Review for Black Butler
I don’t like Steelbooks, or steelcases, or indeed any sort of metal packaging for my home video releases. I always suspect that they’ll be easily scratched, or dented, or they’ll rust. And given that Steelbooks comprise metal pieces bonded to a plastic membrane, they’re remarkably fragile. You can forget easily replacing the case as well. I have somehow contrived to avoid buying any Blu-ray in Steelbook form... until now. That’s because Black Butler’s live action movie has only had a Steelbook release in the UK. What’s more, that’s not the only reason not to buy this release, even if you like the film.
I’ve reviewed several seasons of Black Butler anime now. It’s an entertaining story set in Victorian times, about the heir to an aristocratic family surviving a kidnapping by making a deal with a devil who becomes his butler, and subsequently working as a secret agent of the Crown to deal with demonic crimes and threats to the kingdom, as well as seeking out those behind his kidnapping and the murder of his parents. It’s a fun and quirky show, which revels in period details and daft anachronisms. There’s a lot that fans read into the relationship between the 10-year old Ciel Phantomhime and his manservant Sebastian, and you can bet that there was a lot of attention and interest when the live action feature film was announced. Then they started changing things.
The story shifts to a fictional near future, where the world is divided into West and East, the Queen rules over the West, and requires her Watchdogs for intelligence. The aristocratic Genpo family have descended from the Phantomhive line, and have also inherited their duty to the Crown. As a child, Shiori Genpo’s parents were murdered, and she was kidnapped and tortured. She made a deal with the devil, Sebastian to survive, and returned in the guise of a boy, Kiyohara Genpo, an ‘illegitimate’ son to inherit the Genpo estate. Ten years later, she’s called on to investigate the serial murders of several dignitaries, whose bodies were all found mummified. It’s a case that will lead her deep into the underground, and also uncover the truth of her own past, and the only help she’ll have is the devilish butler Sebastian at her side.
Black Butler was released theatrically with a 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Warner presents the film on this Blu-ray disc cropped to 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p. In this day and age, there is no excuse for this sort of vandalism. It’s an argument that I thought had been laid to rest at the dawn of the DVD age, but if you like this film, you’ll want to shell out on a Region A player and import the US release from Funimation instead. Other than that, the image is watchable enough, clear and sharp, and seriously colour graded. Elements of the film are bright and colourful to the degree that they are comic book vivid, but then there is colour timing applied to make skin-tones appear pallid and even sallow at times. This is a film that makes use of digital backgrounds to the point where it looks like it’s shot wholly on a digital backlot. About the only problem other than the aspect ratio is a degree of shimmer on fine detail.
You have a solitary DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Japanese track, with subtitles burnt into the print. Funimation recorded an English dub for the film, and although I usually avoid live action dubs like the plague, they got the anime dub cast in to record the familiar characters. Once again, if you want to hear that, you’ll have to go Region A. As for this disc, it’s one where the dialogue is a little low in the mix, requiring that you ride the remote control to balance the action sequences with the dialogue while you’re watching the film. The surround is adequate, and the action sequences bring the film to life, but other than that it’s a pretty front-focussed and forgettable affair. The subtitles are timed accurately and are free of typos.
You have one disc in a Steelbook case, and there’s an Ultraviolet code in there as well. A sheet at the back has the disc blurb, and once you peel it off, you’re left with that gluey residue and no idea what to do with the label. And while it has been waiting in my to-watch pile, the case has contrived to get scratched... Typical!
The disc boots to a standard Warners static menu, but we do get one-up on the Funimation release in terms of extras. We have 57:14 of interviews with the cast presented in 1080i 60Hz.
“More ham, Jeeves, and bring me a side order of scenery to chew!”
You’re not going to see me rushing to get a Region A player and ordering the Funimation release any time soon. In fact, anyone want to buy a slightly dented and scratched steelbook (disc optional)? Black Butler is bad, in fact it’s awful, a failure in every respect. It’s a film that misses the whole point of the original manga and the anime it spawned.
First there is the time skip, taking the story out of the Victorian era that made it so appealing. You had the whole Empress of the civilised world back-story, the Phantomhive family acting as agents of Queen Victoria, and the evocative period setting. It’s also a setting where the whole aristocracy, nobility, the idea of a young master and his devoted butler makes sense. For the film, it all moves to the present day or thereabouts, but to make the premise work, they have to somehow bring the Victorian era along with it, so we get a modern setting where the Queen rules half the world, and where effete nobles are still waited on hand and foot by their butlers.
This is a modern world where the main character, a descendant of the Phantomhives is gender switched, a girl masquerading as a boy, because in this modern Victorian age, women can’t inherit. What was the point? And with the Genpo family descended from those very same Phantomhives, you’re led to believe that the story takes place in the same universe, yet the main character Shiori Genpo has been through the same ordeal as her illustrious ancestor, and her servants have the same names and personalities as Ciel’s did. To paraphrase John McLane, “How can the same sh*t happen to the same family twice?” It really does as well, as the Black Butler film recycles a major plot arc from the original, that of discovering who was behind Shiori’s torment, the murder of her parents. It’s the same person in both cases, for the same motives. What’s different about this film is the serial mummification murder case which Shiori investigates.
But by far the worst thing in the film is the acting. These actors have been told to emote like there’s no tomorrow, and there’s no particular requirement of what emotion it needs to be. Gurning faces, and plenty of shouting; it’s over stylised and unintentionally funny, and when you’re major-domo is less demonic than he is inadvertently camp, it defeats the purpose of the film. The protagonists are masters of understatement compared to the villain of the piece, whose evil cackle I want for a ringtone.
By this point it hardly seems worth mentioning that the film relies on exposition to get its story across. The action stops every twenty minutes or so for someone to get us caught up with the plot through a ream of dialogue. This is not how films are supposed to work. Black Butler’s live action spin-off is a waste of time. It’s all surface that misses the point of the original material. It missed the humour as well, but that’s a whole other matter. The original Black Butler had subtlety and nuance, and it had that subtext between Ciel and Sebastian that garnered many of its fans. The young boy wanting revenge and selling his soul to do so, the occasional ambivalence of his devilish butler when it came to collecting that soul, ostensibly waiting for it to be ‘ripe’, and the contrast between the darker nature of humanity, and the more hopeful side of it. The only positive to the live action Black Butler movie is that it has a few nicely choreographed action sequences, but if it’s action you want, watch a Jackie Chan movie.