Dinosaur Review (Blu-ray)

The agonizingly long wait for Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s (BVHE) Blu-ray debut is finally over with this week’s release of Dinosaur, Eight Below, The Great Raid and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. With this first wave, BVHE has taken the Blu-ray format into new territory with exclusive 1080p high definition bonus features, instant access to key home theater demo scenes, and some of the most stellar imagery and aural punch a Blu-ray Disc player has spun yet.

Dinosaur in particular was cut from a cloth destined for high definition viewing with larger than life CGI characters and a blend of animated and real life geographic locations and effects drawn from an all-digital source. It may not have the notoriety of other upcoming all-CGI animated features like Chicken Little and Ice Age: The Meltdown, but as the first CGI feature out the gate this moderately successful Disney film will find itself in the crosshairs of all early Blu-ray Disc adopters.

My first exposure to Dinosaur was via a nearly five-minute Internet trailer comprised of the entire opening scene in which an iguanodon dinosaur egg is spared from an attack by a massive carnotaur, then carried to an island inhabited by lemurs via a pterodactyl and various other prehistoric creatures. In this scene, the pterodactyl flies through spectacular vistas and over the ocean in a seamless juxtaposition of animated dinosaurs against real world backdrops. Its awe-inspiring imagery was unlike anything shot before and set high expectations another Disney masterpiece was born.

Upon viewing the full feature film for the first time on DVD, I shared the same lukewarm reaction as many of my colleagues. While visual innovations were expanded upon including a dramatic nighttime meteor shower, the story borrows too heavily from its Disney brother films, most notably The Lion King. Many of the Dinosaur character arcs are nearly identical to those found on Pride Rock, down to the main character Aladar. He’s the iguanodon from the well traveled egg and like Simba from The Lion King, is raised away from his kind only to return to them and come of age by standing up to a bully leader too pigheaded to realize survival of the fittest ideals are killing the herd. Utilizing the same framework for Dinosaur as in The Lions King might have resulted in similar box office success if Dinosaur’s characters had the sass, singing skills and mobility of the lions and hyenas found on Pride Rock. It can be torturous at times watching giant lethargic beasts stumble across a barren wasteland in search of coveted “nesting grounds” for two thirds of a film.

Although the DVD video presentation was brilliant in its own right, I still found myself fidgeting through the pilgrimage to the “nesting grounds” until something exciting happened. In high definition, my wayward attention dramatically shifts to the intimate detail this blemish-free MPEG-2 encoded 1080p transfer uncovers for the first time. It’s amazing to stare at textured dinosaur skin or wrinkles on the lemur faces when the camera pulls in tight, or to marvel at the cinematographic effort put into creating an amazingly realistic depth of field through heavy contrast, shadows and the aforementioned blend of live action and CGI elements. Speaking of contrast, properly displaying blacks in dimly lit scenes can often sink an otherwise solid transfer. Any fears of this visual injustice are put to rest early when the lemurs descend upon the alien iguanodon egg under moonlight. At no time during this scene do the blacks break up or succumb to heinous blocking. Shortly thereafter, the king reference scene that tests every enemy of video compression reigns supreme as the meteor shower illuminates the black skies in a colorful fiery conclusion to the first act.

Realizing “Dinosaur’s” importance as the first animated film released on Blu-ray or HD DVD and its relatively short running time of 104 minutes, BVHE went the extra yard and pumped up the volume so-to-speak with a PCM 5.1 channel 48 kHz, 24-bit uncompressed audio track, whereas the other three launch titles are presented a notch lower at 48 kHz 16-bit. The resulting audio immersion in a prehistoric land is as equally impressive as the MPEG-2 transfer. As the largest of the meteors strikes the ocean and sends a shockwave through Lemur Island, it serves as a rumbling wakeup call to anyone who to that point found childish lemur antics boring. No carnotaur or iguanodon roar, shuffling of giant dinosaur hoofs on shifting rocks, or gentle breezes through dense foliage fail to take advantage of the entire sound field in a perfectly balanced and audible sense. DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks are also available but effectively pointless due to the superiority of the uncompressed lossless track.

Additional features are slimmer than those found on the two-disc collector’s edition DVD set, but at the same time offer a few new things that set did not. First is an exclusive Blu-scape original film presented in 1080p high definition titled “Origins” that provides a journey through many of the exotic Hawaiian locales used in filming Dinosaur. Director Louie Schwartzberg’s aerial tour will appease mostly to high definition television owners often caught watching geographic shows on The Discovery Channel for a quick HD fix.

Presented in 1080i resolution is another new extra feature not found on the DVD, The Monster Cloud. This rather brief featurette explores the diverse special effects techniques employed to bring the amazing meteor shower to life.

The next additional feature, which looks to become a fixture in BVHE Blu-ray releases, triggers a touch of nostalgia dating back to TheManRoom early days in 2001. When we initially launched our first DVD reviews, we included a space to display the top chapters for surround sound and low frequency effects (LFE, or bass) as an aid for ManRoom owners looking for quick access to demo material. BVHE’s Movie Showcase is essentially the same thing. It offers quick links to the top three scenes that provide the best in audio and video playback. For “Dinosaur” those scenes are the first carnosaur attack, the pterodactyl flight with the egg and the meteor shower. We phased-out our top demo chapter listings long ago, but it’s refreshing to see the idea re-emerge and I suspect many home theater owners will take advantage of it.

Also included is an Audio Commentary featuring Co-Directors Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton, Digital Effects Supervisor Neil Eskuri and Visual Effects Supervisor Neil Krepela. This quirky roundtable of filmmakers was included in the last DVD release and teeters between stepping into technical territory most audiences won’t and don’t want to hear about, and discussing basic plot devices in elementary language clearly targeted at children. Overall these guys are entertaining enough to stick around and hear them out, especially during the big audio/video showcase scenes.

The MPEG-2 codec has come under intense fire for being selected on several lackluster Blu-ray transfers in previous months. I’m confident this is finally the transfer that will put that tired dispute to bed. Even if a retelling of The Lion King Circle of Life story with oversized leathery beasts isn’t your cup of tea, the “Dinosaur” high definition transfer lives up to the lofty expectations of the first CGI feature on either HD format, and packs a powerful gravy audio track as well. Thus far, Dinosaur is the Blu-ray transfer to beat, and certainly should not be passed up by any early Blu-ray Disc adopter.

– Dan Bradley

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