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DVD Review: The Incredibles/Bambi

By Glenn Abel

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photo Few things in the world of DVDs are more predictable than making-of featurettes. The rough equivalent of studio congratulatory ads, the "documentaries" waste little time morphing into praise-a-thons.

Actors hail directors, directors hail actors and shoots are almost always life-affirming experiences. The good stuff -- at least on noncatalog DVDs -- must be found elsewhere, in content produced specifically for the discs.

Pixar, the 3-D animation outfit that loves to think different, does so in the making-of content for "The Incredibles." Energetic, visually adventurous and surprisingly edgy, the half-hour docu directed by Rick Butler distills the story behind the hit film about a family of undercover superheroes -- and unmasks the offbeat gang at Pixar that made it happen.

Listen in: "Businessmen hate the film business" because they're gambling, not making widgets, producer John Walker says. Writer-director Brad Bird, an outsider, was "a strong cup of coffee" to deal with, one Pixar staffer reports with a nervous laugh. Bird says he was brought into Pixar because it really needed to be "shaken up a bit" -- and the Randy Newman music really had to go. Budget-minder Walker complains, "Whoever thought of making movies this way is out of his mind." Downright subversive by making-of standards.

The docu is backed by an unusual "more making-of" section that tops 40 minutes, with chapters allowing viewers to pursue their interests, such as story development, lighting, sets or music.

That's just the tip of Frozone's iceberg on the double-disc DVD of "The Incredibles" (retail $29.99). Most of the content is worthwhile and nonrepetitive. With the double commentaries mixed in, fans could kill a day taking in the extras. Or just a fulfilling half-hour with the making-of.

The Oscar-winning CG feature looks sensational in its pure digital-domain visuals. The letterboxed images set at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 keep the action tight (avoid the full-screen version made for Ralphs shelves). The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound boasts EX encoding and has plenty of punch, but as is typical with Disney-related DVDs, the rear soundstage feels a bit underused.

One must-see extra is the lengthy black-and-white animatic of Bird's original opening, considerably darker than the finished intro. Like other bits in the movie, it feels like Sean Connery-era 007. The film's villain, Syndrome, perpetrates a nighttime home invasion in which the superhero parents must watch helplessly as the creep terrorizes the family baby. Bird explains the thinking behind that cut and others in a chatty commentary on the unfinished material, running 34 minutes.

The docu crew caught Bird and producer Walker testily doing battle over finances and creative priorities, but they'd made up by the time their commentary was recorded, just before the film was released. The men speculate about reaction to "The Incredibles," but, c'mon, they knew it was in the bag.

Bird does most of the talking and has plenty of blunt things to say about the state of animation.

"Animation is not a 'genre,' " Bird says, going after one of several pet peeves. "A Western is a genre. Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre."

"There seems to be a feeling that animated films just happen," the "Iron Giant" director says. "Most of the important job a director does in animation is exactly the same as in live action."

He cites George Miller, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron as influential action-movie directors while dissing "successful hacks." "(Some action directors) keep throwing stuff at you, and to me there's an edge of desperation about that." (Bird doesn't mention George Lucas, oddly, because the big jungle chase in "The Incredibles" seems straight out of "Return of the Jedi.")

Character creation via basic CG "puppets" is key to a 3-D project's success, Bird says. "They're like instruments the animators are going to play. ... It's like building a Stradivarius for a musician." Humans "are notoriously difficult to animate because everyone knows how they move."

Bird and Walker frequently pause to praise creative staffers, drawing attention to the myriad specialties needed to achieve "Pixar detail." Hair and fabric, for example, required their own supervisor. The teen heroine's long hair "brought production to its knees," Walker says. Unlikely issues like "food continuity" created endless problems. The duo's commentary is "just a laundry list of hard-to-do things," Bird frets, but they do a good job of shifting between mini and macro perspectives.

A second group commentary with animators digs deep into animation theory and CG processes. Some of the illustrators Bird brought with him reflect on making the transition from traditional ("2-D") work to 3-D. The commentary menu contains an animated Easter egg, as do most of the other menus (wait out the music; watch for little creatures).

Other winning extras include a DVD-exclusive short featuring the cute but creepy baby and his panicked baby sitter; the theatrical toon "Boundin' " with a fun talk from its folksy creator; a handful of segments on the way-cool retro score and its old-school recording process (actual musicians playing live, without computers!); and a faux-dated TV cartoon featuring Mr. Incredible and Frozone, who do a commentary but can't believe how stupid the episode is.

Feel free to skip the character sit-downs with TV interviewers and the grating live short featuring Sarah Vowell, who voices Violet Parr.

Disney, ever fond of formulas, long ago settled into a set presentation of DVD bonus content. Buena Vista discs serve up extras with consistency and efficiency, like digital happy meals. photo

As with the studio's feature films, however, the creative team occasionally bolts from the paddock, with delightful results.

For the DVD debut of the seminal "Bambi" (1942), the studio unearthed transcriptions of Walt Disney's story meetings and had capable actors work them like scripts. The audio gets visual accompaniment from scenes from the film, inset shots of those speaking, sketches, storyboards and docu footage. Fascinating, even for hardhearts who can't sit through the film.

Walt Disney says "swell" a lot and delights in the possibilities of his project.

"It's Bambi, Thumper and Flower -- that's your story," Disney tells his collaborators. "What you're really selling the public is the personality." Sometimes "the story gets in the way."

He says working on "Fantasia" attuned him to the power of music in animation. "You've got to keep the music in mind when you're building it."

Animal anatomy consultant Rico Lebrun urges the group to break out of its "Snow White" mind-set. "We want to caricature animals as animals, not as humans. Not as though some human was dressed up in a deer suit."

Story man Perce Pearce notes that the mother deer being shot by a hunter is the first death in a Disney picture. "The whole audience is gonna say, 'Oh, she's going to get up.' But she doesn't." (Walt: "Heavy.")

The rest of the double-disc set (retail $29.99) features a dazzling restoration and an appealing suite of extras. The making-of shows how much "The Lion King" owed its ancestor. On these DVDs we find "the original circle of life" -- its descendant high-concepted as "Bambi" in Africa.

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

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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