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DVD Review: Animated Features

By Glenn Abel

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"Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," "Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride," "Howl's Moving Castle"

The big kids took over the Oscars' animated feature competition this year, crashing its fifth birthday party.

Once upon a time, the animated race seemed designed for big-budget children's fare -- "Shrek," "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo" all came up winners, going up against lesser works such as "Shark Tale" and "Brother Bear."

But animators being artists, there were some surprises from the voters: Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki snuck into the ani category in year 2, winning with the dark but stunning "Spirited Away." France's gently surrealistic "The Triplets of Belleville" wheeled into the next year's race.

This year, lacking a tent-pole film from the majors, the competition defaulted to three tales of mystery and imagination: Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle" made the cut, along with Tim Burton's gleefully grisly "The Corpse Bride." The Oscar went to the bouncy British import "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit."

All three films are out on DVD in one week, making for a mind-expanding triple feature. "Shrek" and the gang will be back soon -- but until then enjoy these transmissions from the far side.

photo "Wallace & Gromit" creator Nick Park admits to packing in some "slightly naughty jokes" to "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." Affectionate nods to Benny Hill and the "Carry On" series of his youth, he explains. But not just the old nudge-and-wink to adults sitting through an overblown cartoon.

"We've never ever made a Wallace & Gromit movie to suit a particular audience or age group," the boyish Brit says. "I've just done what I wanted to do, what made me laugh."

Park and his partner/co-director Steve Box devote much of their commentary on DreamWorks' "Were-Rabbit" DVD talking up the art of "plasticine" animation -- that's claymation to most of you.

"You really do have the space and the distance" to conjure up realism using small-scale sets, puppets and stop-motion, Box says, "The performances are spontaneous and in front of the camera."

With ambitious stop-motion sets, which allow the cameras to prowl the characters' miniature world, lighting can compete with the best live-action work. "All the cinematography and lighting is treated as a serious movie," Park says. "It's not lit for kids or anything." CG came to the rescue a few times, but, "We try to do everything in camera."

For "the world's first vegetarian horror film," the filmmakers studied "Jaws," "The Silence of the Lambs" and the works of Alfred Hitchcock. No need to fear for the kiddies, though: Our heroes remain the cheerful cheese-head Wallace and his resourceful dog Gromit. This time out, they're on the trail of a giantic rabbit that's brutalizing the village's prize-winning vegetable crops.

Park and Box built the film around their canine star, and delight in his silent movie-style performance. They're also chuffed by their new heroine, the curiously coifed Lady Tottington, voiced by Helena Bonham Carter.

The DVD (retail $29.99) capably renders the nuanced colors, highlights and shadows -- seen on a good monitor, this is a gorgeous piece of work. Images are widescreen, 1.85:1. The 5.1 audio prances about a generous soundstage. There's enough subwoofer umphh to capture the Were-Rabbit's thunderous approach. There are optional English subtitles for help with the accents.

Extras include an upbeat commentary by Park and Box; 19 deleted scenes with optional commentary; a nicely done 20-minute history of the Wallace & Gromit franchise; a "Behind the Scenes" puff piece; the peppy "A Day in the Life at Aardman"; a fun bit about how to build a bunny; and the Steve Box short "Stagefright." An image gallery includes storyboards and film comparisons. Kids get their own section.

Buy "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" at 50% off.

photo Tim Burton continues his stop-motion crusade in Warner's splendid home video presentation of "Corpse Bride" ($28.98).

"There's still this great and rare group of people who are still into this type of animation," he says in praise of his detail-obsessed co-workers, many of whom you meet in the extras.

Burton, creator of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," often gets credit for the latest stop-motion renaissance (aka the CGI backlash). "His projects are what brought it back into the public eye," says "Corpse Bride" co-director Mike Johnson. "A lot of people thought computers and digital technology would be the death of stop-motion animation, but really it's bringing it forward."

Burton's techniques aren't entirely old-school -- a digital 35mm still camera captured the single-frame images, giving the directors and puppet wranglers an instant look at their work.

The best bonus feature is a 13-minute production gallery that turns out to be, well, a Tim Burton movie. Rough sketches, animation tests and disembodied characters whiz by, accompanied by hip funereal music.

The DVD featurettes don't dig into the gory details -- none last more than 7 minutes. "Lord of the Universe," a Tim Burton profile, celebrates his "black and beautiful humor." "It's a very particular place for an actor to dwell, in Tim Burton's imagination," says Emily Watson, who plays the film's flesh-and-blood heroine. Helena Bonham Carter appears here as well, as the bone-yard bride.

Two of the shorts cover how the puppets were built (some had mechanical faces, "like Swiss watches") and how they performed. "I think Victor is a much better actor than I am," says voice star Johnny Depp.

Danny Elfman gets a few minutes to talk up the music. "In the land of the dead, it's pretty jazzy," he says, explaining the Cab Calloway-meets-Tom Waits number he performs. (Burton agrees: "The world of the living is actually much more dead than the world of the dead.")

Video and audio are terrific, borderline reference quality. Warner has released the film in its original widescreen format (1.85:1) and in kid-friendly full-screen.

Buy "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" at 41% off.

photo The DVD extras on "Howl's Moving Castle" pretty much repeat the format used for "Spirited Away." Rather than focus on Hayao Miyazaki and his typically fantastic film, the featurettes fuss over Pixar's stewardship of the movie.

To be fair, let's note that Pixar and Disney have more than lived up to their vow to give the Japanese animator first-class treatment in the States. For example, the dubbing talent on "Howl" includes Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Blythe Danner and Jean Simmons.

Pixar's creative frontman John Lasseter declares this "the best English-language dub of any picture I have seen." Viewers who usually go straight for the subtitles may even agree, depending on their tolerance for Disney-style sidekicks. "You never see a fire demon before?" Crystal asks, as if he's serving up some Carnegie deli. (Remote, please.)

An interview with the English dialogue director, Pete Docter, and a docu on Miyazaki's visit to Pixar both were shot for the use of Japanese broadcasters and repurposed on the DVD without explanation, making for odd cross-cultural viewing in spots. (Miyazaki enthusiasts thrive on this kind of disorientation, of course.)

The Japanese director addressed the Pixar troops before a "Howl" screening. The film is "true to my heart," he warns the audience of film pros. "And that might confuse you." Miyazaki has said this tale of a moody wizard and the teen who loves him -- even after she's turned into a 90-year-old crone -- could be his last project.

The other major extra, which takes up disc 2, is a feature-length storyboard presentation. Few of the drawings have much visual impact and there's no option to view the finished scenes at the same time, as there was on Asian "Howl" DVDs.

The widescreen images (1.85:1) look fine, maybe a bit artificially sharp. The 5.1 surround is strong and nicely detailed, with all speakers in play. When Howl's castle moves, the subwoofer pounds the ground right along with it.

Buy "Howl's Moving Castle."

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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