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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy
2001-2003 (2010) - Wingnut Films/New Line (Warner Bros.)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on April 6th, 2010
Theatrical Editions released previously on DVD (1/2/3)


Film Ratings (Fellowship/Towers/King): A-/A-/A
Video (Fellowship/Towers/King - 1-20): 17/18.5/18.5
Audio (Fellowship/Towers/King - 1-20): 17.5/18/18
Extras (Overall): C+

The first thing you need to know about Warner's new Blu-ray box set of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, is that it contains the original Theatrical Editions of all three films in the series. Now... some fans have complained about this, saying that Warner SHOULD have included the better Extended Edition versions instead, or included BOTH versions. I am, however, am not one them.

Director Peter Jackson decided to hold the longer versions for now, because he wants to take the time to create a much more elaborate Blu-ray box set - with all new extras - and release it closer to forthcoming Hobbit films. Warner has, in fact, confirmed that they will be released at a later date. In the meantime, many Rings fans DO want these versions on Blu-ray too (myself included)... and the simple fact is that for most casual movie fans, the theatrical cuts are more than enough to satisfy. So this box set meets those needs perfectly. I'm also betting it'll help sell a LOT of Blu-ray players this year, thereby helping to drive the format's continued growth, and that can only be a good thing.

The second thing you need to know - though I shouldn't have to tell you - is that these films are terrific. No, they're not quite as good as the Extended Editions, but the Theatrical Editions are still wonderful in their own right. I'm not going to talk in more detail about each film individually, because I've reviewed the 2-disc versions of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King on DVD in exacting detail before (click the links for that). Suffice it to say that this is, without question, the best and most satisfying epic film trilogy in the history of the cinema. And while a few of you newbies might think I'm overstating the case, the rest of you have actually SEEN the films and know I'm correct. Unlike even the beloved Star Wars and Godfather sagas (each of which, though wonderful, has its weak installments), Rings is a trilogy that starts incredibly strong, only gets better and raises the stakes in the middle, and then saves its very best for last. That's a rare thing indeed.

The third thing you should know about this Blu-ray release, is that the A/V presentation quality is very, very good overall. The films are presented in full 1080p video (using the VC-1 codec), in the original 2.40:1 scope aspect ratio. Fellowship isn't quite as crisp and detailed as the other two films, though I suspect this is less a BD mastering issue and has more to do with the film's actual post-production. Fellowship was completed first, on a tighter budget (as New Line didn't yet know whether its financial bet on the trilogy was going to pay off), and I distinctly recall from my own theatre experiences that the first film looked softer, a bit uneven and more "digitally processed" than the others. I've compared the BD transfer to an HD satellite broadcast of the film (a recording of which I have on my hard drive), and the same issues are apparent there too. Fellowship's transfer is still generally good and quite watchable. It's just that Two Towers and Return of the King are absolutely fantastic, with abundant detail and crisp, refined textures. (Keep in mind, the latter two films benefited from a greater budget and the fact that the post production process evolved and improved from film to film.) Color and contrast are outstanding on all three. There's a bit of DNR applied here and there, as there is on almost every film these days, but it's only an occasional distraction on the first film.

[Editor's Note: Much is made online of the evils of DNR on Blu-ray and other HD presentations. Sometimes that's absolutely justified (Patton, Pan's Labyrinth) and sometimes it's less so. It's important to note that with the Digital Interpositive (D.I.) process used in the post production of so many films these days, DNR is just one more tool in the post production toolbox, not unlike color timing. Just because there's DNR visible on a Blu-ray, that doesn't automatically mean it was done specifically in the BD mastering process. It's often applied by the filmmakers in post production as well, prior to the film's appearance in theatres. DNR is a tool, and like any tool it can be used to both positive and negative effect. So the issue of DNR is far more complicated - particularly with regard to new and recent films - than you'd think based on some of the online discussions of the subject.]

Moving on to the sound, the new DTS-HD MA 6.1 lossless mixes are big, spacious and natural sounding, with smooth imaging, lively surrounds and satisfying bass. A Dolby Surround track is also included, and subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French and Spanish. Upon comparison, these Blu-rays are a massive improvement over even the previously outstanding 4-disc DVD sets - so much in fact so that I now have a very hard time watching the standard-def discs. Lord of the Rings was meant for Blu-ray and doesn't disappoint in that score.

And finally, the last thing you need to know here, is that this set is essentially a direct port of the previous 2-disc DVDs, so virtually all of those extras have been carried over here. In fact, the special features DVD discs for each film here are almost identical to the special features discs from the original sets. The only difference is that the original videogame preview trailers (for EA's The Two Towers, The Return of the King and The Battle for Middle-earth Continues games) have been replaced by trailers for newer and future Lord of the Rings videogames from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. This new Blu-ray set also adds bonus Digital Copy versions of each film for those who want 'em portable. So unless you really cared about those original game featurettes, you can safely sell your 2-disc DVD versions to offset the Blu-ray upgrade cost. Here's a complete breakdown of the content in this 9-disc set:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Disc One (Blu-ray) - the Theatrical Edition film (HD), both teaser trailers and the final theatrical trailer (HD), the Lord of the Rings Trilogy "supertrailer" (HD), The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest videogame trailer (SD) and The Lord of the Rings: War in the North videogame trailer (HD)

Disc Two (DVD) - 3 behind-the-scenes specials/documentaries (Welcome to Middle Earth, Quest for the Ring and A Passage to Middle Earth), 15 Lord of the featurettes, 6 TV spots, Enya's May it Be music video, Special Extended DVD Edition preview and The Two Towers film preview

Disc Three (DVD) - Digital Copy version of the film

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Disc One (Blu-ray) - the Theatrical Edition film (HD), the teaser and theatrical trailer (HD), the Lord of the Rings Trilogy "supertrailer" (HD), The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest videogame trailer (SD) and The Lord of the Rings: War in the North videogame trailer (HD)

Disc Two (DVD) - 2 behind-the-scenes specials/documentaries (On the Set - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return to Middle Earth), Sean Astin's The Long and Short of It short film, The Making of The Long and Short of It featurette, 8 Lord of the featurettes, 16 TV spots, Emiliana Torrini's Gollum's Song music video, Special Extended DVD Edition preview and The Return of the King film preview

Disc Three (DVD) - Digital Copy version of the film

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Disc One (Blu-ray) - the Theatrical Edition film (HD), both theatrical trailers (HD), the Lord of the Rings Trilogy "supertrailer" (HD), The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest videogame trailer (SD) and The Lord of the Rings: War in the North videogame trailer (HD)

Disc Two (DVD) - 3 documentaries (The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Vision, A Filmmaker's Journey: Making The Return of the King and National Geographic Special - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), 6 Lord of the featurettes, Special Extended DVD Edition preview (SD) and 13 TV spots

Disc Three (DVD) - Digital Copy version of the film

Note that the Blu-rays also feature Warner BD-Live connectivity. So all in all, that's not too bad in terms of value. I'm especially happy to see all the trailers in HD here. As far as packaging, you get a glossy, embossed slipcase containing 2 Blu-ray plastic cases. One of them is thicker, and contains 6 discs (the 3 film Blu-rays and the 3 extras DVDs). The second is a standard thickness case and contains the 3 Digital Copy discs and some promotional inserts.

Look... I'm not gonna lie to you. Would I have preferred the Extended Editions on Blu-ray? You bet your battle axe I would. And I get that some of you don't want to be double-dipped again. But for me, as a HUGE fan of these films, the chance to see even these Theatrical Editions on Blu-ray in very good 1080p video quality, with outstanding lossless audio, is simply NOT something to be passed up. So I say find a really good sale price (Amazon has the set for 30-40% off as I write this and you can bet there will be LOTS of retail discounting on this title), bring 'em home and enjoy! For my money, there just isn't a better way to kill off a whole day's viewing on the Blu-ray format.

[One Final Comment: Early reviews of this set - by those who have actually seen the discs - have ranged from wildly positive to wildly negative and almost everything in between, and the set is currently the topic of sometimes heated debate in many A/V enthusiast forums. The controversy notwithstanding, I stand 100% by this review. To put things in perspective (an all too rare thing online these days), it's only fair to point out that much of the negativity about this set appeared LONG before anyone had actually seen the discs, and was based on the fact that Warner announced the theatrical cuts instead of the preferred extended editions, leading to claims in many quarters that fans were being ripped off. (One needs only to read the reviews - all written prior to street date - to see this phenomenon.) This fan anger has been perpetuated by select early negative reviews of the video quality - particularly with regards to the Fellowship transfer. A few of these are reasonable and rationally argued, but many are overblown. Many people simply expect absolute "perfection" every time they spin a Blu-ray, and individual notions of what constitutes "perfect" seem to vary. What's more, occasionally even very rational and experienced reviewers and enthusiasts can lose sight of the fact that certain films can only EVER look so good. This is compounded by the fact that, when the film in question is a personal favorite, our own expectations can at times be unreasonably high. The bottom line is this: If you're a fan of these films (or of ANY film being released on Blu-ray), we STRONGLY encourage you to look at the discs for yourself and make up your own minds, rather than simply relying on the secondhand opinions of others, no matter how trustworthy - even ours here at The Bits. Rent them first if you feel more comfortable doing that prior to buying them, or check out a friend's copy. But use your OWN eyes, and make up your OWN minds. That's good advice in a LOT of things these days, not just when judging Blu-ray quality. Personally, I suspect that when most of you get these discs home and watch them yourselves, you'll wonder what all the fuss was about.]

Bill Hunt, Editor

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Blu-ray Disc)

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Fantastic Mr. Fox
2009 (2010) - American Empirical/20th Century Fox (Fox)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 23rd, 2010
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD Master Audio

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B

Like the beloved children's story by author Roald Dahl upon which it's based, director Wes Anderson's big screen/stop-motion animated version of Fantastic Mr. Fox tells the tale of a particularly sly member of the species Vulpes vulpes. The titular Mr. Fox (wonderfully voiced by George Clooney) is always working some new scheme.

He once promised his wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), that if they escaped a particularly nasty chicken coop trap, he'd turn over a new leaf. But an animal just can't change its stripes, so while (for the most part) Fox's schemes have usually improved the lives of his family... occasionally they backfire terribly. Case in point: His latest effort to raid the farms of the dreaded Misters Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

Against the advice of his lawyer/badger friend, Badger (Bill Murray), Fox and his building super/opossum friend, Kylie, have plans to raid said farms of all the produce and poultry they can carry. When his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) learns of this, he wants to come along and help. But Fox doesn't think Ash is strong and crafty enough to be of use, so instead he takes along Kristofferson - Ash's stronger, craftier cousin - causing resentment from his son. Unfortunately, during one of the raids, Kristofferson is captured, and the farmers decide to strike back at the would-be thieves with brute force (backhoes, dynamite, etc). So now Fox's schemes have backfired not just on him, but his whole family and ALL the animals in the Valley. And he's got to find a way to set things right, before it's too late.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is simply a delightful piece of work - one of Wes Anderson's best films to date, and certainly his most accessible. While Anderson's painterly-specific style of direction and production design can be a bit off-putting to some mainstream audiences, it's perfectly suited to the stop-motion animated format, in which everything is hand-crafted to be just so. Each frame of the film is carefully composed, with delightful detail in every corner. The characters are realized with the perfect touch of visual whimsy, and the film's soundtrack, which mixes original score (by composer Alexandre Desplat) with both popular and obscure tracks (from the likes of The Rolling Stones, Burl Ives and The Beach Boys), enhances the story in unexpectedly good ways.

But at their core, all of Anderson's films are about relationships, in particular those of the family. It's easy to write his characters off as crazies... because they generally ARE all a bit odd. But they're also so much more, and that's really Anderson's point. After all, aren't we all a bit crazy? Each of us has his or her own unique blend of obsessions, compulsions, quirks and insecurities. Each of us has unique strengths and weaknesses. And that's okay, as long as we work together. Because in the end, those are the very things that make life interesting. Here, as in virtually all of his films, Anderson's characters are each shown to have value, no matter how offbeat they might be. All they really want is to contribute, and find the acceptance and approval of family and friends. As film messages go, you could do a whole lot worse.

The A/V quality of Fox's Blu-ray is excellent. The film's colors are stylized to a certain range of autumn/earth tones, but they're gorgeous. Contrast is satisfying, and all the various little textures of fur, cloth, grass and the like are perfectly rendered in the image. You see every little bit of Anderson's carefully manicured visual tapestry. Sonically, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is pleasing and natural, replicating the theatrical experience nicely and supporting the images well. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a perfect film for viewing in high-definition, and the Blu-ray delivers.

It's worth noting that Fox's DVD version includes a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes that run about 7 minutes each, including From Script to Screen and Still Life (Puppet Animation), a quick, 1-minute A Beginner's Guide to Whack-Bat - basically just parts of the Whack-Bat scene from the film edited to look like a classic educational film - and a theatrical trailer. Fortunately, the Blu-ray adds 4 more featurettes, including The Look of Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Puppet Makers, The Cast and Bill and His Badger. In fact, presented together, all the featurettes combine to make up their own documentary, called Making Mr. Fox Fantastic. It's actually quite good, running about 45-minutes in all. You get a great look at the production effort involved, as well as glimpses of the extensive art and animation work and also the actors recording their lines together in unconventional locations. Bill Murray appears often and is as charming and funny as ever. He's clearly fascinated by the stop-motion process. The wife of the late Roald Dahl also appears, and seems quite tickled by the extent to which Anderson and his team have gone to honor the spirit of her husband's writing. The Blu-ray further adds a very short Fantastic Mr. Fox: The World of Roald Dahl featurette, and it's also a 3-disc Combo pack, which includes the separate DVD version (to give to the kids) and a Digital Copy version on disc as well. Value-wise, that's not a bad deal (though, content-wise, you do still end up hoping that Criterion gets a crack at the film someday).

I've long been a big fan of Wes Anderson's work, but all too often I'm usually one of the few people in the theatre laughing at his jokes. Not so this time. Fantastic Mr. Fox is charming, enjoyable and perfect for the whole family - except perhaps the very youngest children. True to the original Dahl story, there's plenty here to amuse both adults and kids alike. Pixar's Up might have swayed the Academy but, good though it was, nothing from last year topped Mr. Fox in the Best Animated Feature category in my book. Both the film and the Blu-ray (find a good sale price!) are highly recommended.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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