Pleasantville Review

Could you imagine being a husband and coming home to find your wife didn’t have dinner prepared? The horror. That’s the price paid for perfection though, or at least what seems like perfection in Pleasantville, a ’50s sitcom where couples sleep in their own twin beds, bathrooms don’t actually have toilets, and the weather is stuck at 72 degrees, night or day.

Pleasantville is a lot of things, from satire of familiar television styles, a look at racism and acceptance, plus free will and the power it gives people. That’s a lot of material for what on the surface feels like a gimmick, two kids sucked into an era of “Leave it to Beaver,” bringing with them all of their modern influences.

The film is astoundingly and refreshingly deep, even if you’re only paying attention on the surface level. You have the diner owner who doesn’t know how to run his own shop since he’s stuck in a world where everything is done within boundaries. People have no concept of sex, an idea so radical these characters are almost appalled at the very thought; holding hands is the moral expression of love. Art isn’t accepted, and books are blank.

They learn how to live, the diner owner taking up painting while his expressionist nudes on the diner window offend the public’s sensibilities to the core. As they break out of their confined shells color comes into their world. This creates a divide between town members, the colorless and the colored, a stab at racism that never trivializes the worst aspects of where our modern society came from.

Pleasantville is also a technical success, filled with lively visual effects that split the world in two. People come into color, their environments still static black & white. They talk with people who haven’t discovered what they need, still stuck within their shells. There’s an eye for detail too, a teacher’s desk overloaded with apples and a fire department who don’t understand how to put out fire, only pull kittens from a tree.

It’s a rare original Hollywood concept that comes together, stylistically and in terms of the script. The characters are bright, likeable, and still familiar stereotypes where they need to be. Pleasantville doesn’t lose focus of its goals, or its entertainment value.

Movie ★★★★★ 

There’s a lot to Pleasantville from a technical standpoint, the constant layer of visual effects intruding on almost every shot once the sitcom begins breaking from its constraints. That doesn’t explain the inconsistencies then in the ’90s, the source material here looking like an older master that should have been brought up to speed for this release.

The grain structure is the first issue, only marginally resolved by current standards. It looks somewhat elevated by the digital compression of this AVC encode. At times, it’s transparent though, almost to the point of being eliminated, which brings us to a second layer of concern.

While close-ups are not perfect by any stretch, they are maintained with a general consistency. Moving back reveals a filtered look, lacking the precision a film with such limited age should have. Even excusing sequences of obvious effects work, there are still those shots that simply appear awful. The early school assembly, a slow pan on the speaker from the rear of the room, almost turns the person talking into mud.

Warner has done a fine job preserving this affair, the total lack of print damage pleasing to the eye. This hi-def presentation also benefits the film in new ways, the prior VHS and DVD releases failing miserably to show how brilliant the color saturation truly is. From the first rose that blooms into a rich red to Lover’s Lane as it explodes with greenery and blue water, the intensity of it all is finally allowed to shine like it should. Flesh tones are purposefully warm and a bit unnatural, but that’s the design, more akin to Technicolor than reality.

The B&W footage holds a proper gray scale, rich blacks, and nicely calibrated whites, or at least most of the time. Outdoors during the day, the two streets of Pleasantville bloom hotly, lessening the level of available detail. Windows in the gym are overblown as well, any attempted style not as easily coming through if that is the case.

Video ★★★☆☆ 

Audio design matches the visuals, with the subdued quiet of the ’50s sitcom slowly being replaced by a powerful spurt of fire, music, and the increased presence of the score. Composer Randy Newman’s work is displayed beautifully, filling the soundfield with a natural bleed and fidelity.

Dialogue, even through an ancient ’50s tube, carries clarity. It’s prioritized in the center, no instances of directional speaking included. It’s able to rise above any chaos, including a heavy thunderstorm at 1:14:50 that produces some minimal low-end work. The rain envelopes each channel for a complete surround effect.

Audio ★★★★☆ 

Two audio commentaries are here, the first from director Gary Ross, and the second with Randy Newman chatting alongside his isolated score. The Art of Pleasantville runs 32-minutes, a somewhat dry but interesting deconstruction of two key special effect scenes. A music video and trailer remain.

Extras ★★★☆☆