8/21/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Henson's Features Revisited
Plus: DESPERATE New TV on DVD Releases

When Jim Henson passed away in 1990, the creator of the Muppets left us with only a few, fleeting glimpses into his potential as a purveyor of fantasy projects beyond the scope of Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Henson only directed three theatrical features in his career: the second, and best, Muppet movie (1981's “The Great Muppet Caper”); the epic fantasy “The Dark Crystal” (1982), which he co-helmed with Frank Oz; and “Labyrinth” (1986), a live-action fantasy, produced with George Lucas, that flopped at the box-office.

Last week Sony issued brand-new Anniversary Edition DVDs of the latter two films, each with terrific new supplements and remastered transfers.

Clearly THE DARK CRYSTAL (***½, 1982, 93 mins., PG; Sony) is Henson’s directorial magnum opus -- a visually striking tale of a pair of human-like Gelflings who attempt to put their fragmented, fairy-tale world back together by restoring a broken crystal that resides in the dark catacombs of a castle belonging to the lizard-like Skeksis.

Unrelentingly serious and packed with imagination in virtually every frame, “The Dark Crystal” is an ambitious film that shows Henson at his most creative and audacious. Artist Brian Froud worked with Henson in creating an entire mythic universe with its own living beings, set against real-life English backdrops that establish a world that’s familiar yet foreign, from the marvelously detailed Mystic and Skeksis puppets to excellent special effects that have lost none of their magic.

David Odell’s script is straightforward fantasy stuff, but it serves the perfect template for the work of Henson, Froud and their teams of artists, who breathtakingly transport the viewer into another time and place, with Oswald Morris’ widescreen cinematography and Trevor Jones’ outstanding score adding to the drama.

Previously released in a still-excellent 1999 Special Edition DVD as well as a more elaborately packaged (but basically similar) “Collector’s” box-set, “The Dark Crystal” now returns to DVD in a 2-disc, 25th Anniversary edition courtesy of Sony.

What’s new to the disc is a superb commentary from Brian Froud, who discusses the five years he worked on the film alongside Jim Henson, plus the innumerable challenges the filmmakers faced in making their fantasy world come to fruition. Froud is relaxed and spins many anecdotes that “Dark Crystal” fans will love to hear throughout the course of the film’s 93 minutes.

Also new is “Reflections of the Dark Crystal,” a two-part, 40-minute retrospective on the picture’s production. Featuring never-before-seen test footage and new interviews with Brian Froud, Brian Henson, David Odell and others, this is an excellent look back on the movie’s production, as well as a nice compliment to the original 1982 Making Of program, “The World of the Dark Crystal,” which is also on-hand here, offering ample backstage footage of Henson and the filmmakers at work.

The deleted funeral sequence and original language workprint scenes are also carried over from previous DVDs, but regrettably the movie’s trailers and Trevor Jones’ isolated score have been dropped from the 1999 DVD, making it necessary for completists to retain the earlier release.

Visually, the Anniversary transfer is minted from a new high-definition film master, and the 16:9 picture (2.35) appears well detailed, properly framed and presented throughout. However, even though the original DVD dates from 1999, the new disc doesn’t seem to be a major upgrade, as that older DVD still boasts an exceptional transfer that compares favorably with the new edition. 5.1 Dolby  Digital sound is the new disc’s only audio option (the older 1999 DVD offered 2.0 stereo as well).

If there’s a failing with “The Dark Crystal,” it’s undoubtedly due to the fact that the movie boasts so many colorful, memorable creatures that its most human-like creations -- the two Gelflings -- seem plastic and bland by comparison.
It’s a problem that’s magnified in Henson’s follow-up film, LABYRINTH (**½, 1986, 101 mins., PG; Sony), where Henson, Brian Froud, executive producer George Lucas and writer Terry Jones attempted to go a step further and add actual human beings into their storytelling pallet.

Jones’ script (based on a story by Henson and Dennis Lee) follows the adventures of young American teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) as she tries to rescue her toddler brother in a fantasy kingdom presided over by the wicked Goblin King (David Bowie).

A variant on “Alice in Wonderland” with several original songs performed by Bowie, “Labyrinth” is a great deal more upbeat than “The Dark Crystal,” with brighter visuals and a more comical tone on-hand.

It’s also, unfortunately, a lot less satisfying, with a lethargic pace and predictable script accentuated by the fact that Connelly’s heroine and her journey are never very interesting. It’s clear Henson attempted here to parallel Connelly’s quest with her passage into adulthood, but since it’s difficult to take the somewhat fey Bowie seriously as a potential male suitor, that entire element of the film falls flat.

More over, “Labyrinth” feels downright static at times. There’s no dramatic pull, no tension to be found, and even Trevor Jones’ mostly electronic and thematically unmemorable score feels like a comedown from its predecessor. Aside from a couple of bouncy Bowie songs that intermittently bring the film to life, it’s not hard to see why audiences were underwhelmed by it.

Sony’s new 2-disc edition belatedly marks the film’s 20th Anniversary and offers an excellent 16:9 (2.35) transfer again derived from a new HD film master. As with “The Dark Crystal,” though, the movie’s original DVD edition still looks very good (especially considering its age), so the differences between the two visually are minimal. 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is the disc’s lone audio option.

For supplements, Sony’s new DVD is highlighted by a fresh commentary by Brian Froud that’s again highly satisfying and filled with recollections about his work on the picture. The track is complimented by a new, two-part documentary “Journey Through the Labyrinth,” which offers comments from most of the same “Dark Crystal” participants, including Froud, Brian Henson, puppeteers Dave Goelz, Karen Prell and others. The original Making Of documentary, “Inside the Labyrinth,” rounds out the disc alongside concept art -- the DVD again leaving off the trailer from its previous releases.

Despite the omission of original marketing materials and Jones’ “Dark Crystal” score track, these releases come strongly recommended for all Jim Henson fans: Froud’s commentary and the new documentaries offer new insight into the creation of Henson’s two big-screen fantasies, leaving one with the impression that their director had many more stories to tell before his premature passing some 17 years ago.

One of the big hits of the summer of 1987 -- Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP (***½, 1987, 103 mins., Unrated and R; MGM/Fox) -- is also back on DVD in a new 20th Anniversary, double-disc set that unquestionably marks the finest presentation of the film on disc to date.

While folks will undoubtedly ask why they need yet another DVD edition of the Peter Weller sci-fi thriller, fans will nevertheless appreciate the superior transfer (1.85, 16:9) of this set, plus the fact that it preserves both the R-rated theatrical edit, as well as the film’s controversial Unrated version, on two separate platters, each with new 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound (the original 4.0 Surround mix is also on-hand).

For supplements, all the extras from the last Special Edition are reprieved (commentary, the “Flesh and Steel” featurette, trailers, deleted scenes, vintage Making Of special), while a trio of new featurettes are included. Running just under an hour all told, the new documentaries offer 2006 interviews with Peter Weller, Jon Davison and others, all reflecting on their work on the film.

Housed in one of those cool “steelbook” packages that have only recently begun to spring up in the U.S., this deluxe set finally gives “Robocop” fans a definitive last word on the movie -- at least in standard-definition. Highly recommended!

New on Blu Ray Disc

FINAL FANTASY - THE SPIRITS WITHIN (**½, 106 mins., 2001, PG-13; Sony): Alien "phantoms" are threatening to destroy a depleted futuristic Earth, and it's up to the military and a scientist with visions to save us all in this big-screen spin-off of the popular, long-running video game series.

One major thought ran through my mind while watching this film: as much as the cinema has changed with advances in technology, some things remain the same -- one of those being that all the special effects in the world cannot fully compensate for a weak script.

Such is the case with this gorgeously-rendered all-CGI feature, a reported $115-million production that famously flopped at the box-office along with several other genre casualties (“A.I.,” “Evolution”) in the summer of 2001.

While the design of the phantoms are reminiscent of other "anime" efforts (why do the Japanese have a fetish for bloated, red, tentacle-laden creatures?), the visuals are incredible, and the film's opening is spellbinding. There are even times when you really believe that you're watching is live action -- a tribute to the movie's expansive (and expensive) computer rendering.

Unfortunately, once the plot takes center stage, muddled storytelling and poor dialogue become all too evident. Characters -- like James Woods' evil general -- are poorly defined and major plot points either glossed over or never explained at all (like the origins of the "spirits" the scientists are searching for), while the movie's finale drags on, boasting a preachy message reminiscent of "Princess Mononoke."

Elliot Goldenthal's score swells with bombastic energy, but it's just another glossy trimming surrounding a story that ultimately fails to prove equal to producer-director Hironobu Sakaguchi's visual invention.

Sony’s new Blu Ray release of “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” is a technical marvel at least. The 1080p HD transfer is absolutely spectacular, with vivid colors, crystal-clear detail and textures marking this as one of the best-looking discs in either new high-definition DVD format.

Uncompressed PCM and 5.1 sound comprise the disc’s audio options, while a good amount of special features have been carried over from prior DVD editions, including subtitled commentaries, Making Of materals, outtakes and more. Worth a view for CGI and HD enthusiasts at least.

New TV on DVD

Two of ABC’s most popular series hit DVD this Tuesday, a few weeks ahead of their new season premieres.

I had all but written off the phenomenon that was DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (23 Episodes, 2006-07) after its disastrous second season -- everything that seemed light, frothy and fun about the series seemed to vanish in the first few weeks of Season 2 with the arrival of Alfre Woodward’s mysterious new character (a role that would ultimately be discarded before the year’s finish), while even the audience began to erode -- clear evidence of a legitimate “sophomore slump.”

Luckily Season 3 saw a return to the satisfying escapism of the show’s first season, mixing drama with comedy and soap-operaish developments with equal aplomb -- resulting in a year that seemed to satisfy audiences and critics alike. Buena Vista’s six-disc DVD set captures the series’ third year in fine 16:9 (1.78) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a good amount of extras, including deleted scenes, wedding outtakes and other goodies for “Desperate” fans.

Debuting on DVD from Buena Vista is the Complete First Season of UGLY BETTY (23 Episodes, 2006-07), the Emmy-nominated series starring the charming America Ferrera as an ugly-ducking assistant at a women’s glamour magazine.

“Ugly Betty” was based on a Spanish language “telenovela” as they call it, but obviously accentuated with a sassy American “attitude” that means this popular Thursday night series is very broadly played by a game cast that also includes Eric Mabius, Vanessa Williams and others.

Yet the show is most certainly an acquired taste: it’s fast-paced and fun to a degree, but I found it almost too campy for its own good at times. What’s worse is that Buena Vista’s six-disc DVD set gives you the opportunity to overdose on the show’s sugary tone by plowing through episodes, so I’d advise newcomers to proceed at a very leisurely clip since a little of the series tends to go a long way.

Buena Vista’s DVD offers excellent 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers, 5.1 audio, deleted scenes, episode commentaries, and numerous behind-the-scenes featurettes. A most recommended set for all “Ugly Betty” fans.

NEXT TIME: HEROES in High Definition! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above. Cheers everyone!

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