Norman and Ethel Thayer, an elderly couple spending another summer at their lakeside cabin, are faced with several distressing issues: first, Norman's angst about growing old, and then, when their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) shows up with her new boyfriend and his son in tow, the need to come to terms with all of their relationships. Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn both received Academy Awards for their performances as Norman and Ethel in On Golden Pond; whether the 1981 film has really held up in its own right over the past 20-odd years is a matter of opinion that will likely differ from viewer to viewer.
On Golden Pond is based on a play, and indeed it feels like a filmed play, in many respects. To be sure, the film doesn't restrict itself to just one or two sets; we get to see the lake and the town as well as the interior of the cabin. Nonetheless, On Golden Pond has an oddly static feel to it, both in the overall construction of the film, in the staging of individual scenes, and in the dialogue. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it makes the film feel constrained and, ultimately, a little forced.
On Golden Pond touches on themes that have a lot of potential: love, the fear of death, overcoming family conflicts. But in the end, some of these feel hollow, and others don't work as well as they might. We're not given much of an indication of the underpinnings of these reactions in the characters. We're told several times that Norman has always been obsessed with death and dying, but this somehow doesn't connect with the moping around that we see in his actual scenes; being told something isn't as potent as being shown it. Similarly, the conflict between Norman and his daughter Chelsea is simply assumed. Other than a vague sense of "they didn't relate to each other very well when she was growing up," there's little depth to the relationship; it's simply used as the starting point for the interactions between the characters. The result is that many scenes that should feel emotionally charged simply feel shallow; we don't know these characters, we don't feel for them, and we certainly don't understand why they behave as they do.
The latter half of the film, which has the relationship between Norman and young Billy as a central element, ends up feeling rather trite. At first hostile to each other, the old man and the young boy end up finding a common bond, the older developing a new lease on life and the younger developing a respect for his elder. It feels as sappy as it sounds; more critically, it doesn't feel real, instead seeming like a rather obvious vehicle for showing Norman's changing perspective on life as the film runs its course.
In the end, On Golden Pond may simply be a film that will resonate with particular viewers based on how they feel about the themes that the film touches on. I do think that viewers who have begun to grapple with the issues of aging and dying will find more to connect with than those who haven't reached that point in their lives. It's not a bad film, and certainly it's one that has found a place in many viewers' hearts, but it's one that needs viewers to supply a great deal of their own meaning, rather than creating it on its own.
On Golden Pond appears here in an anamorphic widescreen transfer at the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Overall, the image quality is very good, with generally natural-looking colors and skin tones, reasonably good contrast even in dimly lit scenes, and an absence of print flaws. It's not as sharp as it could be, as there's a moderate amount of graininess in the image.
The film was previously available in a non-anamorphic edition; while I didn't have the older DVD available for a direct comparision, viewers may be interested in the side-by-side comparison at DVDBeaver.
Two audio options are presented: the original Dolby 2.0, and a remastered Dolby 5.1 track. The sound is handled well, with dialogue sounding clear, if sometimes slightly flat. The music and environmental effects are nicely balanced and always sound satisfactory. There's not much use of surround in the 5.1 track, but this is after all a dialogue-focused film; it does offer a slightly more immersive listening environment.
Fans of the film will find the special features here to their liking. A 30-minute documentary called "Reflections on Golden Pond" takes a look at the cinematography and lighting done by the director of photography, Billy Williams. There are some interesting insights here about the way he handled the shooting, which was done entirely on location in New Hampshire. The second featurette is a 16-minute tribute to Katharine Hepburn, called "A Woman of Substance: Katharine Hepburn Remembered." We get an overview of her life and her upbringing, and a sense of what she was like as a person.
Two audio commentaries are also included. The first, which is not mentioned on the DVD packaging, is an "archival audio commentary" by director Mark Rydell; the second is a commentary by writer Ernest Thompson. Both offer a reasonable level of interesting comments on the film, with relatively few long silent periods; both do have the habit of speaking very slowly, with odd pauses between words, though.
I suspect that On Golden Pond is one of those films that you either really love, or that leaves you entirely cold. Neither the characters nor their relationships ever "clicked" for me, leaving me uninvolved enough to note the somewhat stilted dialogue and the trite story elements. I'd suggest it as a reasonable rental choice for viewers who haven't seen the film yet. For those who know they enjoy the film, On Golden Pond: Special Edition is worth buying, as it has a solid anamorphic transfer and a nice selection of quality special features.