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Disney Animation Blu-ray Wrap-Up 2

The Emperor’s New Groove/Kronk's New Groove

The Emperor’s New Groove is one of the most uncharacteristically funny and punchy films in the ‘official’ Disney animated canon. The only comparable film in the collection is 1997’s Hercules, which is funny, because the original product was actually altered late into production, partially to make it less like Hercules, which was a monetary disappointment (for the record, Emperor’s New Groove was also a relative disappointment at the box office). The comparisons between the two films are still there, though – Emperor’s New Groove is tonally sarcastic, witty and incredibly tightly structured from a character standpoint. The already brief 78-minute run-time feels closer to a 22-minute sitcom, thanks to the super breezy pacing and utter lack of narrative downtime. It’s difficult to argue that the film belongs in the same ‘classic’ category with the likes of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, but Emperor’s New Groove arguably represents the last great animated feature the studio made without Pixar. What is truly fascinating, however, is that this breath of fresh air for Disney was concocted almost by accident. Every Disney animated movie has a long, involved story about the pain of bringing the final product to the big screen, but The Emperor’s New Groove was such a troubled production that it garners a place in the annals of feature animation history. The entire structure of the film, including character types, tone, and songs, was retooled years into production under the original title Kingdom of the Sun. This amazing story of this manic restructuring is told via Trudie Styler’s (wife of musician Sting) documentary, The Sweatbox. Since Disney clearly has no intention of releasing the doc in any official form, I highly, highly recommend you watch the rough cut on Vimeo or

Emperor’s New Groove is presented in full 1080p, 1.66:1 video and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The super-crisp animation style ( really sharp corners on those character designs) is a bit flatter than other modern Disney animated features (inspired by real Incan artefacts and expressionist paintings), which gives the solid, blocky hues a good chance to be vibrant and tight. The 1080p detail increase applies mostly to the paint textures in the backgrounds; otherwise, it is the sharp separation that makes the difference, compared to the old DVD. Some of the otherwise brilliant background gradations have minor banding effects and the edges of the frame feature a shred of grainy noise on occasion, but aliasing effects are not an issue. The sound is dynamic and poppy. This is best heard in the vast expanses between John Debney’s brassy, Looney Tunes-esque music and the comedically awkward silences. The sound effects are more in line with the Chuck Jones school of audio design than the ‘classier’ Disney animated feature type, leading to lots of directional enhancement via silly little embellishments. David Spade’s narration is spread over the front three channels, creating a shred of echo delay (when he talks back to himself the narration is firmly set in the left channel). The rest of the dialogue is clean and appropriately situated based on character movement.

Emperor’s New Groove extras include – nothing but Disney trailers and the official sequel, Kronk’s New Groove. This is especially disappointing, because Disney had released a now out-of-print DVD special edition (‘New Groove Edition’) featuring a filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, and a series of featurettes. It couldn’t have been that difficult to just port all that stuff over. Kronk’s New Grove is presented in 1.78:1, 1080p video (looks sharp) and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound (sounds a bit flat). It has no additional extras. Quality-wise, it’s in line with the other Disney STV sequels of the era in that it looks very good for a non-theatrical release, but serves no huge purpose in forwarding the story of the original film and depends too much on call-back jokes. It is nice that the producers chose to base it around a secondary character, rather than Kuzco, and the soundtrack features some good funk and swing songs (Eartha Kitt gets to sing this time around). Surprisingly, it seems that the entire original cast returned for this STV presentation, including a couple cameos from Spade. I do wonder if it was originally intended as a TV series, because the story is broken down into three pretty distinct parts.

Disney Animation Blu-ray Wrap-Up 2

Atlantis: The Lost Empire/Atlantis: Milo's Return

Disney tried really, really hard to make something special out of Atlantis: The Lost Empire and, given 12 years of hindsight, it’s pretty easy to respect the initiative to reinvent the wheel. The late ‘90s and early millennium were a period of unbridled Phantom Menace fever. The return of Star Wars made studio executives go insane and suddenly everyone absolutely needed a boy-aimed science fiction movie – including Fox’s new animation studio, who went bankrupt on Don Bluth’s Titan A.E. and Disney, who did slightly better with Atlantis. History has since proven that the Star Wars audience is mostly reserved for Star Wars movies, but, again, Atlantis remains an interesting experiment. Unlike the studio’s previous experiment in appealing to a young male market, The Black Cauldron, Disney rolled out a thick red carpet for the entire production. Atlantis was adorned with Beauty and the Beast directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, a rich James Newton Howard score (his second after Dinosaur), and comic book artist Mike Mignola was hired as a production designer. The imagery is unique, somewhere between the Trousdale/Wise house-style and Mignola’s Hellboy-era line work, and the action set-pieces are occasionally breathtaking. The film’s problems mostly revolve around storytelling, rather than direction or design. In an effort to create a new mythology, producers hired at least seven different writers (including Joss Whedon, who appears to have recycled parts of these characters into Firefly) and it shows in terms of unfocused, predictable narrative and, sadly, some really unfunny comedy relief (though Florence Stanley is pretty amusing as the deadpan, sarcastic radio operator). But, again, the ambition is there and it goes a long way. It’s not the next Star Wars the creators were hoping for, nor does it match the unbridled imagination of something like Laputa: Castle in the Sky (which they are clearly trying to evoke), but it was a very admirable shot at a different kind of Disney animated film.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one of (I believe) only four Disney animated features to be framed in a scope aspect ratio ( Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty were shot super-wide 2.55:1, and The Black Cauldron was framed at both 2.20:1 and 2.35:1). It was also ‘shot’ using 70mm film. This all makes for a really fantastic 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. The whole film is, visually speaking, unlike any other Disney film ever made. This unique style blurs the line between digital and hand-drawn animation to a point that I’m honestly not sure what is what. The foregrounds and backgrounds are all blocky and made up of coloured shapes, rather than a lot of gradation or painterly textures. The HD image impresses with the purity of these eclectic and sharply cut hues, which create elaborate, compression artefact-free patterns that wreak havoc with the included SD DVD copy. This is also among the most impressive animated feature I’ve seen in terms of the darker images. The animators achieve their ‘more adult’ mood with hard black shapes and muted hues without anything important blending into visual mud. There are signs of noise and grain, but there was some actual film involved in making this picture, so this makes sense. The occasional banding effect is hard to judge as well, since so many of the colour changes are made up of purposeful bands of colour. This disc features a full-bodied DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The ‘wannabe Star Wars’ elements (designed and edited by actual Star Wars sound editor Gary Rydstrom) impress when it comes to epic action sequences, including spaceships and submersibles zipping through the channels, machine-monsters growling from behind the viewer, and all the little layers of directional embellishments in-between. Perhaps more impressive, since plenty of other animated movies are aurally comparable to Star Wars these days, is the subtler warmth and natural ambience heard in the non-action sequences. James Newton Howard’s score is incredibly impressive and, because the film has been largely forgotten by the general public, very underrated. The music is appropriately epic without losing those John Williams-inspired themes in the brass bombastitude.

The Atlantis: The Lost Empire extras aren’t as sparse as the other two releases covered in this review, including an audio commentary with producers Don Hahn and directors Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, an eleven-part behind-the-scenes documentary entitled, simply, The Making of Atlantis (2:00:00, SD), How to Speak Atlantean (2:10, SD), Disneypedia – Atlantis: Fact or Fiction (6:40, SD), three trailers, and four deleted scenes (including the fully rendered ‘Viking Prologue’). The sequel, Atlantis: Milo’s Return, features most of the original cast and continues the story with the original characters returning to Atlantis to visit Milo and warn him about an attacking sea monster. None of the three STV movies included in this review are particularly good-looking, but this one has the distinction of looking like a sub-par Saturday morning cartoon. This is due in part to the fact that it was planned as three episodes of a TV series and because Disney was still smarting from the disappointing box office of the original film. I suppose it’s a decent action adventure for undiscerning children, but has none of the first movie’s visual appeal or surprises. Like Kronk’s New Groove, the story is divided into three distinct parts. The sequel is presented in 1080p, 1.78:1 video (it’s crisp and bright, but it doesn’t do the ugly images any good) and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound (the mix is very shallow and the music sort of soft, but the dialogue is plenty clear).

Disney Animation Blu-ray Wrap-Up 2

Lilo & Stitch/Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch has a Glitch

Atlantis and Emperor’s New Groove were both disappointments at the box office, despite turning a small profit. In fact, most of Disney’s post- Lion King feature animation productions were so expensive and time-consuming they were taking their toll, while Pixar and Dreamworks were making money hand-over-fist with CG-animated features. Sadly, they didn’t really learn their lesson and put one of their most expensive films ever into production – Treasure Planet. Treasure Planet flopped like an eight-inch magnetic storage medium and embarrassed the hell out of the studio. But 2002 wasn’t a total loss, because Disney actually had two animated features in theaters that year and the comparatively smaller production, Lilo & Stitch, was a surprise summer hit. In fact, Lilo & Stitch was so popular it became an unlikely little franchise onto itself, including a television series with a feature-length pilot and finale, a STV sequel, Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch, video games, and a ‘re-imagined’ version for the Japanese market. Japanese viewers were especially fond of the characters, leading to millions in merchandising, and the original film became an unofficial tourism video for the state of Hawaii. Trust me, my mother lives in Hawaii and you still can’t escape the movie’s massive influence.

Lilo & Stitch is definitely another ‘lesser’ feature in the canon. It doesn’t have the staying power of the studio’s best. The jokes aren’t as funny the second/third/fourth time around, the story’s predictability is magnified, and the cuteness factor wears off a bit. But that first viewing is a doozy of a sweet experience. Watching it for the first time in years, I realize Lilo & Stitch works in part because writer/directors Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois (who went on to make How to Train Your Dragon) set their archetypal narrative (nothing surprising happens on a plot level the entire film) in contemporary Hawaii and genuinely respect the culture they adapt. More than a decade after release Lilo & Stitch still feels fresh, despite none of its parts being particularly special on their own. It also teaches a patently valuable life lesson without the usual disturbing Disney subtext. The film treats Lilo’s weirdness as a virtue. She does mature her weirdness, but she doesn’t change who she is to impress a prince or fit in with some kind of societal norm – the other characters learn that their judgmental behavior is the problem. Of course, her parents are still dead, but her sexy sister’s physical proportions are more realistic than the usual emaciated Disney princess.

Lilo & Stitch is also presented in full 1080p, 1.66:1 video and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. Atlantis is the most impressive transfer of this bunch, but Lilo & Stitch might be the most impressive upgrade over the original DVD release. The character-based cell animation and digitally created, ‘cell-shaded’ machinery is all clean and crisp, as expected. The pastel and acrylic hues are poppy, pure, and the blends are smooth. The backgrounds, however, embrace the impurities and fine textures of watercolour (or maybe gouache) painting – something I could never really appreciate under the limitations of a standard definition disc. The soundtrack is also a sizable upgrade over the compressed DVD versions. The sci-fi heavy opening act and action-packed climax give the track its reference quality moments. The sound designers have a ball re-defining the typical sci-fi/action laser and spaceship sounds for their adorably ‘rounded’ universe and layer them with all the expressiveness of a normal, live-action flick. In Hawaii, things are a lot more subtle, even a bit empty in terms of natural ambience, but, like Emperor’s New Groove, there are cartoony embellishments that add some directional influence. Alan Silvestri’s score mostly settles under the action, while Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu’s songs are big and brisk.

There are no extras, outside of the presence of the official sequel, Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch has a Glitch. This really sucks, because there was a two disc special edition (‘Big Wave Edition’) released and it is brimming with extras, including a filmmaker commentary, a feature-length documentary, an hours worth of featurettes. Stitch has a Glitch is, like the other ones, presented in 1.78:1, 1080p (it does look made for TV, but not as ugly as Atlantis: Milo’s Return) and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound (probably the most aggressive of the DTV bunch). Unfortunately, it’s almost entirely a retread of the original film – Stitch’s ‘glitch’ is a return to evil, Lilo is still misbehaving, and Nani (still voiced by Tia Carrere) is still trying to balance the role of mother and sister. The only new stuff is Jumba and Pleakley (still voiced by David Ogden Stiers and Kevin McDonald, respectfully) are trying to blend in to human society, which is not exactly an original concept. I’m sure this was also covered during many of the 2003 television series’ 65 episodes. The whole film also hinges on Jumba and Pleakley not telling the others that Stitch is malfunctioning for the first 2/3rds of the film, so everyone, including Stitch, just think he’s being an uncontrollable jerk. I imagine that if I found it frustrating, children must’ve found it mortifying,