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KELLNER: Disney’s Midas touch

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2008

If Walt Disney's name is the gold standard in family entertainment, a lot of gold is on the line Oct. 7 when the iconic company bets that enhanced Blu-Ray DVDs will capture the attention - and dollars - of home entertainment buyers.

Starting with a dramatic rerelease of "Sleeping Beauty" featuring the original aspect ratio, or image proportion, of the film as Mr. Disney himself planned it, along with souped-up sound, these high-definition discs add a raft of features designed to let viewers interact via an Internet connection. Users can compete with other viewers in a trivia game about the film, exchange instant messages with preapproved friends while watching the film and, using a home video camera, insert their own messages in scenes from the film and share those narrations with others who also own the movie. All this interaction requires a link to the Internet, via wired or wireless adapters on devices such as Sony's PlayStation 3 or Panasonic's range of Blu-Ray players.

These services are part of the B D Live Network, which a news release from the firm says "marks a new era of interactivity never before seen in home entertainment." Disney executives demonstrated the features in the District on June 16. While what was shown was, essentially, pre-release software, the basic features aren't expected to change much between now and launch.

From a viewing standpoint, the picture and sound on this enhanced version are excellent. Even if you have seen "Sleeping Beauty" a dozen times - and perhaps especially if you have - the film looks fresh and new. The sound is amazing, especially because Disney found original sound tracks in Germany and used them to remaster the sound.

But just when you're wondering why folks can't just sit back and enjoy the movie, there's the interactivity on offer here. The Internet connection, along with a device such as a Blackberry or iPhone or the on-screen keyboard supplied by the software, enables you to select items and enter text. Of the options, the on-screen keyboard seemed the most laborious.

If you succumb to the temptation to test your "Sleeping Beauty" trivia knowledge, you'll find a quiz with the kind of depth usually reserved for the National Geography Bee. I won a trial "heat" at the demonstration but only because my guesses were fortunate.

The chatting probably will appeal to those who like to watch movies with friends but don't have those friends nearby. The chat text appears in a small window that overlays the film being viewed.

Movie Mail is what Disney is calling the add-your-own-video feature. A canned demonstration had a traveling parent sending a greeting to a child at home: "I'll be back to our own 'magic kingdom' soon," the absent father coos. I could see some usefulness for this, but it also might get tiresome.

The question is, why add all this stuff? The Disney people with whom I spoke insist that youngsters today desire such interactivity, and perhaps they do. If, as seems to be the case, young viewers especially enjoy seeing the same picture over (and over and over) again, being able to network with peers and "discuss" the film may not be a bad idea.

An obvious question involves security: How can parents know their tykes will be protected with the essentially new Internet service. The answer is twofold: Video messages will be monitored before Disney forwards them to others. It's hoped this will catch bad language or worse before it gets out. Also, if Johnny or Janey wants to chat with another child, an adult must add that user to the child's circle of friends. It won't be an open chat room where unsavory types could lurk, the firm promises.

Though I'm sure some precocious tykes will glom onto this like so many barnacles on a ship in harbor, my personal feeling is that such interaction will have more appeal to fans of, say, "Lost" when it comes out in similar enhanced Blu-Ray releases. No date for that has been set; Disney said it will roll out its animated and family films first this way.

There might be mild backlash from some parents, too: An extremely unscientific survey of one parent revealed both interest in the features and a reticence to unleash them on the parent's two youngsters. For that parent - and for me, too - just watching the film in more than its original splendor will be enough.

-- Online - There's a well-edited YouTube video about the Disney announcement from its Los Angeles premiere at www.youtube. com/watch?v=GqsVrZrA4rk. You won't catch the high-def video that you'll see live, but you'll get a full rundown on the upcoming features.

-- Would you want your children interacting as they watch a Disney film? E-mail comments to mkellner@washingtontimes.com.