Criterion’s new edition of The Princess Bride presents the classic Rob Reiner film looking better than it ever has before on home video. The new 4K-derived transfer is a major upgrade, and the film itself is just as good as it ever was.
The Production: 4.5/5
Rob Reiner’s 1987 adaptation of William Goldman’s novel was not a major hit upon its original release, but thanks to home video and frequent airings on cable, the film has become a genuine classic in the more than thirty years that have passed since its first exhibition. Craftily made on a budget that’s less than what some prestige televisions shows today allot per segment, Reiner, Goldman and their crew were able to wring every last dollar out of the budget and what they throw onscreen has a very appealing, almost handmade look to it that is perfectly suited for the fairy tale nature of the story.
The Princess Bride opens with a simple framing story, where a grandfather (Peter Falk) is visiting his sick grandson (Fred Savage) and decides to read to him to help pass the time. While the grandson is initially reluctant to embrace a story that’s rife with romance and kissing, he’s soon swept up in the narrative and begging his grandfather to continue reading. The only thing that really dates the film is the video game seen in the grandson’s bedroom and some of the product placement labels visible in his room. Everything within the fairy tale segments has a wonderful timeless quality; while the effects are handmade and not the flashy bits of digital realism more common today, realism doesn’t seem like it was ever a goal of the filmmakers. It’s easy to imagine that given the extra tools of today that Reiner would still have preferred the more practical approach required at the time.
Within the fairy tale, Cary Elwes brings the perfect dash of Errol Flynn-like charm to his role as Westley, the farm boy taken for dead who returns to save his love, Buttercup (Robin Wright, sheer perfection here), from an arranged marriage to the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). Along the way, Westley will make friends with Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (Andre the Giant), enter into a battle of wits with the loquacious villain Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), face tremendous obstacles at the hands of an evil Count (Christopher Guest) and find unexpected salvation in the hands of Miracle Max (Billy Crystal). If you’ve seen the film, you already know all of this and likely are imagining favorite moments with the mention of each character name; if you’ve never seen the film, it would be a shame to say anymore.
What remains most impressive about The Princess Bride more than thirty years later is how well the film is put together. There’s not a wasted moment within the film, not one thing that goes to waste or doesn’t serve some larger purpose. The framing story allows Goldman and Reiner the freedom to dispense with much of exposition and connective tissue that might otherwise weigh the fairy tale portions down. While the framing story tends to play as “1980s!” mostly due to the design of the grandson’s bedroom, the fairy tale portions really do transcend any particular time period. It seems obvious that great care was taken to ensure that nothing the characters do, say or wear dates from any specific period. All of this adds up to a film that’s perfectly paced, with each part played by the perfect actor for the role, making for one of the most compulsively re-watchable films ever made.
3D Rating: NA
On this new Criterion release, a brand new 4K scan of the original camera negative has been utilized, presenting the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is a near perfect transfer that’s pleasing across the board. Grain structure appears natural and appropriate for the period. Colors are vibrant and beautiful. The image is generally sharp with great detail that reveals everything meant to be seen without showing too many of the seams.
While the previous MGM-Fox Blu-ray was one of the better outputs from MGM, the difference between that older transfer and this newer one is clear and convincing. For just one example, pay attention to how both discs handle the first transition from the bedroom to the fairy tale world. The first long shot and zoom in on Buttercup’s cottage, surrounded by endless green grass, is marvelously detailed on Criterion’s new disc, with the most beautiful looking shade of green grass. The shots that follow in the scene continue to emphasize the beauty of the green grass and the muted earth tones of the cottage. By contrast, the older MGM-Fox disc is less detailed, and presents a more muted green that’s simply not as enticing, and earth tones that are more muddy than muted. While there’s nothing wrong with the MGM-Fox disc, the Criterion is the clear winner.
Unfortunately, a minor flaw was detected in the Criterion disc which prevents me from giving it a perfect mark, though I would say the disc merits a 4.9/5. During one scene around 26:34, there is a medium shot with Fezzik speaking to Westley, and when he speaks, there is the slight video stutter that can be seen in some of the frames. It’s just for a brief moment, and it probably won’t be noticed by most (especially if you’re not looking for it), but it does mean that the disc isn’t perfect. This error was not present on the previous MGM-Fox disc. Still, while the issue is there, it should not be a deal breaker for anyone interested in this disc. The massive improvement in picture quality far outweighs this slight imperfection.
Thanks to the excellent visual presentation on the new disc, Adrian Biddle’s cinematography looks astonishing. In previous video versions of the film, the older transfers led me to believe that the film’s chief strengths were in its writing and performances, but the new transfer finally reveals that the film is visually more beautiful than I had ever noticed before.
Audio is presented in the lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 format. The audio track appears to be the same as the previous MGM-Fox disc. Audio fidelity is good, and while the mix is generally front oriented, it goes quite well with the video. Dialogue is well-recorded and placed into the center channel, with every declaration of “As you wish,” every repetition of “My name is Inigo Montoya,” and every Vizzini tongue-twister perfectly clear. Mark Knopfler’s guitar driven score is lovingly reproduced here as well.
Special Features: 4.5/5
This new edition carries over most of the bonus features from the previous releases, and includes several new video pieces produced by Criterion. The original Criterion laserdisc commentary is included, but the MGM/Fox Blu-ray commentary tracks have been dropped.
Pure Enchantment: The Princess Bride Screenplay (17:17, HD) – New bonus feature. An examination of the film’s script by Columbia University screenwriting professor Loren-Paul Caplin. A dry but informative examination of William Goldman’s style.
The Princess Bride Tapestry (06:26, HD) – New bonus feature. An examination of a tapestry that screenwriter Goldman hired artist Carol Burland to create based on the story. Goldman also shares some memories about Andre the Giant.
Fairy-Tale Reality (11:54, HD) – New bonus feature. Art director Richard Holland describes his work on the film.
Audiobook – An abridged version of the audiobook, read by Rob Reiner in 1987, has been edited to run the length of the film and plays as an alternate audio track.
Commentary – Recorded in 1997 by Criterion and features director Rob Reiner, writer William Goldman, producer Andrew Scheinman, and actors Billy Crystal and Peter Falk. This is a phenomenal track that edits the best insights of the participants in a way that flows naturally from start to finish.
True Love: The Princess Bride Phenomenon – A Conversation with Rob Reiner, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright (14:59, HD) – A 2012 casual conversation with the film’s director and stars marveling over its longevity. Warm and witty, and Elwes’ recollection of his encounter with President Clinton at the White House is not to be missed.
As You Wish: The Story of The Princess Bride (27:18, upscaled from SD) – A making-of featurette from 2001.
The Princess Bride: The Untold Tales (09:07, upscaled from SD) – A cast reminiscence from 2007.
Miraculous Makeup: Creating Miracle Max (11:22, upscaled from SD) – A 2006 featurette with Billy Crystal and makeup artist Peter Montagna.
Behind The Scenes: On The High Seas (03:52, upscaled from SD) – Short set video with optional commentary recorded by Criterion in 1997.
Behind The Scenes: Fezzik, Vizzini and Buttercup (04:48, upscaled from SD) – Short set video with optional commentary recorded by Criterion in 1997.
Behind The Scenes: Westley and Fezzik (04:38, upscaled from SD) – Short set video with optional commentary recorded by Criterion in 1997.
Behind The Scenes: Miracle Max’s Hut (02:32, upscaled from SD) – Short set video with optional commentary recorded by Criterion in 1997.
Behind The Scenes: Buttercup, The King, and the Queen (02:34, upscaled from SD) – Short set video with optional commentary recorded by Criterion in 1997.
Cary Elwes Video Diary (03:56, upscaled from SD) – A compilation of footage shot by Cary Elwes on set and narrated by Robin Wright.
The Art Of Fencing (07:08, upscaled from SD) – A 2007 featurette with Hollywood sword master Robert Goodwin paying tribute to the film’s sword master, Bob Anderson.
Fairy Tales & Folklore (09:16, upscaled from SD) – A 2007 featurette with the cast and scholar Jack Zipes talking about the film’s use of fairy tale tropes.
U.S. Trailer (02:16, HD) – The film’s original trailer is presented in HD.
Foreign Market Trailer (02:19, upscaled from SD) – A 4×3 presentation of the international trailer.
TV Spot 1 (01:02, upscaled from SD) – Features film clips and review pull quotes.
TV Spot 2 (00:32, upscaled from SD) – Emphasizes the film’s romance and comedy.
TV Spot 3 (00:32, upscaled from SD) – Features video clips of Roger Ebert and Joel Siegel praising the film.
TV Spot 4 (00:32, upscaled from SD) – Features interviews with happy audiences outside movie theaters.
Booklet – The disc is packaged in a beautifully designed custom DigiBook which contains an essay from Sloane Crosley, William Goldman’s written introduction from the film’s published screenplay, and notes about the transfer from Criterion.
Criterion’s new edition of The Princess Bride is a brilliantly assembled package well-worth owning for fans of the film. With a new 4K-derived transfer that easily is the best the film has ever looked on home video, and a generous array of new and archival bonus material, this is the best disc version ever released of this popular film. The disc falls short of being perfect primarily for two reasons that will most likely be of little or no importance to most viewers. The first issue is related to a minuscule video glitch (detailed in the video portion of this review) that, while definitely present, is only visible on large screens for a brief moment. The second issue is that while the film carries over all of the main video supplements from previous disc versions, it does not include the two audio commentaries from the MGM-Fox disc, instead utilizing a commentary from an earlier Criterion laserdisc which has not been available on any subsequent release. The disc’s packaging is gorgeous. While the overall release falls just shy of perfect, most fans of the film will be able to easily overlook those minor flaws to recognize that this is the best the film has ever looked on home video.