Blu-Ray Review: Dances With Wolves

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I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since Dances With Wolves first came out.  I vividly remember my frustration at being in junior high, forced to watch this film for history class.  Nothing sucks the joy out of a movie more than having to watch it for school.  I never would have imagined that I would revisit the film 20 years later, only to completely fall in love with it.

Gorgeously epic in scope, this is Costner’s masterpiece.  Not only did he direct the film, but he stars as Lt. John Dunbar, a Civil War hero who finds himself at war with his own people after joing a tribe of Sioux Indians.  His transition into their culture is beautifully handled, covering a huge timespan.  Initially, the language barrier is an issue, with Mary McDonell’s character of Stands With A Fist providing interpretation.  As expected, they fall in love, but it’s handled in such a way that it feels real.

Eventually, he becomes one of them.  We witness him living life in their way, and a large percentage of the movie details this part of his life.  One of the most thrilling sequences involves a buffalo hunt they all go on.  It’s amazing to think that Costner was able to capture this sequence without the use of any CGI.  At the time, computer generated special effects were in their infancy, and almost all of the buffalo were real.  There were a few special effects in this sequence, but this scene is a remarkable feat of filmmaking.

Pretty much everything about this film works.  The iconic soundtrack works perfectly to underscore the emotional undercurrent of each sequence, as well as enhancing the adrenaline-pumping action sequences.  On top of this, the acting is pretty much flawless, the cinematography is beautiful, and the script is an amazing piece of work.   My only real issue with the film is it’s length.

Running just shy of four hours, this is a lot of movie.  The Blu-Ray contains ONLY the extended cut, and I really wish they would have included the original theatrical edition as well.  I haven’t seen the original since it first came out, so I wasn’t really able to identify exactly where the extra sequences were.  However, the film did feel like it could be edited some.  There is a lot of material that just wasn’t essential for a film this long.  However, this is my only complaint on what is an otherwise terrific Blu-Ray release.

It’s very obvious that a great amount of work went into putting this package together.  The picture and sound are both flawless.  As the film is so epic in scope, there is a great deal of variety in the images presented.  There are sweeping panoramic moments to go with the intimate up-close sequences.  I was amazed at just how sharp everything looked.  The movie feels like something older, but it never looks or sounds old.  This is a presentation worthy of the today’s blockbusters.

As far as extras are concerned, there is a lot of material on this set.  To start with, there are two commentary tracks.  The first one is with Costner and the producer, Jim Wilson.  The other one is with the Director of Photography and the editor.  There is also a pop-up trivia track detailing the real-life history behind the events in the film, and a game that you can play during the movie about what was real and what wasn’t.

The next disc contains all of the actual documentaries on the film.  I don’t believe any of this material is new to the Blu-Ray, but it’s still really interesting and definitely worth a look.  There is a feature about life on the frontier, a generic making-of feature, and a fantastic  documentary called “The Creation of an Epic: A Retrospective Documentary.”  This is one of those looks back that covers all aspects of the film’s production.  It’s a fascinating peek behind-the-curtain at what it takes to film a movie of this scale.

The rest of the features are short little segments that provide brief looks at individual moments from the film.  There are also a series of galleries, the preview, TV commercials, etc.  This is a pretty massive set when you look at all of this material taken together.  As mentioned above, the only complaint I have is that they don’t include the theatrical cut.  I remember reading an interview with Costner a while back where he discussed the extended cut (initially put together for another release), and how he had nothing to do with it.  This is not a director’s cut, just the theatrical cut with a lot of extra footage.  These extra moments don’t the film any worse, but it does feel padded, and I feel like it would be shorter.  The film is great, but it feels long.  Despite the length, this is a film that you owe it to yourself to see.  No matter how many epics he tries to make, I don’t think Costner will ever be able to replicate his success with this masterpiece.