Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Special Edition DVD
PolyGram, THX, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: Spanish & French, single side-dual layer, 19 chapters, rated R, 114 min., $34.95, street date 5/25/99.
Academy Awards: Winner of Best Visual Effects, Nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, 1999.
Directed by Vincent Ward. Starring Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr., Max von Sydow, Jessica Brooks Grant, Josh Paddock.
For those who believe in eternal love, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible.
For Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), his love for his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) defines the core of his being and completes his very soul. When they met, they were conjoined as soul mates in a divine love to exist no longer as two, but as one. If Destiny decrees that Chris must journey to the very depths of Hell to be with her, then he will... and he does!
A love so powerful it defies the bounds of heaven and earth leads Robin Williams on a remarkable, visually dazzling adventure unlike any ever seen before on film in What Dreams May Come. The exuberant, abundantly talented Robin Williams heads an outstanding cast that also includes Cuba Gooding, Jr., Annabella Sciorra and Max Von Sydow in this epic romantic drama.
After his untimely death, Chris' memory of loving and being loved creates a personal prism through which he transcends earthly life and experiences a world bound only by his imagination. His transition into this visually breathtaking place is puzzling at first, but soon abates when his afterlife guide Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) tells him, "You didn't disappear, Chris, you just died!"
In this alternative realm, Chris delights in the knowledge that Heaven for him is existing within one of Annie's magnificent paintings. He rejoices in the awe and majesty of this Painted World, replete with the memories and romantic dreams he once shared with her. Yet even in this paradise, Chris feels unfulfilled without his wife, Annie. And on earth she is not whole without him. The creative vitality that is so penetrating in Chris' world paradoxically confines Annie in dark disillusionment.
When Chris is told that Annie can never join him in his Heaven, he vows to find her. Guided by a sage Tracker (Max Von Sydow) and his unconditional love for Annie, he embarks on an epic odyssey through a tapestry of timeless illusions to try to free her from the endless torments of Hell.
What Dreams May Come is a courageous exploration of worlds heretofore only imagined, the inspired collaboration of its visionary director, acclaimed novelist, distinguished screenwriter and award winning cast. It is a singular, stunning and ambitious depiction of the afterlife, combining elements of fantasy, drama and spectacle.
Longtime readers of the ol' DVD MovieGuide may remember that something astonishing occurred during my review of Good Will Hunting: I had to admit - gasp! - that I was wrong. I did not see that film prior to the time I screened it on DVD because I refused to see it; I thought it looked like just another sappy, affirmation-of-the-human-spirit, glorified "Afterschool Special" deal. Happily, I was way off base; GWH turned out to be a very entertaining and well made film.
Why did I harbor such strong negativity toward that film? Largely because of the presence of Robin Williams. One day the guy's an out of control comic, the next he's Dr. Feelgood - how did this happen? I don't know, but the sight of Williams in his earnest mode scared me off of GWH.
As it also did in the case of What Dreams May Come. Here's Robin Williams, once again telling us how great it is to be alive! Well, yeah, actually it IS great to be alive, but there's something about the smarmy, sanctimonious tone of his performances in most of these kinds of films that grates on me. Patch Adams probably would have sucked no matter who starred in it, but I have little doubt that Williams' performance made it worse.
The film's reviews did nothing to counter my feelings, so I passed on WDMC during its theatrical run. However, the combination of a) a cheap DVD rental; b) a long holiday weekend; and c) nothing better to do conspired to get me to give the movie a try.
My reaction? Fairly ho-hum. WDMC doesn't approach the heights of Good Will Hunting, but it also avoids the depths manifested in Patch Adams. Williams' work also falls somewhere in the middle; he wasn't as convincing as he was in GWH, but he kept away from the bathetic excesses of Patch. Maybe his work tends to reflect his director; a quality leader like Gus Van Sant brings out his best, while a hack like Tom Shadyac lowers him to most-common-denominator territory.
Vincent Ward also appears to stand somewhere on the middle ground. I first became aware of him seven years ago when Alien 3 was released. Ward was initially supposed to helm that film, but for reasons that I can't currently recall, he was dismissed from the project and David Fincher took over. (Ward's story remained, however.)
Since then, not a lot has been heard of Ward. He directed Map of the Human Heart following his removal from Alien 3; that movie got some decent notices but failed to generate any strong box office revenue. After that, nothing! He played some small roles in a couple films, but that was it until WDMC in 1998.
I have no idea what precipitated his long break from filmmaking, but WDMC certainly doesn't seem likely to herald his arrival as a major player in the movie business. It did some passable box office - about $55 million - but it didn't cause much of a stir.
That's probably about the reaction WDMC deserved. It's an okay movie - nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, it clearly strove to achieve much loftier goals, but it didn't get there. That doesn't make the film a failure; it simply appears mediocre whereas it wanted to be spectacular.
By far, the film's first half is its most interesting and provocative. As we see how Williams' character Chris Nielsen dies and then reacts to his eternal fate, the movie offers an interesting vision of the afterlife and it provides some nicely emotional moments. Particularly effective is the scene in which Chris meets up with his daughter; the film portrays the scene with a subtlety that makes the scene all the more convincing.
Less interesting is the movie's second half. This is a surprise, because that section should provide the film's high points. After all, we watch Nielsen brave the depths of hell to redeem his wife; how can something like that come across as DULL as it does here? Ya got me, but it happened. Perhaps this occurs because the ending never seems in doubt; it appeared inevitable that Nielsen would find his wife again and they would die happily ever after. At least the film's first half didn't seem quite so contrived and predictable; that part displayed much more of a sense of discovery and also of loss. The excursion into hell simply bored me.
I also found that portion of WDMC to be surprisingly unemotional. That half should have been tear-jerker nirvana, but it seemed strangely clinical and dry. It wasn't that I didn't care about the characters; admittedly, I didn't, but that didn't stop me from reacting when Chris encountered his daughter. I can't fully explain why the film fails to evoke any sort of true emotional response when it should, but it doesn't. I don't think that the movie's dreadfully cutesy ending helped any, either.
Despite the lukewarm box office reaction that greeted WDMC, Polygram have issued a pretty terrific DVD of the film. It succeeds very well in all areas. The picture looks fantastic from start to finish. It looks quite sharp and clean, although grain mars some early scenes to an insignificant degree. And the colors - oh my! It's a film that emphasizes bright, flashy hues, and the DVD reproduces them brilliantly; WDMC sits beside Austin Powers as one of the best DVDs to demonstrate the capacity of DVD to present strong, focussed colors.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix doesn't quite live up to its picture, but it does very well for itself. I thought the audio sounded a little flat and unnatural at times - particularly in the reproduction of music - but in general it's pretty good. Dialogue is always easily intelligible, and the mix offers a nicely immersive soundstage. The rear channels receive a surprisingly active workout as well. All in all, the sound nicely complements the images and it adds to the experience.
WDMC features a very nice complement of supplemental materials. Most significant is the audio commentary from director Ward. Like the film itself, it's a decent but unspectacular track. Ward splits his focus pretty neatly between the technical aspects of making the movie and his insights into the story's meaning, although the former probably dominates. My greatest fault with the commentary is that Ward doesn't talk enough. The track features quite a few lengthy gaps. Most of them don't exceed a minute or two, but those pauses add up after time. Still, the commentary offers some interesting information about the film.
The supplements also include a decent 15 minute "making of" featurette. Obviously, since it's so short, it can't offer anything other than a superficial overview of the film. It also devotes too much of its time to scenes from the movie; I grew frustrated at how much time I spent viewing these clips. Overall, it's an okay program, but nothing special.
One of the more interesting extras is the alternate ending. It's silly, but a little less so than the one that got used, and it provides a slightly more dramatic ending to the film. Neither ending seems very satisfying, but I probably would have preferred this one. Some additional deleted scenes would have been nice, but the inclusion of this one is appreciated.
We also see about five minutes of interviews about and demonstrations of the special effects used in the film, as well as a few text screens about that subject. These portions provided some basic but helpful information about the subject. Finally, the DVD includes some fairly extensive photo galleries, two trailers, some well done cast and director biographies, and good production notes in the DVD's booklet. Also featured is a piece of DVD-ROM material; if your computer is so equipped, you can have WDMC wallpaper and desktop images! Mine isn't so I can't comment on their quality.
Overall, WDMC is a topnotch DVD. It combines very good quality sound and image with a strong selection of supplements. If you already know that you like the film, there's no reason not to buy a copy pronto; you'll be very pleased with this package. If you haven't seen it, it's at least worth a rental; I didn't think much of the movie, but you may respond differently and then want to add this one to your personal collection.