Thursday, April 15, 2010

My "Waking Sleeping Beauty" Experience (Sort of a Review)

I've always heard people talk about life changing experiences, but up until now I never believed they were true. I always thought they were simply exaggerated statements by helpless romantics. But a few weeks ago, I experienced a life changing moment and now I'm a believer. It came to me in the form of a documentary called Waking Sleeping Beauty, a film that follows the rough history of Walt Disney Pictures from 1984 to 1994. When my good friend and I left the theater, it was that moment that I told him to remember this day, because that was the day that I decided that I wanted to make animated films. It's something that I've always wanted but I've never had the confidence to peruse it. Well, you're reading it here. As God as my witness, I will become an animator!

In case you were wondering, Waking Sleeping Beauty is really good. Check it out if it's playing anywhere near you.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Gundam Unicorn Vol. 1 Review

I just finished watching Gundam Unicorn episode one and I thought I'd share my initial impressions of the highly anticipated OVA series.

To my knowledge, Gundam UC is the first in the franchise to receive a simultaneous international release on any disc format. Although the first episode was shown on the Playstation Network last month in Japan, the Blu-Ray release saw its U.S. and Japanese debut on the same day. Baring that in mind, there was a genuine feeling of excitement knowing that for the first time English speaking Gundam fans are enjoying a new Gundam OVA at the same time as their Japanese counterparts.

But what about the show itself? Based on this first episode, I believe that we're in for a serious treat. I never read the original novels that the series was based but I hear it's very faithful. I was very impressed with the animation. Gundam series generally don't deliver much in the realm of character animation since most of them are 50+ episodes. But one of the advantages to OVA's is they generally have superior production values over television shows. It's nice to see characters whose animation matches the quality of their mobile suits. Speaking of mobile suits, I am very glad to see that they are predominantly hand-drawn in a time where most mecha anime rely far too heavily on CG. This makes for some pretty spectacular battle sequences.

I won't go too in depth with the story as to avoid spoilers. I'll just mention that there's a sense of familiarity in the narrative, but in a good way. It really feels like the Gundam shows of old; where the series was less about flashy mobile suit designs and bishounen fan service, and more about the inner struggles of being a pilot thrown into into battle on a regular basis and putting your life on the line for the sake of others.

As for the bonus material, there are some Blu-Ray live features such as a preview screen for Gundam UC episode 2, original promos and TV commercials, as well as trailers for other Bandai titles. Nothing too special. A behind the scenes featurette would have been much appreciated but I'm sure they're waiting on that.

Lackluster extras aside, I think Gundam UC will remind people about why they became Gundam fans. To me it represents everything that was good about the Gundam franchise before it began to lose focus. It's looking like this show will reach the heights of previous Gundam OVA's like War in the Pocket and 08th MS Team. I can only hope that the release date for volume two is announced soon.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Castle in the Sky Review (2010 DVD Re-Issue)

Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (Tenku no Shiro Laputa) is one of his most thrilling, action packed, and entertaining entries in the Studio Ghibli library. However the first U.S. DVD release of Laputa was rushed and sub-par to say the least. But now the movie gets a second chance at a mainstream U.S. DVD release with this recent re-issue. Considering how horrible the original DVD was, this will be more of a compare and contrast.

The story begins when a young girl named Sheeta has been kidnapped by the army. She is soon “rescued” by a group of sky pirates who are after the mysterious crystal on her necklace. She soon finds herself in the care of a boy named Pazu, whose dream is to find the legendary floating aisle known as Laputa. The two soon find themselves on a high flying adventure to find Laputa before the army claims it as their own.

Laputa is a very important to me. It was the film that initially sparked my curiosity about Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The first time I saw any footage of it was at an AMV (Anime Music Video) contest back in 2001. The video compiled clips of all of Miyazaki’s films that had been released up to that point and it to this day it remains my personal favorite AMV. Of all of the clips it was the image shown above that sparked my interest. It was just so beautiful that I had to know more about it. When I finally saw it, my expectations were surpassed. The movie was even better than I had originally imagined. The animation was incredible and fast paced, especially for 1986. It still boggles my mind to think that it all had to be done without CG. What really impressed me was the look of the film. Many of the locals were so cool and so fascinating that I almost wish Laputa was a television series in the tradition of The World Masterpiece Theater so that the world could be further explored. The soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi is one of my personal favorites. Also, the characters were really fun to watch. Especially Muska, who is one of the most evil characters Miyazaki has ever conceived. I do have to say, I always found the pirates to be funny, yet kind of creepy. They wear skin tight pink pants, they’re love interest (Sheeta), can’t be any older than 13, and they only become attracted to her when she’s wearing their mother’s clothes. But as I said, they’re pretty funny and that creepiness kind adds to the humor. But with that said, Laputa is easily one of the most entertaining movies in my collection and a great example of Miyazaki’s genius.

It would be two years before I was finally able to obtain a legit copy of the film. However I was less than pleased with Disney’s initial DVD release. So why don’t we talk about some of the changes that have been made in this new re-issue.

Original 2003 Release

2010 Release

The DVD Cover

The first thing you’ll notice right off the bat is that the cover art has been replaced. No longer are we stuck with overly glossy, terribly awkward photoshop face lifts with gigantic spoilers throughout. Instead we are treated with the image that was used for the original spoiler-free Japanese theatrical poster from Miyazaki himself. Why they originally felt that this wouldn’t be marketable is beyond me. I’m just glad they’ve wised up since the release of Spirited Away.

The Subtitles

Studies show that about 60% of anime fans prefer English dubbing. I myself have always preferred watching anime subtitles or even raw. But if there’s one thing Disney learned very quickly, it’s that ignoring that 40% can really hurt your sales. That’s why the original DVD as well as all subsequent Ghibli DVD releases were bilingual. However the subtitles on the original Laputa DVD left a lot to be desired. They were over simplified, mistranslated, or at times even mistimed all together. This clearly demonstrated that the disc, as well as Kiki’s Delivery Service, were merely rush jobs intended to capitalize on the success of Spirited Away. It’s negligence like this that drives people to produce fansubs. Sadly, this time around it’s not that much better. They decided to rewrite the subtitles to omit the glitches that were present in the original and to improve the translation. However the text is clearly a tweaked version of the English dub script. This becomes painfully obvious when the timing matches the English actors better than the original Japanese version. This is one area where I'm going to have to recommend the original 2003 DVD.

The Bonus Features

Disc 1 of the 2003 release featured the usual “Behind the Microphone” featurette that is present on almost all of the U.S. Ghibli discs. It was kind of painful to watch considering how terrible the English version was (more on that later.) We also got the original Japanese trailers. Disc 2 featured a storyboard presentation of the entire film. The only problem there was that you were unable to switch between the film and the storyboards, a feature that was present on the R2 release. The new DVD provides all of the features listed above as well as brand new interviews with Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki that were made specifically for this release. There’s also a feature called “Enter the Lands” that serves as a mini introduction to Studio Ghibli for those who are new to their films. It’s a neat little feature.

The English Dub

This is probably the biggest and most unexpected change, but first here’s a little bit of history. Back when Disney first announced the casting for the English version of Laputa, there was quite a bit of anticipation. It featured stars such as James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamil, Cloris Leachman, and Jim Cummings. Considering that English speaking audiences weren’t able to hear the dub until four years after it was recorded and considering that Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away had drastically raised the bar for English dubbing by this point, it was fair to assume that expectations were pretty high for Laputa’s new dub. What we got was one of the most insultingly bad English dubs ever recorded. The writers and ADR director clearly had no idea what the hell they were doing. Lines were poorly read, characters were out of character, there was dialogue inserted with the sole intention of destroying dramatic silence, and worst of all it felt as though anyone that was originally a fan of the movie was purposefully being driven away to make room for a new demographic. And that wasn’t even the half of it. The back of the case boasted about containing an English 5.1 track and a new score by the original composer Joe Hisaishi. The 5.1 was a joke. I can only assume that there was no soundtrack that included the sound effects but didn’t contain the music so they simply replaced all of the sound effects, very poorly might I add. Half the time it was as if there were no sound effects at all. And Joe Hisaishi was less than thrilled about having to essentially butcher his own score to get rid of most of the silence. It would have made for a great CD but it did little to enhance the experience of watcing Laputa. If you can believe it, this was all done for a theatrical release that never happened.

So you may be wondering why in the hell did I just told you about all that. That’s because this new DVD release features a “Remastered English 5.1 track,” meaning that the English dub has been completely re-edited. In all my years as an anime fan I don’t think I’ve ever seen this done before. None of the lines were re-read by the actors. Instead most of the dialogue that killed the dramatic silence or was added to humor small children has been omitted. The original 1986 score has also been restored as well as the original sound effects. While I still feel many of the lines from the core cast are poorly read (with the exception of Cloris Leachman as the pirate captian Dola), this makes for a far more faithful dub that’s an overall vast improvement over the original. It’s the best thing they could have done aside from rerecording the entire voice track. But with that said it's still a pretty bad dub. I would most definitely recommend the Japanese version even if the subtitles are crap.

I should mention that there’s one thing that wasn’t changed that would have been welcome. I always felt that the picture quality of the original disc was lacking a bit. While it certainly looked better than any VHS or maybe even Laserdisc copy, it seemed as if someone turned the Detail setting all the way up. It makes the outlines look distorted and I found it to be a little distracting. This was not present on the Japanese R2 release so I was hoping they would fix it up a little.

If you’ve never purchased Laputa on DVD before I would say that this recent release is a no-brainer. It’s a far superior to the original in almost every way. It’s a great film to add to your collection and it’s certainly worth checking out if you’ve never seen it.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ponyo Review

With the recent BD/DVD release of Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo) I thought I'd share my thoughts on latest film by the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki.

The plot centers around a little goldfish named Ponyo. She's washed ashore after getting stuck in a glass jar and is soon rescued by a 5-year-old boy named Sousuke. The two quickly develop a close bond, however Ponyo's presence in the human world throws the balance of nature into chaos. Only a sacred test of love can restore the world to its natural state and grant Ponyo's wish to become human.

First off Ponyo is hands down one of the most adorable movies I've ever seen. Miyazaki himself said that he made this movie for five-year-olds because of their unique perspective of the world. Everything they see is alive somehow and that's exactly what he wanted to bring to the world of Ponyo and I think he succeeded. But older audiences will find plenty of enjoyment from the purity and innocence that this film represents. It really makes you feel like a child in such a way that you don't feel as though you're being looked down upon, and that's mainly due to Miyazaki's uncanny ability to embrace audiences of all ages. With that said however it does require a suspension of disbelief. I think one of the reasons Miyazaki's worlds feel so real is because of how casually his characters react to some truly outrageous situations. In Ponyo's case, when the balance of nature goes completely out of whack the characters react as though it was a small flood. Nobody's panicking, nobody's becoming overcome with fear. You get the sense that this has all happened before and everyone's used to it. It's almost as if throwing off the balance of nature is merely a minor inconvenience for these people. It's a simple matter of letting yourself accept the things that you see as oppose to asking too many questions.

The animation is one of the film's more unique qualities. Studio Ghibli managed to simultaneously take a large step backwards and huge leap forward. The animation takes on a very simplistic style with pastel and watercolor backgrounds that have a storybook feel to them. The characters are designed with the same elegance that can be found in any of the Ghibli's productions yet they also have a less dynamic approach to their detail. It makes for a very inviting look that's not seen very often in Japanese animation. But the leap comes from the sheer number of characters and creatures that are brought to life. This is evident right from the start in the very first shot of the film, where we see a seemingly endless stream of tiny creatures make their way through the sea. Not since Pixar's Finding Nemo has the ocean looked so enchanting.

As for the characters themselves, they are some of the most adorable and lovable characters I've ever encountered. Miyazaki said that he didn't want Ponyo to be simply another Totoro. But the spirit of that film is definitely present here. You feel as though you've known Sousuke and Ponyo for years. Miyazaki has stated that he likes to make movie about normal children. Sometimes those children just happen to have special abilities, but they're still no different from you and me. I believe that's why people are able to relate to his characters so well. That goes for the adult characters as well. Although Sousuke's mother is a bit eccentric, her concern for him is genuine and doesn't feel forced or tacked on as it does in most children's films.

This is one of those rare opportunities in anime where both the English dub and the original Japanese versions of the film are both on par with each other. The voice acting on both sides are both outstanding. I especially have to give props to Noah Cyrus's performance as Ponyo. Ponyo is a very hyperactive child and most of the time characters such as herself come off as very annoying in English dubs. But almost every one of Cyrus's line deliveries was simply priceless. It's definitely worth checking out, even if you're like me and much prefer foreign films in their respective languages.

There are some nice bonus features too (Although not nearly as many as the Japanese version.) We get a hefty amount of behind the scenes featurettes and interviews compared to the norm for Ghibli releases in the U.S. But one of the most fascinating features is the World of Ghibli; an interactive tour of the several worlds from the films of Hayao Miyazaki. It's a nice introduction to those who have yet to view his other films. The Blu-Ray also comes with a DVD copy of the film. I don't own an HDTV at the moment so I can't comment much on the HD version but the DVD looked just fine. The picture was bright and vibrant and the sound was great. The only problem I have with both discs is that you have to go to the menu to switch the menu as oppose to being able to do it on the fly. This something I haven't seen them do since the Kiki's Delivery Service DVD, but that was done because English version had a longer opening and closing credit sequence. Since Ponyo has an equal running time in the various languages included on the disc there really is no excuse.

I'm a little baffled that Ponyo wasn't nominated at this year's Academy Awards (Not that it would have won anyway. The Secret of Kells must be one hell of a movie.)

Ponyo is a wonderful entry in the Studio Ghibli library and I truly believe that it will stay with a generation of young viewers for years to come.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Top 8 Mega Man Games

So for my first set of reviews I was planning on doing a Top 10 Mega Man games list in anticipation for the upcoming release of Mega Man 10. But with the seemingly endless number of entries in the franchise, I was still unable to think of 10 games in the series that I actually enjoyed. So here are my top eight games in the series instead.

Year Released - 1997
Platforms -
PSX, Saturn, PC

The first thing gamers noticed about X4 was the tremendous graphical upgrade from the previous X game. The 2D graphics were some of the best ever seen at the time. The anime cutscenes, while cheesy (especially in the English dub), were entertaining and the gameplay was kicked up a notch from the previous X games. This also marked the first time that gamers were able to start the game off as Zero. Like most of the X games, the soundtrack was very catchy and the difficulty was level was high. It's too bad X himself had possibly the worst voice in gaming history. I cringe every time I have to hear him say "time to get serious!" I know bad English voice acting has pretty much become the standard for the whole franchise, but this was just painful. But the gameplay was fast paced and intense, making for one of the better games in the X series.

Year Released -
Platforms - PSX, PC

The story comes full circle as it once again focuses on the your partner Zero and his inevitable sacrifice. Only this time you have the option to play the game from his point of view. It's one of the only games in the series that I enjoy almost entirely for the story. The game also sports quite possibly the best 2D graphics in the series to date. The only thing that bothered me in this title was that damn tutorial. I guess they really wanted to appeal to newcomers of the series.

Year Released - 2009
Platform - Wii Ware, PSN, XBL

When Capcom announced that they were making a MM9 for download, fans got excited. But when they announced that it would be 8 bit they got hyped. MM9 was quickly recognized as one of the most polished titles in the series, and rightfully so. It also featured a lot of firsts for the series such as leader boards, the endless stage, and the ability to play through the game as Protoman. The soundtrack was stuck in my head for months, not that I minded. I could tell from the start that the developers had just as much making the game as I had playing it. Mainly because of some of those sadistic challenges such as getting to a boss without shooting, beating all of the bosses with your normal blaster, and the sheer impossibility of completing the entire game without taking any damage whatsoever.

Year Released - 1988
Platform - NES

A lot of people refer to MM2 as the best game in the series, but I guess I just missed it when I was a kid. I didn't play 2 until only a few years ago and I didn't beat it until just last year. I certainly wasn't let down. It truly is one of the most polished games on the NES and one of the best sequels to any video game in existence. It's also the only game I can think of that requires you to die before you can defeat one of the bosses. They were not screwing around with this one. Naturally the soundtrack is some of the best 8-bit music you'll ever hear. I believe in the old saying, "Be a man! Play it on Hard Mode!"

Year Released - 1997
Platforms - Playstation, Saturn

Mega Man 8 marked the first 32 bit game in the main series. It sported some awesome graphics and anime cutscenes just like its X4 predecessor. The gameplay while seriously unforgiving, was very solid. But sadly it also has the worst voice acting in the series to date. It's as if the ADR director just didn't care. Names are mispronounced, characters are hilariously miscast, and some of them actually stutter. But that atrocity aside, it's one of the most solid 2D platforming games around. Also, why in the hell didn't they use this pic for the U.S. cover? Then again I could say the same for almost every game in the series.

Year Released - 2006
Platform - PSP

This remake of the very first game in the series wins the award for the most underrated game in the franchise. Here is a game that improves on literally every aspect over the original and yet I know very few people who have even picked the game up. Powered Up allowed you to chose between playing the original game with the updated graphics or the enhanced remake with new level design and two new bosses. This version also expanded on the story (That's right, the original actually had a story.) But what also makes this game stand out is the one thing that I had been craving for years. This is the only game in the franchise to include a level editor that lets you completely design your own stages and upload them online. It's essentially Little Big Planet: Mega Man Edition. If I had to nitpick I would say that I would have preferred the more traditional anime look from MM8, but the chibi look is just one more thing that makes this game unique among the others. If you've never played Powered Up, it is more than worth adding to your PSP collection.

Year Released - 1993
Platform - SNES

The first X game was one of my favorite games back in the days of the SNES. Capcom took a big risk bringing the cute and bubbly world of Mega Man into a dark and gritty sci-fi setting. Right from the get-go, as soon as you power up the game you find out that Dr. Light has long since passed away and now you are a new and improved version of the original Mega Man. With the advent of the 16-bit era, game designers were able to implement more story elements into all types of games that were previously bound to instruction manuals. Although brief, X was easily the most story driven game in the series at the time of its release. I still get a little sad every time I see Zero sacrifice his life for X. To top it all off, it has the most kick ass soundtrack of the entire series. Sigma Stage 1 is easily one of my favorite songs from any video game. When it comes to the X series, you simply can't top the original.

Year Released - 1990
Platform - NES

No other game on the NES gets me as fired up as when I pop in MM3. As soon as I hear that badass theme I'm ready to go. Although 2 is largely considered the best on the NES, 3 was the game that introduced me to the franchise. It's hard to choose between 2 and 3 because they're both so refined. But I have to give the nod to 3 not just for nostalgia, but because I honestly feel it's the better game. It introduced the slide which added a bit of evasiveness to the blue bomber, the level design is superb, and it has the best 8-bit soundtrack EVER. Every track in the game is fantastic. It's no wonder that its one of the most remixed game OST's out there. But as I've mentioned, most NES games could only fit so much story into the cartridge. But Capcom managed to cram a bit of tragedy into the game resulting in a genuinely emotional ending. (But we all know that Capcom is notorious for resurrecting their deceased characters.) MM3 is a fine example of gaming at its best, and to me it's the most solid game in the franchise.

It's almost baffling to myself how many games in the series I actually enjoy considering that the Mega Man franchise is in the gamers edition of the Guinness Book of World Records for its sheer number of installments. This is of course not to say that there aren't other games in the series that are enjoyable, but I feel that none of them live up to these eight titles. Who knows, maybe Mega Man 10 will be the ninth.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Yay! First Post!

I highly doubt anyone's reading this just yet and I'll probably delete it soon enough. It's after 4 am and I've been playing Ratchet: Deadlocked for the PS2 for over five hours and I need some rest before I make a real post. I plan to turn this blog into a review site for whatever I happen to be playing or watching. It's something I've always wanted to do and my good friend 8-Bit Aaron has inspired me to create an internet haven where I can post anything I want without restrictions. If there really is someone reading this already, I'm looking forward to entertaining you with my thoughts.