There is little argument that WB's "Essential Classics: Dramas" are, indeed, "essential," at least in terms of classic films that a serious movie fan might want to own. I mean, how could you quarrel with "Ben-Hur," "The Maltese Falcon," or "Citizen Kane"? But one can easily question the term "essential" in their "Essential Classics: Family Films." Yes, "The Wizard of Oz" is certainly an acknowledged classic deserving of the word "essential." And, yes, maybe "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" is a classic, its having stood the test of time pretty well, although I wonder about the "essential" part. Then, there's "The Goonies," which has always been popular but which I doubt anyone would consider either a classic or essential.
So, what we've got here is maybe more like a "Mostly Classics, Some of Them Probably Essential to Somebody" collection. Let me put it another way: If one defines a "family classic" as something the whole family can enjoy, young or old, then certainly "Wizard" qualifies, and perhaps "Wonka." But, really, I've always thought of "The Goonies" as more of a children's picture, its being rather loud and noisy for this adult. OK, let's compromise. Let's call "The Goonies" a children's classic and leave it at that.
The three films in the collection are also available in individual, standard-resolution, special-edition sets. Therefore, if you want all the bells and whistles, or if there is one of these films you don't quite care for, you might be better off buying the separate releases. This collection is more for the budget conscious.
THE WIZARD OF OZ:
It's remarkable to think that the 1939 movie classic "The Wizard of Oz" we all know and love wasn't always as popular as it is today. At the film's opening, observers gave it mixed reviews. "As for the light touch of fantasy," wrote critic Otis Ferguson, "it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet." And critic Richard Mallett said, "I don't see why children shouldn't like it, but for adults there isn't very much except Bert Lahr."
Although the film enjoyed a profit at the box office, being re-released in the U.S. in 1949 and 1955, it would not realize its current status as a cultural icon until it began appearing as an annual special event on TV, premiering on network television in 1956 and beginning its historic run in 1959. After that, there was no stopping it. When MGM made the film, they had hoped it might achieve the success of Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Little did they know it would take more than a quarter of a century to do so.
You see, it's a wonder "The Wizard of Oz" got made at all. Based largely on the first book (1900) in a long series of children's novels by L. Frank Baum and his successors, the 1939 movie followed a handful of silent versions that never achieved great distinction. MGM went through a number of directors, including Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, and King Vidor, with Victor Fleming receiving the credit, to get the thing done. The studio had originally wanted W.C. Fields or Ed Wynn to play the Wizard, but they got Frank Morgan, who wore the author's own coat in the film (which the costume department found by accident in a used-clothing store). Also, the studio had wanted Shirley Temple to play Dorothy, Ms. Temple being the leading child actress of the time, but she was under contract to a rival studio, Fox, who wouldn't loan her out. Sixteen-year-old Judy Garland had to have her chest bound to look more like an eleven-year-old, a discomforting ordeal. Ray Bolger was unhappy as the Tin Man and asked to exchange roles with Buddy Ebsen, who was to have been the Scarecrow, but then Ebsen became allergic to the silver paint, and Jack Haley came in to replace him.
What more could go wrong? Well, the studio almost cut "Over the Rainbow," which won an Academy Award for composers Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, because they thought it slowed down the action. Thank heaven common sense prevailed. Then, some of the veteran troopers--Bolger, Haley, and Bert Lahr--were afraid Garland would upstage them, Garland later saying she was unhappy during the shooting because of the way her costars subtly snubbed her. Bolger always denied the fact. What they all agreed on, though, was that they suffocated in their costumes under the hot studio lights, and everyone was probably getting pretty edgy. To add to the misery, Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch (who, amazingly, was only in her thirties at the time but obviously looked older) was severely burned in an accident involving the fire and explosion of her scene leaving Munchinland, and she couldn't work for the next six weeks. Furthermore, it's said the little people playing the munchkins carried on extensively every night at a nearby hotel, and the studio was glad when they finished their roles in the movie and left. The stories go on and on. Nor did the film stick entirely to the Baum classic, changing the Wicked Witch from an old crone afraid of the dark to the archetype we now recognize, Dorothy's adventure from a reality to a dream, her silver slippers to ruby, and so on. None of it mattered.
What was important was the result, and who can deny that the combination of stars, music, and fantasy in "The Wizard of Oz" doesn't still enchant almost everyone who watches it? Judy Garland elevated herself to the level of Shirley Temple as one of the world's best-loved movie youngsters; Ray Bolger endeared himself to audiences everywhere; Bert Lahr always made us laugh; Jack Haley was a commendable Tin Woodman; Frank Morgan, in all the parts he played as Professor Marvel, the Wizard, and various citizens of Emerald City, could hardly have been topped; Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch was beautiful and charming; Clara Blandick and Charley Grapwin as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry were as loveable as any kinfolk could be; Toto became everybody's favorite little dog; and, of course, dear Margaret Hamilton positively embodied the Wicked Witch of the West and would thereafter often be typecast as an old grump or gossip (in a career that lasted for the next forty years, all the way up until 1979).
MGM filmed "The Wizard of Oz" entirely on a soundstage, and it's a tribute to the film that to this day most people don't notice or don't care. Sure, the Emerald City is a painted screen, the witch's castle is a matte shot, the celebrated tornado a muslin wind sock hooked to an overhead scaffold, and the props are cardboard, plywood, and paper mache. But kids don't see it that way, and adults don't mind it that way, no more so than knowing that the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" are computer animations. It's the Land of Oz, after all. And it's the magic of movies, where the best of them force us willingly to suspend our disbelief and enjoy them in spite of themselves.
"The Wizard of Oz" is the film that defines "family classic." 10/10
The disc contains the video restoration that Warner Bros. engineers produced a few years ago--in 2005--when they meticulously went over the film frame by frame, making it look probably as good as it did at its 1939 première. A high bit rate helps clarify the greater resolution, making for sharper image delineation and stronger contrasts, and, of course, the restoration engineers eliminated almost all signs of age--blemishes, scratches, specks, and the like. However, the greater resolution also increases the visibility of grain, particularly noticeable in the opening sepia sequences. When the Technicolor opens up, the grain becomes less of a factor, and the hues are so glorious we wouldn't notice, anyway, without any of the colors being in the least bit garish or overbearing. Compared to WB's much earlier DVD transfer, the new, 2005 version has deeper, richer colors and more intense black levels; the darker aspect can on occasion appear to obscure inner detail, but it's a trade-off I'd rather have than the more-pale previous edition.
In the audio department, WB's engineers remixed the soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1. They started with a restored mono track, two different orchestral tracks, and a specific, edited music-and-effects track, combining them judiciously for the outcome we now hear. For those purists who want the original mono only, you will also find that available.
The DD 5.1 mix opens up the sound quite a bit but never draws attention to itself. It simply appears natural and realistic. There are only some occasional effects in the rear channels, though, the surrounds mostly working to reinforce the film's musical ambience. You can also notice some small degree of background noise or hiss at times, especially during quieter passages, if you turn the gain up too high, but it's hardly an issue.
The "Essential Classics" collection contains what is the first disc in WB's three-disc special edition. It contains the restored feature film, with English and French spoken language options, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Additionally, the disc contains a new audio commentary by historian John Fricke, hosted by director Sidney Pollack, with selected archival audio comments by Barbara Freed-Saltzman, daughter of associate producer Arthur Freed; stars Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, and Jack Haley; actor Buddy Ebsen; orchestral and vocal arranger Ken Darby; Bert Lahr's son and daughter, John and Jane Lahr; Margaret Hamilton's son, Meserve Hamilton; make-up artist William Tuttle; producer Mervyn LeRoy; uncredited writer John Lee Mahin; and uncredited cast member Jerry Maren. The commentary reveals a wealth of background information and pure trivia, a delight of its kind.
If that weren't enough, we also get the featurette "Prettier Than Ever: The Restoration of Oz," eleven minutes; "We Haven't Really Met Properly...Supporting Cast Profile Gallery," narrated by Angela Lansbury, twenty-one minutes; "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" storybook, a ten-minute adaptation read by Angela Lansbury; optional music-and-effects and original mono tracks; and an amazing fifty-five scene selections!
WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY:
Years ago I read a review of "Willy Wonka" that said it was the kind of movie parents love to drag their kids to and then both of them, kids and parents, get bored. Maybe, but I never personally met anyone who didn't like this children's fantasy. In fact, it may be the sort of children's film that is as much or more appreciated by older teens and adults as by youngsters.
The structure of "Willy Wonka" is much the same as "The Wizard of Oz." A child goes on a magical journey filled with laughter, adventure, fantasy, and song and learns a valuable lesson along the way. Children's writer Roald Dahl ("James and the Giant Peach," "The Witches") adapted the 1971 screenplay from his own book, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and Mel Stuart ("If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," "One Is a Lonely Number") directed the film. Dahl was always a writer with more than children in mind, which is why "Willy Wonka" is so bizarre and entertaining for adults. It stars Gene Wilder as the world's greatest chocolate maker, a mysterious figure who long ago locked himself in his factory and hasn't come out since. But for reasons that only become clear at the end of the movie, he decides to hold a contest to open up his plant to a few lucky people. Inside five Wonka Bars he has hidden Golden Tickets worth a trip inside his immense candy factory, plus a lifetime supply of chocolate. The world goes nuts trying to find the prize tickets.
The first person to strike gold is young Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), a greedy, gluttonous, spoiled little German boy who is always eating. The second person to find a ticket is Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), a rich, spoiled, selfish, nasty brat. The third person is Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson), a pushy, spoiled, bad-mannered child who holds the world's record for chewing the same piece of gum. The fourth is Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), a rude, spoiled smart aleck, who watches television all day long. And the fifth winner is our hero, Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), an honest, helpful, loving, hardworking lad.
The first third of the film takes us through the events leading up to the kids' entrance into the candy factory, and that's the part of the film I've always enjoyed the most. Charlie is so poor he lives in a one-room shack with his mother and both pairs of grandparents. The four grandparents occupy a single bed that they haven't gotten out of in years. When Charlie wins his prize, he's allowed to take one person with him and he chooses his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson). Joe is not only his grandfather, he's Charlie's best friend and supporter: "Don't worry, Charlie, you'll find a Golden Ticket," he says, never giving up hope for his grandson.
The film never reveals its setting, but it's clearly a storybook town. The filmmakers used Munich for the actual location shots, the city's gas works filling in for the chocolate factory. Once inside the factory, Mr. Wonka is anything but what we expect, and Wilder has a field day playing a character we sometimes think has a screw loose. His utter composure as he watches each child devilishly dispatched--one going up a chocolate flue, a second down a "bad egg" sorter, another turned into a giant blueberry, and yet a fourth disintegrating into television atoms--is a joy.
Finally, there are the songs, with lyrics and music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley: "The Candy Man," "Cheer Up, Charlie," "I've Got a Golden Ticket," "Pure Imagination," "Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do," and "I Want It Now." Not all of the film works, mind you; I've never been too keen on the mother's number, for instance, or the fact that the mother disappears from the picture so early on. Nor does all of the picture gel well, some of it even seeming mean-spirited, although it isn't meant to be. Yet, who can deny that the film's overall intention is positive, playful fun.
"Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" is good entertainment, colorful and playful for kids, sophisticated and witty for adults. As creative as Tim Burton's version is, I prefer the greater warmth of this original rendition. The movie is filled with good humor, good acting, especially from Wilder and Albertson, and good songs. It's a little drippy at times, yes, but it's just off kilter enough to keep one's attention. 8/10
The picture's aspect ratio is very close to the film's 1.85:1 theatrical-release dimensions, filling up a 1.78:1 widescreen TV quite nicely. More important, the transfer's high-bit-rate, anamorphic image looks excellent, perhaps not as bright or well defined as its high-definition counterpart, but close. The colors are deep and rich, with good object delineation for standard-def. About the only minor flaw in the picture is a fine layer of grain, inherent, no doubt, to the original print. It is especially noticeable in outdoor second-unit footage, but also in scenes like the one in the golden-egg room. Nevertheless, the grain is, as I say, minor, and it is hardly a distraction.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does not do a lot with the rear channels, and it seems a tad bright and edgy to me, particularly in the musical interludes, with the dynamics and frequency extremes a tad limited. Well, the movie is over three decades old, after all, and it didn't have the advantage of today's best digital recording techniques. Still, the Dolby Digital audio sounds fine.
The special features include, first, a feature-length audio commentary with the five Wonka kids, now grown up--Peter Ostrum, Julie Dawn Cole, Denise Nickerson, Pris Themmen, and Michael Bollner. It's a delight to hear about the filmmaking process from the perspective of these adults looking back on their childhood experiences. It is highly entertaining and rewarding.
Then, there's a thirty-minute documentary, "Pure Imagination: The Story of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," that includes interviews with Gene Wilder and the other stars of the film, its director, producer, cowriter, even one of the Oompa-Loompa actors. Among other things, they tell us they made the film expressly for adults, so maybe that explains why it doesn't play down to kids. Also, they tell us that the Quaker Oats Company put up the money to make the film, hoping to bring out a Wonka chocolate bar at the time of the film's release. That's why they changed the film's title from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" to "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory." Something went wrong with the candy bar idea, and it never caught on. Following the documentary, there are four sing-along songs with printed lyrics on screen: "Golden Ticket," "Pure Imagination," "I Want It Now," and "Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do." Next, there's a vintage, 1971 behind-the-scenes featurette, about four minutes; and a widescreen theatrical trailer. Lastly, you'll find forty scene selections; plus English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles.
I can't say I liked this one any better today than when I first saw it in a theater in 1985. Unlike its companion films, "The Goonies" lacks charm, wit, or warmth, yet it appears to remain a hit with children because of its frenetic pace, nonstop slapstick gags, goofy characters, and slightly naughty language. In fact, for a so-called "family" film, there is quite a lot of off-color language involved, but, as I say, that's undoubtedly part of its allure for youngsters.
That the film is not any better than it is comes as something of a surprise, considering the talent involved in its making. Steven Spielberg came up with the story idea and co-produced the movie; Chris Columbus (who later directed "Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire," and the first two "Harry Potter" films) wrote the screenplay; and Richard Donner ("The Omen," "Superman," and the "Lethal Weapon" series) directed it. One look at the result and you can understand why it was probably a good idea that Spielberg not direct it himself. Maybe he knew something the other filmmakers didn't. Still, as I say, the film was a success with children and has been ever since.
"Goonies" is, of course, the name a group of kids call themselves, lower-income kids living in a section of Astoria, Oregon, whose families are being evicted from their houses by evil developers intent on turning their district into a golf course. The fact that their houses are located on the side of a mountain has never seemed to bother anybody, so why should I care? The children are Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin), the only normal kid in the group; Brand Walsh (Josh Brolin), Mikey's older brother; "Chunk" Cohen (Jeff Cohen), a chubby little whiner who either eats or breaks everything he comes near; "Mouth" Devereaux (Corey Feldman), the second-most-obnoxious kid in the group next to Chunk; and "Data" Wang (Jonathan Ke Quan), a techno whiz. They go off on an adventure with Brand's girlfriend, Andy (Kerri Green), and Andy's friend Stef (Martha Plimpton).
Since the kids and their families are being kicked off their property, they've got to do something, so they do what any typical American kids would do--they find a treasure map. And off they go through a series of caves looking for pirate booty, with, coincidentally, a clan of murderous cretins, the Fratellis, in hot pursuit. Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano, and ex-Raider John Matuszak play the Fratelli brothers, and Anne Ramsey plays their mother. It's quite a good cast, mostly reduced to hitting each other a la the Three Stooges.
The movie starts out clamorously with a car chase and continues that way for most of its 114-minute running time. The kids seldom just talk to one another, they scream, making them exaggerated caricatures who are more annoying than amusing. I know "The Goonies" is a children's film so none of the kids in it are going to get seriously hurt, but I really, really wanted Chunk to die. 5/10
The video engineers closely adhere to the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and provide a reasonably high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer. The result is that the picture is bright and well defined, with very little noise or grain. For reasons unknown, however, some scenes come up blurrier and murkier than others.
The disc provides two English-language tracks, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DD 2.0. In 5.1 the bass thunders effectively, rattling window along the way, along with a decent dynamic range. There is also a good, wide front-channel stereo spread, but only limited response in the surrounds, things like rain coming down and water dripping.
The main attraction among the bonus items is an audio commentary (with hidden video treasures) with director Richard Donner and the young cast members, now twenty-odd years older. They first introduce themselves as they sit at a table watching the movie with us, and then the commentary alternates between watching them watching and talking about the movie and the movie itself with their commentary in the background.
Next up is a vintage, six-minute featurette, "The Making of the Goonies," followed by about six minutes of outtakes, a music video, "The Goonies R Good Enough," with Cyndi Lauper, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. Finally, the disc contains thirty-seven scene selections; a cast and crew listing; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
I admit I could have done without "The Goonies," but otherwise this is a fine collection of family classics, offered by Warner Bros. at a reasonable price. The movies look great, they sound great, and at least two of the three ARE great. Seems like a deal to me.