How much are you willing to spend on a Blu-ray combo pack if you don’t get any special features? I’ve posed this question in so many words in past Disney Blu-ray Roundup columns, and it’s perhaps never felt more pressing than today, specific to three of their four new releases. (We’ll get to Oz the Great and Powerful a bit later on.) One of Disney’s more prevalent decisions relative to home media in the last few years has been releasing as much of their older feature content as possible, as quickly and simply as possible. There are quite a few Disney full-length animated features that don’t yet have Blu-ray releases, but by the end of 2013, that number will be dwindling close to zero. Today, Disney releases three films from directly after their Renaissance period of the 1990s: The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Lilo & Stitch; the lack of love on their part shows, big time.
In the past, I’ve reviewed Disney Blu-rays that offer, in terms of supplements, only those that appeared on a prior DVD release. With two of these new Blu-rays, however, you won’t even get that much on the Blu-ray. And don’t hold out any hope for anything new on these three-disc combo packs; all you’ll get is the movies themselves, sneak previews for upcoming Disney films and TV shows, and, unless you buy the Atlantis Blu-ray, nothing else. (One of the discs is a Blu-ray featuring the original animated feature and its direct-to-DVD sequel. The other two discs are DVDs, one movie on each of them.) So, if you haven’t considered it with past releases, you may need to consider it now: how much is a Blu-ray worth if all you’re getting is a shinier version of the movie?
Of course, it should come as no surprise to high-definition aficionados that the original features (more on the direct-to-DVD sequels’ video transfer to come) look quite good on Blu-ray. Whatever your opinion of these movies, they all boast a wide palette of colorful animation that’s impressive to behold on an HDTV. The Emperor’s New Groove is more manic and fast-paced, much like a Looney Tunes cartoon, and its production design, inspired by Mayan architecture, comes to life quite nicely on Blu-ray. Atlantis: The Lost Empire fares a bit strangely, perhaps, because it blended hand-drawn and computer animation in bringing to life an adventurous battle in the quest for the fabled city of Atlantis, but it still looks solid. Lilo & Stitch, its wacky alien storyline aside, is a film that brings Hawaiian culture to life via watercolor-style animation. Though some of the backgrounds in this film—as well as in The Emperor’s New Groove—may be a bit flat, the crispness and pure brightness in each feature’s Blu-ray is impressive. If you’re double-dipping with any of these Blu-rays and just want the movie, price be damned, you’ll be content in your purchase.
Of course, you’re not just buying any of these movies by themselves. Much like the recent releases of movies like Pocahontas, Mulan, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, these three Blu-rays include direct-to-DVD sequels: Kronk’s New Groove, Atlantis: Milo’s Return , and Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch, respectively. And unlike the theatrical features, these sequels aren’t universally impressive, either qualitatively or technically. For whatever reason, although each of these movies was animated at DisneyToon Studios, Atlantis: Milo’s Return has not made the jump from DVD to Blu-ray safely. The character design, especially, looks extremely rough and cheap, similar to that of the Hunchback of Notre Dame sequel. One can only wonder why the Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo & Stitch sequels at least capture the look of their predecessors more accurately; the only logical presumption is that they had larger budgets. How else can you explain the painful-looking animation in this Atlantis-set followup? The movies themselves are, as you might figure, fairly slight on story and plot, more of a televisual babysitter than something truly substantive and entertaining.
Moving on, then, to the special-feature situation. In short: the Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo & Stitch have none. (A slight silver lining, New Groove fans: the special features from the two-disc DVD edition are present here. On the DVD copies. Not the Blu-ray.) And let’s be clear: I don’t mean that there are no new special features on these Blu-rays. I mean there are precisely zero of any kind. The Atlantis: The Lost Empire Blu-ray has a number of special features, though they are all from the DVD edition. Still, it’s hard to look down at old features like an audio commentary with the film’s directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and producer, Don Hahn; or a two-hour making-of documentary (yes, two full hours); or trailers. At least that Blu-ray has something outside of the same group of sneak previews. Here’s the strangest aspect of all: The Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo & Stitch have both gotten multiple DVD releases, with a vast amount of special features. (Hardcore Disney animation fans, in case you were wondering: no, the infamous Sweatbox documentary tied to Emperor’s New Groove does not appear on its Blu-ray, but then, you figured that much.) So why haven’t they made the jump to Blu-ray? The movies themselves have something of a fanbase—Stitch more than Groove—and you would think their fans are more vocal than those of Atlantis: The Lost Empire. (A cruel man would wonder if that movie has a vocal fanbase, but I’m sure you’ll correct me in the comments section.)
So is Disney underestimating how many people love these movies? Or is Disney correctly presuming that those fans don’t care about special features? Certainly, there wouldn’t be a ton of value in porting over DVD special features to a Blu-ray if there won’t be anything new to offer. And if you’re fine paying 20 dollars on Amazon for the Blu-ray editions of The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, or Lilo & Stitch, along with their direct-to-DVD sequels, you’re probably more focused on the movies as opposed to supplements. However, it would be nice if Disney treated these movies as more than redheaded stepchildren. There’s a presumption that when the Disney Renaissance, beginning with The Little Mermaid and culminating with Tarzan, ended, Disney’s quality did as well. But that’s not really true. (I don’t love any of these movies, but they’re equal in quality, I’d argue, to those Disney Renaissance-era films after The Lion King.) It would be nice if, in their home-media releases, Disney didn’t reinforce this stereotype.
But let’s move on to Disney’s last release before closing out this column, and thankfully, perhaps because the film in question is new, there are quite a few special features to dig through outside of the feature itself. Earlier this year, Disney released a new tentpole film, Oz the Great and Powerful, starring James Franco as the man who would be Oz, Michelle Williams as Glinda, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis as two witches who wish those good characters some harm. Following in the footsteps of Disney’s other recent revival of a familiar fantasy, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, Oz is a vast improvement on that shaky CGI, Tim Burton-helmed explosion, while also presenting some serious flaws in its story. And, frankly, both Franco and Kunis—playing equally pivotal roles to the mythology of Oz, though Kunis’s takes a bit longer to reveal itself—are somewhat miscast, Franco because his Wizard is apparently meant to be a mix of con man and wise father figure, and Kunis because her natural charm and verve are stifled in a more old-fashioned part. But still: better than Alice in Wonderland, which Disney clearly wanted to replicate here, is good enough.
And there are, as promised, a number of special features to choose from. If you’ve got Disney’s Second Screen app, or are so inclined to do so now, there are a handful of supplements to watch, from a Mariah Carey music video to a look at the various and sundry characters populating the world of Oz to a video of Zach Braff asking you to consider donating to that Kickstarter project of his. (Kidding: it’s a feature in which he shows off his puppeteering skills, used during his performance as the flying monkey Finley.) On the actual Blu-ray disc (and, to be clear, while there are 3D Blu-ray versions available today, this isn’t a review of that Blu-ray pack), there are even further explorations into what went into the making of this movie and its world, though there’s nothing as meaty as a director, producer, or cast commentary.
In detailing the production of this film, you may find that the most fascinating element of these special features is exactly how much of the movie was CGI and how much was real. Take the five minutes of bloopers, for instance. At least half of this video shows actors like Franco, Braff, Williams, and Kunis interacting with each other on blue-screened environments, either in full or in part. It’s immensely unnerving to see someone flub their line when they’re walking, as Williams is at one point, in a totally fake world. The blue-screen effect is consistent throughout many of the other supplements, such as a 10-minute video in which the film’s production designer, Robert Stromberg (soon to direct another Disney re-envisioned fantasy, Maleficent), describes how he helped create both the CGI and tangible environments on display in the film; or even a 20-minute video produced and directed by Franco himself, though that’s mostly a series of would-be cutting-edge interviews with him and the rest of the cast. Suffice to say, his interviewing style isn’t as groundbreaking as you (or he) may think; he may have gotten the cast to let their guard down a bit because they know him, but his questions are still fairly commonplace. The most intriguing of all the features is the one that’s only tangentially related to Oz the Great and Powerful, a short video in which some historians describe Walt Disney’s relationship to the L. Frank Baum books and his failed attempts to bring them to the screen before he died. Of course, that one might appeal more to history/Disney buffs, but it’s a fun bit of education.
Oz the Great and Powerful, depending on what you’re looking for from a new Blu-ray, is the winner of the week. Like the animated catalog releases, it looks quite stunning on Blu-ray (both in the 20 minutes before Oz arrives in the land of same, and once he’s awash in color). But, unlike those catalog releases, there actually are supplemental features, so if you’re in any way curious about how the sausage got made, you’ll get a few answers. But, if all you care about is the movie itself, then today’s a great day for you, though maybe not for your likely-lighter wallet. As always, I’d suggest you ask only one question: when you buy a Blu-ray, what do you want from it? The answer will guide you in your purchases this week.
— Josh Spiegel