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The Incredibles: Collector’s Edition

Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures (November 5 2004), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (March 15 2005), 2 discs, 115 mins plus supplements, 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX, Rated PG, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

Bringing human characters to the fore (though others have attempted it, this is a first for a Pixar film), the story centers on Bob Parr, once known as the amazing superhero Mr Incredible, but now an ageing superhero who has, with the rest of his family, been placed “underground” (as in the FBI’s hidden identity programs) for protection from a number of ungrateful people the supers have helped save over the years and their ensuring lawsuits. When a long-thought gone villain pops up again to take revenge on the Parrs, Bob dons the Mr Incredible suit once more in a secret bid to save his family. But when Mr Incredible gets trapped on the hidden lair of the bitter Syndrome, it’s down to his wife, Elastigirl, and kids, Violet and Dash, to track him down – post a stop off at super-costume designer Edna Mode – and save the day once more!

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The Sweatbox Review:

Brad Bird, the director of the astonishing The Iron Giant, returns after that film’s poor box office showing (due to Warner Brothers’ dropping the marketing ball) with a bona fide blockbuster smash hit, earning platitudes and fame for himself, as well as multiple awards – including the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature – to boot! And one can just see the marketing minds at work…along the way of production the film switched names from The Invincibles to The Incredibles, meaning that every quote from every review wound up by using the film’s title to describe the movie. Well, that’s not going to happen here, folks, no siree! Not that I didn’t enjoy the film immensely, but that line is just getting so clichéd!

Batting five for five, the release of The Incredibles, Pixar’s sixth film for Disney, was seen as perhaps too much of a departure for the company: too dark, too adult and too risky. As Finding Nemo was perceived the year before and Cars is sure to do next, it was never sure whether the film would be a success, or a failure. Four months on, and it’s clear that Pixar had nothing to worry about: The Incredibles has such an abundance of “cool” factored in that it could never have been anything but a smash hit in theaters.

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As well as bringing in The Iron Giant’s Brad Bird to direct, this Pixar production shifts gears in a number of ways: the story is obviously on a grander, fantasy scale (out with the antics of toys in the bedroom and in with huge sets and epic, outdoor action scenes), and the tone gets an upgrade (from talky buddies to real emotional depth and serious, life-and-death issues). Also gone, and following in Nemo’s footsteps, is Randy Newman’s usual jaunty musical style, here not even present on Disney’s CGI animated castle logo. Stepping in is Michael Giacchino’s big ‘n’ brassy retro-action-jazz score, which reminded me of the big band sound from The Jungle Book. It’s unlike anything heard in a Disney film of late, keeping the grand sweep of the kind of film music we enjoy in the movies of today, but infusing it with a personal sensibility that adds layer on layer of interest in the music. The nods to John Barry, the long-time James Bond composer who was originally attached to score The Incredibles, are apparent throughout, especially in the Bond-esque, big hidden-fortress island moments, but Giacchino captures this feel a lot more subtly and effortlessly than current Bond composer David Arnold does with his sometimes sledgehammer approach.

Staying with the sound, and here we get an ensemble of some pretty big named stars: Craig T Nelson and Samuel L Jackson, as well as some without middle initials – Holly Hunter and Jason Lee – and the usual John Ratzenberger “cameo”. They all slip into their CGI likenesses easily and confirm Pixar’s gift for casting the right voices. All of these characters come to life in ways not thought possible before and despite their CGI skins and superpowers, we utterly believe that these are real people, with real problems that they must deal with. Within seconds, the audience is absolutely swept up in the story to notice that it is all being told in animation (another nice nod is to two of Brad’s – and animation’s – own heroes, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who again pop up briefly with some prophetic words following their memorable moment in Bird’s The Iron Giant). There is some really great stuff in here – stuff that confirms Pixar understands how to bring characters to life through real acting rather than just moving them about on screen in a realistic way.

That’s a testament to writer/director Bird, who once saw this as a traditionally hand-drawn animated feature, and who has created fully dimensional characters, not just in the CGI sense, and a story that truly captivates and pulls the audience in. The humans here retain their previous Pixar look, albeit one that’s been tweaked a little. Why make them so real that they’re not real, Pixar debates, instead choosing the “caricatured” look as opposed to the “real” attempts of a Final Fantasy or Shrek. That they don’t look quite real is all part of the point, and this helps the animation tremendously – the fact that these are animated characters only strives to help the reality of their lives and situations sink in quicker and better!

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Other than the characters, and perhaps even more incredi…(whoops! Nearly slipped up there!)…are the outside locations, all of them designed and rendered with a highly stylised approach that even suggests familiarity. Likewise with the more amazing sets – Syndrome’s lair and the island itself have all been created with such precision that they don’t distract from the story, no matter how well they have been reproduced on this disc. Adding to all the fun is Bird himself, playing the fashion elitist Edna Mode, a delicious new character who chews up the scenery and provides this film’s equivalent to an on-camera sidekick role. Apparently only drafted in to provide vocals for the scratch track, Bird ended up the final casting, upholding a Pixar tradition of having various crew turn up in Hitchcock-type voice cameos.

Well, that’s all the good…what about the not-so-good? On seeing the film again for this review, I have to say that I enjoyed it a lot more than when I saw it in a theater last November. Back then, The Incredibles seemed to drag a bit, for me, in the middle of the film, when Bob makes a second visit to Syndrome’s island. At 115 minutes, it’s one of the longest mainstream animated films out there (I can only think of Fantasia being lengthier, but that isn’t a single-narrative feature), and could probably have been tightened up by ten minutes or so overall. That the story does indeed flow naturally is a big plus point, obviously, but some scenes still feel “bloated” in that style and technique overburden the needs of a scene.

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Ironically, one point I did feel needed to be bigger was the film’s climax, on the streets of a city where Syndrome’s Omnidroid robot flips out and causes havoc. As this is about happen, the population runs from their cars and the sidewalks to hide, leaving the landscape feeling a bit barren and empty. More faces and people in peril would have certainly helped here, and as it is the sequence feels light and not as climactic as it should. After such amazing moments on the island, the city battle didn’t work up the kind of energy it needed, and the way the ’droid is finally defeated just felt rushed and too “easy”. A later coda resolves things much more satisfactorily, but the film had definitely stalled for me at that point, and it took me out of their world for a moment. Despite getting to grips with The Incredibles this time around, I still feel that ending could benefit from some extra activity.

Putting such gripes to one side, it is clear that Bird and the creative geniuses at Pixar have done it again. This time their reach extends to the real comic book geeks as well as animation aficionados and fans of the sci-fi genre. Comparisons made to Spider-Man 2 were inevitable: not only does the film feature the emotional identity crises of its leading characters, but Mr Incredible rescues a train from certain doom in a similar way to Peter Parker’s attempts in that film, and Bird expressed concern at the time even though his film had featured that sequence long before Spidey 2 got off the ground. Likewise, the Fantastic Four is the team that most comes to mind when looking at who The Incredibles could have been at least related to, and there’s no denying that the family – in their spandex – most resemble the Stan Lee/Marvel Comics prototype of angsty heroes with troubles other than just the “villain of the week”.

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Like Shrek, which wanted its cake (to spoof the Disney fairy-tale) and eat it too (to be accepted itself within that fairy-tale tradition), Pixar’s latest walks that fine line between spoofing the very genre it also wants to be a part of, and celebrating it. Luckily, and it’s all down to the talent in Emeryville, The Incredibles comes away from the fray totally successfully, albeit with expertly timed affectionate swipes, creating not only a new dysfunctional family that we’ll no doubt be seeing more of, but its own line of superheroes for an entirely new generation. The supers are back, and they’re here to stay!

Is This Thing Loaded?

After the spectacularly presented film, you’d be expecting an incre… nope, not going to go there… an exceptional collection of bonus features. For the most part, the latest Pixar DVD delivers, but I have to say that I didn’t find the supplemental section as fulfilling as had been rumored or hoped.

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Disc One kicks in with some very stylish menus, using the Mary Blair-esque angular silhouetted versions of the characters as seen on some promotional items and the film’s end credits. Really helping these along is Michael Giacchino’s retro score, which bumps up the excitement factor. Also available via a Sneak Peeks menu, and running 8:47, the only video “extras” we get here are theatrical previews for Pixar’s next, Cars, as well as Chicken Little, Cinderella Platinum Edition, the new Miyazaki wave, Lilo And Stitch 2, The Incredibles game and DisneyLand’s Tower Of Terror. The best thing about the previews – in fact the whole DVD – is that everything is presented in anamorphic 16×9 widescreen – all the 4×3 material has been matted in within the frame (actually causing the letterboxed Chicken Little to appear windowboxed). All said and done, this is a most welcome touch, and for once I didn’t have to keep switching ratios on my projector set up – excellent!

Moving on to the bonus features themselves and I’m not sure if the PG rating for The Incredibles has had any effect, but it does seem to have emboldened the Pixar folks into being a little more carefree with minding their language. I’m no prude, but letting the words “crap” and “ass” creep onto a disc that may been seen or heard by youngsters didn’t seem a very Disney-or-Pixar-like thing to happen, and I must admit to being surprised that these weren’t simply edited out. Apart from that caveat, the supplements stack up well, and on Disc One, as well as an Introduction by Brad Bird (in which he hints we should use the THX Optimizer before watching the feature), we’re treated to two full-length audio commentaries (the first instances of slightly colorful language): one with writer/director Bird and producer John Walker, the other with an abundance of animators (I counted thirteen introductions in all), including supervising animators Tony Fucile, Steven Hunter and Alan Barillaro.

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Making up much of the set’s most interesting features, the two commentaries are among the best I’ve heard recently. The best tracks are always those that come a year or two after the production has wrapped, though more and more they are being recorded as part of the film’s production. The advantage of an animated film – especially something as complex as The Incredibles – is that they take three or four years to complete, so even though these commentaries were recorded toward the end of production, they do have a retrospective slant, which always makes things that much more interesting.

The participants speak candidly, and with much enthusiasm, and I found both tracks worthwhile on the level of those found in the Lord Of The Rings series of extended DVD editions. Bird and Walker’s track opens up, as expected, the story and characters, plot decisions, alterations and various production choices, while the more technical (and looser-tongued!) animators’ comments reveal the real nitty-gritty nature of production, such as moments that they wish they could have finessed more as well as those that got an overhaul and work much better for it. That Bird and Walker are so animated (no pun intended) themselves is a great bonus, and the mere fact of having so many animators on one track meant that there wasn’t any time that someone wasn’t talking (and usually saying something interesting). There is literally tons of information, anecdotes, casting choices and more in these tracks, and the exuberance is infectious, though some ID tags on the animators tracks would have been a plus, if only to keep up with who was saying what at which time. The animators’ comments do sound as if they have been cut from at least a couple of sessions, but they have been expertly edited.

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Onto Disc Two and the big advertised extra is the new animated short, Jack-Jack Attack, again written and directed by Brad Bird. Although undoubtedly amusing on a first viewing, I found that the short didn’t stand up to repeated performances, and it isn’t self-contained, meaning that it doesn’t work at all as a stand-alone cartoon in the way that Mike’s New Car on the Monsters Inc disc, or even Scrat’s Missing Adventure on Fox’s Ice Age set, did. Jack-Jack Attack, which tells the “background story” of what happened while the family were out saving the day and Kari the babysitter was left alone with their unpredictable baby son, makes various references to the film that, while clever, will be lost on newcomers – one simply HAS to have seen the main movie to get all the in-jokes. There’s also another language gaff here, which has villain Syndrome explaining why his costume simply has an “S” on it rather than the initials for “babysitter” (which would have been “BS”, geddit?), though don’t worry – the actual word is never mentioned, but it’s a close call gag. At 4:40, this seemed like a short short, and certainly didn’t live up to my expectations, though it is very nicely rendered and the 1.78:1 transfer is so clean that you can see the dust in the spotlight interrogating Kari.

More fun, but also losing points, is another bonus cartoon, Mr Incredible And Pals, coming in at four minutes. Animated using mostly static artwork created in the 1960s/70s Filmation style, the short is a supposedly “lost” episode of a Johnny Quest-type cartoon series featuring our hero and his sidekicks. Expertly rendered with the intended look, along with intended print and transfer anomalies, it’s a great idea and there is a lot of fun to be had here. So what about those lost points? Well, rather than give the characters rudimentary, two-frame animated mouths (one for open, one for closed), they are here provided with real-life human mouths superimposed onto the faces – something that looks out of place given the style (the effect is akin to Steve Oedekerk’s Thumb movie spoofs). The writing and joke performances here make up for those shortcomings, but I couldn’t help feel that the so spot-on gags (the animated boat changing course, Mr Incredible’s animal pal, so accurately recalling the sidekicks of those shows) were let down by the “real mouths” decision.

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Another option offered on the Mr Incredible And Pals cartoon is a Bird-written “commentary” by Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson) and Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) themselves. Though they don’t (intentionally) provide the voices for the short itself, this is a nice way to get them involved, though their in-character chat resorts to that tried, tested and increasingly strained “we’re real characters” shtick, and quickly became a bore for me, with most of it being about Frozone’s bitterness at being portrayed as “tanned” instead of black and attacking the live-action lips (he has a point!), while Mr Incredible’s pleas that it doesn’t look so bad. Once again, there is one use of a surprising word (“crappy”), and the image on the menu may lead you to believe that you’ll see new animation of the characters superimposed over the cartoon but, alas, that fails to be the case.

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Finally, within the cartoon’s “archive section”, are the top secret Nation Supers Agency files, a collection of background information that features a run down of all the superheroes seen in the film, along with statistics and lengthy audio sound bites of the “where are they now” variety. There’s also a look at the crime-fighting teams the members once came together as, and the names and “facts” are very funny and inventive – be aware though, that this was the only feature I found that for some reason was only encoded in 4×3 full-frame.

The final short included is the Oscar-nominated Boundin’, the directorial debut of long-time storyman Bud Luckey, also running 4:40. Presented in 1.85:1, the short split audiences right down the middle between those that thought it bizarre and silly, and those who warmed to its wonderfully whimsical message, and I firmly place myself with the latter and am glad it was carried over to the DVD after being attached to The Incredibles in theaters.

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For those coming to this for the first time, you’re in for a treat, while I should point out that this is like nothing you’ve ever experienced from Pixar before – totally groundbreaking in a whole new way, which is what keeps ’em fresh! Accompanying the short is a new commentary from writer/director/narrative singer Luckey, who warmly reveals his background and influences, as well as the regular appearances from props and characters from previous (and forthcoming!) Pixar movies. A four-minute featurette, titled Who Is Bud Luckey?, profiles the artist and his work for Pixar (including his vocals in The Incredibles), as well as behind-the-scenes footage of how Boundin’ was produced – another fine addition which really treats this unique short with the respect it deserves.

Back to the actual movie, and next up is a selection of Deleted Scenes. The 34 minute-plus running time sounds pretty inviting until one realises that this length also includes a chat between director Bird and story supervisor Mark Andrews, who discuss each scene at length before it plays – I’d have preferred a commentary here, since what they say is interesting, but pretty boring to watch (Bird, for the first time I’ve noticed, takes a little time to warm up here, for whatever reason). The image’s color, looking like cheap video, is washed out in these talking head sections too, though the scenes themselves, including an extended alternate opening, various scene extensions and different takes, are fascinating in themselves as usual. Image quality on those isn’t a problem, being a mix of pencil-drawing storyboards and elaborate animatic work that is presented in the film’s ratio of 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and with completed music cues for effect.

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Moving on, and we have just under 70 minutes of behind-the-scenes material, being made up of a 27:24 documentary, The Making Of The Incredibles, and several featurettes which take in various subjects. The documentary isn’t just your run-of-the-mill piece, being an exciting mix of talking head soundbites – all of which predictably applaud Brad – and plenty of video camera footage of the day to day running of Pixar: we see Brad’s first day at the Studio, plus the actual production process, and snippets of creative meetings, which propel his unending energy to the fore. It’s a good half-hour, quickly cut, and manages to play up the famously infectious Pixar spirit and glosses over any production upsets that were rumored at the time.

The individual clips go even more in-depth, concentrating on various production steps, from Story, Character Design, E-Volution (centered on Edna Mode) and Building, to Music, Lighting and the software Tools involved. The pieces run not as extended versions of clips from the main documentary, but are self-contained, revealing how deep the Pixar people delve in order to convey believability, as well as the lengths they go to in hand animating various elements rather than let the computers go ahead and create them “mechanically”. For all the talk surrounding the big name casting of Nelson, Hunter and Jackson, I could have done with an additional “voice cast” featurette, but at least one character is outlined later on. A Play All option runs them together as an almost “alternate” documentary, running almost 41 minutes.

Next up is Incredi-Blunders, a series of outtakes running just over a minute and a half. These aren’t the kind that Pixar have become famous for, but instead a collection of test renders, where pieces of jumbled code have resulted in shots not coming out as intended. In an attempt to give the clips some wider-than-just-the-technical-geek appeal, a swinging music and laugh track has been added, which I actually found a little too much – some of the shots aren’t actually “bloopers” but merely test renders (which always look a little strange) and the whole thing whizzes by rather than the usual way of presenting these, which is on a repeating cycle. Sound effects jazz up the shots, but it’s all too easy to miss the more subtle stuff on a first viewing.

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Vowellet: An Essay By Sarah Vowell takes a curious look at one of the film’s lesser-known voice talents. Running just over nine minutes, it took me a while to get used to Vowell’s manner, which gets a little off-hand in the mid-section, but when she warms up the piece is truly funny (“different”, in a good way) and it’s easy to enjoy her take on both her life and the process of being involved with a big animated movie (though be warned that the “crap” word springs up again here), and we see the animation test that convinced her to become involved. A quirky, interesting person, Vowell turns out to be quite the American history buff, and the mini-doc comes complete with a nice push for Pixar chief Steve Jobs’ other business concern, the Apple I-Mac (watch how Vowell flubs here, after mentioning it, but I’m not suggesting that she was asked to play that aspect up or anything)!

An Art Gallery features several sections (covering Character Design to Lighting), but it’s not an amazingly in-depth selection of images, totalling just over one hundred stills, and missing out on the very stylised promotional posters and numerous one-sheets and banners that invited audiences to see the film. Bringing things to a close is a Publicity section, which includes more “they’re actual people” character interviews between a few real life TV hosts and Mr and Mrs Incredible, Frozone and Edna Mode (6:30), plus three theatrical trailers, including the often seen teaser, adding another 6:30 of material. The First In Line promotional TV spots, that spoofed the early line up some fans commit to when a big new film opens, are inexplicably missing.

Lastly, we have a selection of Easter Eggs that can be found strewn across the discs. These are pretty inventive and a blast to find, using a fun new way of hiding themselves within the menus (clue: you need to wait and see if any new symbols pop up on the menus in order to access them, and do check some of the same ones out twice for alternate clips). These extras are pretty fun: one is a tribute to the animators from Brad Bird, which features all the shots of doors and buttons being open, closed, pressed and pushed, which just makes one astonished at the number of these things in the film, and a testament to what is obviously an in-joke between the filmmakers. Another is a fairly amusing cut-down version of the entire film as acted out by…sock puppets, and there’s also a look at the lengths the animators go to in providing authenticity, another deleted scene, a scooter accident clip (is that a SharkTale poster on the Pixar wall?), and a nice tribute to Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (“no school like the old school”!), among others.

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In rounding up, it must be said that it seems the extra, full-screen edition is a marketing ploy: with just over two hours of bonus material, there’s no real reason that a second version couldn’t have been squeezed in, and a DTS track added to the widescreen version on Disc One, for that matter, given Pixar’s usual tendency for multiple audio tracks. Those additional publicity poster and banner images would have been a real boon too – the film was well marketed with stylish artwork which is all missing here, and just where are those First In Line spots? However, it’s the exceptional image and reference-quality sound, plus two great audio commentaries, which really makes up the solid status of The Incredibles DVD set, so perhaps I’m being too picky! There should be more than enough in here to please fans, without compromising the quality of the feature, and that’s what really counts – it looks and sounds “super”.

Case Study:

Coming in a “foil-embossed” slipcover, The Incredibles is presented much like last year’s Finding Nemo was, with the same cool shiny surface noticeably visible, only this time boasting a “metallic”, futuristic sheen rather than Nemo’s ocean water ripples. Other than that, it’s a standard Disney DVD offering, in a slimline dual disc case, and the same artwork reproduced on the cover. Inside, we get the expected DVD Guide, which offers a navigational overview of the discs’ contents. A coupon booklet offers up a few savings and ads for other Disney/Pixar product.

Ink And Paint:

Available in both separate widescreen and full-screen editions, The Incredibles looks stunning. Naturally, we’re looking at the properly framed widescreen edition here (in the correct 2.39:1 ratio), but the full-screen, for those who really, really need it, has at least undergone Pixar’s recomposing technique, which repositions characters within scenes to make the film more aesthetically pleasing to audiences who prefer watching only half the intended image. However, why one would want to experience The Incredibles in anything other than these gorgeously composed widescreen frames is beyond me!

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As close to full bitrate as is possible, the film has been spread across two layers for optimum, almost SuperBit quality (around a perfect hour per layer). The deep reds in the film – often the first things to lose integrity on video – are reproduced without problems, and the color palette throughout is clean and vibrant. Skin tones are fine, while blacks are solid without losing any shadow detail, and the image is so sharp that you can pick out the seams on the characters’ costumes! Incred…nope, not going to say it, even if it is true!

Scratch Tracks:

That the disc chooses image over sound is as it should be, of course, but one can’t help but wish a DTS track might have been included as well. The Dolby 5.1 Surround EX encoded mix is exceptional though, and the 100 Mile Dash chapter – the highpoint of the film – could well be a new system demo sequence (DTS or otherwise). French and Spanish 5.1 are also bundled, all sounding as top notch as one would expect, and in a particularly excellent touch, subtitles are available in all three languages for each and every bonus feature on both discs, including commentaries! Not much more to say than that, really, but a well thought out and expertly executed job!

Final Cut:

While there are pretenders to the crown (Disney releases its own CGI movie, sans Pixar, this holiday season), The Incredibles’ critical, box-office and Oscar-winning success clearly places Pixar at the top of their realm. This latest film is a true change to the buddy-buddy movies that have made and sustained their reputation, and it was a daring choice to not only hire in an “outsider”, Brad Bird, but also to allow him to push the boat out as far as he did in what could be considered appropriate for an apparent “children’s film”. As the PG rating testifies, The Incredibles aims a little higher than that, and it has become that rare thing: a true family feature that invites questions and provides food for thought while being thoroughly engaging. As I say above, I did find it a little saggy in the middle, and the watered-down climax isn’t the best thing in the show, but to all intents and purposes, this is fantastic entertainment that finally bridges the gap between casual sci-fi fan and geek: spoofing the genre while playing by the rules and working on both counts. Coupled with a solid DVD set that goes the tried and tested route, it really is… oh, okay then…INCREDIBLE!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

increds17.jpg MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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