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It\'s a Wonderful Life 4K UHD Steelbook (4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital)
Before we get to the review: There are some collectors who only have a regular Blu-ray player, who buy 4K releases in order to watch the Blu-ray disc it comes with, while keeping the 4K disc for a future purchase of a 4K player. DO NOT apply this philosophy to this release, since the regular Blu-ray only contains the colorized (i.e. bastardized) version of the film.
It's a Wonderful Life, the holiday season staple and beloved classic that was a major box-office bomb when it was released in 1946, was the first film James Stewart agreed to star in after returning from World War II. At the time, Stewart suffered from PTSD after seeing all the horrors and inhumanities that the war offered, and wasn't interested in returning to acting so soon. But director Frank Capra, who saw his own share of atrocities while he was putting together the Why We Fight series of films in order to boost morale for the war effort, convinced Stewart that this project would be a balm for their torn souls.
Yet Capra certainly wasn't interested in delivering a cookie cutter, crowd-pleasing Christmas tale that would make the country ignore the hardships that it went through. The real reason behind the endurance of Capra's humanist masterwork rests with the fact that it values gratitude and joy of life in the face of conflict that appears to be insurmountable, instead of just creating a celebratory holiday movie with dazzling but empty spectacle. Stewart and Capra were men who witnessed the dehumanizing grind of the war machine, and came out of it with a new appreciation for each life being precious and vital against the grand plans of nature and humankind.
If you ask almost anyone what they remember from the film, they'd bring up the tearjerker ending (Which earns every drop) and the whimsical premise of a goofball angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) showing a disillusioned banker named George Bailey (Stewart) how miserable his loved ones would be if he were never born in the first place. As much as this premise is ripped off and parodied across pop culture for almost a century, it only covers the film's third act. We forget just how much Capra and Stewart put George through the ringer to the point of the poor man wishing his own non-existence.
The conflicts in George's life are harsh enough to be suffocating, as his dreams of leaving his small town of Bedford Falls are continuously crushed by his altruistic spirit that needs to provide help to all those who need it. The tragedy of George's problems sometimes appears to be so insurmountable, it led to the joke in Friends where Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) calls the "feel good classic" a miserable experience after she turns the movie off upon seeing how terrible fate mistreated George, before she got to the wholesome third act.
The reason the third act works so wonderfully as a singular cinematic achievement lies in Capra's sneaky build-up of the precious people that surround George in the background as we see only his troubles in the foreground. Capra delicately plants the seeds of George's valuable existence, as he forms a solid community and a family who loves him, so that the third act swoops in as an emotional gut punch that delightfully contextualizes how, as John Lennon once put it, life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.
The 4K transfer delivers the clearest and most defined home video presentation of this classic that I've seen so far. The high dynamic range capabilities of the format create formidable black and white contrast in every image, making the foreground and the background come to life. The lack of grain and the overtly digital look might turn off some purists who would have liked to have seen a more traditional look, but those of us looking to bring this masterpiece into contemporary A/V tech have very little to complain about.
The lossless mono track does a great job capturing all of the intense layers of Dimitri Tiomkin's heartwarming and rousing score. Even though it comes only from the center speaker, the audio shows an impressive dynamic range, and mixes the music and dialogue impeccably.
Restoring a Beloved Classic: This featurette goes beyond the usual restoration showcase EPK by diving into the new restoration process via interviews with the technicians who were involved.
Secrets from the Vault: This 22-minute interview with VFX master Craig Barron and legendary sound and video editor Ben Burtt is a treat for those who want to dissect Capra's framing and technical style, which was progressively natural for its time.
It's a Wonderful Wrap Party: A quick montage of Super 8 footage from the film's wrap party. It's almost surreal seeing these Hollywood icons goofing around in their natural state.
It's a Wonderful Life still endures as a classic because it doesn't sugarcoat life's problems while in the same breath it miraculously applys sincere gratitude for the gift and grace of our simple existence. The 4K restoration brings this classic to a new generation of home video. Highly recommended, of course if you can watch the 4K disc. Otherwise, stay away from the colorized version on Blu-ray!
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com