Academy Award winner Robin Williams (Best Supporting Actor, Good Will Hunting, 1997) delivers one of his most memorable performances in Dead Poets Society – digitally restored and presented for the first time ever in breathtaking Blu-rayTM High Definition.
For generations, Welton Academy students have been groomed to live lives of conformity and tradition – until new professor John Keating inspires them to think for themselves, live life to the fullest and “Carpe Diem.” This unconventional approach awakens the spirits of the students, but draws the wrath of a disapproving faculty when an unexpected tragedy strikes the school. With unforgettable characters and beautiful cinematography, Dead Poets Society will captivate and inspire you time and time again.
I'm not sure what it is about the 1980s and boarding schools, but poking around the Interwebs today revealed a Wiki page claiming there were 11 or so films set at boarding schools prior to 1981 and, since then, one or two every year. I'm not sure if this says anything about our culture, or filmmakers in general, or if this contained setting is an easy way to explore a microcosm of society as a whole. Or perhaps none of these things; perhaps it's just coincidence. I suppose my real point is sometimes it's hard to keep them all separate unless, again just hypothesizing, you happened to be a young person coming of age around same time a particular film was released (Editor's Note: I mentioned the first time I saw this movie in a Weekend Roundtable a while back. Josh Zyber also discussed it in a second Roundtable post). For example, though I haven't seen it in a while and it's probably a lesser film, my personal favorite boarding school film is probably 'Toy Soldiers' (aka 'Die Hard' in a boarding school).
'Dead Poets Society', however, was a little ahead of my time despite its huge box office and critical success (it grossed over $235M worldwide and the film's writer, Tom Schulman won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), though I remember TV ads for the theatrical release and its eventual home video release. They showed that guy from 'Mork and Mindy' acting serious and funny at the same time to inspire rebellious youth. Over the years, I've seen 'Dead Poets Society' in bits and pieces on television, but never as a whole, so sitting down to review this Blu-ray was an unusual experience, given that the material was both familiar and fresh.
Set in 1959 at America's premier preparatory school, the Welton Academy, 'Dead Poets Society' chronicles the lives of Welton seniors Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard of 'Much Ado About Nothing' and 'House'), an extrovert with a very controlling father, and Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), a shy young man trying to live up to the expectations set by his valedictorian brother. Because their parents want them have careers in law and medicine, Neil and Todd, along with the other boys in the dorm, are all studying rigid subjects like science and mathematics under disciplinarian professors. But this year there's a new English teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), who wants his students to think original thoughts outside the proverbial box and, hopefully, fall in love with Poetry because, while on the surface it seems stilted and dull, the art form is an expression of universal themes and human passion.
These kids, trained in manners and civility and etiquette, have never seen anything quite like Keating, so they research his student history at Welton (Class of '41) and find out he was a founding member of the Dead Poets Society, a club that snuck out of the dorms to read, write, and share poetry in a cave in the woods. Inspired, Neil leads his friends to resurrect the Dead Poets, and forces Todd to join too despite his shyness.
As the film progresses, though warned against rocking the boat, Keating challenges the young men to seize the day in whatever way possible, whether that be chasing the girl of his dreams, participating out loud in class, or trying out for a play in spite of a father's wishes. However, when boundaries are broken in a restrictive society, there will be consequences and originality will be stifled. The question is, what will these young men take from this experience into their future lives?
Revisiting 'Dead Poets Society' for the first time in years, and for the first time in one piece, I had completely forgotten how this isn't really a Robin Williams movie. It's an ensemble drama about the boys, with Williams' Keating acting as a structure and sometimes literal inspiration. ." Under Peter Weir's direction, this young cast delivers fantastic, well rounded performances, even when dealing with clichés like "the love interest's angry boyfriend" or the "overbearing father and silent mother." Perhaps it's just nostalgia on my part, but there seems to have been more naturalism in 1980s films with teen stars. It's not a big surprise that the film's two young leads are still famous working film and television actors.
Williams' performance is also very fine, as he blends his natural inclination for comedy with an earnest, dramatic performance that highlights his character's passion for literature and poetry. Hopefully we've all had teachers that changed the course of our lives, in however large or small direction, but Williams nails it and makes you believe a group of teen boys would have the guts to read and enjoy poetry in their spare time (you know, while making fun of each other and drooling over nudie magazine centerfolds).
Overall, I enjoyed the film a good deal, with its themes of perseverance and passion and breathing life into 400 year old plays, but I do have a couple minor quibbles. First, I'm personally not a fan of the synthesizer score. I imagine this was done to contemporize the movie, making 1980s teens feel like the 1950s weren't all that different, though there is a number of classical pieces as well as period music selections. Today, the synth dates the film, for better or worse. My other quibble is more of a question. I wonder if the film's themes and messages are ultimately satisfying?
To truly examine this, we'd have to dive into the film's climax and final two sequences. Since I'm not a fan of spoiling even 22 year-old films in reviews (in hopes some viewers can experience a movie on Blu-ray for the first time), it's a little hard to argue this one way or another. What I will say is that I find the ending to be honest and real; I think teenage boys would sign a certain document. And their final gesture towards Keating is certainly uplifting and seemingly a proclamation that they'll follow Keating's call to original thinking, but after the actions they've all taken, is it a bit of a copout? Have they really changed?
I was recently reading a friend's Best of 2011 list, on which he listed the film, 'Beginners'. He and his mother had disagreed about the film because, my friend's mother posited, young people would see the film through Ewan McGregor's eyes and find it life-affirming while older folks would experience it from Christopher Plummer's, and find it horrifying. I haven't seen 'Beginners', so I can't personally speak to that criticism, but I find it may apply here to revisiting a film which gleefully urges Youth to seize the day, do what they love, and think original thoughts, and then seems to say Keating is successful in changing these young men. I'm sure my younger-self, had I seen the whole movie twenty three years ago, would have loved this message and felt the ending triumphant and uplifting. However, my old-man-self found the boys' actions to be selfish (though perfectly plausible) and the ending a little unsatisfying and artificial. How about you?
Despite a couple quibbles, I really enjoyed seeing 'Dead Poets Society' in its complete form for the first time. The world is honestly portrayed, the story tackles and balances a myriad of dramatic and comedic tones successfully, and pushes people to explore the arts and life itself as if each day was your very last. I also think there are fans of a certain age who will absolutely love to revisit the film on Blu-ray for the first time because of what it meant to them in 1989; those fans are in for a treat that, generally, stands the test of time. For the rest of us -- and for various reasons; I don't mean to imply that ONLY teenagers in 1989 are fully able to enjoy the film -- I'd rate the film above average, but not great.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Walt Disney Home Entertainment brings 'Dead Poets Society' to Blu-ray in a single BD50 housed in a standard blue 'eco-LITE vortex' case. Disc and packaging materials say the disc will work in Regions A, B, and C. There are no forced trailers.
As a twenty-plus year old catalog film, 'Dead Poets Society' looks vibrant and clear and filmic on Blu-ray, but somewhat flat. To my eyes, it looks pretty similar to 'Rudy', which was filmed a couple years later. Exterior scenes and shots of the school, as well as the surrounding town and countryside, are colorful and vibrant. Twilight reflected off the pond and fall trees next to green pastures are delightful. The interior of the school features a more controlled color scheme, which gives the film its period / nostalgic feel. Skin tones are warm, but even and natural. Black levels are crisp, though when you see a shadow there's nothing really hiding in it. Film grain fans rejoice, as this presentation looks very filmic and there doesn't appear to be any noise reduction or edge enhancement. Lastly, the Blu-ray's source material is in very good shape; I didn’t see any dirt or damage.
While there's much to admire, there's some occasional softness, especially during the opening title sequence (though that's common for many films with optically created titles). Also, the overall feel of the film is quite flat -- again, this is common for 1980s film stocks -- and beyond the daytime exteriors, never displays vast amounts of texture or fine detail.
None of these things are huge problems, mind you. It's a solid catalog transfer and definitely a leap over the DVD, but is shy of being a fantastic Blu-ray and is more akin to a better-quality HD television broadcast than some of the better catalog restorations and/or release we've seen.
Like many catalog releases from the late 1980s, 'Dead Poets Society' comes with a pleasing 5.1 English DTS-HD MA surround soundtrack. As it was originally mixed for stereo, feel free to consider this a stereo mix with some expanded use of surrounds for things like musical score and the occasional sound effect. Since this is common for soundtracks of the era, 'Dead Poets Society' has a number of strengths. Crystal clear dialog. A nice dynamic range for the musical score and period songs used. A decent amount of stereo panning in the front sound stage. And LFE, while certainly not explosive, holds up nicely, supporting low and mid range music, vocal tones, and sound effects.
While this soundtrack could never compete with modern day dramas, it holds up pretty darn well and does its job.
All the special features from the 2006 Special Edition DVD are here on the 'Dead Poets Society' Blu-ray. Sadly for fans, there's nothing new or in high definition.
'Dead Poets Society' is a very well made film with a cast of young up-and-coming stars. It looks back, with nostalgia and honesty combined, on a simple time where individualism wasn't expected of these bright young men. Robin Williams is less of a main character than I remembered, but this is one of his best and most memorable performances. As a Blu-ray, it's definitely a step up in terms of video quality over the DVD, with many vibrant shots of the school and surrounding countryside, but isn't much better than an HD cable broadcast. Fans who love the film should be happy with this disc, as it boast the aforementioned image quality and retains the special features from the previous DVD release. For newcomers, this isn't a demo disc by any means, but there's lots to appreciate in terms of performances, filmmaking, and themes.