"The Tale of Despereaux" did reasonable business during its relatively short run in theatres last year, raking in about $50M at the box office. It's a pleasant surprise that the film did as well as it did, as I'm guessing the picture was a bit of a hard sell to audiences. However, those who did get a chance to see the film were rewarded - this is a charming, beautifully animated tale that tells a richer tale than most (non-Pixar) family offerings these days.
Based on Kate DiCamillo's 2003 book, the film on the tale of a small town sunk into darkness and despair when the queen has a heart attack after a rat named Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) fell into her soup. Shortly after, all soup and rats are banned in the Kingdom of Dor. In steps Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a cute little mouse with giant ears, whose main trait is lack of fear - he isn't afraid of traps or even cats. Rather than eating books, he actually wants to read them.
His fearless nature leads to a meeting with Princess Pea (Emma Watson), who he charms, sharing with her his desire to become a knight. While Despereaux's bravery allows him to have great ambition and goals, it also leads him to run afoul of the mice elders, and the court sentences him to live in the dungeons of Dor, where the rats live. Despite the ruling, Despereaux is able to summon up his courage as he descends into the home of the rats. The journey through the dark halls sees the mouse meeting Roscuro and working towards saving the day, with a few twists and turns along the way.
In an era of mostly sunny kid flicks, it's nice to see a movie that's more than a little bit dark. When I was growing up, kid films weren't so relentlessly chipper - "Secret of NIMH", anyone? - and they were all the better for it. While "Despereaux" is no "Secret of NIMH", the film's hint of danger and somber tone is actually a refreshing change. Additionally, the film's lessons (such as forgiveness) are delivered in a way that's enjoyable and not heavy-handed.
The film's voice work was also first rate, with Broderick and Watson standing out as one of several highlights (Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, Robbie Coltrane, William H. Macy and others also give great supporting efforts.) While a smaller production, the film's animation looked gorgeous, giving the picture an enjoyable, storybook quality. Overall, this is a compelling, often heartwarming animated adventure that will be enjoyable for kids in the high single digit age range (this film is rated G, but a PG would have been far more accurate) and above.
VIDEO: "The Tale of Despereaux" is presented by Universal Home Entertainment in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on DVD. This is a lovely transfer that certainly does justice to the film's beautiful animation. Sharpness and detail are superb, as the picture looked consistently bright, crisp and well-defined. A slight amount of edge enhancement was seen in a couple of scenes, but the film otherwise looked pristine, with no additional concerns. Colors varied, appearing warm and rich in some scenes and subdued in others - however, the film's varying color palette looked accurately presented, with no smearing or other issues.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was generally straightforward, with the majority of the audio spread across the front speakers. The surrounds are employed in a few scenes for mild amounts of ambience and occasional effects, but the rear speakers are otherwise silent. Audio quality is quite good, with voices sounding crisp and well-recorded.
EXTRAS: Only a few minor extras are included: "Interactive Map of the Kingdom of Dor", "Despereaux's Quest", "The Tale of The Tale of Despereaux" featurette and "Top 10 Uses For Oversized Ears".
Final Thoughts: Overall, "Tale of Despereaux" is a compelling, often heartwarming animated adventure that will be enjoyable for kids in the high single digit age range and above. The DVD offers excellent video quality, fine audio quality and a few minor supplements. Recommended.
The Film B+