'Pleasantville' is one of those high concept movies that shouldn't work, but does. Seemingly born from that great "what if?" reservoir that breeds terrible high concept movies and cracking good episodes of 'The Twilight Zone' alike, it sought to take advantage of then-cutting-edge visual effects to tell a story based around some fairly universal themes and concepts. And, oddly, things turned out quite well.
The movie begins in the real world, with two teenage siblings squabbling over the television set. David (Tobey Maguire) is something of a nerd and, in an early scene, is shown as a social outcast and trivia geek, specifically about a 1950s 'Leave It to Beaver'-type sitcom called 'Pleasantville.' His twin sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), is far more popular and sexually active than David. He wants the television for a 'Pleasantville' marathon, while she wants to watch something on MTV with the cute boy she's invited over. Their fighting ends with them busting the remote and, in a precious bit of creative screenwriting that still irks me to this day, they aren't able to control the television manually because "it's a new TV that doesn't work without a remote." Right.
Anyway, a mysterious repairman, played by Don Knotts, shows up at their door, offering to fix the remote. It's just that, once he hears how much of a fan David is of the old 'Pleasantville' show, he gives them a "special remote," one that, with the press of a button and some very questionable digital effects, zaps them directly into the television and into 'Pleasantville!'
In a reverse bit of 'Wizard of Oz'-ing, the movie then becomes black-and-white, just like the television show. The series' straight-laced parents, played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy, are more than happy to see their children (in the movie's own internal logic, they don't notice their children's transformation). The real world kids are then faced with a question – do they just blend into their black-and-white surroundings or shake things up?
If you haven't seen 'Pleasantville,' which would probably be a shock considering its mild cult appeal and constant re-airings on basic cable, you know that they do in fact shake things up and in doing so "colorize" their surroundings (just like Ted Turner – ZING!) The more staid members of the community, led by J.T. Walsh (who died, tragically, before the film's release), rebel against the new "colors" and their subversive element in their idyllic town. Some, like the handsome soda jerk, played with heartbreaking sincerity by the perennially underrated Jeff Daniels, long to burst out in color while stuck in a monochromatic world.
'Pleasantville,' written and directed by Gary Ross, a filmmaker who cut his teeth as a screenwriter of similarly high concept fare like 'Dave' and 'Big,' knows the right balance between whimsy and thematic heft. The "color" metaphor is an obvious one, based on the segregationist rhetoric that would threaten to tear the nation apart in the decade following the squeaky-clean time period in which the television series is set, but Ross isn't happy to let that be the only metaphor. Color is intended to be something that you live and breathe, something that is inside of us all, if only we'd open up.
And although the script for 'Pleasantville' sometimes trips and stumbles over its own ideas, it's still a painfully beautiful film, especially when the colors explode from the monochromatic world. The film is full of wonderful performances, particularly from Joan Allen and Jeff Daniels, and as a thoughtful, gorgeous, more sophisticated riff on Frank Capra, it works. It's not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it's great to see a big budget studio film take chances both thematically and technically (this stuff was pretty cutting edge at the time). 'Pleasantville' is, ultimately, quite pleasant.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Pleasantville' comes to Blu-ray on a 50GB dual layer Blu-ray disc that is Region A locked.
There's a sticker on the front of the package which proclaims: "See the amazing visual effects in high-def!" (or something to that effect). And, truth be told, I was very much looking forward to seeing the visuals in glittery high definition. But, sadly, the 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio) let me down quite a bit.
First of all, the movie already looks pretty dated (it's 13 years old now, good grief) – from the opening scenes with its painfully crummy-looking titles, to the visual effects when the kids get blipped into the television (that look less sophisticated than something easily accomplishable today on iMovie). But the movie rests largely on the ability to convey not only the velveteen black-and-white world of the 'Pleasantville' television show, but the way that the colors start to pop (quite literally) into the monochromatic landscape.
So: the good first – the 'Pleasantville' transfer does offer a noticeable improvement over previous home video iterations. There is a noticeable layer of grain that permeates the image, which most of the time doesn't bother but occasionally feels overwhelming in ways that it shouldn't. The black-and-white looks good but not great, black levels aren't as deep and bottomless as they should be, especially since there's not only a visual importance to the black-and-white's performance, but an emotional and thematic one as well.
Colors, when they do pop, are relatively bright and brilliant, although these moments too seem dulled either by the lack of attention given to the new transfer or the excessive amount of grain that is spread across the entire shebang. It's disappointing, because you feel like these colors could have been out-of-control amazing and instead are just kind of blah.
And it's not to say the transfer is bad in any way, because it's not; not really. It's just that the extra mile that could have been given to making this transfer really spectacular has not been afforded, and the sticker on the box isn't really given any follow-through. The special effects look okay; that's it. Basically, it looks better than previous home video versions, and that's about it.
Similarly workmanlike is the disc's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix.
Much of the mix's emphasis is on dialogue, which keeps things front-and-center. There are a number of important sound effects, like basketballs bouncing off a backboard, rain sliding down a roof, and bowling balls crashing into pins. These effects sound great and occasionally add a dimensionality and depth to otherwise flat scenes. It's just that these moments are few and far between, and when the mix really needs to open up, to give that wide-eyed sense of wonder that, when the movie is really "on," much more emphasis is placed on Randy Newman's not-altogether-terrible score.
The music does soar on this mix, which, no matter how you feel about the music (I'm not the biggest fan), will still give you a solid case of the warm-fuzzies. It makes up for an only occasionally dynamic surround mix, albeit one without any significant foibles or technical issues.
Other languages available on the disc are Spanish 2.0 (both Castilian and Latin) and Portuguese 2.0 (which isn't advertised on the box). There are subtitles available in English, Chinese, Castellano, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, and a couple of other countries I couldn't make out (none of these are listed on the package).
All of the extras from the "Platinum Series" (remember that?) DVD have been imported to the Blu-ray. Unfortunately, they have all made the move without an upgrade in video quality, which is particularly crushing for one special feature. (More on that in a minute.)
'Pleasantville' is an easy film to admire and embrace. It took what was then-cutting-edge technology and applied it to a story that actually demanded it; special effects meant to enrich character and theme instead of make robots collide with each other. With some really fine performances by William H Macy, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, and Reese Witherspoon, not to mention JT Walsh's last on-screen appearance before his untimely death, the movie is the rare high-concept project that makes you feel as much as it makes you go "gee whiz, that was cool!" Unfortunately, the Blu-ray could have been much, much cooler. While the audio and video show a marked improvement, it could have been better, and the special features, all imports from a ten-year-old DVD, remain in standard definition, crushing especially for the amazing Fiona Apple video that was directed by her then-beau Paul Thomas Anderson. I hesitantly recommend this disc, but don't expect a huge bump in quality.