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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Jeff Kleist of The Digital Bits

Ponyo

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Ponyo
2008 (2010) - Studio Ghibli (Walt Disney)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 2nd, 2010
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD MA

Film Rating: B+
Video (1-20): 19.5
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B


Anyone who has studied the earth sciences knows that balance is crucial in Nature. If an important plant dies, the small fish that eat it die, and the larger fish that eat the small fish die, and so on. Such is the case when Ponyo, the toddler daughter of a sea goddess, sneaks from her home in goldfish form and, a series of mishaps later, ends up in the beach bucket of a human boy.


Her father, a former mortal, is mortified. But when Ponyo tastes human blood and food, and chooses to become human herself, the balance is threatened in both the sea and on land.

Dumped into theatres in the middle of August, master animator Hayao Miyazaki's latest film took in a paltry $15 million here in the States - less than 1/10th of what it made in Japan (a country where $30 million domestic is a giant hit). Ponyo is a bit of a departure for Miyazaki. After years of creating films aimed at "Those who are, once were or will be 8 years old," Miyazaki returned here to the formula that made his earlier My Neighbor Totoro such a success. While Ponyo is definitely not on the level of that masterpiece, even a lesser Miyazaki film is exceptional when compared to other animated works. As Pixar's John Lasseter (who holds the work of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli in the highest esteem) has acknowledged, the success of Pixar has been due - at least in part - to Lasseter's staff internalizing the same kinds of philosophies and values that have made Ghibli productions so beloved for the last 25 years.

Thankfully, Ponyo looks nigh-perfect on Blu-ray Disc (presented in 1080p in the original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio), and I don't say that lightly. While the character animation is colored by computer, all of the backgrounds are hand-painted in watercolor. The subtle textures and detail of artist Kazuo Oga's backgrounds are captured perfectly here, falling just short of looking like something you'd hang on your wall. Colors are rich and saturated, with no signs of banding or artifacting even in the ocean depths. Too often even modern, hand-painted animated films like The Princess and the Frog mix in too many CG elements and feats of design that would be impossible to create by hand. Ponyo takes its hand-crafted art and lightly sprinkles CG elements over the top, creating a welcome "analog" visual warmth in the digital realm.

The audio on this Blu-ray is... well, complicated. Unfortunately, Disney has followed their standard BD production template here, which means the DTS-HD MA lossless track is devoted to the English-dubbed audio, with only a lossy Dolby Digital track given to the film's original Japanese mix. While this policy works fine for more casual American viewers, it COMPLETELY fails to take into account the desires of foreign film and anime enthusiasts - people who really care about hearing the original intended audio performances AND are the most likely to purchase the Blu-ray version over the DVD. Complicating a comparison between the two tracks is the fact that Disney has locked out "on the fly" audio switching during the film. But upon comparison, there is a major difference between the two. The opening chapter's Fantasia-esque undersea sequence simply sparkles in the English lossless mix - the strings and undertones of Joe Hisaishi's score come out perfectly, along with all the little snap-crackle-pop of plankton creation - audio details that get buried in the lossy tracks. But once characters start speaking, the Japanese mix is far superior. All of the dubbed voices sound like actors just standing in a studio (the voices of Liam Neeson and Matt Damon are particularly jarring), while the timbre of the Japanese track is far more organic and smoothly blended with the rest of the elements. So for the moment, if audio fidelity is the most important thing for you, then the English dub might be your preferred choice. But if director's intent, superior mixing and better voice performances are key to your enjoyment, you're just going to have to put up with a lossy mix. We STONGLY encourage Disney to revise their template for future foreign language film releases on Blu-ray, to order to include lossless audio for BOTH the original language and dubbed English tracks whenever possible.

[Note: If lossless original language audio is important to you, then by all means let Disney know by calling their customer service number (800-723-4763 U.S./888-877-2843 Canada), or better yet by writing them an e-mail or letter. PLEASE be polite when doing so, because the voices of dedicated, reasonable customers are ALWAYS heard the loudest and taken most seriously by the studios.]

The bonus features included for this film on Blu-ray are good and welcome. While there was a 9-hour special on the making of this film aired by NHK in Japan, it's unreasonable to expect all of that here. Still, parts of it ARE included in the Blu-ray's World of Ghibli: Behind the Studio section. Topics covered include discussion of the creation and development of the story and characters, the locations that inspired the film, Hisaishi's scoring process and the recording of the English dub. Conversely, the Worlds of Ghibli: Enter the Lands section contains a set of "mini-games" to introduce Miyazaki newbies to the other films in his studio's library. Strangely, the Mononoke and Spirited Away icons are disabled here. (Those titles may have been removed from Disney's Miyazaki re-promotion at the last minute, though I suspect they'll both be upgraded on DVD and Blu-ray in the next couple of years.) Rounding out the extras are promotional trailers for Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro, which are now available on DVD from Disney in upgraded versions. (Again, I suspect they'll also be released on Blu-ray in the next couple of years, after the BD versions come out in Japan.) Finally, a DVD version of the film is also included. My only regret is that the Blu-ray doesn't have the beautiful lithographs that are packed inside the re-issue DVDs, though this is probably because they just wouldn't fit well in the BD case.

Miyazaki's Ponyo quite simply looks better than any other piece of hand-drawn animation currently available on Blu-ray... and that's saying something. The film is wonderful for viewing with the whole family, and the A/V quality and extras available on this disc (the lack of lossless Japanese audio aside) should satisfy most (if not quite all) fans.

Jeff Kleist
jeffkleist@thedigitalbits.com



Stargate Universe: SG-U - 1.0

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Stargate Universe: SG-U - 1.0
2009 (2010) - MGM (20th Century Fox)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on February 9th, 2010
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD MA

Program Rating: C+
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: C+


Taking place sometime after the Stargate SG-1 direct-to-video movies, SG-U follows an unsuspecting geek (played by David Blue) who gets drawn into working on a "stargate" project that literally spans the universe. But just as his mathematical formula unlocks the ninth chevron on the stargate, an attack forces the entire installation's staff to evacuate through the gate itself.


On the other side, they suddenly find themselves on the ancient starship Destiny, some 300,000 lightyears away. Unfortunately, they can't stop the ship, its life-support is failing, and they have limited supplies and only short planetary survey windows in which to gather more. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, the unwilling new crew of the Destiny must to find a way to survive and get back home.

Stargate Universe feels to me like the result of a determined effort by Sci-Fi to replace Battlestar Galactica with a similar series, combined with intensive focus group research about what its audience wants. So what we've got is a show that looks and feels like Battlestar (up to and including a completely superfluous sex scene between two supporting characters right before a big attack), combined with story elements from early Star Trek: Voyager (including character drama centered around survival, without a definable enemy). The result is 10 episodes that slowly plod along but don't really go anywhere, ending in a series of cliffhangers that anyone who's watched more than a handful of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes can predict the outcomes of. That's not to say that SG-U isn't worth watching. It's certainly better and more cohesive than the sum of its parts. But even after viewing the finale of this batch, it just feels like the writers have no idea where it's all going. Part of the original Stargate's charm was its rollicking cowboy feel, combined with good writing, military action and likeable actors. They stripped away the good writing and actors part with Stargate Atlantis (save for David Hewlett as Rooney) and now with SG-U, while the cast is fine here, the cowboy fun is gone.

Stargate Universe is shot on digital video, which takes a lot of processing to make it look like something not shot in a backyard. Given this reality, many digital cinematographers take the opportunity to give their shows a distinctive look and feel. Here, though, they've gone a little nuts. The end result of all the processing is hard to describe. I'd call it "warm metallic" - like those "chromium" covers they used to do on comic books back in the 1990s, but without as much sparkle. Overall, the image looks a little too smooth, but it does remain fairly consistently solid throughout the episodes. The DTS-HD MA audio available on this Blu-ray is one of the more impressive TV soundtracks I've heard in a while on the format. The ship sounds alive - there are always thrums, rumbles or other subtle sound cues mixed into the ambient background of this mix. SG-U's sound team has taken far more cues from Farscape than Star Trek, and their work deserves recognition at Emmy time.

Even though this 2-disc 1.0 set only includes the first half of the show's debut season, there should still have been plenty of time to create some decent extras. There are commentaries by members of the cast and crew, though the actors seem to have very little interesting to say. What you get from them is mostly a "pat on the back" gab session. Thankfully, the show's producers offer a lot of good technical information in their tracks. Also included is a feature called Destiny SML Map, that lets you look at a bunch of trivial, bite-sized video clips that seem to have been intended for use on the show's website. You also get the Daniel Jackson video briefings in full, as well as a number of quick behind-the-scenes clips and featurettes. It's all sort of interesting, but you've seem most of this before. Finally, the Kino Video Diaries expand on key concepts that were already painfully dull in the show.

Stargate Universe needs a definable threat, and recurring characters to interact with who aren't simply space bugs and don't already live on the ship. Still, SG-U has a great cast (including Robert Carlyle, Ming-Na and Lou Diamond Phillips), fantastic sets and an experienced production crew. If its writers can just come up with a few good antagonists, then all the pieces are available here to make this a strong show.

Jeff Kleist
jeffkleist@thedigitalbits.com
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