If you dig through all the "oh-so-inspirational teacher" movies of the past several years, you'd realize that they're usually as popular as they are familiar. From Coach Carter to Lean on Me to Dangerous Minds to Mr. Holland's Opus, it's a pretty standard sub-genre that seems to add a few new titles every year. And while none of 'em really seem to break any new ground, once in a while one comes from a real filmmaking craftsman, and the result is a movie like Dead Poets Society. It's a little simplistic and beholden to the same old formula, but unlike many of its ilk, DPS has stuff like Peter Weir, Robin Williams, and a stellar cast of young actors.
The setting is the tony Welton Academy prep school, circa 1955, and newly-arrived literature professor John Keating is about to make a massive impression on his first set of students. Inspiring these kids, who've spent their formative years adhering to the button-down and repressed rules of polite society, to "seize the day" and follow their dreams, Keating becomes a hero to many ... and an enemy to a powerful few.
Like I said, Dead Poets Society is not exactly a reinvention of the cinematic wheel, but it's a familiar story told with such obvious care and craftsmanship ... we can happily forgive a few screenwriting shortcuts and a handful of irritatingly one-note characters. (As a callous father, Kurtwood Smith wrings an excellent performance from a thinly-drawn role.)
Aside from Robin Williams' effortlessly charming (and wonderfully toned-down) performance, the cast is a who's-who of "look how young" faces and "whatever happened to him, anyway?" actors. Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard have the biggest roles and therefore make a larger splash, but many of the "background" kids make a strong impression, particularly Dylan Kussman as the officious Cameron and Josh Charles as the slickly likable Knox.
Sure, the ending is a bit corny and the dramatic stuff gets a little over-sentimental, but by the time you reach this point in Dead Poets Society, the stuff just feels right. It might be predictable and a little bit obvious, but it sure does feel like Dead Poets Society comes from a sincere place. And seeing as how the movie still holds up for old-school fans as well as newcomers, I'd say that the sincerity is an integral component indeed. The AMPAS folks certainly enjoyed the flick, awarding it with three Oscar nominations (for Williams' performance, Weir's direction, and Best Picture) and one win (for Tom Schulman's screenplay), so tuck that info into your back pocket for the next time someone says "Dead Poets Society? That movie is corny!"
Video: The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is lush and handsome indeed, especially considering Weir's film is full of rich shadows, subtle shades of light, but it's not exactly a flawless rendition. Several folks with more expertise than I have noted that the picture looks more diffused or "softer" than it should, but the flick looked pretty dandy to me.
Audio: A perfectly crisp Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is what we've got here, and while it's nothing to dazzle your ear drums, it's certainly better than average. Also included are a French 2.0 track and optional English subtitles.
Extras: While the first version of Dead Poets Society was a bare-bones affair, this re-issue comes baring a solid handful of new goodies: A feature-length audio commentary with director Peter Weir, screenwriter Tom Schulman, and cinematographer John Seale is quiet, laid-back, occasionally dry, and packed with great insights and anecdotes. I'd say Peter Weir is one of the most fascinating filmmakers to spend time with. The guy just oozes with knowledge and passion, and he never comes off as stuffy or self-adoring. Good track for the Poets fans.
Also quite excellent is a 28-minute featurette entitled A Look Back, which features recent interview segments with actors Ethan Hawke, Melora Walters, Norman Lloyd, Robert Sean Leonard, Kurtwood Smith, Dylan Kussman, and Allelon Ruggiero. It's mostly a Weir love-fest in here, but there's some real heart and sincerity coming from these folks.
Raw Takes is a 4.5-minute deleted scene in it raw form. Yes, it's been well-documented that laserdiscs and foreign lands have seen "extended" versions of Dead Poets Society, but unfortunately none of the extra footage can be found on this release.
Master of Sound: Alan Splet runs 11 minutes and features new interview segments with filmmakers Peter Weir and David Lynch. The topic here is master sound designer Alan Splet and the influences and impact he made on the filmmakers he collaborated with. Cinematography Master Class is a 15-minute featurette best described by the DVD case: "An intensive and inspirational lighting workshop with cinematographer John Seale" Those who've ever wondered about the artistry behind cinematography should sit down and watch this piece immediately.
Rounding out the disc is a handful of trailers for Dead Poets Society, Annapolis, and Flightplan.
If you still get goose bumps when you hear "o Captain My Captain," "Carpe Diem," or the sound of a dozen recently-enlightened schoolboys climbing onto their desks in defiant admiration of their beloved educator ... well, you simply gotta go out and get this new SE. The featurettes are smart and insightful, the commentary is a winner, and the movie itself is as comfortably entertaining as it was back in '89.