Disney's Prep & Landing DVD Review

 Most every kid who knows the story of Santa delivering presents to good boys and girls on Christmas Eve has probably, at some point, questioned the logistics of it all. How does Kris Kringle manage to make all of those stops in one night? How does he find the houses when it snows? And, most importantly, how does he get in and out without being seen?

ABC attempted to help parents answer a few of these inevitable questions in 2009 with the animated special “Prep & Landing.” Now available exclusively on DVD (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, MSRP: $19.99), the story follows Wayne (voiced by Dave Foley), an elf with the elite Prep & Landing division at the North Pole. This special force of elves is deployed to houses ahead of Santa to secure the location with military precision, ensuring that the tree and stockings are ready for gifts, the milk is at the optimal temperature and, most importantly, no creatures are stirring.

After 200 years of dousing fires and putting curious pets to sleep, Wayne is ready to move ahead in his career, but instead of the hoped-for promotion to Director of the Naughty List, he gets a new partner freshly graduated from the Kringle Academy.

Where Wayne is jaded and disillusioned, Lanny (voiced by Derek Richardson) is full of Christmas spirit. He’s raring to go, excited to start “the most tinsel job ever.” Upset at being passed over, Wayne decides to let the exuberant newbie handle all the prep work at little Timmy’s house while he indulges in some uncharacteristically naughty behavior. Disaster inevitably strikes, and Santa is about to miss the house entirely when Lanny helps Wayne rediscover his love of the season and they save the day.

Full of charming characters (coffee-fueled Magee, efficient Miss Holly) and witty turns of phrase mixed in with some cool high-tech gadgetry, “Prep & Landing” provides a fresh view of life at the North Pole and is destined to be one of those holiday specials that becomes a tradition, falling somewhere between It’s a Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Fans who might be leery of spending their Christmas cash on a DVD lasting only 22 minutes shouldn’t despair: there are plenty of bonus features to flesh out the disc. First off, “Operation Secret Santa” is a short that follows Lanny and Wayne on a mission filled with secret-agent thrills and sentimentality, made even more awesome by the unmistakable vocal talent of Betty White as Mrs. Claus. About half as long as the movie, “Operation Secret Santa” adds more depth to the story of Santa as well as the two main characters.

By comparison, the short “Tiny’s Big Adventure” is only a few minutes long and mostly one long sight gag. There are a few giggles to be had, but, compared to “Operation Secret Santa,” “Tiny’s Big Adventure” is mostly forgettable.

The other two bonus features—the Kringle Academy Training Videos and North Pole Commercials—are interesting but odd. The training videos are meant to look like they were run on projectors, a concept which is probably confusing to those under the age of 20, and feature artwork reminiscent of old World War II-era recruitment efforts, though they feature very modern technology. The nostalgic flavor will probably appeal more to parents (or grandparents!) than children, but the videos may open up a dialogue about how things were “in the old days” that will bond generations.

The commercials are more modern in tone, but don’t make much sense. A dating service for elves? An eatery called The Fruitcake Factory? A spa retreat for tired elves? None of these seem like they would interest kids (or even adults). They would be cute spaced into the commercial break spots in the main feature, but on their own are a little silly.

Like most Disney releases, there are also the requisite commercials (a teaser for the upcoming Disney Studio All Access service, Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas) and the FastPlay option.

Overall, “Prep & Landing” is a worthy addition to any holiday movie collection. Fans of the original should keep their eyes peeled for the sequel, “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice,” in which Lanny and Wayne must recover top-secret North Pole technology that has fallen into the hands of a naughty kid hacker. The animated special airs Mon., Dec. 5 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.

“Prep & Landing” is now available on DVD.

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The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 should leave fans swooning

The wait is over, Twilight fans. Bella and Edward are getting married!

Wasting no time setting up the ceremony, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 dives right into the pre-wedding prep as Alice (Ashley Greene) directs the setup and Bella (Kristen Stewart) prepares for her last night as a single woman. A last-minute attempt by Edward (Robert Pattinson) to let her off the hook, followed by a disturbing dream sequence, rob Bella of the peaceful sleep she needed before the big day.

The wedding sequence perfectly captures the apprehension of bride-to-be (and vamp-in-waiting) Bella as she starts her life with Edward before ending it as a human. The mix of humor and pathos is just right, and there are enough cameos by favorite characters and new faces to tie the past three movies and the upcoming finale together. The snarky Jessica (Anna Kendrick), in particular, represents the haters with her sweetly sarcastic asides. “I wonder if Bella will be showing?” she muses to Angela (Christian Serratos). “Bella’s not pregnant!” Angela reacts, horrified. “Oh, really?” Jessica replies. “Who gets married at 18?”

The Cullens’ “cousins” are also introduced (a vampire clan from Alaska from which the now-deceased Laurent hailed) and then pushed aside until Part Two next year, when the Great Vampire Battle commences. Until then, a weak effort is made to show how unhappy at least one of the cousins is with the proximity of a werewolf at the wedding.

A brooding Jacob (Taylor Lautner) arrives toward the end of the festivities and gives Bella his opinion of the nuptials and impending change in status to immortal. He inevitably gets pouty, faces off with Edward and runs into the night to sulk and howl at the moon.

Far more engaging is actor Billy Burke, who, as Bella’s long-suffering father and town Chief of Police Charlie, fully embodies the push-and-pull of a father who wants to see his daughter happy but also wants her to know he’s reluctant to let her go, especially as her new husband is whisking her away to parts unknown for their honeymoon.

And what a honeymoon it is! Bella is determined to experience wedded bliss while still human, though Edward feels that he might lose control and hurt his new bride. “I promised I would try this,” he whispers as the two smooch in the moonlight, then retreat to their luxe bedroom suite on their private island.

Twilight fans have been waiting for the consummation of this particular relationship for years, but the payoff seems a bit weak. Do they do the deed? Yes. But for all the violence and passion that purportedly goes on (the bed is in shambles, after all), there is mostly just allusion and a few morning-after flashbacks to satisfy the voyeurs in the crowd. Though, to be fair, it’s far more than Stephenie Meyer gave readers in the book.

Then, everything changes. Somehow Bella ends up pregnant—a fact that neither her husband nor the wolf pack back home is particularly excited about, especially in light of the fact that the baby is growing at an alarming rate and literally crushing her from the inside.

Meanwhile, Charlie is frantic because he hasn’t heard from his daughter (who is presumably ill and unable to return from the honeymoon), and her new family is concerned because no one knew this situation was even possible. There is nothing really done to explain it, either, even after a few attempts at searching the Internet turn up some leads. (By the way, looking for clues to your ultra-rare condition concerning humans and what are supposed-to-be-secret vampires on Yahoo? Not likely.)

Though her well-being is at stake (along with her shot at immortality), Bella stubbornly insists on having the baby, which causes a rift between her and Edward and nearly causes a war with the werewolves. Thankfully, Jacob comes to the rescue again—in the most unlikely of ways—and the focus turns to Bella’s transformation into a vampire.

While the chemistry between Stewart and Pattinson feels much less forced this time around, Lautner continues to be puckish and brooding. Incidentally, Team Jacob fans will be happy to note that the first appearance of Lautner
s abs is less than 60 seconds into the film. Sadly, there are far fewer appearances of them in this film than the previous three.

The visual effects continue to evolve and improve, though the werewolves are still a bit more comedic than convincing. One sequence, in particular, stands out for all the wrong reasons, as Jacob and the wolf pack meet in a lumberyard to hash out their reactions to Bella’s pregnancy. Instead of tension and drama, which is what director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) was clearly going for, moviegoers are instead likely to feel confused or annoyed.

The vampire makeup is also much better, with the Cullens coming off far less cartoonish than in Twilight. And Bella’s transformation from blushing bride to gaunt skeleton-with-child is well done, conveying her declining health in the wake of her continued pregnancy.

Fans of the book will understand much more of the story than someone who has only seen the films, as there is much which is implied and still more that is only vaguely explained (imprinting, for example). Anyone coming into this movie as a first-timer will be hopelessly confused, as there is very little effort put into helping new viewers find their footing. That being said, Twi-hards will not be disappointed by the lack of setup as it moves the story along that much faster.

Speaking of which, this movie is exceptionally well-paced compared to the other films in the franchise, with only a few strange scenes popping up here and there to derail it. Overall, the story grabs viewers and keeps them close until the final scene, where it’s made clear the direction Part Two will take.

There are some who will see The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part One as merely a setup for Part Two, as is ever the case when a single story is cleaved into parts for easier cinematic digestion (or to make more cash, as Jessica would surely point out). However, readers of the 704-page source material by Meyer know that Breaking Dawn was always like getting two books in one, with separate plots being the focus of each segment. In that respect, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 is a complete film in and of itself, and should sufficiently whet fans’ appetite for the finale next November without leaving them feeling cheated.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 is now playing in theaters everywhere.

For more information, visit the film's official Web site.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 Blu-ray/DVD Review

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  Ten years ago, a bespectacled orphan by the name of Harry Potter made his debut on the silver screen and won the hearts of children and adults across the world. With the Blu-ray release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Warner Home Video; three-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack with UltraViolet digital copy MSRP: $35.99), enthusiasts have not only been given the final installment of the saga that followed actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as they grew from awkward kids into confident young adults, but also a number of special features that truly make this set a love letter to fans of both the movies and the original books by author J.K. Rowling.

The movie begins immediately where Part 1 left off, with Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) triumph at finding the elder wand, the last of the coveted Deathly Hallows. Harry and his friends, having narrowly escaped Malfoy Manor alive, question Griphook the goblin (Warwick Davis) and Ollivander the wandmaker (John Hurt) for clues to the finding the last of the horcruxes.

A shaky plan is formed to break into Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault at the wizard bank Gringotts, which quickly goes awry. Some great acting by Helena Bonham Carter playing-Hermione-playing-Bellatrix provides some humor in an otherwise grim sequence, including almost being buried alive by expanding treasure and a narrow escape on the back of a wildly unpredictable dragon. The CGI blends beautifully with live actors and props to give the scene a very real, intense feeling. As the heroes cling to the back of the frightened dragon, rising through the floor of the bank to soar gracelessly over the rooftops of London, viewers catch their breath, never doubting the reality of what they’re seeing onscreen.

That reality extends to battle scenes at Hogwarts, where students and teachers band together with the last members of the Order of the Phoenix to fight fantastical creatures, such as giants and spiders, amidst the Death Eaters. The good guys have their share of magical help as well, in the form of stone guardians which McGonagall (Maggie Smith) animates to protect the castle, and a huge protective shield which defenders cast around the property.

Digital effects don’t stand a chance next to the human element, however. It’s amazing to see Hogwarts students, teachers and members of the Order reunited in battle, even if there are only glimpses of favorites such as Lupin (David Thewlis), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Tonks (Natalia Tena) and Trelawney (Emma Thompson). Many beloved characters also meet their end throughout the course of the film, bringing home the reality that they’re fighting a war.

In the end, it should come as no surprise that good triumphs over evil and love conquers all. What may be surprising is how emotional the ending might be for many who have followed the series from the beginning. While the movie’s coda takes place 19 years in the future (and includes the most tear-jerking scene in the entire movie), it almost feels like an anti-climax. The real end seems to be after the battle, when the three friends stand overlooking the rubble of Hogwarts. It’s the end of their quest, and the future is uncertain. Where do they go from here? It’s a question to which Harry Potter fans can certainly relate.

For an even richer viewing experience, forget the traditional audio commentary—Maximum Movie Mode is the way to experience this movie. Hosted by Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), this mode treats viewers to the theatrical version of the film intercut with cast commentary, deleted scenes, director’s notes and, best of all, select readings from the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows performed by various cast members. Far from being a distraction, the clips and the movie flow together, adding touches of humor and sentiment to what is already an emotionally charged film.

There is also the option to click through to the nine Focus Points featurettes during the Maximum Movie mode, or they are available to view individually on the Blu-ray disc. Featuring in-depth looks at characters like Aberforth Dumbledore and Neville Longbottom, these mini-documentaries give some insights into character motivations, backstories and actor challenges.

The special features disc includes even more treats for fans, including more than six minutes of deleted footage (also available in the Maximum Movie Mode as well as on the single-disc DVD release,
MSRP: $28.98). While fun to watch, these scenes ultimately slowed the momentum of the movie and were better left on the cutting room floor.

Other filmmakers might use CGI effects to populate Gringotts with its supernatural workforce (after all, all of their scenes combined last less than 10 minutes onscreen), but “The Goblins of Gringotts” offers a behind-the-scenes look at the casting, makeup design and timing it took to coordinate stylists and makeup artists to create 40-plus goblins in just 4 hours. It’s nothing short of amazing.

Hermione Granger wasn’t the only strong female character in J.K. Rowling’s arsenal. In “The Women of Harry Potter,” viewers learn more about the witches behind the wizards, the inspirations for the characters and Rowling’s theory on why mother love could have legitimately saved Harry’s life, while lack thereof caused Voldemort’s ultimate downfall.

The best of the special features by far is the nearly hour-long “A Conversation with
J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe.” Harry Potter’s creator and the young man who brought him to life talk about their experiences from the beginning, and it is poignant and touching to watch—and also quite funny. The author debunks some famous rumors (did she really have the last chapter written before the first book was published?), and the actor reminisces about some of the more painful aspects of playing Harry (such as an allergy to the original glasses). Each of the two are certainly fans of the other, and it is wonderful to witness the closure they both come to with regards to the end of the series.

Viewers are also given a sneak peek behind the scenes of the upcoming Harry Potter attraction at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, opening in the spring of 2012. Visitors will be able to walk on the actual movie sets (including the Great Hall, the Gryffindor common room and Dumbledore’s office), learn secrets of filming and examine props up close.

Rounding out the extras is a PlayStation 3 game demo for LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7 and an advertisement for the new Pottermore Web site (currently in Beta), created in part by J.K. Rowling. The Web site promises readers the chance to experience the story like never before, with new writings by the author and interactive areas, games and a shop where audiobook and e-book versions will be sold.

Fans looking to add this (or any of the other seven movies) to their collection will want to act fast: Warner Bros. has said it will stop shipping DVDs and Blu-rays of the entire Harry Potter franchise as of Dec. 29 (digital sales and Video on Demand will not be affected), allegedly to focus on putting together the limited edition Harry Potter Blu-ray boxed set, teased on the movie disc for a 2012 release.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.