It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is beloved by so many because it's a simple story, well told, about a compassionate man who puts others before himself and eventually gets repaid in the end. The film's status as "mild box-office failure turned holiday staple" doesn't hurt its reputation, either: this one's usually at or near the top of most everyone's watch list in December. I didn't fully succumb to the charms of It's A Wonderful Life until a decade ago, but now it's easy to appreciate what's made the film so enduring, entertaining, and eternally likable. Produced by director Frank Capra's Liberty Films---a short-lived company with only one other film to its name---It's A Wonderful Life would further cement its underdog status by winning none of its five Oscar nominations (blame William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, which earned eight nominations and seven wins in identical categories).
On paper, It's A Wonderful Life plays it fairly straight. The meat of our story revolves around George Bailey (James Stewart), a selfless boy who grows up to be a selfless man; after his late father's Building and Loan is strong-armed by local tycoon Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), George takes the reins to save the humble company's future. Though younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) was initially set to fill his father's shoes, George pushes aside his own dreams for Harry's sake. The younger Bailey eventually goes to college, gets married, and works for his new father-in-law while George remains stuck at home in Bedford Falls. He eventually gets married to local sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed), and the young lovers sacrifice their honeymoon to support Building and Loan customers after a bank run. Eventually, a large amount of money goes missing, and George may even be facing jail time. As this escalating cycle of bad luck and disappointment repeats itself, it seems as if our hero will never catch a break...but karma eventually comes full circle when he needs the love, forgiveness, and support of friends and family.
This isn't just a vanilla story with a happy ending, though: the film's darker third act reminds us that our tiny lives are remembered by our actions, for better or for worse. It's A Wonderful Life paints this dark picture with broad strokes, like A Christmas Carol cranked up to "11"...but it never feels gratuitous or self-serving, even though the villainous Henry Potter don't seem to have an ounce of love in his body. Like our protagonist, It's A Wonderful Life instead comes across as genuine and well-meaning despite unavoidable imperfection. The film's holiday framing only represents a fraction of the entire story, but it's easy to see why It's A Wonderful Life's underlying message of "good will towards men" has permanently paired it with Christmas...even though it was originally released in January.
It's A Wonderful Life's popularity has grown further since the advent of home video, with several releases presenting Capra's classic in progressively better editions...until about seven years ago, at least. Since 2009, all we've gotten is a handful of sneaky re-packages (at last count, this is the fourth) that are identical aside from the covers and trinkets. So if you own It's a Wonderful Life on Blu-ray already, you absolutely don't need this for any reason...and even if you don't, those older versions can probably be found for pennies on the dollar by now.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Though it's aged a bit in the last few years---and has been docked a half-point accordingly---this 1080p transfer of It's A Wonderful Life still looks fairly crisp and well-defined from start to finish. I stuck with the same 2000-era DVD for a solid decade before finally getting the 2011 Gift Set...so along with those who have only ever caught this one on TV, watching it for the first time in high definition was (and still is) a welcome experience. Not surprisingly, this Blu-ray represents a substantial improvement over lesser formats in every category: black levels, fine details and textures are all solid across the board, while only a hint of dirt and debris can be spotted along the way. Digital problems (such as edge enhancement and compression artifacts) don't seem to be an issue at all, although it's possible that a bit of noise reduction has been added here. Overall, though, the capable presentation still makes It's A Wonderful Life that much more enjoyable, even if fresh new master would've been appreciated.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
The audio presentation aims much lower...and here's where this recycled Blu-ray really disappoints: the default Dolby Digital Mono mix still hasn't been upgraded to lossless (a full decade into the format's existence!), and it's obvious that It's A Wonderful Life is capable of sounding better. Dialogue, music and sound effects are more than a little thin and harsh at times, especially on the high end. Long story short: one can't expect too much out of a 70 year-old film in the audio department, but a DTS-HD Master Audio track would've softened the blow a little. Optional French and Spanish Mono dubs are included during the film, as well as English (SDH), French and Spanish subtitles.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
With the exact same interface as previous Blu-ray editions, the only difference here is the packaging: this two-disc set is housed in a dual-hubbed keepcase with new cover art (with matching slipcover and a few Lobby Cards
) that will undoubtedly trick casual buyers into thinking this one's different than the last. Merry Christmas, suckers!
As such, this recycled package serves up the same tired slate of extras we've all seen before on DVD and Blu-ray: "The Making of It's a Wonderful Life"
(a 23-minute 1990 retrospective hosted by Tom Bosley), the film's Theatrical Trailer
(2 minutes), and a Colorized Version
on Disc 2. The fact that we haven't gotten so much as a new documentary or full-length audio commentary in the last decade is appalling, especially considering the film's popularity.
It's been a holiday staple for decades, and the luster of It's a Wonderful Life doesn't look to be fading anytime soon. Featuring strong performances, memorable characters, and a timeless story, there are few movie lovers out there who haven't seen and enjoyed it at least once. Odds are good that you've owned It's a Wonderful Life at least once on home video...and if that includes one of many Blu-ray editions since 2009, this new "Platinum Anniversary" Edition offers nothing more than different packaging: featuring the same A/V presentation and meager extras, this is a tired (and sneaky) repackage of a classic film that deserves a truly definitive Blu-ray by now. Skip It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.