Long considered one of literature's "untouchable greats", Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has enjoyed immense popularity since its original publication more than 50 years ago. It didn't take long for a film adaptation to surface: this 1962 production features Gregory Peck in a career-defining role as Atticus Finch, an Alabaman lawyer who defends the innocent Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) from false rape charges. Atticus' young children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) are innocent onlookers, reacting to their first real perceptions of the world's evil with curiosity and a touch of fear. Since much of the source novel resembles the author's own Depression-era childhood experiences and observations, both the book and film are intensely personal in atmosphere and execution...and though the world has changed a great deal since the 1930s, it also hasn't changed much at all.
As with most adaptations, To Kill a Mockingbird chooses portions of the source material to dwell on; in this case, the focus points are the Robinson trial, racial tensions in rural Alabama and the children's apprehension of a mysterious neighbor, Arthur "Boo" Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut). These themes remind us that we shouldn't fear what we're not familiar with; an appropriate message, especially since both the film and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel were released a few years after the Civil Rights movement picked up steam. The rural setting of 1930s Alabama gives us a warts-and-all glimpse of life in small-town America during tough economic times, hinting that segregation was alive but not practiced by all residents. Though many viewers (or readers) may not have grown up in similar environments, it's easy to identify with key characters and their moral compasses. Or lack thereof.
Equally relatable is the children's initial fear of "Boo" Radley, who mostly keeps to himself in a house that might as well be haunted. Robinson's legal situation doesn't exactly lead to a happy ending, but the children's final moments with Radley are touching, heartfelt and believable from both angles. The film never treads too lightly on either path: it balances the wonders/fears of childhood/adulthood in equal measure, creating what might be the best example of a true "family film" as you're likely to see. It's cemented by excellent performances (especially Peck, who earned an Oscar for his efforts), an award-winning screenplay and art direction, a memorable score by Elmer Bernstein and rich, detailed cinematography. And while I've never quite warmed up to Kim Stanley's voice-over narration, it's a small price to pay for such a timeless and engaging film. Simply put, To Kill a Mockingbird is a "total package" production, so it's continued popularity with audiences and critics shouldn't surprise anyone.
Originally released on DVD in 2000 and again in 2005 as a well-rounded Legacy Edition, To Kill a Mockingbird marks its 50th anniversary with a Blu-Ray debut that fans should appreciate. It's basically a high-def repackage of the Legacy Edition with a few extra features...and, in the case of this Limited Edition Digibook, a terrific packaging job with the collector in mind. Both this and the standard Blu-Ray edition also include a DVD and Digital Copy of the film, so fans should know right away which version they're interested in based on their packaging preferences. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
It's obvious that this 1.85:1 1080p transfer easily trumps all previous DVD releases, but this isn't quite a perfect presentation. First, the good news: To Kill a Mockingbird is clean as a whistle, boasting strong textures, excellent shadow detail and a smooth, pleasing appearance. Close-ups and wide shots are razor sharp, especially during outdoor sequences. Compression artifacts, edge enhancement and interlacing appear to be completely absent. The only notable problem here, unfortunately, is a distinct lack of film grain; though it is apparent at times, it's obviously been dialed back a few levels.
Universal presents their side of the story during an accompanying restoration featurette [see "Bonus Features" below], explaining that an algorithm was used to average out film grain due to a number of optical push-ins (flat zooms on the film itself, not traditional in-camera zooms). This does eliminate the "problem" of heavy grain during certain close-ups, but it's not necessarily an even trade. I definitely wouldn't call this issue a deal-breaker, but some viewers may find it slightly bothersome.
The audio, on the other hand, aims lower and meets all reasonable expectations for a 50 year-old film. Presented in your choice of DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, lossy DTS 2.0 Mono or a French dub, the film's dialogue-driven atmosphere is crisp, clear and well-defined. The 5.1 track is tastefully done and should even satisfy inquisitive purists, mostly using the surround channels for mild outdoor ambience and occasional music cues. The original Mono track is also impressive, though slightly less so in dynamic range and fullness. Optional English (SDH), Spanish and French subtitles are all included.
Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design
Seen above, this Limited Edition combo pack arrives in a handsome Digibook Case, featuring 44 pages of printed extras including personal letters, behind-the-scenes photos, promotional images, script excerpts and more. The Blu-Ray and DVD bookend the printed material inside, which also includes a loose promotional insert for upcoming Universal Blu-Rays and a Digital Copy redemption code. The menu interface is presented in typical Universal style, combining quick loading time with smooth, simple navigation. This 129-minute film has been divided into a generous 39 chapters, no obvious layer change was detected during playback and the Blu-Ray appears to be locked for Region "A" players only.
Not much new content, but at least everything of interest returns from the excellent Legacy Edition DVD. Returning extras include an Audio Commentary
with director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula; the exhaustive behind-the-scenes documentary "Fearful Symmetry"
(90 minutes); the in-depth Q&A/interview piece "A Conversation with Gregory Peck"
(98 minutes); a trio of Award Clips
that include Peck's "Best Actor" acceptance speech (2 minutes), Peck's AFI Lifetime Achievement tribute (10 minutes) and an Academy tribute to Peck's family (10 minutes); a retrospective Interview
with Mary "Scout" Badham (12 minutes); and the film's Theatrical Trailer
Two new bonus features are included; the first is a brief Restoration Featurette (9 minutes) promoting Universal's "100 Years" campaign. It's a surface-level but interesting piece that covers a number of prominent studio releases and features To Kill a Mockingbird numerous times. Also here is a U-Control feature with picture-in-picture comments narrated by Cecilia and Anthony Peck with additional contributions by Horton Foote, Mary Badham, Robert Mulligan and more. Returning bonus features are presented in 480p, new material is 1080p and all applicable extras include optional subtitles.
This two-disc combo pack also includes a featureless DVD and Digital Copy of the film; the latter is redeemable via a code printed on the packaging insert, which expires at the end of the year.
To Kill a Mockingbird is unquestionably a classic, whether in reference to Harper Lee's groundbreaking source novel or this beloved film adaptation. Gregory Peck's portrayal of noble Atticus Finch carries the story with pure class, though it's told from the perspective of a young girl just beginning to notice the less-than-perfect world around her. Featuring crisp cinematography, a deliberate pace and a strong backbone, this enduring film still has the ability to surprise and comfort its audience. Universal's Blu-Ray is a solid effort, improving upon the excellent Legacy Edition DVD with a mostly-successful A/V upgrade and a few appropriate new extras. It's a well-rounded release that fans should enjoy, and the Limited Edition Digibook package is just icing on the cake. Highly Recommended to fans of all ages.
NOTE: The above images were obtained from promotional outlets and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two in his spare time. Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD-DVDs and writing stuff in third person.