Warner Home Video
Cast: Emmy Rossum, Gerard Butler, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver
Extras: Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Sing Along, Trailer
Among their first prong of HD-DVD releases, Warner Home Video has prepared a disc featuring the movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom Of The Opera." As you may recall I did like this film version quite a bit when it appeared on DVD some time ago and I was truly eager to see how the films translates into the realms of high definition. Given its effective atmospheric lighting and the lush production design it should no doubt make for a stellar presentation.
Based on Gaston Leroux's wonderful book, "The Phantom Of The Opera" tells the story of Christine, a young opera singer who is being taught by an elusive, mysterious man, haunting the Paris Opera House. He is referred to as the Phantom of the Opera as no one knows his identity and no one has really seen him. In letters he directs Christine's career and forces the owners of the opera house to give her a chance at stardom. After a spectacular performance one day, he reveals himself to Christine, hoping that apart from her gratefulness and admiration he could also win her love. Unfortunately the phantom is disfigured and when Christine sees his true face she is in horror for a brief moment. Long enough however to absolutely infuriate the irascible phantom, who now feels betrayed and jealous of Christine's young lover and thus he unleashes a fury of hate and horror out of his rejection and loneliness onto the opera house, going as far as kidnapping Christine.
The first and most important thing I noticed about this movie production of the musical is that it has lost nothing of its splendor, beauty and charm. This is still the Phantom the way we know it from the stage production – only a lot more intimate. Whereas in the stage production your point of view is locked down to your seat, in this film adaptation director Joel Schumacher now uses the camera to maximize the emotional and visual impact of scenes. As a result the viewer truly feels part of each scene and not so much a distant observer. It serves the story very well giving additional depth and drama.
The cast performances are very good throughout. Christine is portrayed by Emmy Rossum in a great performance that conjures up memories of Sara Brightman in the part. The Phantom is played by Gerard Butler who's voice was the only shortcoming in the film, I thought. In lower registers his voice is rich and powerful but in the higher registers, which he requires very frequently in the part, his voice does not have the strength and texture that would be required. In fact I found it a bit jarring at times. Minnie Driver plays the Italian diva Carlotta with gusto like a dervish and Miranda Richardson excels once again as Madame Giry.
The production design of the film is lush to say the least. Colorful and splendid it nicely replaces the stage sets with real live settings and backdrops that have depth and detail, adding to the flair of the film. The cinematography is also rich, making great use of the sets and creating a lot of atmosphere. More than once the filmmakers also seem to have borrowed from Ronny Yu's masterpiece "The Phantom Lover," a free, but wonderful Hong Kong adaptation of the Phantom story, as the camera evokes emotions and drama with its beautiful pictures. Costumes are also wonderfully glorious further adding a layer of beauty to the production, which all culminates, of course, in the masterful performance of the music.
Now on to the high definition technical aspects of the release, which I am sure you are very eager to hear about. Using the same master that was used for the DVD version nothing has changed in terms of the transfer itself, which was stellar to begin with. Instead of down converting it for the DVD however, here we have the original transfer in its full 1920×1080 pixel splendor. Now, if you have enjoyed high definition broadcasts before, you sort of get the idea what a movie in high definition can look like. Sort of, because this is an entirely different beast and because high definition broadcasts are actually pretty bad high def.
Just as your standard cable signal is horrendously flawed so is your high defintion cable signal – and we all know how bad cable television looks compared to a high end source like DVD. The same is true with the high definition programming you are receiving. The image is horribly over-compressed and the signal degraded, making it an enjoyable experience but nowhere near as good as high definition should look like.
Enter dedicated high end high definition video platforms like HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, and seeing "The Phantom Of The Opera" on this HD-DVD release is truly a revelation as to what high definition is actually capable of. The image reveals a staggering amount of detail that simply takes you aback the first time you see it. Even the most subtle details in the picture are wonderfully reproduced and things like aliasing of angled lines or moiré artifacts in finely textured parts of the image are clearly a thing of the past. The thing that is most striking to those familiar with high definition broadcasts however is the fact that the image never loses this level of detail. Even in moments with lots of activity or fast camera movements the image is always clearly rendered and free of any blurring.
It will, of course, take some time to be able to properly evaluate the quality of a high definition picture and as reviewers we will have to train our eyes for particular artifacts and problem areas that are specific to these new presentation formats. Compression artifacts that are causing serious image degradation on a standard definition DVD picture may no longer be as obvious in high definition. Slight macro-blocking, for example, is much harder to catch because the macro block itself is now only about a quarter the size of what it used to be on DVD. Having said that, I was unable to catch any compression artifacts or edge-enhancement artifacts on this transfer. There was glitch at one point during the presentation in which the video broke up for a moment, serious macro-blocking appeared but after the next keyframe, everything was back to normal. I was unable to reproduce the problem so it is clearly a hardware problem with the first-generation Toshiba player that we used for the review and it actually happened sporadically on all HD-DVD discs we viewed on the player so far.
Colors in this presentation are equally impressive and again even the most subtle changes in hue and saturation are coming through nicely, making it quite a sight to behold. But it is the overall color faithfulness and richness that issimply amazing here. So sharply delineated and vivid, colors truly seem to leap off the screen at all times. Because "The Phantom Of The Opera" is a very stylized film with many beautifully choreographed and atmospheric shots it is easy to completely absorbed in the beauty of this transfer that brings out every little detail and tinge in the production. From the smallest wrinkles in the clothing to the most colorful and opulent moments during the opera scenes, this transfer has what it takes to get even casual viewers interested in high definition, no doubt, especially when seen side-by-side with the DVD version. I did that out of curiosity and truly, the difference is remarkable. Color saturation, image delineation and of course the level of detail make this a whole new experience adding a whole new level of depth to the production.
HD-DVD offers a number of audio formats, some of which are optional, others are required for these releases. Apart from the 5.1 channel Dolby Digital tracks that have been previously found on the DVD release, this HD-DVD from Warner Home Video also offers a Dolby Digital True HD track. This means that here we have a losslessly encoded 5.1 channel audio track – for the first time in home video. Gone forever are problems of collapsing channels, problematic soundstages and aural textures that lose definition, clarity and detail because of the compression process. While the benefits of a lossless audio track may not be immediately audible and apparent upon casual listening, they will become abundantly clear once you visit material that relies on such subtleties. Sadly no hardware is in the market at this point to support the TrueHD format, but this will surely change shortly.
I chose to review "The Phantom Of The Opera" as the first title because it is a film that makes such great use of music and therefore lends itself to audible differences in the audio tracks. Running the Dolby Digital Plus track with increased bandwidth through the player's analog outputs the differences were indeed easy to spot – and that even though the digital-analog converter found in the player are probably not even remotely of the quality you would find in a dedicated receiver so I expect further improvement here in the future by using better, external AD-converters.
The difference in the audio quality presents itself in an added liveliness. Part of the standard Dolby Digital encoding is that dynamics are lost to a degree and in the DD Plus track these subtle dynamic nuances suddenly spring to life, giving the track a quality that is richer in tone and overall clarity. Again, these improvements are not something that will stop anyone in their tracks but is you do side-by-side comparisons of the different formats the difference is immediately noticeable even to the untrained ear I would say.
The HD-DVD version contains all the extras previously found on the 2-disc DVD Special Edition. The advantage here is, of course, that with HD-DVD all these extras fit onto a single disc alongside the high definition transfer of the movie.
However, the bonus materials have been encoded in the traditional 480i standard definition on the release. The reasons for this are probably manifold. First of all, there's only so much money a studio can invest in these projects so early into the lifecycle of the platform and secondly in many instances video-taped documentary footage may not even exist in high definition format. So it has to be up-converted one way or another. By adding these features in standard definition the studio an effectively save storage space and the result is ultimately the same in those cases.
After seeing the film in high definition and then visiting the bonus materials in upconverted standard definition format once again give you a taste for the difference of the quality high definition can make. The bonus materials suddenly appear dull and washed out with your mind still fresh from the intricately detailed feature presentation.
"Behind The Mask: The Story Of The Phantom Of The Opera" is a one-hour documentary on the origins of the stage production. Featuring plenty of interviews with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and other members of the original production you get to see how the idea came about, how it was slowly forming as a production and how things went from an inspiration to the most successful musical of all times.
"The Making Of The Phantom Of The Opera" is a three-part featurette covering the aspects of bringing this hugely successful show to the silver screen. In detail we get to see here how the production was prepared, how director Joel Schumacher worked to find the right tone and groove for the film and how it was ultimately all put together. The featurettes feature plenty of behind the scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew members, creating a very detailed and informative look behind the scenes.
Also included on the releases is "No One Would Listen" an additional musical scene that is not included in the final cut of the movie. A Sing-Along and the movie's trailer are also included as well as a link to Warner Brothers' HD-DVD section of their website.
Navigation on the disc is provided through on-screen menus. Unlike DVD, HD-DVD no allows for on the fly menuing, which means that the menu pops up on top of the feature presentation and allows you to navigate while the movie is still running. That however, is both a blessing and a curse, depending on your point of view. Personally I am not a big fan of the movie continuing to run while I browse menus and submenus, especially when the menus cover more than half the screen as is the case on this disc. Some of you may feel the same way, others won't, so it is clearly a matter of personal preference, and a matter of how it is being used. The menu itself on this release is fairly bland. HD-DVD does allow for some customization of the menus but here the studio kept things simple. However I have no doubt that in the future we will see menus that are much more integrated with the feature presentation and probably a bit more "bouncy." I have seen remarkable menus on Blu-Ray and I hope that eventually HD-DVD menus will also be able to go down this more elaborate route. For the time being things are failry simple and have to – at least until Toshiba has actually implemented the format's full functionality through a firmware upgrade. Until then everyone has to play it safe to make sure discs run properly on these limited capability first-generation players.
I still have gripes with the packaging. Smaller and slimmer than you standard DVD packaging, a number of problems that were inherent in DVD cases have sadly been carried over here without much thought. Discs can still come lose in their packaging very easily. Just close the case. Give it a firm press in the center of the cover and voila, the disc springs from its holder. I have not tested it but I would suspect that scratched disc will have a much higher fail rate on HD-DVD than traditional DVD because of the increased data throughput that one would think that after years of scratched discs bouncing around brand-new cases someone would have put some effort into fixing the problem.
The other problem is that in the very near future we will see the same sticker-mania with these cases as we see on DVD where three sides are virtually glued shut in new product. This is to prevent people from stealing discs out of the unopened case by simply slitting open the shrink wrap and removing the disc from the inside. The same problem exists here and again one would have though that someone would have had the forethought to create and approve a case that makes that impossible by design. Other than that, the future evidently does not hold thick booklet as extras inside HD-DVD releases. Because of the slim cases, it is not possible to add more than a simple single-sheet or 4-page folder. And overall, the case simply feel flimsy in my opinion and there should have been better alternatives around.
The high definition presentation of "The Phantom Of The Opera" is pretty much exactly as I had expected. It is a solid transfer that nicely shows what a difference the added resolution can make. The title selection is also very good as this is a lush film with a strong emphasis on the audio, which helps show off some of the subtle differences in the audio department that HD-DVD has to offer. Overall it is an absolutely solid and convincing release that sets a good foundation for the high definition future and customer expectations. Over time things will get only better – though there will be some serious missteps as well, no doubt – and transfers will become even better over time, features will become more elaborate and tailored to the format's actual capabilities, making it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Will it instantaneously convert people to high definition? Probably not, but it will make people look at it and go, "Wow, it sure does look nice." Whether it is worth the price of admission is everyone's own decision from there, of course.