MGM // 1988 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 2nd, 2009
She gets kidnapped. He gets killed. But it all ends up okay.
"My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
A young boy (Fred Savage, The Wonder Years) is feeling ill, and he's had nothing to do but play video games and watch television. His grandfather (Peter Falk, Wings of Desire) comes over to visit, and volunteers to tell him a story. Initially, the boy balks at the idea, but finally gives in. He isn't particularly happy when he hears that the story is called The Princess Bride. It opens with romance and kissing. Yuck!
Anyway, in this story, a long time ago in a land far, far away, there was a beautiful young woman named Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn, What Just Happened). She was in love with a farm hand named Westley (Cary Elwes, Saw), but tragic circumstances pushed the two young lovers apart. Fast forward several years. Buttercup is planning to marry the haughty Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon, Child's Play), who will one day be King of Florin. Alas, shortly after the wedding is announced, Buttercup is kidnapped for political purposes by a group of colorful knaves. The leader is The Sicilian (Wallace Shawn, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl), whose wit and intellect are often undercut by his quick temper. The muscle of the group is Fezzik (Andre the Giant, Trading Mom), a hulking giant of a man who loves making rhymes. The third member of the group is Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin, Criminal Minds), a skilled swordsman whose life goal is to get revenge on the six-fingered man who killed Montoya's father.
Unfortunately for these scoundrels (and fortunately for Buttercup), a rescue attempt is underway. Westley (who is now known to most as the Dread Pirate Roberts) has heard of Buttercup's plight, and he is determined to get her back. Even if he does, will Westley be able to keep Buttercup out of the clutches of Prince Humperdink? Will wuv, twue wuv pwevail in the end? Will Inigo Montoya ever find the man who killed his father? It may seem inconceivable, but you'll find all these answers and more within the charming fantasy The Princess Bride.
It's now time for another episode of True Confessions with Judge Clark Douglas. Today's true confession: I quite like The Princess Bride, but I don't think it's a modern masterpiece, and I don't think that the past 20+ years have been particularly kind to the film. I understand that some of you may feel a passionate need to throw eggs and hiss, as there are few family films as treasured and well-loved as this one. It's understandable, it really is, particularly if you were around when The Princess Bride was released. At the time, it felt like a breath of fresh air, offering a gentle but irreverent ribbing of the fairy tale genre. What fun! Alas, these days there are seemingly endless films and television shows that mock fairy tales, so many that I wonder if a modern child would actually recognize an honest-to-goodness fairy tale if he/she heard one. When contrasted with the likes of, say, the frantic Shrek or Unstable Fables franchises, The Princess Bride seems very sincere and straightforward. The emotional heart of the film has held up, but the humor has been so thoroughly imitated and bastardized that many of the jokes have lost their spark. It's a nasty thing: good jokes have been used as the roots of bad jokes, rendering the good jokes impotent.
Ah, but let's focus on the positive for now, shall we? The Princess Bride might not make me laugh out loud anymore the way it did when I was younger, but it still makes me smile. All of the characters here, even the smaller ones, are wonderfully well-developed and engaging. For me, the strongest portion of the film is the sequence in which Westley must accept challenges from all three of Buttercup's kidnappers. These scenes sparkle with playful wit, culminating in the wonderfully entertaining battle of the brains between Westley and The Sicilian. The framing device of an old man telling the story to his grandson is a very successful one, as the young boy slowly but surely manages to toss aside his skepticism about mushy fairy tales and becomes thoroughly enraptured with the story. The story is so thoroughly engrossing that it remains jarring every time the young man and his grandson interrupt to remind us that we are hearing a story. I particularly like the bit in which screaming eels are about to eat Princess Buttercup, and the grandfather intentionally deflates the suspense by assuring us that she doesn't get eaten.
Lead actor Cary Elwes has been in a lot of popular films over the course of his career, but he will probably always remain best-known for his performance as Westley. It's a very fine acting turn; Elwes does a nice job of subtly satirizing old-fashioned movie heroism. Robin Wright Penn (simply Robin Wright at the time) is also appealing as Buttercup, though she is more or less stuck with the role of "straight (wo)man" here. The three kidnappers steal the show. Mandy Patinkin is amusingly touching in his role, while Andre the Giant makes the most of his limited abilities to create a lovable lug. Best of all is Wallace Shawn, whose character is nothing short of delightful. Chris Sarandon and Christopher Guest have fun oozing different sorts of slime, and there are fun cameos from Peter Cook, Billy Crystal, and Carol Kane.
The hi-def transfer here is rather ordinary, but reasonably acceptable. There are less scratches and flecks here than there were on previous DVD releases, and the level of detail is quite impressive (particularly facial detail). Flesh tones are accurate, and blacks are reasonably deep. I don't really mind having some grain present, but it does seem just a bit too heavy at times. The audio is solid here, even if The Princess Bride is a relatively quiet film for being such an action-packed fantasy. The most impressive audio turns up during the screaming eels sequence, but the track is generally well-balanced and immersive throughout. Dialogue sounds exceptionally crisp and clean for a film as old as this one.
Almost all of the supplements on the disc were available on the previous DVD releases. Two audio commentaries; a good one with writer William Goldman, a weak one with director Rob Reiner. Seven featurettes: "As You Wish: The Story of the Princess Bride" (27 minutes, and the best of the lot), "The Art of Fencing" (7 minutes), "Cary Elwes Video Diary" (4 minutes), "The Dread Pirate Roberts: Greatest Pirate of the Seven Seas" (11 minutes), "Fairytales and Folklore" (9 minutes), "Princess Bride: The Untold Tales" (9 minutes), and "Princess Bride: Miraculous Makeup" (11 minutes). Reasonably engaging material, even though we've seen it all before (and it's a bit lightweight, too). The second disc houses a DVD version of the film, three of the aforementioned featurettes, and the only new supplement: a dull interactive Princess Bride game. It was going to be either that or a pop-up trivia track, right?
As I mentioned earlier, I think the film has dated a bit. Not only does it lose some of its comic edge at the hands of subsequent fairy tale spoofs that took things a bit further (though I'm not saying they're better), the film also feels very much like a product of the 1980s. This is a story that should feel timeless. Okay, having the film open with scenes from an ultra-dated video game and showing us a kid's room filled with '80s memorabilia is perfectly understandable. However, Mark Knopfler's synthetic music is an increasingly problematic liability. It seems to set The Princess Bride in a very particular era, and has begun to sound cheesy and limp as the years have gone by. I know the score has it's ardent admirers, but I think it's a real shame that The Princess Bride didn't receive more organic, timeless musical accompaniment.
If you're one of the many folks who love the film, you know you want to own it in hi-def. For more casual admirers such as myself, I'm not sure this Blu-ray disc offers quite enough to make it worth an upgrade. If the transfer had been just a bit less grainy, or if a few new supplements had been included, perhaps...but as it is, this set falls just a notch short for all but dedicated fans of the film.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Interactive Game
* DVD copy