encourages the confusion. There are quite a few of these, to say nothing of the misguided expectation that "soup" and "rain" ought to carry the metaphorical weight that is demanded at the film's climax - all the more surprising considering the writer is no less than Gary Ross, the man who gave us Big, Pleasantville and Dave.

I found the production design and the look of the various characters engaging. There is no attempt at a highly resolved pictorial, so this movie never becomes a challenge to the likes of Pixar or the better Dreamworks movies. Still there are some weird oversights, like not respecting that pupil size needs to be consistent with light source, which it isn't. There's one scene where a host of mice are looking at the same light source, with large and small pupils. I assume we are not meant to draw any inferences as to the state of their blood

The Movie: 5
Based on the Newbery Medal winning book by Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux is the first product from a partnership between Universal Pictures and British Framestore Animation. The story is about a heroic and honorable mouse named Despereaux who saves the kingdom from a depression caused by the surprising and inadvertent death of the queen by way of having discovered a seafaring rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) who happened to drop into her soup, which the king summarily outlaws. He sits in the hall playing his lute from that time forward. So much plot. So depressing.

Rats – and, we assume, by extension, mice - are no longer granted their once third class citizenship they once enjoyed, and have retired to the underworld where they behave a lot like the populace during the French Revolution – Their leader, with the unlikely name of Botticelli (Ciaran Hinds), and who bears more than a passing resemblance to Max Schreck's Count Orlok, is fond postures and pronouncements.

Mice live in their own much more pleasant village within the walls of the castle. Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), from birth, was not like other mice: he wouldn't cower, for one thing. He is frequently upbraided by his parents and the village elders for being unmouselike, but he persists in exploring, even unto the library of the castle where he reads of a time when heroes where heroes and princesses needed them to live happily ever after. One thing leads to another as Despereaux finds his way to Princess Pea's bedchamber where she looks longingly out the window. Despereaux notes the obvious, for which she is grateful. But her maid, Miggory Sow (Tracey Ulman) who always wanted to be a princess herself, has designs on Pea's tiara which, in turn, bring the rats back into play. And foul play, it is.

Will our hero come to rescue? And, if so, how?



Image: 9/9
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

Considering that the source material does not revel in a highly resolved picture to start with, the image is probably just about as good as Blu-ray can make it. No blemishes or distracting transfer issues, the color and contrast is a joy to behold.














Audio & Music: 6/8
I found a curious lack of crispness or dynamic punch, and surrounds are not sufficiently engaged. I miss immersive rat noises in the coliseum scenes. The lute music is sweet and tender.


Operations: 8
The menu is laid out like other Universal Blu-rays. Arrows tell you which way to direct your remote, and the bonus feature instructions are detailed and intuitive. The chapter menu includes buttons for U-Control in case you want to approach those functions from that point. There are only two U-Control opportunities, easily accessed from the menu or on the fly.




Extras: 6
It may be brief, but the twelve-minute Making-of featurette covers just about everything you want to know about the origins of the story (the prize-winning book by Kate DiCamillo), Gary Ross' involvement, voice casting and direction (usually offered as a separate segment, but is perfectly and concisely distilled here) and the eventual passing of the buck to the animation studio. The two "deleted" songs ["It's Great to be a Rat" & "Soup"] are presented against their would-be storyboards never had a chance – we can hear why. The Top Ten Uses for Oversized Ears are cute ideas that take about a minute to express themselves. The Scene Progressions feature takes us from script to storyboard to layout across a number of scenes. There are two games for the youngsters: Make Your Own Soup isn't as tasty as it sounds. The Card Creator at least has a shot at making use of one's creativity as we are directed to try this or that Despereaux pose against a choice of background, add a movie quote, and card border, and voila! It's a big plus that all the features are presented in high definition.

U-Control offers two very different and useful PIP features: the first is more or less a complete pencil sketched storyboarding of the entire movie. The other is largely devoted to behind the scenes voice-acting coaching and recording. It would get a bit repetitive if it weren't for alternating conversations between the "vocalists" and the filmmakers. Anyhow, I thought the matter was well covered in the making-of doc.



Bottom line: 6
It is the unique production and character design and the nicely resolved high definition image that makes this Blu-ray attractive and interesting. The complexities of the story, its various layers and stories within stories are more cumbersome than confusing. The language evokes the stuff of fairy tales, but is too in love with itself to notice when it is unclear. The extra features, too, pretend a level of self-importance that isn't warranted by the end result. Definitely worth renting.

Leonard Norwitz
April 6th, 2009







About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.

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