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Gravity Falls: The Complete Series - Collector's Edition
Alex Hirsch's "Gravity Falls" is one of the crown jewels in the current renaissance of funny, imaginative, oddball cartoons bridging the gap between kid and adult audiences. Most of these cartoons ("Adventure Time," "Steven Universe," "The Amazing Adventures of Gumball") spring from the minds at Cartoon Network, but "Gravity Falls" is the outlier, having been produced by Disney Television animation and aired on both The Disney Channel and later Disney XD over its two 20-episode seasons. Through monumental effort on the part of series creator Alex Hirsch, Disney has licensed "Gravity Falls" to Shout! Factory, paving the way for an unexpected but extremely welcome Complete Series Blu-ray.
Hirsch has listed "Twin Peaks" and "The Simpsons" among his primary influence, and the impact of both shows on Hirsch's imagination is easy to see. While it should come as no surprise that "Gravity Falls" doesn't echo much of the eerie tone of "Peaks," the setting and interest in the supernatural are both obvious similarities. However, it's probably "The Simpsons" that had more of an impact, with the show recalling the slapstick do-anything comic energy of the show in its prime. The show's writers throw in the entire gamut of punnish left-turns, brilliant non-sequitur one liners, and pitch-perfect character work, keeping each episode fresh even as Hirsch subtly adjusts the overall foundation and direction of the show it progresses.
However, the heart of both "Peaks," "Simpsons," and "Falls" is the love all three shows have for their eclectic ensemble of characters. Dipper's awkward spirit of adventure is a cousin to Agent Dale Cooper's optimism even if the characters are not particularly similar. Hirsch brings an ideal, warmly jerkish energy to their father figure Grunkle Stan, whose constant con-man routine covers up a sincere heart. There are also key characters in and around the Mystery Shack, including lovable bear/handyman Soos (Hirsch again), hip teenage employee Wendy (Linda Cardellini) -- also the subject of Dipper's budding interest in girls -- and pint-size preacher and fellow huckster Li'l Gideon (Thurop Van Orman), who desperately wants to crush Stan and demolish the shack. But "Gravity Falls" even has time for the random recurring townsfolk, including an "enthusiasm enthusiast" known as Tyler Cutebiker (Will Forte), who cries "get 'im" at any opportunity, demented old man/maybe genius Fiddleford McGucket (Hirsch), and the lovingly partnered and deeply incompetent police officers, Sheriff Blubs (Kevin Michael Richardson) and Deputy Durland (Keith Ferguson).
Personally, though, the heart of the show -- quite frankly, one of the greatest television characters of all time -- is Schaal's Mabel Pines, an unyielding fountain of cheery, candy-covered optimism. Whether she's slapping stickers on grumpy Grunkle Stan, "hosting" a radio show with her beloved pet pig Waddles, or gossiping about boys with her best friends Candy Chiu (Niki Yang) and Grenda (Carl Faruolo), the delight with which Mabel is written, animated, and performed is constantly and consistently among the best material that "Gravity Falls" has to offer, both comedically and dramatically. She's even a constant visual gag or easter egg in the form of her beautiful collection of consistently topical sweaters, which often feature designs that hint at the content of the episodes.
Content-wise, the show may not quite achieve the heights of "Steven Universe," which makes up for in sensitivity and complexity what it comparatively lacks in laughs. Although the 40 episodes of "Gravity Falls" tell a story, there's a distinct feeling that the first season of "Gravity Falls" is more of a traditional season of television, where the show passively moves the story forward through a series of relatively unconnected episodes, and the second really shifts into an active move toward a finale, which can make the overall journey from beginning to end feel a bit uneven. Viewers who watch the show the first time via this Blu-ray set (like myself) may also be a bit perplexed by the show's massive cult following in light of the show's limited 40-episode run, but some of that enthusiasm can be sussed out in the erratic airdates of Season 2, which span from 2014 to 2016. It must also be said: the final episode is a pretty satisfying conclusion to the series that warms the heart.
Notes: Two notes about the episodes. First, as a general content warning, some of the episodes in the second season are a little intense as the show builds toward its conclusion, and may be frightening to younger viewers. Secondly, two of the three final episodes originally contained voice work from disgraced comedian Louis C.K. The episodes presented on this set are the updated versions, in which Alex Hirsch has re-voiced the character. However, subsequent to C.K.'s scandal, actor T.J. Miller was also accused of various abuses and harassment. His character appears in 13 episodes, which is kind of a bummer for those sensitive to these sorts of things (full disclosure: I am personally acquainted with one of Miller's victims).
Shout! Factory has beautifully packaged "Gravity Falls" in a heavy-duty glossy slipbox, with three Blu-ray cases inside. The outside of the box is just designed to look either wood paneling or perhaps a tree with Polaroids from the show all over it. On the back, there's a synopsis, and die-hard fans will find at least a couple of secret messages studying the fine print, the box copy, and the little carvings "within" the artwork. Fans can probably guess in advance that, yes, the three cases inside (two Viva Elite 3-disc cases for the 2 seasons and a Viva Elite 1-disc case for the bonus materials) are designed to look like the Journals. Printed on the reverse of the sleeve art for the two season cases are episode listings and short episode summaries, and the third has a short list of bonus features and a little splash image. There is also a leaflet inside the bonus features case advertising multiple "Gravity Falls" books, and finally, there is a recreation of a letter that Dipper gets in the final episode (which is not a spoiler, in case you look at the "letter" inside first).
The Video and Audio
"Gravity Falls" is a relatively new show, so it should come as no surprise that the 1.78:1 1080p AVC video and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks (5.1 and 2.0) are both flawless, in terms of Shout! Factory putting them on a disc. Colors are bright and vivid, lines are crisp yet free of aliasing, and no compression artifacts intrude on the experience. The audio defaults to the standard stereo presentation, which quite frankly is more than fine to convey the show's boisterous and energetic soundscape with precision and vibrancy. A sampling of the 5.1 track here and there reveals minimal additional depth and range, and the mix feels very centered in the front channels. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
The biggest bonus feature here -- so big that actually taking it all in could've delayed this review further by weeks -- is the inclusion of audio commentary by creator/producer/actor Alex Hirsch and guests on all 40 of the episodes. A sampling of the tracks reveals them to be extremely funny, entertaining, and informative, digging into the tiny details that are crammed into every nook and cranny of the show. Given Hirsch's summary of the show as "'Twin Peaks' meets 'The Simpsons,' for The Disney Channel," he might be pleased to hear that these capture a similar energy as the hours and hours of "Simpsons" (or "Futurama") commentaries recorded by Matt Groening and company on those home video releases.
Jumping to the bonus features disc, the centerpiece extra is "One Crazy Summer: A Look Back At Gravity Falls" (1:46:38), which sits down with a huge roster of cast and crew members for an in-depth retrospective into the development, production (both general writing and the end-to-end development of an episode), and reception of the show. The documentary is loosely built around Hirsch digging into the storage unit he filled with everything from the production of "Gravity Falls" after the show ended, including concept art, documents filled with unused ideas, fan mail, even song lyrics. One especially delightful aspect of the documentary is the presence of Ariel Hirsch, Alex's sister and the inspiration for Mabel Pines, who laughs at some of his memories, provides her own insight onto their childhoods, and even shows off the Troll sweater that inspired every one of Mabel's delightful fashion choices throughout the show. Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal also appear dressed as their characters, and Hirsch does various voices on camera while talking through the casting process, which is always fun to watch anyone do. The documentary even gets into some of the nuts and bolts of the animation process, including how hard it is to fix certain details that haven't turned out perfectly when the animation studio is overseas, and outline Hirsch's incredible efforts to do things for fans, including floating a false fan theory on Reddit using a fake animation still "accidentally" photographed off a television, and an insane scavenger hunt that partially takes place in Russia. The two most notable absences from this piece: Linda Cardellini and J.K. Simmons. (Note: T.J. Miller is, thankfully, not interviewed.)
Continuing the greatest aspect of the previous feature, "The Hirsch Twins" (16:07) continues talking to Alex and Ariel about their relationship and how that translated to the screen. There is also an unexpectedly massive collection of deleted scenes (1:02:03) from the entire series, presented in storyboard form via PowerPoint presentation.
The rest of the bonus features here are archival. "Between the Pines" (22:06) is a TV-friendly making-of that dives into the series via a program where Alex Hirsch answers questions posed as Tmie Baby. Some online information suggests there are two versions of this special, one which aired before the finale and one which aired after. Based on the content, this is the pre-finale version. Five short films that aired on Disney XD between the seasons are next: "Dipper's Guide to the Unexplained" (13:28), "Mabel's Guide to Life" (11:56), "Fixin' It With Soos" (4:35), "TV Shorts" (5:05), and "Mabel's Scrapbook" (4:50). Note that some of these are multiple parts. These are accompanied by a whole section of Promos: "Old Man McGucket's Conspiracy Corner (5:52), "Creepy Letters From Li'l Gideon" (2:41), "Soos' Stan Fiction" (3:53), "'Pocalypse Preppin'" (4:16), "Mystery Shack: Shop at Home With Mr. Mystery" (12:35), "Grunkle Stan's Lost Mystery Shack Interviews" (7:29), "Gravity Paws" (5:44), a "Journal 3" Infomercial (1:03), and finally, a Season 2 SDCC Comic-Con Trailer (1:03).
Finally, the seven discs in the set are littered with easter eggs, including additional clips, featurettes, and even bonus commentaries -- much like the characters unpack the mysteries of Gravity Falls, fans will be discovering the hidden treasures in the set for months.
Taken as a whole, all in one go, some of the unevenness of "Gravity Falls" shows, but the heart of the show is, er, its heart. Packed with an incredibly high ratio of fantastic slapstick jokes, a delightful cast of characters, and one of the most incredible characters ever created for TV, the show and this incredibly fantastic Blu-ray box set are both highly recommended.
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