Walt Does Blu-ray
By Jim Bray
Walt Disney was always an innovator, and he'd undoubtedly be proud of how the company he founded has helped push the boundaries of home entertainment just like he pushed the boundaries of movies and theme parks.
Walt might especially applaud Disney's embrace of the DVD format. While some might argue it's more of an exploitation than an embrace, considering the many titles and "sequels" now made for the home video market specifically, but the studio has also been very good about offering theatrical titles which include far more "value added" stuff than merely straightforward transfers from film to disc. Again, one can argue about the quality or relevance of this stuff, but at least they're trying to give consumers some bang for the buck - and it's hard to argue that the audio and video quality of their releases, generally, is first rate.
It's certainly a far cry from the company that fought the home video revolution tooth and nail when videocassettes first reared their beautiful heads back in the 1970's and Disney (though not alone) went so far as to sue Sony for having had the audacity of inventing the betamax VCR that kicked off the revolution and, ironically, allowed the movie studios to make huge profits over the ensuing decades.
Indeed, Disney has done very well from the video revolution - and to its credit the studio has released many fine DVD's that have allowed consumers to exploit home theater technology to its best. So it's no surprise to see Walt's successors jumping into the new high definition market with both feet, helping give consumers a reason to jump in after them and adding Disney's considerable clout to a Blu-ray camp that has now won the high definition disc format war.
At our request, Disney's people sent TechnoFile a selection of Blu-ray discs we chose as being representative of their offerings since the format debuted. They run the gamut from live action adventure to, well, animated adventure, mostly - just the type of imaginative movie that, if done right, can showcase the high definition disc format to its best.
How did they do? Not surprisingly, some releases are better than others, and it seems as if the more recent titles have in general been more pleasing to the eyes and ears than earlier ones.
We auditioned the Blu-rays, as we do for all our reviews, on a 106 inch Da-Lite High Contrast Matte White Designer Cinema screen fed by an Epson Powerlite Pro Cinema 1080 front projector and with a Sony PS3 as our Blu-ray source. Audio was courtesy of a 5.1 system of Definitive Technology speakers augmented by an M&K subwoofer fed by a Rotel RSP-1069 preamp/processor connected to two RB-1092 stereo and one RB-1091 mono 500 watt per channel Class D amplifiers. The PS3 was connected to the preamp/processor and the projector via HDMI.
Here is TechnoFile's look at our first Disney Blu-ray titles.
Dinosaur on Blu-ray disc
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Dinosaur was one of Disney's first Blu-ray releases, and it shows. While it's still a treat for the eyes and ears, it doesn't come close to the company's best Blu-ray efforts so far - and that's a shame because this CG film should be absolutely spectactular.
The story is typical Disney, though definitely not up to the standards of the studio's greatest "talking animal" animated adventures such as Bambi, Dumbo, Little Mermaid, etc. It follows a young orphan dinosaur named Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney) and his adopted family of lemurs (how's that for a lesson in diversity?) after a comet hits the earth and forces them to flee their homeland and search out a safer place to live.
Along the way they come across other dinosaurs, the first ones Aladar has ever met, and they join them in their quest to find the breeding grounds the herd hopes have survived the climate change caused by the "falling star" (What? People didn't cause the climate change? Boy, did Disney miss an opportunity to push an agenda here!). It's a diverse group of dinosaurs, from large to small and young to old, led by a curmudgeon named Kron (Samuel E. Wright, who also voiced Sebastian the crab in "Mermaid") who's trying to save as many of his charges as possible, which means he's willing to sacrifice the old, weak and/or slow for "the greater good."
It's anything but subtle, but it's also fairly enjoyable.
Its best points are the visuals, which feature spectacular landscapes and herds of dinosaurs that should look wonderful on a home theater screen, and it has a great 5.1 soundtrack with a stirring (though a tad derivative) musical score that gives a good workout for the speakers as dinosaurs thump across the landscape (and don't forget the spectacular asteroid sequence!). It's a treat for the eyes and ears and I was dying to see it in 1080p and with an uncompressed soundtrack.
Unfortunately, the Blu-ray transfer is disappointing. Oh, it's undoubtedly better than watching a DVD, even up converted (and I remember being quite impressed by the original DVD release), but the picture is soft overall, nowhere near the razor sharpness we've come to know and love from many other Blu-ray releases, including some of Disney's. That, and colors that are more muted than we'd expected, contribute to a picture that just doesn't leap off the screen at you.
That said, it's virtually noise-free, but that isn't good enough to make us salivate with the delight we'd been anticipating.
Ditto for the audio. Disney does offer an uncompressed, 48kHz/24-bit PCM 5.1 surround track, and it features a good mix, but it doesn't get the ol' heart a-pounding the way it should. To be fair, there's no distortion or clipping, but it just doesn't seem "alive" and doesn't fill the room as much as it could. The comet sequence, for example, should have the audience members reaching for each other for comfort and safety and should feature awesome rumbling that could peel the wall paper or have then neighbors complaining, but at our normal listening volume this didn't happen nearly as much as we, well, hoped it would.
There's also an optional standard dts 5.1 surround track, but the PCM version's better, as usual.
Extras are also fairly restrained. While the two disc DVD had plenty of nifty stuff to keep you occupied for hours, the Blu-ray is more like a fairly Spartan DVD release. The main extra is an audio commentary with the co-directors, Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag, joined by the two effects supervisors. It's pretty good, though.
You also get an inside look at the comet scene, which is a nice treat, and a "Blu-Scape" short that appears to be a travelog-like look at the movie's locations. It does look neat in 1080p, though.
Other than that, there's a "Movie Showcase" that gives you direct access to scenes the producers have deemed as showcasing "the ultimate in high-definition picture and sound." There are three scenes, which are also accessible via the chapter stops. While it's nice to see Disney promoting the quality of high definition, and these scenes would probably make good demo material in stores if it were better, why wouldn't the whole movie be such a showcase?
I hope there'll be another release down the road that'll offer better picture and sound (assuming the original source is better!), but that would come as small consolation to those who plunked down hard-earned after-tax dollars on this version.
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.