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Review: Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise (2021)

While there have been a lot of theme park rides based on successful movies, the number of movies inspired by theme park rides is far fewer, and has a much spottier track record. On the one hand, we have the atrocious The Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy in 2003 and, on the other, we have one of the most successful modern franchises in the Johnny Depp-driven Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Of course, if you’re Disney, any successful crossover helps drive traffic—and dollars—to one of thglobal theme parks, so the temptation to mine your existing intellectual property is tempting.

 

There are few rides more iconic in Disneyland lore than the Jungle Cruise. It was there on Day One when the park opened in July 1955, was one of Walt’s personal projects, and has remained in operation (with changes and updates, of course) ever

since.

 

Like with Pirates, the thing that makes the Jungle Cruise ride ripe for adopting into a movie is that it offers a perfect jumping-off point for any possible adventure that can happen, with the ability to weave in some nods to the ride along the way (kind of the way Pirates worked in the scene with the locked prisoners begging the dog to bring them a key, one of the iconic moments from the ride). Put some people on a boat, set them on a cruise, introduce a quest and some mayhem along the way . . . the thing practically writes itself! Disney felt the same as well, since a film based on the ride has been in the works since as early as 2004, with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen attached to star at one point.

 

This year, Jungle Cruise finally made it out of production and into theaters on July 30, with some big-name leads in the form of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt carrying the action. As has been common to Disney films 

JUNGLE CRUISE AT A GLANCE

This family-friendly Dwayne Johnson vehicle nicely follows the theme-park-ride-to-big-screen path carved out by Pirates of the Caribbean. 

 

PICTURE
Images are clean and sharp throughout but there isn’t the razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix provides near constant jungle sounds during the trip down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room.

during the pandemic—see Cruella, Luca, and Black Widow—Jungle Cruise saw a simultaneous debut both theatrically and as a Premier Access title for $29.99 on Disney+.

 

I went into this viewing highly optimistic. Disney has been on a pretty good role recently, and I feel like they’ve developed a solid formula for delivering big action films that hit the right balance of humor and fun that appeals to family watching. Also, I felt Johnson was at a point in his career that he wasn’t going to be attached to a stinker, and he’s proven that he can not only carry a big film but deliver a deft comedic touch—see Jumanji: The Next Level—which was what a Jungle Cruise captain would need to be true to the spirit of the ride. 

 

Plus, I’m a huge fan of Disneyland. My parents actually met working there. My dad was a ride operator and my mom worked at a Sunkist orange-juice stand near the Jungle Cruise. I’ve been on the ride dozens of times, including when it actually was an E-ticket attraction, and a ride on the Jungle Cruise is a requisite during any visit to the park. 

 

So, yeah, I’d say the deck was a bit stacked in favor of me enjoying the movie.

 

And, no real surprise, I did.

 

If you’ve read any other reviews of Jungle Cruise, you’ve likely heard that it borrows heavily from films such as The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Disney’s own Pirates films. But that’s OK. If you’re going to borrow, might as well use some classic films as your template. 

 

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors led by Don Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) are looking for the Tears of the Moon, a magical tree whose petals can cure any illness or injury. They end up being cursed by a chief and can never leave sight of the Amazon River. Cut to 1916, and Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) steals an ancient arrowhead that is the key to unlocking the location of the tree, and she, along with her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), heads to South America where she hires a boat from Frank Wolff (Johnson) to guide them down the Amazon and to the tree. Along the way they are chased by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) in a German submarine, before he ultimately joins forces with the cursed conquistadors in an effort to recover the arrowhead and locate the tree to help the German war effort.

 

The chemistry between Johnson and Blunt works really well, and it’s nice to see a female lead that is in on the action instead of being relegated to the role of sidekick, something they definitely play up repeatedly for laughs with her brother MacGregor. And the opening pre-title card scene with Johnson taking a group of tourists on a jungle cruise lifts many lines—corny dad-jokes, quips, and puns—and sight gags that are lifted straight from the Disneyland attraction, including the always popular “back side of water” gag. 

 

I wasn’t able to locate any specifications on the resolution used for filming or for the digital intermediate for this transfer, but my guess would be that this is sourced from a 2K DI. Images are clean and sharp throughout, revealing lots of detail in closeups, but just didn’t give that razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI, especially on long shots. Also, with the extensive amount of CGI used throughout, it would likely be in a 2K workflow.

 

I watched the film twice, once on my Apple 4KTV on my 4K JVC projector at 115-inch diagonal 2.35.1 aspect ratio, and then again on my Xbox One S on a new Sony 65-inch OLED. What I mistook on the projector for a bit of softness in the opening scenes in a London University revealed itself to be more smokiness and haze when viewed on the OLED, but on both the colors and clarity definitely got a nice uptick when the action moves to outside.

 

One serious complaint is that there are several instances where subtitles are used for German and Spanish speakers. Disney chose to place these subtitles below the image. While this won’t impact viewers on 16:9 aspect-ratio screens, those with a 2.35 (or wider) screen will find that the subtitles are blown off the screen and totally unreadable. This will certainly be rectified when the film is made available to Kaleidescape, which uses technology to reposition the subtitles back into the viewing area. But for my Disney+ experience, it meant rewinding, zooming the image down to 16:9, and then rewatching the scenes so we could see what had been said. Talk about pulling you out of the movie!

 

As mentioned, closeups can have plenty of sharpness and clean, ultra-fine detail. You can see the weave in the hats worn by characters or the texture in MacGregor’s many outfits or the tiny squares in a screen covering a window. You can also clearly see the markings and engravings when the arrowhead is viewed in closeup.

 

With lots of dark and lowlight scenes, Jungle Cruise certainly benefits from HDR. Whether it is viewing characters in the warm glow of firelight or lanterns, seeing sunlight streaming through windows into dark rooms, characters moving about in caves, or deep inside the jungle, we get lots of rich shadow detail and bright highlights. Jungle greens are rich and lush, as are the vibrant reds, with several scenes with fire, along with the jacket worn by Joachim and the busses on the streets of London. 

 

Sonically, the Disney+ version includes Dolby Atmos packed in a lossy Dolby Digital+ wrapper versus the more dynamic and lossless Dolby TrueHD version that will accompany a disc or Kaleidescape release. Even still, there is plenty here to find entertaining, though you’ll likely want to bump the volume 5 to 10 dB over your normal listening levels (as seems to be the case with most of Disney+ streaming). There are near constant jungle sounds when sailing down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room, with a variety of birds squawking overhead. When scenes cut to/from the open outside of the Amazon, you can “feel” the change in the room, just by how it expands in the outdoors, making a really nice effect. We also have a lot of audio effects wrapping overhead and around the room from creaking vines and snakes slithering about, or a swarm of bees that flies around the room, or the splashes of water coming over the sides of the boat during a harrowing rapids ride. James Newton Howard’s score is also given a lot of room to expand throughout the room, making it much fuller sounding.

 

There are a few moments where the subwoofer comes into play, and these were definitely more dynamic when played through my Xbox versus my AppleTV, which just seems to compress and crush dynamics. There is a deep rumble of massive waterfalls, the explosions of a torpedo, and the low chug of the boat’s engines. 

 

While it is mostly family-friendly fare, there is some mostly bloodless violence and stabbings, along with several intense moments (snakes crawling out of skulls and other creepy-crawly stuff) that were definitely too much for my five year old. While rated PG-13, most kids 12 and up will probably be OK to watch. 

 

Ultimately, Jungle Cruise delivered exactly what I expected, which was a fun time with some good action, a few laughs, quality acting, some quality visual effects, and nods to one of my favorite amusement-park rides. After the dour seriousness of Fast & Furious 9, this struck the right note of how a film can provide a night of fun and entertainment without taking itself too seriously.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: Black Widow

Black Widow (2021)

If you’re clicking on a review of Black Widow right now, I can only assume you’re here in search of one more person’s opinion about whether it was worth the wait. The simple answer to that is: Yes. If you don’t mind, though, I’m gonna ramble on for a bit about why.

 

I’m normally not one to invest much energy in the horse-race discussion about movies like this. But in the case of Black Widow, it’s hard to ignore. It was supposed to come out last year, but ended up being one of many casualties of the global pandemic. Meant to kick off Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it got beaten to that punch by WandaVision, Falcon

and the Winter Soldier, and Loki. It’s probably the biggest Disney movie to date to be available via Premier Access, three months ahead of its free-to-view streaming release on October 6, 2021.

 

The thing is, though, none of that really matters. None of it has any bearing whatsoever on the quality of the movie. And yet, it’s a hard discussion to avoid.

 

Why do I say it doesn’t matter, though? Well, for one thing, Black Widow was always going to be a movie whose release was a little weird, temporally speaking. The bulk of the plot takes place between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but it’s a story that couldn’t really be told until after Endgame (2019), not necessarily for narrative reasons but for emotional ones. To fully make sense of the character of Natalia Alianovna Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in this story, you have to understand not only the redemption arc she’s been on 

BLACK WIDOW AT A GLANCE

The Scarlett Johansson-centric MCU actioner finally makes its long-awaited debut in theaters and on Disney+.

 

PICTURE
The Disney+ presentation is stunning, with gorgeous colors, plentiful fine detail, and spectacular use of HDR .

 

SOUND     

Apparently mixed for movie theaters, the Atmos soundtrack is occasionally a little too dynamic; and the volume needs to be goosed slightly to unlock the full fidelity of the audio.

since first introduced to the MCU in Iron Man 2, but you also have to know that she’s the type of person who would make the sacrifice she did in Endgame.

 

All of that makes Black Widow a puzzle piece that you can only place in time, not merely space. But that’s sort of fitting for a character as complex as Natasha. I won’t bother to even begin to attempt to explain the plot. Doing so would make me sound ridiculous. It’s got a thousand tiny little moving pieces, and it plays a very dangerous game with them in that it all flirts with being just a little too much. I’m normally turned off by plots this complex—give me a simple story any day of the week—but writing simple stories is difficult.

 

Here’s the thing, though: The convolutions of the script don’t seem to be a product of laziness, but of necessity. Story writers Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), along with screenwriter Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok), seem to understand that this one had to do a lot of heavy lifting and cover a lot of ground. It also manages to pull off a trick that few stories do successfully—it manages to be a critique of a thing while also being that thing itself. Black

Widow is a comic-book action movie, yes. But it’s also a subversion of the genre, a sendup of its tropes, and a cheeky rumination on the dangers of idolizing these impossibly perfect characters.

 

It only works because the writers understood three key things.

 

Firstly, pacing: For every big action set-piece (and there are plenty of them, with car chases that rival Baby Driver and fight sequences that are every bit as stupid and amazing as anything in the John Wick series), there’s at least as much time devoted to quieter, tenderer character moments.

 

Secondly, tone: The movie deals with a lot of heavy material, from psychological manipulation to the exploitation of vulnerable women to Cold War hangover, but it always strikes the right balance between sincerity and levity. It knows when to take itself seriously and when not to. It’s heartbreaking one moment and legitimately hilarious the next.

 

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly: It just knows what it’s about, and although it would take two hours to recount the narrative beat by beat, it’s easy to explain what it all means. Ultimately, Black Widow is about family—specifically that weird and contradictory set of emotions that comes from interacting with your family now that you’re an adult; that troubling realization that your parents were just cosplaying as adults for your entire childhood; the baffling combination of rage and familiarity that only your relatives can drag out of you simultaneously.

 

It’s also about freedom—not only the necessity thereof but also the cost and why that cost is worth paying. While playing around with that theme, the story also touches on notions of free will and animal instinct. But all of that really points back to freedom.

 

And that’s it, really. As many twists and turns as there are in the plot, all of them ultimately support the themes of family

or freedom, or both. That’s what keeps Black Widow grounded throughout, what keeps it from devolving into utter chaos.

 

Can I just say, though, that this is yet another blockbuster movie I’m so glad I didn’t have to suffer through in a packed cinema? Its presentation on Disney+ far surpasses the quality of any commercial cinema I could reasonably reach in a half-day’s drive, and I also got to enjoy it without suffering the distractions of an auditorium full of chatty extroverts and their rowdy kids. At home, I could give it my full attention and even take a tinkle break halfway through without being forced to choose between skipping an action sequence or a bit of character development.

 

The Dolby Vision presentation is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, as most MCU movies are, which was itself sourced from original footage captured in a mix of 4, 6, and 8K. Fine detail abounds, not merely in closeups but also in long shots (which many of the action sequences are—a welcome break from the claustrophobic framing of most high-octane movies these days). Colors are gorgeous and the high dynamic range is employed spectacularly.

 

There are a few very minor and very fleeting blemishes, but I’m really not sure whether they’re a consequence of post-production, Disney+’s encoding, or the fact that I streamed it on Day One, simultaneously with millions of other people.

 

Evidence for the latter comes from the fact that, on my Roku Ultra, with my 250mbps internet connection, the stream didn’t switch from 1080p to 4K until about two-thirds of the way through the Marvel Studios logo that precedes the movie. Disney+ normally launches at 4K for me.

 

Evidence for these blemishes being baked into the master come from circumstantial evidence. There’s a shot very early on that takes place in a shadowy bathroom. There’s about a quarter-second of very, very minor banding as the flat tiles of the environment give way to the shadows. But the very next shot is in the same environment, with the same tonal variation, and there’s no banding. There’s also a long shot of Natasha’s trailer that exhibits a touch of moiré for a few frames. But a few minutes later there’s another shot of the exterior photographed from the same distance in roughly the same light, and there’s no moiré. 

 

So I can’t be sure if these momentary visual imperfections can be blamed on streaming or taxed servers or what. But thankfully they add up to no more than a cumulative second over the course of a 135-minute film. Otherwise, Black Widow looks stunning. 

 

It also sounds way, way better in my home than it would in any movie theater I’ve ever sat in. Mind you, the Dolby Atmos track seems to have been mixed for large auditoria, not home cinemas, so it can be a little too dynamic in spots. I also had to turn the volume on my preamp up to +3dB (with 0dB being cinema reference levels) to unlock the full fidelity of the track, especially the bass. If you have a well-designed sound system, though, you’re in for a sonic treat. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to watch Black Widow with a soundbar as your only audio system—even a really good soundbar—you’re quickly going to discover what it feels like to pack ten pounds of you-know-what into a five-pound bag.

 

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Disney continues to support these day-and-date releases via Premier Access as Hollywood attempts to force a return to normal over the next year. All I can say is this: If I have the option to watch future Star Wars and Marvel movies—the only movies I really feel compelled to see Day One—in the comfort of my home in quality this far superior to even a good cineplex for just $29.99? Sign me the heck up. I’ll never need to sully the bottom of my flip-flops with sticky popcorn grease ever again.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Luca

Luca (2021)

When I was in high school, my favorite band was Talking Heads and I had this weird kind of love-hate anxiety when they would release a new album and I would go to listen for the first time. Would I love the new album because I actually loved it, or would I make myself say I loved it because it was from the Heads, or would lead singer David Byrne have taken them off on some new musical direction that meant I actually didn’t love it, and couldn’t even bring myself to lie that I did?

 

That’s a bit how I feel about a new film from Pixar.

 

Pixar Animation is about one of the surest bets around when it comes to delivering solid entertainment. And I don’t mean only in animated titles, but in just great movies in general. While I used to get a bit concerned because Pixar trailers used to seem 

so generic and uninteresting—always fearing, “Well, this is the one where Pixar finally misses the mark . . .”—I have come to realize the company just doesn’t produce great trailers, often because their stories are so layered you can’t really hope to encapsulate the whole spirit in a one-to-two-minute spot.

 

So, even though I wasn’t really overly excited by the trailers for Luca, the 24th film from the studio, which premiered on Disney+ this past Thursday (June 18), I wasn’t overly concerned. But, I’m sad to say, I think this might actually be the company’s weakest film to date, certainly rivaling 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, which is widely considered the worst film in the company’s canon.

LUCA AT A GLANCE

Awful thin for a Pixar movie, especially on the heels of the nuanced and adult, Oscar-winning Soul

 

PICTURE
Luca just looks gorgeous—the colors are straight-up eye candy throughout.

 

SOUND     

Kind of like the story itself, the movie’s Dolby Atmos mix is just satisfactory.

It’s not that Luca is a bad film by any means. In fact, it might even be a good movie. It’s just that it’s not a great one, and that is the nearly impossible situation that Pixar has placed itself in—after delivering film after film of greatness that anything less than a home run is considered disappointing.

 

I think the letdown is compounded by the fact that Luca follows Soul, the company’s most adult and ambitious title to date, which was so full of, well, soul. Soul took on incredibly deep and heavy issues and had such richly developed characters that the light and saccharine sweetness of Luca just seems all the emptier because of it.

 

But for Pixar, Luca lacks the depth, weight, and multi-dimensional story we’re used to getting. It’s just . . . simple. It’s hard to really care too deeply about its characters because the story doesn’t give us enough to care about them. Sure, there are tons of metaphors and parallels you can draw. The characters’ goal is to win a race that will give them enough money to buy a Vespa, which the film literally tells us is freedom—the freedom to get out and see the world beyond your four walls, especially exciting for Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), who has lived a very sheltered and protected life. (“I never go anywhere. Just dream about it.”) The characters are also hiding the secret about what they really are (sea monsters), looking to fit in and gain acceptance from the small Italian city of Portorosso which hates/fears what they really are. And if you want to draw a parallel to the LGBTQ community here, well, it doesn’t take much of a stretch (Especially at the end, when two more characters come “out.”) 

 

The film takes place around the ‘50s-‘60s on the Italian Riviera, where sea monster Luca spends his days herding fish like a shepherd. One day while out swimming, he meets Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), who shows him that when dry on land, they transform into human form. Alberto pushes Luca beyond his comfort zone, until one day Luca’s parents (voiced by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) discover what he has been doing and threaten to send away to the deep to life with bizarre—and semi-translucent—Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen). 

 

Luca and Alberto swim over to the city of Portorusso, where they attempt to blend in with the “land monsters” and fulfill their dream of getting a Vespa. They befriend Giulia (Emma Berman) whose dad Massimo (Marco Barricelli) happens to be a major fisherman and sea-monster hunter. (Who is clearly inspired by—and is the spitting image of—the dad from Pixar’s short “La Luna.”) The film builds to the Portorusso Cup Triathlon, a race where the winner gets a trophy and prize money, with the boys in constant fear of getting wet and revealing their secret.

 

One thing you can’t fault Pixar on is the technical presentation, as Luca just looks gorgeous. I watched it the first time on my 4K projector in HDR10 and then again on a new Sony OLED in Dolby Vision, and the colors are just straight-up eye candy throughout. The animation here is definitely more cartoony, not having that hyper-realistic look found in some of Pixar’ss films (e.g., the jazz club scene in Soul). Even still, the colors just burst off the screen, and this will make your video display really pop. You can also tell that the Pixar animators and writers took the time to research life in a small Italian Riviera city, with lots of accurate little details thrown in throughout. (This is also the directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa, who clearly tried to bring as much Italian authenticity and love to the project as possible.)

 

Water is notoriously difficult to animate and render, but here it just looks fantastic. Also, even through Disney+ streaming (via my Apple TV), I didn’t notice any banding issues as the sunlight filtered from the surface down through various layers, colors, and shades of the ocean—something that looked especially natural on the OLED with Dolby Vision. Another scene had water crashing into a rocky shoreline, with clear and individual detail to each rock, with the foam, froth, and bubbles in the water incredibly detailed. There are also subtle detailed touches like the different shades of color in the sand as water lapped in and out. There is also super-fine detail in the clothing worn, letting you clearly see the differences in fabric texture, patterns, and weaves worn by characters.

 

Much of Luca takes place in daytime in the town of Portorosso, with brilliant sun shining in piercing blue skies; bright, emerald grasses; and multi-colored buildings, or the warm, golden-orange hues as the sun sets. It all looks gorgeous. 

 

Kind of like the story itself, I found Luca’s audio mix to be just satisfactory. Dialogue is well rendered primarily in the center channel (though it does occasionally follow characters as they move off screen), making it clear and intelligible throughout, but even though it is a Dolby Atmos mix, it was very subtle and reserved. The one dialogue distraction was Giulia’s accent, which seemed to come and go, and was especially pronounced when she is sprinkling in some word or phrase in Italian, kind of like how a Latino chef will go out of their way to over-emphasize some ethnic word like “chili relleno” to let you know just how legit they are.

 

Italian songs of the era are sprinkled throughout, and they get some room across the front channels and a bit up into the overheads, but the rest of the effects are pretty sparse. There were some instances of the sounds of boats passing up overhead, or a harpoon thrown that passes by, but I didn’t find the sound mix dynamic at all. (Again, whether this was a streaming issue or an Apple TV issue, I can’t say.) 

 

I did notice that the soundfield opened up a bit as Luca leaves the water and goes onto dry land. It wasn’t through a big use of audio, but rather just the sonic sense that the room had expanded with sounds of gentle wind, rustling leaves, and birds that let you know you are up in the human world.

 

Is Luca worth seeing? For Disney+ subscribers, I’d say definitely. If nothing else, it is beautiful to look at, and it’s a fun, albeit simple, story.

 

And, it’s not that Luca is a bad film. In fact, you could easily say that while Soul was a Pixar title made for adults, Luca sets its sights squarely on a younger audience, with a coming-of-age story about friendship, acceptance, childhood dreams, and overcoming fears that never gets too deep or strays too far away from safety and cuteness that kids will be drawn to. And if Luca came from any other studio (well, with the exception of Disney Animation, Pixar’s parent company), it would likely be heralded as a triumph. It’s just that Pixar has come to make us expect so much more.  

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

If you need any further proof things are still in flux with theatrical releases, look no further than Disney’s latest full-length animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon. While theaters are opening around the country—including in New York, one of the top markets—studios are still being cautious with tentpole titles. And Raya is a perfect example of Disney re-testing the waters, as the company is trying a new strategy with the film, opting to release it both theatrically and via its Disney+ streaming service with the caveat of being a premium title requiring a “Premier Access” purchase of $29.99 for viewing rights. (The film will be available at no additional charge to all Disney+ subscribers beginning June 4.)

 

This is the second Premier Access title to debut on Disney+, following the 2020 live-action remake of Mulan. What makes Raya different is that it’s the first animated feature to debut on the service requiring an additional fee to view. Recent Pixar films Onward (which had a very short theatrical release prior to the COVID closures, then launched for sale on digital retailers for two weeks prior to landing on Disney+) and Soul (which opened exclusively on the streaming service on Christmas Day) 

were available for streaming at no added fee.

 

Raya also represents Disney’s first attempt to bow a movie simultaneously theatrically and at home—a clear sign the company is weighing the risk/reward of straddling the fence and seeing if its streaming subscribers will offset the lost theatrical revenue. Not everyone is thrilled with Disney’s decision, as Cinemark—the third largest US theatrical exhibitor—refused to show the film at any of its locations.

 

Fortunately, Disney makes it fast and simple to enable Premier Access for Raya. Simply click on the onscreen option and then enter the CVC information from your linked credit card and within seconds access is granted. With nothing to download, the film is instantly available for streaming.

 

Another interesting technical aspect of Raya on Disney+ is that it does not (currently) feature Dolby Atmos audio, even 

RAYA AT A GLANCE

Disney’s latest animated feature gets both a theatrical and a Premier Access release, making it available on Disney+ for an additional $29.99 fee.

 

PICTURE
The film’s bright and saturated color palette is visually arresting and a treat to look at. HDR provides beautiful depth, highlights, shadow detail, and rich colors throughout. 

 

SOUND
The soundtrack is pretty lackluster. Dynamics were heavily compressed and rarely delivers any impact, even at reference volume.

though the film includes Dolby Vision and was mastered for Dolby Cinema. This is definitely a break from the norm for films (and even original programming like WandaVision) streaming on Disney+, as most feature Atmos. Perhaps it will be added later (as it was for Frozen II), but early viewers—including yours truly—had to do without.

 

Raya features the classic elements of Disney princess fairytales: A girl loses her family and is forced to grow and trust in herself to solve some major problem, having to trust and enlist others along the way to aid in her struggle. She even passes many of the “princess tests” from Ralph Breaks the Internet.

 

What kind of princess are you? Do you have magic hair? (No.) Magic hands? (No.) Do animals talk to you? (Kind of.) Were you poisoned? (No, but it’s mentioned.) Cursed? (There is a curse on the land.) Kidnapped or enslaved? (No.) Made a deal with an underwater sea witch where she took your voice in exchange for a pair of human legs? (Ummm, no.) Have you ever had true love’s kiss? (Big no.) Do you have daddy issues? (Yep.) Don’t even have a mom. (Yep.) Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up? (A big strong man does join her quest and helps, but he doesn’t solve her problems.)” Also, put a checkmark in the “stare at important water” category too.

 

But Raya is also most definitely not your typical Disney princess film as Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is indisputably Disney’s most bad-ass, girl-power princess ever, featuring a lot of attitude and swagger. She never backs down from a fight and engages in various forms of hand-to-hand combat throughout. In fact, Raya reminded me of the live-action Mulan remake in many ways, including the fact that there’s no singing in the film. (Another break for your typical Disney princess.)

 

The story takes place in the once prosperous land of Kumandra, where dragons co-exist with humans and bring water, rain, and peace to the land. Evil spirits called the Druun come, turning all humans to stone, and the dragons sacrifice themselves in order to save humanity, placing all of their spirits into a single magic gem. A power struggle to possess the gem causes the once peaceful land to split into five tribes: Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine, and Talon.

 

After 500 years, Raya’s dad, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of the Heart tribe, holder of the gem, tries to reunite the tribes, but the Dragon gem is broken into five pieces, with each tribe taking a piece and causing the Druun to return and turning many to stone. Raya escapes, and armed with her father’s sword and riding atop her combination pill bug/armadillo/hedgehog creature Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), she embarks on a quest to find Sisu (Awkwafina), who is said to be the last surviving dragon. With hopes of ridding the Druun once and for all and bringing her father back, Raya’s quest leads her to all of the villages, which have their own visual style, and have Indiana Jones-like elements to complete.

 

Disney animation is top-notch, so the fantastic visuals shouldn’t come as any surprise. There are amazing levels of detail in closeups, with rich texture in fabric, wood, stone, and hair. Water—which plays an important role in the film—also looks photo-realistic, with incredible movement and reflection. Closeups of Sisu in human form reveal strands of hair that seem to be individually colored in her purple-pink-blue-white ombre style. And the care animators took in the way fabric drapes and moves on characters has lifelike realism. The computer animation style is different from Pixar’s, but equally top-shelf.

 

HDR provides beautiful depth, highlights, shadow detail, and rich colors throughout, especially when viewed on a Dolby Vision-capable display. The magic Dragon gem has a real Arkenstone quality, internally lit by shifting, glowing, sparkling shafts of light, and the Talon village at night is especially gorgeous, glowing with rich, warm, and vibrant lighting and lamps that leaps from the screen. Raya features a frequently bright and saturated color palette, and is visually arresting and a treat to look at.

 

Having watched the movie twice—once on my 115-inch JVC 4K projector and again on a 65-inch Sony 4K LED—I did notice that backgrounds frequently have a bit of a grainy/noisy/cloudy haze. As this is computer animation, it’s obvious it isn’t actually grain or noise, so I think it must be a stylistic choice the animators took to keep the world from appearing too perfect. They also frequently chose to use “portrait mode” styling on closeups, where objects not close up in frame are defocused.

 

Besides the movie not having an Atmos track, as mentioned earlier, I found the soundtrack to be pretty lackluster—unfortunately, a common complaint with many recent Disney transfers. Even played back at reference volume on my Marantz processor, dynamics were heavily compressed and rarely delivered any impact. It wasn’t until the film’s climax that it seemed like the subwoofers really kicked in, and even then, they were restrained and didn’t deliver the impact I expected. Whether this was a shortcoming of the film itself or my Apple 4K TV, I can’t say, but I was disappointed with the sonics. However, judging by the quality of the song “Lead the Way” (performed by Aiko) played over the end credits with a lot more dimension, dynamics, and space, I feel like it is the mix itself.

 

There are some atmospheric surround effects—particularly at the very beginning and end—such as wind, rain, forest sounds, and echoes, and the score is expanded across the front of the room, but primarily this is a front-channel-centric mix that feels like it is designed to be listened to through a TV or soundbar.

 

Raya and the Last Dragon looks gorgeous, and the voice acting—especially the always-likable Awkafina, who brings the right level of humor and quirkiness to Sisu—is on point. While the lack of any songs and a few intense scenes might limit its replay value for younger viewers, it’s an entertaining film that will appeal to many viewers, as attested to by its very favorable 95% Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating and 85% audience score. I have two daughters —ages 14 and almost five—so for us, a movie night where we can all get together and enjoy a new Disney animated film was an easy yes.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: Soul

Soul (2020)

Disney’s gift to families arrived on Disney+ yesterday in the form of Pixar’s 23rd feature-length film, Soul, which is arguably the largest title to debut on the streaming service without requiring the purchased premium access of the recent live-action Mulan remake. (Onward had a brief theatrical release before being moved to the streaming site.)

 

Soul definitely tackles Pixar’s biggest, most complex, and heady adult ideas and themes to date. While other Pixar films have dealt with the death of a main character (notably the loss of a parent in Onward), here we get a version of both the afterlife and pre-existence—and I’d say despite the pleasing visuals (especially in the vibrant and colorful Great Before) and big-eyed 

cuteness of the ever-smiling new souls, it isn’t really a children’s movie at all. But the genius of Pixar films has always been that they are able to entertain and appeal to viewers across large age groups, and the jokes and themes here are certainly geared towards an older audience, such as what some of those sign-spinners are really up to, what happens to hedge-fund managers, and why the Knicks keep losing.

 

Jazz—or “black improvisation music” as Joe Gardner’s (Jamie Foxx) father calls it—also plays a prominent role throughout the film, a musical genre that isn’t typically kid-friendly, and it also features “real,” poignant adult conversations between characters, such as the chat Joe has with his longtime barber Dez (Donnell Rawlings).

 

You could consider Soul to be the final (?) film in director Pete Docter’s reverse life-cycle trilogy, which began with 2009’s Up that focused on a person nearing the end of his life, followed by 2015’s Inside Out, which put us in the

SOUL AT A GLANCE

Pixar’s 23rd feature—debuting on Disney+ without a theatrical release—is a very adult take on life and the before- and afterlife.

 

PICTURE     

Image quality is reference-quality throughout (especially when viewed in Dolby Vision), with fine micro-details visible in literally anything you choose to focus on.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos audio does a great job of presenting the film’s jazz score, with music swirling overhead and around the room, and with plenty of nice subtle sonic moments throughout.

mind of a pre-teenager figuring out her emotions. With Soul, we actually roll back to pre-existence, discovering how people get their unique personality traits and find that “spark” that motivates, excites, and inspires them.

 

The movie begins with Joe, a part-time middle-school band instructor, getting hired on full-time at the school. While his mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), is thrilled at the prospect of Joe having a steady paycheck, insurance, and security instead of his gigging lifestyle, Joe feels he’s turning his back on his dream of being a jazz musician. When one of his former students, Curley (Questlove), calls him to see if he’s available to audition to play piano with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) Quartet that evening, Joe nails the try-out and leaves on Cloud Nine, oblivious to everything going on around him. This leads to him walking into an open manhole, and, well, coming around as a soul ascending towards the great white light of the Great Beyond. But Joe isn’t willing to accept that he has died on the night of his big break, so he fights to get back to his body on earth.

 

And that is just the first 11 minutes of the movie.

 

From here, we transition to the Great Before—rebranded as the You Seminar—where mentors work with new souls who are given unique and individual personalities to prepare them for life on Earth. (One soul proclaims, “I’m a manipulative 

megalomaniac who’s intensely opportunistic.”)  Another group of souls is sent to become self-absorbed, causing one of the counselors to say, “We really should stop sending so many people through that pavilion.”

 

The final step in a soul receiving its full personality—and getting its Earth pass—is for it to find its “spark,” or that thing that 

drives you. Joe is assigned to Mentor 22 (Tina Fey), who has been stuck as a new soul for years with no desire to go to Earth, having broken previous mentors such as Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Mohammed Ali.

 

With the help of Moonwind (Graham Norton), an astral traveler who sails about The Zone, a place between the spiritual and physical, in a tie-dye-sailed ship listening to Bob Dylan and helping lost souls find their way, 22 and Joe make it back to Earth, but not exactly in the way the Joe is hoping. I thought the film was going to take a Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin All of Me turn, but it doesn’t. Without spoiling, I’ll say Joe comes back in a way where he can still communicate with 22 but with no one else.

 

The movie has three distinct animation styles and looks defining the Great Beyond, the Great Before, and life on Earth. The Beyond is rendered in very contrasty black and white with just the color of the souls headed towards the ultra-bright light (a scene that reminded me of Carousel from Logan’s Run, whether intentional or not), whereas the Great Before is vibrant, filled with glowing blue, pink, and purple pastels and almost neon-tube drawings with things glowing bright around outlined edges and having a very ethereal look. Earth is hyper-realistic with a more muted, natural color scheme.

 

Image quality is fantastic and reference-quality throughout, with Soul being beautiful and just pleasing to look at. While the Great Before has colors that leap off the screen (especially when viewed in Dolby Vision), it is the scenes on Earth that really show off Pixar’s animation prowess, with fine micro-details visible in literally anything you choose to focus on. The texture, layering, and fading colors in street graffiti, the floor of the barbershop and look of Dez’s shoes, the distressing in iron railings, the sweat that appears on musicians’ faces after a long gig, the variety of people walking around the streets of New York, the micro-bits of fabric at the edges of Joe’s sweater, or the reflection off a glossy piano lid revealing the workings inside. Remembering that every . . . single . . . pixel of detail, every micro imperfection, every scratch and nick, every reflection, every subtle lighting effect, has been painstakingly created by deliberate artistic choice takes appreciation to the next level.

 

You can also really notice the choices the Pixar artists make in how they animate different things. While they’ve settled on the look of people, other items like buildings, backgrounds, and furniture get near-photo realistic detail. Other things like photos of jazz greats in a stairwell, or the stage at the club, land somewhere in between.

 

As mentioned, jazz music is a prominent, recurring theme throughout the film, and the Dolby Atmos audio does a great job presenting this, especially when Joe is really grooving and in-the-zone, where music swirls overhead and around the room. Voices in the Great Before are echoey, while the street sounds and cacophony of New York sound appropriately overwhelming. There are also plenty of nice subtle sonic moments throughout, such as the flatter, low-ceilinged sound of music in the Half Note, the clack of tracks aboard the subway, or the buzz overhead as Joe stands under a neon light. Most important, dialogue is always clear and perfectly intelligible.

 

Soul is a deep story that actually takes a bit of unpacking, and it looks so good you’ll likely want to revisit it more than once, where you’ll likely discover plenty of new things to appreciate—and possibly pause to try and pick out the Easter eggs scattered throughout. Finding out what things make a life, and learning to enjoy the simple pleasures and experiences life has to offer is the real heart of Soul, and this is another win for Pixar.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that The Nightmare Before Christmas works at all. The film, after all, wasn’t really based on a story so much as it was cobbled together from some poetry and sketches and ideas from Tim Burton, who intended to turn it into a half-hour TV special à la Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Or maybe a children’s book. Or maybe something else altogether. There’s also the fact that the screenplay by Caroline Thompson ended up serving almost more as a skeleton for the film than an actual script, given that much of the final product was developed visually by director Henry Selick and was constantly in flux.

Honestly, if anyone deserves the utmost praise for the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas, it would be Danny Elfman, who worked with Burton to flesh out something resembling the major story beats, then wrote the soundtrack that, in the end, actually serves as the story rather than merely as accompaniment. So much so that Chris Sarandon, who was cast in the role of the speaking voice of Jack Skellington—the film’s protagonist—has very little to do. Elfman ends up being the primary voice of Jack, the spirit of Jack, and the driving force for the film, while Selick filters Burton’s aesthetic through his own similar style and every other aspect of the production just gets dragged along for the ride.

NIGHTMARE AT A GLANCE

Given its genesis, Nightmare ought to be a mess, but it remains one of the most charming and heartfelt of all holiday films.

 

PICTURE     

Even though it’s only in HD, the transfer looks flawless on Disney+. The limited color palette is presented perfectly. Blacks are rich, highlights don’t clip, midtones are subtle, and the level of detail is incredible.

Truthfully, it ought to be a mess. And yet, Nightmare remains to this day one of the most charming and heartfelt holiday films I’ve ever seen. And, yes, it would be more accurate to call Nightmare a “holiday” film than a Christmas film per se because although it appropriates all the trappings of our modern commercialized, paganized melting-pot celebration of the nativity, the story makes it abundantly clear that the trappings of Christmas are hardly the point.

 

Instead, Nightmare cuts to the heart of why this time of year has been the center of celebration for millennia, from Saturnalia to Yule to Hanukkah to Ayyappan to Calan Gaeaf to Yaldā Night to Christmas and so many other holy and secular holidays that I’m forgetting at the moment. It’s a recognition of the fact that this holiday season represents the return of the light after a period of encroaching darkness beginning around the harvest/Halloween/Samhain/Día de los Muertos. It goes straight to the cyclical and seasonal reasons for these festivals that far too many of us have forgotten, living as we do indoors and disconnected from the earth.

 

There’s also a thematic aspect of Nightmare that resonates outside of its connection to the holiday season, and it’s a theme few storytellers have explored so effectively. (Really, only Tolkien comes to mind, most notably with the story of Míriel from the Quenta Silmarillion and Morgoth’s Ring.) It’s the simple lesson that when we attempt to be who we are not, to defy our true nature, nothing good can possibly come of it. In attempting to assume the role of “Sandy Claws” merely as a means of 

rejecting or pacifying his own dissatisfaction with the doom and gloom of Halloween, without truly understanding why or how people celebrate Christmas, Jack makes a mess of pretty much everything. And yes, the resolution of this story thread is all wrapped up a little too tidily, but what more do you expect from a 76-minute cartoon?

Honestly, though, any fan of the film probably already realizes all of the above. So why am I going on about it all? Frankly, because the original premise of this review fell out from under me. I had every intention of writing a scathing (and perhaps pleading) criticism about the fact that The Nightmare Before Christmas deserves a 4K HDR remaster more than just about any of the Disney animated films that have already received such.

 

But when I sat down to watch the film again—mostly to take notes on all the scenes I thought would be improved by a modern home video transfer—I realized the current HD master (which has been with us since 2008) is pretty much flawless. Fans revolted when Disney dropped a 25th-anniversary re-release on the marketplace in 2018 with nothing more than a new singalong mode and a bit of extra bandwidth for the film itself. And I was right there, pitchfork raised alongside theirs.

 

But truth be told, even the HD version of the film on Disney+ looks flawless. The limited color palette is presented perfectly. Blacks are richer than liquid gold and there’s nary a hint of crush to be found. Highlights don’t clip, midtones don’t seem in any way lacking in subtlety, and the level of detail is incredible. Simply put, all of the shortcomings we now associate with HD video are pretty much nowhere to be seen in this film. I think I’ve seen Nightmare on the big screen at least 10 times, and frankly even the Disney+ stream looks better than any of those commercial exhibitions, revealing fine textures and little visual Easter eggs I didn’t even notice in IMAX from the fourth row.

 

Granted, the Disney+ version doesn’t include all of the supplemental material that has appeared on various home video releases through the years. It does include several deleted scenes and storyboards, along with a few other goodies. But it lacks a couple of essential gems, namely the audio commentary by Selick, Burton, and Elfman, as well as Christopher Lee’s reading of Burton’s original “Nightmare Before Christmas” poem. You can find those on Kaleidescape, though, and they’re all worth a watch/listen.

 

More than anything, though, I just wanted to point out that if you’ve been waiting on a UHD release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, you should probably stop. If it were going to happen anytime soon, it would have been two years ago. Given Disney’s penchant for tying home video releases to anniversaries, our next shot at a remaster probably comes in 2023. And that’s simply too long to wait before diving into this charming little holiday gem again.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Let’s be honest with ourselves here: The Muppet Christmas Carol is not exactly the creative apex of the Muppets franchise. As the first film in the series to be made after the death of Jim Henson, it lacks a lot of the creator’s bohemian funkiness and marks the beginning of a transition period in which the Muppets became a little more kid-friendly and a little less clever. (Although, to be fair, you could just as easily level some of the same criticism at The Great Muppet Caper.)

But—and this is a pretty huge “but”—it’s still my all-time favorite interpretation of Charles Dickens’ literary classic, just nudging out Richard Donner’s Scrooged and the excellent made-for-TV version from 1984 starring George C. Scott. A lot of that can be attributed to Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge, in which he seems completely oblivious to the fact that his co-stars almost all have hands up their butts. Instead, he plays the role straight, leaving the winking and nodding mostly to Gonzo the Great, who plays the role of Dickens himself.

 

There’s also the lovely soundtrack, with songs written by Paul Williams, who didn’t quite turn in as many memorable

MUPPET CAROL AT A GLANCE

The Muppets’ shockingly faithful take on Dickens’ oft-adapted holiday classic is a must-see for every Christmas season.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K version appears to be upscaled from the HD master, but HDR helps to soften any over-saturation, bringing some needed subtlety to the presentation.

ditties as he did for The Muppet Movie or Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, but still gives the movie an extra heaping helping of charm.

 

Oddly enough, despite the songs and despite the puppetry, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a shockingly faithful adaptation of Dickens’ book, abridged though it may be. And as such, it’s a must-see for me every Christmas season.

 

But as with It’s a Wonderful Life, one must ask whether or not this movie is actually worth owning. And for now—and only for now—I say probably not. That’s primarily because it’s available for free on Disney+—in Dolby Vision no less. The service was, as best I can tell, the first to offer The Muppet Christmas Carol in 4K, and although other digital providers have caught up, I 

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can’t imagine it looking any better on any of those services than it does on Disney+.

 

Honestly, the 4K resolution does very little to add detail or definition to the cinematography, and unless my eyes deceive me, the current 4K master wasn’t sourced from the original camera negative. It frankly looks like an upscale from an HD master taken from a print (or at best an interpositive), with the only noteworthy resolution differences coming in the form of enhanced (but very inconsistent) film grain.

 

The HDR does add a lot to the presentation, mostly by 

toning down the over-saturation seen in the HD version, leaving the most vibrant hues for those spots with pure primary colors, like the inside of Kermit’s mouth. The HDR also brings more consistency and subtlety to contrasts, making blacks a good bit more consistent and eliminating some crush.

 

So, yes, this is definitely the best The Muppet Christmas Carol has looked to date. But hang on. In recent weeks, it was actually revealed that the original camera negative for the deleted musical number “When Love Is Gone” had been 

discovered and would be included in a new ground-up 4K restoration of the film sourced from the original elements.

 

If you’re not familiar with “When Love Is Gone,” that’s probably because the song was cut from the theatrical version of the film at the insistence of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Disney, for fear that it was too emotionally sophisticated for a children’s film (something I can’t imagine Jim 

Henson ever allowing, but it was his son Brian’s cinematic directorial debut). The song was integrated into the LaserDisc and VHS releases, as well some DVD versions, but has disappeared from higher-quality releases due, one would assume, to quality concerns.

 

Whether you’re particularly interested in that song or not (for my money, it’s one of the film’s best, and thankfully it’s included as a deleted scene on Disney+ and elsewhere), the news that The Muppet Christmas Carol is getting a proper restoration is enough to warrant holding off on a purchase for now.

 

But if you’ve got Disney+, you should still add the movie to your holiday viewing rotation this year. For all its flaws, it’s an incredibly charming children’s classic with tons of genuinely funny moments and some wonderful performances throughout, from humans and Muppets alike. And for what it’s worth, it’s the only cinematic adaptation of A Christmas Carol that has genuinely made me shed a tear over the death of Tiny Tim.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020)

If any movie has had a more complex and rambling release timeline than Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, it would be Disney’s latest live-action remake, Mulan. After its initial Hollywood premiere on March 9, the film was slated for a wide theatrical release on March 27. But those plans were scrubbed after commercial cinemas around the world were forced to close because of the coronavirus. For months, Disney stood firm that Mulan would debut theatrically, and the release date continued to move back a week at a time in lockstep with Tenet, with many looking to these two tentpole films as the official relaunch of commercial cinema.

 

After months of “will it/won’t it?” release-date shuffling, Warner decided to seek an international release of Tenet before opening here in the States. Disney, however, made the radical decision to forego a commercial release of Mulan in the U.S.

entirely, instead trying a new strategy with its Disney+ streaming service, offering Mulan to all subscribers for a one-time $29.99 fee for “Premier Access.”

 

Shortly before Mulan’s September 4 release to Disney+, Disney clarified that the Premier Access offer would only be available until November 2, 2020. “Once you have Premier Access to Mulan, you can watch as many times as you want on any platform where Disney+ is available. Your access to Mulan will continue as long as you are an active Disney+ subscriber. Mulan will be available to all Disney+ subscribers on December 4, 2020 for no additional cost.”

 

So, with a major title costing an estimated $200 million to produce, and initially expected to bring in close to a billion worldwide, Disney is not only gambling heavily on Premium Access, but also seemingly stacking the deck against itself by telling subscribers that if they jut hold off a few months, they can get it for free.

MULAN AT A GLANCE

Another in Disney’s series of live-action remakes of animated titles, this straight-to-Disney+ effort sheds the musical numbers and most of the humor to tell the tale of Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to become a soldier.

 

PICTURE     

Streamed in 4K, the film looks gorgeous—especially when seen on a flagship video display—taking full advantage of HDR’s wider color gamut.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix is disappointing, but its restraint might be due in part to being streamed over AppleTV.

My family was planning on seeing Mulan in the theater, so I gladly ponied up the $29.99. (Still cheaper than buying three tickets, and with the added benefit of watching in my own home theater as many times as I want!) Disney sent subscribers an email with instructions for unlocking Premier Access, and a link took me to a page where I could enter payment details. Once submitted, a gold Premier Access banner appears by Mulan along with, “You have Premier Access to this movie.”

 

Unlike previous Disney live-action remakesBeauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin—Mulan doesn’t strictly adhere to the original animated material, and where the 1998 animated film was G-rated with a lot of musical numbers, this remake is a decidedly more adult PG-13 film. Also, there’s no singing or any musical numbers. There are some definite nods to the big 

musical numbers “Honor to Us All” and “Reflection,” with those instrumental themes clearly playing, and some of the lines from “A Girl Worth Fighting For” are used as lines of dialogue.

 

Also gone are the bickering ancestors and Mushu, the protector ancestral dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, which is replaced by a CGI Phoenix, the family’s ancestral guardian, that appears when Mulan needs strength or guidance. Also, for historical accuracy, the Huns have been replaced by the Rouran army.

 

The film opens with Mulan as a young girl performing fighting moves with a staff in an open field, and we are told “Chi is the boundless energy of life itself speaking through her every motion.” But only a son can wield chi, and a daughter that doesn’t hide her chi risks shame, dishonor, and exile. We’re also informed “chi is for warriors, not daughters.”

 

Chi plays a prominent role in the film, and feels a lot like another mystical power from the Disney-owned universe, The Force. In fact, we’re told, “Chi obeys the universe and all living things; we are all born with it but only the most true will connect deeply with his chi and become a great warrior.” I was actually waiting to hear that chi surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together. In another strong echo of the Star Wars universe, another powerful chi-wielder tells Mulan to join them and they will take their place together. Sound familiar? Of course, instead of a lightsaber, Mulan wields her father’s sword.

Otherwise, the film hits all the major beats and plot points from the original, removing much of the humor and telling a serious tale of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join the Emperor’s army to take her old and injured father’s place after an edict that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army.

 

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider; McFarland, USA) apparently auditioned over 1,000 actresses before selecting Yifei Lui to play Mulan, and Lui does a great job as both delicate Hua Mulan and soldier Hua Jun, handling most of her own stunts. Also on hand are two Chinese film legends, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung and Jet Li as the Emperor, as well as Jason Scott Lee playing Rouran leader, Bori Khan.

 

There is plenty of fighting throughout, and even though Mulan has a PG-13 rating, the killing is completely bloodless and gore-free. There were only a few scenes that were too intense for my 4 year old. Soldiers hit by arrows slump over, and we see empty helmets to represent the hundreds of slaughtered, or just see bodies lying still. While much of the fighting is grounded in real-world physics, there is the occasional use of the “Wuxia” flying/leaping/gravity-defying fighting style popularized in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially after Mulan fully embraces—and unleashes—the true potential of her chi.

 

Besides the musical nods, there is a nice cameo by Ming-Na Wen, who voiced Mulan in the animated title, and Christina Aguilera—who sang “Reflection” as her debut single over the animated end-credits—returns with a new end-credits song, “Loyal Brave True.”

 

Mulan runs just shy of two hours and is presented in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which benefits the wide vistas and grand scale of many shots, especially the wide-open countryside.

 

Shot in ArriRaw at 4.5 and 5.1K resolution, Mulan is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the film looks gorgeous, especially when viewed on a high-end Dolby Vision-capable display. The resolution makes it easy to appreciate the detail of the costuming, seeing the work of the armor, the stitching, threads, and fabric of the uniforms, or the detail of the sets and backgrounds. Closeups reveal pore-level detail and razor-sharp focus of the actors’ faces, and in one scene you can clearly see single beads of water dripping down a few strands of Mulan’s hair. Long shots also have tons of detail, letting you appreciate the vast scenic spaces, buildings, and gathered armies, with nice, sharp edges.

 

Mulan also benefits from HDR’s wider color gamut, with the colors of the outfits warn by occupants in Mulan’s village being vibrant and saturated. Reds are especially deep, as are the gleaming golds of the Emperor’s throne room. You also get beautifully lit faces in some interiors where characters talk by lantern light, their faces bathed in a rich warm glow with deep natural shadows, or the bright gleaming sunlit skies in exteriors, or the burning of fires and torches.

 

In total, Mulan looks fantastic, and should definitely be appreciated on a flagship video display.

 

Sonically, however, I found the Dolby Atmos mix to be really reserved and frankly a bit disappointing. Of course, this could be less an issue with the mix itself and more to do with AppleTV’s audio output, something I found disappointing when watching Taylor Swift’s Reunion concert on Netflix, or perhaps the difference between the lossy Dolby Digital+ used by streaming services and the TrueHD audio found on physical 4K discs and offered by Kaleidescape.

 

There were many cases when the height channels could have been used more aggressively to good effect, such as arrows raining overhead, swords slashing, birds flying overhead, people leaping, rain falling, etc. There were a couple of scenes where the height speakers are put to good use, such as Mulan hearing the voices of her ancestors or people are speaking off-camera from overhead.

 

While the surround channels are used for the sounds of swishing arrows, fighting, and atmospheric sounds like wind and echoes and to expand the musical score, I found the mix to be mainly focused across the front three speakers. In a way, it almost feels like Disney knew this was going to be primarily viewed at home, and so the mix choices were optimized for TV speakers and basic soundbar setups.

 

While not possessing a bass-heavy mix, your subwoofer definitely comes into play in key moments, such as the galloping horse army, a cascading avalanche, and the crashing of massive boulders launched by the Rouran army’s trebuchet.

 

Ultimately, how much you enjoy this retelling of Mulan might depend on how much you loved the original animated title. While it is the same story, it is told in a completely different manner, and if you are expecting another live-action rehash, you may be disappointed. Taken on its own merit, however, Mulan is a well-told, updated, and compelling story that features a solid cast, with massive scale, along with some terrific cinematography that all make for a great night at the movies.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.