Designed with a hazy sort of overly-brightened aesthetic, The Tale Of Despereaux hides its many glories beneath a shimmering glow that may take some getting used to. But, once you have adjusted to its visual appearance, you should find that the transfer is actually very good indeed. In fact, it is excellent and surely one of the best that I've seen in a while. Encoded via VC-1, this 2.35:1 image is highly detailed and lovingly rendered with a keen eye for three-dimensionality that allows for some great depth of field and the sumptuous framing to encourage investigation.
There is intricate beauty to gleaned within the worlds of both Mouse and Rat. In fact, it would stand up to repeated viewings just to thoroughly inspect each environ to see just how these creatures have created their societies out of humanity's flotsam and jetsam. Detail is everywhere within these tightly composed, yet filmically expansive frames. Clothing, furnishings, woodwork, the reflection in a tear, the amazingly finite ruffles and ripples in rodent and feline fur are all provided with a sharpness and visual clarity that flies in the face of that initially hazy picture. It is true that the animators have gone for that often misguided realism with regards to physical movement - clothing and bodily deportment are very strictly adhered to, no matter what the creature, or the circumstances - and this can sometimes jibe with the fantastical visages of the characters themselves. However, the disc copes with rapid action and swift, fluid camera-work extremely well. There are no instances of smearing, or blurriness in an image that remains rock-steady from start to finish.
Colours, as I have intimated, aren't the most flashy, bold or flamboyant, but they do possess a richness and saturation that makes the image come alive during scenes when such flair is intended. Early sequences, and those set in the town or in the castle's chambers are washed-out in terms of the palette utilised. This is, of course, by design. But the majority of the film is suffused with a painterly sheen - not bright, but soothing. Despereaux is a movie that likes to shimmer and glow, not dazzle or scorch. Ambient colour textures down in the respective worlds of Mice and Rats are quite splendid. The Mouseworld enjoys a lighter, brighter vogue, whilst the Ratworld darkens things with shadow, subdued orange hues and earthy reds and browns and, as a consequence, looks visually more appealing. The human characters - especially the mopy Royals - tend to look anaemic and ill, but this is purely down to the desired effect of the animators. I found the colour scheme unusual, but rewarding and the transfer keeps it clean and crisp.
Contrast and brightness are jacked-up. But, once again, this is down to the source and not the transfer. But I thought that the black levels were good and often provided some fine shadow delineation, especially down in the dungeons and in Ratworld. They aren't the deepest or the inkiest, but they look fine in this image and they don't appear to mask any detail. The fall into the well - a metaphorical as well as a literal descent - offers some sublime and mysterious blacks.
Encoding errors are nowhere to be found. Edge enhancement is not an issue and noise, artefacts and that ususal bane of animated fare, colour-banding, are not in evidence either. This isn't a Pixar spectrum of scintillating radiance by a long way, but Universal's The Tale Of Despereaux yields tones and textures that are no less captivating on its Blu-ray transfer.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that decorates Despereaux has moments of grandeur, but is predominantly arranged across the front speakers and, thus, seems to lack the surround activity that a new movie such as this - and a movie with so much frantic action in it, as well - would lead you to anticipate. What there is, I must add, is actually quite enjoyable though, once you appreciate that it is primarily a frontal assault.
You won't struggle to hear the dialogue, although I, personally, wouldn't have minded losing the sound of miserable Princess Pea once in a while. Hoffman's voice thickly oozes out whilst Broderick's fizzes with enthusiastic valour. The score from William Ross is always reliably placed within the mix and there are some keenly rendered passages that generate warmth and a free-flowing musical flood. This is not a particularly memorable score, but it certainly helps to embellish the emotional core and the action departments of the film. The bass levels are also more than decent. There is great power and weight given to the rats when they are pounding on the floor around the arena and chanting for blood, and various other impacts make their presence felt, also, such as the delirious slapstick chase with the knights which does, in fact, manage to stretch some details out across the rears, as well.
But the effect of the stereo spread across the front is reasonably wide and full of detail, nuance and well-steered effects. As I say, the action set-pieces are well catered-for with regards to directionality and the odd crash, bang and wallop, although there is nothing too dynamic or extravagant to talk about that would raise this to a level of excellence. So, in summary, the audio mix is good, but limited ... and it certainly doesn't make any mistakes.
Universal sends The Tale Of Despereaux out into a unloving world with some nifty special features that, although hardly ground-breaking, seem to cover most bases with light but entertaining touch.
U-Control PiP delivers feature-length animatics and storyboards to run alongside the movie, as well as various interviews and behind-the-scenes footage with the vocal cast and the filmmakers. Whilst I didn't feel inclined to stick with either of these, it was definitely nice to see that Universal bothered to create the tracks in the first place and kudos must go to the animatic track that seems to cover almost all of the movie and does, at least, offer an unusual angle at what goes into producing such a film.
In lieu of Deleted Scenes, we get two excised Songs from the film - “It's Great To Be A Rat” and “Soup”- which never really got all that close to being included in the finished movie and are shown here in animatic form. Neither is particularly memorable or even appropriate for the film, as it happens, and their omission is to be applauded.
The (Mostly) Non-Fictional Making Of The Movie runs for 11 mins and features some of those involved in the production lending us their opinions, but veersa little heavily towards typical EPK pap which, given the nature of the subject matter, probably isn't all that surprising. The author of the original material is quite highly praised, but even if there is some degree of discussion about the actual evolution of the film's concept, from book to final movie, this is too swift, too light and too fawning to distil much of worth in our direction.
Much better are the Scene Progressions (running for 35 mins) which presents a detailed look at six segments from the film, via storyboards, rough "Layouts," early animation footage and the finished animation once the final lighting has been incorporated. This is actually quite interesting and it is nice to see the genuine evolution of the footage from sketch to fluid animation.
Top Ten Uses For Oversized Ears (1.20 mins) is, like much of the bonus material, aimed purely at the kids and is just a bit of fun that reveals how Despereaux's Jodrel Bank-sized ears helped him get through various scrapes. And then there's the Make Your Own Soup Game to tide them over, as well.
The BD-Live (Profile 2.0) function allows you to create your own greeting card with video and graphics from the movie, amongst other downloadable gubbins. Apparently. I didn't have a go at this, I'm afraid.
Plus, we get a 10-minute exclusive peak at Curious George 2, which should tease the youngsters.
Far from being the disappointment that so many naysayers would have you believe, Tale Of Despereaux is often tremendous fun and bewitching. That it tells its story in such a strange sort of way should not be held against it. Once you've found the hook to the tale, it is easy to become entranced by the richly detailed milieu and the surprisingly dark plot twists that transpire therein. I had expected problems with the movie and, to a degree, these are plain to see. But the amazing thing is that these missteps do not damage the film too badly. Indeed, it is refreshing to find such a typical “cute-critter” fable dealt with in such an abstract manner. It could never be termed a classic of the genre, but this is diverting enough to be worthwhile and solid family fare.
Universal's disc forgets a commentary track, but lashes in a couple of PiP features, a token “making of”, some kid-friendly stuff and a neat line of animatic treasures. With a great image and solid sound, this is a very reasonable package for those who aren't total Pixar-snobs.
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