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Good fantasy movies are few and far between. Even more so than science fiction, it’s a genre that moviemakers seem to have trouble getting a handle on, thus making The Princess Bride a rarity: a fantasy film that works.

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Possibly one reason for the success of The Princess Bride is that it works on two levels: as a fairy tale with an interesting plot in its own right, and as an extremely funny and witty satire on the conventions of the fairy tale story. The story is chock-full of traditional fantasy elements: a beautiful farm-girl-turned-princess (Robin Wright) and her true love (Cary Elwes), dastardly villains (name and name), swordfights, nasty monsters, torture, kidnapping, revenge, against-all-odds rescues... you name it, it’s in The Princess Bride. The actors play their roles with wit and panache, entering into the spirit of the part while at the same time displaying ever-so-slight a hint that it’s all a show.

I was surprised to learn from the documentary on this DVD that The Princess Bride was a low-budget film, because it doesn’t really look like one. Sure, it doesn’t feature the elaborate “movie magic” special effects of a Lucas or Spielberg film... but the story doesn’t seem to call for elaborate effects, either. (Though it’s a sad commentary on filmmaking that if The Princess Bride had been made by Lucas or Spielberg, it would most likely have been an immediate success instead of a sleeper hit.) When bringing the book to film, director Rob Reiner correctly interpreted that the true charm of William Goldman’s original novel is in its sense of humor, not in flash and glitter. Would-be directors of fantasy movies ought to take note of Reiner’s work in this regard: a top-notch story and script, a solid cast, good acting, and attention to production values all take precedence over expensive special effects when it comes to making a movie that will truly last the test of time.

The combination of a fun adventure story with satiric humor means that The Princess Bride is enjoyable for both kids and adults, with the older and the younger set appreciating different elements of the movie. It also bears re-watching very well, which is a definite bonus for a family film. Everyone who has seen the film will have their own favorite moments; mine is the cliff-top fencing scene with Íñigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and “the man in black,” which I appreciate even more each time I watch it. (Incidentally, Montoya’s first name is correctly spelled “Íñigo,” which is how he pronounces it in the movie, not “Inigo,” as the credits incorrectly have it).

In a side note, as a fencer, I can attest that the swordfighting scenes are extremely well done. I cringe during the fencing scenes in most movies because I can’t help but notice how unrealistic and obviously choreographed they are... but in The Princess Bride, the fencing scenes are both dramatic and realistic, which is, I assure you, a rare thing in the movies. Interestingly, the actors themselves trained extensively to perform the fencing scenes: no stunt doubles were used.

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It’s difficult to sustain a comedic tone evenly throughout an entire film, and The Princess Bride does slow down a bit in the second half of the film. Partly it’s a question of pacing; some scenes, such as the ones in the torture chamber with the albino assistant, or in Miracle Max’s house, seem to hold up the story to a certain extent rather than propelling it along on the fast-paced flow that was established in the first half. And to a certain extent, it’s simply that the first half of the film puts up a hard act to follow, with the charm that comes from introducing memorable characters and situations. So The Princess Bride isn’t perfect, but it’s still the best pure-fantasy film that I’ve seen.

The major upgrade of the special edition is that the transfer is anamorphic 1.85:1, which in itself is a more than sufficient reason to prefer the special edition. The colors are bright and vivid, and contrast appears to be good as well. It doesn’t look as though the print has been cleaned up any for the new edition, though; there’s a small amount of noise in the image, the same as in the original release. But since the original transfer was fairly good to begin with (apart from being non-anamorphic), the special edition also looks good, with the added improvement of being anamorphic.

The same Dolby 5.1 track appears on the special edition as on the original release. While it doesn’t stand out as a great audio track, it’s decent and does justice to the film. (I’ll note, for the curious, that the dubbed Spanish track is absolutely dreadful.)

Since the original edition of The Princess Bride had no extras (apart from a pan-and-scan version of the film), the special edition is clearly an improvement in the special features category. In addition to the usual minor features (TV spots, photo gallery, trailers), there are several longer features of interest. The main attraction is the “As You Wish” documentary, which is a 30-minute retrospective look at the making of the film and how it has become a favorite over the years since it was made. Two shorter featurettes from 1987 also provide glimpses behind the scenes; some of the same topics are mentioned as in the later documentary, but they’re still worth watching. Another short piece is the “Cary Elwes video diary,” which is some behind-the-scenes home video footage shot by Elwes, with added comments from Elwes and Robin Wright. Last but not least, we have two audio commentaries, one with director Rob Reiner and the other with author William Goldman. While I would have appreciated it if they’d made one track with both commentators, it’s nice to have these two perspectives included.

Princess Bride SE, The
The Princess Bride is a fun, light-hearted adventure that's a great addition to the collection of anyone who enjoys fantasy, fairy tales, and genuinely witty and charming characters and dialogue.

If you haven’t bought The Princess Bride yet, clearly the special edition is the disc to buy. With the new anamorphic transfer and a nice selection of extras on the special edition, there’s absolutely no reason to choose the previous edition. The question is whether to upgrade from the existing version if you already own it. That depends on how much you like the film and whether or not the anamorphic transfer is going to make a difference on your home theater setup. My take on the DVD of The Princess Bride is that upgrading is a fairly good option in this case, and I’m pleased that I did.