Willard appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided DVD-14; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. An exceedingly dark image, Willard mostly looked good.
Overall, sharpness usually came across as solid. Wider shots appeared somewhat soft and ill defined, but not terribly so. For the most part, the movie remained adequately distinct and detailed. I noticed no issues with jagged edges or moiré effects, and only a smidgen of edge enhancement seemed apparent. No concerns with print flaws occurred, but some light artifacting showed up occasionally.
Willard presented such a subdued palette that it was virtually monochromatic much of the time. Browns dominated the flick, and brighter tones popped up very sporadically. Willard’s office setting featured some sickly greens and mild colors from clothes, but otherwise, almost no colors appeared. Black levels seemed reasonably tight and dense, but low-light shots tended to be a little heavy. Again, the movie seemed exceedingly dark, and some of the time, finer elements became lost in the shadows. In the end, the image of Willard seemed fairly good but not great.
To my surprise, Willard offered a pretty terrific Dolby Digital EX 5.1 soundtrack. I didn’t think a movie about a boy and his rats would present such a live soundfield, but Willard made great use of all five channels. Most of this emanated from the skittering of the rats. They popped up in every conceivable place and scampered around the soundscape in a smooth and convincing manner. Other elements also made nice localized use of the speakers, as various elements popped up in the right spots and blended together well. Music showed good stereo imaging as well, but the rats were the real stars of the aural show.
Audio quality appeared excellent. Speech was consistently natural and distinctive, and I noticed no issues connected to edginess or intelligibility. Music was bright and vibrant, as the score seemed tight and concise. Effects were especially positive. The various elements came across as accurate and dynamic, and they presented good range. Bass response seemed particularly strong, as low-end appeared deep and firm. Overall, Willard gave us a fine soundtrack.
As part of New Line’s Platinum Series, Willard packs a good set of extras. These launch with an audio commentary from director Glen Morgan, producer James Wong, and actors Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey. The first three sat together and offered a running, screen-specific track; they taped Ermey separately and interspersed his remarks into gaps in the separate commentary. Don’t expect to hear much from Ermey, as he only pops up maybe three or four times for brief interludes. His statements seem moderately interesting as he compares Frank Martin to other roles he’s played, but they’re not great.
As for the other, their commentary starts slowly but improves. In the early going, we mostly just hear about locations and sets. However, the track does get better and it eventually covers a broader array of topics. We get notes about subjects such as CG and other effects elements, elements cut for pacing and to get a “PG-13” rating, comparisons to the original movie, inspirations for various shots, and acting challenges. Director Morgan dominates the piece, but obviously Glover contributes those latter remarks. Actually, he gets on the others’ nerves with his frequent statements that he cried real – rather than chemical-aided – tears for the appropriate scenes, and this becomes a running gag. Ultimately, the commentary seems reasonably satisfying after a slow start.
Next we get a long documentary called The Year of the Rat. This runs 73 minutes and eight seconds and focuses on the production from the point of view of director’s assistant Julie Ng, who uses her perspective to examine the making of the movie. Wong, Morgan, executive producer Bill Carraro, director of photography Rob McLachlan, production designer Mark Freeborn, animal stunt coordinator Boone Narr, rat trainer William Grisco, first assistant director Mark Hardy, editor James Coblentz, actors Glover, Ermey, Kristen Cloke, Jackie Burroughs, Laura Elena Harring, production assistant Matt Swan, grip John Harkin, second assistant director Roger Russell, stunt coordinator Lou Bollo, office production assistant Michael Chmara, special effects technician Brian Trudell, stand-in Jaap Broeker, dolly grip Glenn Forrieter, music composer Shirley Walker, and sound editor/designer David McMoyler. It follows the production chronologically and examines topics like set design, working with the rats, casting and problems finding a lead, various acting choices, effects, the score, and many post-production elements and issues.
My biggest complaint about most DVD “making of” programs is that they frequently whitewash the production to present us little more than happy happy, joy joy. That’s not the case with “Rat”. It does feature many positive moments during the shoot and doesn’t go out of its way to find negative moments, though at one point, Ng does start to worry that her documentary lacks drama. “Rat” feels honest as it captures both the good and the bad. Morgan seems particularly frank as we watch his problems with casting and then all of the issues that occurred when the movie scored poorly in test screenings. It’s absolutely astonishing to hear a director refer to his flick as a “bomb” and to question so many of the decisions involved. The emphasis on a “fly on the wall” perspective seems great as well, as the program gives us a surfeit of wonderful glimpses behind the scenes. Overall, “Rat” is a keeper and it provides one of the best DVD documentaries I’ve seen in a while.
A shorter program follows with Rat People: Friends or Foes?. Narrated by Bruce Davison – the original Willard - it lasts 18 minutes and 40 seconds and looks at the rodents from different perspectives. We hear from “Rat Lady of Chicago” Samantha Martin, rat exterminator Peter D. Sealey, American Rat Fancy and Mouse Association (AFRMA) President Karen Robbins, LA County Chief Environmental Health Specialist Terrance Powell, AFRMA members Helen Pembrook and Dale Taylor, AFRMA Vice President Gina Hendricks, film critic Robert Wilonsky, and rat lovers John Sheppard III and Cindy Maresic. We learn of the world of pet rats and their fans as well as wild rat problems and infestations. It’s a surprisingly balanced and informative piece that provides a nice examination of the topic.
Next we find a music video for “Ben”. Performed by Glover, it also features Ermey in multiple roles plus various women, and it’s an odd but interesting clip. You can watch the video with or without commentary from Glover. Obviously reading from prepared notes, Glover gives us a surprisingly deep look at the video. In fact, you’ll never find more words per minute than in this commentary, as Glover speaks incredibly rapidly and barely takes time for a breath.
After this we get a collection of 12 Deleted/Alternate Scenes. These last a total of 25 minutes and 57 seconds. Many of them are similar to existing sequences; they were redone to ensure a “PG-13” instead of the originally intended “R”. The first one’s the most substantial, and the one I think should’ve made the final cut. It better establishes the relationship between Willard and Cathryn, the weakest element of the film.
We can watch these sequences with or without commentary from Morgan, Wong and Glover. They don’t always tell us why the pieces were cut, but they mostly illuminate us about that subject. They also toss out some nice production notes and add enough information to make the commentary worth a listen.
The DVD ends with some ads. We get the film’s theatrical trailer as well as three TV spots. Some of the promos badly misrepresent the movie as an action/horror spectacular, and one even uses Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”; clearly they chose it for the line about being a “rat in a cage”, but it makes the flick look a lot livelier than it is.
DVD-ROM users will find a few additional features. In addition to some links, we find a trivia game that asks questions about the movie. It’s pretty easy and rewards you with a downloadable screensaver if you win. “Rats as Pets” answers queries like “do they bite?” and “what do they eat?” and also provides a gallery of pictures of pet rats along with some factoids about them. Lastly, “Script to Screen” lets you read the original script while you watch the movie; the video runs in a small screen on the left as the text displays on the right half of the screen.
Way too weird for most folks, Willard should please those for whom it seems interesting. The movie doesn’t totally succeed, but it provides a generally creepy and intriguing flick. The DVD features generally positive picture plus excellent audio and a strong set of extras. Willard won’t be for most people, but I recommend it to those with think it might be up their alley.