Series

Review: The Muppet Show

The Muppet Show

When a series like The Muppet Show drops on a streaming platform like Disney+, most people have a tendency to consume it in one of two ways. The vast majority probably head straight for their favorite episodes. In this case, “The Stars of Star Wars” and appearances by Carol Burnett, Alice Cooper, and Paul Simon are almost certainly going to be zooming their way down the Information Superhighway to thousands if not millions of homes this week. And chances are good that, after getting their Greatest Hits nostalgia kick, a lot of folks will forget that the beloved variety show is even there for the streaming by the end of the month.

 

Another approach is to start with the first episode and binge right through to the end. But let’s be honest with ourselves, Muppets fans: The first season of the series was not its best by a long shot. It took a while for Henson and crew to find the 

vibe they were shooting for.

 

So, how should you approach the five seasons’ worth of episodes now streaming on Disney+? I think you should go way off the beaten path. Start with Glenda Jackson’s appearance in Season Five.

 

Who? Yeah, no, I don’t know, either. Apparently, she was an actor of merit back in the ’70s, but I’ve never seen either of the films for which she received Academy Award nominations (1970’s Women in Love and 1973’s A Touch of Class). Call me an uncultured oaf. I’m OK with that.

 

For me, though, Jackson will always be the actor who appeared in the most off-the-rails episode of The Muppet Show ever made. Legend has it that most celebrities slated to appear on the show were a bit diva-ish in their demands, and most wanted to work first and foremost with Miss 

MUPPETS AT A GLANCE

The show hits Disney+ in its original edits, uncensored (although not free of warnings).

 

PICTURE
Despite being 1970s video upgraded to HD, the images are shockingly vibrant (if a bit bleedy), but marred by some really egregious edge enhancement.

 

SOUND     

The mono soundtrack is as rich and full-fidelity as one could hope for, and the musical numbers in particular sound fantastic.

Piggy. Jackson, on the other hand, left the writers to their own devices, resulting in a ridiculous romp that strains the boundaries between Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral. It’s a glimpse at what the show could have been had it not been a cultural phenomenon and a bit of a vanity project for the celebrity of the week. Of course, had it not been a cultural phenomenon, odds are we still wouldn’t be talking about it today, nor would Disney+ be spiffing it up for a big streaming release.

 

Well, “spiffing” might not be the right word. The video masters have been upsampled to HD, but given that the show was shot on videocassette in the mid-1970s and early ’80s, you should keep your expectations in check. There are no original film elements to restore here.

 

Still, colors are shockingly vibrant (if a bit bleedy at times) and aside from some really egregious edge enhancement in spots (an artifact of the master tapes or the work of a heavy-handed archivist, I don’t know), the show looks better than you might expect. It’s certainly an upgrade over the DVD releases, even if things like the occasional aliasing in blue-screen comps and some moiré artifacts and chromatic aberrations are more noticeable in 1080p. 

 

So I’ll give the video a solid B. It’s easy to appreciate that The Muppet Show looks as good as it ever has and significantly better in spots. But it’s also a little distracting at times to watch at cinematic proportions. If you have a TV in the den or family 

The Muppet Show

room, it might be kinder (to the show and your eyes) to do your watching there rather than in the home theater. Thankfully, though, the monophonic soundtrack is as rich and full-fidelity as one could hope for, and the musical numbers in particular sound fantastic, despite the lack of stereo mixing.

 

Hardcore fans of the series will appreciate that Disney+ presents the original UK edits of most of the episodes. Remember, US networks originally rejected the show, so it was produced in England by ATV and aired in the US in first-run syndication, where one short musical number was generally cut for length, since we in the Colonies have to suffer through more commercials per hour. One or two of the episodes I spot-checked seemed a bit short to be the full UK originals, but it could be that other edits had to be made due to music rights issues. Only a couple of episodes seem to be missing entirely, best I can tell. The bottom line is that this appears to be the most complete and intact presentation of the show to date.

 

Interestingly, even episodes that have been outright 

censored on all previous home video releases are presented in their entirety here. (Although I did notice that the Jim Nabors episode, one of the few I’ve had a chance to stream from beginning to end, does start with a brief textual intro about racist stereotypes and the decision not to censor those segments. When I returned to that episode to transcribe the content advisory, it didn’t appear, so such warnings seem to be a “first time you watch it” sort of thing.)

 

At any rate, that’s not the point of this diatribe. The point is, The Muppet Show is such a delightfully offbeat time capsule, a snapshot of a bygone era before Jim Henson’s creation became a little too safe and a little too kid-friendly and its alignment started the inevitable shift toward Neutral Good for a few decades—ironically due in part to the influence of Disney. So I implore you not to approach it the way you’re probably inclined to. Start with an episode from a guest star you’ve never heard of. There has to be at least one.

 

Hell, take my lead and start with Glenda Jackson’s episode, just to get a taste of what head writer Jerry Juhl was capable of when allowed to run wild. Whatever you do, though, don’t treat this Disney+ release like a Greatest Hits collection. There are some truly amazing deep cuts here I think you’ll find legitimately surprising and occasionally shocking.

—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 Snoopy Show

The Snoopy Show (2021)

One of the things I love about Roku is the ability to quickly and easily customize its home screen. Find yourself watching content from one app more than any other? Just click the asterisk and move it closer to the top of the screen. Left cold by the offerings of another streaming service? Bump it down in the list, perhaps to page two or three. It seems a little trivial, but I use the arrangement of apps as a metric for deciding whether or not to cancel streaming subscriptions. If I have to scroll down past the topmost three and a half rows of icons to get to an app, that app is no longer worth paying for.

I only mention that because, after having watched The Snoopy Show, Apple TV+ has moved up from the precarious ninth position (right near the bottom of the screen at bootup) and is now resting more comfortably on the second row of icons, just below YouTube, Netflix, and Disney+.

 

Not to put too fine a point on it but The Snoopy Show is better than it has any right to be. And if that seems a little harsh, think back to when you first heard that Apple would be producing new Peanuts animated specials. Was your initial reaction even slightly hopeful? If so, I wish I could bottle your optimism.

 

But maybe I’m just jaded. Thanks to Ronald Reagan’s reign of deregulation, I grew up in the era of cartoons as commercials, when every 22-minute animated romp—

SNOOPY AT A GLANCE

Both family-friendly and charmingly weird, this Apple TV+ series presents the new adventures of everybody’s favorite cartoon beagle without lapsing into franchise-itis.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe.

 

SOUND     

It’s a shame the score doesn’t aspire to be anything more than poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi.

whether it aired on Saturday mornings or after school—was trying to sell me all manner of things I immediately begged my parents to buy. Robots in Disguise. Real American Heroes. Whatever M.A.S.K. was about. And, in the case of The Peanuts, Dolly Madison snacks, Coke, and Mickey D’s. (Although, to be fair, that last one wasn’t Reagan’s fault—that was true from the giddy-up.)

 

We’re in the midst of something of a cartoon renaissance, though. Kids today (and yes, it hurts my soul to type those words) have an embarrassment of legitimately good, kid-friendly, non-propagandist episodic animation to devour, from Steven Universe to Craig of the Creek to Hilda and Infinity Train, and it’s only been a couple of years since Adventure Time ended its run as one of the hands-down best TV series of the past 50 years.

 

Given that this is the environment The Snoopy Show is parachuting into, perhaps my expectations should have been a little higher. But I’m still honestly shocked that the creative talents behind this new Apple-exclusive series have put so much effort into making it so darned good.

 

Its virtues begin with its animation, which is both an homage to the classic Peanuts animated specials and a loving upgrade of their style. The characters themselves seem pulled straight from Sparky Schulz’s pen, and although the foreground animation has been giving a big boost (both in draftsmanship and resolution), there’s still something incredibly comfortable about the way Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the gang are animated. The herky-jerky, overly dramatic body language for which 

everyone’s favorite cartoon beagle is known translates beautifully into this new world of cartoons.

 

The background art, meanwhile, is a whole new ballgame. The canvas upon which these little animated adventures take place is of a quality quite unlike anything we saw in Peanuts specials of yore. There’s some Looney Tunes influence, for sure, especially in the way the background artists play with 

abstractions and intentional registration errors. There’s also some obvious homage to the earliest Peanuts Sunday strips, before everything got simplified down to flat secondary colors. The Dolby Vision presentation of The Snoopy Show, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe without banding.

 

But what impresses me most about the imagery is that the background artists have cobbled their influences and inspiration into something unique, with a character of its own, and of a quality you just don’t expect to see outside of feature-length animation.

 

It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of the music. Composer Jeff Morrow seems content to play a poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi here, aping the musical style of the old animated specials without taking any risks. Classics like “Linus and Lucy” may seem in hindsight to be an essential element of the Peanuts, but it’s important to remember that laying down a jazz soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas was a creative risk at the time. The studio suits thought it would never fly. So while Morrow’s soundtrack feels comfortable, and is incredibly well-recorded and mixed, it’s not really true to the spirit of what 

Guaraldi and producer Lee Mendelson were aiming for with the music of that original special and its increasingly less-interesting followups.

 

That’s really the only bummer of note here. I could also grumble about the fact that some of the Peanuts gang have been voiced by actors who fail to capture the old-soul timbre I associate with the characters, but 1) that’s more of an observation than a criticism and 2) the humans are really the 

The Snoopy Show (2021)

secondary characters here. As its name implies, The Snoopy Show is about Charlie Brown’s canine companion, not Charlie Brown himself. And the focus on Snoopy (and Woodstock) results in a genuinely chaotic vibe that I just love to pieces.

 

Yes, the show still captures the existentialism inherent to The Peanuts (and in that respect, it hews closer to the comic strip than previous animated efforts), but given the rich imagination for which Snoopy is known, and the fantasy worlds he famously inhabits, the shift in focus away from the human gang and toward the pup results in a commensurate shift toward the whimsical and downright weird.

 

As such, there isn’t always a clearly defined narrative arc to the three eight-minute vignettes that make up each episode, nor is there any continuity between them. Each is its own little universe. One entire short is dedicated to Snoopy trying to cool off on a hot day. Another is entirely about his spastic and unselfconscious dancing. The latter, by the way, is one of the few vignettes to have any sort of overt moral, but it echoes the more covert ideology that permeates the series so far: Life may suck sometimes, but it’s a lot more bearable if we choose to actively rebel against the darkness and embrace the goodness and joy and goofiness in the world.

 

That may not be profound but it’s true to Schulz’s creation, and it gives The Snoopy Show a timeless quality that’s rare, even in this new golden age of children’s animated programming. It also means that the series isn’t insufferable when viewed through adult eyes. This is one of those rare shows parents might actually enjoy just as much as their little ones.

 

And that’s not purely a function of nostalgia. Part of it is the fact that the show never panders to anyone. There’s some stuff here that will fly straight over the heads of anyone under 10, but that’s okay. There’s certainly nothing inappropriate for such young eyes and ears. I just can’t imagine our young niece laughing at the same things that made my wife and me chortle.

 

Will you enjoy it as much as we did? I can’t say for sure. The missus and I are both overgrown kids and weirdos to boot. But I hope you do. Because as fanciful (and mischievous!) as it is, the world needs more cartoons like The Snoopy Show.

 

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: Baumgartner Restoration

Baumgartner Restoration

I certainly don’t mean to diminish the larger economic or societal impacts of COVID-19, nor do I mean any disrespect to the two-plus million people whose lives have been lost so far. But as an entertainment writer, one of the most fascinating things about this pandemic is the way it has changed our viewing habits. And sure, you can chalk some of that up to the relative lack of new movies, but that alone isn’t enough to explain why a 20-year-old fantasy trilogy became one of the most persistent 

pop-cultural phenomena of 2020 or why its 4K re-release has so defied all studio expectations in terms of sales that it’s still nearly impossible to find at retail. People need comfort viewing right now, perhaps more than ever.

 

That said, you can’t exactly spend all your free time watching a 12-plus-hour fantasy epic over and over again. At least I can’t. Sometimes I need a shorter break from the real world—something that allows me to quick-charge my batteries so I can face reality again with renewed strength.

 

As of late, my favorite pick-me-up is a wonderful little YouTube show I’ve mentioned in passing from time to time over the past few years: Baumgartner Restoration. If you’re not familiar with the show, it falls firmly into a genre of YouTube series about fixing old stuff, most of which are hosted by amateurs with specific passions for Matchbox Cars or antique tools or vintage Star Wars collectibles.

RESTORATION AT A GLANCE

This YouTube series goes beyond providing an opportunity to watch the restoration of rarely seen works of art to become an exercise in mindfulness.

 

PICTURE

The 4K presentation is ripe with detail and begs to be seen at something approaching true-to-life scale, if not larger.

 

SOUND

Although the audio is primarily meant to deliver Baumgartner’s dulcet narration and the delicate sounds of his work, it still deserves to be heard on the best possible system.

Unlike the legions of YouTubers scrubbing rust off of old can openers with WD-40, though, Julian Baumgartner—the host of Baumgartner Restoration—Is the second-generation owner of the oldest private fine-art conservation studio in Chicago. And there’s a lot to unpack in that sentence because the real appeal of the show isn’t simply that it’s a restoration series. A big draw for me, as an art lover, is that the private nature of Baumgartner’s business means he gets to restore—and we the 

viewers get to see—all manner of gorgeous paintings that will never hang in a museum, and as such perhaps never otherwise make into the public consciousness. And that includes works by artists as well known as Norman Rockwell.

 

Another draw is that Baumgartner doesn’t merely restore damaged or time-worn paintings on his channel, he also meticulously narrates every step of the process, revealing why, for instance, he might use one type of 

solvent to remove a varnish on this particular painting when he used a completely different type of solvent on another. In a quirky kind of way, it’s a lesson in critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific thought. He takes nothing for granted, treats every problem as a learning experience, and most importantly he values his failures as learning experiences every bit as much as he values his successes.

 

I should back up for just a second here, because everything I said in the preceding paragraph only applies to the episodes Baumgartner narrates. Many times, he’ll actually upload two completely different versions of his restoration videos—one accompanied by narration and another completely devoid of explanation. The latter, which he labels “ASMR Videos“—a reference to autonomous sensory meridian response, a term for the pleasure some people derive from listening to soft, tactile sounds—carry soundtracks that consist of little more than the sounds of scraping, wiping, painting, and varnishing, along with the occasional light classical-music accompaniment.

 

And from the description alone, you might assume these are the videos I pull up when I’m having trouble going to sleep. Far from it, in fact. I find Baumgartner’s ASMR videos reinvigorating in the most peaceful way possible. It’s like I’m really,

seriously hyper-mindful of how calm I am while watching them, if that makes a lick of sense.

 

Whether you opt for the narrated or unnarrated videos, by the way, do what you can to watch the series on the biggest and best screen in the house instead of your laptop or—heaven forbid—your smartphone. Baumgartner Restoration is beautifully (although practically and functionally) shot, with a focus on the

art and the work Julian does to it. The 4K presentation is ripe with detail and begs to be seen at something approaching true-to-life scale, if not larger.

 

Via a good streaming device, like the Roku Ultra, the series is delivered virtually artifact-free, with good contrast and great color reproduction. I only wish it were delivered in HDR10 (or, at a minimum, HLG high dynamic range), not necessarily for the increases in peak brightness but more to bring out the subtle chromatic variations in the artwork.

 

The audio, like the video, is more utilitarian than artful in its mixing and presentation, since the goal here is to deliver Baumgartner’s dulcet narration and the delicate sounds of his work, and that’s about it. That said, there’s still a good case to be made for listening via a good sound system since there is quite a bit of dynamic variation in the soundtrack, quiet as it is, and you’ll certainly miss out on a lot of subtlety when listening through cheap computer speakers or—again, heaven forbid—the tiny speakers in your mobile device.

 

More than anything else, what makes Baumgartner Restoration such a beloved and indeed necessary show for me, especially right now, is that Julian has the sort of calming demeanor we haven’t really seen much of since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired its final episode in 2001. At a time when life feels like a firehose of strife, hatred, turmoil, and uncertainty, dipping into an episode of Baumgartner Restoration for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes at a time feels like taking a break to sip from a babbling brook of serenity and Zen. Yes, it’s moderately educational. Yes, it’s somewhat edifying, getting to see these works of art that I likely wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise. But if I’m being entirely honest, those are more side benefits than anything else. They’re icing. The real cake, at least for me, is that Baumgartner Restoration is an oasis of calm in a world that seems increasingly anything but.

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: WandaVision

WandaVision

Since the 2014 release of Captain America: Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios has built up an increasing stockpile of trust with superhero-movie fans by pretty consistently cranking out entertaining action romps that span the genre spectrum from intense ’70s-style espionage thrillers to intergalactic comedies to dramatic epics and everything in between. With WandaVision, the studio is spending that trust on an offbeat experiment that will, in retrospect, be seen as either as massive success or an 

embarrassing failure. And two episodes into its nine-episode run, it’s nearly impossible to tell which of those outcomes is more likely.

 

The Disney+ limited series represents a few firsts for Marvel Studios. It’s their first episodic short-form production (earlier, tenuously connected TV shows like the pointless Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were produced by Marvel Television, a separate subsidiary studio). It’s their first foray into the so-

WANDAVISION AT A GLANCE

Marvel Studios’ attempt to run old sitcoms through the superhero mill in this limited-run Disney+ series might turn out to be a huge success—or a massive failure.

called Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and reportedly serves as the first in a trilogy of connected stories that will continue in Jon Watts’ upcoming Spider-Man sequel and conclude with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s also the first MCU product of any sort released since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.

 

But perhaps most importantly, it’s the first time Marvel Studios has placed anywhere near this much trust in the intelligence and patience of its audience. And I say that because anyone who tells you they fully understand what’s going on here either has insider information or they’re lying their asses off.

 

WandaVision is, in one sense, a portrayal of the supposedly idyllic home life of Wanda Maximoff and the Vision, two star-crossed lovers whose first big-screen appearance was in the otherwise forgettable Avengers: Age of Ultron (one of the studio’s few truly bad movies post-Winter Soldier). The problem, of course, is that we saw the Vision die an awful death in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War—first at the hands of Wanda herself then through some temporal trickery at the hands of Phase Three’s big bad, Thanos.

 

So the fact that he’s seemingly alive and mostly well in WandaVision is our first clue that something is amiss here. But it’s far from the last and hardly the biggest. A much more blatant clue that not all is as it seems is that the series is produced in the style of classic sitcoms, starting with a pitch-perfect homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show (Van Dyke himself was a consultant and influenced a number of creative decisions, including the choice to shoot with vintage lenses and lighting and to produce the first episode in front of a live studio audience), then bleeding into time-capsule recreations of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie and—if the series’ trailer is any indication—going forward in time as the story unfolds, paying loving homage to newer and newer half-hour TV shows until . . .

 

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Where is this all going? What’s the point of this classic-TV homage?

 

Fans of the comics that inspired the series—most notably the fantastic The Vision and the Scarlet Witch mini-series from the ’80s, the heartbreaking House of M from the early aughts, and the brilliant-but-batsh— -insane Vision standalone series from 2015-2016—certainly have a clue as to what’s going on here. Or at least we think we do.

 

From my perspective, it seems blatantly obvious that WandaVision is a story about what happens when someone with the ability to manipulate the very fabric of reality becomes so stricken with grief that they form a new reality around them. And there are clues sprinkled throughout the first two episodes that this is exactly what’s going on. Wanda, unable to process the horror of losing her one true love—indeed, of being forced to kill him herself—has snapped. Unable to cope with the real world, she creates her own world to occupy, a world whose picket fences and goofball antics are all informed by the classic sitcoms she saw in her youth. It’s important to remember that Wanda grew up in war-torn Eastern Europe, and as such never had the idyllic suburban life she’s attempting to fabricate. So any sort of normal life is, for her, purely fantasy.

 

So it makes sense that when reality begins to intrude upon that fantasy, she rejects it, once again reforming the world around her into something she can once again cope with. We see this at one point when Wanda simple exclaims, “No!” and literally rewinds the tape on her sitcom life, only to reshape it into something a little more colorful and a little more congruous with her 

unexpected pregnancy.

 

It all sounds a little trite, but series creator/writer Jac Schaeffer and Episode 1 & 2 director Matt Shakman so fully and sincerely commit to the classic Dick Van Dyke Show/ Bewitched/I Dream of Jeannie tone, style, presentation, and aesthetic for so much of the running time—without a hint of spoof or parody—that you can’t help but be drawn into it. When the series ventures more toward Twilight Zone territory, as it does when

Wanda’s grasp on her faux-reality begins to slip, it’s as disconcerting for the viewer as it is for the characters.

 

Of course, that’s simply my take after two episodes. It’s entirely possible MCU mastermind Kevin Feige has constructed a trap for us comic-book fans, leading us astray with red herrings before yanking the rug out from under our collective feet, leaving us exactly as disoriented as I would imagine most casual viewers are after having sat through the first two episode of this weird experiment. Maybe this isn’t all Wanda’s delusion. Maybe she isn’t shaping reality around her. Maybe it’s—who knows?—aliens tinkering with her brain. Or maybe it’s a Truman Show sort of thing.

 

All I can say for sure is that, two episodes in, I’m utterly intrigued by WandaVision and can’t wait for it all to unfold. My first inclination was to think that perhaps Disney+ should have broken with tradition and dumped all nine episodes into our laps at once. The more I think about, though, the more I realize the weeklong break between episodes is an absolute necessity, giving me time to re-watch, to ponder, to reflect, and indeed to discuss what’s happened thus far before diving into the next chapter in this slow-burn psychological mystery.

 

Again, by the time all nine episodes are available, it could all end up being one big exercise in pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook, à la Tenet. Or it could be one of the most brilliant TV series to come along in years. And the wait to find out which it is consumes me like an itch I just can’t quite reach. But for now, I find myself in a Schrödinger’s Cat superposition of fascination and skepticism. It’s difficult for me to imagine any corporate machine pulling off an act of truly artistic surrealism of the sort WandaVision seems to be. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that they’re pulling it off so far.

 

And that’s largely due to not only the success of the aesthetic and stylistic conceit but also the delightful performances across the board. You could easily splice stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany into old footage of classic TV shows and anyone who didn’t know the actors already wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Kathryn Hahn is also an absolute tour de force in the role of Agnes, the nosy next-door neighbor who definitely has a major part to play in this mystery. (Indeed, most comic-book fans will have likely figured out who she is by the end of the second episode, but I won’t spoil that surprise.)

 

But world-class acting alone isn’t enough to sustain a series that’s attempting to take as big a bite as this one is. So, more than anything, I hope WandaVision doesn’t end up choking. Because if the MCU is to remain interesting, it absolutely must keep taking artistic risks like this.

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.

Zenimation

Zenimation

We are big fans of sound design here at Cineluxe, as a good audio mix reproduced on a well-designed home theater draws you into the fictional world and helps you appreciate films on a deeper level. But the work that goes into crafting the many layers of a rich, detailed, and organic sound mix—especially the often intricate and minute sounds created by the Foley artists (a term that is likely known by most readers, but definitely well worth exploring here if you aren’t familiar)—are often buried beneath the score, dialogue, or other effects in a scene.

 

We often focus on feature-length movies or series here, as well as programming that is almost exclusively in 4K HDR with a lossless Dolby Atmos surround mix, but the new short series Zenimation is such a master class in audio appreciation that it 

was worth highlighting.

 

Currently available only on Disney+, the show description says, “Unplug, relax, and refresh your senses for a moment of mindfulness with Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Zenimation—an animated soundscape experience. . . . These iconic scenes become an aural experience like no other with the sounds of ocean waves, an icy forest, and soaring flight. Zenimation pays tribute to both the visual and sound artists who have created Walt Disney Animation Studios’ legacy of films.”

 

And before you start in that you don’t have the time to watch another new series, relax! Zenimation requires an incredibly minimal time commitment, with the entire series taking less than an hour to watch.

 

Mindfulness is one of those terms that has become increasingly popular in the stress-filled times we currently

ZENIMATION AT A GLANCE

Sequences from Disney cartoons stripped of all audio save their sound effects and grouped by moods give you an opportunity to relax and appreciate the art of Foley at the same time.

 

PICTURE     

HD video presented at 2.35:1, but given that most of the content isn’t widescreen, it might have been better framed at 16:9.

 

SOUND     

These videos are really all about the sound, and they upmix nicely, but won’t exactly test the limits of your system.

live in. Wikipedia defines it as “the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment, which one develops through the practice of meditation and through other training.”

 

Zenimation is presented in HD with a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital audio mix and is broken into 10 parts: Water, Cityscapes, Discovery, Flight, Explore, Night, Nature, Serenity, Water Realms, and Levity. The shortest episodes last just four minutes, and the longest only seven.

 

All episodes feature beloved Disney characters such as Moana, Ariel, Elsa, Aladdin, and Judy Hopps, focusing on scenes and moments germane to that episode’s subject. My only real complaint is that they chose to show everything with letterbox bars, retaining a 2.35:1 aspect ratio throughout. That would be fine if all the content were native 2.35:1, but a fair bit of it is 16:9 (or less) which means pillar-boxing (black bars on all four sides) the image. Perhaps keeping the constant vertical height is a better way of staying in the mindfulness zone, but I would have preferred the 16:9 content filled the screen. 

 

Also, since much of this content already exists on Disney+ in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos audio (even older titles like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid), it would have been nice if they would have just pulled scenes from these titles for a better overall presentation. Instead, we are limited to the audio and video resolutions of The Rescuers Down Under, Tarzan, Lilo and Stitch, and some of the other older titles.

 

Those nits aside, these scenes stripped of music, other effects, and dialogue with the Foley effects amplified allow you to focus on the specific sound elements that help bring each scene alive, and the scenes flow nicely from one to the next. Remember, unlike a live-action movie, in animation, no sound is captured “on set,” and every bit of audio is created to bring the scene and the animated world to life.

 

Clearly hear the rippling sounds paddles make as they pull through in the water, the drips of splashing wave droplets, or bubbles drifting up past characters underwater. Some of my favorite audio moments are from Moana, such as the scene on her boat. Note the sounds of her stitching and pulling the thread through the sail, pulling ropes on the boat, and the wind billowing and creaking all around. 

 

Outdoor scenes let you appreciate sounds of birds chirping off in the distance well outside your main left/right speakers, the rustle of leaves as you pass through a forest, the sounds of birds flapping overhead, along with the sounds of rain and crashing thunder.

 

Not all of the sonic moments are about bombast, but many allow you to appreciate the subtleties and nuance of the mix. Notice the echoing of Anna’s footsteps inside Elsa’s immense ice castle, the delicate rustle of grass beneath Rapunzel’s feet, the tonal change of the fire crackling on Moana’s torch as she walks from a cramped cave into a large cavern, or the spark of fire and smoke trailing from an incense stick Mulan lights. Or discern the distinctly different sounds used for shooting stars, all of which convey the same sense of motion but with a different feeling.

 

While Zenimation doesn’t employ an immersive object-audio mix, the upmixer in a modern surround processor does a capable job of positioning appropriate sounds overhead. You’ll hear the screams of eagles, fireworks exploding, wind whistling and rushing past, birds chirping, the ringing of bells from Quasimodo’s tower, as well as rain droplets and water splashes. There is also a nice amount of deep bass courtesy of things like the deep cascade of waterfalls, the stampede of animals, or the crackling of stones and boulders.

 

Zenimation gives movie lovers a fun and creative way to understand the audio elements and sound-design work that goes into crafting a film’s sonic world, helping you appreciate the art of filmmaking. And with the whole series taking less than an hour to watch, there’s no excuse not to check it out. 

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.