On Blu-ray: Up and Monsters, Inc.

Up and Monsters, Inc. on Blu-ray
The new Blu-ray Disc (BD) version of Up — released on the same day as the BD of director Pete Docter’s debut effort, Monsters, Inc. — is a revelation in at least one regard: it demonstrates that 2D is better.

Like most recent animated films, Up was released into theaters this summer in both traditional “flat” and 3D stereoscopic versions. Viewers in 3D theaters paid extra and wore those goofy 3D glasses for the privilege; they were repaid with a technically adroit presentation that added a sense of depth to the film’s richly imagined world. Nobody right now does animation as well as Pixar, and the stereo version of Up was undoubtedly a class act. Everything was gorgeously defined in the 3D space, from the textures of characters’ faces, clothing and hair to the sense of immense distance and open space that dominates the film’s second half.

But as much fun as it can be, there’s something unnatural about watching a film in 3D, too. There are close-ups of Carl, Up‘s elderly main character, that I remember from my theatrical screening only because I was marveling at the perfect round bulbousness of his nose, edging out toward the boundaries of the movie screen itself — or was it pushing out, slightly, into the audience space? That’s something 3D in a movie does: it invites you to concentrate on the single element that stands out most in the frame, distracting you from the overall composition. Honestly, that’s anathema to the way I watch movies. I’m the guy sitting there with his eyes scanning the entire picture, grabbing hold of sight jokes and telling details in the set dressing, appreciating the texture of the image, looking for the sidelong details that help make a given shot perfect. Blu-ray, of course, encourages that kind of viewing. You can even stop the movie and go back to make sure you fully digested a shot (I recommend this only on repeat viewings, not first expeditions). Watching a film in 3D on a big screen, with an axis of Z information added to the traditional flat X and Y, I often feel like there’s way too much going on to take it all in.

There’s one more thing that 3D does, and I think of it as a dirty little secret. Because of the way a single-projector digital 3D set-up works — essentially, each of your eyes sees less than half the total light being output by the projector — the overall brightness of the picture is dramatically reduced. (IMAX 3D mitigates this problem by using two synchronized projectors.) Thus, movie theaters that plan to show 3D films pay to install a special, highly reflective screen that’s designed to maximize the amount of light bounced back at the audience. But the picture is still dimmer than it should be. Compounding the problem at my screening, the theater’s screen wasn’t exactly clean, creating a dirty-window effect that was occasionally disconcerting, as when a character in the film occupied the same space as the Coke splatters.

None of that is a problem for the well-equipped home viewer. The Blu-ray version of Up is utterly marvelous, presenting the show for home viewing in a flat version with the film’s brightness of image, intensity of color, and completeness of frame absolutely intact. The trade-off is a winning proposition. I saw more in the picture than I had seen in the theater, and was able to better appreciate the nuances of character design, the intricacies of texture, and the scope of the world the Pixar team created. There’s a lot to be said for a giant-screen presentation, but as home viewing goes, Up is just about the most rich and vibrant thing going.

Disney is releasing both Up and Pete Docter’s previous directorial effort, Monsters, Inc., in feature-loaded Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo sets on the same day. Watching the two movies back to back gives a good sense of how Docter’s story sense has developed. Monsters, Inc. has a prodigious imagination and quite a bit of heart, but it’s perhaps the least free-wheeling of Pixar’s movies. Docter’s story choices in the earlier film are blandly conventional, and at its worst the film’s style strays into the kind of one-liners and pop parody found in Shrek, released the same year. The film feels strait-jacketed not just by a transparent adherence to formulaic principles of plotting and characterization but also by the presence of Billy Crystal in one of the only voice performances in Pixar history that fails to melt into the whole, subjugating the personality of the actor to the character on screen. For better and worse, Mike Wazowski is Billy Crystal.

The movie is still hugely fun, even though it drags a bit as it forces its way into a third act. The fantastical idea of a parallel world where multifarious monsters work on a massive assembly-line-like “Scare Floor,” hopping through extra-dimensional doors into children’s bedrooms where they collect the sustaining energy contained in the kids’ screams, feels at home with any number of great conceits from children’s literature. The Pixar team has envisioned it with a winning combination of simplicity and virtuosity, focusing on character and performance and scaling up when it matters.

Again, the Blu-ray Disc is an ideal presentation venue, translating the film’s riot of color into a compelling HD image. The groundbreaking work Pixar’s technical team did on the film is placed in sharp relief here. In one of the Blu-ray special features — a new “roundtable” discussion featuring Docter with key collaborators Darla Anderson, Bob Peterson, and Lee Unkrich talking about the creative process — he singles out a shot in the film where James P. Sullivan, the big blue beast voiced by John Goodman, has collapsed on a desolate snowscape, creating a set of daunting yet irresistible challenges for the VFX team, which strutted its collective stuff by sprinkling Sulley’s fur with snow particles after first insisting that it couldn’t be done. The final shot is shown off to incredibly good effect on this disc. The snowy ground looks absolutely photoreal — you’re tempted to reach out and touch it — and Sully looks utterly magical.

Both of the discs feature a dynamic, immersive sound mix, with the 7.1 DTS MA track on Up boasting the more expansive audio stage, with terrific breadth and range. I didn’t necessarily hear my rear speakers firing up directionally, but they sure contributed to the picture’s sound field — surround is rarely this enveloping. Monsters, Inc. has slightly more busy sound design, courtesy of the great Gary Rydstrom, with lots of directional effects putting your 5.1 configuration through its paces without burying the dialogue or music. I was listening to the compressed “core” version of both lossless tracks.

Extra features are plentiful — not always a good thing, but the Pixar folks are such good talkers that the discs are pretty much a pleasure from start to finish. On Up, I was especially fond of “Adventure is Out There,” a 22-minute feature about the team’s trip to Venezuela, where they visited the towering sandstone cliffs that inspired the realization of Up‘s South American landscape. What sounds like at first blush like an ostentatious holiday on Disney’s dime is revealed to have been a crucial part of the creative process, giving key Pixar people not just the visual cues that would help them build their CG world, but but also a sense of shared experience — like getting caught in the rain, with precious little shelter, in an environment that resembles an alien planet — that informed the story. Docter’s audio commentary, delivered with co-director Bob Peterson, is not just smart and engaging but it’s bolstered by the addition of storyboards and conceptual drawings that pop up on screen as you watch the film and listen to them talk. It’s a good example of advanced Blu-ray technology serving the needs of the content rather than drawing attention to itself. A new-to-home-video short, “Dug’s Special Mission,” is a cute piece of animation that shows what kind of day the film’s crowd-pleasing talking dog was having before he stumbled across Carl and Russell. The disc also includes “Partly Cloudy,” a full-fledged Pixar short that is, as usual, must-view material.

Monsters, Inc. has plenty of making-of material, some of it ported in standard-definition from the exhaustive DVD-Video version, but much of it redone at HD resolution. The artwork looks great on an HD screen, but too many pictures are reduced to small windows taking up just a fraction of the available space. (C’mon, Disney — go full-screen with this stuff!) As the new-to-Blu-ray features go, the aforementioned roundtable discussion is enlightening and surprisingly entertaining, but the inclusion of a featurette on the creation of a Monsters, Inc.-themed attraction at Tokyo Disneyland feels like an opportunistic sop to corporate synergies, and I object on principle.

Finally, I note that Disney’s packaging of the two-disc Blu-ray editions of both movies along with an extra DVD version and a “digital copy” for your iPod, etc., is quite convenient. It had better be — the over-$40 price tag both of these discs carry is frankly outrageous. Still, you can easily find them at a substantial discount, and Pixar’s movies are worth a little fiscal trauma. And if great audiovisual quality is the thing (and it is) both of these discs have that. In spades. Monsters, Inc. is warmly recommended, and Up is a must-buy.

Leave a Reply