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Hi-Def Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Bill Hunt, Editor of The Digital Bits

Ratatouille (Blu-ray Disc)

1080p - Analog Full ResolutionBlu-ray Disc FormatUncompressed PCMDolby Digital

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

2007 (2007) - Pixar/Disney (Buena Vista)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 6th, 2007

Film: A
Video (1-20): 20
Audio (1-20): 19
Extras: B+

Specs and Features:
111 mins, G, AVC 1080p widescreen (2.39:1), BD-50 DL, Region A, Elite Blue HD packaging, Cine-Explore in-film BD-Java interactive option (with audio commentary by director Brad Bird and producer Brad Lewis, plus production art and photos, 13 animation briefings, 10 documentary shorts, 3 animatic deleted scenes with introduction and comments and 5 deleted shots "R.I.P."), Fine Food and Film: A Conversation with Brad Bird and Thomas Keller featurette, 2 extras featurettes (The Will and Remembering Dan Lee), 2 animated short films (Lifted and Your Friend the Rat), BD-Java interactive Gusteau's Gourmet Game, preview trailers (for Disney, Wall-E, Sleeping Beauty: Platinum Edition Blu-ray, Tinkerbell, Cars, Meet the Robinsons and the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1), audio/video setup tests, animated film-themed root menus, in-depth "Total Menus", scene access (31 chapters), languages: Uncompressed PCM 5.1 (English - 48 kHz/24-bit) & Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish, French), subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish

So Pixar decides to make their next animated film an epic tale of cooking and rats, and set it in France? You're kidding, right? That must have been the toughest pitch session in the company's history. And yet, the result is one of the best and most entertaining animated films Pixar has produced to date.

Our hero is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a brown rat with taste buds so refined that he just can't eat any old garbage like the rest of his family. Remy dreams of great French food, and eventually makes his way through the Paris sewers to Gusteau's, a five-star restaurant in the heart of the city. It's here that he meets Linguini (Lou Romano), a down-and-out employee at the restaurant who also dreams of greatness. But while Linguini is in the perfect position, he's all thumbs. Meanwhile, Remy's got the talent for cooking, but he's a rat. So the pair teams up and sets the culinary world on fire, quickly attracting the ire of the restaurant's scheming head chef, the romantic affections of a fellow sous chef, and the interest of a jaded food critic.

Brad Bird (previously known for his work on The Iron Giant and Pixar's The Incredibles) entered the picture with the production already under the gun, tasked with polishing the screenplay and serving as the film's director. Needless to say, his track record of success continues. Ratatouille is delightful, sophisticated and full of heart. Every little detail is spot-on here - from the textures and tenor of Paris to the subtle nuances of cooking. What's more, Bird's off-kilter sensibilities are in full evidence with scores of little moments and gags that add to the film's charm.

Disney and Pixar's Blu-ray version delivers absolutely stunning video quality, mastered from the original digital animation files. Presented in full 1080p, this transfer is probably the best looking high-definition video I've ever seen. The range of colors is breathtaking, from the brightly bold to the finely nuanced. Contrast is superb, and the refined textures and detail in evidence here should delight even the most picky enthusiast. The images are supported by an uncompressed PCM 48/24 5.1 soundtrack that delivers in spades, reproducing the theatrical sound experience perfectly. The track is warm and enveloping, creating a smooth and natural soundfield that fills the room with the subtle atmosphere of a French kitchen. The LFE is excellent as well, evidenced early on when Remy and his brother are hit by a bolt of lightening, the impact of which will knock you out of your seat. You know, we're only a year and a half into this format, and I'm sure there will be improvements in quality over time. But it's hard to imagine that it could get better than this.

Pixar has crafted a fine batch of extras that complement the film nicely. When I inserted the disc in my Panasonic BD10A, it took about 30 seconds to begin playing the usual Disney preview trailers, which can be skipped with the push of the 'menu' button on your remote. It took another 15 seconds for the BD-Java menu system to load (an icon featuring a rat twirling a hula-hoop shows you the progress). Once it's up, you're in a stylized version of Gusteau's kitchen. These are the basic menus, which allow you to play the film or setup the various audio and subtitle options. As you'd expect, you'll find Lifted, the original Pixar short film that accompanied Ratatouille in theaters, here in full HD. Also available here is a newly-produced short, entitled Your Friend the Rat, that's a cute spoof of those vintage 50s educational films. You can access the disc's BD-Java interactive Gusteau's Gourmet Game here as well, but more on that in a minute. The final option here allows you to open something called Total Menus. Selecting this takes you to a comprehensive list of all the special features on the disc, allowing you to view each "out of band" and telling you the running time and whether or not the feature is in HD. This is the menu that appears when you hit the 'pop-up menu' button on your remote - the film continues playing in a small window in the upper right corner of the screen. This menu even gives you access to a very handy Audio/Video Setup option, which offers you a series of video test patterns and audio test signals, along with tips and instructions on how to calibrate your system. This is similar to the THX Optimizer available on many DVDs.

You can chose to watch the film normally, or with the Cine-Explore feature, which allows you to hear audio commentary by Bird and producer Brad Lewis, and to access a whole variety of featurettes, animation briefings, deleted scenes and more (a couple hours of material - all also available via the Total Menu list). This option also offers you the ability to view scores of photos and pieces of production artwork in windows around the screen (the artwork isn't available anywhere else in the menus). When you start this feature, you're asked to select from A La Carte or Pre-Fixe menus. A La Carte lets you select what you want to see and view manually from a list, as your interests dictate. Pre-Fixe runs Cine-Explore in 'auto' mode, which takes you through everything. Some of the video features are in HD and some are standard definition.

Also available on the disc is the Fine Food and Film featurette, in which Bird and advisor/chef Thomas Keller compare the art of cooking with the art of making a film, The Will, which gives you the option of watching the chase scene from the film with two different musical scores to compare the impact of each, and Remembering Dan Lee, which is a nice tribute to a Pixar artist who passed away during the production.

Finally, there's Gusteau's Gourmet Game. I was really stuck by how much I enjoyed this. It took about 20 seconds to load on my player, but once loaded it worked flawlessly. The idea is that you're Linguini and you're the cook for the night at Gusteau's. You have to keep up with the orders of customers as they come in. These include appetizers, main courses and desserts. When an order appears, you visit the appropriate station in the kitchen, select the recipe for that dish and start gathering the ingredients listed. The ingredients are found roughly alphabetically in a menu at the bottom of the screen - you scroll through the list and press 'enter' when you find the right item. If the recipe calls for three potatoes, for example, you press 'enter' three times. When you've gathered all the ingredients in the correct order, you press 'enter' again to serve the dish and out the door it goes. But the orders quickly start piling up and keeping up with them is a real challenge. As you play, you'll see little animations and hear messages of encouragement or scorn. It's easy to learn and it's actually a lot of fun, even for adults. I planned to just try it quickly, and ended up playing for nearly an hour (though I sadly lost Gusteau's a couple of stars in the process). If you've got kids, they should love it.

I should note that when you first put the disc in your player, you're shown a page of text that tells you that, depending on your player, you might experience delays when the Java features load (accompanied by blank screens) of up to 2 or 3 minutes. The longest delay I ever experienced was about 30 seconds, and seldom without a load status icon. The page also refers you to to help you update your player's firmware if necessary.

Without a doubt, Ratatouille is a must-own Blu-ray title. You get everything you'd want on this BD-50 release: A terrific film, reference-worthy A/V quality and extras that should please both enthusiasts and casual fans alike. If you have to chose just one of these new Disney and Pixar BD titles, this is the one to buy.

Cars (Blu-ray Disc)

1080p - Analog Full ResolutionBlu-ray Disc FormatUncompressed PCMDolby Digital

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

2006 (2007) - Pixar/Disney (Buena Vista)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 6th, 2007

Film: B
Video (1-20): 20
Audio (1-20): 19
Extras: B

Specs and Features:
116 mins, G, AVC 1080p widescreen (2.39:1), BD-50 DL, Regions A/B/C, Elite Blue HD packaging, Cine-Explore in-film BD-Java interactive option (with audio commentary by director John Lasseter, a second commentary by members of the production crew, plus production art and photos, 7 behind the scenes shorts and 5 animatic deleted scenes with introduction), The Inspiration for Cars featurette, 3 animated short films (Mater and the Ghost Light, Boundin' Cars and One Man Band), the film's Epilogue without credits, BD-Java interactive Car Finder Game, 4 Movie Showcase scenes, preview trailers (for Enchanted, Wall-E, Meet the Robinsons and Ratatouille), animated film-themed Route 66 root menus, plus separate Radiator Springs and Pixar Studios/Emeryville menus, scene access (32 chapters), languages: Uncompressed PCM 5.1 (English - 48 kHz/24-bit) & Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), subtitles: English SDH

Cars is the story of Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a rookie race car who's hot in the running for the coveted Piston Cup at the Dinoco 400. But when McQueen finishes the 400 in a three-way tie with a pair of veteran racers, it's determined that the Piston Cup will be decided by a tie-breaker race in California. While on his way there, however, McQueen gets lost in the desert and soon finds himself stuck in the tiny, Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. There, he meets a number of new four-wheeled friends, including Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in a nifty audio cameo that recalls his work in the 1968 film Winning) and others, who teach him that what's truly important in life isn't speeding to your destination, but the adventures you have along the way.

I'll have to admit right off the bat that I wasn't all that excited about this film when I first saw the previews. Despite the fact that watching NASCAR in high-def has become a serious guilty pleasure for me lately, the trailers for Cars had me thinking that Pixar was in danger of jumping the shark into Thomas & Friends and Jay Jay the Jet Plane territory.

I eventually skipped this film when it first appeared in theaters, despite largely positive critical reviews. Thankfully, it's for just these kinds of situations that I'm grateful for DVD, because having finally seen this film... well, I was quite pleasantly surprised. To be fair, Cars starts out rather slow. In fact, I almost fell asleep in its first 30 minutes. But once the story gets going, and the film moves off the race track and onto Route 66... it becomes a surprisingly charming and even heartwarming tale. I particularly enjoyed a number of in-joke references to previous Pixar films (be sure to watch for a lightening quick cameo by the chirping cast of For the Birds). And it's awfully hard not to laugh at those little tiny VW bugs.

I'm pleased to say that Disney and Pixar's new Blu-ray edition of Cars delivers a terrific home theater experience. The disc's load time (on my Panasonic BD10A) was about 30 seconds to the initial previews. Hitting the 'menu' button skips right to the disc's main BD-Java menus, which take about another minute to load (the load progress is shown by an animated Piston Cup icon). Then you're shown an animation of McQueen racing down Route 66 to T intersection. This is the disc's root menu, where you have the option of starting the movie, or choosing between a pair of deeper menus, one that takes you to the drive-in at Radiator Springs, and the other which takes you to an artwork board at Pixar Studios in Emeryville, CA. Selecting Radiator Springs allows you to start the film, access the BD-Java Car Finder Game (more on that shortly), chose the audio and subtitle options you'd like, and also to additional shorts (all in HD), including One Man Band, Mater and the Ghost Light, Boundin' Cars (which was an Easter egg on the original DVD release) and the film's Epilogue sans credits, all in full 1080p high-definition. In a nice touch, the choices appear on the drive-in screen as part of a tribute to the classic "let's all go to the lobby" theater animations of days gone by.

The Pixar Studios/Emeryville menu selection, on the other hand, allows you to access all of the disc's special features in a more comprehensive list format. You can start the film, access the scene selections and audio/subtitle features, check out all of the featurettes "out of band", view the deleted scenes and more. All of the original DVD's featurettes and deleted scenes are included - everything that was on the DVD is here - PLUS you get a new deleted scene as well. What's more, the Cine-Explore option available here lets you view the film with your choice of two newly-recorded audio commentaries (you can switch back and forth on the fly), including one with director John Lasseter and another with several members of the production crew. You also have access here to all of the featurettes and deleted scenes, as well as tons of production photographs and artwork (including storyboards) only available here. You can chose to play all of these options in 'auto' mode, or select them manually. A car-themed dashboard sits at the bottom of the screen in Cine-Explore mode to allow you to control everything.

Of the featurettes, The Inspiration for Cars is particularly good. It runs about 16 minutes, and features appearances by many of the folks who worked on the film, including the late Joe Ranft (Lasseter's co-director, who was sadly - and a bit ironically - killed in a car accident during the production), as they travel down the real Route 66 for inspiration in making the film.

The audio and video quality of Cars on Blu-ray is spectacular, just as you'd expect it to be. This disc's 1080p video is the perfect match for Ratatouille's as absolute reference-grade viewing material. If you want to show off your home theater to friends, this is the perfect disc to use for the demo. Those of you who have seen the film will know that it simply explodes with bold, vibrant colors, frenetic motion and dazzling imagery. Every last bit of it is smooth and artifact free - just about as clean and clear as high-def video can get. The uncompressed 5.1 audio track is also of superior quality. Given all the racing sequences in this film, you'd expect the mix to place you right in the middle of the action and it does in spades. The roar of engines, the cheering crowd, the pit noises... everything surrounds and envelopes you perfectly.

Now let's talk about the BD-Java Car Finder Game. The idea here is that you have to try and find some 217 different car characters as they appear in the film. When you start the game, the film begins playing with a graphic overlay on the screen - at the bottom is a selectable list of the cars that will appear soon and at the top is a score board. As you spot each of the cars, you select them from the list and press enter. Each car you successfully find increases your score. When you miss cars - and you will, as there are WAY too many too quickly for you to get them all in a single pass - you have the option of scanning the film back to play sections again until you find them all. At various points in the film, the game play changes. Sometimes you'll have to use your remote to highlight and select cars on the screen correctly, under a certain time limit. Other times, you'll be shown multiple images of the same car character, each with very subtle differences - you have to select the one that matches exactly the character as it appears on screen at that moment. At any time, you can jump out to a Car Guide, which shows you images of all 217 cars in the film. You can see which ones you've found and which you haven't. For those that you've found, you can play a car bio on the character, and see an image of where they appear in the film. The Car Finder Game fun, but it's also a little overwhelming and (after a time) a little tedious for adults. Your kids should have a blast with it however. The game itself worked flawlessly, although my BD10 did get stuck once when I exited the game to go back to the main menus. I ultimately had to power down and restart the player.

I should note here that, as with Ratatouille, when you first put the disc in your player, you're shown a page of text that tells you that, depending on your player, you might experience delays when the Java features load (accompanied by blank screens) of up to 2 or 3 minutes. The longest delay I ever experienced was about a minute, and seldom without a load status icon, save for the one crash my player suffered. The page also refers you to to help you update your player's firmware if necessary.

Cars isn't quite up to the level of Pixar's best work, but it's still a significant cut above the recent CG animated fare of other studios. And while this Blu-ray Disc also isn't quite as good as Ratatouille in terms of the extras, the menus and other interactive features, the A/V quality you get here is simply to die for. Everything else aside, Cars remains a fun experience for the whole family and it's a highly-recommended Blu-ray release.

Bill Hunt
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