PRINCESS BRIDE, THE - DVD review

This new edition is the best we've seen.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

As you wish . . . .

Director Rob Reiner complains in one of the extras on this two-disc release that "The Princess Bride" wasn't marketed when it first appeared in theaters, and he was afraid that it would become another "Wizard of Oz." Meaning, a great film that fizzles at the box office and becomes a classic only over time. In the case of "The Princess Bride," that happened when it was released on VHS. While it's not exactly the yellow brick road revisited, it has become a classic in its own right, and Reiner finally got his wish. MGM seems to be atoning for earlier marketing snubs and flubs by pushing two versions of the film on identical two-disc sets: the Buttercup Edition (presumably for all those little would-be princesses out there) and the Dread Pirate Roberts Edition (for all the boys who, like Fred Savage in the movie, hate mushy stuff like kissing). Different packages, same insides. It's no mindbender—just different covers for different genders.

No more rhyming, I mean it!
Anybody want a peanut?


On one of two commentary tracks, Reiner tells a funny story (in his droll, understated way) about an experience he had at a restaurant. Mobster John Gotti walks in with his "wise guys" and sits down to dinner, and with both men recognizing each other, they nod. When it comes time to leave, one of Gotti's lieutenants, "a big Lucca Brazi" guy, walks right up to Reiner and says, "You killed my father. Prepare to die." Of course, Reiner says that he about soiled his underwear, but later thought of the episode, "When one of Gotti's wise guys is quoting your lines, you know you're penetrating the culture."

Inconceivable!

Reiner says that "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die" is the most quoted line from any of his pictures, with runners-up being "I'll have what she's having" (spoken by Reiner's mom in the faked-orgasm restaurant scene from "When Harry Met Sally") and "You can't handle the truth" (which Jack Nicholson says in "A Few Good Men"). But there are a ton of fun, quotable lines in "The Princess Bride," and that's partly what makes the film so fun to watch. Reiner and the MGM folks certainly know this, because a trivia quiz tests fans knowledge on some of the most memorable lines. How smart do you have to be to win?

Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? MORONS.

This edition is filled with fun facts and information, with writer William Goldman appearing on a full-length commentary and talking about the genesis of his book and his take on the film. The concept and title came from his two daughters, whom he had asked in 1973, after he had just finished a book, what he should write about next. "A princess," one of them said. "A bride," the other one voted. Norman Jewison wanted to do a film version of Goldman's popular novel, but couldn't raise the money. When Reiner approached Goldman many years later, the writer watched Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" with his daughters, and laughed so hard that he knew that the former "Meathead" on "All in the Family" was the right person to make this strange film, which blends comedy, fairy tale romance, and swashbuckling adventure. And how did Reiner manage to get the tone right? He decided to hire comedic actors and then have them play it mostly straight. Or, as one of the stars says, Reiner told all of them to play it like they're playing cards, and almost showing the audience their cards, but not quite.

Get used to disappointment.

Except for substituting the Pit of Despair for the Zoo of Death, the film version of "The Princess Bride" stays pretty close to the book. As in the book, it's a frame story with interruptions. Peter Falk plays the grandfather to ailing lad Savage, intent on reading a story—this story—to a boy he feels is spending too much time on TV and video games. So he begins, saying he will only read the "good parts" and skip the mush.

Liar! LIAR!

Buttercup (Robin Wright), a girl of Florin, grows up with two loves—riding horses and tormenting the local farm boy, Westley (Cary Elwes). Whatever her request, he responds, "As you wish." But their love is apparently not to be. When he goes off to sea and is thought dead, Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). Three goofy goons (Wallace Shawn as brainy Vizini, Andre the Giant as Fezzik, and Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya) kidnap the princess-to-be in an attempt to try to start a war between Florin and neighboring Guilder. But someone is following them, and it's not just the Prince and his six-fingered henchman (Christopher Guest). It's the Dread Pirate Roberts, who has to be stopped, even if it means having the giant throw gigantic rocks at his head.

My way is not very sporting.

The tone is flat-out perfect in this film, with the cast somehow managing to juggle the comedy, romance, and adventure, and the cutaways to the grandfather reading the story reinforcing that this film is a celebration of storytelling itself. In a particularly interesting bonus feature, scholars discuss "The Princess Bride" in relation to fairy tales, with one of them pointing out that this story begins at the point where most fairy tales end: with a commoner becoming engaged to royalty. That twist all but defines the film in the early going as both fairy tale and satire of fairy tale conventions. In that respect it's like a live-action Shrek, with United Kingdom locations and painted backgrounds combining to create a perfectly magical look.

Have fun stormin' the castle!

Billy Crystal and Carol Kane were so hilarious as Miracle Max and his wife, Valerie, that Patinkin said his only injury during filming came from trying to hold back laughter. There are comedic moments throughout, but rousing moments as well. Whether it's R.O.U.S's (rodents of unusual size), giants, screaming eels, pits of despair, cliffs of insanity, fireswamps, or swordfights that rival any of the swashbucklers, there are more than enough elements to sate the appetites of budding Dread Pirate Roberts, and a romantic storyline about true love that brings in elements from the famous princess fairy tales. "The Princess Bride" just seems to get better with every viewing, and that's a tribute to the relatively complex (but easy to follow) storyline, the endearing characters, and the witty writing. Patinkin calls it "The Wizard of Oz" of our generation, and that's not an inconceivable way to describe it.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Video: This version is remastered in High Definition, and it looks great in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. There's plenty of contrast, good color saturation, and fine delineation, even in low-lit scenes such as the Fire Swamp.

Audio: The audio is a robust English Dolby Digital 5.1, with French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround options and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The sound is clear and rich, with no distortion or production hiss.

Extras: Overall, a nice package. Goldman's commentary—and Reiner's too, for that matter—is pretty low-key, with numerous silences. There's not as much book/film comparisons as you'd expect from either, but enough to make you want to go out and read the novel and its sequel, The Silent Gondolier, after seeing the film and all the bonus features. As commentaries go, though, these are pretty average.

Two new documentaries were made especially for this release: "Dread Pirate Roberts: Greatest Legend of the Seven Seas" and "As You Wish: The Story of 'The Princess Bride.'" The former seems trumped up just to package this two ways. It feels padded, with the only premise being this question: Did S. Morgenstern (the "original" writer, invented by Goldman to add a timeless element) have actual pirate Bartholomew Roberts in mind when writing the Dread Pirate Roberts character? As scholars speculate, you have to just shrug and think, why not ask Goldman? Obviously, because that would kill the feature. A better extra is the making-of behind-the-scenes story of filming, which includes the usual splicing of talking heads, film clips, and behind-the-scenes shots with one exception: intercut as well are some of those quotable lines, cleverly placed throughout to make it more entertaining.

Among the extras, I actually preferred the two vintage ones included here, a 1987 promo featurette and Cary Elwes' behind-the-scenes "home movies" on the set. There's a bit of overlapping with a "Miraculous Make-Up" featurette and the big making-of feature, but it's still good to hear some of the stories about Crystal and his antics and see him backstage.

The extras blur a bit, but somewhere on all these features you get anecdotes about how Reiner almost drowned in the tank used to film the screaming eel sequence, and how Elwes had to be taken to the hospital after a whack on the noggin from Guest's sword handle. Things like that pop up here and there, making for a kind of treasure hunt as you poke around the extras.

Rounding out the bonus features is the trivia game, a printed booklet on "Fezzik's Guide to Florin" which is a better concept than it is an actual entertainment, a photo gallery, and the "Love is Like a Storybook" featurette in which scholars Helen Pilinovsky (Columbia) and Veronica Schanoes (Univ. of Pennsylvania) are joined by author-screenwriter David Pesci as they point out the fairy tale and adventure story conventions in "The Princess Bride."

Bottom Line: Like "The Wizard of Oz," "The Princess Bride" wasn't heavily promoted and had disappointing box office returns. Both films had great casts who were ignored by Oscar voters and a great song that won an Academy Award. It's tough to label anything as recent as a 1987 a classic, but "The Princess Bride" really fits the description. It's the same place, some 20 years after its release, as "The Wizard of Oz"—a beloved favorite that's been watched, now, by more than a single generation. The screenplay by William Goldman, who won Oscars for "All the King's Men" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," is as smart and entertaining as ever, and this new edition is the best we've seen.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
8
Film Value
9