Judge Neil Dorsett didn't mind being stuck on a long drive with this legend-spinning movie.
"It is said that the young people of today are the warriors of tomorrow. I look at you and I think, 'We're in big trouble.'"
Throughout history, there has long been a legend of a grandfather. This grandfather is old, and he is weak, but he is wise, and he knows many tales. The young generation, alas, often takes a poor attitude toward the tales, and must be in some way confined in order to be regaled with the stories that the stories might survive the grandfather and be passed down to the next generation for their enjoyment. And this grandfather, due to his strength of character, is able to pass down his tales and heritage to the formerly unwilling apprentice, allowing the stories to continue their life on the winds of the lips of the living.
Facts of the Case
All right, I am having a bit of fun up there with the similarities that this movie has to The Princess Bride, and many others which have featured a similar storyteller structure. That this movie uses such a structure is entirely appropriate, in fact, the structure is the stuff of legend itself. As soon as the picture begins with the exciting tale of Eagle Boy, who demands a sign from the gods again and again despite their warnings that his hubris has a price, we know that Old Pete, the grandfather in question, is going to play Scheherazade and that his grandson will become a more rapt audience as the film goes on. Thus the movie gets swiftly out of its own way, putting most of the real-world characters firmly in place within 15 minutes, and proceeds to be dominated by an impressive number of legends themselves. Before returning to Eagle Boy we meet Shane, a disaffected young man whose inability to manage money has gotten him in trouble not only with his girlfriend (in a scene based around the phrase "Indian giver," making Shane seem all the more pathetic a young man for living up to an unpleasant stereotype) but also the reservation's crime gang. Shane is attempting to join the gang, but he's alienated them by stealing their boom box. Pete, on the other hand, sits out front of the family's home, wasting away in his dotage (he is 100 years old). Pete wants to go to one last Pow-Wow so he can celebrate his heritage once more, but his real plan is just to rope Shane into an extended road trip; who better to pass along those stories than his grandson? Pete is wise, however, and doesn't play his cards openly, spinning the legends as if he were merely passing the time. Who can doubt that redemption and maturity for Shane will lie at the end of this tale following some conquerable difficulties? Indeed, this is all in service of the stories, and of stories there are aplenty. Stories enough, perhaps, to change the world right in front of a troubled young guy's eyes.
The vain Eagle Boy's tale is completed swiftly and followed by a more mundane Lakota legend, that of the winsome Bluebird Woman (Sage) and her consort, High Horse (Sean Mei Wah), and his struggle to win her hand despite her deadly father's protests. The unlikely idea to sneak in and steal Bluebird Woman backfires mightily on High Horse, and only his strange adventures as an outcast brave can allow him to make the prodigal return and win the hand of his love…
A Mohawk tribe is eyed by a thunder spirit in the next tale. He desires a woman of the cornfields, and seeks to woo her. This segment includes a standout moment recreating a traditional storyteller's ability to fake out the listener. The results of this love are painful indeed for both parties and now the sky weeps in response…
Tejan (Scott Grimes) is a red-haired Caucasian who lives among the Kiowa near a Union fort. When he's thrown out of the tribe by a powerful brave, Tejan is picked up by the Union army and ordered to betray the tribe who had spurned him—but his adoptive sister, Talks-A-Lot (Delanna Studi), talks, well, a lot, working a dramatic rescue before the real confrontation begins…
Coyote (John Trudell) and his drinking buddy, Iktome (Gary Farmer, "Nobody" from Dead Man) stutter and stumble their way through a couple of tales of their tricksterdom shown in outlandish light and strangely cranked speeds…
A young Quillwoman seeks brothers, but is chosen by the Buffalo King as his bride after finding them, growing to the size of the world while they escape by means of enlarging a tree in a fantastic sequence mythologizing some inhabitants of the heavens…
And this is not all. Eagle Boy's tale also continues throughout the film, including a spectacular confrontation with a gigantic serpent that lives in a puddle. Eagle Boy grows along with Shane as he and Pete continue their trek on horseback after the truck's sad demise. They meet with some hazards, some hotties, and a couple of real opportunities for growth and renewal. And all the while, the legends spin their way, as Pete says of the Raven, from the past into the future: so as to always travel a straight line.
One thing that should be mentioned prominently about Dreamkeeper is that it won a whole slew of awards at the 2003 American Indian Film Festival, including Best Film, Best Actor (August Schellenberg), Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Spears, who as Shane really has the role with the character arc), Best Supporting Actress (Delanna Studi), and Best Upcoming Actor (the absolutely beautiful Sage, as both Bluebird Woman and Shane's girlfriend, Mae Little Wounded). Whew!
For a three-hour presentation, Dreamkeeper moves along at a pretty good clip. This movie does not suffer from padding; indeed, it is overflowing with content (and, in one odd scene with white businessmen, tumbling in from the future). The opening sequence with Eagle Boy is an exciting and tense introduction, and the bear-mountain effect is really quite something. The legendary setting allows for some extreme stylization in the abundant digital special effects department, and this is put to obvious good use, making the movie seem really very slick in comparison to much of television fantasy. From the painterly display behind the Thunder Spirit's Mohawk bride, Woman-From-Down-In-the-Corn, to the quick hallucinatory edits experienced by Shane in the truck, nearly all of these effects show a great deal of skill and energy. A sequence in which a swarm of digitally rendered insects stalks the car at a discreet distance, forming shapes to reflect their conversation as it moves along with the truck, rather like the insect swarm from the old skating video game 720° combined with the mimicking fish school of Finding Nemo. Indeed, some of the flourishes, particularly the faux camera moves through objects in the vein of Fight Club's opening titles, seem at first to have little connection to the overall picture and may merely be there to spice things up. One dynamic shot whips into the truck's front grille and all the way through the air system until it comes out the back left-hand side exhaust of their horse trailer! However, as the skeptical Shane becomes more involved with the Pow-Wow that takes place not at their destination but along the trek inside Many-Miles-With-No-Muffler and beyond, the real world and the world of legend begin to merge as Grandfather communicates his living world of metaphor to his ascendant heir, making these flourishes seem more appropriate.
The acting in Dreamkeeper runs a pretty fair gamut of believability. Schellenberg is consistently even, delivering a steady personalization of a character that would run danger of seeming like a stereotype in lesser hands. Pete's personal idiosyncrasies are fleshed out in the script, but it is Schellenberg who sells the part. Mysticism in the sense presented here is a tough sell in the western world generally; we (westerners) as a culture tend to think such things need be embodied literally in order to have relevance, though we do not demand that of non-religious fables. Dreamkeeper, and its central spinner of tales, Old Pete, know that the metaphor has value not literally, but in application, and the movie demonstrates this with Shane's own adventure of initiation, resonating with shades of The Wizard of Oz's conclusion ("You were there…") or the red knight of Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King. The two worlds collide as we see that perhaps the metaphors are embodied, with the car full of boombox-less gangsters becoming a foursome of mounted braves. Pete? One look tells you he's seen it all before. Spears as Shane is less convincing but pulls his weight. Much of the rest of the cast is dedicated to the portrayal of the legendary characters, and portrayal of legendary characters is just a different sort of animal; indeed, the oldest in the acting trade. Most of the dialogue in the stories is expository and the settings are highly visual, so this called for more expressive physical acting, and more formalized as well. This is what is delivered. The only uncomfortable spot is the looping involved with Eagle Boy, played physically by Chaske Spencer but voiced post-production by David Midthunder. In the legends there is a clear attempt to delineate between tribal traditions and this works very well, with subtitles explaining who and when at the beginning of each segment.
One surprising facet of this television miniseries without commercials is that, due to its anthological format and brisk pace, the breaks don't really show very badly at all. The same format factor allows easy chapterization for pausing from this presentation, which is also a nice thing, given that is long and of such even keel. Since the movie has no real aim to build tension through suspense and commercial space was provided for, a break in this movie seems actually to aid in the fashion of an old-school intermission, allowing one to settle back into the truck with Shane and Pete for another set of tales. The stories are rather short for the most part, precluding a deep emotional contact with their characters, but the movie makes up for that both in volume and in its slowly circling progressive mind-meld between Old Pete and his listener. This is a comfortable movie that wants you to relax for a slow ride in a truck with no muffler. Which, in retrospect, does not seem an ideal location for passing down legends, but Pete will take what he can get. However, it does make one wonder why the screenwriters might not have been more merciful, perhaps changing the truck's name to Many-Miles-With-Bald-Tires in an effort to keep Pete from having to shout. I kid. The truck is fine. That truck serves the movie for about forty solid minutes of screen time and allows Hallmark and director Steve Barron to spend more money on great-looking stylized digital effects in the legends, and that truck does it all without getting especially boring. I salute you, Many-Miles-With-No-Muffler.
Audio is provided in two mixes, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround. The latter plays by default. The Pro-Logic mix is rather weak, a typical in-home broadcast presentation from the Hallmark channel. The 5.1 mix, by comparison, has very good range and serves the movie's special effects very well. There are also a lot of drums in this movie, and they get effectively loud and expansive when they need to. Directional sound manipulation is not that much in evidence on the whole. Video, on the other hand, is rather unfortunate. Edge artifacts are visible on high-contrast lines of medium to long distance. The disc is dual-layered, so even at three full hours, compression should not be a problem. Yet, there it is—shaggy, stuttery panning and a slight ghosting effect to nearly all the motion. Dreamkeeper seems to have had a film or 24 frame-per-second video source, and the presentation, perhaps edited in the TV video realm, has an embedded 3:2 pulldown (a timing correction mechanism for film-to-TV transfers)—worse, it seems to have two pulldowns, resulting in an extremely strange interlacing pattern that stutters madly when played back on a PC (on a set top player the effects will be less noticeable, but it still might "feel" strange). Yet the film source is evident from the occasional fully rendered frame during a pan—if the source were video, that solid frame should never show up. I've seen this before on discs like The Navigator and have heard the effect attributed to PAL back-transfer (surely not an issue here) or the laying of a second 3:2 pulldown on top of the first—an error that's hard to forgive in an amateur encoder, let alone a professional. It also produces the kind of picture softness that's sometimes blamed inappropriately on the data rate—in this case, the dual layer disc should have been ample for an excellent encoding job even at three hours, but this interlacing problem gets right in the way, to the point that if the transfer were done without this messiness, a single-layer disc would still have looked better than this. It's 2004, it is time to stop with the embedded pulldowns, especially if there's already one there! For those who need the pulldown, it's a good thing that every DVD player ever made is capable of putting it in when it needs to be there.
Now that I've waxed technical far beyond all necessity, let's take a look at the bonus features. And Dreamkeeper is loaded. First off, a Hallmark "Trailer Gallery" presents, in sequence only, trailers for Dinotopia,Dinotopia the Series, and a version of The Lion in Winter starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close.
Included are also a 30-minute featurette on the making of Dreamkeeper, which tantalizes you with delicious cinemascope-width images of Woman-Who-Works-in-the-Corn, and then they crop them, and that's what you see in the movie—or is it only a test? The featurette, which never establishes the movie's original aspect ratio after throwing it into doubt with the footage described above, is fairly involved and has the advantage of including many little-interviewed actors as well as a lot of frank talk from director Steve Barron and writer John Fusco. It also looks a good bit better, picture-wise, than the movie itself. Barron also provides a running commentary, and this movie never leaves him short of things, primarily practical, to talk about. The package also goes so far as to include an audio CD of its own original soundtrack recording. I won't try to rate the recording as I'm not a music critic, but it seemed to work well enough along with the movie. Its inclusion does prove definitively, however, and beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Hallmark wasn't trying to cash in on it separately. Should one cotton to the music, this is a far handier and more thoughtful bonus inclusion than those discs that simply package the soundtrack audio on the DVD itself. The package design utilizes high foreground contrast and subtle gradations in the back of the image, making the artwork "pop" almost as much as those covers printed on foils, particularly on the back cover. There is no insert card, as the case is transparent and the back-printed outer shell card is used instead. The two discs rattle a bit in the over-under keep case but should suffer no damage.
This package, as a whole, is something that exists without much in the way of advertising, and as such it's selling itself on merit and value by including a very full range of bonuses in addition to its feature presentation, which is, in terms of TV miniseries, not too shabby at all. Hallmark Entertainment has always maintained, if a cautious attitude that perhaps has the potential to bore, still a high level of proficiency from its creators. Dreamkeeper gives you that professionalism along with a bunch of interesting legends framed by a predictable but warm and earnest tale of the passing of roles, served up with a slice of high pop style, to produce something that may not exactly be more than the sum of its parts, but is certainly not a jot less.
With its long running time and consistent tone, Dreamkeeper may prove tiresome, especially if taken whole. I think it's probably important to take that halfway intermission, which the movie is after all designed to accommodate (a 22-hour intermission at that). People for whom mythology and folklore hold little appeal might wish to skip out entirely on this one, as it's the film's only major concern. And there's no getting around the fact that this is a television presentation; it's hard to put a finger on the specifics, but despite its slickness and earnest quality, Dreamkeeper does carry qualities in its editing, framing, and color saturation, as well as the digital effects—qualities that do mark it as a TV movie. An improved transfer would likely take a lot of the bite out of that, if it were sharpened considerably and the black boosted. And that pulldown issue causes a lot of unnecessary trouble with the video.
The court finds Dreamkeeper guilty of heinous and probably solvable video transfer problems, but also guilty of exceeding expectations both as a miniseries and a comprehensive DVD package, and sentences it to a fine life as a catalog title, hopefully to remain available from Hallmark for years to come—and perhaps even to be remastered someday.
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