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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Spider-Man The New Animated Series: Season 1 (2003)

"Stick to the crimefighting, because you suck as a social worker."
- Talon (Eve)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: January 12, 2004

Stars: Neil Patrick Harris, Lisa Loeb, Ian Ziering, Angelle Brooks
Other Stars: Rob Zombie, Eve, Gina Gershon, Kathy Griffin, Michael Clarke Duncan, Stan Lee, Ed Asner, Keith Carradine, James Marsters, Jeffrey Combs, Virginia Madsen, Michael Dorn
Director: Tim Eldred, Alan Caldwell, Audu Paden, Vincent Edwards, Brandon Vietti

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, mild language)
Run Time: 04h:37m:32s
Release Date: January 13, 2004
UPC: 043396010680
Genre: television


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A B+B+A A+

DVD Review

After many years of terrible movies featuring their comic book characters, Marvel finally struck gold with the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. When there was still a question about the success of the Spidey movie, Sony had nonetheless prepared to capitalize on it by arranging for this computer-generated series continuing his adventures. The series quickly met with success on MTV, of all places. This set collects the complete first season of thirteen half-hour episodes (though because of the copious advertising on MTV, they work out to well under 20 minutes in actual content once you subtract the credits).

College freshman Peter Parker (Neil Patrick Harris), bitten by a radioactive spider and thereby gaining super-powers and the ability to climb walls and spin webs, as the costumed hero Spider-Man, fights crime in New York City while attempting to have a life as a student at Empire State University. He has something of a relationship with Mary Jane Watson (rocker Lisa Loeb), but she seems more interested in Spider-Man. Peter also gets involved in a triangle with wannabe reporter Indy (Angelle Brooks), a young woman who's happy to use him to further her career, though she also seems to have a romantic interest in him. Peter rooms with his friend Harry Osborn (Ian Ziering), wealthy young heir to Oscorp, who hates Spider-Man for apparently having killed his father Norman (the Green Goblin in the movie). Spider-Man must deal with a variety of mob bosses and super-powered criminals as he stays on the run from the police and the media, both of which mistake him for a perpetrator rather than a hero.

The series both visually and in its updated sensibility owes much to the recent reboot of Spidey in the Ultimate Spider-Man books written by Brian Michael Bendis, who helped develop the series. The webspinners are biological, as in the movie, there's no doting Aunt May to be seen, and few of the classic villains from the original book show up (the Lizard, Kingpin, Electro, and Kraven the Hunter are the few that were available to be used due to rights issues). Some of the new nemeses are pretty lame, such as a Robin Hood figure called Turbo Jet and some ex-KGB types calling themselves Pterodax. Part of the problem is that the short running time hardly gives enough room for the character work that's essential to any Spider-Man storytelling and for setting villains with intelligible motives.

Despite these problems, the series manages to get quite a few good episodes into the mix. In Royal Scam, the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan, reprising his role from Daredevil) manipulates Spider-Man with a clever ruse. Head Over Heels examines hero worship as a young woman (Tara Strong) gets obsessive over Spidey and takes matters to deadly extremes. One of numerous musicians featured in the voice work, Rob Zombie, puts a nasty and primal edge onto the Lizard in an episode that may well be too frightening for younger viewers. The two-part season finale, Mind Games, contains some truly remarkable emotional moments of a kind not typically associated with CGI fests such as this one.

Neil Patrick Harris, who has recently done quite a bit of voiceover work, makes for a perfect Peter Parker; he beautifully captures the insecurity of the civilian character and the cockiness of his masked alter ego. It took me an episode or two to adjust to the somewhat throaty voice of Lisa Loeb as Mary Jane, but she does a fine job as well. Ed Asner oddly plays almost all of the police in the series, none of them significant characters; on the 1990s version of the show he did a great J. Jonah Jameson, and probably would have done better than Keith Carradine does here. Carradine's delivery is too light for the perpetually cranky and chiseling character.

The animation is a mixed bag. The animation of ordinary people has a very video-game-like appearance, with unnatural and weightless movements the order of the day. However, in the action sequences the style becomes much more appropriate and the character of Spider-Man himself is frequently stunning. Although motion capture is used to a significant extent, it's not used for Spidey, allowing him to move in ways that a normal human could not, and for the character it works very well indeed. The design style is the high point of the series, with many sequences that are visually stunning in their use of light and shadow. Notable examples are in the party sequence in The Party, with high contrasts, and Flash Memory with its subtle light effects in subway tunnels. The play of light on the webbing design of the hero's costume is often interesting all by itself.

Backgrounds are highly detailed and the camera angles sweep wildly through the canyons of New York as Spidey webslings. The result is vertigo-inducing much of the time and really gives the animation a welcome verisimilitude for such improbable movements. The program gets more visually interesting as it goes along, as more characters and backgrounds are stored into the computer and readily accessible, until the finale, which is both complex and gorgeous. The result is on the whole surprisingly well achieved and attractive. Despite a few weak spots, on the whole I enjoyed this series more than I did the blockbuster motion picture.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture looks essentially flawless from a source perspective, as it should for a purely digital program. Aliasing is however frequently an issue, and dot crawl makes fine lines appear and disappear. There's also significant edge enhancement that creates distracting rings. Reds are subject to chroma noise much of the time, so the picture isn't quite as good as it should be.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes
DTSEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Both a DD 5.1 and DTS track are provided, and both pack a good punch. The DTS track is quite a bit louder, but even after correcting for that it seems to have both more bass information and a broader soundstage. I didn't notice too much localization or clear directionality, however, but more of a wall of sound effect. The techno-influenced music has solid bass and sounds fine. Dialogue is always clear, and hiss is no problem at all. A fine modern soundtrack.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 65 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis, Spider-Man, Steam Boy and Underworld
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by (see below)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Digipak
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Character modeler
  2. Gag reel
  3. Production artwork
  4. CGI demonstrations
Extras Review: This is a surprisingly packed little special edition that contains a wealth of good information. While most commentaries that run the full length of a television season get to be tedious and repetitive, Columbia takes a very different approach here. Each commentary is in essence a mini-seminar on a single topic related to the production of a CGI-animated cartoon series, and although not exactly screen-specific, when appropriate the commentators point out examples in the episodes that demonstrate the subject matter. One such program is devoted to voice casting, another to voice direction, one to writing, several to aspects of animation, one to post-production matters and one to editing and music, among others. The result is well-planned and highly informative. The exception is the finale, which becomes more of a free-for-all with the inclusion of venerable Spidey co-creator (along with Steve Ditko, who oddly enough is never mentioned, though numerous later artists are) Stan Lee, who is more interested in watching the program. But up to that point, it's one of the finest set of commentaries on such programming I've heard. Participants are: executive producers Audu Paden and Morgan Gendel; directors Tim Eldred, Vincent Edwards and Alan Caldwell; developers Grace Benni and Brian Michael Bendis; character designer David Hartman; background designer Vince Toyama; writers Tracy Forbes, Todd Felderstein, Rick Savelli, and Steven Kriozere; Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee; story editor Marsha Griffin; voice director Susan Blu; Mainframe Entertainment animators Steven Wendland, Gio Corsi, Robin Shea, Sebastian Brodin, Rob Hurkell, Barbara Zelinski, Johnny Darrell, and Rex Ahn; editor Bruce King; and composer Will Anderson.

But there's plenty more. Disc 1 also contains a DVD-ROM character modeler that takes five basic female heads and six male heads and shows how different characters can be created with very subtle changes, streamlining the CG process. An optional subtitle stream provides a fount of screen-specific trivia, and a 182-page gallery shows a wide variety of character model sheets for the series. Filmographies are also provided for the executive producers and the three voice leads. The first disc is rounded out by five trailers (including a red-band R trailer for Cowboy Bebop), all in widescreen, plus a few ads for DVDs masquerading as trailers.

The second disc contains a passel of featurettes. The longest, a "making of" (23m:19s) tends to duplicate much of the commentary and is skippable for those checking out the second tracks. Shorter featurettes cover the creation of the 3D models (12m:33s), animating their performance (13m:40s), and producing the music for the show (7m:02s). All of these are worthwhile and contain additional information. A slightly silly outtake reel (1m:34s) features some gag performances. Shorter clips demonstrate the building of CGI animation through layers, the original pitch for the series by Mainframe Entertainment (1m:05s), an abandoned Spidey Sense visual test (57s) and a sample of rough animation (1m:39s). All in all, just about everything one could want to know about the series is contained on these discs. There's a handy "Play All" button, and the shows are generously chaptered with stops after the main titles and right before the end credits, just as they should be for maximum convenience. Very well done all around.

Extras Grade: A+

 

Final Comments

This set provides an attractive and entertaining viewing experience, with some decent stories, and a superb set of extras. Recommended for any Spidey fan, though probably a bit intense for the youngest kids.

 


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