Friday, January 8, 2010

Blu-ray Review: Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side

Few television series have as checkered a history as Family Guy. I mean, the show was canceled twice and resurrected via DVD sales. Since its return, however, the quality has been gradually declining with recycled gags and the writers opting for so-stupid-it’s-funny humor. Then again, this review isn’t for the series of Family Guy, it’s for the latest Star Wars homage, Something, Something, Something Dark Side. Unfortunately the follow-up to the very successful, very funny Blue Harvest falls prey to the same pitfalls the series is experiencing.

Let me be perfectly clear before we get on with this review. Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side is a scene by scene tribute to Empire Strikes Back. It was lovingly put together by a crew who obviously have a deep passion for Star Wars. Painstaking detail went into just about every scene here and so many are faithful representations of the Lucas original, just in Family Guy animated form. Kudos must go to the team for that effort. Seriously, this is an amazing release in that sense. If you love Star Wars and like Family Guy then you’ll want to check this release out on that point alone. The disappointment sets in when you come to this release hoping for something as fresh and fun as Blue Harvest. Dark Side just is not as funny and doesn’t pop as well, despite the effort.

It all begins deep in space with an Imperial ship launching some probe droids while looking for the rebels. Luke Skywalker (Chris) is searching the planet called Hoth when he sees one of the probes, but is attacked by the Cookie Monster, er...I mean wampa. Meanwhile Captain Spicy Weiner (AKA Han Solo – played by Peter) is making to get off the icy rock, but he winds up getting roped into saving Luke. Soon enough Vader (Stewie) and the Empire find their way to Hoth, Luke leaves to find Yoda (played weakly by Chris’ old boss), and we all end up in Cloud City to watch Han frozen in carbonite.

If there was any doubt in your mind, rest assured that Something, Something, Something Dark Side indeed rips nearly every scene from Empire Strikes Back. The only real difference is that this version is condensed to be bones of the story and Family Guy’s brand of humor is infused throughout. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t.

If you’ve seen Family Guy at all then you should know what to expect. There’s the old banged knee gag, Peter versus the Chicken (Boba Fett), and all manner of random things that really have no place being there. For instance, early on in the film Peter breaks into a spoof of a Juicy Fruit commercial. Then there’s a guy who walks around the rebel base asking if anyone wants some ice, and Chris’ training with Yoda turns into a montage from Rocky IV. Again, this is atypical of what we’ve come to expect from the show, but there were far too many moments that I’m sure sounded funnier on paper than they actually were after production.

With the bad part out of the way I’m pleased to say that there are some truly inspired moments here that will cause viewers to burst out laughing and spit beverages from your nose, should they happen to be drinking at the time. There’s a maniacal genius to the script here at some points, and many of Dark Side’s better jokes are pulled off quite deftly. It’s just a shame that the breakdown between what’s hilarious and not is about 60/40.

Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side is presented on blu-ray with a 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. That’s right, you read that correctly. Despite the fact that this is a direct-to-DVD/Blu-ray release MacFarlane and company went with full-screen. Still, this is about as good as Family Guy has ever looked in all honestly.

The disc features a full 1080p and comes with AVC encoding. As one would expect, the picture quality is razor sharp, the colors are ultra bright, and the contrast holds up very well. Black levels are rich and all around the designs are top notch with fantastic recreations of the source Star Wars film. Despite the near flawless presentation there are some light shimmer and very minor compression artifacts at a few points. By comparison, however, the Blu-ray is decidedly better than the standard definition DVD so if you have the option definitely go for this one.

The audio for Something, Something, Something Dark Side comes in the form of a DTS-HD Master 5.1 track. The quality of the sound for this Blu-ray is decidedly better than anything we’ve heard from Family Guy before. The track is clean, robust, and uses all channels quite well, though to be fair the front channels shoulder most of the weight. John William’s epic score rings through loud and clear, sounding almost as good as the Star Wars DVDs themselves. If I were to fault this disc for anything it would only be that the dialogue was a smidge out of balance compared to the sound effects and music. Voices rang through louder than they probably should have, but that’s an extremely minor grievance. A slew of subtitle tracks are included for this release as well.

The extra features on this Blu-ray release of Dark Side are definitely worth digging through. For starters there is a second disc included here with a digital copy of the film to download to your PC. Beyond that the main disc offers an audio commentary which includes Executive Producers Seth MacFarlane, Mark Hentemann and David A. Goodman, Director Dominic Polcino, Writer Kirker Butler, and Actor Seth Green. Going into this commentary I was hoping it would be full of insight into the production of the film and maybe a discussion loaded with references to Star Wars. While some of that exists here, the majority of this commentary is the guys poking fun at each other and laughing at their own jokes. It grated on the nerves after a while and I dare say that only the most stalwart Family Guy fans will want to listen through to the end.

Beyond the commentary there’s a “Fact-up” track that runs the course of the movie as well. With this feature enable pop-up like snippets of information appear on the screen at random times. The content is split between those that deal with Family Guy and those that focus on Star Wars. This track was far more informative and interesting than the supplied audio commentary. “The Dark Side of the Poster Art” (9:18) features Character Designer Mick Cassidy and Painter Joe Vaux talking about how they created the poster cover art for Dark Side. It’s pretty interesting to see the evolution of the sketch to final product, but the fact that they are shirtless for most of the feature is a little disconcerting.

“Animatic Scene-to-Scene with Commentary by Director Dominic Polcino” (6:36) was a nice storyboard piece that compared black and white pencil sketches to the final product. It really gives one a strong impression for how the film and many of the scenes came together. After the animatics there are two table readings of both Dark Side and the upcoming conclusion to the trilogy, We Have a Bad Feeling About This. The Dark Side reading takes both acts and squishes them together with a runtime shortly less than the final product. In case you don’t know what a table reading is, basically picture a smallish conference room with about 70 people packed into it with scripts, reading along as the voice cast does their thing. It’s entertaining for a while, but it’s a little drier than watching the animated version. As far as what we see of Episode VI, well, maybe it will be better with animation as well.

All in all Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side is a worthy addition to the libraries of fans of Family Guy and Star Wars alike. It’s downright hilarious at times and the production crew’s hard work with recapturing the smallest details from Empire Strikes Back simply has to be seen to be believed. With that being said a great portion of this release’s humor falls flat on its face with many jokes that barely go so far as to elicit a chuckle. Expect to laugh really hard and then stare at the TV with a blank expression. Despite the lack of balance this release is still recommended and the Blu-ray is by far the edition of choice.

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