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Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: min.
Price: $
Release Date: //2002



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It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 17, 2002)

Like many people, I maintain a love/hate relationship with perennial holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life. On one hand, I dislike its oversentimentality and hokeyness and find it to offer an unrealistic portrait of a fantasy America that never really existed. Life seems pathetically obvious in its attempts to wring tears out of its audience.

On the other hand, I have to admit that the stupid thing works, damn it all to hell! While the movie shamelessly manipulates the audience, it's hard to feel too angry about it because of the raw jolt of unabashed emotion that it provides; watching Life is like overdosing on some sort of sick sentimentality drug.

Whether that's or bad depends on your point of view, I suppose, and what you want to get out Christmas programs. There seem to be two kinds of "adult" Christmas films or shows: somber (those that deal with the historical details of Christ’s birth) and soppy (those that end with a "life rules!" message). Not all of the latter are bad, of course - A Christmas Carol falls into that category - but their unrelenting weepiness can make them tough to watch. (More ambiguous fare like A Christmas Story is harder to categorize; it kind of stands alone right now.)

Life clearly falls into that latter category and ranks as its prime example. Don't get me wrong - I'm not arguing that reaffirming the value of one's life and appreciating what one has are bad things. It's just that there's something about this movie that can really grate at times. I suppose it's one of those films for which you really have to be in the mood; if you're not, you'll hate it.

But if you are in the right frame of mind, Life can be a total treat. Maybe that's why I'm so ambivalent about the film: my own moodiness! Whatever the case, despite its treacly tendencies, I must acknowledge that Life accomplishes its goals quite well and it's a very nicely made piece of work.

In a strange way, Life reminded me of Armageddon. (Editorial note: this must be the first time anyway joined these two films in such a way.) This occurred to me because of the overall effect generated by the films. In both cases, I recognized that the filmmakers emotionally manipulated me, but in both cases, I pretty much didn't care, at least not while I watched the movies. When the film finishes, I tend to feel a little oogy about my reaction to Life, but while I screen it, I usually go with the flow and get into the story.

Perhaps the one factor that really makes Life work comes from its fine acting. James Stewart is at his best as George Bailey. The role demands quite a number of different tones and attitudes, and Stewart handles them all with ease. Donna Reed also seems terrific as George's wife Mary; while the role doesn't appear as demanding as Stewart's, she ably functions as the emotional bedrock of the story and nicely complements Jimmy.

And that's all I'll say about my opinions of It's A Wonderful Life. I've probably rambled too much as it is, since this film is about as "critic-proof" as they come. Most people probably have already seen it and formed their own opinions. As such, it's time to get on to the heart of the review: the quality of the DVD. (Okay, one more opinion before I go: am I the only one who thinks Pottersville looks a lot more fun than stodgy old Bedford Falls?)

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio C+/ Bonus B-

It’s a Wonderful Life appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the black and white image looked surprisingly strong, though various concerns dropped my grade to a “B”.

At times, the movie appeared slightly soft, usually during wide shots. However, most of the time the film remained nicely crisp and well defined. I saw a few examples of jagged edges and shimmering, and I also noticed some light edge enhancement. Black levels looked consistently deep and rich, while shadow detail provided a strong element; low-light situations came across as nicely balanced, as they lacked any issues related to excessively darkness.

While it appeared fairly strong for an older movie, the quality of the print used provided the disc's weakest points. Grain appeared at times, and minor spots and marks presented fairly frequent intrusions. To be honest, though, these flaws seemed surprisingly unobtrusive; the cinematography hid them well and they became problematic mainly when the image offered a very light background. Despite these minor concerns, as a whole I thought that It’s a Wonderful Life offered a positive visual presentation.

While not bad considering the film's age, the monaural soundtrack of It’s a Wonderful Life didn't live up to the higher quality of the image. For the most part, the audio seemed clean and relatively crisp, though some moments of either dullness or harshness intruded. Probably the worst bit of audio in the film occurred during the scene that introduced adult George. It displayed a strangely garbled presence that was not unintelligible, but it seemed strained and odd nonetheless.

Other than that instance, the sound appeared completely mediocre for a more than fifty-year-old movie. Dialogue seemed thin but understandable, and effects and music sounded about the same. The mix appeared happily free of much distortion, though, and most audio was relatively distinct and clean. I heard a little background noise and some popping, but these didn’t create significant intrusions. Given the age of the material, It’s a Wonderful Life offered an acceptable auditory experience.

It’s a Wonderful Life also provides a few nice supplemental features, all of which appear on side "B” of the disc. Most significant are the two documentary programs: The Making of It's A Wonderful Life and Frank Capra: A Personal Remembrance. Although the titles of these programs seem to indicate that they will focus on different issues, they really seem quite similar; while both shows mainly document aspects of the creation of Life, they take slightly different viewpoints and they largely manage to avoid repetition of the same facts.

Hosted by Tom "Mr. C." Bosley, “Making” runs for about 23 minutes, while “Remembrance” features narration from Frank Capra, Jr., and lasts for approximately 14 minutes. In general, “Making” mostly details the actual creation of the movie itself, while “Remembrance” deals more with the film's impact and staying power. I'm not sure about the genesis of the former program, but the latter clearly was originally created for use prior to a TV screening of the film; at the end of it, lil' Frank introduces a showing of the film.

Whatever the case, I found both programs to be quite enjoyable and informative. Neither offers a definitive picture - separately or combined - but they provide a nice amount of information and helped add to my interest in the film. Both seem similarly constructed: they use their narrators to guide us through an assemblage of movie scenes, still photos, and interviews with some of the main participants. Not surprisingly, big Frank dominates “Remembrance”, but we hear from James Stewart and others during it. Those two and more also appear in “Making” but the project seems a little more balanced than the Frank-heavy “Remembrance”. All in all, I really like these documentaries.

The Life DVD also includes a pretty good trailer and a four-page booklet inside the disc's case. That document details the DVD's chapters and shows a few pictures plus some very brief production notes. Those mainly duplicate information found in the documentaries but they also offer a few more specifics, such as the amount of money the film lost during its initial release.

Ultimately I maintain a lot of misgivings about It's A Wonderful Life as a film but I find it hard not to recommend it. Despite my love/hate relationship with the movie, I still usually get that urge to watch it at Christmas, and since that's not as easy as it used to be - when the film aired almost nonstop from Thanksgiving to Christmas - it's a nice DVD to own. Although the quality isn't fantastic, the DVD provides quite good picture for its age along with acceptable sound and a few nice extras. Go ahead and indulge your weepy side with this DVD.