SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE – DVD review

Given that “The Shawshank Redemption” was, as of this writing, the second most-highly regarded film among the voting public at the Internet Movie Database (second only to “The Godfather” and tied with “The Return of the King” but having received more votes than either of them), and given that WB’s first release of “Shawshank” on DVD was a no-frills affair with practically no extras, it seemed about time the studio put out a Special Edition to celebrate the 1994 film. The director’s commentary, the documentaries, and the other bonus items on this new, two-disc, tenth-anniversary set make the movie all that much more appealing. And for folks wanting something even more extra-special, there’s a Deluxe Limited Edition available, which includes a soundtrack CD and a collector’s book of production notes.

As my associate at DVD Town, Eddie Feng, pointed out after attending a pre-rerelease screening of the movie recently, it was a film “that was saved from oblivion by home video.” Very true. “Shawshank” did only moderate business in theaters, despite its being nominated for a slew of Academy Awards. It was only well after the film’s initial theatrical release and especially during its video run that it gained the enormous popularity it enjoys today.

See if this doesn’t sound familiar: You heard about “The Shawshank Redemption” when it first came out, but you didn’t think it would be something you’d want to see. You didn’t notice the fine print that said it was based on a story by Stephen King; you just didn’t think the title sounded promising. Then you heard about how good it was from friends. And neighbors. And relatives. And people you met standing in line at the supermarket. When you finally did see it, you loved it.

“Shawshank” is long and occasionally drags, but it grows on you. I, too, had to be persuaded to give it a chance. Since then, I’ve loved it each of the times I’ve watched it, especially this third or fourth viewing on DVD.

The movie is about two men serving time at Maine’s Shawshank State Prison–Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, and Ellis “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Since Freeman narrates in a voice-over, it’s already a hands-down winner. Andy is a new inmate beginning a life sentence in 1947, having been unjustly convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover. Red is a longtime lifer who eventually takes the younger man under his wing. The movie covers nineteen years of their lives in prison, the slow, unvarying passage of time marked mainly by the changes in poster girls on Andy’s wall, from Rita Hayworth to Marilyn Monroe to Raquel Welch.

Andy was the vice president of a bank on the outside, and he puts his financial skills to good use in the prison, particularly in doing some fancy, illegal book work for the corrupt warden. Red, on the other hand, is a guy who simply gets things for people; you name it, and he’ll get it. Year after year, the parole board rejects Red’s release, and year after year Red becomes more resigned to it.

Based on a short novel by Stephen King, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the movie is as much a fantasy as any of King’s horror stories, yet thanks to screenwriter and director Frank Darabont, there isn’t a moment we don’t want to believe in. Darabont uniquely blends humor and violence, sweetness and brutality, in what may be the best “feel-good” movie of the last twenty years. Ultimately, it is a story of hope and triumph, a tribute to Man’s ability to overcome all odds. Andy never fails to astound us with his courage and cunning. He manages to ingratiate himself with the guards when he begins doing their tax returns and with the inmates when he helps build the finest prison library in Maine. (And managing to get them a cold beer on a hot day doesn’t hurt, either.) Andy’s final surprise, though, is his best, and it is enough to encourage even old Red to face the real world.

In a way, “The Shawshank Redemption” is itself a testament to overcoming odds. It is sentimental and stereotyped, yet we are able not only to suspend our disbelief but to root for it all the way.

Yes, there is the usual sadistic guard like Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), who delights in beating prisoners to death; the compliant fellow guards who go along with the inhumanity; the hypocritical head honcho, Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), who preaches from the Bible while arranging murders in his own penitentiary; and the customary assortment of colorful characters like Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore in a standout performance), who is so institutionalized he cannot cope with the outside world when he’s finally released after a lifetime inside. But we expect these people. It wouldn’t be an old-time, inspirational-type prison yarn without them.

In a coincidental injustice, the film was nominated for a heap of Oscars in 1994–Best Picture, Best Actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Music, and Best Sound–but won none. Admittedly, a number of other good films were up for Awards, “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and “Quiz Show” among them. But I’m guessing that as the years pass, it will be “Shawshank” and “Pulp Fiction” that will turn into bona fide classics, if they haven’t already. Oh, well.

Do be aware, incidentally, that in addition to the film’s uplifting charms, it deals primarily with a depressing subject, and it is not without its darker side. Bloodshed, rape, sexual situations, and strong profanity earn it a rightful R rating. “It’s a Wonderful Life” it is not.

Video:
The first thing I did here was compare the picture quality of WB’s earlier “Shawshank” DVD release with this new one, checking a half a dozen specific scenes in each copy. The results I obtained show that the two transfers are virtually the same, the newer one seeming perhaps a tad brighter, with almost the same bit rates used for both. I also found the enhanced, anamorphic screen size essentially the same for both, measuring a ratio approximately 1.77:1 across my standard-screen HD television. While there appear to be minor differences in framing, the differences seem inconsequential. The picture quality remains mostly clean and clear, with fairly good color separation and very little noticeable grain, even in darker passages. For all intents and purposes, I would have to conclude that this transfer is close enough to the transfer of the previous edition not to quibble.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio also sounds the same to me, working more extensively in the front channels than in the rear, which have little to do beyond reproducing a few moments of dining hall ambiance or crickets in the wind. Since this is mainly a story of narration and dialogue, don’t expect anything spectacular from the sonics, which are subtle but effective. So, if the sound and picture remain virtually the same, what is the advantage of the new Special Edition? Read on.

Extras:
There were no real bonus items to speak of on WB’s first release of “Shawshank,” surprising considering the broad public interest in this film and how long Warners took to bring it out on DVD. But now they have rectified the situation with this two-disc set. Disc one contains, besides the feature presentation and the same forty scene selections, a new audio commentary by director Frank Darabont and a pan-and-scan (pan-and-scan?) theatrical trailer. The spoken-language choices remain English and French, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Disc two contains a variety of interesting things. The first is a newly made, thirty-minute documentary, “Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at the Shawshank Redemption.” It includes the usual comments from the cast and crew and a remark from Tim Robbins I can’t let pass. He says, “All the best movies were ignored when they first came out.” That is certainly true of things like “Citizen Kane” and “The Wizard of Oz,” but just as many examples can be cited of classic films that were enormously popular and critically well received when they first came out, things like “Casablanca,” “Gone With the Wind,” the first two “Godfather” films, “Star Wars,” and something as recent as “The Lord of the Rings.” But I get his point, exaggerated or not; some things do take time to simmer and ripen.

The next item on disc two is also a documentary, “Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature,” forty-eight minutes long and made in 2001 for British TV. Here, Darabont admits that director Frank Capra was one of his inspirations growing up; and, taking a cue from George Lucas, he acknowledges the influence of Joseph Campbell in shaping the movie’s character Andy as a mythical hero. After that, there’s a recent, forty-two minute segment of “The Charlie Rose Show” featuring a roundtable discussion with Rose, Frank Darabont, Tim Robbins, and Morgan Freeman.

As a kind of counterbalance to the relative seriousness of the documentaries, commentaries, and discussions, disc two also contains a twenty-five minute comic spoof called “The Sharktank Redemption.” It was written and directed by Doug and Natalie van Doren in 2000, and it portrays the life of two guys who feel trapped in the prison of a Hollywood talent agency. They dream of escaping their office cubicles, and, of course, they do. Its humor is cute and restrained. Finally, there are photo galleries, storyboards, a promo for art work from the film, and a DVD-ROM Web link.

Parting Thoughts:
Anybody who likes “Shawshank,” and that’s just about anybody who’s seen it, might also enjoy another prison picture of equal merit, Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke” from 1967. The older film, available on DVD, explores similar themes of personal worth but takes it a step further in a parable of New Testament proportions. Both films have the benefit of being thoughtful and entertaining without being overly preachy.

“The Shawshank Redemption” is not a great movie in the canon of great and influential Hollywood movies, but as each year passes, I think of it more and more as a true classic. If you give it a chance, it can easily become one of your favorite films, and the two-disc Special Edition makes it all the easier.

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