The movie deftly switches between a few different genres, starting off as a quirky small town comedy before shifting gears to a fish-out-of-water road trip across the west coast, all leading up to an underdog sports movie without the expected mean-spirited competition or backstabbing. The one thread these all have in common...? Nothing gets Burt Munro down. He's optimistic and inventive enough that when some sort of problem lurches in his way, he sidesteps his around it. The World's Fastest Indian is basically two hours of Munro doing just that. It's upbeat without feeling saccharine or cloying, and it's not bogged down by any subplots about deathly ill children or whirlwind romances. The determined, good-humored Kiwi instantly endears himself to everyone he bumps into throughout his journey, and Anthony Hopkins charms the audience in much the same way. Hopkins points to this performance as his favorite of the nearly hundred movies he's done, and this wouldn't be half the film it is with anyone else in the lead role. The World's Fastest Indian may be more about the man than his motorcycle, but even though the outcome is never in doubt and even though Munro's not competing against anyone but himself and his handiwork, the kinetic racing sequences in the almost otherworldly salt flats still get pulses racing.
Admittedly, there's not much dramatic heft for The World's Fastest Indian to lug around. I watched the movie with a friend of mine whose biggest complaint was that nothing bad ever happened. This is true -- virtually every stumbling block along the way either doesn't amount to anything or is knocked aside by the time the next scene wraps up -- and there's not an outright bad guy in the movie. A couple of officials sticking to the rule books is as close as it gets, and, of course, they too are eventually won over by Munro's pluck and determination. Maybe this doesn't make for the most compelling drama, but that's not the movie writer/director Roger Donaldson sought out to make. It's a sweet, charming film that marches forward with a confident smile, elevated high above other uplifting biopics by an exceptional performance by Hopkins and stunning cinematography. Highly Recommended.
Video: Just as he did with the DVD release of The Recruit, Roger Donaldson has had The World's Fastest Indian reformatted from its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 to an HDTV-friendly 1.78:1 on home video. I'm not much of a fan of fiddling with aspect ratios, but this time it's the film's director snipping away the mattes, and as this was a Super 35 production, additional information is generally exposed rather than trimmed out. The compositions look perfectly balanced at 1.78:1, and if not for having seen snippets of the movie at 2.39:1 on HDNet Movies, I would never have known that this wasn't its original aspect ratio.
The World's Fastest Indian looks unbelievable on HD DVD. The film stock Donaldson and his crew used reveals a grainy texture in very low light, but otherwise, it approaches perfection. The image is razor sharp and brimming with fine detail, with the textures of the actors' faces standing out as particularly impressive. Even at a distance, it seems as if every pore and the subtle shadows in every wrinkle are clear and distinct. The period look of the film's palette is also striking, especially the expansive, smooth gradients from one hue to the next. I couldn't spot a single imperfection in the transfer or any trace of artifacting in the VC-1 encoded image. A couple of patterns did have a slightly jittery, unstable appearance, presumably due to the film grain -- the racing stripes on The Indian in the second shot of the movie don't look perfectly straight as the camera pans by, for instance -- but this accounts for just a couple of seconds of its two hour-plus runtime.
The World's Fastest Indian may be one of Magnolia Home Entertainment's first attempts at bringing a movie to HD DVD, but they've already managed to release one of the most instantly striking titles available on the format. This is a beautifully photographed film, and it looks wonderful in high-definition.
Audio: The World's Fastest Indian includes a pair of six-channel soundtracks: the first in the traditional Dolby Digital Plus and the other in lossless Dolby TrueHD. Most of the movie follows the amiable Kiwi as he treks to the Bonneville Salt Flats, and since little throughout his journey cries out for megaton belches from the subwoofer or overly aggressive surrounds, the mix anchors much of the activity to the front channels for the bulk of the film. The audio roars to life when Munro takes the wheel of The Indian, with the scenes at Bonneville bolstered by the throaty roar of these powerful engines, a strong sense of directionality, and numerous smooth pans from channel to channel. One scene early in the movie sees a cocky gang of bikers pull up to Munro's birthday party to challenge the old man to a race, and the imaging is so strong that I felt like I could pick out each individual motorcycle in the mix and match it up with one of the bikes puttering across the screen. Even if much of the rest of the film is more subtle and subdued by comparison, The World's Fastest Indian sounds fantastic when the movie calls for it, and I don't have any gripes whatsoever about the way its soundtrack is presented on HD DVD.
Subtitles are also offered in French and Spanish.
Extras: The World's Fastest Indian features a robust assortment of extras, but few of them are in high definition: just trailers for the upcoming HD DVDs of The Lost City and District B13, along with a plug for HDNet and HDNet Movies. Magnolia included an episode of corporate sibling HDNet's Higher Definition for the Blu-ray release of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and it's somewhat disappointing that they didn't do the same for The World's Fastest Indian, opting not to include film critic Robert Wilonsky's interview with director Roger Donaldson.
Then again, it's not as if Donaldson is missing in action on this HD DVD. He contributes a great audio commentary for the film, running through the origins of a project that began more than a quarter-century ago, how Anthony Hopkins was brought on-board, and how he incorporated both his and Munro's experiences in the U.S. into the film. He tells quite a few stories about Munro, such as how he built a garage but took decades to get around to putting up a house to go with it and how Munro used to keep the frame of The Indian in the U.S. and just shuttled its engine from one end of the world to the other. Donaldson doesn't delve into the technical intricacies of filmmaking -- there's no talk of specific lenses, lighting rigs, or anything like that -- but he does comment on some of the difficulties he had to overcome during the production: a crashing helicopter, a storm that devastated some of their sets, roadside antelope, shooting during Speed Week while cars and cycles were zipping by at 500 mph, and the difficulty in capturing a sense of speed in the desolate salt flats.
I really enjoyed Donaldson's commentary, and there's surprisingly little overlap with the material in the disc's 45 minute making-of documentary. This extensive piece is divided into a few distinct sections, focusing on Donaldson's perfectionism and his approach to filmmaking, the development of the script, and the genius of Anthony Hopkins and his preference for this jovial character over the psychopaths and tightly-wound men he's used to playing. The remainder of the documentary revolves around the cast discussing their characters, most memorably Hopkins' thoughts on Burt Munro and the mayor of Invercargill commenting on both the man and how this film captures the Kiwi spirit. It's a well-made piece, and the cast and crew's complete adoration of The World's Fastest Indian is infectious, but some of their comments can be somewhat repetitive and probably would have benefitted from some slight tightening. Definitely worth a look, though.
Donaldson had spent a couple of years putting together the 1971 documentary Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed, and that 27 minute documentary is included on this HD DVD as well. Along with many shots of him racing, the documentary is anchored around the extremely personable Munro as well as his family and friends cheerfully discussing his unrelenting search for speed. As Munro weaves stories like slipping past the guards at Edwards Air Force Base for a peek at some of the blazingly fast planes there, it shows just how masterfully Hopkins captured the man's personality and mannerisms, and some of what's said here is incorporated directly into the film. This may be a 36 year old documentary shot on grainy 16mm stock, but it looks remarkable here, free of any wear or speckling.
Four minutes' worth of deleted scenes are also offered. The three lengthiest additional snippets include Munro visiting a clinic after having some trouble with his ticker in the U.S., forcing a tractor trailer to pull over for a lift in the desert, and nicking some gas for his car at Bonneville. Two other very short pieces are tossed on as well, with Munro getting an invitation to a barbeque and chatting with a kindly crossdresser as 'she' mulls over getting a sex change, but they only amount to a couple lines of dialogue a piece. All of this footage is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 2.39:1.
Rounding out the extras are a still-shot plug for the movie's soundtrack and a three minute promotional piece for Munro's old stomping grounds of Southland.
Conclusion: One of the upsides to the sluggish release slate on HD DVD is that titles that ordinarily might slip under the radar like The World's Fastest Indian stand out much more than they would have in a more crowded schedule. This is a feel-good movie in the best possible sense, boasting an exceptional lead performance by Anthony Hopkins as the plucky Kiwi, an infectiously upbeat story, and outstanding cinematography. A movie very much worth discovering on HD DVD, The World's Fastest Indian comes Highly Recommended.