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

The Princess and the Frog: Combo Pack (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Princess and the Frog: Combo Pack
2009 (2010) - Disney
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 16th, 2010
Also available on DVD and single-disc Blu-ray.


Film Rating: B+
Video (1-20): 19.5
Audio (1-20): 18.5
Extras: B

For some reason or other, Disney's latest animated film - their official return to hand-drawn animation - slipped under the radar for a lot of people, myself included. I don't know what it was, but I just didn't have the urge to see it in theatres. Perhaps it was the fact that it's still so much of the same old Disney story formula, and I've just outgrown it. Perhaps it was the whole "voodoo" thing. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that, as an adult, the hand-drawn animated I've seen from the likes of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli just seems more sophisticated.

Whatever the case, I missed this film in theatres, and only just watched it for the first time last night on Blu-ray. Well... let me tell you, it's a good film. A very good film, in fact. Better yet, in my humble opinion The Princess and the Frog is - hands down - one of the most gorgeous looking animated films Disney has ever made.

There's just something about hand-drawn animation, when it's done as well as it is here, that for me is SO much more enjoyable to watch than CG! I love Pixar's films as much as the next guy, because you know they're always going to get the story right. But this kind of more traditional animation is just gorgeous. Rich, nuanced... dazzling. And it helps that the story here is well-crafted too.

The Princess and the Frog offers a unique twist on the classic story of the princess who kissed a frog and broke the curse placed upon him, revealing him to be a prince. It's set in 1920s or 30s New Orleans, just as Jazz is coming into its own. The film follows young Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), who is trying to fulfill the dream of her late father to open a thriving club and restaurant - one filled with great food and great company. It also follows Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a Jazz-loving playboy who's been cut off by his wealthy, royal parents until he settles down and gets married. Naveen gets lured in by a voodoo doctor named Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who turns him into a frog in a scheme to hustle his parent's fortune. "Frog" Naveen soon bumps into Tiana, who's dressed as a princess for a costume ball, and gets her to kiss him, figuring this will turn him back into a prince. But Tiana is a waitress, not a real princess, and so she turns into a frog too! What follows is a chaming and music-filled journey into the deepest bayou, as Naveen and Tiana seek out the help of an elderly voodoo witch to turn them back human and help foil Facilier's plot. Special note should be given the fine leading voice cast members, and especially three key supporting voices - Michael-Leon Wooley as Louis the Croc, Jennifer Cody as Tiana's southern belle friend, Charlotte, and Jim Cummings as Ray the Firefly.

Disney's Blu-ray delivers the film in absolutely gorgeous A/V quality. The 1080p/1.78:1 video image is damn near perfect looking. Contrast, color and overall image detail are stunning, with absolutely zero defects. Even the most jaded videophiles should raise an eyebrow at how good this film looks on disc. Audio-wise, the film has a somewhat lower bar to clear, lacking as it does the sonic challenges of a modern action film. But the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is clear and natural sounding, creating a smooth and enveloping audio environment. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the film's musical score sounds fantastic.

The Blu-ray includes some good extras, beginning with a special viewing mode that allows you to compare the final film with "work in progress" rough animation (in a window in the upper-left corner of the screen). There's also an audio commentary by the film's co-writers and directors. There are 4 deleted scenes, finished only in rough form, introduced by the film's directors. A series of good featurettes takes a look at various aspects of the animation process and the Disney animation legacy - I'll let you discover the details of those for yourself. There's a set of galleries featuring production art for the film, broken down by characters, background and storyboards. You get a music video for the closing credits song by Ne-Yo. There's an interactive matching game for the kids, along with at least one Easter egg. And you get the usual Disney previews for other titles (including notably the Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 and Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Editions, coming to Blu-ray later this year, as well as a new James and the Giant Peach: Special Edition due on DVD and Blu-ray this Summer). Finally, there's BD-Live connectivity. The Blu-ray is also a 3-disc Combo Pack that includes DVD and Digital Copy versions of the film as well - you can give the DVD to the kids and rip the Digital version into your portable player for viewing on the go.

I am SO glad that Disney's come to their senses and restarted their traditional animation division! The fact is, without a real Saturday morning experience these days, and with CG having taken over the film animation category in recent years, there are all too many kids alive today who have grown up without good hand-drawn animation to appreciate. So the sad truth is, it might take Disney a few years to really grow the audience for it again. But I hope they stick with it, because if The Princess and the Frog is any indication, we're well on our way to a traditional animation renaissance. Recommended.

Bill Hunt, Editor

Apollo 13: 15th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

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Apollo 13: 15th Anniversary Edition
1995 (2010) - Imagine/Universal (Universal)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on April 13th, 2010
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD Master Audio

Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B

On April 11, 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert rocketed from the Earth on what would have been Mankind's third mission to the Moon. It's hard to believe now, some thirty-five years later, that walking on the Moon was, by then, considered so routine that most of the world had lost interest.

That quickly changed fifty-five hours into the mission however, when an explosion onboard the spacecraft ended the astronaut's dreams of going to the Moon, and nearly their lives as well. For four tense days, thousands of NASA technicians struggled heroically to overcome virtually insurmountable odds, and the entire world collectively held its breath in the desperate hope that these three brave men would return safely home.

Based loosely on the book Lost Moon, written by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo 13 is an extraordinarily gripping and accurate depiction of the doomed flight, which although a failure by mission standards, is rightly considered by many to be NASA's finest hour. Directed masterfully by Ron Howard, Apollo 13 rings honest and true from beginning to end. The script is well written by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert (Reinert also produced and directed For All Mankind, perhaps the best documentary you'll ever see on the Apollo missions). What amazes me most about this film, is the extraordinary attention paid to detail, and the way it keeps you on the edge of your seat, despite the fact that you know how it's going to end. The zero-gravity is not an effect - the filmmakers actually put the set in a NASA jet, capable simulating weightlessness by diving headlong at the ground for 30 seconds at a time. The launch sequence is simply breathtaking, and gives me a chill every time. Perhaps the greatest testament to the film, is the fact that many of the actual participants in this real-life drama, after seeing Apollo 13, felt as though they had relived the event.

Hanks (who is himself a huge fan of the space program) gives a poignant and perfectly understated performance, as mission commander Jim Lovell, a veteran astronaut on his last and greatest mission. Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise and Kathleen Quinlan all deliver some of the best performances of their careers. And Ed Harris is absolutely terrific as Gene Kranz, the stalwart Flight Director back in Mission Control, for whom "failure is not an option". There are even some great cameos to look for: B-movie mogul Roger Corman, Howard's mother, father and brother Clint (as the EECOM), Herb Jefferson, Jr. (Boomer from the original Battlestar Galactica TV series) and both Jim and Marilyn Lovell.

Universal's Blu-ray Disc offers a good, workman-like high-def transfer of the film. It's certainly not outstanding, and may in fact be the same master the studio used previously for their HD-DVD release, but it's serviceable. Color is a bit on the warm side by design, but is accurate to the theatrical experience. Contrast and overall detail are very good as well. There's light to moderate print grain visible in the image, which helps retain a film-like character, but this is somewhat undermined by the fact that the whole image has a very slightly digital appearance to it. It's not a major issue, but it does hold the transfer back from receiving higher marks. Audio is DTS-HD MA lossless and the surround mix is big, wide and natural sounding, with excellent clarity and abundant bass. Dialogue is well presented and James Horner's score sounds wonderful.

In terms of bonus content, nearly everything of consequence that was present on the previous DVD releases has carried over here. The excellent, hour-long Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13 documentary is included, and it remains terrific viewing, featuring interviews with virtually every key member of the cast and crew, as well as many of the astronauts and surviving NASA personnel who were involved in the original mission. This was available on Universal's original DVD release, as were the audio commentaries with director Ron Howard, and the real Jim and Marilyn Lovell, which are also included here. From the more recent 2-disc Anniversary Edition DVD, the Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond and Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story documentaries are included as well. Not included from the original DVD are the film's theatrical trailer and production notes - only the trailer is really missed. And from the 2-disc DVD release, the IMAX version of the film has been left out... but then the IMAX version is more than 20 minutes shorter and, in my opinion, not worth including anyway. New for Blu-ray are the usual BD-Live options, pocketBLU compatibility and a pair of new U-Control options (The Apollo Era and Tech-Splanations) that offer history and technical trivia.

Apollo 13 remains a terrific film about the best things we do as humans (and Americans) - pushing back the frontiers, exploring the wonders of the Universe and pulling together in times of crisis to overcome adversity. It's gripping, entertaining and a great film to watch with the whole family. The film is very highly recommended, and the Blu-ray is worth upgrading to if you can find a good sale price.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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