During the Middle Ages, the divided town of Hamelin tries in vain to rid itself of the black plague. When a mysterious musician arrives, can the townspeople put aside their personal agendas to rid themselves of their rat infestation? Or will the petty and greedy town leaders attempt to take advantage of their savior?
I've spoken in other reviews about the importance of mastering the tone of a movie. If you're a filmmaker trying to tell a dark and grim tale, a little bit of humor is alright, but it had better be kept within the realm of the established tone. In 1972, Jaques Demy, the brilliant mind behind The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, took a stab at staging an elaborate, well-budgeted costume drama The Pied Piper. As a dark and grim children's fable, Demy planted rock star Donovan in the titular role to play towards a younger audience. While the film attempts to maintain a light and airy feel, its darker tendencies tend to muddle the show.
In 1349, the Black Plague had erupted all across the German countryside. As the number of people who drop dead from the vile disease increases, so does the rat population. Since the rats are the ones carrying the disease from one person to the next, people are naturally fearful of the squeaky creatures. On the eve of The Baron's (Donald Pleasence) daughter's wedding, a savior strolls into the small village, the Piper (Donovan). While the Piper seems to be able to woo the attentions of the people, he seems also to have a strange ability to grab the attentions of the critters with his melodic tunes. When the Baron promises to the Piper a handsome sum for ridding them of their infestation, his cruel and devious nature will quickly come back to bite him when he reneges on the deal.
Coming from German heritage, this was a very well known story during my upbringing. A simple enough story about not doing someone wrong or going back on a deal with deadly consequences seemed cute when I was a kid, but when I grew up I understood the darker, bleaker implications. Demy's take on The Pied Piper tries very hard to have its cake and eat it too. By mounting an impressive period retelling with impeccable costume and production design work, Demy worked extremely hard to bring a realistic take to the fable, have a good bit of jaunty fun, but still hold true to the dark and dreary source legend. One minute we're enjoying Donovan and his antics, the next we're watching Donald Pleasence put a Jewish man in jail and raise the taxes on his people and the Piper exacting his revenge. It's a bit of whiplash, to say the least.
While the tonal shifts can make one feel a bit wishy-washy, I found the film to be entertaining. If for no other reason than to watch this incredible cast do what they do best. Donald Pleasence does what he's always done best as the Baron by playing another conniving slimy bad guy. Donovan also comes through in a clinch and makes for a solid Piper. In addition to Donovan's musical antics and Pleasence's penchant for menace, we get to enjoy John Hurt as Franz, Jack Wild as the young Gavin, Cathryn Harrison as Lisa, and Diana Dors as Frau Popperndick - which I think is a gag unto itself. The late Peter Vaughan as the Bishop is also a delight here. While geared for kids, I wouldn't call this a kids film. Even with its G-rating, it's a very grim story so those with little ones may want to do a quick spot check before putting it on. All around, it's a worthwhile watch.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Pied Piper arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics Label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case. Also included is a booklet containing cover art pictures of Kino Lorber Releases. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
The Pied Piper toots its way onto Blu-ray with a soft and middling 1.66:1 1080p transfer. This is a transfer that is more reflective of Filmmaker intent rather than what people want to see from a premium format. The film strives to maintain an older look with soft focus and desaturated colors. To that effect, there are times where the image can be very soft looking and colors can appear quite muted. Close up and middle shots tend to look quite good with adequate detail levels allowing you to appreciate the work that went into this lavish production. Colors don't have that pleasing pop, but again, I'm wagering that's by intent. Flesh tones appear accurate throughout. Black levels can be a bit soft mitigating any sort of three-dimensional effect. Speckling and some slight scratches here and there make up the only present print damage. Again, this isn't a beautiful looking film, but my guess is that it was never supposed to be.
The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix saddled for The Piped Piper works where it counts most but has some levels issues. Dialogue comes through just fine without much interference. Where trouble perks up are with the scoring and the piper music beats. These tunes have a tendency to overwhelm the rest of the mix to the point of the film looking and sounding more like a music video rather than a staged musical. Sound effects can become lost and instances, where crowd noise should be heard, are lost completely. To that end, the mix seems to become a bit more shrill and tinny sounding as a result. It's not a terrible defect, your viewing experience won't be ruined by it, but it's an odd and noticeable quirk.
While The Pied Piper may not fully succeed at its goals of making a dark and gritty, realistic take on the legend while also enjoy a good bit of lighthearted fun, the film is no dull or boring affair. Some great performances and impressive production design work keep this period film from sinking into the quagmire of mediocrity. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings The Pied Piper to Blu-ray with a flawed but serviceable video transfer and audio mix. Bonus features are only a collection of trailers. Fans should be pleased with the effort, newcomers should consider it worth a look.