Today has been quite a day for deliveries, with the HD DVD releases of The Machinist and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the latter a review copy) and the DVD of the 25th Anniversary edition of The Fox and the Hound (again, for review) all arriving.
I’m going to discuss The Machinist first because it’s definitely the most noteworthy of the three arrivals. It constitutes several first for me: my first non-US HD DVD (it’s Japanese), my first HD DVD from a distributor other than one of the major Hollywood studios (it’s a Toshiba release), and my first HD DVD using MPEG4/AVC/H.264 as its compression format rather than VC1.
I was a little wary regarding this release given the mixed reports that have come through so far regarding Toshiba’s Japanese releases, all of which have used MPEG4 rather than VC1. Essentially, MPEG4 has been characterised as an inferior format, and I was expecting to be a bit let down by The Machinist. I needn’t have worried: it looks excellent, and in places is up there with Serenity in terms of detail. For the most part, the image is razor-sharp, and the grain, too, looks excellent. The Machinist is stylistically a very harsh film, with heavily desaturated colours and very pronounced contrasts. All of this is maintained with aplomb on the HD DVD.
Unfortunately, it is slightly marred by a few instances of unsightly edge enhancement. I should point out, however, that this was actually present when I saw the film at the cinema. It was the first time I’d ever seen edge enhancement on a projected film print, and it’s indicative of the move towards using digital intermediates as opposed to conventional chemical colour timing in a laboratory. The fact that the entire film is stored on a computer gives technicians free reign to monkey with the image until their hearts content, and it does seem that they have gone way overboard with the artificial sharpening in some shots here. These are exactly the same shots that were affected when I saw it at the cinema, so it is the filmmakers themselves who deserve the blame for this rather than Toshiba.
The film comes with English and Japanese Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 audio tracks and Japanese subtitles, which can be disabled either on the fly using the remote control function or via the menu. A handful of extras are included - a documentary, deleted scenes, two trailers and some filmographies. For these, the subtitles unfortunately can’t be disabled. Oh yeah, and, oddly enough, this HD DVD comes in a standard amaray case, which is most annoying given that it’s a completely different size from the rest of my collection:
Meanwhile, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, comparatively speaking, a disappointment. I’m not exactly sold on the film itself (I think Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Willy Wonka is cringe-worthily awful, the musical numbers are atrocious, and the subplot involving Christopher Lee as Wonka’s father one of the worst additions I’ve ever seen in a book-to-film adaptation), and the HD DVD’s transfer is a real let-down. Reviewers and laymen alike have been raving over it - “Best HD DVD yet!” “10/10!” and so on. Unfortunately, this is actually the worst-looking HD DVD I’ve seen so far. Like the other two Warner releases I’ve seen so far, it’s slightly edge enhanced, but, unlike Million Dollar Baby and Constantine, it’s also quite soft. Some of this is intentional - as with The Machinist, it was digitally colour timed, and Tim Burton, it would seem, took the opportunity to add a further touch of artificiality to the movie by cranking up the automated spot remover beyond what most people would consider a reasonable level. A lot of the time, the actors’ faces, even in close-up, look like those of porcelain dolls, and in some scenes, such as the early flashback to when Grandpa Joe worked at the factory, they look waxy and smeared.
These are not, however, the fault of the HD DVD. What is, however, is the overall diffuse look of the film. Throughout, it looks ill-defined and almost outright blurry, but for one occasion: the first Oompa-Loompa musical number after Augustus Gloop has been sucked into the pipes of the chocolate river. Suddenly, the softening disappears and, for a few brief moments, it becomes a 10/10 transfer. The grain that was sorely missing comes back, the individual blades of grass stop being merely a swathe of poorly-defined green, and it all seems much more three-dimensional. It doesn’t last, though, and, almost as soon as the song has finished, it goes back to its murky, diffuse look, which remains for the rest of the film.
Also problematic is the encoding. This is the first time that I’ve seen noticeable compression problems on an HD DVD, but they are here for all to see. I don’t have the specific time code references to hand (I’ll make sure to note these down when I come to do my official DVD Times review), but on at least three occasions, parts of the screen disintegrate into mushy macroblocks. One occasion involves swirling melted chocolate, while the other takes place in the midst of a series of explosions as Charlie, Wonka and Grandpa Joe right the Great Glass Elevator. These can’t have been easy scenes to compress, but this is the first time I’ve seen an HD DVD encode slip up so badly, and I genuinely hope it’s not the start of a trend. Although, given the rave reviews the transfer has been getting, even from so-called experts, I have my fears.
Finally, The Fox and the Hound, and it’s the least impressive of today’s deliveries by far. Actually, it’s a downright disgrace. Despite being promoted and packaged as some sort of 25th anniversary special edition, Disney have done a really crummy job with it. In terms of extras, there seems to be nothing here that wasn’t already present in the underwhelming line-up for the previously-released UK version of the film - we’re talking a rudimentary behind-the-scenes featurette, a couple of bonus shorts, a sing-along and a narrated “storybook”.
Of course, what really counts is the audio-visual presentation, and I’m sorry to report that it’s a complete disaster. First, the original mono mix of the film is nowhere to be seen. In its place is a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, which sounds weak and clumsy, and very clearly wrong. Worse still is the transfer, which is nothing more than a recycle of the pan and scan LaserDisc master used for the previous DVD. That Disney would put out something so shoddy in this day and age is an absolute joke, and I am very strongly recommending that anyone thinking about picking up a copy of this seriously reconsider before plonking down a wad of cash for this lazy botch-job. This is 0/10 for video, 0/10 for audio - who are they trying to kid?
Update, October 17, 2006 03:55 PM: Regular Disney DVD reviewer Dave Boulet, whose comments about The Little Mermaid’s transfer were right on the money, has given The Fox and the Hound’s DVD an absolute savaging at DVD File - and, for once, I actually find myself nodding my head in agreement as I read a review.