DVD Animation Bonanza!

Princess Mononoke Voices of Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French). 134 minutes. 1999. Miramax/Buena Vista Home Entertainment 19300. PG-13. $32.99.

The Road to El Dorado: Special Edition Voices of Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, Armand Assante, Edward James Olmos. Directed by Eric "Bibo" Bergeron and Don Paul. Aspect ratio: 1:85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround 2.0. 89 minutes. 2000. DreamWorks 86545. PG. $26.99.

Dinosaur: Collector's Edition Voices of D.B. Sweeney, Alfre Woodard, Ossie Davis, Max Casella, Hayden Panettiere, Samuel E. Wright, Julianna Margulies, Peter Siragusa, Joan Plowright, Della Reese. Directed by Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 (English, French). Two discs. 82 minutes (film only). 2000. Buena Vista Home Video 21924. PG. $39.99.

Animation continues to search for recognition and respect. It's popular enough with audiences, but most adults view it as entertainment for children, and wouldn't be caught dead going to an animated film without an ankle-biter or two in tow. Walt Disney, certainly the most influential animator in movie history, probably nailed down this stereotype when he chose children's fairy tales as the basis for most of his animated features.

But animation can be so much more. Until the advent of computer-generated special effects, it was the most malleable of the cinematic arts, and it still allows more visual creativity than any other genre. If you can imagine it, you can animate it.

These three titles encompass all but one of the major types of animation: Japanese hand-drawn animation (often referred to as anime), conventional American hand-drawn cel animation (increasingly augmented, as here, with computer animation), and computer animation. The only technique missing in this group is stop-motion animation, most recently used with great success in Chicken Run (reviewed in our March/April 2001 issue).

Princess Mononoke is the creation of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. A cover line on the DVD jacket quotes a New York Post reviewer who called it "the Star Wars of animated features," and the description is not far off the mark. While very much a fantasy in the tradition of animated fairy tales (most Japanese anime is based on fantasy or science fiction), Mononoke is far more than that. A young prince, Ashitaka, is attacked by a demon, receives a wound that threatens his life, and sets off in search of a cure. So begins a journey that ends in an epic confrontation between a clan of humans who are using the resources of the forest and the animal forest gods who are trying to keep it as it is. The ecological theme is not heavy-handed; there are heroes and villains, but the heroes are flawed and the villains are not without redeeming qualities. It is, in short, a complex story whose characters are not always what they seem.

Japanese animation has a style very different from that of the animated features to which most American audiences are accustomed. Mononoke is gorgeously drawn, with vibrant colors and countless scenes that will make you gasp. But the motion is less fluid than you'll find in, say, a typical Disney feature. I could draw a parallel with the animation created for television, but it would be doing anime a great disservice to lean too hard on that comparison. Anime can stand on its own as a creative force to be reckoned with—I doubt that you'll find a better example of it than Princess Mononoke.

The voice characterizations on the dubbed English track are good, if a little less vibrant than the Japanese dialogue. I tried listening to the latter briefly, but found that reading the subtitles distracted me from the stunning visuals. The English track suited me fine, with the possible exception of Clare Danes' rather flat line readings as San, or Princess Mononoke, the young woman raised by the wolf-gods.

Take the PG-13 rating of this film seriously—it's not for youngsters. Though there is no nudity, there are several beheadings and more than a little blood. While the violence is not gratuitous or overly graphic, it's a bit too strong for the grade-school set. Kids may be less sensitive to this sort of thing nowadays, but that is a development to be regretted, not encouraged. The complexity of the narrative, not to mention the running time of more than two hours, are also important factors. There are no cute animal sidekicks, very little humor, and no songs. This is a serious story.

The anamorphic video transfer is gorgeous—crisp, detailed, and colorful. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack is clean, with a good sense of space. The bass is merely okay, however, and the overall balance is a little too rounded off at the top and two-dimensional in perspective. But the sound is more than effective enough to do its part in drawing you into this story, and the lack of any real extras (there are a short, unenlightening featurette and the theatrical trailer) is only a mild disappointment. No fan of animation will want to miss this DVD.

DreamWorks' The Road to El Dorado was inspired by an unusual source: the popular Bob Hope and Bing Crosby "Road" movies, seven of which were released between 1940 and 1962. Hope and Crosby played a couple of con men who invariably wound up in exotic places and in over their heads. So it is in The Road to El Dorado. Miguel and Tulio, running from one of their cons with a map to the fabled, lost city of El Dorado, end up as inadvertent stowaways on one of the ships carrying Cortes's expedition of conquest to the New World. They're discovered and locked up but manage to escape, taking Cortes's horse with them.

As it turns out, the map they're carrying is real: They discover El Dorado and are greeted by the natives as gods. Along the way they team up with a local native girl (insiders will immediately see the parallel to Dorothy Lamour, the girl-in-a-sarong fixture of every Hope/Crosby "Road" picture), experience all the delights and challenges of being a god (The Man Who Would Be King, anyone?), and finally . . . well, you didn't think I was going to tell you the whole plot, did you?

The film was only a modest success at the box office, but it's hard to see why. DreamWorks has been doing outstanding work in animation these days, and while The Road to El Dorado is not quite up to the level of its other animated features—Prince of Egypt and Chicken Run come immediately to mind—it isn't that far off. The smooth animation is vividly colorful, and there's plenty of action—including the finale (starting at chapter 24), which makes a smashing home-theater demonstration piece. Last but not least, the film is very funny. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh easily outdo the vocal and acting skills of Hope and Crosby, and many of their best lines were apparently ad-libbed.

The characters don't actually sing, but several good (if not exceptional) Elton John/Tim Rice songs back up parts of the story, and there's a fine score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell. Extras include a filmmaker's commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, DVD-ROM features, and more. The PG rating comes from one or two four-letter words and a suggestion that one of the characters has been rolling in the hay with the native-girl sidekick—an implication so subtle that most youngsters will certainly miss it.

Most important, this is an A+ transfer all the way, in both picture and sound. The crisp, brilliant colors leap off the screen, and the sound is clean, detailed, and translucent. The bass is restrained for much of the film but spectacular when it needs to be, particularly in the big finish. DTS and Dolby Digital tracks are included; I marginally preferred the DD for its slightly more open top end.

Disney's Dinosaur is the most recent example of computer animation to come out of that studio, but it was done in-house, not by Pixar (which was responsible for both Toy Story films and A Bug's Life). Dinosaur is actually a mix of computer-generated material and live-action backgrounds and is the most visually astonishing of these three films, primarily because of its stunningly photorealistic, nearly three-dimensional look.

The story is a simple one. An iguanodon egg is stolen from the nest and is eventually transported to an island free of land-based dinosaurs. The egg hatches and little Aladar is born. He is raised by a band of lemurs. The film skips over Aladar's wonder years (it was a good thing for his foster family that iguanodons were vegetarians), and the next time we see him he's fully grown and cavorting with his monkey brothers. It isn't long, however, before tragedy strikes: An asteroid strikes nearby, nearly obliterates the island, and lays waste to much of the adjoining mainland. Aladar and some of the lemurs manage to escape, and stumble on a band of surviving dinosaurs trying to get to the supposed refuge of their nesting grounds. They join the group, and encounter adventures and dangers along the way.

I'm not sure what minimum age this movie is suitable for. The villains of the story, a pair of hungry, T. rex–like carnotaurs, are quite frightening, and probably a little rough going for sensitive youngsters under the age of eight. There is little bloodshed, but the survival of the fittest is clearly going on just off-camera.

After a stunning first 10 minutes or so, showing the egg's journey to the island, the lemurs discover the egg, open their mouths, and begin discussing the situation—in English. The issues I have with the film revolve around that choice: All the "good" dinosaurs are equally chatty; the carnivores just roar a lot. This is where the idea that animation is an art form primarily suited to children raises its annoying but persistent head. Certainly Disney animation is automatically perceived that way by most parents. Disney has made an admirable and largely successful effort over the past decade to produce animated features that appeal equally to children and open-minded adults, but the creatures in Dinosaur look so real that it's difficult to accept them speaking, much less their occasionally cringe-inducing attempts at verbal humor. It would have been more dramatically satisfying had the story been told entirely without dialogue. But there's no doubt that talking dinosaurs are more appealing to children, so that's that.

Fortunately, there's so much eye- and ear-candy on display that, once you accept the dialogue, Dinosaur is a treat. I first saw this film in digital projection in Hollywood, and the images were almost unbelievably detailed. This THX-certified DVD, transferred directly from the digital source material without the usual intermediate step of a telecine transfer, is very nearly as impressive. The textures of the dinosaurs' skin and the fur on the lemurs (the latter an especially difficult effect to render digitally) are almost tactile. The motion is flawless, and the live-action backgrounds blend in perfectly with the computer-generated drawings.

The sound is even better. Some early reports suggested that the bass was less than profound. Yes, it could have been more powerful, but it's hardly anemic—the sound effects are impressive. But the attraction here is James Newton Howard's truly magical soundtrack music. In my opinion, it's the best film score of 2000, notwithstanding Hans Zimmer's and Lisa Gerard's terrific work on Gladiator. And no little credit belongs to engineer Shawn Murphy, who recorded it. Both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1-channel soundtracks are provided; I found the DTS track a little sweeter, the DD track a bit more open and crisply detailed.

This two-disc set is loaded with extras. There are two commentary tracks, an isolated sound-effects track, behind-the-scenes features, games (some clearly designed for the younger set), and DVD-ROM features. And that's just on the movie disc. The supplemental material on Disc 2 includes more on the film's development, including early design concepts, the production process, six abandoned scenes (in storyboard or partially animated form), music and sound design, and trailers and TV spots. If you don't want all of these features, a single-disc version of the film, plus some of the extras, is available for $29.99.

There have been reports that some portions of one or the other of the discs in the Dinosaur package don't play through smoothly on all DVD players, but I experienced only two problems when I viewed them on the Toshiba SD-9200 player. First, the menus took a long time to load, particularly those on Disc 2. After I made a selection, the screen went blank while the selection was loaded, the delay long enough that I began to wonder if something was broken. Second, on the sound mixdown feature, some of the screen was obscured by a solid blue patch and the rest went out of focus. But the sound mix demo played through to the finish, returning to the selection screen after it was done. I experienced no problems with the main feature. The same was true with a Sony DVP-S9000ES, but with that player the image flickered only briefly on the sound mix demo, with no blue patch, and the menus loaded a bit faster.

All three of these DVDs belong in the collection of the serious animation fan: Princess Mononoke for its narrative richness, The Road to El Dorado for its visuals, lightheartedness, and fun, and Dinosaur for its state-of-the-art computer animation. It's almost a bonus that each of them is also a first-rate DVD transfer.

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