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DVD Review: Ice Age

By Glenn Abel

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Ice Age
art Pop quiz: VHS or DVD? Even the neighborhood Blockbuster has this one figured out, right?

Home-theater buffs demanding the latest and greatest in picture quality have a clear choice, and oddly enough, it's VHS -- the tired old format that JVC recently supercharged with high definition.

Fox wisely picked the apocalyptic knee-slapper "Ice Age" as the first day-and-date title for the young D-VHS format. Chris Wedge's animated hit is drop-dead gorgeous -- full of artful, naturalistic compositions that vividly bring to life a land that time forgot.

A direct comparison of "Ice Age" on DVD and D-VHS isn't much of a contest: The D-VHS' 1080i resolution smokes the DVD's 480 presentation in every way. The picture is richer and more lifelike, with contrasts that help create a mind-blowing 3-D effect.

Fox Home Entertainment's "D-Theater" tape of "Ice Age" is billed as the first full-digital animated release for home systems, transferred directly from the HD source (retail $34.98). The data transfer rate (28.2 Mbps) makes the images superior to even HDTV broadcasts.

Beyond the technology, the HD "Ice Age" delivers a more emotionally involving viewing experience. The razor-sharp visuals compel viewers to suspend disbelief and get lost in the CG world -- and in the acting of the beautifully drawn animal heroes.

Ironically, these great images come via a tape format already booked on the oblivion express. Revisiting the clunky black videotape inspires fresh appreciation for the many practical advantages of DVD.

Fox says "Ice Age" is the first "Special Edition" in the D-VHS format, which means it includes the new short "Scrat's Missing Adventure: Gone Nutty." (Past D-Theater titles such as "Behind Enemy Lines" and "Fight Club" had no extras.) To access the bonus cartoon, one must advance the tape past the 81-minute feature, a pain for those used to DVD's instant access. No other extras are available on the D-VHS.

The "Ice Age" DVD has the "Scrat" short. And a lot more. The two-disc set (retail $29.99) comes packed with extras, including directors' commentary, choice of screen format, games for the kiddies, assorted featurettes, interactive animation studies -- all the bells and whistles DVD lovers expect.

State-of-the-art picture or convenience and content? The choice is academic for most of us. To worry about any of this, one needs a D-VHS player hooked up to a high-definition TV. (Regular VHS tapes work in the new machines, but you can't view high-def movies via conventional VCRs. Most early adopters buy D-VHS machines for HDTV time-shifting.)

At the very least, the D-VHS format delivers a killer coming attraction for the future of home video. It's tough to return to DVD images -- no matter how good they can be -- after viewing the HD.

Fortunately, "Ice Age" would look great in any format. In their DVD commentary, Wedge and co-director Carlos Saldanha speak in art-film terms of the importance they placed on "lighting" the animation.

Wedge, who won an Oscar in 1998 for the short "Bunny," says he took the project -- developed by Fox executive Lori Forte -- in part because he had the chance to envision the Ice Age onscreen. "No one had been there," Wedge says.

To meld the bold, frozen landscape with the intimate characters, "We came up with a style that was kind of a 3-D equivalent to what Chuck Jones was doing in the Road Runner cartoons," Wedge says.

Scrat, the film's hapless saber-toothed squirrel, wasn't in the original script. The critter's big opening scene was added because Wedge felt that a movie titled "Ice Age" had to open with tons of snow and ice. Scrat turned into "arguably the most endearing and popular character in the film," he says.

Wedge and Saldanha's talk seems aimed at pros and animation buffs. The directors point out a change in acts, discuss test screenings and reveal a few of their formulas (any emotion must be immediately chased with slapstick). The commentary doesn't have a lot of entertainment value, but it is informative and moves right along.

The bonus materials on Disc 2 should appeal to a wider audience. John Leguizamo vamps "Mystery Science Theater"-style as his Sid the Sloth character views clips. A making-of shows the highly engaged Wedge directing Leguizamo, Ray Romano (the woolly mammoth) and Denis Leary (the tiger) as they record their parts. All three actors complain a bit about having to work separately.

Leguizamo put together "a term paper" on the Ice Age and his character before he came to work, Wedge says. The actor came up with about 40 voices to try out, taking into consideration things like sloths usually have a mouth full of grass.

"All you've got to do is watch a lot of Mel Blanc," Leguizamo says of voice work. "Mel Blanc is a god to me."

The menu is packed with shorts that break down the animation process. The basic but well-edited pieces cover lighting, rigging and how animators employed their own acting. Wedge's touching and mysterious "Bunny" short is included, along with commentary.

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

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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