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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Welcome to Toon Town

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Animation is, to me, both remarkable and frustrating. On the one hand, it's one of the most versatile forms of visual storytelling ever created. Anything that the imagination can conjure can be captured through animation. It can scare you, it can thrill you, it can make you laugh, it can even make you cry (check out Watership Down and The Plague Dogs if you're not convinced of that last one).

So then why does a medium capable of such versatility succumb so readily to routine? Part of the answer, of course, is that 90% of all animated films and television series are aimed squarely at kids. This excuse really shouldn't hold water. The best children's entertainment in any medium, the classics that endure and are passed on from generation to generation, break the formulas. Most studios aren't trying to create classics. They're trying to make a profit. If the result happens to succeed artistically as well, that's just a bonus.

This time out, I'll be looking at four wildly diverse examples of animation on DVD. One is a recent big studio effort. One is a fondly remembered TV series from the 80s. One is an early effort from a Japanese master of the medium. And the last one technically isn't an animated film at all but relies so heavily on CGI effects that it may as well be.

The Ant Bully

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The Ant Bully
2006 (2006) - Warner Home Video

I don't have kids of my own so I'm not required to see most of the feature-length cartoons that studios are cranking out these days. If I did, I'd be willing to sign a petition asking them to put a moratorium on movies about anthropomorphized forest creatures and insects. The Ant Bully follows in the multi-legged footsteps of A Bug's Life and Antz and paves the way for Jerry Seinfeld's upcoming Bee Movie. The Ant Bully is just different enough from its predecessors to save it from total déjà vu but an inescapable air of been there, done that hangs over the whole movie.

The Ant Bully distinguishes itself primarily by introducing a human character, a bullied kid named Lucas who takes out his frustrations on the only things smaller than him, a colony of ants in his front yard. An ant wizard named Zoc (voiced by Nicolas Cage) develops a formula to shrink Lucas where he is sentenced to "become" an ant.

Only when he learns his lesson will he be returned to his normal height. Zoc's girlfriend Hova (Julia Roberts) becomes Lucas' mentor in all things bug. To make things worse, Lucas has inadvertently hired a sleazy exterminator (Paul Giamatti) to wipe out the insect population.

The movie definitely has some things going for it. Visually, it's spectacular, with the anthill rendered in eye-popping detail. The all-star vocal cast is well-suited to their roles and, unlike in some recent animated films, the voices don't distract from the characters by being overly familiar. Cage and Roberts make for a surprisingly winning couple, Meryl Streep lends stature to the role of the Ant Queen, and Bruce Campbell, who's always seemed at least half cartoon anyway, is pretty funny as an arrogant soldier ant.

While this isn't a bad little story, the trouble seems to be that it's too little a story. In fleshing out a 32-page children's book into an 89-minute movie, the filmmakers fall back into overly familiar routines. There's nothing wrong with the movie's message but it isn't exactly the most complex moral to impart. And with nothing else to add, that moral is hammered home pretty hard. The screenplay isn't as unrelentingly juvenile as some recent kids' flicks with only a handful of the now-apparently-standard bodily function gags but never reaches the level of sophistication of the best Pixar movies.

Warner's DVD looks and sounds pretty great and a handful of extras are tossed in to sweeten the pot. The documentary It Takes a Colony provides a decent if not horribly in-depth look at the making of the film. Hosted by director John A. Davis and the movie's overly-friendly beetle voiced by Rob Paulsen, the feature also seems to be trying for the lighthearted feel of the extras on some of the Pixar discs. It doesn't quite work but if you want to see Bruce Campbell and Lily Tomlin recording their dialogue, here's your chance. The disc also includes seven Ant Bully animated shorts, an amusing theatrical trailer, and a pointless "Ant Habitat" TV screensaver. The best extra is the collection of deleted scenes. These were cut at different stages of production so some of them are fully animated while others exist only as storyboards and vocal tracks. Most of the scenes are just as good as what ended up in the film so it's interesting to see how far into the process these sequences made it before they got the axe.

I was pleased to see the Warner Bros. shield in front of an animated movie again, even if the end result has more in common with recent efforts from DreamWorks than anything Warner produced during their golden age of animation. If you're a parent, you could easily do far worse than having to sit through The Ant Bully with your kids. But if Junior adores it and it becomes one of those heavy-rotation discs that plays incessantly in the background, you'll probably want to excuse yourself after the first go-round.

Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/C+

The Castle of Cagliostro: Special Edition

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The Castle of Cagliostro: Special Edition
1979 (2006) - Manga (Anchor Bay)

Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the greatest filmmaker working in animation today. Over the last decade or so, he's delivered such classics of the form as Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. But everyone had to start somewhere and for years, Miyazaki's first feature film was difficult to find in this country, at least in a version that was properly translated. Now, Manga Entertainment and Anchor Bay have delivered an edition of The Castle of Cagliostro that more than satisfies.

Miyazaki began his career in television and Cagliostro is a feature-length spin-off from the series Lupin the III. If you're unfamiliar with the show (as I was), Lupin is the grandson of legendary French thief Arsene Lupin, created by author Maurice LeBlanc at the turn of the twentieth century. Lupin III has followed in his ancestor's footsteps, surrounding himself with a team that includes a partner who looks a bit like Tom Waits and a samurai.

Cagliostro begins in mid-heist as Lupin robs a casino, making off with a carload of money that turns out to be counterfeit. He decides to go after the source of the counterfeit bills, a tiny country named Cagliostro, hoping to finish a job that he had attempted years earlier when he was just starting out. Along the way he encounters a princess held captive in a tower, about to be married against her will to the country's evil count. Lupin is forced to partner up with his nemesis, Japanese detective Zenigata, to free the girl and smash the counterfeiting operation.

Miyazaki himself has expressed dissatisfaction with the finished film, due in no small part to the movie's rushed production schedule. In fact, the movie isn't up to his later standards but still entertains as a fast-paced adventure. At its best, the movie makes you wonder what an animated James Bond feature might be like. Freed of such annoying details as gravity and physics, the car chases take on a kinetic energy unlike anything the Bond team could ever create in the real world. Lupin is an engaging character, both laid back and full of an almost childlike enthusiasm for his chosen line of work. The animation is as detailed as possible under the circumstances, although one wonders what the movie would have been like if Miyazaki could have taken more time with it.

The new special edition looks just fine and provides an improved English dub over previous versions. You also have the option of listening to the original Japanese vocals, though only the new English one is remixed in 5.1. The extras are quite good, starting with an informative if low-tech interview with animation director Yasuo Ohtsuka. He's remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental about both the film and his legacy as an animator. Ohtsuka gives insight into the early days of the Japanese anime industry and as such, this is a great bonus for anime fans. The disc also includes the Japanese trailer, previews for other Manga releases like Blood: The Last Vampire, and a photo gallery. Best of all is the option to watch the entire film in storyboard form with the Japanese vocal track running over a slideshow of Miyazaki's storyboards. Perhaps only the most die-hard of Miyazaki fans will ever watch the entire thing all the way through but it's a nifty little bonus nevertheless. Perhaps the only disappointing thing about this release is the decision to release it as a single double-sided disc with the feature on side one and all the extras on the reverse.

Even if this would be better as a two-disc set, this edition of The Castle of Cagliostro is still head and shoulders above previous releases. For Miyazaki's most ardent fans, this is a must-own and for casual viewers, it's a fun little movie, a refreshing anime that doesn't rely on sci-fi or fantasy for its success.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/B-

Dungeons & Dragons: The Complete Animated Series

Dungeons & Dragons: The Complete Animated Series
1984-86 (2006) - Ink & Paint/BCI Eclipse

Believe it or not, I never got into the whole role-playing game thing when I was a kid. I've confessed to liking plenty of other embarrassing things here before so trust me, I have no reason to lie about this. I played Dungeons & Dragons exactly once and didn't really see what was so great about it. This, coupled with the fact that I was 15 when the show came on the air and basically done with Saturday morning programming, meant I never watched this show growing up and its release on DVD, apparently long-awaited by fans, holds no nostalgia value for me whatsoever. I mention this because all vintage TVD releases, especially kids' shows, rely heavily on nostalgia value.

Watching Dungeons & Dragons for the first time as a sober, thirtysomething adult isn't ideal. Neither is watching all 27 episodes in marathon form, for that matter. To be fair, the show's creative team did a good job of translating the game into series form. Six kids are transported into the realm of D&D via a magic Dungeons & Dragons amusement park ride. Once there, the show settles quickly into the usual H.R. Pufnstuf or Land of the Lost formula of trying to find a way back home. Their guide is a miniature wizard called the Dungeon Master while their Witchipoo enemy is a sinister one-horned sorcerer named Venger who wants to get his hands on Freddie the enchanted flute... sorry, I mean the kids' magic weapons.

Having now seen the program, I can understand how it picked up a cult following. Some of the design work and animation is far more ambitious than was the standard at the time. Even if you weren't into the game, D&D offered plenty of cool demons, monsters, zombies, skeleton warriors and, of course, dragons to keep you busy. The best episodes of the series, such as The Dragon's Graveyard, attempted to expand the show's horizons, showing the kids growing as characters and hinting at a grander storyline beyond the constraints of the standard Dungeon-Master-drops-cryptic-hints-about-a-portal-home plots. Even Uni, the baby unicorn that looks like My Little Pony with a horn, isn't as irritating as it could be. Don't get me wrong here. Uni still grated on my nerves. I'm just acknowledging that it could have been much, much worse.

Since I hadn't seen D&D the first time around, watching it now mainly reminded me of the adventure shows I did watch when I was a kid. Programs like Jason of Star Command and Thundarr the Barbarian (see, told you I wasn't scared to admit to liking embarrassing things). These are shows I watched virtually every Saturday for years but can now barely remember. I wonder if that's not the case with D&D as well. If it hits you at just the right time, it's passable entertainment but not really great enough to be memorable. I could be wrong and if you're a fan of the show, I hope you remain every bit as entranced by it today. Forgive me if I'm skeptical.

Fans of the show should be overjoyed by this DVD set, regardless of what they might think of the program itself today. The episodes have been cleaned up as best they can and all of them look and sound quite good if not spectacular. Nitpickers will likely complain about the fact that the opening sequence from the first season is used on all the episodes, although it changed from season to season, and licensing issues forced music to be changed on at least one episode. Nitpickers will almost always find something to complain about, though, and these issues didn't bother me in the least.

Extras are more than generous with informative audio commentaries, trivia for each episode (found on the individual episode's chapter page), and tons more. A 33-minute documentary called Entering the Realm of Dungeons & Dragons gives an in-depth look at the show's development, interviewing writers, animators and even network executives. The never-produced final episode of the show, Requiem, is presented as a radio show with actress Katie Leigh returning to reprise her role. An extensive character profile section goes into detail about the various characters, creatures and artifacts encountered in the show. An entire episode is presented in storyboard form with the option to switch between the boards and the final episode using the angle feature. There are lengthy art galleries, alternate versions of the opening and closing credits, a few network promos, even a choose-your-own-adventure style game and a short film called Choices made by some truly dedicated fans. The packaging is handsome and includes an official Animated Series Handbook, a D&D adventure that will be very cool to the gamers but was pretty much all Greek to me.

BCI has established itself in short order as the best in the business when it comes to animated TV on disc. Dungeons & Dragons does nothing to tarnish that reputation, setting a high water mark for presentations of cult TV. Fans of the show will love this set. And don't worry about me. BCI will be taking care of my nostalgia needs soon enough when they release Jason of Star Command and Isis, at which point D&D fans will likely have every reason to make fun of me.

Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/A

King Kong: Deluxe Extended Edition

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King Kong: Deluxe Extended Edition
2005 (2006) - Universal

If you loved Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong half as much as I did... then wow, you must have really hated it. I wasn't crazy about Jackson's Kong myself. Yes, I was one of the multitude of voices complaining that first and foremost among the movie's problems was its excessive length. Because of this, the idea of sitting down to an extended version of the film did not exactly fill me with gleeful anticipation.

Sure enough, I felt almost exactly the same way about the longer version as I did the theatrical release. Jackson is a master at extending his films. The new stuff feels organic to the film. It's not one of those cases where the new material sticks out like a sore thumb. Most of it takes place on Skull Island, with more dinosaurs, more monsters, and more dialogue. This is not, however, like The Lord of the Rings. In those cases, the extended versions actually enhanced the films, adding material that fleshes out characters and provides a richer experience that's closer to the novels. This, if anything, makes Jackson's Kong drift even further away from its source material.

I've never doubted that Jackson had the purest of intentions in remaking Kong. His love of the original radiates in every interview he's ever given on the subject. At its best, the remake is a heartfelt valentine to the work of Merian Cooper, Willis O'Brien, Ernest Schoedsack and the rest of the original Kong creative team. Jackson's version has some extraordinary moments, no question. The problem is that they're all surrounded by needless moments that make explicit things that were implicit in the original. And when I say the movie's too long, I'm not even advocating the elimination of specific scenes, even the fairly ridiculous ice pond sequence. No, my problem is that virtually every single scene goes on longer than it needs to. Each scene could be trimmed a bit and you'd probably shave close to an hour off the film's running time. Watching King Kong, it's difficult to remember that Peter Jackson co-directed the fast and funny Forgotten Silver. Perhaps if he'd cut a bit more from the theatrical version, this extended edition would feel more like an event than an afterthought. As it is, it's difficult to get too excited about adding more to an already overstuffed package.

Fortunately, Jackson is also one of the few directors who really understands DVD. The extras provided here are generous and informative, giving even those who might be dubious about going back to Skull Island a reason to pick this up. The movie itself is spread over two discs, allowing for a top-notch transfer and great sound, even without a DTS option. This also builds in an intermission, which is extremely useful in this case. Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens provide a terrific commentary, rarely covering ground that can be found elsewhere, explaining some of Kong's motivations and providing anecdotes and trivia. I actually enjoyed watching the movie more with the commentary on than I did without it.

The extensive extras begin on the first disc with 46 minutes of deleted scenes (hard to believe anything didn't end up in this movie but here's the proof). Each scene is introduced by Jackson setting it up and explaining why it didn't make the cut. The disc also includes a gag reel (kind of funny but, like everything else with this movie, it goes on too long), a featurette on the vaudeville acts featured at the beginning of the film, and another featurette on the various homages to the original. Some are obvious but others are very subtle. An easy-to-find Easter egg features a previously unreleased Production Diary with the actors battling their addiction to watching their own performances on the video playback monitor.

On to disc two, where you'll find the four pre-visualization animatics produced in pre-production. These are basically animated storyboards and they're pretty interesting, as they are frequently almost identical to what ended up in the film itself. You can play them with or without music and the Empire State Building animatic provides the option to compare it to the completed sequence. There's also something called The Present, a short film the cast made in secret and screened on Jackson's birthday. It's unessential but it's cool that it's here. There are also three trailers, a promotional piece/featurette on the collectibles produced by Weta Workshop which is more interesting than you might suspect, and best of all, the complete screenplays to both the 2005 version and the never realized 1996 version as a DVD-ROM supplement.

Finally we come to disc three. After another intro from Jackson, the bulk of the disc is devoted to an epic documentary called Recreating the Eighth Wonder. Virtually every question you might want answered about Kong is here, from the project's beginnings back in 1996 to pre-production to visual effects. There's a wealth of information in here and I found myself surprised at how compelling it all was. This is an extremely well-produced documentary even if you were somewhat underwhelmed by the film itself. Also featured on this disc is a series of extensive video galleries showing the beautiful conceptual design work done for the film.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the 1933 King Kong remains unchallenged as the one true eighth wonder of the world. But with the release of the extended version, the book has finally been closed on Peter Jackson's version with all its strengths and weaknesses. Whatever one may think of the movie, this is a spectacular DVD. It won't get the same amount of play as the '33 movie, at least not in my house. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't, since you can watch the original twice and get started on a third in the time it takes to watch the extended remake. But this DVD makes it much easier to appreciate what Jackson's Kong has going for it.

Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/A

Adam Jahnke

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