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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/2/04

The Color Purple
Special Edition - 1985 (2003) - Warner Bros.

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Color Purple: Special Edition Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/C+

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
153 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, Digipack packaging with slipcase, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 81:03 in chapter 21), cast and crew bios, awards listing, 2 teaser trailers, theatrical trailer, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (39 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two - Special Features
NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), 4 documentaries (Conversations with Ancestors: The Color Purple from Book to Screen, A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple, Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple and The Color Purple: The Musical), 2 photo galleries , film-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 Surround)

Considering the amount of flak I usually receive whenever I start to give my opinion on the films of Steven Spielberg, I must be some kind of stupid to ever agree to review any of his films again. Perhaps someday I'll devote an entire column to a film-by-film examination of my extremely mixed feelings toward Spielberg. But for now, the focus is on his 1985 effort, the multi-Oscar-nominated (and multi-Oscar-snubbed) The Color Purple.

At the time, Spielberg was considered a controversial choice to adapt Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the screen. Partly, of course, due to the fact that he was a white Jewish guy from Southern California and the book is a classic piece of African-American feminist literature. But another reason (and I suspect a deeper one) was that all of his previous films had revolved around humongous sharks, spaceships, and bullwhip-wielding archeologists. Clearly, Spielberg was attempting to branch out as a filmmaker. But fans of the novel wondered why he couldn't experiment with someone else's story.

The fact that Walker herself was on board as a consultant eased minds to some extent. As did the casting, which by and large proved to be beyond reproach. Danny Glover receives top billing as Mr., the domineering man who takes in young Celie to cook, clean, raise his children, and perform the duties of a wife. Glover is great in the role, as is Margaret Avery as Shug, the singer who Mr. pines after but will never marry him. But top acting honors go to two future household names in their film debuts, Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.

But for good or ill, credit or blame for the finished product would never be assigned to any cast member, nor to producer Quincy Jones, screenwriter Menno Meyjes, or anyone other than Spielberg himself. Even in 1985, the words "A Steven Spielberg Film" in the credits were not to be taken lightly. He had already proven himself to be one of the most commercially successful directors of all time. If critics and audiences had sharpened their knives and had wanted to take Spielberg down a notch, this would have been the ideal time to do it. That didn't exactly happen. Audiences responded to The Color Purple, turning it into a somewhat unlikely blockbuster. Critics, for the most part, enjoyed the film, commending Spielberg on taking a risk and attempting something different at this stage in his career. In fact, there was only one area that seemed to be directed as a personal affront to Spielberg: the Academy Awards. The Color Purple was nominated in a whopping 11 categories. Best Director was notably not one of them. And when awards night came around, The Color Purple lost every single award it was up for, including losing Best Picture to Sydney Pollack's epic romance Out of Africa.

Even at the time, I felt that The Color Purple was a better film than Out of Africa. But almost twenty years later, Spielberg's movie looks and feels very much like the transitional piece it was. There are certainly some powerful individual moments and, thanks to Allen Daviau's cinematography, it's an uncommonly good-looking film. However, there is a sense that Spielberg didn't quite trust himself with the material. There are a number of scenes that are considerably toned down from Alice Walker's novel, including the attraction between Celie and Shug Avery. But apart from that, one gets the feeling that Spielberg was trying to sugarcoat the more dramatic moments by overplaying all the lighter ones. Particularly in the early scenes, moments of comic relief are given all the subtlety of a Laurel and Hardy short. Quincy Jones' score does nothing to relieve these broad strokes. The songs, both original and existing, are used very effectively throughout. But the incidental score verges dangerously close to Mickey Mousing, especially during comedic moments. And when the story becomes sentimental, Jones ladles on the syrup as generously as John Williams ever did.

Once again, Warner's special edition re-release marks an improvement over their original attempt. The Color Purple was among the very first batch of discs released by the studio and, as with almost all of the over-two-hour movies originally released by Warner, was a flipper disc. Obviously that has been rectified in the new version, with the movie running uninterrupted on the first disc. Picture quality is very, very good, with excellent color shading and a high level of detail. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is fine, though not as active as it could be. Not surprisingly, it springs to life primarily during musical numbers. The gospel accompanied church scene toward the end of the film is typical of the track at its best.

To the surprise of no one, there is no audio commentary provided and most of the extras are reserved for the second disc. For better and worse, the only really major bonus is a making-of documentary typical of the Laurent Bourzeau/Steven Spielberg collaborations. Basically, this is one approximately 85-minute piece chopped into four different segments. Conversations with the Ancestors focuses on Alice Walker's novel and its journey to Steven Spielberg's hands. This is one of the more interesting pieces on the disc, primarily because it really gets into the book, Walker's reasons for writing it, her reactions to its praise and to Steven Spielberg, and Spielberg's reactions to the book and his reasons for wanting to film it. Typically, the "before it was a movie" segments of such documentaries are dispensed with in five cursory minutes. Appropriately, Bourzeau gives The Color Purple the time and space it deserves.

A Collaboration of Spirits focuses on the performances, interviewing Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery and many others. It too is well worth your time, as the diverse group of interviewees each provides unique insight into their experiences on the film and what it meant to them in the long run. Cultivating a Classic is a fairly routine piece on the production of the film while The Color Purple: The Musical dispenses with Quincy Jones' contributions in under ten minutes. The music featurette should have been much more in-depth than it is, and Cultivating a Classic, while not uninteresting by any stretch, doesn't suggest that the production of The Color Purple was demonstrably better, worse, or even different from the production of any other film. The remaining extras in the package are nothing more than a few trailers and a couple of photo galleries (and it should be noted that although the packaging suggests there is a storyboard gallery, I found no such animal on the disc itself).

While most people, including Spielberg himself, seem to mark E.T. as the turning point in his career, I believe that point can be more accurately placed at The Color Purple. Those who feel that E.T. was his first successful melding of fantastic and distinctly human elements need to watch Close Encounters and Jaws more closely. But The Color Purple was the first time Spielberg felt confident enough in his skills as a director to put aside completely his toys and models and tell a story based completely in the real world. It's no stretch to say that his films were never quite the same after this one. Whether you feel that's a positive or a negative is up to you.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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