Wall-E World

November 19, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

With the release of Wall-E, Blu-Ray may have finally come into its own.

So far, for the most part, Blu-Ray had been touted as the "format of the future," but the future hadn't arrived. Sure, there have been some movies that have looked great in Blu-Ray, but few have been so much better that they have warranted the purchase of an entirely new playing system. After all, in these economic times, the $250 (or so) that a new Blu-Ray player costs is a hard investment to justify. And for what…? The ability to see something brain dead like Journey to the Center of the Earth with a crisper picture than one can get via a standard DVD? Great visuals are fine, but it's still the story that matters.

Wall-E has both. It is the poster child for Blu-Ray. Pop this disc in and watch it come to life on an HDTV with striking results. The picture is more clear and lively than anything I have ever before seen, including Discovery Channel's gorgeous Planet Earth. At times, there's almost an illusion of three-dimensionality. Pixar prides itself on the quality of its products, and this is an example of why. I purchased a Blu-Ray player one year ago and, for the first time since I took the PS3 out of its box, I feel comfortable with my decision.

Things have come a long way in that year. The HD-DVD/Blu-Ray format war has ended and all of the studios have gotten aboard the Blu-Ray bandwagon. Now, virtually every major release is simultaneously available on both standard DVD and Blu-Ray. For those who own a Blu-Ray player, this eliminates the question of "Should I buy it now on DVD or wait for the (possible) Blu-Ray release?" The format has encountered its share of bumps along the road: some horrible transfers, the Patton debacle where detail was washed out by the overzealous removal of grain, and the continued absence of some very big titles. Also, more than one Blu-Ray movie didn't look substantially better than its upconverted standard DVD counterpart. Sometimes, it takes a bigger screen than most people have at home for the difference to be apparent.

But not with Wall-E. Hey, the standard DVD isn't bad but if you have a Blu-Ray player, there's no reason you should consider any other format. Buy it and show it to your friends. They will be envious. Every store selling DVD and Blu-Ray players should be using this as their demo disc. According to sources, Pixar didn't just slap together a quick digital copy the way many studios do. Instead, they painstakingly and lovingly transferred the movie with the intention that the high-def version would provide as close to a perfect replica of the theatrical version as possible. And, when one takes into account the variable quality of some theatrical presentations, it's possible that watching Wall-E at home will be a more impressive and immersive experience than watching it in a theater.

It will be interesting to see how well Blu-Ray players sell this holiday season, with the economy so far down the toilet that even a plumber will have trouble locating it. Aggressive pricing will bring costs below $200 for some models, which puts them into an affordability range for many consumers. The next step is to lower the price of the discs. There's little doubt that sales are being hurt by the $5-$10 differential between standard DVD and Blu-Ray prices. People with Blu-Ray players are relying more on rentals than purchases. Week-of-release sales help, but there's no reason (beyond greed) for the list price of a Blu-Ray disc to be $30 or more. There's still a huge amount of profit at a $20 price point. In fact, one way to really grow Blu-Ray would be to price the high-def discs a little lower than their DVD counterparts. That would provide an economic incentive for everyone to adopt the new format.

Here's one recommendation: If you're buying a Blu-Ray player for a friend or family member this holiday season, spend a few extra bucks and get them a copy of Wall-E. Child, parent, grandparent - it doesn't matter. Wall-E spans all ages and it will provide an immediate payoff for this latest piece of home theater technology. As was the case when the DVD started gaining widespread popularity, they'll wonder how they ever lived without it.