Ladder 49 appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although much of the movie looked great, some persistent edge enhancement created problems.
Those affected sharpness. Most of the time I thought the film presented reasonably solid definition, but the flick occasionally demonstrated moderate softness, especially in wider shots. That largely stemmed from the haloes that caused some distractions throughout the movie. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, though, and the print looked very clean. I noticed no signs of specks, marks or other defects.
Across the board, the film displayed excellent color reproduction. The flick used a natural palette that always looked great. All the tones appeared rich and full. Check out the lively greens in the St. Patrick’s Day scene for an example of the solid hues. Blacks were also deep and firm, but shadows could become somewhat murky. Low-light shots were decent at best, as they occasionally seemed moderately dense and muddy. Nonetheless, the main problem came from edge enhancement, and that issue knocked down my grade to a “B”.
On the other hand, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Ladder 49 proved to be consistently satisfying. Actually, Disney touts this as an “Enhanced Home Theater Mix”, something they’ve previously included in animated DVDs like Aladdin and The Lion King. I can’t compare the “Enhanced Home Theater Mix” of 49 to its theatrical audio, though, since the DVD only includes the former.
In any case, I really liked this track, as it provided a very immersive and involving experience. Of course, the fire sequences created the best moments. These used all five channels well to present a great feeling of being in the action. Flames and destruction cropped up all around the room to surround us in the material. Quieter scenes featured a nice sense of atmosphere, and the music presented good stereo presence. It was those excellent action bits that knocked this track into “A-“ territory.
Of course, the movie required good audio quality to earn that grade, and the mix delivered. Some semi-awkward dubbing occurred, but dialogue usually blended fairly well with the action, and the lines always remained concise and without edginess. Music was smooth and bright.
Effects fared best, as the different elements demonstrated great definition and clarity. During the louder scenes, bass response really kicked into high gear. The movie featured strong low-end material that always sounded deep and firm. Overall, Ladder 49 presented a terrific auditory experience.
As we head to the supplements, we open with an audio commentary from director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith. Both men sit together for their running, screen-specific chat. Only one problem mars the track: dead air. Sporadic gaps pop up occasionally and last too long.
Otherwise, this is a terrific commentary, as the men dig into the material with gusto. We get notes about casting and the actors, shooting in Baltimore, challenges creating realistic fires and other technical elements, the score and the involvement of Robbie Robertson, structure and editorial choices, and attempts to tell real stories. The pair get into pretty much everything you might want to hear, and they do so in a lively, energetic manner that makes the discussion especially involving. I may have hated the movie, but I really enjoyed this excellent commentary.
Next comes a documentary titled The Making of Ladder 49. This 21-minute and 27-second program offers the typical combination of movie snippets, shots from the set, and interviews. We hear from Russell, producer Casey Silver, executive producer Armyan Bernstein, writer Lewis Colick, firefighters Lt. Mark Yant and Battalion Chief Leonard Zinck, stunt coordinator GA Aguilar, special effects coordinator Larry Fioritto, visual effects supervisor Peter Donen, production designer Tony Burrough, supervising sound editor Kelly Cabral, supervising sound mixers Andy Koyanna and Chris Carpenter, sound effects editor Jason King, and actors John Travolta, Joaquin Phoenix, Jacinda Barrett, Kevin Chapman, Balthazar Getty, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, and Tim Guinee,
The program covers locations and why they chose Baltimore, casting and the actors’ training at the Fire Academy, shooting the fire sequences, sets, and sound design. This offers a good overview of important subjects, but it doesn’t look at them with great depth. The material from the set provides the best elements, and the last chapter’s look at some technical aspects proves illuminating. Unfortunately, much of the time the comments seem designed simply to impress us with the filmmakers’ attempts at authenticity, and this earnest tone gets old.
After this we find a featurette called Everyday Heroes. It fills 13 minutes and 41 seconds with notes from Travolta, firefighter Lt. Donald Schafer, Lt. Scott Folderauer, EVD Glenn Folderauer, EVD Michael Heiler, paramedic Kara Simpson, Captain Jeff Jakelski, EMS Captain Laurie Shiloh, and spouses Maria Heiler, Faye Schafer, and Cindy Folderauer. As one might expect, it presents a tribute to real firefighters. We hear about why they do the job, how it affects them, and what chances they take.
I definitely like the idea behind “Heroes”, and it includes a few stirring moments, especially when the firefighters discuss how the job impacts upon their home lives. Unfortunately, most of the program comes across as little more than generic information and plaudits. Yeah, firefighters deserve accolades, but I’d like to get more of a real feeling for their lives and work and not just a vague overview.
Five deleted scenes follow. When viewed together via the “Play All” option, these last a total of 14 minutes and nine seconds. “Lunch Room Conversations” looks at the firefighters hanging together while they wait for an alarm, while “Jack and Linda’s First Date follows their return to his apartment. “Captain Tony Arrives” brings in a new character and shows the firefighters’ reactions to him. “Ray’s Subplot” deals with problems connected to that character, and “9-11” shows Jack, Linda and the others as they react to that day’s events. The last one’s probably the most interesting; it’s not a great clip, but given that most of us still think of 9/11 when we see firefighters, it’s a logical scene to include. The others mostly pad out secondary characters or themes.
We get a music video for Robbie Robertson’s performance of “Shine Your Light”. It combines shots of Robertson as he lip-synchs in various Baltimore locations with movie clips and new images of actor Jacinda Barrett as she also wanders Charm City and emotes. It’s more interesting than most music videos for songs from movies, but not by a lot.
The disc opens with some ads. We get previews for National Treasure, Home Improvement Season Two, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These also appear in the Sneak Peeks area with promos for Lost and The Golden Girls.
Lastly, the DVD features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials. I’ve never tried the Optimizer since I’m happy with my settings, but if you don’t own something such as Essentials, the Optimizer may help you improve picture and audio quality.
At times, I thought Ladder 49 looked like a purposeful attempt to make a cliché movie about firefighters. It doesn’t include a single honest or original moment, as it instead substitutes mawkish sentiment and cheap drama. The DVD offers generally positive picture quality marred mainly by some edge enhancement. The audio excels, however, and the extras are highlighted by an excellent audio commentary. Despite the mostly good quality of the release, the movie itself is too weak for me to recommend it.