2008, eh? Who knew!? Looking back on the past twelve months, it must be admitted that it doesn’t look to have gone down as a banner year, at least in terms of entertainment. In animation the Big Three proved what they can all do on a good day, with Fox/Blue Sky’s Horton Hears A Who! starting us off in surprisingly good style, followed in the summer by DreamWorks/PDI’s awesome Kung Fu Panda and Disney/Pixar’s WALL-E. DreamWorks even managed to squeeze two out, proving what they can do on a bad day, too (the cumbersomely and nonsensically titled Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa). Disney bounced back with Bolt, the first of the new Mouse House films to really feel the hand of new chief John Lasseter, and even the independents made their mark with the long in the making, finally released Delgo, the celebrated documentary Waltz With Bashir, and $9.99 (both of which we were unable to have reviewed by the time this survey was being completed).
But where – especially in the rest of cinema – were the future classics? The Dark Knight may have cleaned up, but that was basically on the back of a dead man’s performance and, as you’ll see from the many disc reviews now popping up, the plodding nature is now being referenced more and more as the hype dies down (wait…The Joker’s truck chase was really pulled off so he was caught, sent to prison where he could grab the guard and use his phone to activate the bomb he’d already placed inside the henchman in the next cell that would eliminate the guy who double crossed the mobsters? So Joker could…what? Now that’s forward planning!). Indiana Jones? You can keep your crystal skulls, largely confirming old franchises should stay dead, and it was mildly amusing to note that, in their Paramount Stars holiday promotions, it was Raiders Of The Lost Ark that stood shoulder to shoulder with the Studio’s line of contemporary classics. The inexplicable hit of the year Mamma Mia had a lot of people who should know better in a very expensive karaoke session (yes, Pierce Brosnan, we’re pointing at you), though the sheer exuberant nature of Wanted provided some thrills and the real superhero surprise of the silly summer season was a solid showing in Iron Man.
On the home video disc front, DVD continued to plunder the depths for more obscurities and double (and triple!) dips, while Blu-ray truly emerged as the winner in the high definition wars thanks to Warner Bros. seeing sense on dropping their support of the moribund HD-DVD. This saw an influx of much requested movies start to trickle out on Sony’s hi-def format but it might again be fair to say that these were mostly catalog titles that brought little or no new supplemental features to their packages than many had seen before, though top of the crop in terms of animation releases has to be the Disney trio of Sleeping Beauty, The Nightmare Before Christmas and WALL-E. You’ll find those titles – and a whole heap more – in our annual listing below: Ben and Randall’s picks of what good old regular DVD had to offer, plus other highlights and James’ review of the theatrical year. You’ll find live links to our archived original comments and don’t forget that purchasing any titles through our Amazon links really does help support Animated Views and keeps the content coming – as usual there are some titles we’re still hoping to catch up on, so some full reviews are forthcoming, with many more to come in 2009!
But now, join us for a look back on the good, the bad and…
1. Popeye The Sailor: Volume Two (1938-1940)
– Popeye The Sailor: Volume Three (1941-1943)
Warner Home Video (June 17, November 4 2008)
2 and 2 discs, 218 and 201 mins plus supplements, $35 each
Yeah, we’re most probably predictable, but we’re also still in shock that these wonderfully entertaining and historically important animated cartoons have managed to make it to disc at all. After the celebrations that greeted the first volume of authentic Fleischer Studio classics after many, many years in the wilderness, the lower than expected sales figures resulted in a second planned four disc set being reduced to just a two disc affair…with the third presumably hanging in the balance. Thankfully, the third helping did come to pass, but the combination of a much-loved character by all the reviewers here and the fact that we came so close to not having these shorts on disc at all puts the spinach guzzler at the top for a second year running. Warners’ presentation is the best these great cartoons have ever looked, with the Paramount titles restored thanks to some corporate wheeling and dealing and even a replacement disc handed out in the event of two such cartoons not being restored correctly. The special features were again not quite as all-inclusive as us rabid fans might have really salivated over, but there were welcome returns for the excellent Popumentary featurettes, and the inclusion of the final Technicolor two-reeler was a treat. Think of both sets as the single four-disc volume two that should have been, sit back, and enjoy a final selection of Max and Dave’s best.
2. Warner Bros. Academy Award Animation Collection: 15 Winners, 26 Nominees
Warner Home Video (February 12 2008)
3 discs, 323 mins plus supplements, $45
Looking back, we only gave this unique set an overall score of seven points, valid in the face of some of the shortcomings explained in the full review. But the sheer concept of the set itself, an “official” studio gathering of classic cartoon characters in (mostly) restored and remastered transfers of glittering prints which should feel like a cheap public domain cash-in but is way too classy, had us bowled over. Where else can the likes of Warner Bros, MGM and the Fleischer Studios’ stars as Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Superman, Tweety, Droopy, Tom & Jerry et al come together in such uncut animated gems like Birds Anonymous, Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt, Blitz Wolf and many more? The WB Academy Animation Collection picked from some of the best in those libraries to bring us no less than 15 actual award winners and a further 26 nominated cartoons, opening up the vaults for even more rarities and one-offs (The Dot And The Line, High Note, Nelly’s Folly, Now Hear This). It’s true that some points were docked for some technicalities and a couple of “missing” shorts, but more than making up for the shortcomings was a selection of classy supplements including Constatine Nasr’s Drawn For Glory: Animation’s Triumph At The Oscars, a 60 minute documentary on the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ relationship with the animated cartoon in its Golden Age. Nasr’s New Wave Entertainment is behind many of our favorite supplements, and this truly terrific piece could well be the extra of the year: it’s certainly worth the price of the set itself.
– Kung Fu Panda
Walt Disney Home Entertainment, DreamWorks Animation/Paramount Home Entertainment (November 18, November 8 2008)
2 and 2 discs, 98 and 92 mins plus supplements, $40 and $35
The big three of (computer) feature animation proved their worth this year, with Pixar pulling out in front with their tale of a lonely robot finding a purpose in the cinematic treat of the year, WALL-E, and DreamWorks surprising all with Kung Fu Panda, which came in as fantastic entertainment for the whole family and reminded us that the studio can make movies that matter as opposed to simple laughfests that strive for little more than to provide noise for an hour or two. WALL-E is the clear theatrical winner but its disc didn’t impress completely, with a couple of features held for the Blu-ray edition that could well have been included on standard DVD and the feature documentary The Pixar Story a little too self-congratulatory, skipping through the later Pixar films and ending before WALL-E, making it something of an odd companion piece. DreamWorks might have delivered a stand-out package for their Kung Fu Panda had the movie been presented on its own disc and the supplements being moved to a second, but as it was we got a fine selection of extras, with the fun if inconsequential new featurette Secrets Of The Furious Five on its own in a bundled-in platter, something Blu-ray owners inexplicably found missing in that edition. For their movie merits we’ve tied WALL-E and Kung Fu Panda together, reflecting some of the lacklustre approaches to their only somewhat overall decent disc packages, but it seemed poetically sweet that the state of the art WALL-E was released 80 years to the day Mickey Mouse first graced the silver screen.
4. Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Six
– Woody Woodpecker And Friends: Classic Cartoon Collection Volume Two
Warner Home Video, Universal Studios Home Entertainment (October 21, April 15 2008)
4 and 3 discs, 413 and 507 mins plus supplements, $65 and $40
Another tie! While we’ve been obviously pleased to see a lot of new material making its way to disc, there is a feeling of déjà vu on some of the picks this year, however valid these titles’ placements may be. There’s just no other way than to pay tribute to these collections while also reflecting that we’re not quite so wowed as we once were. There was a time when Universal wasn’t interested in doing anything with their animated properties but thanks to the ubiquitous Jerry Beck, he’s made Woody on DVD a must-have character again. This second hurrah for Walter Lantz’ overlooked cartoons followed up nicely to last year’s first selection, and even if the Woodpecker shorts themselves weren’t nearly as fresh or funny as the earlier films, we still had tons of other Lantz cartoons to enjoy – many for the first time – and a wealth of archived supplements. It was a final hurrah for the Looney Tunes too, with Beck back again to essentially squeeze as many real gems from the vaults on to disc before the series is retired. It’s been a heck of a ride through the WB library and while we’d all love for the series to continue, the practical considerations are understandable. That being the case, Looney Tunes Golden Collection 6 was the most collector-heavy set yet, packing in some real obscurities in pristine transfers, topped off by yet another exemplary New Wave documentary on the legendary Mel Blanc. Let’s hope more from both Woody Woodpecker and the Looney Tunes series are on the cards!
5. Sleeping Beauty: Platinum Edition
– The Nightmare Before Christmas: 15th Anniversary Collectors Edition
Walt Disney Home Entertainment (October 7, August 26 2008)
2 and 2 discs, 75 and 76 mins plus supplements, $36 and $33
What can we say? Two of the most beloved Disney catalog titles finally get the kind of decent deluxe treatment on DVD (and Blu-ray!), but why weren’t we more bowled over? The excitement over these two reissues – and the clue’s in that word – died away when we actually got a chance to look at them up close and personal. For anyone coming to these titles for the first time, we’d agree that they would more than likely be struck by the sheer amount of supplemental material on show. But for some old-timers, like us, there wasn’t very much fresh content to get our mouths watering. The same additional featurettes, TV clips, makings of, etc, were repeated in each title, much of it seen before as far back as the boxed LaserDisc editions and previous DVDs. There were some new delights; Sleeping Beauty’s Disneyland Attraction Walkthrough was genuinely spectacular, and Christopher Lee’s reading of Tim Burton’s original Nightmare Before Christmas poem a real pleasure (though that disc’s own park attraction feature failed dismally to incite any real enthusiasm). Elsewhere these sets seemed to be going through the motions, the NB4X set even failing to acknowledge the film’s 15th Anniversary and Sleeping Beauty lacking any sort of historical information or context for the majority of its bonuses, as if to confess we had seen them before and should know what we were looking at. Admittedly these were very important fan titles to debut on the Blu-ray format, where the images were truly striking and many of the extras were in hi-def for the first time, but those points aside, there wasn’t one clear cut overall winner nor either set that we felt was particularly lacking, even if Nightmare probably felt slightly more warm, magical and as if it had more care and attention lavished upon it than the sometimes cold Sleeping Beauty.
6. Walt Disney Treasures 2008
Walt Disney Home Entertainment (November 11 2008)
Three 2-disc sets, 334, 287 and 240 mins plus supplements, $33 each
With all three reviewers taking one title each in the latest wave of the popular Disney studio archive series, it was a fight to the finish to see which one would make the list. The Disney Treasures are always hot contenders for our yearly picks and as a predominantly animation focused website, it would be natural to include The Chronological Donald: Volume Four for its final wrapping up of The Duck’s animated short filmography on disc including several cartoons in their unseen for years original CinemaScope ratios plus the much requested featurette Donald In Mathmagic Land. But it was fourth time around and some bizarre supplement choices (Mouse Works television cartoons over the 1984 50th Birthday special?) didn’t quite make Donald’s last quack a full-feathered affair and it wouldn’t be right to omit the two other Treasures from this year: the long-anticipated Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh and the original Annette serial from The Mickey Mouse Club, which provide some genuinely refreshing old-fashioned entertainment. Dr Syn was robust too, offering up a solid slice of Disney live-action action and adventure in a beautifully restored presentation of the European feature film and three-part TV version. Annette was perhaps treated to the best of the supplements across all three sets, with the Syn collection especially lacking in this department for various reasons. However, as a trio, these unique additions to the Treasures line easily make for a firm entry in our list, and continue to uphold the classy quality Leonard Maltin has brought to each year’s selections.
7. Watership Down: 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
Warner Home Video (October 7 2008)
Single disc, 92 mins plus supplements, $20
Big kudos to Warner Brothers, who continue to mine their extensive library for newly deluxe presentations of some genuine classics. An often overlooked film in the animation landscape, Watership Down, from the Richard Adams novel, finally received the kind of attention in the US that it’s had in other territories. Although the disc was essentially prepared for an earlier 25th Anniversary edition that was released in the UK, the studio chose to wait until the film’s 30th birthday before bringing the content to the States, oddly then not actually marking the milestone on the sleeve’s packaging. The best edition of the film could actually be the Australian 25th Anniversary package, for its outstanding commentary track with director Martin Rosen, but this alternative selection of bonus features covers much of the same ground, with Rosen joined by prolific editor Terry (Alien, Blade Runner, Phantom Of The Opera) Rawlings and animators on the film to speak about its making in two retrospective featurettes. The theatrical trailer from Warners’ previous edition has been dropped, a worrying new trend that seems to be an undesirable company policy, but a handful of multi-angle storyboard sequences complete what is the most surprising – and welcome – reissue of the year, one that could have simply been left to gather dust. There’s no Blu-ray on the horizon (to misquote the film’s immortal Art Garfunkel theme Bright Eyes), but the hand-crafted images look cleaner than before in a very reasonably priced and respectable edition of an essential film that all should see at least once in their lives.
8. Horton Hears A Who! (1970 / 2008)
Warner Home Video, Fox Home Entertainment (March 4, December 9 2008)
Single disc and 2 discs, 26 and 86 mins plus supplements, $20 and $35
It seemed to be Horton’s year as 2008 began, with a big, bright and sparkly new computer animated movie telling of the Dr Seuss favorite arriving in theaters and a wonderful new edition of Chuck Jones’ original 1970 television take – written by Theodore “Seuss” Geisel himself – landing on DVD. Both versions stay true to the source, proclaiming that “a person’s a person, no matter how small”, and delivering unique essays on life, the universe and everything in the guise of witty and colorful entertainment. Fox’s Blue Sky feature remained very much the work of Seuss in general, even as it padded out the slim verse to accommodate the needs of a feature-length adventure: the on the road elements of the plot allowing for Horton, the elephant who hears voices emitting from a speck on a cloverleaf and decides to save the teeny civilisation he believes to be living within, to partake in some perilous adventures along the way. The rope bridge scene, replayed often in the film’s trailers, particularly displayed the Studio’s deftness in achieving a believable realisation of squash and stretch in CG, something that’s sure to look fantastic on the new Blu-ray edition. The new Horton was released just too soon to our compiling our list for us to review the two-disc set, but we can recommend Warners’ deluxe edition of the definitive Jones’ version, which packs in no less than three additional Seuss cartoons and a 90 minute documentary special on the creator himself.
9. Justice League: The New Frontier
Warner Home Video (February 26 2008)
2 discs, 75 mins plus supplements, $25
We must make some mention of the ongoing and successful direct to DVD market, where titles continued to flood out, and with Disney’s pulling back from their sequel ambitions, it looks like Warner Bros, with a healthy selection of live-action disc premieres, is set to fill the gap. Most praise must go to their animated DC Universe line, which had something of a shaky start with Superman: Doomsday but gained traction this year with this Justice League feature and Batman: Gotham Knight, plugging into the hype surrounding The Dark Knight release. Big things are hoped for in Wonder Woman, coming early 2009, but still best of the bunch in many eyes is The New Frontier, which managed to successfully translate its graphic novel origins to the screen in style, retaining the action we’ve come to expect from such superhero fare, but not omitting the seriously minded drama and historically informed plot points, a story set in a 1950s America gripped in the threat of communism that eventually sees the formation of the formidable fighting ensemble. Coming to homes in two-disc and Blu-ray flavors, the title was treated to a wealth of supplements of the kind usually reserved for major theatrical fare, including two lengthy documentaries and two audio commentaries. For those with the players, the Blu is the way to go, for a handful of additional Justice League episodes in their intended widescreen framing (the DVD presents them in fullscreen only).
10. Tiny Toon Adventures: Volume 1
– Freakazoid! The Complete Season 1
Warner Home Video (July 29 2008)
4 discs and 2 discs, 767 and 300 mins plus supplements, $45 and $27
Yes! Two of the most requested television animation series of recent times finally make their debuts on disc! The first collaboration between Warner Bros. Animation and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment may well have been an attempt to cash in on the revitalised classic cartoon craze kick-started by Who Framed Roger Rabbit but it ended up being an influential and fondly remembered show in its own right, creating stars out of the likes of Buster and Babs Bunny (no relation!), paying tribute to the Brothers Warner’s own classic Hollywood and Looney Tunes past and setting up the kind of furious humor that later be perfected future offerings such as – hey! – Freakazoid!, which arrived on disc the same day. With the (majority of the) Animaniacs’ lunacy already covered on DVD, demand for these two shows was high, and WB delivered on their promise to treat both programs well: each set were multi-disc affairs and didn’t attempt to cram in the amount of content that the three-hour-plus Disney discs try, and fail, to get away with. Tiny Toons perhaps looked its age, unfortunately a remnant of being mastered to standard definition composite videotape, but the show’s ultra-sharp parody and spoofing came through clear and subtle as an anvil as ever. Freakazoid! looked even better, almost as good as a digital transfer in fact, and both sets were complimented with Warners’ customarily succinct retrospective documentaries. Many fans were ecstatic – more please!
Disney’s Platinum line hit a high spot with its deluxe edition of One Hundred And One Dalmatians, Walt’s original 1961 animated feature that introduced the world to the brilliantly twisted Cruella DeVil. This two-disc set presented the movie in a terrifically restored digital print that put right everything that was wrong about some of the other Platinum restorations, offering up a pin-sharp image and layered new soundtrack mix that stayed true to the original intentions. If anything, One Hundred And One Dalmatians might well have been a substitute for Sleeping Beauty in our final list, but that film’s availability on Blu-ray secured its spot, and Dalmatians failed to present the film in both original fullscreen and its masked theatrical ratio, opting just for the open matte negative framing. Attempting to provide a villain as scary as Cruella, Susan Sarandon was a highlight of Enchanted, the Studio’s post-modern update of their famous fairytales, with enchanting princess Amy Adams the discovery of the year. The film was a real highlight of 2007, though its 2008 DVD and BD were lacklustre affairs: no commentary and only a handful of token featurettes; a double-dip is undoubtedly on the way, unfortunately prohibiting our enthusiastic recommendation for the current edition.
One of the most surprising hybrid highlights of the year just had to be the live-action Speed Racer movie from the Wachowski Brothers. A heap of eye candy, color, music and perfect sound effects, it all came together beautifully, with an underrated plot that was as simple as it needed to be to support all the visual fireworks and unexpectedly solid performances that gave the movie real heart. It’s another that almost made our final list, but the film’s shockingly lacklustre box office meant no ultra-packed edition, leaving the film to shine on its own – which it certainly did on Blu-ray, as James further attests below. A real gem, happily Speed Racer gained good critical praise and looks to be one of those films audiences are discovering on home video. The film was, of course, based on Tatsuo Yoshida’s 1960s Japanimated program, which after years of trickles of best ofs and other compilations, finally came to DVD in a six-disc Speed Racer: The Complete Series package, a very cool edition that came bundled in a recreation of Speed’s legendary Mach 5 race car. Other classic 1960s animated adventurers made their mark in the DC Super Heroes: Filmation collection, which grouped together some of the disparate segments from such shows as The Superman/Aquaman Hour for heaps of nostalgic fun. The aim to retain the original elements’ grainy look may have meant the spreading of content to two discs to cut back on compression, but otherwise the two-hour running time didn’t warrant a second disc, though the inclusion of a lengthy documentary on Filmation founder Lou Schiemer was a fantastic bonus.
The Hanna-Barbera library may be feeling a little thin on the ground, though even titles like Richie Rich and The Smurfs remain popular draws for their fans. A highlight this year had to be the re-packaging of all six seasons of the Studio’s groundbreaking hit show The Flintstones, following the still fairly new trend of bundling individual season sets of popular shows in catch-all presentation boxes. Warner has been leading the way on these for a while, with exclusive sets on The Man From UNCLE and Get Smart proving to be big sellers. Animation was sure to follow and The Flintstones gained kudos for providing all six seasons in one package at a reduced price, even if the box itself proved a little cumbersome. Better was Warners’ own Batman: The Animated Series, combining its season discs with an added bonus platter and a lavishly illustrated brochure in some impressively imposing packaging. For those with that content already there was little reason to upgrade, but Warners also surprised by bringing a little Hanna-Barbera goodness our way: their first theatrical animated film, the 1964 Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear, and the 1966 series finale The Man Called Flintstone, which wasn’t included in the big box and had been previously available in Canada but finally saw its official US release on DVD. Yabba-dabba-doo!
The Un-Mentionables: Worst Of 2008
We’ve perhaps suggested that 2008 wasn’t the greatest year for animation on DVD, but there were a lot of authentically good releases even if few of them truly knocked out socks off. On the other end of the scale, however, there were also some genuinely sad spots on the schedules too. For various reasons, these are the ones that stood us as “must-avoids” to us:
Staying with the House Of Mouse and by far their most lamentable release this year had to be The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning. The very unexpectedly well crafted Cinderella: A Twist In Time actually made our top picks last year, sneaking in at number nine in a very crowded group, and after the abysmal Little Mermaid II, just reissued on DVD, the word was that the DisneyTooners were out to banish that attempt to memory and would create a third film that would do Ariel justice and equal Cinders’ final outing. That Ariel’s Beginning could even be considered as being one of the better of the direct to video films is frankly laughable: the movie is everything that the term “cheapquel” defined, even failing to entertain its target audience at its Comic-Con premiere earlier in the year or those who sat and endured it for our review. From the choice of choreographer as animation director to some very ill-defined characters, both in terms of personality and design, Ariel’s Beginning is the reason we should be thankful that John Lasseter shut the sequel unit down.
Best Non-Animated DVD Of The Year
With Blu-ray Disc making its presence felt in the number of catalog titles that got upgrades, it was an opportunity for the Studios to reissue those newly enhanced versions on DVD again too, though often ridiculously holding back content that could easily have been included in both editions. The whole point of the BD is the superior picture and sound – surely this is what should be luring buyers to the format, not because it has an extra deleted scene or added featurette attached. Granted the technology allows for more bells and whistles, but those still collecting regular DVDs are essentially being short swindled. That said, there actually wasn’t all that much to entice us away from the animated field this year, though we’ve knocked out heads together to make our picks…
As mentioned, this year saw a lot of double dipping in both bringing “new” titles to Blu-ray and providing a chance for the Studios to reissue those same titles in updated regular DVD sets. One genuine catalog title that made a stunning show on disc this year was Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, a long cherished film among true movie buffs but one that has rarely been recognised by general audiences since it crashed and burned back in 1987. Previously released on LaserDisc as part of The Criterion Collection, Sony’s original DVD included nothing on the film’s fight to be made and the fallout after its release. The refurbishment for its Blu-ray release offered the chance to revisit the making of the film, with Constantine Nasr’s standout documentary on these trials and tribulations perhaps the supplement of the year: brutally honest and frank about the production. Elsewhere, we saw decent new editions of Casablanca, the complete Dirty Harry oeuvre and a masterfully cleaned up How The West Was Won, uniquely with its Cinerama frame lines digitally removed – we can only hope The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm, with George Pal’s amazing Puppetoon animation, is next!
But when it came to live-action releases, I found myself scratching my head for a definitive choice: most releases were either rehashes of what I already had on my shelves, or titles that appealed but didn’t jump out or feel like particular must haves. I was very tempted to go for the Speed Racer movie but as it’s being mentioned elsewhere in this review – which I’m very glad about – I’ve eventually plopped for the live-action feature film that I most enjoyed this year, Tim Burton’s succinct and deliciously dark telling of the demon barber of old London town story, Sweeney Todd, a wonderful screen adaptation of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical. There were some that bemoaned the fact they didn’t realised it was going to be full of songs: philistines! I agree that co-producers Warner Bros. and DreamWorks didn’t exactly over promote this aspect, but didn’t those people bother to pick out the singing in the trailers or clips presented on television!? Providing those layered vocals as the man himself was Burton’s frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, having some black fun outside his pirate adventures, backed up by Mrs Burton, Helena Bonham Carter, who stepped into the shoes left by Angela Lansbury on the stage and acquitting herself very well.
This was a movie about the personalities and their backstories more than any finesse in the song performances, though I didn’t find any issues in the vocal department in the entire cast, which also featured Sacha Baron Cohen as Todd’s suspicious rival, a brilliantly repellent Timothy Spall, and a boo-hiss villain in Alan Rickman, perhaps the one straining most with the tunes but being scary enough not to want to bring this up with him. Beautifully designed, the film’s very dark and twisted humor won’t be for everyone, and the bloodletting in the closing act is as theatrically forceful as it is intentionally overplayed, but one couldn’t have wished for a better trio of Burton, Depp and Sondheim to bring this deliriously good adaptation to the screen. DreamWorks’ two-disc DVD edition presented the movie with a fine roster of supplements, though the Blu-ray Disc release is obviously the way to go to really find yourself immersed in Burton’s richly scraped out world. Real fans may want to create their own multi-disc special edition experience and add the deluxe slipcase packaged motion picture soundtrack from Nonesuch Records, which includes the full recording as well as an 80-page booklet featuring stills, liner notes and complete lyrics. Go on…how about a shave?
Last year was a tough year to pick a single outstanding live action DVD release, as there were many terrific discs that came out. Still, I think we did well to honor both Blade Runner and The Jazz Singer, both amazing releases. This year, however, our job is more difficult due to the lack of standout live action releases. Sure, there were plenty of good ones, but not too many really great ones. A few favorite films got nice reissues, after getting by for years with relatively lacking single disc releases. How nice it was to see better editions come out for such films as Baron Munchausen, Young Frankenstein and Batman: The Movie on Blu-ray, as well as similar upgrades for Ray Harryhausen’s films including Sinbad.
I mulled over all of these for my pick of the year. Still, as nice as the new editions were, there was nothing about them that sent them over the top, nothing to make movie geeks really cheer. I considered going maverick and picking Abbott And Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection, with its beautiful packaging and the inclusion of a high-quality book commemorating one of my favorite comedy teams, but the discs themselves, though containing over two dozen films, were simple reissues of existing material. It was a nice set to be sure, but with no new disc-based material, it seemed inappropriate to choose it as best of the year. Even The Godfather Collection, though it held some new bonus material and much-improved transfers, didn’t really make my inner geek more than quite interested. It also seems too easy to pick The Dark Knight or Iron Man; though certainly they were great films and had nice DVDs, it hardly qualifies one as a movie buff to select a recent blockbuster.
For my DVD Of The Year pick, I almost went with Dark City: Director’s Cut. This cult classic finally saw its original version (prior to studio tampering) make it to disc, with some new bonuses, but the package was still not overwhelming. L.A. Confidential got a much-appreciated beefed-up bonus package, but this too didn’t quite make the cut. Ultimately, I had to go with the Blu-ray set of Planet Of The Apes: 40 Year Evolution. The film series is a classic, and this set came in some of the nicest packaging I’ve ever seen. I didn’t care for how the discs were held by rubber buttons, but everything else about the set screams quality. Aside from a sturdy and well-designed box, there is a beautiful hardcover book about the series. The discs themselves sport good transfers and lossless sound, two of the movies have extended versions available, and there are a bevy of extras old and new. My inner geek found heaven in this set, and that makes it my pick of the year.
High Definition Animated Highlights
Last year in our high definition wrap up, James wrote that “2007 will be looked back upon as the year that HD video discs really took off”. If that was the case, then 2008 could be looked at as the year that HD became the norm. While last year we all looked forward to which films would get a hi-def release, this year it would have been news if a film didn’t get released in HD. Here, James presents three highlights from a great year for animation in high definition:
The ending of the hi-def war was the event of the year in HD. Looking at last year’s list of HD disc releases showed that Blu-ray was all but the de facto animation standard – except for one pretty big player! With DreamWorks finally moving to the Blu-ray camp animation fans no longer had to worry about formats or obsolescence. The emergence of Digital Copy discs featuring downloadable file versions of select movies was also a bonus to those who like to enjoy their movies on the move.
Several discs this year put new spins on the old standard DVD feature, commentary tracks. With new capabilities provided for in players that are compliant with the Blu-ray Final Standard Profile, commentaries can now take advantage of picture-in-picture video. The first Futurama movie in HD, Bender’s Game, lets you listen to and watch the commentary as you watch the film. Last year Disney introduced “Cine-Explore” which combined traditional audio commentaries with photos and artwork. This year Cine-Explore adds video: while watching the Sleeping Beauty BD you can also see John Lasseter, Leonard Maltin, and Andreas Deja doing the commentary. Taking it a step further, they also cut away to video clips of some of those who worked on the movie — all while the film plays in the background.
Besides a commentary with writer/director Andrew Stanton, the WALL-E BD features a second commentary called the Geek Track. While in silhouette, a la MST3K, Pixar’s Bill Wise, Lindsey Collins, Derek Thompson and Angus MacLane discuss the film from a geek perspective, riffing on pop-culture, sci-fi, trivia, inside jokes, and all sorts of related and unrelated minutia! For example, the very first comment made, as the film opens with a song from Hello Dolly!, is “There would never be any singing in space — you would never hear this” to which one of the others replies “In space no one can hear you sing”! Very fun stuff. While not strictly a speaking commentary, Horton Hears A Who! features a track for the kids: “Watch Horton Hears A Who! with a Who”. With this enabled you can watch the film with one of the characters in the film, who pops up in a picture-in-picture window to watch along, comment, and even ask questions that require remote button presses.
2008 On The Big Screen: The Theatrical Toon Review
We just heard James announce that Speed Racer was “the most fun” he had at the theater this year, but what of the animated features the Studios had to offer? This was the year when all of the major names made major waves in the animated feature market, with Pixar wowing all with WALL-E, DreamWorks surprising us completely with Kung Fu Panda, Blue Sky’s Horton Hears A Who! overcoming some early animosity to shine brightly, Disney bouncing back with Bolt and the independents striking with a host of hotly tipped award contenders. But what stuck James as the top three enduring hits of the year?
Disney/Pixar (June 27 2008)
Director: Andrew Stanton
Once again Pixar easily has the best animated film of the year – and according to some, the best picture of the year period! WALL-E proves that with the right talent (and willing management!) you don’t need such customary film conventions as…words! Great animation, memorable characters, and a spectacular score all in service to a masterfully told story made WALL-E a unique movie-going experience. No one can compete when Pixar is firing on all cylinders like this.
2. Kung Fu Panda
DreamWorks (June 6 2008)
Directors: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
DreamWorks takes all the pieces of a great animated film and successfully melds them with the things that make their films distinct to create their best work yet in Kung Fu Panda. The animation is extremely exciting. Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman shine in their roles. And the story has real depth and emotion without being weighed down by them. All that and it’s a lot of fun too!
Fathom Studios (December 12 2008)
Directors: Marc F. Adler and Jason Maurer
This really is a toss-up between Bolt, Horton Hears A Who! and Delgo. Each film deserves the spot for different reasons: Bolt is the most polished and has the most heart of the three; Horton is without question the most fun animated film of the year. But in the end I decided to go with the film that was completely different from the usual Hollywood fare. With an epic plot, exotic locations, and unconventional character designs, Delgo looks and feels like nothing we’ve seen from an animated film in a long time.
(Note: Waltz With Bashir and $9.99 did not open widely in time for consideration.)
Overall Highlight Of The Year: Comic-Con 2008
The lure of the huge Comic-Con geeks’ convention in San Diego was the catalyst that set us all off on our trip, and bringing our other halves (and Rand’s daughter!) along gave it a real family feeling. We certainly cemented our firm friendships during our packed week together, which culminated in a three-day visit to Disneyland (well, we were in the neighborhood)! Nothing could beat the wonderful experience we all had meeting up this year, but hopefully it won’t be the vacation of a lifetime: we plan to do it all again in another five years!
Well, there we go! Not a truly banner year by anyone’s standards, but we got more of what we expected in very nicely presented packages, and new editions of some much-loved classics, while Blu-ray truly started to settle in as the format of choice, offering up debuts of some important catalog titles in wonderful editions that didn’t exactly set things on fire but provided perfectly formed presentations of those films. Next year promises even more: The Real Ghostbusters megaset, which has just been announced for a wide retail release, has already gotten us excited, and we should be seeing the Beetlejuice animated series coming to disc too.
As for animation, it looks like another high flying year, with all the majors pulling big time crowd-pleasers out of their hats: Disney/Pixar’s Up, DreamWorks’ Monsters Vs. Aliens, Miyazaki’s Ponyo On The Cliff, a return for the Ice Age gang from Blue Sky, plus a number of anticipated independents (Coraline, 9) and, of course, Disney’s finding its roots again with John Musker and Ron Clements’ The Princess And The Frog.
On DVD, don’t forget that the Walt Disney Treasures are set to continue as well, with at least three more volumes to come. What would we like to see? Some more specials and featurettes would be nice, and the long-rumored A Disney Education would be fantastic, as well as the already semi-confirmed Zorro collection. Of course the list of Blu-rays will continue to grow, just as our libraries are sure to follow. And we’ll be here each step of the way to attempt to cover just as much as we can with our customarily in-depth reviews at Animated News & Views – see you next year!
– Ben Simon, Rand Cyrenne, James R Whitson and Rodney Figueiredo.