Too Little, Too Late
In late February of 2006, several of the major motion picture companies, including Warner Brothers and Paramount, decided to cut back on the manufacturing and marketing of movies on UMD. Playable only on Sony’s new handheld device, the PSP, even the maker’s mother company called the sales of such items “disappointing”. While the concept of portability is obviously at the forefront of our current technological advances—think of the new video iPod, or Microsoft’s just announced Origami—it seems that film fans, and those looking for media specifically designed for their devices, want a lot more bang for their high-end buck.
Which makes the release by Nintendo of a line of Game Boy Advance Video cartridges seem rather ridiculous. For all intents and purposes the battle has been fought and lost. Yet these innovators still hope to find and fill that nearly nonexistent market of people who want first run entertainment in an almost indecipherable visual variation. Along with episodes of Nickelodeon shows like Sponge Bob Square Pants and Dora the Explorer, the GBAV will offer present programs from Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel. So far, live action has been left out of the mix, meaning all that is available is kid-oriented animated fare. As for full length films, the now defunct DreamWorks has authorized the release of their “monster” hit Shrek as well as its less than successful formulaic fin fest cousin, Shark Tale, for the GBA. In a clear case of technology mimicking a movie’s worth, both of these now-dated diversions look pretty lousy on the handheld device.
The obvious warning signs are clear from the moment you open the package. Inside are two cartridges, items of limited memory capacity, yet still suspiciously slight when one thinks that an entire film will be featured on them. Then, once the unit is inserted, we are treated to a very tame and very shaky opening menu that doesn’t look all that advanced. There are options present (the ability to advance to a certain scene, a chance to view the production credits), but that’s it in the way of added features. This means that every last bit of compact computing power is reserved for the sound and vision… right?
Sadly, this is not the case. The image quality here is substandard and decidedly jittery. The smooth 3D CGI of both films is rendered into flat, lifeless screens of almost unwatchable skipping action. Though the dialogue may be hokey and the jokes over-plump with quickly passé pop culture references, one can usually enjoy a DreamWorks animated film for the attention to detail and the artistic beauty of the design. Unfortunately, the lack of possible pixels means that most of these fascinating facets are gone or grossly distorted. Instead of offering a creative environment in which the characters can play, the GBA version of these films is like trying to relish a pair of badly created cartoons broadcast over a weak UHF signal.
As films, Shrek has its qualities (though Mike Meyers Scottish scoff is long past its shelf life), but Shark Tale on the other hand is a terrible film, doing everything its ogre-oriented brethren does without any of the other’s wit or style. Both movies rely on substantial stunt casting—Tale‘s Robert DeNiro, Angelina Jolie, and Will Smith; Shrek‘s Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, and John Lithgow—to purposefully pump up the likeability (and recognizability) of its characters. But there is really no attempt to create timeless archetypes, or entities that will live on long after the movie is over. While Shrek still has some residual resonance (and the far bigger box office behind it), Shark Tale is basically a waterlogged version of the same film.
Yet one can also easily understand their lure as handheld titles. The demographic is mostly preteens and tweens (same as that target audience for the device), and said groups are not overly particular or aesthetically tech-savvy when it comes to amusement. (These are groups who think nothing of playing badly rendered games on their cell phones.) So it’s no surprise that they would want to watch subpar video over and over again as long as the movie is something they are familiar with, and can be carried in their backpack.
So just like how a portable gaming device stands in for an inability to crank up the console, a portable film has the same home theater devise merits—and discernible demerits. While many of the reviews for UMD discs marvel at the excellent picture, it is impossible to believe that anyone will champion the jumpy video of the GBA offerings. On the pro side, being able to tote one of your favorite films in a tiny plastic cartridge has a kind of cool, retrograde reality to its tech trappings. And the Shrek/Shark Tale audio is excellent, made even more impressive by a pair of complimentary stereo earphones provided inside. But when a lackluster visual presentation is meshed with the relatively minor marketing facet of convenience, the long-term projections for this latest Game Boy product line are not very good. People prefer DVDs, not some other less-than-satisfactory substitute. It’s a lesson Sony just recently learned with the uneventful UMDs. One has to wonder how long it will take before Nintendo draws the same conclusion.