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It's a Wonderful Life

"It's a Wonderful Life" on Blu-ray disc

Note: Some of this review appeared in our earlier DVD review of this title.

Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" has a well-deserved place in the hearts of millions and has become a Christmas season staple.

The story of George Bailey, a bright young man with lots of potential who keeps getting sidetracked from his preferred path through life, is a tale that takes its characters - and the audience - from the heights of joy to the depths of despair and back again.

James Stewart is the unsinkable George, whose all 'round decency gets him through a life in which his choices are often forced upon him by circumstance. Many times he could have chosen to follow his dreams, or take the easy path, but precisely because he's such a wonderful guy he always chooses the route that ends up seeing him submerge his own ambitions in favor of doing right by others.

Life is good for George, though he doesn't really appreciate that fact until one Christmas eve when his uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces $8000 of their Savings and Loan's money and it looks as if George's reward for his years of selfless hard work will be disgrace and a trip to jail.

Here, the movie takes a decidedly ugly turn as a desperate George lashes out at everything near and/or dear to him. Then, realizing he's worth more dead than alive (thanks to his life insurance policy), he decides to jump off a local bridge as the solution to his insurmountable problem.

Enter Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), George's guardian angel, whose task it is to not only save George's life, but to heal his soul as well. He accomplishes this by showing George that, rather than being the failure he thinks he is, he has had a Wonderful Life in that he has people he loves and who love him even more in return - as well as his playing an important role in a world that, without him, would be a decidedly worse place.

James Stewart is wonderful as George Bailey as he runs the gamut of emotions from joy to despair and desperation. Donna Reed is perfectly cast as Mary, George's eventual wife. She's smart, sexy, and strong - just what George needs to make life in the straightjacket of Bedford Falls bearable.

The chemistry between Stewart and Reed is magical; the telephone scene where they first really get together is one of the sexiest scenes ever filmed - yet there's nothing even close to nudity or sexual content (in fact, they only kiss and embrace at the very end, after "merely" being close together due to them talking on the same phone receiver). No, there are just sparks that positively leap from the screen. It's remarkable.

The supporting cast is equally outstanding. Not only do Travers and Mitchell turn in excellent performances, but Lionel Barrymore's villainous Mr. Potter is probably the best screen baddie since Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West and until George Lucas/James Earl Jones/David Prowse' Darth Vader.

The Blu-ray doesn't appear to have been remastered since the DVD version was a couple of years ago, but that still means the image, now in 1080/24p, is crisp and clean and sharp. Black levels are outstanding and for a film this old, it looks fantastic. For a comparison, check out the "making of" documentary that accompanies the film to see footage of how the film looks unrestored. Or just wait till they show it on TV.

Audio is merely Dolby Digital mono, which is kind of disappointing in this era of lossless soundtracks. It may not be that big a deal since it still sounds pretty good - and there's only so much that can be done with a soundtrack this old. There's no multichannel re-mixing, which doesn't really bother us, and other than it not really rocking your home theater (which would seem kind of weird with this movie anyway), it sounds very clean and clear.

Paramount has released the Blu-ray in a two disc gift box set, the box of which is pretty flimsy and appears easily crushable - so be careful! It also comes with a little booklet that fits in the box but doesn't fit into the Blu-ray case - and what's with that? It would fit into a DVD case, so maybe it was just lifted from there, which hardly makes it "special edition" stuff.

If you didn't buy the previous version, you may be happy about the inclusion of a second Blu-ray disc on which there's a colorized version of the movie. We're not big on colorizing, which is tantamount to painting a moustache onto the Mona Lisa, but at least they've done a pretty good job with this one. The 1080p picture looks quite good, in fact, if you can get past the pasty look on fleshtones, making the entire cast look a tad zombie-ish. And while the picture overall looks a tad washed out, it could make this masterpiece accessible to those who for whatever reason won't watch black and white movies.

Who knows? Maybe once they see it this way, they'll screw up the courage to watch the original version, which has never looked better than it does in this Blu-ray package.

For extras, on the black and white disc, you get aa couple of retrospective documentaries that, if memory serves, also appeared on the earlier DVD. One is a "making of" feature hosted by the late Tom Bosley and the other is a special tribute to director Frank Capra narrated by his sone.

The Bosley one gives some nice insight into the film, while the Capra junior one is okay, but covers much of the same ground.

In all, the remastering of "It's a Wonderful Life," despite it not being new for the Blu-ray release, is a welcome touch, though we're curious to wonder how it wold look if they'd gone back to square one and given it a really extensive restoration like they did with The Ten Commandments. Still, fans of this classic can finally see it in a version that does it the most justice yet. Plus, you can watch it in color now if you want to.

It's a Wonderful Life, from Paramount Home Entertainment
130 minutes, fullscreen black and white, Dolby Digital
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, Thomas Mitchell
Screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra
Produced and Directed by Frank Capra

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