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According to the extras on MGM's handsome new BD special edition of The Princess Bride, William Goldman's book waited fourteen years to be made into a movie. Director Rob Reiner's final product is one of only a few 1980s pictures that deserve to be considered for classic status. Goldman adaption stresses qualities becoming very rare in movies of that decade. Although a swashbuckling adventure about a reluctant princess-to-be, various friendly heroes and a couple of amusingly hiss-able villains, the emphasis is on character. Big spectacle and big special effects are largely missing, along with the '80s biggest bugaboo, the empty visual agitation that had begun to replace genuine thrills. Made around the same time, George Lucas' Willow has zillions of dollars' worth of fancy I.L.M. effects yet is hollow and soporific; my kids forgot it at once and never asked to see it again. The Princess Bride captures some of the storybook magic that keeps classics like the 1940 The Thief of Baghdad from ever growing old.
The story reshuffles a number of ideas from fairy tales, 1001 Arabian Nights the song John Riley and the general medieval gag-bin. A modern-day boy (Fred Savage) squirms and complains, but his Grandfather (Peter Falk) gets him interested in listening to a reading of "The Princess Bride". The boy hates the "kissing parts" and is impatient to learn how the bad guy is killed off, but by the second chapter Grandfather has him hooked. Unhappy commoner Buttercup (Robin Wright) has been chosen as the bride for the unscrupulous, impossibly arrogant Prince Humperdinck. But she's kidnapped first, by the sly Sicilian ransomer Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his hired thugs, Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and the Spaniard Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). The freelancing Montoya is really on an obsessive search for the killer of his father, a man with six fingers on one hand. But a new mystery man in black called the "Dread Pirate Roberts" (Cary Elwes) thwarts Montoya's sword, out-wrestles the enormous Fezzik, and wins possession of Buttercup in a duel of wits with Vizzini involving goblets and a deadly poison. As Humperdinck's rescue troop closes in, Buttercup learns that her kidnapper is actually Westley, the boy she loves who went to sea and never came back. The Prince's vicious henchman Count Tyrone Rugen (Christopher Guest) captures Roberts and returns Buttercup to the castle. Realizing that Rugen is his six-fingered prey, Montoya rescues the paralyzed Roberts and takes him to Miracle Max and his wife (Billy Crystal & Carol Kane) to be cured. With Buttercup's marriage ceremony only hours away, Montoya, Fezzik and a very limp Roberts prepare to storm the castle, carry out Montoya's vendetta, put paid to Humperdinck and rescue the fair maiden!
It's easy to say that The Princess Bride works because all the elements are in place -- the actors are all ideal for their roles, that kind of thing. But the truth is that Goldman and Reiner have imbued whole picture has a winning humanist spirit. Sure, some of the humor is straight from the Catskills (Miracle Max and his Missus) and the villains exhibit attitudes that are too-hip-for-the-castle. But the heroine's heart is pure and her various champions are dedicated to their solemn oaths of honor.
What Goldman, Reiner and the actors achieve so well is a marvelous, consistent tone. The story moves at its own pace, refusing to skip automatically to the next action scene. The film acknowledges this when it flashes back to the impatient Grandson. Grandfather waits for the kid to calm down, and proceeds again, telling the story (that we see unfold) with a voice so soothing that it reminds us of our own storybook experiences. Characters state their motivations clearly and often. Buttercup spends at least a reel as a blindfolded, silent nonentity, but as soon as she's free she lets her captor of the moment Roberts know exactly what kind of a tough cookie he has on his hands. Roberts grills her in regard to her feelings about the boy Westley. She accepts the fact that he's gone for good but insists that she'll remain faithful only to him, forever. That's where the romantic zinger comes in: it's basically the story of John Riley. Wesley and Buttercup instantly bloom as the fated lovers.
Author-screenwriter Goldman gives the characters motivations and personal stories that are pure fun. The giant Fezzik is a simple guy making a living busting heads for Fezzik, but he welcomes the companionship of his new buddies Montoya and Roberts. Inigo is dead-set on his mission of vengeance, so much so that every third sentence he speaks expresses his anticipation of the moment when he confronts his unknown foe and says, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." The utterly practical Westley was captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts but made friends and eventually took the brigand's place when the old crook retired. Wesley's a very sporting chap: brave, dashing, the works. He and Montoya form a fast friendship. Also, Westley/Roberts fights a mean swordfight even when he has the strength only to raise one hand. Heroes don't get any cooler than that.
The dialogue is full of minor anachronisms and sly observations of adventure-fantasy conventions, all of which work well. The hilarious Vizzini spouts off with self-congratulatory statements about how smart he is, and drops references to "land wars in Asia", along with his own personal 'theme word', "Inconceivable!" Some of the happenings are predictable, but in a delightful way that shares the joke with the audience. Billy Crystal's wisecracking wizard is a walking stand-up act, while Humperdinck and Count Rugen can be counted on to act dishonorably in literally every situation they encounter.
It's all in the details. Here's a good example of a 'gentle' rib at the characterizations in adventure fantasies: The albino turnkey in the Pit of Despair begins speaking in a creaky, hissy "character" voice. But then he chokes, noisily clears his throat and from that point forward talks 'normally'. I have to say that, all the way through the Lord of the Rings films, I wished that the strangle-throated Gollum would do something similar.
The goodwill of these characters (I don't know what else to call it) is cumulative, so that by the time the jokes subside at the film's ending we're fully enjoying the standard romantic and heroic payoff moments. Goldman is so generous to his characters that he doesn't even insist on bloody payback for the bad guys -- just being unlovable jerks is punishment enough.
The Princess Bride doesn't even force its visual aspect -- it always looks attractive but little effort is made to 'wow' us with fantastic vistas, super-dynamic settings, or even slick architecture in the Prince's castle. Montoya and Roberts match swords in a pretty cliff-side clearing with a projected sunset in the background. Fezzik scales a vast cliff face, carrying three people with him like a human elevator. A vicious monster in the Pit of Despair appears to be a midget wearing a ratty-looking opossum costume. The point is to enchant the reader with a story (where we usually have to imagine our own details anyway), not to dazzle us with designs better than last year's action blockbuster. The payoff moments tend to be simple two shots, simply lit. You know, Westley & Buttercup kissing, that sort of thing. Good, honest mushy stuff.
The audience I saw The Princess Bride with loved it. My young children took to it like nothing they'd seen before - it's nice to know that the basics of entertainment still work when given half a chance. Don't be fooled by the prestige sales pitch or the proximity of MGM's release to that of Disney's Cinderella ... if you haven't yet caught up with this one, it's a keeper.
MGM's Blu-ray (distributed by Fox) of The Princess Bride is the hoped-for crystal clear rendition of this family favorite that ends up entertaining everyone in the house. Colors are rich and expressive and the widescreen compositions flatter scenes that on old cable transmissions looked loose and arbitrary.
The title was released previously as a Special Edition, but MGM has augmented earlier extras with a couple of new items. True Love: The Princess Bride Phenomenon brings back Rob Reiner, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright for a pleasing interview session. Reiner is thrilled that the film is still remembered 25 years later. He indulges his penchant for impressions, especially of the late great Peter Falk. with Most of the surviving cast members are present in other review material.
The older extras begin with separate commentaries by Reiner and William Goldman and continue with an older making-of piece, sidebar pieces on the fencing and the Pirate Roberts character, the makeup, etc. Cary Elwes' video diary is here as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Princess Bride Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.