X-Men The Animated Series: Volume 3 and 4 (US - DVD)
Gabe's new mutant power is the ability to pick up on PAL audio speed-up...
“Previously (clang) on X-Men (buzz)”
I covered the majority of my thoughts and memories concerning the 1990s X-Men animated series in my review of the first two collections of episodes that were released back in April. To read that please click here. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here, and will focus a little harder on aspects specific to this collection, specifically the episodes that make the show special despite its less than lasting visual impressions. The episodes that cross these collections are taken from the third and fourth seasons, and continue a marked improvement over the early and more simplified episodes. As the show gained popularity the writers were allowed to take the maturity of their storytelling to limits beyond those of American television animation (though they were regularly bested by the impossibly good Batman: The Animated Series). The animation remained pretty crude, the character designs were still gleefully ridiculous, and a lot of the dialogue was still crassly unrealistic, but the storytelling definitely improved as the show continued.
The major mark in quality here comes once the producers get the ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’ and ‘The Savage Land’ out of their systems. The whole of the ‘Phoenix Saga’ was still pretty advanced storytelling for children’s animation at the time, but the sophistication was more in the abstract concepts of the fantastic elements like the internalized mind battles. Every episode post-‘Dark Phoenix’ is relatively strong, but there are distinct standouts. Some of the better episodes delve into the characters’ pasts (‘Weapon X, Lies and Videotape’, ‘Juggernaut Returns’, ‘Xavier Remembers’ and ‘Family Ties’), two are adaptations of classic motion picture motifs (‘Lotus and Steel’ forces Wolverine to replay the major themes of The Seven Samurai, and ‘Secrets, Not Long Buried’ sticks Cyclops in Gary Cooper’s High Noon boots), and the intended series finale, ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, finds a relatively satisfying way to bring together all the series regulars, bad guys and good guys, for one last adventure. The major standout among every episode of the entire series is ‘Nightcrawler’, a poignant exploration of tolerance and religion that goes far beyond the normal constraints of children’s programming. Without turning blatantly preachy issues of blind faith are tested, and following Nightcrawler’s daring forgiveness of the sins of those around him tough guy Wolverine is forced to confront his own lack of faith. The episode is also gloriously gothic, taking its visual cues from Universal horror films and German expressionism.
There are some clear problems with these releases that pertain only to the discs themselves, not the content of the episodes. The first problem is the episode order, which apparently follows the original air order instead of the production order. Fortunately this doesn’t create any major continuity issues because the multi-part episodes are presented in order and important standalones are only separated incorrectly. There is one exception in the continuity, and that is a missing episode, which has apparently been thrown back to the fifth release. ‘No Mutant is an Island’ is mostly a standalone that follows Cyclops’ return to the orphanage he was found in. The problem is that Cyclops is wondering apart from the rest of the X-Men because he’s upset over Jean Grey’s supposed death following the first part of the ‘Phoenix Saga’. It isn’t until the end of the episode that Cyclops even hears Jean is still alive (which we are told via flashback in the first episode of the ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’). The episode apparently had major animation problems, so there’s a chance we won’t ever see an official release (see this webpage for more information).
The final season of the show was only ten episodes long, so it’s understandable that Disney wanted to fill out the discs evenly. I don’t know why they didn’t just fill things out based on production order though; it’s not as if an ordered release would cut things short in the middle of a story arc or anything. The other episodes inexplicably missing from the collection that appeared throughout the centre of the third and fourth seasons are all standalones with roots in earlier, included episodes. These include ‘Longshot’, a follow up to the second season episode ‘Mojovision’, ‘Deal with the Devil’, a companion piece to season two’s introduction to Wolverine nemesis Omega Red entitled ‘Red Dawn’, and ‘Bloodlines’, a Nightcrawler one-shot where the German monk discovers his mysterious parentage. Those last two episodes are pretty good, if I remember correctly, so between those and the ‘Phalanx Covenant’ there’s something to look forward to.
These discs basically match last April’s discs in the video department. For the most part these episodes are as clear as we can expect from the series, which was made with standard definition television broadcasts in mind. The sometimes crude animation and design aspects don’t lend themselves to a lot of scrutiny. The cells are dirty, and occasionally shift, and the colours and frame-rates are inconsistent. The print is bright and colourful, and the colours themselves are relatively noiseless. There’s a bit of bleeding, and the hard edges are occasionally jagged, but the basic make-up of each frame is relatively solid. The details are even a bit sharper than the April releases, but clearly not sharp enough to push the format to its limit (I don’t think we’d want it much sharper considering how this detail alone reveals a little too much in the way of animator errors). It’s possible a better clean-up would be possible, but frankly minor dirt and artefacts aren’t a problem, the problem is in the choice of not making these transfers progressive. The interlaced nature is at time maddening, especially when trying to gather screencaps for this review.
The audio mostly matches the video, in that it mostly matches the other two releases from last April. The sound effects are cool, the dialogue is consistent, and the stereo effects are actually pretty exciting. That neat-o score also sounds great. It’s all as good as we can expect from a ‘90s TV show. Oh, but there is this one thing… Parts one and three of the intended series finale ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, and a few episodes found on the final disc of the Volume Four collection feature a curious audio issue not found on any of the other episodes, or the first three Buena Vista releases. The voices are all noticeably higher in pitch, which is especially clear in the case of the normally baritone Apocalypse. One might even describe the effect as ‘mousy’, which is of course less than ironic given the studio that owns the release rights, and apparently the release rights of the entirety of the Marvel catalogue apparently. Ahem. Anyway, the problem also affects the music, and less obviously affects the sound effects. The obvious culprit seems to be a PAL source. The rumour is that these episodes were taken from a UK source, and the slight differentiation of runtimes seems to be in-keeping with the PAL speed up possibility. Bad form Disney.
Nothing but Buena Vista release trailers.
It’s clearly no mistake that these DVDs are seeing a release the same day as X-Men Origins: Wolverine (on video this time), but it’s surprising how much more sophisticated and intelligent this children’s series from more than a decade ago is than Fox’s big budget, PG-13 release. The costumes are gaudy, but the dialogue is no broader, the storytelling is much more calculated, and the characters are leagues deeper. I’m also forced to compare the series to the third season of NBC’s Heroes, which coincidentally enough I just finished watching. Again, even with the benefit of hours and hours of back story, it’s incredible how much more human these pen and ink creations strike me. Unfortunately these new releases—the first official DVD releases of many of the episodes in America—feature interlaced transfers and some seemingly PAL related audio problems. The episodes are presented out of order, but this is merely a curiosity in all but one case, as continuity is mostly maintained. It’d be nice to get some extras too, come time for the release of those final thirteen episodes.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 15th September 2009
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: English and Spanish
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Iona Morris, Lenore Zann, Alison Seasly-Smith
Genre: Action, Adventure and Animation
Length: 690 minutes
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