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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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Look, Up in the Sky!
The Amazing Story of Superman

2006 (2006) - Bad Hat Harry/Prometheus (Warner Bros.)

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

Does the world need Superman? That single question has dogged the Man of Steel since the character was first conceived by teenage friends (and aspiring comic artists) Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in Cleveland, Ohio, back in 1932. Their original Superman was a bald, telepathic madman, who first appeared in their very own home-grown periodical, Science Fiction. Before long, however, Siegel and Shuster began to rethink the character as a force for good... the last survivor of a distant alien planet... a strong man with a secret identity as a newspaper reporter. The pair pitched the character for syndication as a daily comic strip, but newspaper editors quickly rejected the idea as too hokey. Siegel and Shuster went on to write and draw other moderately successful strips, and were soon creating comic books for a company called National Allied Publishing, which eventually renamed itself D.C. after its most successful publication to date, Detective Comics. In 1938, D.C. was developing a new book called Action Comics, and needed original stories for its pages. As luck would have it, Siegel and Shuster pitched their Superman character and D.C. gave it a shot. Action Comics #1 appeared that Spring with Superman on the cover. Arriving as he did during the midst of America's Great Depression and in the unsettling period leading up to World War II, the idea of a hero who fought for good, for justice and for the everyman seemed to tap into the collective Zeitgeist of the time. Superman was an almost immediate hit... because he gave people hope.

Within a few short years, Superman was a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He was the star of a classic weekly radio series with a nation-wide audience of millions. And he appeared on the big screen for the first time in a series of landmark animated shorts released by Paramount and crafted by Max and Dave Fleischer. Eventually, actor Kirk Alyn wore the cape and tights in a live action theatrical serial. With the arrival of TV, Superman took the form of beloved film star George Reeves throughout the 1950s. He reemerged on TV in Saturday morning cartoons to entertain children in the 1970s. And then in 1978, film producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind decided to return the Man of Steel to the big screen as a feature film... and director Richard Donner and his then-unknown star, Christopher Reeve, made an entire generation of filmgoers believe that a man could fly.

You know the rest of the story, of course... or at least parts of it. But you might be surprised at just how much you don't know about the character. Directed by filmmaker Kevin Burns (who also created the Empire of Dreams documentary Star Wars Trilogy DVD release) and produced by Superman Returns director Bryan Singer, Look, Up in the Sky! chronicles the history of the Man of Steel in all his many incarnations. It examines his successes and his missteps, his influence and his evolution. You'll learn how the various elements of the classic mythology surrounding the character came to be, and of the strange twists and turns the character took in the pages of D.C.'s comics over the years. And you'll learn how the character has been continually re-imagined over his more than seventy years of existence, to remain relevant in ever changing times.

Look, Up in the Sky! is a well assembled documentary, and certainly manages to hold your interest for its 110-minute running time (20 minutes longer than the recent A&E cable broadcast version). There's a lot of fascinating ground to cover, and a number of surprises. I certainly didn't realize that at least one psychiatrist spoke out against the character in the 1950s, even going so far as to call Superman a Fascist. I also never knew that when the Adventures of Superman TV series went off the air following George Reeves' tragic death in 1959, that the producers tried to keep it alive with animals in the starring roles (and you'll see footage from that unaired pilot here)! And what was the deal with that disco Superman TV special from the 70s?! Yikes.

Burns has interviewed a host of people involved with the character over the years, from 1950s TV actors Noel Neill (Lois) and Jack Larson (Jimmy), to Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner, to such comic fans as actor Mark Hamill and even KISS lead singer Gene Simmons (who knew?). Of course, as the current lamp keeper of the franchise, Bryan Singer and his collaborators on the soon to premiere Superman Returns are interviewed as well. I must say, I was particularly interested to hear producer Jon Peters acknowledge how off-track he'd been throughout the 1990s in his own various and failed efforts to being Superman back into theaters (with such directors as Tim Burton, McG and Michael Bay). I have a lot of respect for the guy, to admit what he does here (you have to give him credit... at least his heart was in the right place). And it's certainly interesting to see the affect that the tragedy of 9/11 has had on the Superman character.

Still, I will say that Look, Up in the Sky! isn't quite the home run fans might have hoped for. As in-depth as the documentary seems in covering the Man of Steel's early years, once it gets to the period of the 1970s feature films, the later TV incarnations, and the theatrical development hell the character fell into in the 1990s, it starts to cover way too much ground way too quickly. I'd personally love to have seen MUCH more on the different failed film productions. One can only hope the dearth of such material here is due to its being covered in greater detail in new documentaries for Warner's forthcoming Superman Ultimate DVD Collection (if that IS the case, it might actually explain why it was only covered lightly here). Also, while actor Dean Cain is interviewed for his work in Lois and Clark, Tom Welling of Smallville surprisingly isn't (although he does appear in clips from the show). And nowhere do we see or hear from artist Alex Ross, who has painted some of the most iconic and classic images of the Man of Steel to date (although you do see a single Ross painting, of Superman looking up to first-responders from 9/11). In any case, despite these omissions, Look, Up in the Sky! remains a highly enjoyable viewing experience and a must-have DVD for any fan of the Man of Steel. Just be sure you watch through the credits for a great bit of outtake footage of Marlon Brando vamping as Jor-El. Classic!

As released on DVD by Warner Bros., Look, Up in the Sky! offers a terrific anamorphic widescreen video presentation, in its original 1.78:1 production aspect ratio. The image quality is fantastic, crisp and clean with vibrant color, deep contrast and very little digital compression artifacting. The audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, but it's mostly given over to narrator Kevin Spacey, so the mix isn't terribly enveloping. Still, you'll occasionally hear the rear channels kicking in from time to time for atmospheric effect. The classic John Williams score is used throughout, and it sounds every bit as good as you remember it.

The regular DVD release of Look, Up in the Sky! includes no extras to speak of, unless you consider preview trailers for other Warner films and DVD releases a bonus. To be fair, there IS a trailer for Superman Returns, but it's non-anamorphic and you can't select if from the menu, so I don't consider it a real special feature.

I should note here, however, that Best Buy is offering an exclusive "limited edition" version of this DVD release (for about $5 more) that includes different cover art, a cardboard slipcase, a set of 5 poster art cards for all of the live action feature films, and a second DVD containing 12 of Bryan Singer's video journals from the set of Superman Returns. The specific journals included are:

#4 - Up, Up and Away
#5 - If You Build It
#6 - Sure This Is Safe?
#10 - To Fly
#11 - Clark Returns
#14 - Wind Up and the Pitch
#15 - Storyboarded
#16 - Santa's Grotto
#17 - Untitled
#18 - Return Your Tray Tables...
#20 - Love Previs
#23 - Derailed

All are presented in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio. Note that all 27 of these journals (seen previously on ) and much more are expected to be included on the November DVD release of Superman Returns.

So does the world really need Superman? The answer, of course, is a resounding yes... as this documentary proves beyond doubt. In fact, we need him now more than ever. Sure, there will occasionally be times when things are good, and Superman will seem outdated or hokey or unnecessary. But there too will eventually be times again when change becomes overwhelming, when the course of history becomes unsettled or uneasy... and we'll need to believe again. When those days come, it's comforting to know that Superman will be there waiting for us. For all those who have ever worn a towel as a cape and leapt off the living room couch with dreams of soaring up, up and away, Look, Up in the Sky! is warmly recommended.

Superman: The Fleischer Animated Adventures

The Superman Cartoons of Max & Dave Fleischer
1941-43 (1998) - Fleischer Studios/Paramount (Image)

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

The Complete Superman Collection: Diamond Anniversary Edition
1941-43 (2000) - Fleischer Studios/Paramount (Image/Bosko)

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

Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection
1941-43 (2006) - Fleischer Studios/Paramount (VCI Entertainment)

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

The Superman Cartoons of Max & Dave FleischerThe Complete Superman Collection - Diamond Anniversary EditionSuperman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!Buy this DVD now at Amazon!Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Given that Superman Returns about to soar into theaters, and with the DVD release of the new Look, Up in the Sky! documentary (reviewed above), interest in the original 1940s animated shorts of Max and Dave Fleischer is likely to peak once again. With that in mind, I thought I'd take a look a trio of the available DVD releases of these serials, including the most recent from VCI.

Few pieces of animation can be said to have been as influential as the seminal Fleischer Superman cartoons. Originally released by Paramount, they appeared in theaters as serialized short subjects in front of the studio's feature films of the day. The Fleischers utilized the then pioneering technique of rotoscoping to bring their vividly-colorful characters to life, and set them against highly-stylized and vibrant backgrounds. The stories themselves were fantastic and sensational... even if the characterizations were kept simple. At least one of the shorts would eventually become controversial for its racist wartime depictions of Japanese evil-doers. But so popular, daring and successful were the Superman shorts at the time, that they were nominated for an Academy Award in 1942. These 17 classic adventures have thrilled and dazzled fans of the Man of Steel for generations. They include:

Superman (a.k.a. The Mad Scientist)
The Mechanical Monsters
Billion Dollar Limited
The Arctic Giant
The Bulleteers
The Magnetic Telescope
Electric Earthquake
Terror on the Midway
The Japoteurs
Eleventh Hour
Destruction, Inc.
The Mummy Strikes
Jungle Drums
The Underground World
Secret Agent

Given their age, however, the Fleischer Superman shorts have long since fallen into the public domain. That means that the quality you find them in on the various available DVD releases (and there are MANY) varies wildly from surprisingly decent (in the case of the second Image/Bosko release) to absolutely terrible (just about everything else).

Image has actually released these shorts on DVD twice. The first release came in 1998, just after the debut of the DVD format itself, on a disc called simply The Superman Cartoons of Max & Dave Fleischer. All 17 shorts were included in their original full frame aspect ratio, mastered from the best available source at the time. Unfortunately, that best available source was analog videotape. The resulting video was way too soft looking, had washed out color and suffered significant contrast and image detail problems. It was also riddled with MPEG-2 compression artifacting. The audio was LPCM format mono of adequate, if lackluster, quality. Still, it was the best quality available at the time. The DVD also included the 1944 Private Snafu animated spoof of the Fleischer series, Snafuperman (it's also available on Image's The Complete Uncensored Private Snafu DVD release, just FYI).

Two years later, Image and the animation experts at Bosko Video teamed up to produce the best DVD release of the Fleischer series to date, The Complete Superman Collection: Diamond Anniversary Edition. This time, the producers went back to high-quality, original 35mm film prints of the 17 shorts to make their video transfers, and then did additional digital clean-up on top of that. The result was significantly improved image quality, with greater overall detail and much improved color and contrast. The shorts still looked a little soft, but the difference from the previous release was not minor. Even the mono audio was improved in its fidelity and clarity, this time offered in Dolby Digital format. No extras were included, and the Snafuperman short was omitted, but this allowed for better MPEG-2 digital compression, again adding to the overall image quality.

Just recently, no doubt timed to take advantage of the all the Super hype, VCI bowed its own version of the Fleischer series on DVD, on a disc called Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection. While it certainly includes the most extras I've seen to date (including a liner notes booklet, the Snafuperman short, a trailer for the 1948 Kirk Alyn live action serial, text bios of all the voice actors and even a phone interview with actress Joan Alexander (who played Lois), the 17 shorts themselves seem to have been sourced once again from old analog videotapes. The liner notes claim that these shorts were transferred from original 35mm film prints, like the Image/Bosko disc, but I don't believe it for a minute. If they were, whoever did the transfer work did an awful job. Comparing the Image/Bosko release to this, the difference is just night and day. VCI's release looks terrible, and it's obvious that whoever handled the video artificially boosted the color saturation and the contrast to try to make up for the inadequacies in the source material. The bass levels in the mono audio (presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 mono) have been artificially boosted as well, and it's no help. As for the extras, the Snafuperman short is available elsewhere (as I've noted) and the Kirk Alyn serial itself is on its way to DVD from Warner later this year. Only the audio interview with Alexander is of any real interest, but it's poorly recorded and a bit too fawning and fanboy-ish for my taste.

If you can't wait to see these shorts - and as great as they are, we certainly understand if you can't - The Complete Superman Collection: Diamond Anniversary Edition from Image and Bosko is definitely the disc to buy (it's the one in the middle of the DVD covers pictured above). Amazon has been selling it for just $10 lately, and in terms of video quality, everything else just pales in comparison. However, it's worth pointing out that Warner is currently preparing a restoration of the Fleischer Superman shorts from genuinely original film elements, and has plans to release them later this year as part of (or in conjunction with), their Superman Ultimate DVD Collection. If the clips of this restored footage seen in the the new Look, Up in the Sky! documentary are any indication, the quality is going to be absolutely phenomenal. It should blow away all previous home video releases of these shorts in any format. In any case, whether you buy the Image/Bosko disc now or you wait for the Warner release later in 2006, I guarantee you'll get a thrill out of the Fleischers' landmark adventures. As classic animation work goes... they're truly super.

Bill Hunt
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