Well, we all knew it would happen eventually. Realistic looking computer generated actors starring in a movie. No trailers, no demands. It costs 140 million dollars to make them and their world in "Final Fantasy", though. So, I don't think you'll be seeing any indie flicks with computer generated actors for a while. Yet, for all of the visionary technical work done for this picture, the screenplay does sort of stick to a more primitive storyline, taking from several other sci-fi pictures, most noticably Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element" (this is sort of "The Eighth Element", I guess).
I've said before that visual effects can't make up for a generic story. I've just been proven wrong. Brought to life by a team of a couple of hundred animators, the barren cities are visually astounding - a shot of a flare raining down in the darkness of an early sequence is visually stunning. The story is that humans (the few survivors left) live in domed cities, surrounded by force fields. The fields protect against alien "phantoms" that had landed on Earth years earlier, killing off much of the world's population. How they were able to construct these domes that quickly is a question that came to mind, but oh well. Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na, who also voiced "Mulan" and whose character looks like Piper Perabo from "Coyote Ugly") is attempting, along with Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) to find the remaining 3 of the eight "spirits" of the Earth that, when combined, will form a wave that will take out the aliens.
Elsewhere, General Hein (James Woods) is under the belief that the Zeus Cannon, a weapon under development, will be able to simply wipe out the aliens by shooting it directly into the crater where the alien meteor landed. The weapon may be too powerful though, and destroy the planet. Aided by ex-flame Captain Grey (Alec Baldwin) and her crew, the group attempts to save the planet in their own way before Hein is able to use the Zeus. Aki has several dreams about the alien planet and although she can't tell what they mean, she knows that they will lead her to the answer.
Are the animated characters convincing? Well, you can certainly tell that they are animated, but at least they have smooth, realistic movements and quite a bit of subtle detail. The animation is certainly leaps and bounds beyond anything previously seen - but there are some little faults; occasionally, the mouth movements while the characters are talking aren't quite in sync. The "phantoms", who take on all different shapes, are a bit too convincingly presented, especially when they take the spirit from a human character. The film is rated PG-13 and rightly so. Although older children might be okay, the youngest children will definitely have nightmares if they watch this picture.
The actors who provide the vocals do a mixed job of it; Baldwin does another spin off of his gruff characters in recent films like "Cats and Dogs". Ming-Na brings genuine emotion to some occasionally slightly hokey "spiritual" dialogue, as does Sutherland. Steve Buscemi brings some needed humor to his scenes, as well. In a film like this one where there character development is minimal at best and dialogue is rather weak, it's really necessary for actors to bring as much as possible to make us care about their characters. Although I've praised "Final Fantasy" as being a fast-paced picture, part of me wonders if too much plot and character development may have been edited out, as some plot pieces occasionally don't feel entirely explained.
I definitely wouldn't call "Final Fantasy" a classic of cinema, but it's a picture that signals an introduction (as did "Shrek", to a lesser extent) of what animation can become. If it wasn't for the mediocre and not fully-developed screenplay though, "classic" might be a term within the picture's reach.
VIDEO: "Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by the studio. Taken direct from the digital source, the animated picture looks simply stunning throughout the entire film, with only a few tiny problems keeping the film's visual presentation from perfection. Sharpness and detail are absolutely marvelous, as every detail of the film's stunning animation is clearly visible here.
My comments about the problems with the DVD's image quality will be very short. As the film has been transfered from the digital source, there are no print flaws. The complete absence of any sort of speckles or other distracting wear makes for an enjoyable viewing experience, as does the lack of edge enhancement. In fact, the only problem that I noticed certainly wasn't much of one at all; I saw a couple of tiny traces of pixelation. That's it, that's all. "Final Fantasy" looked nearly flawless.
Colors were certainly one of the presentation's strongest elements. Looking vibrant, bright and rich, colors remained flawless throughout. Black level was strong throughout, as well. As with the film's tremendous audio quality, the video quality is magnificent.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and quite simply, ranks among the best soundtracks I've heard lately. It comes right after a similarly breathtaking audio experience provided by "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace". Highly agressive and wildly enveloping without being overly busy, the soundtrack is a masterful effort from sound designer Randy Thom and crew (DVD fans will likely be familar with Thom from his award-winning work on "Cast Away" and his excellent commentary on the film's DVD). Thom's previous experience as sound designer of films like "The Frighteners" and "Starship Troopers" makes him the perfect candidate to create the audio environments of the worlds of "Final Fantasy" and he certainly doesn't dissapoint.
The film's action sequences are astounding in terms of agressive sound use. Surrounds are extremely agressive and are often full-throttle with sound effects. Even the more subdued sequences of the film mostly provide strong ambient touches. Even details like in scenes where a ship is being shaken are quite convincing, as sound effects seemed "realistic".
Sound quality was exceptional, as Elliot Goldenthal's dramatic score filled the room with authority, but didn't get in the way of the film's sound effects and dialogue - none of the elements overshadow the other. Several sequences also provide very powerful low-bass. This is definitely a fantastic audio presentation that will very likely serve as demo material for many. A note: the default track is unfortunately English Dolby 2.0. Make sure the audio is changed to 5.1 before the movie begins, either with the remote or via the menu.
MENUS:: The menus are positively superb, offering animation that was done specifically for the DVD. Both main and sub-menus contain beautiful animation and there's nice transitions between menus, as well.
Commentaries: The DVD contains 2 full-length commentary tracks and one isolated score with commentary. The first track offers discussion from sequence supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, co-director Motonori Sakakibara, sets & props lead artist Tatsuro Maruyama, and "Phantom" supervisor Takoo Noguchi. These four folks do speak Japanese throughout the track, which is subtitled in English. Although the subtitles might keep some viewers away from this track, that would be unfortunate, because it's a really entertaining commentary. Not only do these four bring a lot of insight about the animation process, they seem as if they're having a lot of fun watching and discussing their work, frequently laughing and making jokes about what's going on on-screen.
The second track features discussion from editor Chris Capp, animation director Andy Jones and staging director Tani Kunitake. This second commentary track was enjoyable in the way that it did provide a strong amount of technical information about the feature, but it also did seem more dry in comparison to the track with the Japanese animators, who seemed to have lots more fun during their discussion. The last track is an isolated score/commentary with composer Elliot Goldenthal, who offers discussion of his inspiration for the film's music in-between when the score plays.
Trailers: Also on the first disc are teaser and theatrical trailers (1.85:1/5.1) for "Final Fantasy", as well as a sneak preview of "Final Fantasy X" (1.85:1/5.1). The full "Final Fantasy" theatrical trailer provides exceptional sound use. Also included are trailers for "Starship Troopers", "Men In Black" and "Metropolis".
Boards/Blasts: This is a pretty fascinating option that's included on the first disc with the feature. It allows the viewer to watch the entire picture in rough form (basic CGI, pencil drawings and other stages) in Dolby 2.0 audio or with an additional production commentary, although this commentary is more scene-specific than screen-specific, with definite gaps between comments. Also available for this edition of the film is a subtitle track, with interesting pop-up comments about the entire feature.
Although the studio has done something similar before by putting on the rough print version of the animated "Heavy Metal" on the disc for that feature, to see all of the rough stages of the amazing animation of "Final Fantasy" is amazing and a wonderful feature.
Also On Disc One: DVD-ROM content, including a virtual tour of Square pictures, the film's screenplay, screensaver, weblinks and other supplemental features.
"Thriller Video": Although this certainly isn't the first feature to start off the set's second disc, I thought I had to discuss it first. A hidden (although extremely so) feature, this is an extremely funny (enough so that I nearly spit out the Diet Coke I was drinking) parody of the Michael Jackson "Thriller" music video, starring the characters of the film.
Interactive "Making Of": This is a nicely produced documentary that starts off rather weakly, but does quickly start to get going and become more informative as it goes along. The effects artists and other members of the creative team discuss in interviews about the creation and ideas behind the picture. Some moments of the documentary are a little too praise-heavy, as the participants occasionally get caught up in discussing how much they enjoyed the film, but these moments are brief; the majority of the documentary is informative about the different steps of the animation process without becoming too heavily technical. The "interactive" feature of the documentary revolves around small images that appear in the lower corner of the picture at different times during the documentary. Clicking will lead the viewer to an additional piece of information such as interviews, then brings the viewer back to the feature where they left off.
Character Bios: Included in this section are seven short featurettes that tell more about the characters and their background. These featurettes also discuss the voice-actor for the character and the animation.
Vehicle Comparisons: This section offers three short featurettes about the different "vehicles" featured in the film and their stats.
Final Fantasy "Shuffler": This section offers the viewer the ability to re-edit the "Confrence Room" sequence that takes place early in the film. A voice-over introduction to the section discusses how the section works, then allows the viewer to shuffle 12 clips from the scene in the order that they want them to play in. The viewer must select the clip first, then any time that the clip is playing, the "enter" button adds that clip into the list of scenes to play. While I'm not sure I'd consider this the best example of the "editing" feature that some DVDs have included (the "edits" weren't quite as seamless as I'd have liked), it's an enjoyable section.
Trailer Exploration: This is a featurette that runs slightly less than 5 minutes (in other words, too short) that explores the progression of the film's trailers and their role in the film's promotional push.
"The Gray Project": Running about 5 1/2 minutes, this featurette offers the film's original animation tests.
Matte Art Exploration: This featurette is an interesting look at the making of the backgrounds of the sequences. An animator leads us through the various steps and elements used to make a particular sequence.
Compositing Builds: A brief featurette with some odd techno in the background, this shows the viewer the different steps of certain sequences and shows the different elements being added into the image - it's fascinating to see the scene start from scratch and become far busier as things are placed in the frame.
Joke Outtakes: Running a couple of minutes in length and only in rough animation form, these intentional "outtakes" from the film are still extremely funny.
Original Opening: The film's original opening sequence is present here. While interesting to watch, the final opening sequence in the film itself presents stronger visuals, more tension and more action.
Complete Aki's Dream: This supplement allows viewers to view Aki's complete dream sequence as a whole, in Dolby Digital 5.1.
More Boards/Blasts: This is an additional short group of rough cuts of sequences.
Also: Production notes.
Final Thoughts: "Final Fantasy" offers amazing computer animation and an extremely fast-paced and often thrilling film, but does unfortunately come up short in terms of dialogue and characters. Although reaction to the film was mixed, given the film's promotional push and strong trailers, I would think that it would have fared better than it did at the box office. Those who haven't seen the film or enjoyed it should certainly seek out the DVD, which offers demo-quality audio/video and loads of supplemental features.
The Film ***
Video 99/A+ = (396/400 possible points)
Audio: 100/A+ = (400/400 possible points)
Extras: 100/A+ = (300/300 possible points)
Menus: 100/A+ = (200/200 possible points)
Value: 95/A = (285/300 possible points)
FILM GRADE: ***
DVD GRADE: A