"Explore the rich, fascinating culture and history of magic... Come backstage and see what's behind the curtain!" So proclaims the cover copy of Grand Illusions: The Story of Magic. Oh, if only it were so. But instead of a true exploration of an intriguing subject, we get 160 minutes of bland and nearly content-free pap.
Let's take a look at what Grand Illusions is supposed to talk about. It's divided into six episodes, each focusing on a different part of magic. "The Father of Modern Magic" covers the career of Robert-Houdin, who was the first respectable "parlor" magician. "Houdini" follows the life of Harry Houdini, while "The Herrmanns" takes a look at another "magic family" who influenced the professional magic scene. "The Greats of Modern Magic" touches on the acts of some of the more famous modern-day magicians, like Doug Henning and Siegfried & Roy. The last two episodes shift to the grotesque and morbid, as "Weird Magic" looks at sideshow performers and tricks like sword swallowing, and "Death by Magic" focuses on magicians who have been killed or injured doing their tricks, mainly the "bullet catching" trick.
A fundamental flaw in Grand Illusions is how it approaches its subject matter, which is to simply present a descriptive summary of the careers and favorite tricks of various magicians. There's no attempt to explain how the tricks were, or are, done. Why's that a problem? Well, in this day and age, illusion is commonplace. Using models, stunt men, and ever-more-perfect CGI, movies can convince us of the reality of anything we see on the screen... and so we've gotten used to the idea that what we see is not real. We accept the illusions as part of the film experience, which means that when we want to admire the illusions as illusions, we want to know how it was done: just look at the popularity of "making of" documentaries for films.
For good or for bad, we in the audience are no longer innocents, able to be awed just by the strangeness or seeming impossibility of a magic trick. In person, maybe: live magic shows still call up the wonder of "I saw it with my own eyes and it seemed real!" But for the most part, the central attraction in seeing an illusion is asking "How did he do it?" We've taken for granted that we can be fooled: what arouses our sense of wonder is the skill and cleverness of the trick that fooled us.
This is why Grand Illusions: The Story of Magic ends up feeling so sterile and empty. We're shown example after example of wondrous tricks... and after each one, the narrative moves on, never telling us how it was done, or in the case of magicians who never revealed their tricks, how it might have been done. Did the filmmakers think that showing how these tricks worked would dispel all their magic? If so, they must never have spoken to anyone who's interested in science, for instance – and never realized that understanding how something complex works makes it more fascinating rather than less.
If that were the only problem with Grand Illusions, it might still be a reasonably interesting program. However, that's not even the half of it. Each of the documentary's six episodes is 23 minutes long except for the double-length "Houdini." That's not a whole lot of time to devote to each topic as it is... but these episodes are the most pathetically padded things I've ever seen. Before the credits, we get a short introduction that summarizes everything that will be presented. After the credits, we get another introduction, reiterating what the first introduction said. Then the body of the episode slightly elaborates on this material, mainly in the form of full-length versions of the short clips used in the introduction; only rarely is there any new information introduced, and never is anything developed beyond the simplest level. Then we get a summary of what we've just seen. All this in 23 minutes!
To make matters worse, a considerable amount of material is repeated from episode to episode... not just a quick reference, but actual interview clips and lengthy summaries of material we've already been shown. The "Houdini" episode is the worst offender, as the second half largely repeats exactly the same information as presented in the first half, but it's a problem in all of the others as well.
Last but not least, the narrator is apparently trying to emulate the intonation of Preview Voice Man throughout the whole series. The result is simply awful; it's pretentious and the narration even sounds awkward and artificial.
Grand Illusions: The Story of Magic is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Though it was filmed in 1998, the image has the dull look of film stock that's at least ten years old, probably more. It's watchable, but colors look flat and sometimes slightly unnatural, and the image as a whole is not particularly sharp.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is adequate for the requirements of the program. While you may find Preview Voice Narrator annoying, he's clear and understandable enough, as are the various people who are interviewed in the program.
There are no special features included here. There are also no chapter stops within the episodes, which makes me want to give it a negative rating for special features.
Grand Illusions: The Story of Magic has one simple trick: if you buy it, you will find that it makes your money go poof! and disappear, leaving you with a worthless dud of a DVD in place of your cash. Here's my advice: avoid this pointless, badly organized, repetitive, and dull documentary. It's a shame, because there's a lot of potentially fascinating material to be found in the history of magic... but it's not found here. Skip it.