by Dan Goldwasser
For a little holiday diversion, SoundtrackNet takes a look at three of Buena Vista Home Video's DVD releases from this fall, with special attention paid to the music-related features.
First up is the 4-disc Extended Edition of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Featuring a score by Harry Gregson-Williams, the film is given the deluxe treatment (on the first disc) with a few extra scenes that pad out a bit of the story and characters, and gives us some extra moments in the battle. The added battle moments suffer from some unfortunately poor CGI imagery that sticks out from the rest of the Oscar-nominated visual effects from the theatrical release. The DTS 5.1 audio track is powerful and showcases the music nice and crisply. The commentary tracks from the previous two-disc release are included here, with gaps present whenever a new scene is presented. Director Andrew Adamson mentions Gregson-Williams score in a few parts during the commentaries, primarily during the Narnian Lullaby sequence with Mr. Tumnus. A blooper reel and trivia track round out the disc.
The second disc is identical to the second disc of the two-disc release, and includes some featurettes on Adamson journey as a director making the film, the child actors, the creatures of Narnia, and an interactive map and timeline. There's also a great wealth of featurettes in "Evolution of an Epic", focusing on the different aspects of the filmmaking process. Within that section, there's a nice featurette talking with Harry Gregson-Williams about his music for the film, and his scoring approach. He discusses coming up with some of the themes, as well as the Narnian Lullaby sequence - but then it ends, leaving us wanting more and wondering why nothing was discussed about the rest of the score, and the impressive battle sequence music. There is some footage from the September 2005 scoring sessions, but nothing from the October sessions where the bulk of the score was recorded.
The third disc is an excellent documentary, C.S. Lewis: Dreamer of Narnia, which explores C.S. Lewis's life, and how he came to write the beloved series of novels. It's a flashy, well done documentary that is quite interesting and runs 75-minutes long.
The fourth disc contains a wonderful extra, "Visualizing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe", which essentially runs the theatrical version of the film, while behind-the-scenes footage, imagery, interviews and more pop up and cut away to show us how the whole thing was made. It's a very detailed look at the making of the visual effects, costumes, editing, casting, and more. Musically, Harry Gregson-Williams appears to discuss two major sequences: the Narnian Lullaby, and the sequence when all the children enter Narnia. He discusses the score, and how he found a Finnish instrument (the kantele) that evoked the right feeling of crisp wintertime wonder. Unfortunately, as with the featurette on Disc Two, he doesn't come back to talk about the battle music.
Other extras on this disc include the "Anatomy of a Scene: Behind the Battle" featurette which shows how they realized the massive battle sequence at the climax of the film. Understandably, some of the material here is familiar to that found on the commentary, the "Visualizing" feature, and the "Evolution" featurettes. "The Art of Narnia" is a gallery of production art, maquettes and location artwork.
The theatrical trailers are still missing from this set (as well as the two-disc release). Also, it's frustrating that all of the 16:9 extras are actually letterboxed in a 4:3 image, resulting in (for those with 16:9 enhanced televisions) black bars on all sides of the image. This is extremely noticeable during the "Visualizing" feature, since everything is crammed into a letterboxed 4:3 image, instead of letting it breathe in a 16:9 space.
While the music extras aren't as expanded as I would have hoped from the two-disc release (I also saw them filming a lot at the October scoring sessions, so I wonder what happened to that footage), this four-disc set is a nice comprehensive - if not complete - look at the making of this film. The "Visualizing" feature is certainly worth checking out for behind-the-scenes materials, and the documentary on C.S. Lewis both make this set worth exploring. Still, it's only really worth picking up if you're a die-hard fan, otherwise the two-disc set should satisfy the casual viewer.
Next up we look at the new 2-disc special edition of the 1989 Disney smash, The Little Mermaid. It's hard to believe that it's been 17 years since Alan Menken burst onto the film music scene along with Howard Ashman to snag every music Oscar and force the Academy to change the rules and create a separate category. (Things have since calmed down after 1999, when they returned to a single score category.) With The Little Mermaid, Jeffrey Katzenberg sought to revitalize the weakened Walt Disney Feature Animation division, and it worked - in spades. Celebrating this film is a new two-disc "Platinum Edition" release, and it has a boatload of music-related extras.
On the first disc, we're treated to a digitally restored image, which looks great in many ways, but suffers from compression artifacts. It's too bad when a film is cleaned up only to get tarnished by disappointing compression. The new 5.1 home theater mix sounds good, and the music shines. English, French and Spanish language tracks are here, and it's fun to listen to the songs in another language. The highlight of the disc is a commentary track by co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, with composer Alan Menken. They provide a wealth of information about the process of bringing the film to the screen, and Menken goes a step further, by sharing rare audio interview excerpts from the late Howard Ashman, to further supplement the commentary track. There is also a music video for the new cover of "Kiss the Girl", sung by Ashley Tisdale, a "Disney Song Selection" option (letting you watch just the songs, with lyrics on screen to sing along), and a sneak peek at the DisneyToon Studios direct-to-video release of The Little Mermaid III.
The second disc is packed with behind-the-scenes extras, the gem of which is "Treasures Untold: The Making of the Little Mermaid". This six-part feature runs 45-minutes long, and takes a rather candid look at the decline of the Disney Animation department and its subsequent rebirth with The Little Mermaid. Archival footage - including a fascinating look at Menken and Ashman in action (complete with late 80s hairdos) allow us to see just how much of an undertaking it was to get this film made.
"Storm Warning: The Little Mermaid Special Effects Unit" talks about the effects animators who had the thankless task of animating millions of bubbles by hand, as well as smoke and fire effects. "The Story Behind the Story" is a featurette that explores Hans Christian Anderson's original tale and how it was changed in the Disney version. A new animated short film, based on another of Anderson's stories, is included here. The Little Match Girl is a sad and somewhat depressing story about a young girl trying to survive a cold Russian winter evening. Art galleries, as well as an "Early Presentation Reel" and the theatrical trailer rounds out the "Backstage Disney" section of the DVD.
There are 25-minutes of deleted scenes, including alternate versions of "Fathoms Below", an expanded "Poor Unfortunate Souls" sequence, an alternate ending (with Menken's piano score mockup), and more. The discarded song "Silence is Golden" is also included here, which can also be found on "The Music Behind the Magic" four disc box set. There's an interesting look at the conceptualized "Under the Sea" adventure ride that was designed - but never built - by the Disney Imagineering team for the theme parks. They've even created a 3D virtual ride so we can see what it would have been like had it been built, which is a pretty interesting thing to see. Interviews with the Disney Imagineers who worked on it explains what happened, and how it was to be built. Finally, an 8.5-minute featurette "Disneypedia: Life Under the Sea" shows the real-life animal counterparts to the ones seen in the film. It's Discovery Channel for Kids material, really.
As with the Narnia DVD, the extras are all shot in 16:9, but unfortunately presented in a letterboxed 4:3 window. Nonetheless, this is a very good presentation of The Little Mermaid. There are a lot of music-related extras here, and as a modern animated classic, this is well worth having in your home video library.
DisneyToon Studios has been putting out a lot of direct-to-video sequels for many of the beloved Disney classics. With projects like Mulan II, Cinderella III: A Twist in Time and the recent The Fox and the Hound 2, DisneyToon Studios is continuing the story from where the originals left off. After all, there are new adventures to share! In The Fox and the Hound 2, Tod and Copper's friendship is tested when the circus comes to town, and Copper joins "The Singin' Strays", a group of stray dogs who sing in a show. Unfortunately Copper has replaced Dixie (Reba McEntire), and she is scheming to get back into the band.
The film has a strong message about the importance of friendship, which is heard through the songs and the story. It's a country-heavy soundtrack, with songs by popular Nashville performers like One Flew South, Josh Gracin, Trisha Yearwood, Little Big Town and Reba McEntire, among others. Adding to the down-home flavor is Joel McNeely's fun and rustic score, which employed some of Nashville's top musicians.
Video quality is crisp and solid, and audio is provided not only in English, Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1, but also in high quality DTS 5.1 - the music truly shines in that track. The film runs a scant 69 minutes (including about 9 minutes of credits), but it doesn't feel too short for the story it tells.
Extras on the disc include a music video of "You Know I Will" performed by High School Musical star Lucas Grabeel, and a "Mutt Mix Master" game which lets you choose various instruments and vocals to put into a song performed by The Singin' Strays. In the Backstage Disney section, there's a "Making of the Music" featurette (running approximately 10 minutes) which focuses on the large array of talent that came together to write the songs, sing, and perform on the film. Part of this segment talks with composer Joel McNeely about his approach to scoring the film, which uses Nashville bluegrass players Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, Jerry Douglas and more. As a bonus, a 1939 classic Disney animated short film "Goofy and Wilbur" is included.
The Fox and the Hound 2 is light fare, to be sure, but it was a pleasant and warm fuzzy movie that children will certainly find appealing. The music is geared towards country fans, and it was nice to see some extras for a direct-to-video release that recognize the musical aspects of a film. Like the previous two films mentioned above, however, the extras are all shot in 16:9 but presented as letterboxed 4:3. Hopefully Buena Vista Home Entertainment will fix this for their future releases.