It's a Wonderful Life is brought back to us using the VC-1 codec, naturally 1080p and has a couple of aspect ratios. The original black and white comes to use at 1.34:1 whilst the colourised version seems to be a more standard 1.33:1, both are narrower than it's original 1.37:1 theatrical release. First out I'd like to compare the current black and white original version the new colourised version and a brief comparison between what we have now and what was imposed upon us a few years ago in the so called collector's edition.
First up then is the colourised version. Many attempts have been made in the past to 'update' classic movies with their colourised counterparts. The most recent addition to my collection was the Laurel & Hardy box set and that at times left a little to be desired. Much the same can be said of this version of It's a Wonderful Life. The colours are indeed somewhat better than I have seen in the past but they are still not right and it's apparent that the technology used still has some way to go before realistic even tones are 'extracted' from an original black and white print. Even then one would have to ask, would or should you? The tones presented here still have a pastel, somewhat artificial, feel to them, and whilst perhaps the best example I have seen they are still not quite correct.
Next a quick comparison between the Region 2 Collector's Edition and the new Blu-ray. Unfortunately the Collector's Edition, which many had waited for, was regarded as a substandard release and rightfully so. Blacks were weak, the image was continually soft and at all times it looked a though you were watching the film through dirty spectacles. This new version corrects all of those previous issues; to sum up this new release is not perfect by any means but it is probably the best we are ever going to see this film. Similar images from the Blu-ray black and white version, the Blu-ray colourised version and the Region 2 Collector's Edition can be seen in images 7, 8 and 9 respectively accompanying this review. The rest of this review discusses the original black and white version.
This new version is head and shoulders over what we have had to put up with in years gone by, finally the blacks reach a very decent level with the many tuxedos on display at the graduation ball still showing structure and the dark bushes and gardens behind George and Mary as they walk home afterwards now showing depth and better shadow detail as opposed to the dark amorphous blob which we had before. The grey scale is adequately catered for with whites at the other end of the spectrum crisp, well defined and never blooming. The encoding is also far superior in this version. The DVD was riddled with enhancement and noise but both of these are now thankfully removed. There is no blocking to be seen nor any gradient banding.
If you view image 7 and zoom in on the till you will be able to see that the large button on the right hand side reads “OPERATING BUTTON”. Do the same on the DVD image, image 9, and you will see nothing, just a mess. This highlights what's best from this new Blu-ray release; detail is head and shoulders over the DVD edition. Clothes, walls, trees and bushes all have much better structure and detail. Detail in peoples faces, their pores or laugh lines, the bark on trees or the sometimes uneven walls of George and Mary's family home. That additional level of detail permeates every scene and is a much welcome improvement.
The print is in fine shape for something approaching pension age, however it's not quite blemish free. There is the odd speckle here and there but no brightness or contrast fluctuations to speak of. On occasion the print does exhibit some damage, the top of the frame for instance when Mr Gower understands the error of his ways after beating young George around the head. Ultimately then the release is not perfect but if there was a category for Best DVD upgrade to Blu-ray then this would definitely be a contender for top of that list.
Just as The Prisoner was recently released without a lossless track and was no the worse for it, so It's a Wonderful Life follows suit. I do not believe the lack of a lossless track hinders this release at all. The English Dolby Digital Mono track is more than sufficient for its purposes. This is no convoluted, bombastic track and as such surround use and LFE is essentially none. All of the action takes place up front and all of the action is kept to the middle and higher tones.
The track is clear from the outset, dialogue is nicely prioritised and is always crystal clear. Additional background effects from vehicles, chatter, the graduation ball or weather are all there to be heard, and all apart from the dance scene take a back seat in this production. This is a fine enough example of an aged track doing what it needs to, nothing more nothing less and still receives a relatively high mark because what we are graced with is a good reproduction of the original source material.
There is the colourised version of course if you're into that sort of thing and it's not as bad as you might think. An additional feature riding on the back of this is to view the colourised version with the original in a pop-up window right centre of screen. Unfortunately there is no quick way of jumping from the colourised version to the original black and white to compare full frame scenes. A trivia track is available which overlays onto the original version with little snippets of information regarding the production. To round things off we get the original trailer.
It's a Wonderful Life has never been graced with a full package of extras however it seems as though we're going backward a little here. This does not contain the Tom Bosley hosted documentary which was included on the collectors DVD edition and which is also included in the US released Blu-ray version and this is somewhat of a let down.
It's a Wonderful Life really is a wonderful way to spend two hours of your time and I for one amongst many are happy to give it a whirl during the run up to Christmas, it just gets you in the right frame of mind. It's overly sugary sweet for my liking but I do enjoy every last frame. It's a smouldering release which garnered the favour it enjoys today due to lapses in copyright renewal, it has brought unbridled joy to countless people and so it should.
The video is so far ahead of any DVD release that an upgrade is a no brainer. If you enjoy this film then you really must go out an add this one to your collection. Don't be throwing away your DVD yet though because you might still want to eyeball the extras included there but disgracefully omitted here. This locked Region B release includes the colourised version like the US Blu-ray, however across the pond they were graced with two discs, one containing the original, the other the coloured version, if this results in different image quality then I cannot say because I have yet to see the US release. One would have to suppose that this is potentially the case though. The US disc also includes the short Tom Bosley documentary. As such the UK release is a little of a let down by comparison and I would suggest that if the US edition is unlocked or you're able to play multi region then that's the one to go for.
That being said though this is still a very fine feature and for many that will be all they are concerned about. I do wish it was a little more substantial but I'm just very pleased that the image quality is now something I can watch without my heart sinking a little. One to purchase and keep, after all so many of us watch this time and time again.
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