Disney jumps into 4K disc market with a bang
By Jim Bray
Disney's first two 4K disc titles, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean Volume 5 are welcome additions to the burgeoning 4K title library, though one is much better than the other as both a home video presentation and as a movie.
Still, it's nice to see Disney stepping up to the 4K world. The company may be many things, but stupid it is not. And it knows how to make money.
But there was a time when the company misunderestimated the marketplace so badly that it ended up suing a tech company for having the audacity to create a new technology! That was after Sony introduced the Betamax, ushering in the home video age - and Disney (and some other studios, if I remember correctly) sued them, ostensibly because they thought they'd lose a pile of money due to piracy, home taping, whatever. It made no sense then and looking back on it now (and considering the percentage of its income Hollywood makes from video releases these days) Disney looks pretty silly.
To the company's credit, however, once the Disney folks came to their senses they learned to exploit home video really well - and (at least when it comes to DVD's and Blu-rays) have released a string of video products that have traditionally offered outstanding audio and video quality and plenty of supplementary materials. I've been a fan of Disney discs for a long time and to this day use some of them as reference titles when reviewing audio/video equipment.
One of those reference discs is the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, which also just happens to have become one of my "desert island discs." I love GG1 and the Blu-ray's picture is so good it's one of the first discs I turn to when reviewing. It looks great up converted to 4K, too - so much so that I'm not sure how much better a real 4K version could be. Not that I wouldn't want to try it, especially with High Dynamic Range!
Needless to say, when Disney announced they'd kick off their 4K disc inventory with Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, I began drooling in anticipation. And it was justified drool: not only is GG2 a terrific film in its own right, it's a splendid example of the 4K UHD species. And while I don't think it's quite as good as the original (I have a weakness for origin stories) it's close enough; it's fun, packed with action, and offers the kind of state-of-the-art special effects we've come to know and love even in movies that suck otherwise.
Guardians, Volume 2, picks up a few months after the first movie ends. We don't really know how long, exactly, but it doesn't matter. The Guardians are now a gang of galactic mercenaries, a kind of family unit, doing work for whoever's willing to pay them. After an opening credits sequence that see them fighting a tentacled monster while Groot (still a baby) grooves, they manage to(mostly) protect the precious batteries of the golden Sovereign people and are rewarded not with gold or cash but with the captured Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora's (Zoe Saldana) kind of sister.
Alas, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals some of the batteries - because he can - which pits the Sovereigns and their really cool fleet of remotely controlled drone fighters against them and it looks like the multitude of little ships may be more than the single Guardians ship can handle. Ah, but then some mysterious guy shows up and blows away the fleet, saving Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his little group of friends (which also includes Dax, played by Dave Bautista, and Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel) to fight or guard or steal, another day.
But who's the guy? As GG fans undoubtedly know by now, it's Quill's mysterious and long-lost Dad, Ego (played with exuberance by Kurt Russell), who's been searching for his son for many years and, thanks to the events of the first movie, was finally able to track him down. He's a kind of "small g" god and promises immortality and power to Peter.
Naturally, there's more to Ego than meets the eye and there's where I'll stop describing the plot. I will say, however, that I laughed nearly as much at this movie as I did the first - and I even got misty-eyed at the end. It's a bigger movie than the first, which I had doubted was possible given GG1's grand scale, yet it doesn't get bogged down with its grandeur.
There are a few short instances of the movie taking itself a tad seriously, or at least threatening to lose its razor sharp focus, but they're few and quick and easy to forgive.
If you enjoyed the golden oldies from the first movie, you'll probably love this one, too. I was particularly thrilled to hear my favourite Cat Stevens song at the end, and it fits this film beautifully.
Disney's Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, UHD disc comes packed with the Blu-ray version and a download code, and for some reason Disney has chosen to label the Canadian release with French first, which is like the U.S. version favouring Spanish over English.
I watched the 4K disc and then spot checked some of my favourite scenes in 1080p thanks to the conventional Blu-ray. Guess which I preferred….
The 4K version, besides being at the UHD format's 3840x2160 pixels, features High Dynamic Range (HDR) - which gives a brighter picture with deeper colours. And what picture and sound! The Blu-ray looks terrific, but the 4K HDR treatment ups that ante wonderfully. Colours are indeed noticeably richer, and detail is improved as well. You can really notice the upgrade when you look at the various "non-white" characters' skin, particularly Yondu's (Michael Rooker), Nebula's and, even more spectacularly, the designs on Drax' body. Ditto for fabrics, space ships, you name it. It's a great treat for your eyes, especially considering the gorgeous locations created for the film.
Audio is Dolby Atmos, which is backwards compatible to most humans' equipment, and it sounds great. It's also as big and bombastic as the movie - and the video presentation - and will give your home theatre good workout. All channels are made good use of in this audio immersion in Marvel's universe.
There are some interesting bonus features on the Blu-ray, though I wanted to learn how they made Kurt Russell look young at the beginning and they never included that info. I learned later that it was done digitally, and it's so good they fooled me - and I remember what Kurt Russell looked like back then (yep, I'm that old).
There's also an audio commentary and a rather silly disco video starring the cast and David Hasselhoff. And there's a little poster for the video in the box, so you can hang it in your bedroom and look at it, all dreamy-eyed, from your bed.
Do kids still do that?
Hot on the heels of Guardians 2 is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth kick at that particular can and what appears to be an obvious attempt at cashing in on a lucrative franchise. I guess you could say that about GG2 as well, but at least it has the advantage of still being fresh and exciting. Pirates 5 is exciting, but fresh?
Pirates 5, a.k.a. "Dead Men…" is worth seeing, but it seems a bit more than a tad forced and tired, as Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) finds himself the target of living and dead folks he's wronged in the past. It's definitely a spectacular title full of action and terrific special effects and that makes it worth seeing at least once.
Right off the bat, the "Pirates franchise" torch is passed from Orlando Bloom's Will Turner to his son, Henry (Brenton Thwaites), making this kind of a "Pirates of the Caribbean: the Next Generation." Then, the young Turner sets out to find Sparrow - joining everyone else on planet Earth, it would seem - so he can free his father from his particular curse. Along for the cinematic ride are other cursed pirates looking to free themselves, others looking for revenge, others looking for power, others looking for booty. There are just plain others involved as well, not dead or undead, and all these disparate interests come together in a rather convoluted plot that didn't need to be nearly as convoluted as it turned out to be.
Sparrow's only hope to prevent everyone from offing him is to find the legendary Trident of Poseidon, which gives whoever wields it total control over the seas in a way that reminded me of Little Mermaid's Ursula the sea witch, on steroids.
The first big action scene, a bank robbery in which they steal the actual bank, reminded me of Monty Python's Crimson Permanent Assurance bit, and there's a lot of other stuff that you can see coming from miles away, but there's also enough intrigue and action to keep you interested until the closing credits, well, close.
The performances are fine (I especially love Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa, and we now have Javier Bardem along, in a CG-enhanced bad guy role!) and the production looks as big as it attempts to be.
As one expects these days, the special effects are eye-blowing. They even part the blue sea in this thing, leading to a climactic fight among the coral and an exciting escape before the waters de-part. Many of the ghostly characters are CG-enhanced as well, some of them being only partially there; it's quite cool! There are some nifty ghost sharks, too, though the movie may have jumped at least one of them during its production.
As much fun as Pirates 5 is, however, it all seems kind of contrived, tired and ready to be put out to pasture. This version, with its younger stars, seems kind of like a reboot, but a half reboot since everyone else (other than the other new characters introduced for this tale) is a holdover from the other films in the series. It definitely isn't a fresh start like J. J. Abrams' first Star Trek reboot was.
It's a good example of the UHD 4K disc species, though it isn't quite up to the standard of GG2. I did some spot checking between the Blu-ray (the 4K package also comes with a digital download code) and the 4K HDR disc and the newer technology definitely leads to an improved image. It isn't as stark a difference as with GG2, though.
Still, detail is wonderful, with very sharp textures and lovely colours. If you wanted to, you could count every picked zit on Geoffrey Rush's face, though that doesn't seem like the best use of home theatre time. The resolution really pays off with the sets, the aged and weathered ships with their tattered sails, and the costumes, in which every detail shines (unfortunately so, for some of the more unsavoury…). The black level is excellent, too, which helps in the many dark scenes.
The audio is encoded with Dolby Atmos, and this translates to Dolby TrueHD for most mainstream home theatres. It's a good track, but not as dynamic or room-shaking as the one on Guardians Vol.2. Channel separation is fine, dialogue is mostly clear and there's terrific ambience in the creaking masts and other stuff like that. Cannon fire sounds properly "high calibre" and the musical score comes through nicely but not obtrusively.
Extras are pretty good, too, though as with GG2 you'll have to head for the Blu-ray disc to find them. Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Making of a New Adventure is a seven part feature you can watch all at once or separately, and it includes cast and crew comments and insights, a look at the new stars, the special effects, a day with actor Kevin McNally (Gibbs), Paul McCartney's unnecessary cameo, and the franchise's legacy. Whew!
One thing I learned that I though was cool was how the filmmakers used drone-mounted cameras, a strategy I expect will become even more popular in coming years.
There's also a blooper reel, a Jerry Bruckheimer photo diary, deleted scenes and a couple of trailers.
With these two releases, Disney has landed firmly, and on both feet, in the 4K UHD HDR market, offering exquisitely crafted discs that are sure to please the sensibilities of videophiles and audiophiles alike.
And one of them's a damn fine movie, too!
Copyright 2017 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.