Dances With Wolves appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Across the board, the image excelled.
Sharpness appeared solid, as the movie was consistently distinct and accurate. The slightest hint of softness affected some wider shots, but those instances seemed very minor. Mostly the movie came across as tight and well defined. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering appeared, and I also witnessed no signs of edge enhancement. Print flaws stayed similarly unobtrusive. I noticed a speck or two but that was it, as the movie seemed nicely free from defects.
As one might expect, Wolves provided a rather natural palette, and the Blu-ray replicated these tones nicely. The colors often seemed to be somewhat subdued within that range, but they always looked accurate and rich. Especially positive were the many sun-dappled sequences, which seemed lush and lovely. Black levels also appeared deep and dense, and shadow detail generally came across as appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. That was another area that seemed improved from the prior release. Across the board, I felt pleased with this presentation.
I felt the film’s DTS-HD MA 7.1 also seemed terrific. The soundfield showed a forward emphasis but it offered a pretty well rounded affair in any case. The front spectrum provided a nicely broad and engaging display. Sounds were placed accurately in the environment, and they moved cleanly and smoothly across channels. The score also featured very good stereo separation.
The surrounds mainly reinforced the forward spectrum. John Barry’s score was the prime beneficiary of this, as his music poured nicely from the rears. Some effects also came from the surrounds, though these instances were more limited. Nonetheless, the movie’s louder sequences demonstrated an involving and active presence from all five channels, and they helped bring those scenes to life.
Audio quality also appeared to be positive. Dialogue consistently sounded warm and natural, and I discerned no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. The music showed terrific fidelity. Highs seemed to be clear and bright, while the bass response appeared deep and rich. Barry’s score provided a very fine representation here, as the track made the music even more involving than it might have been. Effects also benefited from excellent dynamics. They came across as clean and realistic, and other than a little distortion that involved gunfire, these elements showed no concerns. Overall, I found the soundtrack of Dances With Wolves to provide a very satisfying and exciting affair.
How did the picture and sound of this Blu-Ray compare with those of the 2003 DVD? Both demonstrated the standard improvements, though mostly in the visual domain. The audio was a little bolder and fuller, but it didn’t do a ton to better the DVD’s mix.
On the other hand, the picture showed a fine step up in quality. The Blu-ray was consistently tighter and smoother than its DVD counterpart. The Blu-ray brought out all the detail in this image and was a significant improvement.
Almost all of the 2003 DVD’s extras repeat here, and we get a few new components as well. I already discussed one “bonus feature” in the body of my review. The movie includes an extra 55 minutes of footage reintegrated into the film proper. I can never quite decide if I should count “director’s cuts” as bonuses or not, but I thought I’d mention it again nonetheless.
In addition, Disc One features two separate audio commentaries. The first comes from director/actor Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson, as the two were recorded with each other for their running, screen-specific piece. Not surprisingly, Costner dominates the track as he provides a wealth of excellent information about the film. We learn scads of notes about the reasons for many of his decisions as both an actor and as a director, and he even manages to relate some problems experienced on the set.
Costner chimes in with quite a few entertaining and illuminating anecdotes as well, and he proves to be a charming and compelling presence; I just wish someone would tell him that the movie’s not called Dances With Wuffs. As for Wilson, he also provides some good notes throughout the track, and he interacts nicely with Costner, but it’s really Kevin’s show. In any case, I thought this was a fine commentary.
Some oddities occur in regard to this track, though. I’ve seen other reviews that claim it’s a new commentary, but it’s not. Most of it comes straight from the effort heard on the prior DVD, and other remarks have been added to that material. Lots of empty spaces still occur, but we get some information about the longer cut of the film. Disappointingly, Costner and Wilson don’t discuss how they decided what to chop in the first place, but their statements help expand our understanding of the film.
Be prepared for a somewhat odd listen, though. Not only is the commentary a little old and from different sources, but also it comes with some jarring edits. Periodically the track cuts off the speakers before they finish their thoughts, and on at least a few occasions, it stops them in mid-word! Even with the weird editing, though, the commentary seems good. However, fans of the flick who own the prior DVD will hear a lot of familiar statements.
For the second track, we hear from director of photography Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis, both of whom sit together for their running, screen-specific chat. The pair interact nicely and offer a light and chummy discussion of the film. Though one might expect technical considerations to dominate the piece, that isn’t really true. To be sure, we learn a lot about those sorts of issues. Semler offers the most information in that domain, as he presents the topics related to shooting out in the middle of nowhere with a low budget and a neophyte director. Travis occasionally touches upon editing matters, but he usually sticks with material that deals with the creation of the film in a more general way.
It’s those kinds of notes that make their commentary enjoyable. We hear lots of “life on the set” details and get a nice overview of the way things worked in South Dakota. As with the first commentary, this one includes a lot of empty spaces. As with the first commentary, these don’t seem terribly problematic due to the length of the movie. The tone also gets a bit puffy at times, but overall, I think this track offers an informative and enjoyable look at the movie.
By the way, the editing and age issues that related to the Costner/Wilson commentary weren’t an issue with the second one. Clearly the remarks from Semler and Travis came from the same sessions and it showed none of the odd cuts or inconsistencies. It also clearly was a fairly recent track, as Semler mentions his then-current work on early 2002’s We Were Soldiers. (Why does anyone think the Costner/Wilson track was of recent vintage? At its start, Wilson actually states that it’s been “nine summers” since they made Wolves. That doesn’t translate to 2002 or 2003.)
Two new features follow. The Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide provides a text feature. Via pop-ups, it occasionally gives us facts about US military and native cultures depicted in the film. I like the info, but the format tends to be too intrusive. The material appears too infrequently to make it worth your while to watch the film just to learn those tidbits, but the display fills too much of the screen to allow you to view the movie in a satisfying way.
Memo to Blu-ray producers: less intrusive onscreen materials are always better! But despite that misstep, the “Guide” still has value. It includes valuable details and is worth a look if you can stand to have it onscreen as you watch the movie.
In a similar vein, we get the Real History or Movie Make-Believe? quiz. This also runs alongside the movie, and it asks questions about topics related to the film. Most of these look at historical subjects, and you earn points as you play; the quicker you reply, the more points you make. In a nice option – one that I wish came with the “Guide” – you can leap ahead from one question to the next; you can still play as the movie runs, but you’re not stuck with that as the only option. The quiz acts as a form of subtitle commentary, as it adds details about the era. It’s fun and useful.
With that, we head to Disc Two. We find a featurette about the making of the film that first appeared at the same time as the movie’s theatrical release. The 20-minute and 55-second program includes movie snippets, footage from the set, and interviews with Costner, Wilson, writer Michael Blake, actors Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Doris Leader Charge, Tantoo Cardinal, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, and stunt coordinator Norman L. Howell.
The featurette goes over a number of different topics. It relates the project’s development, Indian backgrounds and perspectives, stunts, effects, makeup and other areas. The program jumps around the different subjects with abandon and doesn’t follow a coherent path. However, it presents a lot of good material. Heck, we even get to see a clip from a very early Coster/Wilson/Blake collaboration called Stacy’s Knights. Despite the randomness of the show’s presentation, it offers one of the better promotional featurettes I’ve seen.
Next comes a music video. A rather atrocious affair, this matches glimpses of the film’s creation with John Barry’s music. However, the score gets a synthesizer-heavy makeover and sounds sappy and pathetic. Skip this three-minute and 51-second train wreck.
After this we go to an one-hour, 21-minute and 10-second documentary called The Creation of an Epic. Divided into seven parts that can be combined via a “Play All” function, it presents the standard combination of movie clips, footage from the set, and new interviews. We get comments from Costner, producer Wilson, writer Blake, executive producer Jake Eberts, director of photography Dean Semler, costume designer Elsa Zamparelli, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, stunt coordinator Norman Howell, editor Neil Travis, composer John Barry, and actors McDonnell, Cardinal, and Greene.
Epic covers a lot of topics, but the somewhat disjointed presentation seems a little awkward. The featurettes go over the start of the project and the collaborations behind it, the decision to use subtitles, shopping it to various studios and issues related to budget, location scouting and working in South Dakota, Costner’s experiences as a neophyte director, the logistics of the buffalo hunt scene and other stunts, visual design, language education, and more. The program relates a lot of good material and usually does so in a reasonably concise and entertaining manner.
That said, the level of praise gets a little steep at times, as we often hear how great everyone and everything was. While we learn how tough it was to get the film made, no one mentions all the predictions that the flick would bomb. Overall, “Epic” provides a good program, but it falls short of greatness.
After this we find a photo montage introduced by still photographer Ben Glass. He chats for about 45 seconds before we get a running program of nine minutes, 21 seconds of pictures. John Barry’s score accompanies this nice selection of photos from the shoot.
The Poster Gallery includes still frames of three movie promos. Two TV Spots appear along with the flick’s theatrical trailer.
The remaining features are new to the Blu-ray – or at least more obvious, as most appeared as Easter egges on the DVD. A Day in the Life of the Western Frontier runs 14 minutes, 18 seconds and includes comments from Blake, UCLA’s Stephen Aron, True West magazine writer Phil Spangenberger, Autry National Center associate curator Jeffrey Richardson, and author/historian Roger McGrath. They tell us about typical life in the west for the period depicted in the movie. We get a lot of good info here, and the show moves at a brisk pace. It’s a tight little overview.
Found on the DVD as an Easter egg, we get a five minute and 19 second Second Wind Presentation Reel compiled by editor Neil Travis. He created this as an early “preview” for the cast and crew during production to see the flick’s progress. I like it as a bit of archival material.
Four more clips under “Vignettes” also repeat eggs from the DVD. These include Confederate March and Music (2:12), Getting the Point (3:57), Burying the Hatchet (1:12) and Animatronic Buffalo (2:18). All of these provide footage from the set, as we see glimpses of the shoot. I wouldn’t call any of them especially substantial, but they’re all enjoyable to view.
What does the Blu-ray lose from the DVD? Not much – it just axes a booklet, a paper note from Costner and Wilson, and some ads for other MGM releases.
With almost an extra hour of footage reintegrated into the film, the extended version of Dances With Wolves seems unlikely to change its critics into supporters. However, the additional material also probably won’t give those of us who don’t much care for the film any new ammunition, as the scenes flow well and blend nicely with the original work. I think the theatrical cut provides the superior experience, but both should please fans.
While it’s too bad the Blu-ray only includes the extended edition of the film, I can’t complain about its quality. The movie both looks and sounds great, and it presents a strong roster of supplements. I feel quite pleased with this excellent release.
To rate this film please visit the Special Edition review of DANCES WITH WOLVES