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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/23/99

Collector's Edition - 1979 (1999) - Universal Studios

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

1941 DVD Film Rating: B-
I may be the only person in America to admit this, but dammit I liked 1941. I dig the cast, I dig the jokes, and even when it isn't ha ha funny, it's at least worth a smile or too. And let me just say two all important words that make ANY film fun for me - Slim Pickins!

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D/D+/B
I can't believe I'm saying this, but the non-anamorphic widescreen picture on this DVD looks like crap. To make things worse, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio remix is dull and lifeless. Too bad, 'cause the extras, though recycled, are at least kinda cool.

Overall Rating: C-
Gods, what a bummer! I was really looking forward to this one, and it looks and sounds so bad I could barely force myself to finish watching it. This is a HUGE disappointment from Universal, made even worse for being the first Spielberg film to be released on DVD in many, many months. OUCH!

Specs and Features

146 mins (extended version), this version unrated (originally rated R), letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 29:13, at the start of chapter 12), Amaray keep case packaging, documentary: The Making of 1941 (includes outtake footage, and Spielberg's home movies behind-the-scenes), deleted scenes, production notes, cast and crew bios, 3 theatrical trailers, gallery of production photographs, gallery of production artwork, critic's reviews, film-themed menu screens, Universal web links (DVD-rom use only), scene access (60 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: French and Spanish, Close Captioned


Let me start this review on a positive note, while I'm still able (trust me it won't last long). I'm a big fan of 1941. I know that puts me in a very small crowd of aficionados, but I just dig the film. To me, it's right there in the vein of The Blues Brothers - politically incorrect when it wasn't cool to be that, excessive, over the top, and packing a terrific cast of screwballs. The plot is simple - it's set right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the California coast has come down with a serious case of war nerves, fearing that they're next in line to be bombed. Suddenly, a Japanese sub appears in the waters off of Los Angeles, hell-bent on striking a blow to American morale where its most vulnerable - Hollywood (OK, Hollywoodland). What ensues next, is nothing less than mad-cap hysteria, moving with the force of an out-of-control freight train.

I mean - come on - how many films do you know have Toshiro Mifune, Christopher Lee, and Silm Pickins all playing outlandish characters in the same scene? Slim Pickins alone is, for me, worth watching the film. This guy really cracks me up, and there's a great send-up here to his character in Dr. Strangelove. And the prune juice thing? I'll admit, I get a laugh out of it every time. Add to all that John Belushi, in a comic role that's just perfect for him (I crack up every time he falls off that plane wing). You've got Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and Robert Stack as the only straight man in the bunch - what's not to like? OK, sure... the film has no sense of direction, and it just lurches and crashes (literally) to its conclusion. Who cares - there's some seriously twisted yucks along the way here!

For all these reasons, I was happy to hear that Universal would be giving 1941 their Midas glove, Collector's Edition touch. I was really looking forward to this one, with its 30-odd minutes of added footage, and a boat-load of extras. And as the first film by director Steven Spielberg to make its way to DVD since The Color Purple, no doubt lots of DVD fans have been waiting eagerly for it as well. Sure, it isn't Jurassic Park or Close Encounters, but you've got to start somewhere, right? Wrong. After seeing this disc, I REALLY wish they had started elsewhere.

This DVD looks absolutely terrible. Let's start with the video quality. The film is presented in non-anamorphic, letterboxed widescreen, at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It isn't anamorphic, because this is clearly a recycled laserdisc transfer, and a lousy one at that. The print used here is, in itself, nothing less than a joke. It's of really uneven quality - some scenes are so grainy as to be terribly distracting, while others are so muddy-looking that most of the detail is lost. There are problems with the print's contrast, so that in several places, the brightest areas of the picture are slightly too hot. There's dust and dirt specs EVERYWHERE. Hell, you can even see bad film splices! To make matters worse, the video source clearly wasn't fully digital, so there's tons of edge enhancement and digital video noise reduction, visible as an annoying ringing on edges. I know Spielberg shot much of this film with filters and smoke, but this is definitely not how he intended the film to look. It's so bad that I could hardly force myself to sit through the whole thing - seriously, my VHS tape of 1941 looks nearly as good. At least you expect VHS to look lousy. Even the RSDL layer switch placement sucks (see for yourself - it's right at the start of chapter 12). It's pretty bad when the layer switch actually distracts you from marvelling at how bad a DVD looks.

The newly re-mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound is nearly as bad. It's flat and dull, with almost all of the sound coming from the front of the sound stage - a very strong bias to the front hemisphere. The dialogue is occasionally muddy, unnatural and sometimes downright difficult to make out, particularly in the "restored" scenes, where I actually had to turn on the subtitles to understand several lines. In places that would have been obvious for rear channel panning, such as plane fly-overs, most of the sound is again from the front speakers. Even the subwoofer channel falls flat. All in all, the audio here is rather lifeless.

As for extras, well... there are a bunch, and they aren't half bad. The documentary on the making of 1941 is OK, but it goes on WAY too long. You have to sit though about 20 minutes of dull, talking heads stuff before it starts to get interesting. It does gets better later, and the Spielberg moments are good - with interviews and his own, behind-the-scenes 8mm movies. But at well over an hour in length, I'm guessing that most will never get through it all. Hell, I actually caught myself dozing off a couple of times somewhere in the middle. The whole thing could have been cut in half, and would have been much more effective.

You also get some galleries of production photographs, lots of production artwork, production notes, cast and crew biographies, a few theatrical trailers (one of which is great - just Belushi ad-libbing in character). There are several deleted scenes, which are cool, as well as lots of outtakes in the documentary. But all of this is just recycled material from the special edition laserdisc set - as far as I can tell, NOTHING new was created with DVD in mind. Even the menu screens are lackluster - just plain-Jane, "select-this-option" graphics pages, with no animation or sound effects. Come on - you can't tell me that something cool couldn't have been done here with moving searchlights, anti-aircraft fire, and the Rising Sun.

This whole disc just shows such a SERIOUS lack of effort, that one wonders why it was released at all. I know that this DVD was delayed at least once, and I'd like to think that the reason was that Universal was debating cancelling it altogether. I wish they had. Or better yet, they should have released just a basic, movie-only DVD version, instead of a Collector's Edition. That way people could still buy the film on DVD for $15 or $20 on sale - a much easier price to stomach given the poor quality. In any case, Universal should have waited a few years, for a new Hi-Def transfer of a truly restored print, before releasing a $35 deluxe Collector's Edition. What we get here is embarrassing - the studio seems to have just pulled all the laserdisc materials off the shelf, and repackaged them for DVD. And they actually had the nerve to claim that this is a "Fully Restored Version" right on the cover! I'd say 1941 is in more dire need of restoration than ever.

And get this - as if to add insult to injury, Universal saw fit to tag a commercial for their other DVD product in front of the film on this disc - it's the first thing you see after the "warning" screens when the disc starts. Cripes, at least you can skip past it. Here's a hint for you studio folks - if you choose to blatantly promote yourselves, do it on your BEST DVD work, not your WORST. Or better yet, DON'T DO IT AT ALL - just include a catalog booklet of your titles inside the case, like Columbia TriStar does. For crying out loud people...!

Bottom line

I just have to scratch my head on this one. I can honestly say that I haven't been this disappointed in a DVD... well, in a very long time. And I was itching for this disc too. If it had even been half as good as Universal's recent Blues Brothers: Collector's Edition, I'd have been a happy camper. I've been a BIG fan of Universal's Collector's Editions thus far, but what were they thinking here!? It's just making me madder the more I think about it. The first Spielberg film to hit DVD since he lifted his personal moritorium on the format... and it's a major dud. Thank heaven DreamWorks is releasing Amistad soon...

Bill Hunt
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