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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
"It is not a fairy tale. It is true."
DVD ReviewWhen Toy Story was released in 1995, it broke ground as the first feature-length film created totally on computers. It was, and still is, an impressive achievement, refined in later films like Antz, Toy Story 2, and Shrek. But up until 2001, no one had tried to create photo-realistic human characters with computers. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, based on, but bearing little resemblance to, the popular videogame series, is a true cinematic first. It's one thing to animate a talking toy; it's another to do the same to a digital person like Dr. Aki Ross.
Aki (Ming-Na) is a scientist in the year 2065, working to save the Earth from a horde of invading aliens. The aliens are called Phantoms, transparent creatures that suck the life right out of their victims. They've decimated the planet, forcing the survivors to crowd into a few remaining cities, protected by energy shields. Aki believes she can stop the invaders by harnessing the Earth's energy, Gaia. To do this, she needs to collect all eight "spirits." Helping her is her ex-lover, Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), leader of a team of anti-Phantom soldiers known as the Deep Eyes; and her mentor, scientist-theologian Dr. Sid (Sutherland). General Hein (Woods) is the stock military character who calls for force over caution; he advocates the use of the Zeus Cannon, but Sid and Aki fear that it will not only kill the aliens, it will kill the Earth's Gaia as well.
Really, for all the complaints I heard about the hokey, banal storyline, I was expecting much worse. No, I wouldn't say that Final Fantasy has an excellent script or story (and it certainly isn't original), but it isn't much different than most Japanese anime. The plot bears a striking resemblance to the much-revered Princess Mononoke, by way of Akira. It's full of the same kind of philosophical postulating, though perhaps dumbed-down a notch or two for American audiences. The dialogue suffers, though, with clunky exposition and some overdone cheese ("Will I be in time to save the Earth?" says Aki).
Ok, so maybe the story doesn't match the visuals, but it would be hard for any story to do so. Every single frame of film is a marvel, crammed with eye-popping animation. The characters are most impressive, of course. Just look at the way Aki's hair blows in the breeze, each strand moving independently. The work done with Sid is equally impressive, as his aged, wrinkled face is able to convey complex emotions realistically, sans dialogue. And Gray, well, he looks exactly like Ben Affleck. I can't say the characters ever fooled me into thinking they were real, but they don't really look like animation, either. It's like looking into a slightly skewed version of our own reality, a new dimension.
To a degree, the filmmakers were even more successful in creating a realistic world for their characters to inhabit. Check out the major chase sequence late in the film. The way the heroes' vehicle moves is startlingly real; the effects of physics and gravity look totally true to life.
Sadly, despite its technological acumen and impressive marketing campaign, the $140 million undertaking grossed less than $50 million at the box office, forcing the shuttering of Square Pictures. The original intent was to star the same characters in future, unrelated films, to create "real" digital actors. Looks like we'll have to make do with the flesh and blood ones for a bit longer.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: This transfer is unbelievably good. I honestly can't find anything to complain about. It was done direct from the digital source, so of course there is no visible grain, and no problems with print damage. Colors look wonderfully full and saturated, with no apparent bleeding. Black level is excellent, as is shadow detail. The image is also clean and sharp, with excellent fine detail, all without the addition of edge enhancement! It's been said before about other discs (Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life), and it applies here, too: this is a jaw-dropping, reference-material transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: A+
Audio Transfer Review: The sound mix is likewise excellent. It's a winner on all counts. Highly aggressive, with constant split-surround use, hardly a scene goes by without some impressive audio effect. The front soundstage sounds great as well, with excellent separation between the front three channels. Dialogue fits well into the mix and is always clear. The score takes full advantage of the mains and surrounds, and features good use of LFE. What really makes this one fun to listen to are the frequent uses of panning and directional effects.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Men in Black, Starship Troopers, Metropolis, Final Fantasy X
1 Deleted Scenes
Isolated Music Score with remote access
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by co-director Moto Sakakibara, sequence supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, props artist Tatsuro Maruyama, phantom supervisor Takoo Noguchi; animation director Andy Jones, editor Chris Capp, staging director Tani Kunitake; composer Elliot Goldenthal
Layers Switch: 00h:17m:27s
In addition to the film, Disc One offers up a nice little special edition by itself. 3 commentary tracks are offered, including an isolated score with comments from the composer. The first track, featuring co-director Moto Sakakibara, sequence supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, props artist Tatsuro Maruyama, and phantom supervisor Takoo Noguchi, is in Japanese, with English subtitles. Of course, this means you can watch the film with the subtitle stream on, like a "fact track." It's a rather disjointed discussion, with strong focus on the technical and artistic side of the project, but worth a read. The second track, with animation director Andy Jones, editor Chris Capp, and staging director Tani Kunitake is more fun. The three are very chatty and quite funny at times. They discuss the production process and technical issues equally, and there are some funny anecdotes here and there. Animated films always seem to have the best commentaries, and this one is no exception. Finally, there is an isolated score with comments from composer Elliot Goldenthal. He offers a bit of insight into his thought process in scoring such a unique film, and balancing the Japanese and American elements of the story in his music.
The other major extra on Disc One is the Board/Blast version of the film, which gives you a look at the major stages involved in crafting the final product, from drawing, to rough animations, to computer renders. The 80-minute presentation offers optional commentary from Jones, Capp, and Kunitake, but not much is said that isn't covered in their other track. More worthwhile is a Pop-Up Video-esque trivia track, that offers production anecdotes, points out hidden jokes, and fleshes out character backstory.
Rounding out Disc One are two trailers for Final Fantasy, a preview for the Final Fantasy X videogame, and spots for Starship Troopers, Men in Black, and the anime Metropolis.
Disc Two houses even more extra stuff. After a neat "off-set" Aki animation, the main menu opens to offer two selections: "play documentary" or "highlights."
"Play documentary" begins the 30-minute piece, which covers the technical aspects of production, from layouts, to backgrounds, at motion-capture animation. It's all kind of disjointed, but informative and fast-paced. In an interesting use of DVD technology, the documentary features "link outs." Several times during the piece, a small window will appear in the corner of the screen. Hitting enter will take you to a separate clip, related to the subject you just left. These spotlights run from 1-10 minutes, and some offer optional commentary, selectable with the audio button on your remote. Frankly, it's all a bit too gimmicky for me. I'd rather have had everything edited together in the first place.
Luckily, most of the linkouts can be viewed separate from the documentary, in the "highlights" menu. First up are the Character Files, brief 2-3 minute video bios of each of the main characters, highlighting the lead animators and the voice actors. Vehicle Scale Comparisons gives you a look at the three main modes of transportation used.
The Final Fantasy Shuffler is one of those virtual editing workshop dealies. It gives you the chance to re-edit the courtroom scene in any way you please, and then play it back. It's fun to mess around with, but the slow load time on my player made it a bit of a bore after a few minutes. The playback isn't smooth, either, as there is a noticeable pause between segments.
Final Fantasy had a great trailer, and Trailer Explorations offers a look into the shaping of different trailers for different audiences. Also offered are two alternate trailers that weren't seen in wide release.
The Gray Project offers some "proof-of-concept" animation that was used to sell people on the plausibility of the project. More Boards/Blasts offers, yes, more scenes from the film in board/blast form. Matte Art Explorations and Composite Builds give you a look at the design process.
A deleted Alternate Opening is present, in finished form, and it is quite different from the one ultimately used. Aki's Dream strings together the dream sequences into one linear chunk.
Finally, rounding out the set are two very fun selections. Joke Outtakes is the standard blooper reel, made all the more amusing by the fact that someone actually took the time to painstakingly animate, say, someone blowing a take. Lastly, select the icon of Aki dancing on the second "highlights" menu for the much anticipated Thriller music video parody, starring Aki and Co. There aren't any lyrics, but the dancing is enough. Trust me.
The back of the case promises some impressive DVD-ROM content, but to view it you need up-to-date drivers on your ROM drive, and well, I don't have those. But those of you who do can enjoy a script-to-screen feature and a virtual tour of Square.
Extras Grade: A+
Final CommentsLess a great film than a groundbreaking artistic achievement, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is, for once, a movie you can watch just for the eye candy without feeling empty afterwards. Anime fans might enjoy the story, and everyone else will obsess over the jaw-dropping visuals. Columbia Tristar has done a fabulous job with the DVD, and I can't honestly say that there is a better disc in my ever-growing collection.
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