Chances are you haven't even heard of Rob Reiner's 'The Magic of Belle Isle.' It had a very limited run in theaters and appeared mostly on video-on-demand services. Without much fanfare it's come to home video. At first glance it looks like a cheesy Hallmark Channel movie of the week. While it does contain some stereotypical elements of movies from that ilk, there's a sense of real talent at work here.
Reiner's presence can be felt throughout the movie. It has the same kind of bubbling energy as we've come to expect from Rob Reiner films. Not to mention he's assembled a killer cast. Morgan Freeman, Virginia Madsen, Fred Willard, Kevin Pollack, and Kenan Thompson add seasoned acting to the mix. What started out as a standard finding-oneself type of movie quickly turns into a solid, underrated film. Like I said, the talent really shines.
Freeman is a cranky old man named Monte Wildhorn. Monte used to write western novels; all he does now is drink. Monte has long since given up his writing ways. He's far more content to wallow in self-pity. His nephew (Kenan Thompson) sets him up with a housesitting job in a small town called Belle Isle. For the summer Monte is able to live as lonesome as he wants, drinking more whiskey than he can possibly dream. His nephew hopes the new surroundings will inspire him to write again.
Across the street is a young family. Charlotte O'Neil (Madsen) is the mother of three young daughters, each with their own challenges in life. Charlotte's middle child, Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann) befriends crabby Mr. Wildhorn and begs him to teach her how to tell stories.
I'm sure you can probably guess where the movie is going by now right? Monte is destined to leave his cantankerous ways behind while the girls, especially Finnegan, help him recapture his desire to write. I agree, the movie is predictable. The difference here is in the sheer talent.
Reiner has crafted a film that moves through the plot to a somewhat satisfying payoff. What's more is that he has one of the best actors ever playing his leading man. Freeman is able to deliver any dialogue, no matter how silly it may sound on paper, with conviction. He speaks with a verbose vernacular, emphasizing his authorial voice. Only he could pull it off though. He's got this way of sucking you in. A way of making you pay attention to lines and scenes you might otherwise be bored with. Even better, he and Madsen have effortless chemistry. They're really a pleasure to watch.
There aren't too many movies starring Morgan Freeman that I'd refuse to watch. He's a magnetic force on screen. Even with the by-the-numbers nature of the story Freeman still puts out a great performance. What he's doing seems so natural. Without him this movie wouldn't be nearly as watchable. He's the movie's heartbeat. His prose is endlessly entertaining.
Yes, you've probably seen this same movie play out over and over again. It isn't a new concept; outsider moves to a small town and it changes his or her life views. The movie's tagline bills it as a "Re-coming of age story." That's a clever way of putting it.
It's not often that little-known, basically direct-to-video movies like this end up being good; 'The Magic of Belle Isle' is an exception to the rule. It's a light-hearted, touching, feel-good movie that features a memorable performance by Morgan Freeman. That's really all you need to know.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Magnolia Home Entertainment release. It's packaged in a standard keepcase and is coded for Region A use. It's pressed on a 50GB Blu-ray Disc.
Shot digitally, the 1080p image is a sturdy one, with one or two minor faults. It does resemble the depthless feel of a made-for-TV movie, which is likely due to the digital source. It's a clean looking movie however. Noise and other anomalies don't exist. The presentation produces crisp lines and clean edges. Detail is heavy. Everything from the strands of Freeman's silver hair to the texture of Mrs. O'Neil's lacy window coverings has a tangible look to it.
Darkened interiors suffer a bit though. There are a few low-light sequences indoors that create scenarios where crushing is present. Some of the shadows are a little too hasty and gobble up details, faces, and objects. This is where the depthless feel comes into play. Daytime scenes look great featuring lively color and lush visuals; nighttime scenes lack dimension as crushing shadows take over.
Technical anomalies like blocking or aliasing were nowhere to be found. I didn't notice any hints of banding either. The main problem here is crushing, which is to be expected with a low-budget, digitally-shot movie.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix has a few more problems however. The rears are basically silent throughout the movie. While there were a few times in the movie where the rear channels could've piped up with some good ambient sound – like a crowded birthday party or people milling about at a funeral – they don't. They stay pretty silent most of the time, only occasionally having something to say whenever the soundtrack bled through to there.
The biggest problem I felt was that the mix gave too much priority to the crickets and cicadas in the nighttime scenes. Those bugs are loud and they fill the front and center speakers often time muffling speaking. Many times the chirping would reach a brash crescendo that sounded more like loud static than finely tuned evening sounds.
Dialogue is clear (except for the few scenes where crickets overtake just about everything). There are a couple great sounding scenes with Madsen playing a piano that sound wonderfully lucid. While the movie does have its moments, there are far too many things wrong with the audio track to give it an above-average score.
I think I was in just the right mood to watch 'The Magic of Belle Isle.' It's an easy-going family-friendly movie that will most likely touch you if you don't go in with a sour-puss attitude from the beginning. Even though it plays the entire movie by the numbers, it's the actors that really sell it. Freeman is always a pleasure to watch and this is no exception. The video is pretty good, the audio could use some help. Either way, this is worth a look if you're looking for a decent family-centric drama that can be enjoyed by all ages.