Sony // 1994 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 9th, 2001
She was everything they dreamed of...And nothing they expected.
Phoebe Cates (Drop Dead Fred, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) shines as the lead in a fine ensemble cast in Princess Caraboo, a charming fairy tale of a film. A beautiful piece of work, it combines subtle and not-so-subtle comedy with a hint of romance and a bit of a mystery to defy pigeonholing into a genre. Columbia inexplicably gives us the film on DVD with a pan&scan transfer, despite the fact that the laserdisc is in widescreen. The film is fine for the whole family, and it seems whenever the dreaded word "family" goes into the description of a film, the studios think "pan&scan."
Supposedly based on a true story, Princess Caraboo tells the tale of an exotic-looking young woman (Phoebe Cates), who is found on the road and mistakenly arrested for begging. She has a mysterious and almost regal air about her, but doesn't speak English. A couple (Jim Broadbent and Wendy Hughes) takes the girl in, and speculation quickly becomes assumption that the mysterious woman is some type of foreign princess.
The woman has a profound impact on nearly everyone she comes in contact with; the aristocracy wants to be seen with her to raise their own social standing, the Greek butler Frixos (Kevin Kline, Dave) thinks her an impostor and tries to expose her, an Oxford scholar (John Lithgow) tries to learn her language while becoming hopelessly infatuated, and a young journalist (Stephen Rea, Interview with the Vampire) is curious and tries to uncover the truth about her, but is falling in love with her.
This is a fairy tale come to life; the warm and intelligent story kept my interest every minute, as I sought to find out the truth along with the other characters. Phoebe Cates, though she goes through much of the film without speaking a word of English, carries the role so well that she is utterly captivating. This is positively her best work among a somewhat short list of films. Her real-life marriage to Kevin Kline has led to her semi-retirement from acting, and only now do we see what we've been missing from her absence.
The supporting cast is wonderful as well. Kevin Kline's character has such an early antipathy for Caraboo that it makes for unintentional humor when you realize the two are really married, but he never lets you in on the joke. His character is something of a farce, but it is well played. Stephen Rea is at his best as well; his portrayal of the journalist is sensitive and interesting. He plays the sleuth for us, uncovering the facts as the film progresses. Each of the other supporting cast adds their own contribution; none let us down.
The production values are high, with lavish sets, locations, and costumes. The whole film comes together to make this film a real forgotten gem, worthy of being seen by the whole family.
I wish I could say my sentiments were equally positive about the DVD presentation. Despite the first line in the advertising of the features saying "Digitally Mastered Video, Anamorphic Video," the film is shown in the pan&scan format only. Apparently the opening and closing credits being in widescreen allows for this deceptive way of describing the disc. Though I hate pan&scan transfers with a passion, I'm not averse to discs that use anamorphic widescreen on one side and the hated cropped version on the other. This should have been a two-sided disc offering both. It is especially egregious considering the laserdisc version of the film kept the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
If a new, dazzling transfer were only available in the cropped format and was offered here it could have been a mitigating factor. It is not. The transfer looks as if no extra efforts were made to provide a high quality image. Certainly the picture is watchable; the colors are adequate if a bit faded, contrast levels are constant, and the level of detail is adequate if underwhelming. If that sounds like faint praise, it is. I've seen much worse, but I'm still disappointed with Columbia, who has been a strong supporter of anamorphic widescreen and usually does a better job with their transfers. Audio is a workmanlike Dolby Surround; this is a dialogue driven film and the only times the rear channels wake up are for the musical score and a handful of atmospheric or ambient sounds. You can hear the dialogue well enough and that's about all the film needs.
Extras on the disc are limited to talent files for the cast and crew, the film's original theatrical trailer, and bonus trailers for Sense and Sensibility, Running Free and Fly Away Home. I didn't expect much in the way of extra content, but the lack of significant extras about the film only reinforces my belief that this was a lesser effort from Columbia, done without truly caring about the DVD presentation.
Princess Caraboo certainly deserves watching, and at the retail price of $19.98 the cost is low, but the pan&scan transfer should dissuade all but those who actually like losing much of the picture they are watching. A rental would be in order, just so you can see this fine little film.
Columbia is indicted for providing only a pan&scan transfer for a "family" film, and listening to marketing executives instead of their own love of film. Films deserve to be seen as they were originally intended; you can never improve upon it by cropping out the sides. The film acquits itself; no ruling is required.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Talent Files