Disney+ Tag

Review: Muppets Haunted Mansion

Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021)

The Germans, in all their linguistic inventiveness, need to coin a new word for the unique mix of eagerness and hesitation Jim Henson fans feel when a new Muppets project is announced. The simple fact is that the Disney era of the franchise has been a roller coaster, reaching heights of delightful silliness like 2011’s The Muppets and plunging to depths of pointlessness like 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. Thankfully, when all is said and done, Muppets Haunted Mansion is far from the worst we’ve seen from the franchise this century. But it is a bit of a mixed bag.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work about the hour-long Halloween special. For one thing, it all feels a bit formulaic in its structure and narrative. You could argue that’s a consequence of the premise, and you’d have a pretty good point. But I still miss the days when the Muppets were so utterly off the rails that you felt uncomfortable watching a new movie or TV show with kids, at least the first time around, for fear Animal or Floyd might drop an F-bomb. Not that they ever would, but the Muppets at their best once gave you the impression they might. And Muppets Haunted Mansion feels far too safe and by-the-numbers to even hint at such a potential.

 

There’s also the fact that some of the voice acting is just atrocious. This is the first major Muppets production since Steve Whitmire, longtime performer of Kermit the Frog, was 

HAUNTED MANSION AT A GLANCE

Not the best Muppet effort ever, it’s not the worst, either, and will likely find an audience as one of the few family-friendly Halloween specials around.

 

PICTURE

The Disney+ Dolby Vision presentation is so flawless that it’s, at times, startling.

 

SOUND 

The audio lacks a little in terms of dynamics and could benefit from a bit more activity in the surrounds.

fired and replaced by Matt Vogel (and yes, yes, I know about Muppets Now, but I’ve never been able to suffer through enough of it for it to leave a lasting impression). And no disrespect to Mr. Vogel—he does a perfectly fine Floyd and a darned good Sweetums—but he’s not and never will be Kermit. He just doesn’t get the character.

 

A problem more specific to this special is that the music is, for the most part, just awful. There are a handful of original songs, and every time I could sense another one coming, my body tensed up in anticipation of the awfulness. There are two exceptions, though. The special opens and closes with a cover of King Harvest’s version of “Dancing in the Moonlight” performed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. It’s simply fantastic and there’s really nothing else to say about it. It rocks. 

 

There’s also a really fun duet between Pepe the King Prawn and Taraji P. Henson, who stars as Constance Hatchaway (aka the Black Widow Bride from the theme-park ride that inspired this crossover). Not only is the song well written and well performed, it also hints at the naughtiness of the Muppets at their best. 

 

But the best thing about the number is that it’s just a prime example of Pepe being Pepe. Seriously, every second that fuzzy little king prawn is on screen is pure comedy gold. It probably helps, of course, that longtime Pepe performer Bill Barretta wrote the story for Muppets Haunted Mansion, and I could take issue with the fact that he gave all the best bits to his own 

character, but who cares, really? If you’re a Pepe fan, this one is a must-watch, even if it is a bit uneven, even if the music mostly sucks, even if Kermit has been replaced by a half-assed imposter.

 

Another great thing about Muppets Haunted Mansion is that production values are through the roof. Seriously, the special boasts a level of cinematography and special effects you’d expect from a proper feature film. The Disney+ Dolby Vision presentation is also so utterly flawless that I was, at 

times, startled by it. The opening sequence features a particularly difficult-to-encode shot of Pepe and Gonzo driving to the titular haunted mansion in the midst of the sort of pea-soup fog that HEVC would have nightmares about if video codecs had subconsciousness. And while that shot is the most extreme example, there are a lot of sequences that must have required a few passes through whatever video encoder Disney+ relies on.

 

Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, Haunted Mansion sports some pretty dark cinematography, and the Dolby Vision grading gives the imagery a lot of depth in the shadows while also leaving some dynamic range for the specular highlights of spectral apparitions. 

 

Production- and presentation-wise, the only complaints I have are related to the audio, which lacks a little in terms of dynamics and could have benefited from a bit more activity in the surrounds or, at the very least, a bit more consistency in the surround mixing. Dialogue is always presented cleanly and clearly, and the music—whatever you want to say about its compositional quality—is always delivered with good fidelity. But whoever did the final mix seemingly couldn’t decide between a full-on cinematic surround experience or a front-heavy TV-special vibe, and switched between those two extremes from scene to scene with apparently no rhyme or reason. 

 

For all the nits picked above, though, Muppets Haunted Mansion ends up being a pretty good time, mostly due to the antics of Pepe combined with the gorgeousness of the imagery. If you have kids, I’m also pretty sure they’ll love the whole thing. And that, ultimately, is the thing I like best about this special. Fun Halloween specials that can be enjoyed by the whole family are few and far between, and it’s nice to see another one added to the mix, even if it’s not quite as good as it could have been.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Star Wars: Visions

Star Wars: Visions (2021)

I honestly can’t decide if Star Wars: Visions represents a huge risk for Lucasfilm and Disney+ or a sure bet. So let’s just agree that it’s off the beaten track but following a path that seems obvious in retrospect, and leave it at that. The new anthology series comprises nine disconnected shorts built on a single premise: Give the Star Wars mythos to nine different anime directors spread across seven anime studios and let their imaginations run wild, with no imposed ties to the existing Star Wars timeline or canon. 

Given that the shorts range from 14 to 23 minutes long, with the average length coming in at right around 17 minutes, it’s understandable that none of the concepts are fully developed, and there’s not a lot by way of story in some of them. But that sort of misses the point. I think the intent here was to riff on the themes and iconic visuals for the Galaxy Far, Far Away from a different perspective, and in that respect, it’s a stunning success. Every one of the films in this collection is a wonder to behold, in terms of color, design, detail, and motion (the latter despite the fact that a lot of it seems to be animated on threes or fours).

 

Does that mean you’ll like it? Well, of course not. Even as a self-described Star Wars scholar, there were episode of Visions I simply hated. And there were a couple (“Lop and Ochō” and “Tatooine Rhapsody”) that had potential but turned me off with their hyperbolic, über-kinetic cutesiness

VISIONS AT A GLANCE

Five of these nine anime riffs on the Star Wars universe satisfy—one is so good it deserves to be a feature-length film. 

 

PICTURE

The Dolby Vision presentation looks a bit different from short to short but is always impressive, with gorgeous contrasts, sumptuous color, and oodles of detail.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtracks vary a little in intensity and expansiveness but always deliver the goods on dialogue intelligibility and musical fidelity. 

and sensory overload. But there are five shorts in particular that deserve your attention, even if you’re not a fan of Japanese animation in all its diverse and disparate forms, nor a dedicated consumer of every ancillary Star Wars program to roll out on Disney+.

 

“The Duel,” directed by Takanobu Mizuno and animated by Kamikaze Douga—the studio behind JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure—is such a perfect but unusual blending of Kurosawa, Leone, and Lucas that it feels essentially Star Wars despite breaking so

many rules of the universe.

 

“The Village Bride,” directed by Hitoshi Haga and animated by Kinema Citrus (Tokyo Magnitude 8.0) is a hauntingly beautiful little fable that resonates despite its predictability.

 

“The Elder,” directed by Masahiko Otsuka and animated by Studio Trigger (Little Witch Academia) is delightfully creepy and, in its English dub, features a great performance by David Harbor of Stranger Things and Black Widow fame.

“Akakiri,” directed by Eunyoung Choi and animated by Science SARU (probably best known in America for their work on the trippy Adventure Time episode “Food Chain”), is an absolute audiovisual masterpiece and a deliciously ambiguous morality tale at that. 

 

But the best of the bunch is “The Ninth Jedi,” directed by Kenji Kamiyama and animated by the legendary studio Production I.G, best known for Ghost in the Shell. Of all the shorts, this one really felt like it should have been developed into a feature-length film, even if most of its substance comes from its style. 

 

Check out those five shorts first if you’re unsure about whether you want to dip your toes into this weird experiment. If I may, though, I’d like to recommend watching each of them twice: Once in the original Japanese and once in the dub of your choice. As for the latter, I can only speak to the quality of the English dubs but they’re incredibly well done throughout, with great voice acting and none of the awkward fumbling that normally comes from trying to match vocals to lip movements animated for a different language. 

 

Furthermore, turning off the subtitles gives you the opportunity to soak in the Dolby Vision presentation of the animation, which looks a bit different from short to short, but always impresses with gorgeous contrasts, sumptuous color, and oodles of detail. (I did notice a brief moment of aliasing in one shot of one short, but I think that was a consequence of production, not the online delivery.) 

 

In either the original Japanese or in dubbed English, the Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtracks vary a bit in intensity and expansiveness but always deliver the goods on dialogue intelligibility and musical fidelity. By far the best of the bunch in terms of sound is “Akakiri,” which benefits from a decidedly Eastern percussion soundtrack almost entirely devoid of musical notes, but which nonetheless feels right at home in the Star Wars universe, or at least this version of it. 

 

It’s also worth noting that Visions is accompanied by a pretty healthy collection of bonus features—5- to 8-minute documentaries for each short that give some background on the filmmakers, their love of Star Wars, and their unique approaches to each episode. 

 

All in all, Star Wars: Visions isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of blue milk but it’s nonetheless exciting to see Lucasfilm exploring, taking risks, and expanding the scope of what Star Wars can look like. It may not have been entirely successful for me, given that I really only enjoyed five of the nine shorts, but still—I want to see more of this sort of thing going forward.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: What If . . ?

What If? (2021)

I reserve the right to revise or retract this observation after we have more data to sift through, but for the time being, it looks as if Marvel Studios is developing a bit of a pattern with its Disney+ MCU shows. And I guess if I had to sum up that pattern in one pithy sentence, it would be: “One weird one, then one safe one.” It doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out that, as the fourth such series, the animated What If . . ? unfortunately falls into the latter category.

WandaVision not only debuted as the first new Marvel show on the platform, but also kicked off Phase 4 of the MCU, and it was enigmatically brilliant, nutty, poignant, and quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the superhero domain. Marvel followed that with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which was a perfectly OK geopolitical action/adventure romp that really should have been filmed as the fourth Captain American movie instead of stretched out over six episodes. Next up was Loki, which was every bit as weird as WandaVision but in its own distinctive way. (Weirdness, after all, loses its novelty quickly.) At its best, Loki came across as something akin to a Franz Kafka comic book adapted for the screen by Terry Gilliam at the peak of his form.

 

What If . . ?, is, by contrast almost entirely paint-by-

WHAT IF . . ? AT A GLANCE

Given its origins, this latest entry in the MCU could have been as adventurous as WandaVision but is strictly by the numbers. 

 

PICTURE
Disney+’s Dolby Vision presentation is simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also topnotch, with oodles of appropriate surround activity and a good amount of LFE.

numbers. And that’s a shame, really, because this series had the potential to be the franchise’s most risk-taking outing yet. By all rights, it should have been, given the concept. If you’re not familiar with that concept, by the way, it’s easy to explain: Take a variable or two at the heart of a popular comic book series and give them a twist. Off the top of my head, some of my 

favorite what-if scenarios from my youth included, “What if
. . . Spider-Man had never become a crimefighter?” “What if
. . . Conan the Barbarian was stranded in the 20th century?” and “What if . . . Gwen Stacy had lived?”

 

This new MCU riff on the concept starts with a similarly interesting premise: “What if . . .  Captain Carter were the First Avenger?” In other words, what would have happened if Peggy Carter had received the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America?  In the lead-up to that first episode, my brain took that prompt in a million different directions. The problem is, every single one of those directions was infinitely more interesting than the answer we’ve been given.

 

When you get right down to it, this ends up being a 33-minute retelling of the plot of Captain America: The First Avenger with some character swaps and a gaggle of non sequiturs thrown in for good measure. Peggy becomes Captain Carter, Steve becomes Iron Man . . .  err, I mean the Hydra Stomper, but nothing of any real consequence changes, despite the fact that the entire arc of Steve’s story

in the MCU has been about the fact that his unique character, temperament, and morals literally changed the course of history.

 

It’s really disappointing that the story falls so flat, because Marvel Studios obviously spent a lot of time and money on the animation for the show. It’s a neat mix of cel-shaded 3D and what appears to be hand-drawn 2D that’s vibrant and polished and a heck of a lot of fun to look at. True, there are times where the facial animations are a little stiff, but that’s about the only

criticism you could level at the look of the show.

 

Disney+’s Dolby Vision presentation is also simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Colors are rich. Contrasts are nigh-perfect. Lighting effects and shadow depth are stunning. And there’s a level of detail here that you just don’t expect from direct-to-streaming animated projects. The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also topnotch, with oodles of appropriate surround activity—especially in the action sequences—and a good amount of LFE.

But, at least as of the first episode, the execution of the series simply doesn’t live up to the expectations set by its premise or its presentation. This is not the title Marvel Studios should have played it safe with. Of course, there are still eight episodes left to go, and What If . . ? could prove to be the genuinely interesting thought experiment it has the potential to be. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

Don’t get me wrong here: This isn’t a bad show. Far from it. It’s fun and entertaining and gorgeous to look at. But it could and should have been so much more than that, right from the giddy-up.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise (2021)

While there have been a lot of theme park rides based on successful movies, the number of movies inspired by theme park rides is far fewer, and has a much spottier track record. On the one hand, we have the atrocious The Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy in 2003 and, on the other, we have one of the most successful modern franchises in the Johnny Depp-driven Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Of course, if you’re Disney, any successful crossover helps drive traffic—and dollars—to one of thglobal theme parks, so the temptation to mine your existing intellectual property is tempting.

 

There are few rides more iconic in Disneyland lore than the Jungle Cruise. It was there on Day One when the park opened in July 1955, was one of Walt’s personal projects, and has remained in operation (with changes and updates, of course) ever

since.

 

Like with Pirates, the thing that makes the Jungle Cruise ride ripe for adopting into a movie is that it offers a perfect jumping-off point for any possible adventure that can happen, with the ability to weave in some nods to the ride along the way (kind of the way Pirates worked in the scene with the locked prisoners begging the dog to bring them a key, one of the iconic moments from the ride). Put some people on a boat, set them on a cruise, introduce a quest and some mayhem along the way . . . the thing practically writes itself! Disney felt the same as well, since a film based on the ride has been in the works since as early as 2004, with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen attached to star at one point.

 

This year, Jungle Cruise finally made it out of production and into theaters on July 30, with some big-name leads in the form of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt carrying the action. As has been common to Disney films 

JUNGLE CRUISE AT A GLANCE

This family-friendly Dwayne Johnson vehicle nicely follows the theme-park-ride-to-big-screen path carved out by Pirates of the Caribbean. 

 

PICTURE
Images are clean and sharp throughout but there isn’t the razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix provides near constant jungle sounds during the trip down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room.

during the pandemic—see Cruella, Luca, and Black Widow—Jungle Cruise saw a simultaneous debut both theatrically and as a Premier Access title for $29.99 on Disney+.

 

I went into this viewing highly optimistic. Disney has been on a pretty good role recently, and I feel like they’ve developed a solid formula for delivering big action films that hit the right balance of humor and fun that appeals to family watching. Also, I felt Johnson was at a point in his career that he wasn’t going to be attached to a stinker, and he’s proven that he can not only carry a big film but deliver a deft comedic touch—see Jumanji: The Next Level—which was what a Jungle Cruise captain would need to be true to the spirit of the ride. 

 

Plus, I’m a huge fan of Disneyland. My parents actually met working there. My dad was a ride operator and my mom worked at a Sunkist orange-juice stand near the Jungle Cruise. I’ve been on the ride dozens of times, including when it actually was an E-ticket attraction, and a ride on the Jungle Cruise is a requisite during any visit to the park. 

 

So, yeah, I’d say the deck was a bit stacked in favor of me enjoying the movie.

 

And, no real surprise, I did.

 

If you’ve read any other reviews of Jungle Cruise, you’ve likely heard that it borrows heavily from films such as The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Disney’s own Pirates films. But that’s OK. If you’re going to borrow, might as well use some classic films as your template. 

 

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors led by Don Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) are looking for the Tears of the Moon, a magical tree whose petals can cure any illness or injury. They end up being cursed by a chief and can never leave sight of the Amazon River. Cut to 1916, and Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) steals an ancient arrowhead that is the key to unlocking the location of the tree, and she, along with her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), heads to South America where she hires a boat from Frank Wolff (Johnson) to guide them down the Amazon and to the tree. Along the way they are chased by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) in a German submarine, before he ultimately joins forces with the cursed conquistadors in an effort to recover the arrowhead and locate the tree to help the German war effort.

 

The chemistry between Johnson and Blunt works really well, and it’s nice to see a female lead that is in on the action instead of being relegated to the role of sidekick, something they definitely play up repeatedly for laughs with her brother MacGregor. And the opening pre-title card scene with Johnson taking a group of tourists on a jungle cruise lifts many lines—corny dad-jokes, quips, and puns—and sight gags that are lifted straight from the Disneyland attraction, including the always popular “back side of water” gag. 

 

I wasn’t able to locate any specifications on the resolution used for filming or for the digital intermediate for this transfer, but my guess would be that this is sourced from a 2K DI. Images are clean and sharp throughout, revealing lots of detail in closeups, but just didn’t give that razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI, especially on long shots. Also, with the extensive amount of CGI used throughout, it would likely be in a 2K workflow.

 

I watched the film twice, once on my Apple 4KTV on my 4K JVC projector at 115-inch diagonal 2.35.1 aspect ratio, and then again on my Xbox One S on a new Sony 65-inch OLED. What I mistook on the projector for a bit of softness in the opening scenes in a London University revealed itself to be more smokiness and haze when viewed on the OLED, but on both the colors and clarity definitely got a nice uptick when the action moves to outside.

 

One serious complaint is that there are several instances where subtitles are used for German and Spanish speakers. Disney chose to place these subtitles below the image. While this won’t impact viewers on 16:9 aspect-ratio screens, those with a 2.35 (or wider) screen will find that the subtitles are blown off the screen and totally unreadable. This will certainly be rectified when the film is made available to Kaleidescape, which uses technology to reposition the subtitles back into the viewing area. But for my Disney+ experience, it meant rewinding, zooming the image down to 16:9, and then rewatching the scenes so we could see what had been said. Talk about pulling you out of the movie!

 

As mentioned, closeups can have plenty of sharpness and clean, ultra-fine detail. You can see the weave in the hats worn by characters or the texture in MacGregor’s many outfits or the tiny squares in a screen covering a window. You can also clearly see the markings and engravings when the arrowhead is viewed in closeup.

 

With lots of dark and lowlight scenes, Jungle Cruise certainly benefits from HDR. Whether it is viewing characters in the warm glow of firelight or lanterns, seeing sunlight streaming through windows into dark rooms, characters moving about in caves, or deep inside the jungle, we get lots of rich shadow detail and bright highlights. Jungle greens are rich and lush, as are the vibrant reds, with several scenes with fire, along with the jacket worn by Joachim and the busses on the streets of London. 

 

Sonically, the Disney+ version includes Dolby Atmos packed in a lossy Dolby Digital+ wrapper versus the more dynamic and lossless Dolby TrueHD version that will accompany a disc or Kaleidescape release. Even still, there is plenty here to find entertaining, though you’ll likely want to bump the volume 5 to 10 dB over your normal listening levels (as seems to be the case with most of Disney+ streaming). There are near constant jungle sounds when sailing down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room, with a variety of birds squawking overhead. When scenes cut to/from the open outside of the Amazon, you can “feel” the change in the room, just by how it expands in the outdoors, making a really nice effect. We also have a lot of audio effects wrapping overhead and around the room from creaking vines and snakes slithering about, or a swarm of bees that flies around the room, or the splashes of water coming over the sides of the boat during a harrowing rapids ride. James Newton Howard’s score is also given a lot of room to expand throughout the room, making it much fuller sounding.

 

There are a few moments where the subwoofer comes into play, and these were definitely more dynamic when played through my Xbox versus my AppleTV, which just seems to compress and crush dynamics. There is a deep rumble of massive waterfalls, the explosions of a torpedo, and the low chug of the boat’s engines. 

 

While it is mostly family-friendly fare, there is some mostly bloodless violence and stabbings, along with several intense moments (snakes crawling out of skulls and other creepy-crawly stuff) that were definitely too much for my five year old. While rated PG-13, most kids 12 and up will probably be OK to watch. 

 

Ultimately, Jungle Cruise delivered exactly what I expected, which was a fun time with some good action, a few laughs, quality acting, some quality visual effects, and nods to one of my favorite amusement-park rides. After the dour seriousness of Fast & Furious 9, this struck the right note of how a film can provide a night of fun and entertainment without taking itself too seriously.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: Black Widow

Black Widow (2021)

If you’re clicking on a review of Black Widow right now, I can only assume you’re here in search of one more person’s opinion about whether it was worth the wait. The simple answer to that is: Yes. If you don’t mind, though, I’m gonna ramble on for a bit about why.

 

I’m normally not one to invest much energy in the horse-race discussion about movies like this. But in the case of Black Widow, it’s hard to ignore. It was supposed to come out last year, but ended up being one of many casualties of the global pandemic. Meant to kick off Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it got beaten to that punch by WandaVision, Falcon

and the Winter Soldier, and Loki. It’s probably the biggest Disney movie to date to be available via Premier Access, three months ahead of its free-to-view streaming release on October 6, 2021.

 

The thing is, though, none of that really matters. None of it has any bearing whatsoever on the quality of the movie. And yet, it’s a hard discussion to avoid.

 

Why do I say it doesn’t matter, though? Well, for one thing, Black Widow was always going to be a movie whose release was a little weird, temporally speaking. The bulk of the plot takes place between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but it’s a story that couldn’t really be told until after Endgame (2019), not necessarily for narrative reasons but for emotional ones. To fully make sense of the character of Natalia Alianovna Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in this story, you have to understand not only the redemption arc she’s been on 

BLACK WIDOW AT A GLANCE

The Scarlett Johansson-centric MCU actioner finally makes its long-awaited debut in theaters and on Disney+.

 

PICTURE
The Disney+ presentation is stunning, with gorgeous colors, plentiful fine detail, and spectacular use of HDR .

 

SOUND     

Apparently mixed for movie theaters, the Atmos soundtrack is occasionally a little too dynamic; and the volume needs to be goosed slightly to unlock the full fidelity of the audio.

since first introduced to the MCU in Iron Man 2, but you also have to know that she’s the type of person who would make the sacrifice she did in Endgame.

 

All of that makes Black Widow a puzzle piece that you can only place in time, not merely space. But that’s sort of fitting for a character as complex as Natasha. I won’t bother to even begin to attempt to explain the plot. Doing so would make me sound ridiculous. It’s got a thousand tiny little moving pieces, and it plays a very dangerous game with them in that it all flirts with being just a little too much. I’m normally turned off by plots this complex—give me a simple story any day of the week—but writing simple stories is difficult.

 

Here’s the thing, though: The convolutions of the script don’t seem to be a product of laziness, but of necessity. Story writers Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), along with screenwriter Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok), seem to understand that this one had to do a lot of heavy lifting and cover a lot of ground. It also manages to pull off a trick that few stories do successfully—it manages to be a critique of a thing while also being that thing itself. Black

Widow is a comic-book action movie, yes. But it’s also a subversion of the genre, a sendup of its tropes, and a cheeky rumination on the dangers of idolizing these impossibly perfect characters.

 

It only works because the writers understood three key things.

 

Firstly, pacing: For every big action set-piece (and there are plenty of them, with car chases that rival Baby Driver and fight sequences that are every bit as stupid and amazing as anything in the John Wick series), there’s at least as much time devoted to quieter, tenderer character moments.

 

Secondly, tone: The movie deals with a lot of heavy material, from psychological manipulation to the exploitation of vulnerable women to Cold War hangover, but it always strikes the right balance between sincerity and levity. It knows when to take itself seriously and when not to. It’s heartbreaking one moment and legitimately hilarious the next.

 

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly: It just knows what it’s about, and although it would take two hours to recount the narrative beat by beat, it’s easy to explain what it all means. Ultimately, Black Widow is about family—specifically that weird and contradictory set of emotions that comes from interacting with your family now that you’re an adult; that troubling realization that your parents were just cosplaying as adults for your entire childhood; the baffling combination of rage and familiarity that only your relatives can drag out of you simultaneously.

 

It’s also about freedom—not only the necessity thereof but also the cost and why that cost is worth paying. While playing around with that theme, the story also touches on notions of free will and animal instinct. But all of that really points back to freedom.

 

And that’s it, really. As many twists and turns as there are in the plot, all of them ultimately support the themes of family

or freedom, or both. That’s what keeps Black Widow grounded throughout, what keeps it from devolving into utter chaos.

 

Can I just say, though, that this is yet another blockbuster movie I’m so glad I didn’t have to suffer through in a packed cinema? Its presentation on Disney+ far surpasses the quality of any commercial cinema I could reasonably reach in a half-day’s drive, and I also got to enjoy it without suffering the distractions of an auditorium full of chatty extroverts and their rowdy kids. At home, I could give it my full attention and even take a tinkle break halfway through without being forced to choose between skipping an action sequence or a bit of character development.

 

The Dolby Vision presentation is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, as most MCU movies are, which was itself sourced from original footage captured in a mix of 4, 6, and 8K. Fine detail abounds, not merely in closeups but also in long shots (which many of the action sequences are—a welcome break from the claustrophobic framing of most high-octane movies these days). Colors are gorgeous and the high dynamic range is employed spectacularly.

 

There are a few very minor and very fleeting blemishes, but I’m really not sure whether they’re a consequence of post-production, Disney+’s encoding, or the fact that I streamed it on Day One, simultaneously with millions of other people.

 

Evidence for the latter comes from the fact that, on my Roku Ultra, with my 250mbps internet connection, the stream didn’t switch from 1080p to 4K until about two-thirds of the way through the Marvel Studios logo that precedes the movie. Disney+ normally launches at 4K for me.

 

Evidence for these blemishes being baked into the master come from circumstantial evidence. There’s a shot very early on that takes place in a shadowy bathroom. There’s about a quarter-second of very, very minor banding as the flat tiles of the environment give way to the shadows. But the very next shot is in the same environment, with the same tonal variation, and there’s no banding. There’s also a long shot of Natasha’s trailer that exhibits a touch of moiré for a few frames. But a few minutes later there’s another shot of the exterior photographed from the same distance in roughly the same light, and there’s no moiré. 

 

So I can’t be sure if these momentary visual imperfections can be blamed on streaming or taxed servers or what. But thankfully they add up to no more than a cumulative second over the course of a 135-minute film. Otherwise, Black Widow looks stunning. 

 

It also sounds way, way better in my home than it would in any movie theater I’ve ever sat in. Mind you, the Dolby Atmos track seems to have been mixed for large auditoria, not home cinemas, so it can be a little too dynamic in spots. I also had to turn the volume on my preamp up to +3dB (with 0dB being cinema reference levels) to unlock the full fidelity of the track, especially the bass. If you have a well-designed sound system, though, you’re in for a sonic treat. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to watch Black Widow with a soundbar as your only audio system—even a really good soundbar—you’re quickly going to discover what it feels like to pack ten pounds of you-know-what into a five-pound bag.

 

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Disney continues to support these day-and-date releases via Premier Access as Hollywood attempts to force a return to normal over the next year. All I can say is this: If I have the option to watch future Star Wars and Marvel movies—the only movies I really feel compelled to see Day One—in the comfort of my home in quality this far superior to even a good cineplex for just $29.99? Sign me the heck up. I’ll never need to sully the bottom of my flip-flops with sticky popcorn grease ever again.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Luca

Luca (2021)

When I was in high school, my favorite band was Talking Heads and I had this weird kind of love-hate anxiety when they would release a new album and I would go to listen for the first time. Would I love the new album because I actually loved it, or would I make myself say I loved it because it was from the Heads, or would lead singer David Byrne have taken them off on some new musical direction that meant I actually didn’t love it, and couldn’t even bring myself to lie that I did?

 

That’s a bit how I feel about a new film from Pixar.

 

Pixar Animation is about one of the surest bets around when it comes to delivering solid entertainment. And I don’t mean only in animated titles, but in just great movies in general. While I used to get a bit concerned because Pixar trailers used to seem 

so generic and uninteresting—always fearing, “Well, this is the one where Pixar finally misses the mark . . .”—I have come to realize the company just doesn’t produce great trailers, often because their stories are so layered you can’t really hope to encapsulate the whole spirit in a one-to-two-minute spot.

 

So, even though I wasn’t really overly excited by the trailers for Luca, the 24th film from the studio, which premiered on Disney+ this past Thursday (June 18), I wasn’t overly concerned. But, I’m sad to say, I think this might actually be the company’s weakest film to date, certainly rivaling 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, which is widely considered the worst film in the company’s canon.

LUCA AT A GLANCE

Awful thin for a Pixar movie, especially on the heels of the nuanced and adult, Oscar-winning Soul

 

PICTURE
Luca just looks gorgeous—the colors are straight-up eye candy throughout.

 

SOUND     

Kind of like the story itself, the movie’s Dolby Atmos mix is just satisfactory.

It’s not that Luca is a bad film by any means. In fact, it might even be a good movie. It’s just that it’s not a great one, and that is the nearly impossible situation that Pixar has placed itself in—after delivering film after film of greatness that anything less than a home run is considered disappointing.

 

I think the letdown is compounded by the fact that Luca follows Soul, the company’s most adult and ambitious title to date, which was so full of, well, soul. Soul took on incredibly deep and heavy issues and had such richly developed characters that the light and saccharine sweetness of Luca just seems all the emptier because of it.

 

But for Pixar, Luca lacks the depth, weight, and multi-dimensional story we’re used to getting. It’s just . . . simple. It’s hard to really care too deeply about its characters because the story doesn’t give us enough to care about them. Sure, there are tons of metaphors and parallels you can draw. The characters’ goal is to win a race that will give them enough money to buy a Vespa, which the film literally tells us is freedom—the freedom to get out and see the world beyond your four walls, especially exciting for Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), who has lived a very sheltered and protected life. (“I never go anywhere. Just dream about it.”) The characters are also hiding the secret about what they really are (sea monsters), looking to fit in and gain acceptance from the small Italian city of Portorosso which hates/fears what they really are. And if you want to draw a parallel to the LGBTQ community here, well, it doesn’t take much of a stretch (Especially at the end, when two more characters come “out.”) 

 

The film takes place around the ‘50s-‘60s on the Italian Riviera, where sea monster Luca spends his days herding fish like a shepherd. One day while out swimming, he meets Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), who shows him that when dry on land, they transform into human form. Alberto pushes Luca beyond his comfort zone, until one day Luca’s parents (voiced by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) discover what he has been doing and threaten to send away to the deep to life with bizarre—and semi-translucent—Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen). 

 

Luca and Alberto swim over to the city of Portorusso, where they attempt to blend in with the “land monsters” and fulfill their dream of getting a Vespa. They befriend Giulia (Emma Berman) whose dad Massimo (Marco Barricelli) happens to be a major fisherman and sea-monster hunter. (Who is clearly inspired by—and is the spitting image of—the dad from Pixar’s short “La Luna.”) The film builds to the Portorusso Cup Triathlon, a race where the winner gets a trophy and prize money, with the boys in constant fear of getting wet and revealing their secret.

 

One thing you can’t fault Pixar on is the technical presentation, as Luca just looks gorgeous. I watched it the first time on my 4K projector in HDR10 and then again on a new Sony OLED in Dolby Vision, and the colors are just straight-up eye candy throughout. The animation here is definitely more cartoony, not having that hyper-realistic look found in some of Pixar’ss films (e.g., the jazz club scene in Soul). Even still, the colors just burst off the screen, and this will make your video display really pop. You can also tell that the Pixar animators and writers took the time to research life in a small Italian Riviera city, with lots of accurate little details thrown in throughout. (This is also the directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa, who clearly tried to bring as much Italian authenticity and love to the project as possible.)

 

Water is notoriously difficult to animate and render, but here it just looks fantastic. Also, even through Disney+ streaming (via my Apple TV), I didn’t notice any banding issues as the sunlight filtered from the surface down through various layers, colors, and shades of the ocean—something that looked especially natural on the OLED with Dolby Vision. Another scene had water crashing into a rocky shoreline, with clear and individual detail to each rock, with the foam, froth, and bubbles in the water incredibly detailed. There are also subtle detailed touches like the different shades of color in the sand as water lapped in and out. There is also super-fine detail in the clothing worn, letting you clearly see the differences in fabric texture, patterns, and weaves worn by characters.

 

Much of Luca takes place in daytime in the town of Portorosso, with brilliant sun shining in piercing blue skies; bright, emerald grasses; and multi-colored buildings, or the warm, golden-orange hues as the sun sets. It all looks gorgeous. 

 

Kind of like the story itself, I found Luca’s audio mix to be just satisfactory. Dialogue is well rendered primarily in the center channel (though it does occasionally follow characters as they move off screen), making it clear and intelligible throughout, but even though it is a Dolby Atmos mix, it was very subtle and reserved. The one dialogue distraction was Giulia’s accent, which seemed to come and go, and was especially pronounced when she is sprinkling in some word or phrase in Italian, kind of like how a Latino chef will go out of their way to over-emphasize some ethnic word like “chili relleno” to let you know just how legit they are.

 

Italian songs of the era are sprinkled throughout, and they get some room across the front channels and a bit up into the overheads, but the rest of the effects are pretty sparse. There were some instances of the sounds of boats passing up overhead, or a harpoon thrown that passes by, but I didn’t find the sound mix dynamic at all. (Again, whether this was a streaming issue or an Apple TV issue, I can’t say.) 

 

I did notice that the soundfield opened up a bit as Luca leaves the water and goes onto dry land. It wasn’t through a big use of audio, but rather just the sonic sense that the room had expanded with sounds of gentle wind, rustling leaves, and birds that let you know you are up in the human world.

 

Is Luca worth seeing? For Disney+ subscribers, I’d say definitely. If nothing else, it is beautiful to look at, and it’s a fun, albeit simple, story.

 

And, it’s not that Luca is a bad film. In fact, you could easily say that while Soul was a Pixar title made for adults, Luca sets its sights squarely on a younger audience, with a coming-of-age story about friendship, acceptance, childhood dreams, and overcoming fears that never gets too deep or strays too far away from safety and cuteness that kids will be drawn to. And if Luca came from any other studio (well, with the exception of Disney Animation, Pixar’s parent company), it would likely be heralded as a triumph. It’s just that Pixar has come to make us expect so much more.  

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Disney+ Needs to Break Its Own Rules

Disney+ Needs to Break Its Own Rules

Throughout March and April, Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier positively dominated the pop-culture conversation. You might have noticed that we at Cineluxe weren’t part of that conversation, but that doesn’t really have much to do with the series itself. It’s a fine show—far from Marvel’s best work, but also far from its worst. The series deals with a lot of big ideas, and although it doesn’t give them all the thorough examination they deserve, it’s still a pretty solid continuation of the Captain America films just without the benefit of Steve Rogers, who hung up the shield at the end of Avengers: Endgame. 

 

So, why the radio silence? Because a discussion of what did and didn’t work about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in and of itself would sort of miss the point. Anyone who tells you they could really wrap their heads around the show before it was available to view in its entirety is lying. The biggest thing holding the series back was that it simply doesn’t hold up as weekly 

appointment television.

 

I’ve riffed on this subject in the past, about how Disney+ represented something of a revival of “water cooler” TV—how its weekly release schedule gave new shows some breathing room, and gave audiences an opportunity to discuss new episodes one at a time in chat rooms, message boards, and around the dinner table. 

 

That really worked to the advantage of the first two seasons of The Mandalorian, and it was practically baked into the premise of WandaVision. Of course, it wasn’t merely a creative decision to release those shows one episode at a

time over the course of a couple of months; it was a necessity, given that neither’s season finale was finished cooking when the first episode hit the table.

 

Forget the reasons for this anti-binging release strategy, though. The fact is that it works—except when it doesn’t. And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the perfect example of how a “this is the way we do things” mentality and a dogged adherence to tradition (no matter how new that tradition may be) can hurt a property.

 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is, at the end of the day, a pretty good five-hour-plus movie. And given its length, it’s nice to have it broken up into six chapters so you can consume it at your own pace over the course of a night or two or an entire week—whichever fits your schedule. But given that it’s effectively one cinematic experience chopped into six roughly equal parts, doling it out over a month and a half of real-world time reminded me of Bilbo Baggins’ famous quote from The Fellowship of the Ring: It feels thin . . . sort of stretched . . . like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.

 

When Disney+ launched, the weekly release schedules were part of its still-forming identity. At this point, though, its identity is pretty well established. It surpassed 100 million subscribers sometime last month. Soon enough, its subscriber base will eclipse that of Netflix (although I hesitate to predict when, since analysts keep moving the goalposts and Disney+ continues to defy their wildest expectations for growth). 

 

At this point, you have to acknowledge that Disney+ is, if not the leader in streaming, at least a leader. Good leaders adapt, though. They have a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. And while the appointment-TV approach certainly works for most of the service’s properties so far, we now have at least one example of every-Friday releases negatively impacting a show’s effectiveness.

 

There was literally no good creative reason to tease out The Falcon and the Winter Soldier over the course of six weeks. Six days, maybe? That could have worked. And the entertainment-industry headlines would have written themselves: “Disney+ Brings Back the Mini-Series with Special Falcon & Winter Soldier Event.”  

 

Disney+ has broken nearly every rule of the streaming marketplace. Surely it can break this rule when it makes sense, even if the rule is its own.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Star Wars: The Bad Batch (2021)

Beginnings definitely aren’t Dave Filoni’s strong suit. As much as I’ve raved about his efforts on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that show took at least a season to find its footing. The followup, Rebels, also went through an awkward adolescence before developing into another incredible series—seriously some of the best Star Wars storytelling in the Disney era. 

 

As the architect of the galaxy far, far away in the animated domain, Filoni puts a lot of faith in his audience’s ability to invest in a long game, but the flipside is that we in the audience have to put a lot of faith in him, to trust that things will pay off in the 

end. And they always do, at least so far. What, then, to make of the fact that The Bad Batch, the latest Star Wars series to spin from Filoni’s mind, starts off pretty darned good?

 

Before we dig too deeply into the execution of this new Disney+ series, let’s get some horse-race stuff out of the way for those of you who are interested. The Bad Batch is a direct sequel to The Clone Wars. In fact, the first four episodes of the seventh season of TCW—which aired on Disney+ last year, five years after the show’s original premature cancelation—served as a transparent backdoor pilot for this show, which follows the trials and tribulations of a squad of rogue clones in the earliest days of the Galactic Empire.

 

The first episode overlaps with the final four episodes of The Clone Wars and the third act of Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, which is starting to become pretty well-worn territory in the new Star Wars canon. But rather than use 

BAD BATCH AT A GLANCE

This Disney+ followup to Clone Wars and Rebels hits its stride pretty early on for a Star Wars animated series. 

 

PICTURE
The animators take advantage of HDR to extensively explore light and shadow, resulting in one of the best uses of Dolby Vision in a cartoon to date.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack alternates between an intimate center-channel-heavy mix and a more bombastic, surround-channel-friendly affair that puts you right in the middle of the action.

the fall of the Republic, destruction of the Jedi, and rise of the Empire as a denouement or conclusion, the new show uses them as a jumping-off point, which quickly leads into territory that hasn’t been explored in live-action or animation.

 

Not to drop too much geekiness on your screen here but what makes Clone Force 99 (aka The Bad Batch) special is that they’re defective (or “deviant,” in their own words), and as such immune to the programming that causes the Clone Army to become proto-Stormtroopers in the new Empire. Each has a mutation that gives him a special skill but also makes him less controllable. And you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to guess that their uniqueness will eventually put them at odds with the new totalitarian regime. 

 

Neither do you have to be too observant—although perhaps you do need to be of a certain age—to recognize that this Bad Batch shares a lot of similarities with another group of small-screen anti-heroes, The A-Team, as well as big-screen misfits like The Dirty Dozen.

 

In the two episodes that have aired thus far—the 75-minute “Aftermath” and the 30-minute “Cut and Run”—we don’t really get a sense of what if any role this unruly team will serve in the impending rebellion. In fact, we don’t really get much of a sense of what the show’s formula will be, aside from the “formed family on the run from the Man” trope already explored in Rebels. 

 

But that sort of doesn’t matter—at least not yet. The Bad Batch doesn’t stand or fall on a unique premise. What makes the show work already is that it has established a consistent tone and style in just two episodes, something Clone Wars and Rebels fumbled around with for a bit too long. It also seems to already know what it’s about—mainly, the internal tug-of-war that arises from being an iconoclast searching for a purpose and a meaningful role in a society that seems to be falling apart.

 

In terms of its look, the series definitely builds on the foundation of Clone Wars, relying on similar character models and generally following the trend of taking a sort of Gerry Anderson-esque “Supermarionation” vibe and injecting a healthy dose of articulation and fluidity into the animation. 

 

Computing power has, of course, come a long way since Clone Wars first hit screens in 2008, though, and Filoni and his team don’t seem compelled to stick to the style of that series slavishly. The animation in The Bad Batch is much more detailed, and the backgrounds in particular benefit from much more richness, depth, and sophistication. 

 

Perhaps the most striking thing about the visuals, though, is the way the imagery benefits from high dynamic range. The Bad Batch was created from the ground up for exhibition on Disney+, not broadcast TV, and as such has much more freedom to use shadows and light in interesting and effective ways. It remains to be seen if it maintains this Botticellian chiaroscuro aesthetic as it moves into new and unexplored environments—and it seems it will—but it already represents among the best application of Dolby Vision in animation to date. 

 

Big props are also owed to composer Kevin Kiner, who returns to deliver a very different musical landscape from those he developed for Clone Wars and Rebels. With the former series, his music skewed heavily toward a Star Wars prequel-era style, and with the latter he had to at least evoke the music of the original trilogy. With The Bad Batch, though, he has managed to create a new and different musical language that nonetheless feels perfect for the franchise. There’s a mix of traditional and experimental, of orchestral and electronic, that feels like Star Wars without aping John Williams or Ludwig Goransson or even Kiner’s own previous work in this universe. 

 

The sound mixers seem to realize that they have something special to work with in Kiner’s score, because they give it oodles of room to breathe, both spatially and proportionally. At its most intimate, the sound mix is a center-speaker-heavy affair. At its most bombastic, it uses the entire Dolby Atmos soundscape to drop you right into the conflict. For the most part, though, it’s a three-channel, front-heavy mix, with dialogue following the characters from left to right across the screen and Kiner’s music filling the front soundstage, leaking into the surrounds to give it some ambience and an additional sense of space.

 

In short, The Bad Batch is an audiovisual treat of the best kind. And while the series itself hasn’t quite risen to the narrative or thematic heights of its predecessors, it’s off to a consistently entertaining start, which is something that couldn’t be said of Filoni’s previous animated Star Wars adventures. It also seems to be playing things a little safe at the moment, trying too hard at times to recreate the magic of its predecessors. If it can break out of that rut (and knowing Filoni’s past work, I have every reason to suspect that it will), The Bad Batch has the potential to be something truly great. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

I Hope Marvel Never Makes Another “WandaVision”

I Hope Marvel Never Makes Another "WandaVision"

As I’ve said before (so much that regular readers are probably getting sick of hearing it), Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed everything for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the film that showed us how MCU movies could rise above the tropes and trappings of superhero cinema. And it’s the film that gave the movies that followed it the freedom to play around with genre in interesting ways. If Winter Soldier hadn’t worked and hadn’t connected with audiences, I don’t think we would have WandaVision today. I just don’t think Marvel would have had the courage to make it.

 

But WandaVision, in its own way, changes everything yet again. The precedent set by this series is that you can take the single most mainstream intellectual property in the world and get abstract with it. You can experiment. You can out-bizarre Twin Peaks and still hang onto your fanboy audience, many of whom latch onto the MCU for no other reason than the wish-

fulfillment/power-trip aspect of it all.

 

Well, you can hang onto a lot of them. I have to admit, geeky though I may be, I’ve pretty much divorced myself from geek culture since the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi—mostly due to the toxicity of it all, but also because the loudest contingent of fantasy/sci-fi fans on the internet no more understands the properties they love to wax neck-beardedly about than my American Staffordshire Terrier understands quantum chromodynamics.

 

The few discussions I’ve seen about WandaVision, now that it’s over, frustrate and infuriate me in equal measure, because here we have a story that cuts straight to the heart of what it means to be human, in a way no film or TV series of any genre has in ages, and the only things the Comic-Con crowd wants to discuss are why Mephisto didn’t make an appearance or whether Agatha’s rabbit familiar, Señor Scratchy, is secretly her son Nicholas Scratch from the comic books.

 

All fun topics to talk about, mind you, as frivolous as they 

may be. But can we take a breather from the soap-opera discussions to focus on what made WandaVision legitimately good? Can we appreciate that the company known for making movies about dudes fighting robots in their pajamas had the courage to tell a story in which the primary antagonists are grief, pain, cognitive dissonance, and consequences? And not physical manifestations thereof, but the actual human emotions?

 

Can we maybe take a breather from geeking out over the big action set-pieces to appreciate the fact that the biggest knock-down, drag-out battle in the finale was won not with fists or laser eyes, but a philosophical argument centered on the Ship of TheseusCan we talk about the fact that, as weird as the first half of WandaVision was, it avoided the biggest sins of the aforementioned Twin Peaks by knowing when to back off the eccentricities, lest they lose their value?

 

Look, I’m not saying WandaVision was perfect. I found it more than a bit disappointing when the penultimate episode overexplained too many of the series’ earlier abstractions, assuming I suppose that some of its audience may not have been able to connect the dots for themselves. But such slip-ups are few and far between, which is surprising for a show that works on so many levels.

 

WandaVision is, obviously, a story about struggling with grief and the toll that struggle can take on those around us. It’s also a meditation on our weird relationship with media—how we influence it and how it influences us, both overtly and subliminally. It’s a clever examination of shifting cultural norms, and how what we accept as normal today is as much a manipulated affectation as any of the tropes of the past.

 

The series’ strengths lie in its uniqueness. And yes, you could point to previous films it resembles in the most obvious of ways, such as Pleasantville and The Truman Show. But such similarities are mostly superficial (except, of course, for the latter’s framing of tragedy disguised as comedy, which this show appropriates with devastating effectiveness). WandaVision is, for all its references and call-backs, its own thing. Which is why I’m worried it’s going to be used as a template, now that it has proven successful.

 

I’m already seeing fans start to beg for a second season, and Marvel’s suits are being coy in their responses. And that terrifies me. As a lifelong fan of these characters—one who’s smitten with how they’ve been interpreted for screens large and small—I obviously want to see their stories continued. I’m as invested as could be. But I want to see Paul Bettany and Lizzie Olsen portraying Vision and the Scarlet Witch in new stories, told in new ways, not awkwardly fumbling around with attempts at capturing lighting in a bottle.

 

WandaVision was perhaps the most satisfying and self-contained narrative I’ve seen unfold in ages. And now it’s over. It’s done. There’s no more of this story to tell. But that doesn’t mean that someone won’t try to replicate it. And if you need evidence of that, just look at the number of new streaming services that have come out in the past year with meaningless “+” symbols stapled onto the end of their names.

 

Yes, yes, I know. A streaming service and a TV series are not the same thing. But Hollywood has a knack for aping what works without understanding why it works. When Disney+ launched back in 2019, that binary operator at the end of its name actually meant something. It was shorthand for “Disney + Pixar + Star Wars + Marvel + National Geographic.” What the hell does Apple TV+ connote? Much less Paramount+, the new name for the streaming service formerly known as CBS All Access? Paramount + what, exactly?

 

And so, in keeping with that entertainment-industry tradition, it stands to reason that we’ll eventually see at least a few feeble attempts at replicating the self-referential, heartfelt-story-framed-as-classic-sitcom container in which WandaVision was delivered, with no thought given to what that device actually meant in the context of this story.

 

The most I can hope for is that Marvel doesn’t attempt to scrape this barrel again, and certainly not with these characters, because wishing for anything more than that would be like Charlie Brown, facing that football once more, hoping beyond hope that Lucy doesn’t yank it away at the last second.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

If you need any further proof things are still in flux with theatrical releases, look no further than Disney’s latest full-length animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon. While theaters are opening around the country—including in New York, one of the top markets—studios are still being cautious with tentpole titles. And Raya is a perfect example of Disney re-testing the waters, as the company is trying a new strategy with the film, opting to release it both theatrically and via its Disney+ streaming service with the caveat of being a premium title requiring a “Premier Access” purchase of $29.99 for viewing rights. (The film will be available at no additional charge to all Disney+ subscribers beginning June 4.)

 

This is the second Premier Access title to debut on Disney+, following the 2020 live-action remake of Mulan. What makes Raya different is that it’s the first animated feature to debut on the service requiring an additional fee to view. Recent Pixar films Onward (which had a very short theatrical release prior to the COVID closures, then launched for sale on digital retailers for two weeks prior to landing on Disney+) and Soul (which opened exclusively on the streaming service on Christmas Day) 

were available for streaming at no added fee.

 

Raya also represents Disney’s first attempt to bow a movie simultaneously theatrically and at home—a clear sign the company is weighing the risk/reward of straddling the fence and seeing if its streaming subscribers will offset the lost theatrical revenue. Not everyone is thrilled with Disney’s decision, as Cinemark—the third largest US theatrical exhibitor—refused to show the film at any of its locations.

 

Fortunately, Disney makes it fast and simple to enable Premier Access for Raya. Simply click on the onscreen option and then enter the CVC information from your linked credit card and within seconds access is granted. With nothing to download, the film is instantly available for streaming.

 

Another interesting technical aspect of Raya on Disney+ is that it does not (currently) feature Dolby Atmos audio, even 

RAYA AT A GLANCE

Disney’s latest animated feature gets both a theatrical and a Premier Access release, making it available on Disney+ for an additional $29.99 fee.

 

PICTURE
The film’s bright and saturated color palette is visually arresting and a treat to look at. HDR provides beautiful depth, highlights, shadow detail, and rich colors throughout. 

 

SOUND
The soundtrack is pretty lackluster. Dynamics were heavily compressed and rarely delivers any impact, even at reference volume.

though the film includes Dolby Vision and was mastered for Dolby Cinema. This is definitely a break from the norm for films (and even original programming like WandaVision) streaming on Disney+, as most feature Atmos. Perhaps it will be added later (as it was for Frozen II), but early viewers—including yours truly—had to do without.

 

Raya features the classic elements of Disney princess fairytales: A girl loses her family and is forced to grow and trust in herself to solve some major problem, having to trust and enlist others along the way to aid in her struggle. She even passes many of the “princess tests” from Ralph Breaks the Internet.

 

What kind of princess are you? Do you have magic hair? (No.) Magic hands? (No.) Do animals talk to you? (Kind of.) Were you poisoned? (No, but it’s mentioned.) Cursed? (There is a curse on the land.) Kidnapped or enslaved? (No.) Made a deal with an underwater sea witch where she took your voice in exchange for a pair of human legs? (Ummm, no.) Have you ever had true love’s kiss? (Big no.) Do you have daddy issues? (Yep.) Don’t even have a mom. (Yep.) Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up? (A big strong man does join her quest and helps, but he doesn’t solve her problems.)” Also, put a checkmark in the “stare at important water” category too.

 

But Raya is also most definitely not your typical Disney princess film as Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is indisputably Disney’s most bad-ass, girl-power princess ever, featuring a lot of attitude and swagger. She never backs down from a fight and engages in various forms of hand-to-hand combat throughout. In fact, Raya reminded me of the live-action Mulan remake in many ways, including the fact that there’s no singing in the film. (Another break for your typical Disney princess.)

 

The story takes place in the once prosperous land of Kumandra, where dragons co-exist with humans and bring water, rain, and peace to the land. Evil spirits called the Druun come, turning all humans to stone, and the dragons sacrifice themselves in order to save humanity, placing all of their spirits into a single magic gem. A power struggle to possess the gem causes the once peaceful land to split into five tribes: Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine, and Talon.

 

After 500 years, Raya’s dad, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of the Heart tribe, holder of the gem, tries to reunite the tribes, but the Dragon gem is broken into five pieces, with each tribe taking a piece and causing the Druun to return and turning many to stone. Raya escapes, and armed with her father’s sword and riding atop her combination pill bug/armadillo/hedgehog creature Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), she embarks on a quest to find Sisu (Awkwafina), who is said to be the last surviving dragon. With hopes of ridding the Druun once and for all and bringing her father back, Raya’s quest leads her to all of the villages, which have their own visual style, and have Indiana Jones-like elements to complete.

 

Disney animation is top-notch, so the fantastic visuals shouldn’t come as any surprise. There are amazing levels of detail in closeups, with rich texture in fabric, wood, stone, and hair. Water—which plays an important role in the film—also looks photo-realistic, with incredible movement and reflection. Closeups of Sisu in human form reveal strands of hair that seem to be individually colored in her purple-pink-blue-white ombre style. And the care animators took in the way fabric drapes and moves on characters has lifelike realism. The computer animation style is different from Pixar’s, but equally top-shelf.

 

HDR provides beautiful depth, highlights, shadow detail, and rich colors throughout, especially when viewed on a Dolby Vision-capable display. The magic Dragon gem has a real Arkenstone quality, internally lit by shifting, glowing, sparkling shafts of light, and the Talon village at night is especially gorgeous, glowing with rich, warm, and vibrant lighting and lamps that leaps from the screen. Raya features a frequently bright and saturated color palette, and is visually arresting and a treat to look at.

 

Having watched the movie twice—once on my 115-inch JVC 4K projector and again on a 65-inch Sony 4K LED—I did notice that backgrounds frequently have a bit of a grainy/noisy/cloudy haze. As this is computer animation, it’s obvious it isn’t actually grain or noise, so I think it must be a stylistic choice the animators took to keep the world from appearing too perfect. They also frequently chose to use “portrait mode” styling on closeups, where objects not close up in frame are defocused.

 

Besides the movie not having an Atmos track, as mentioned earlier, I found the soundtrack to be pretty lackluster—unfortunately, a common complaint with many recent Disney transfers. Even played back at reference volume on my Marantz processor, dynamics were heavily compressed and rarely delivered any impact. It wasn’t until the film’s climax that it seemed like the subwoofers really kicked in, and even then, they were restrained and didn’t deliver the impact I expected. Whether this was a shortcoming of the film itself or my Apple 4K TV, I can’t say, but I was disappointed with the sonics. However, judging by the quality of the song “Lead the Way” (performed by Aiko) played over the end credits with a lot more dimension, dynamics, and space, I feel like it is the mix itself.

 

There are some atmospheric surround effects—particularly at the very beginning and end—such as wind, rain, forest sounds, and echoes, and the score is expanded across the front of the room, but primarily this is a front-channel-centric mix that feels like it is designed to be listened to through a TV or soundbar.

 

Raya and the Last Dragon looks gorgeous, and the voice acting—especially the always-likable Awkafina, who brings the right level of humor and quirkiness to Sisu—is on point. While the lack of any songs and a few intense scenes might limit its replay value for younger viewers, it’s an entertaining film that will appeal to many viewers, as attested to by its very favorable 95% Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating and 85% audience score. I have two daughters —ages 14 and almost five—so for us, a movie night where we can all get together and enjoy a new Disney animated film was an easy yes.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.