Monday, June 19, 2017

The Princess Bride (1987)

Yup, I’m at it again. Since the big gap between 1980 and ’85, I now feel the need to keep remediating Fox’s oversights in their 75th Anniversary DVD collection. And so now, even though they’ve well represented 1987 with two titles (the two previous blog entries), I think they missed a couple more. Okay, three more, but who’s counting?

The first one is The Princess Bride, which, despite tepid box office and moderate critical acclaim, has grown into one of the biggest cult films of the ‘80s. It was sort of a harbinger of sorts too: 1987 was the year of the alternative fairy tale. Sure, now they’re all over the place, but the genre truly began 30 years ago, when The Charmings debuted on ABC, Shelly Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater was still going strong on Showtime, Deadtime Stories came out in the movies and Steven Sondheim’s Into the Woods ruled the roost on Broadway.

And there was The Princess Bride, released to theaters in October, and the fourth film from director Rob Reiner, whose previous three works were unqualified successes. Actually, Bride had been long in the works; William Goldman’s screenplay, based on his children’s book, was floating around Hollywood for the better part of ten years, and only a few brave souls dared consider it as a viable project. But Reiner must have detected something special about the script, and indeed the dialogue does bristle with the sort of cheeky wit the man who penned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was renowned for.

We begin, not during the Middle Ages, but in a child’s bedroom: a boy (Fred Savage), sick and home from school, gets a visit from granddad (Peter Falk), who proceeds to lift his spirits by reading a classic storybook “The Princess Bride.” The film whisks us away into the tale, as a fair maiden, Buttercup (Robin Wright), falls in love with the family farmhand, Westley (Carey Elwes). But their love is to be short-lived; he goes off to sail the world, only to be abducted and ostensibly killed by pirates, while she is engaged to marry a somewhat sketch royal prince named Humperdinck. Resolved to locate he true love, she escapes her betrothed, only to be kidnapped by a trio of circus performers: the nebbish ringleader, Vizzini; the soft-hearted giant Fezzik; and the Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya. But lookout, the Man in Black is on their trail, and he fends them off one by one (in different manners of battle) to rescue his beloved.

Buttercup learns that the Man in Black is one other than Westley, and together they survive the perils of the Fire Swamp before getting captured by Humperdinck, who takes back his bride and sends Westley to an agonizing death in the pit of despair. Meanwhile, Inigo realizes that Rugen, Humperdinck’s right-hand man, is his father’s murderer, a man whom he is conducting a lifelong quest to search out and kill. Inigo allies with Vizzini and Westley (brought back to life courtesy a wisecracking medicine man) to rescue the damsel in distress. In the end, Inigo exacts his revenge, Westley is finally betrothed to his beloved, and Grandpa finishes his story. The boy, evidently feeling better, requests a rereading.

I’d seen Bride years ago, upon its release on home vid as I was then working at the West Coast Video nearest my grandmom’s (it was my summer job). And my opinion now, having seen it again for this blog, is pretty much the same as it was then.


And it pains me to say it too – I’m a big fan of all talent involved, from director Rob Reiner to writer William Goldman to executive producer Norman Lear. And Robin Wright, in her film debut, has never looked more beautiful. But the problem here is that I told find the movie particularly funny. Sure, it’s cute (I know, the worst praise you can give), and yes, the entire production is handsomely mounted. But it just doesn’t have the giant guffaws of a parody like This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner’s first film.

And perhaps that’s the problem: Bride just doesn’t know which tone to take. It has far too soft a touch to be a raucous comedy. And it’s really too lighthearted to be a dramatic exercise, and there are several intense sequences that put much of it in the latter category. The final result is something of a mishmash, with some many genre shifts it actually winds up being boring. I found myself checking the time remaining quite a bit for a 98-minute movie.

Of course, I ‘d be remiss in failing to acknowledge what a huge cult favorite it has become, and I think it has a great deal to do with the general public hunger for modern-day fairy tales. They were willing to overlook the flaws so they could embrace this generally irony-free fantasy. No historical baggage, very little “gritty” violence, just a sweeping medieval romance, with some Billy Crystal wisecracks thrown in for modernity. Every once in a while we get something like this, from Drew Barrymore’s Ever After to Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale. And they always tend to do well, critically and commercially.

But it just doesn’t work for me. It didn’t then, and it still doesn’t really now.

But there’s far worse out there, especially now. So I’ll still give it….

Rating:  ***

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