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Dead Poets Society: Special Edition DVD Review

Dead Poets Society movie poster Dead Poets Society

Theatrical Release: June 9, 1989 / Running Time: 129 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Robin Williams (John Keating), Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry), Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson), Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet), Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton), Kurtwood Smith (Mr. Perry), Dylan Kussman (Richard Cameron), Allelon Ruggiero (Steven Meeks), James Waterston (Gerard Pitts), Norman Lloyd (Mr. Nolan), Carla Belver (Mrs. Perry), Leon Pownall (McAllister), George Martin (Dr. Hager), Matt Carey (Hopkins), Alexandra Powers (Chris Noel), Colin Irving (Chet Danburry), John Cunningham (Mr. Anderson), Debra Mooney (Mrs. Anderson)


By Aaron Wallace

Of all the "inspiring teacher" stories out there, Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society is often held up as the standard in film. It's easily the most successful of that type, but its relative stature in quality is probably debatable (and it's worth noting that a hefty chunk of its competition comes from the very same studio). Clearly, it resonated with audiences in 1989, when Disney released the film to theaters under its still-young Touchstone Pictures banner, aimed at nagging an older audience without tainting the Disney name. Though it never took #1 at the box office, it grossed nearly $96 million domestically and over $235 million worldwide,
making it the tenth highest-grossing film in the US that year and the fifth highest overseas. Those numbers were good enough to let it surpass Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Little Mermaid, two other remarkably successful Buena Vista films released the same year, in the global box office. It's safe to say that Disney more than held their own in a blockbuster sequel-laden year at the movies, thanks in large part to Dead Poets Society.

Robin Williams is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood today, but 17 years ago, Dead Poets Society offered him one of his first major big screen roles (he had previously gained acclaim for another Touchstone hit by the name of Good Morning, Vietnam two years earlier and as the first title character in the 1970s sitcom "Mork & Mindy"). In it, he plays John Keating, a newly arrived English professor at Welton Academy, a private prep school, in the 1950s. Keating doesn't subscribe to more traditional notions of education that dominate the field at the time. A true maverick, he breaks the mold by encouraging his students to "seize the day" and explore life's possibilities for themselves. Poetry is his medium for instruction, and by establishing an unexpected but deeply desired connection with his students, themselves gripped with despair from parental woes, he makes the art of language come alive for them.

Keating's methods aren't exactly conventional. Neil's the leader of the pack.

So inspired are the students that they relaunch a secret society of poetry lovers from Keating's younger days. Together, while developing their craft, they bond and attend to one another's problems, which turn out to be bountiful. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) struggles with a passion for acting hampered by a disapproving and controlling father ("That '70s Show"'s Kurtwood Smith), Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke, whose only credible role before this was as the lead in the bizarre sci-fi family film, Explorers) suffers from confidence issues and parents who don't seem to care about him, Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) has a bit of a wild streak and wants to break free from the school he feels entrapped by. And in addition to having perhaps the best name ever, Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) has fallen hard for a public school girl named Chris (Alexandra Powers), much to the displeasure of her macho boyfriend, Chet (Colin Irving). All the students share a collective problem in that Keating, their favorite teacher, is targeted by the conformity-loving administration.

Williams' screen time isn't as plentiful as one might expect from the star, because while his character drives the story, it actually centers more around Todd and Neil. The camera travels with the students, not the teacher, and with few exceptions, he is seen only when in their presence. That structure is fairly typical for this kind of movie, but it's made better than average by a solid script and strong performances. Williams, who only breaks into his spastic brand of humor in one scene, makes one of his better dramatic turns here and Perry, Hawke, Hansen, Charles, and Smith are all believable and effective in their respective roles. The supporting cast, too, delivers capably. The setting feels entirely authentic, and the narrative usually does too, though a few plot developments require a bigger leap on the audience's part when motivation feels a little lacking.

Make your lives extraordinary. That's a very young Ethan Hawke on the right.

While Maurice Jarre's cheesy and strikingly '80s score does little to augment it, the story is indeed rather inspiring. At some point, the story takes a darker turn for the more complex, and the dramatics are likely to solicit different emotional responses from different people, whether it be touched or disturbed, but there's sure to be a response nonetheless. The well-wrought ending seals the deal in this department, and the maintenance of dry eyes will be an achievement, indeed, but when the final scene concludes, one can't help but feel that there was more story to be told.

The PG-13 rating was still a relatively recent concept in 1989, and was therefore used a little more sparingly than it is today. As such, Dead Poets Society scored a PG rating, despite some strong language and brief nudity. It's not at all raunchy, but parents will want to keep in mind that this would certainly a receive a PG-13 rating upon release today and young children might want to stick to televised airings. For everyone else, there's a new low-priced Special Edition DVD of the film, recently released alongside a new edition of Vietnam, and it offers several notable improvements upon the previous bare-bones release. Read on for those.

Buy Dead Poets Society: Special Edition on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French)
Subtitles: English, French
Closed Captioned
Release Date: January 10, 2006
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Black Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

The previous release featured a non-anamorphic widescreen presentation, and who wants that? No one, that's who - especially now that they don't have to settle for that. The new Special Edition enhances that widescreen 1.85:1 transfer for 16x9 displays. The transfer could still have used some work, unfortunately. It's not extremely problematic, but is too soft and too dark throughout, exhibiting more grain than it should

The audio quality is problem-free, and it's conveyed fairly well in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The surround channels are often used, though they are drowned out by the center channel, which dominates with dialogue, and the front three speakers, which share responsibility for the score. Not the best 5.1 presentation DVD has ever seen, but a lot of complaining isn't necessary.

The Weir One himself! If you were wondering which high-profile directors this man has worked for, don't worry... he'll tell you! A deleted scene (or "raw take", as this disc calls it).

BONUS FEATURES

The last DVD release of Dead Poets Society came without the company of bonus features. That's not the case this time around. Director Peter Weir, Cinematographer John Seale, and Writer Tom Schulman together provide an audio commentary track (and I use "together" loosely, as there's not really a conversational tone to it, which may have helped spice things up). It's fairly interesting, though often not scene-specific. There are stories about the behind-the-scenes studio drama, including a story praising former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, who left the studio on bad terms. Worth noting is an abrupt cut in the audio immediately following the story, which indicates that something may have been edited and not well-disguised. The "bonus features not rated" tag especially applies to this feature, which doesn't hesitate to drop the "F" bomb.

"Dead Poets: A Look Back" is hands-down the best bonus on the disc and one of only two that will absolutely appeal to anyone who cares enough for the film to own it (the other is the trailer, listed below). Here, Weir, Hawke, Leonard, Charles, Dylan Kussman, Allalon Ruggiero, Norman Lloyd (apparently his own biggest fan), and Kurtwood Smith reflect on their experiences with the film and its legacy. That's a substantial portion of the cast, even if it doesn't include Williams himself. Oh yeah, Melora Walters, who played a girl named Gloria who was in the film for a very short period of time, is included and curiously has as much to say about it as anyone else (and even more than Ethan Hawke, who can't recall what went on anymore than Leonard, who has some memory snafus himself). It's as much a tribute to Weir as it is to the film, but the participants' reflections are intriguing and informative, even if this isn't the most aesthetically pleasing featurette. It's unclear when this was produced, but it must have been sometime around the beginning of the century, as Lloyd says it was ten years after the film and Leonard says twelve.

"Raw Takes" (4:40) are essentially deleted scenes, and two of them in sequence at that. Had these been kept in the film, audiences would have seen a nice scene with Keating paying a visit to a Dead Poets Society meeting, though its intended placement inside the film's climax would probably have been distracting.

"Cinematography" uses a little animation to illustrate set design plans. The AFTRS stands for the Australian school for which the featurette was made. Hooray! A trailer! The animated 16x9 main menu

There are two featurettes on technical aspects of the film. The first is "Master of Sound: Alan Splet" (11:00), which actually has only a little to do with the sound itself and more to do with memorializing the late musician. Weir gives an interview,
and then we hear (but don't see) director David Lynch, who worked with Splet on other projects and was good friends with him. It's a nice tribute, but probably isn't of great interest to most consumers. "Cinematography Master Class" (14:48) follows the construction of a small dormitory set and all the lighting preparation that had to be done in order to achieve the desired appearance. Film buffs who dig behind-the-scenes stuff will get a kick out of this, which really illustrates the number of people and amount of effort required to achieve even a small scene in the world of film.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the theatrical trailer. That's the most surprising inclusion, because Disney generally doesn't see fit to include these on any of their branches' releases. It's here in unrestored form, and makes for quite a nice viewing. Kudos go to Disney for finally taking the logical step by including this no-effort-or-cost-required (but guaranteed to please the market) feature. Hopefully they keep it up.

The animated 16x9-enhanced main menu screen is appropriate in appearance and design, but unfortunately it and the bonus features menu (which has a still frame background) are accompanied by a portion of the annoying film score. The disc opens with trailers for the poorly-received Annapolis and the Jodie Foster thriller, Flightplan. And that's it! Those two play when the disc starts up, and they are accessible from the main menu, but there aren't any others joining them there.

With those kinds of shots, how could you not be inspired? Seize the day = Carpe diem!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Inspiring and uplifting, Dead Poets Society is a movie worth seeing and even worth owning. That's thanks to a great cast, script, and direction. A few errs in development and an ending that comes too soon are the only complaints, but they don't spoil. The new Special Edition provides a new anamorphic transfer that is imperfect but still good cause for an upgrade, especially when accompanied by two great bonus features and three fairly decent ones. Let's go ahead and call this one a recommendation.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews
Starring Robin Williams: Good Morning, Vietnam: Special Edition (1987) Aladdin (1992) Jack (1996) Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996)
Featuring Ethan Hawke: White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf (1994)
Inspirational Teacher Stories: The Chorus (2005) "Boy Meets World": The Complete First Season (1993-94)
Recent Touchstone DVD Reviews: Dark Water: Unrated Edition (2005) Flightplan (2005) "Lost": The Complete First Season (2004-05)

Touchstone Special Editions:
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Beaches (1988) Father of the Bride (1991)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

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Reviewed January 31, 2006.