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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

The Terror of Toony Town

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

I'm not quite sure when I became the Cartoon Guy at The Bits but for the second time this year, I've received enough animated fare from DBHQ to dedicate an entire column to it. This one runs the gamut from direct-to-DVD features to anime to vintage kids programming. But let's start with one of the most ambitious animated feature films in recent memory.

A Scanner Darkly
A Scanner Darkly
2006 (2006) - Warner Bros.

Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, director Richard Linklater employs the same distinctive rotoscoping technique he first experimented with in 2001's Waking Life. Rotoscoping, for those of you not familiar with the term, is painting over live-action footage. This time, however, the style is in service of a narrative rather than the surreal dreamstate Linklater was aiming for in his earlier film. It's surprisingly successful, particularly the second or third time around, and certainly the closest any filmmaker has yet come to capturing the essence of Dick's fiction on screen.

Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover narcotics officer in a police force so circuitous that even his own superiors don't know his real identity (on the job he's known as Officer Fred).

To maintain his cover, Bob has become hooked on an instantly addictive drug known as Substance D. Already losing his grip on reality, his paranoia intensifies when Officer Fred is assigned the task of spying on Bob Arctor.

I can't quite decide if Keanu Reeves has become a better actor as he's aged or if directors have simply figured out how best to utilize him. I lean toward the latter explanation as his natural semi-dazed stiffness is an effective match for Bob's drug-addled state. It helps immeasurably that the supporting cast is filled out with some top-notch actors, led by the always reliable Robert Downey Jr. and Rory Cochrane, one of Linklater's group of stock actors. Linklater's screenplay is for the most part extremely faithful to Dick's novel, a fidelity which is almost startling after years of adaptations that bear no more than a nodding resemblance to the works they're based upon. Like virtually every script he's written, it's extremely wordy and at times I wished Linklater would let things quiet down. Interestingly, this didn't bother me as much the second time through. Apparently once you've hacked a path through the dense thicket of dialogue, you can follow it again without as much effort.

The most important question to be answered is whether or not the movie really needs to be told in this style. Could Dick's novel have been translated to the screen in any other way? Probably but the animation serves an interesting function, adding a layer of strangeness over seemingly realistic and mundane scenes. In live action, I'm not sure that Linklater could have captured the essence of Dick's novel as well or as faithfully. The animation allows Linklater and his cast to focus on the inner workings of the characters, which is really where the soul of the novel lies, without becoming overwhelmed by the sci-fi trappings. In essence, it splits the filmmaking process in two. The live action cast and crew turn inward while the artists who animate the film turn out. It's a unique partnership that certainly wouldn't work for every story but is ideally suited to Philip K. Dick.

Warner's DVD looks and sounds very good, if not perfect, and tosses in a handful of brief but interesting extras. One Summer in Austin is a 26-minute featurette on the live-action production most notable for including excerpts from a 1977 interview with Dick himself. The Weight of the Line gives only 20 minutes to the post-production. Both of these are interesting but too brief, leaving you wanting a more exhaustive look at the making of the film. Most interesting is a group audio commentary from Linklater, Reeves, producer Tommy Pallotta, author and Philip K. Dick expert Jonathan Lethem and Dick's daughter, Isa Dick Hackett. The track has some occasional patches of dead air but thankfully avoids the usual "it was great working with so-and-so" and "this was the first scene we shot on the third day" blather. It's a solid commentary that makes for an engaging listen, especially for fans of the author.

Philip K. Dick has proved to be one of the most difficult authors to adapt for the screen and I couldn't be more surprised that Richard Linklater turned out to be the guy to do it. Don't get me wrong. I think he's a very talented filmmaker but nothing in his previous movies suggested an affinity for Dick's brand of cerebral science fiction. Fortunately, A Scanner Darkly proves otherwise. Arguably a movie like this cries out for a more comprehensive special edition DVD. But until one comes along, this standard edition will have to suffice.

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

Broken Saints: The Animated Comic Epic

Broken Saints: The Animated Comic Epic
2001 (2006) - 20th Century Fox

When Broken Saints debuted online a few years back, it became an Internet phenomenon and, like most Internet phenomena, it escaped my notice completely. Until this mammoth four-disc set showed up on my doorstep, I'd never heard of Broken Saints and didn't know what to expect when I loaded up the first disc. What I found was a flawed but ambitious epic as genuinely innovative as anything I've seen. Half graphic novel, half animated serial, Broken Saints may well represent the first step towards a new kind of storytelling.

The story revolves around four strangers drawn together by shared visions of a global apocalypse.

An Iraqi soldier, an American computer programmer, a Japanese monk and the adopted daughter of a tribal chief on a remote island, these four find themselves inexorably drawn to the Pacific Northwest town of Coast City and a corporate conspiracy that threatens the lives of everyone on the planet. It's a dense story that takes its time unfolding, heavy with literary and Biblical allusions, symbols and enough references to require footnotes.

Written and directed by Brooke Burgess, Broken Saints at times bites off more than it can chew and you frequently notice the missteps made by anybody tackling their first major creative project. The references to Burgess' many influences are a bit too heavy-handed at times and he never uses two or three words to get a point across when a dozen words will do instead. But the sheer scope and ambition of the project is audacious enough to forgive many of these problems. The story is told in an innovative graphic novel style, drawn by Andrew West and brought to life by Ian Kirby. Basically we're seeing panels of a comic book complete with captions and word balloons given limited animation. If A Scanner Darkly forces you to contemplate the difference between animation and live-action, Broken Saints begs the question of why this wasn't simply published in a traditional graphic novel format. As it happens, the animation becomes an integral part of the story. The addition of music, the editing, even the movement of words on the screen all allow the story to be told in a way not possible in any other medium.

On DVD, the viewer has another option available to them. You can watch the story unfold with the original soundtrack, in which case you have to read everything, or you can select a track that gives voice to the characters. Both options have their pros and cons. The vocal performances do help clarify who's speaking, particularly early on when inner monologues switch from character to character before we've had a chance to get to know any of them. But the performances are a mixed bag, not necessarily because the actors are bad but because their readings are timed to coincide with the appearance of the dialogue on screen, resulting in some stilted, unnatural performances. I tried it both ways and ended up watching the bulk of the series with the voice-overs on, although both options have their merits.

Visually, the series looks extremely good despite the fact that it's presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. I used the zoom function on my set to fill the screen and was perfectly satisfied with the results. Both audio mixes are well done and remarkably dynamic. As for extras, this set is overflowing with goodies. Burgess, Kirby and West contribute commentaries for all ten hours of the series, most of which serves as something of a Cliff's Notes version of Broken Saints, pointing out the influences, references and parallels that run throughout. Disc one includes an A/V optimizer to calibrate your TV to ideal Broken Saints settings, a 19-minute featurette on the production of the series, a 23-minute featurette on the voice-over recording sessions, a lengthy panel discussion from the Art Institute of Vancouver, a clutch of trailers, and a couple of Easter eggs. The second disc has a lecture from the Walker Art Center, a bunch of press materials featuring TV and radio interviews with the team, the complete BIOCOM website that features prominently in the series, and an Easter egg embedded in the lecture that takes you to a whole hidden menu of bonus bonuses. The third disc features an interactive Tarot game, fan films and an exhaustive amount of DVD-ROM extras. Finally, the fourth disc has a lengthy documentary, a featurette on the team's trip to the Sundance Film Festival, galleries, the complete first chapter in its original un-retouched style, and much, much more. If you want to know more about Broken Saints after going through this set, you'll have to move to Canada and befriend the creative team.

Despite some overripe writing and inconsistent art, Broken Saints is well worth a look, particularly for fans of comic books or TV series like The X-Files and Lost. If it isn't quite up to the level of its inspirations, bear in mind that nothing like it has been attempted before. Graphic novels weren't immediately at the level of Watchmen. TV wasn't immediately producing shows like The Prisoner. This is a bold, interesting experiment that mark Burgess and his team as talents worth watching develop and could point toward a new direction for sequential art. I'd love to see someone like Neil Gaiman produce something for this new hybrid medium.

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

Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms

Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms
2006 (2007) - Starz (Anchor Bay)

Mike Mignola's big red paranormal investigator made an impressive transition to the screen with Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy. Despite that success, I was wary when I heard that the character would be featured in animated form in a series of new direct-to-DVD features. The ways in which the project could go wrong seemed to far outnumber the ways it could go right. Fortunately, Sword of Storms allays most of those fears, emerging as an entertaining if unremarkable adventure.

Ron Perlman and Selma Blair reprise their roles from the movie with Doug Jones finally given the chance to give voice to Abe Sapien, the role he physically performed (the voice was dubbed in the film by David Hyde Pierce). This time, Hellboy is sent to Japan after a possessed folklore professor.

Hellboy is quickly dispatched to an alternate dimension by the Sword of Storms. While he battles vampires with detachable heads and assorted other monsters and demons in an attempt to get back home, Liz and Abe fend off a dragon waking up after centuries spent dormant beneath the sea.

The animated Hellboy introduces a third interpretation of the universe that runs parallel between Mignola's comic book and del Toro's movie. It bears similarities to both but exists on its own. Fortunately, the animated style is pretty cool in its own right. The designs are fluid and stylized and some of the film, notably the Heads sequence, is taken directly from Mignola's stories. But while most of the animation is very good, some of it is a little too Saturday-morning cartoony, particularly a sequence with possessed household items. But for every false note like this one, there's two that are genuinely impressive. That's a ratio I can live with.

For the DVD, directors Tad Stones and Phil Weinstein team with Mignola for an engaging audio commentary. There's also a series of brief featurettes, none more than 10 minutes, focusing on Mignola's comic book, its transition to animation, the actors, the music and specific sequences, delving into the Japanese folklore that inspired them. There's also a 42-minute panel discussion from the 2006 Comic-Con in San Diego and even an original comic book.

Sword of Storms may not be a complete success but it's far from the watered-down kiddie version of Hellboy I feared it would be. It's a step in the right direction and I'll be curious to see what else can be done with the character in this medium. If they can keep it at this level, an animated B.P.R.D. series would not be unwelcome.

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

On to Part Two

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