A Renaissance of Animated Filmmaking
Recent Animated Films on DVD/Blu-ray

Ricky Grove Reviews Some Recently Released Animated Films on DVD/Blu-ray

We are in a renaissance of animated filmmaking. With recent films like Avatar and UP packing the movie theaters, to small, beautifully crafted short 3D films like Skhizein, access to these films has never been better. Plus, with prices of Blu-ray players falling and the increased production of Blu-ray discs, you can watch these amazing films in high definition, which, for digital animation, is a near perfect transfer from the original film.

Over the last several months, I've been collecting animated films on DVD/Blu-ray and I want to share some of the best ones with you in this article. While I won't go into detail on Blu-ray or how to set your self up with a player for your LCD TV or computer monitor, there are numerous sites that can help you out. And for current releases, try Dvdbeaver.com and Dvdtalk.com.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production: Studio Ghibli
Video: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

2 Discs: Region Free, Blu-ray + Standard Definition
Video: Runtime 1:42:54.951, Resolution: 1080p
Audio: Original Japanese, English, French
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, none.
Release date: March 2, 2010

Directed by the world's foremost animation director, Hayao Miyazaki, this film is the first appearance in a Blu-ray format for any of his films to date. In August of 2009, Disney released this wonderful film to more theaters (927) than any previous Miyazaki film in the US. The publicity-shy director actually flew in from Japan for the San Diego Comic Con to premiere and promote the film. Successful and highly regarded, Disney made a smart decision to release the film on Blu-ray, along with several earlier films (Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky) in standard DVD format with supplements.

Ponyo (for short) is Miyazaki's 10th film, and while some consider it not as good as his earlier works, I beg to differ, especially after watching this amazing Blu-ray version. Very slightly based on the “Little Mermaid” story from Hans Christian Anderson, Miyazaki chose to go back to the hand-drawn tradition of his earlier films, which gives the film a slightly “antique” look, like early Disney. Miyazaki has always been very closely involved with his films (see my Renderosity review of his book Starting Point for more info) and completed many of the drawings of the sea and waves in Ponyo himself.

The Blu-ray image is jaw-dropping in clarity and depth. It's the next best thing to seeing the film in the Theater, especially if you have a large LCD monitor. Reproduction of color is amazing. Color contrast in a Miyazaki film is always beautiful and this disc gets it perfectly. High praise to Disney for production of the video. The audio, however, leaves something to be desired. Disney chose to only produce the English dub in a high quality lossless format, but left the Japanese version in a standard audio format. The Dub version is one of the best Disney has done with a Miyazaki film with Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Liam Neeson starring, but the lesser audio quality is noticeable and unfortunate, especially since the original Japanese language performances are better. And it is especially galling after a 3 minute intro to the film from Disney that proclaims Miyazaki as a “master filmmaker.” If so, why cheap out on a disc like this?

There are many excellent extras though, that soften the audio snafu. In addition to an extra disc with the film on Standard video, there is a superb interactive “World of Studio Ghibli,” which covers several of his other wonderful films released on Standard DVD along with Ponyo. There are also short documentaries on various aspects of production, including a wonderful extra which allows you to see the original sketches for scenes in small window while you are watching the film.

Ponyo is one of Miyazaki's best, with a story that encompasses the concerns of adults and children at the same time. Visually beautiful, and with a brilliant score by long-time collaborator, Joe Hisashi, this Blu-ray disc is superb. Now, if you've never seen a Miyazaki film, you might want to consider starting with his film Totoro, but if you know and love his films, Ponyo is a great motivation to upgrade to Blu-ray, as this disc is the kind of thing you can invite friends over to show off. It's really that good.

Toy Story/Toy Story 2

Director: John Lasseter
Production: Pixar Animation Studios
Video: Walt Disney Pictures

Special Edition Combo pack, Region Free, Blu-ray
Video runtime: TS 1:21:03, TS2 1:32:23, Resolution: 1080p
Audio: English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Release Date: March 23, 2010

The real heir to Disney's brilliant pre-war films, like Bambi and Sleeping Beauty, is Toy Story. It's also the start of an entire generation of 3D animated films created by the very same people who developed the actual software tools that made these films possible. Hard to believe that Toy Story was created with crossed fingers by Pixar and Disney producers. No one knew how this new type of film would be received, and there was a certain amount of risk involved. Of course, with people like director John Lasseter and writer Josh Whedon involved, it's hard to imagine the film not being a good one as these artists are almost without peer in the industry.

Well, Toy Story and it's even better Toy Story 2, were huge hits and helped create the renaissance in animation I mentioned earlier. These special Blu-ray versions are the first to appear in HD of any Pixar films. And, if it's possible, the discs are even better than the previous Ponyo in Blu-ray. It looks like every single pixel from the original film is perfectly reproduced. The colors are bold, but not strident, which adds so much clarity in the images that the film almost looks like it was released in 3D. Both films are magnificent visually, and make for highly entertaining viewing.

The HD audio master is equally remarkable, with Randy Newman's great music stand out. I was also highly impressed with the sound editing in the film, and if you listen to the film with headphones (or on a high-def audio sytem), you'll hear details that you probably missed in its theatrical run. The voice performances are top-notch as well. Tom Hanks gives one of his absolute best performances and is equally matched by Tim Allen, Wallace Shawn and Don Rickles.

The Blu-ray disc comes with many excellent extras, including a glimpse of a Macy's day Toy Story balloon, and many excellent behind the scenes vignettes. Some great audio commentary, too, with director John Lassiter and many other members of the team. This is true for both films, the original and the sequel.

My only caveat is a personal one, although I'm in the minority here, but I tend to prefer the story telling of Miyazaki who tends to take more risks with his stories than Pixar does, being bound to a somewhat dubious story structure from Robert McKee. I think they tend to emphasize too much sentimentality, but the emotional impact is there with sentiment, and Toy Story certainly appeals to a very wide range of people.

I'd recommend picking up both Blu-ray disks, which are still being offered at special discounts if you do some shopping. And, each special edition comes with an exact copy of the Blu-ray disc only in standard definition, so you can watch this version even if you don't have a Blu-ray player, but are thinking of upgrading at some point. Smart move, Disney.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Directed by Wes Anderson
Production: 20th Century Fox
Video: 20th Century Fox

3 Discs: Region A locked
Running Time: 1:26:44, Resolution: 1080p
Audio: English HD, Portuguese, French, Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Chinese, Portuguese, French, Spanish, none
Release Date: March 23, 2010

Stop-motion is slowly becoming a bit obsolete for mainstream animation. Mostly because it takes an enormous amount of production time, but also because the artistic tradition of these kinds of films is not as current as other forms. Many of the great stop-motion filmmakers are in Eastern Europe or Russia. So, I'm always glad to see a major studio take on a stop-motion film like the Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Adapted in a very witty fashion by Wes Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox is from an equally dry and funny novel by author Roald Dahl.

There were some production quirks in the making of this film (Anderson never visited the set, but directed essentially via email/video from another location), which leads me to believe the film might not turn out as well as hoped, but I was very glad to discover that Mr. Anderson's work is some of the best of his career. Refusing to direct the film as a “traditional” stop-motion, he insisted that the camera film the story in a very cinematic fashion, leading to a wonderful visual style. This, in turn, gives the stop-motion characters a depth and believability that you don't often find in this type of film.

The Blu-ray image is, as usual, absolutely splendid. Mr. Anderson does a wonderful job of creating mood using color throughout the film, and in HD the image is so crisp and bright, it pops off the screen.

The design of the film (especially model-making) is nothing short of remarkable. The fur on the animals is some of the best I've ever seen in a film. Plus, the buildings and backgrounds are impeccably detailed. You can sense some of Mr. Anderson's hand in these details, and after watching many of the excellent behind-the-scenes documentaries, it's pretty clear that he was probably more involved than most animation directors with this film. I take my hat off to him.

The only disappointment in the Blu-ray package is a lack of commentary track from Mr. Anderson, but it's replaced by a well done “Making of” doc that runs almost 45 minutes. And, there's an extra disc with a digital copy of the film (not sure why). Oh, and the music from the film is well covered. Mr. Anderson is prone to lay on a variety of music styles, and Mr. Fox is no exception. Very well done and a highly recommended Blu-ray release.

Additional Recommendations

I can't go into detail here, as this article would be much too long, but there are several other recent DVD animation releases that I want to recommend; some in Blu-ray and some in Standard Video. Here is the list, just click on the title for more info:

UP, a Pixar film directed by Pete Docter. Academy award winner and superb DVD production.

Skhizein, a short film directed by Jeremy Clapin. Beautiful indie DVD production.

Dumbo, a classic Disney film on Blu-ray directed by Ben Sharpsteen.

Stash 67, a monthly DVD magazine of great animation. Note: they are about to move online for a lot of their content, so it's worth taking a look taking a look even if you don't want to get a monthly DVD.

**Be sure to comment and let us know your favorite animation releases!


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Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
April 12, 2010

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Member Opinions:
By: hauksdottir on 4/12/10
I am perhaps the only person on the planet who hates Toy Story... but maybe not.

As a woman, I'm sick and tired of stories for boys and boys-who-never-grew-up. Miyazaki is one of the very few story-tellers to feature a female protagonist, and he is successful at it. What has Pixar delivered? 10 of 10 with male protagonists, and 4 more in production. ptui! Despite 15 years experience as an animator, I was never tempted to walk the mile down to Pixar and apply, but I'd be tempted to swim to Studio Ghibli.

When you are telling a story with sequential images, from the Bayeux Tapestry to the latest IMAX3D immersion, the story is of paramount importance. Why insult, belittle, and ignore half of your potential audience?

By: gToon on 4/15/10
I tend to agree with you about the Pixar approach in Toy Story and many other films. Miyazaki's approach is more mature and contemporary which is why I admire his work so much. However, Toy Story and other Pixar are hugely popular and it would be a disservice to those people who enjoy this film not to include in in the review.

But your points are well made. Thank you.

-Ricky


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