It's a Wonderful Life (4K Blu-ray) (1946)

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Released 13-Nov-2019

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Featurette-Restoring a Beloved Classic in 4K
Featurette-Secrets From The Vault: It's a Wonderful Life
More…-It's a Wonderful Wrap Party
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1946
Running Time 130:32
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Frank Capra
Studio
Distributor

Paramount Home Entertainment
Starring James Stewart
Donna Reed
Lionel Barrymore
Thomas Mitchell
Henry Travers
Beulah Bondi
Frank Faylen
Ward Bond
Gloria Grahame
H.B. Warner
Case Standard Blu-ray
RPI $29.95 Music Dimitri Tiomkin


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby TrueHD 2.0 mono
French Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
English Descriptive Audio Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement Unknown
Video Format 2160p
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
French
German
Italian
Japanese
Spanish
Danish
Dutch
Finnish
Norwegian
Swedish
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    A Christmastime staple, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is a rare film which has withstood the test of time and continues to touch millions of people through its themes, boundless appeal, and emotional power. Admittedly, compared to Miracle on 34th Street or National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, It's a Wonderful Life is not exactly a Christmas film in the classical sense - after all, only the finale occurs on Christmas Eve, and the story has nothing to do with Santa Claus. Nevertheless, this film encapsulates the true spirit of the holiday: the value of family and friends, and the importance of giving rather than receiving. Furthermore, It's a Wonderful Life can be watched at any time of the year because of its feel-good themes as well as its potent message about the significance of a single human soul.

    The story commences on Christmas Eve, with a chorus line of prayers originating from the small town of Bedford Falls pleading for the angels to aid the despairing George Bailey (James Stewart). The unsung hero of Bedford Falls, George aspired to travel the world and study at University, but was forced to relinquish his dreams to manage his late father's business to make sure it won't fall into the hands of wealthy schemer Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George always acts in the interests of others, and in his adult life, he marries the beautiful Mary (Donna Reed) with whom he has four beautiful children. However, financial problems and personal issues suddenly mount, overwhelming George and plunging him into a tragic abyss of despair. Enter George's guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who arrives from Heaven to heighten the depressed man's spirits. To achieve this end, Clarence shows George a vision of a world in which he never existed.

    Flashbacks constitute the first two-thirds of It's a Wonderful Life, with Clarence learning about George's background and observing the events leading up to his suicide contemplation. Such a device is a structural masterstroke, as it allows viewers to see George's past alongside Clarence. Additionally, the script meticulously develops George's character while the knowledge of his depression sits at the back of our minds. Conveying an entire movie's worth of material, Capra accommodates the full breadth of George's life, treating it with the care it deserves. We become immersed in George's existence, and we fall in love with the man; it seems impossible that anything could threaten to destroy his life, or he could lose his temper. This brand of gentle, enthralling character development is gratifying and essential, letting us see what's at stake when Clarence at long last descends to earth to meet George. And since we grow to love George so much, the climax is all the more poignant (almost unbearably so).

    It's a Wonderful Life is such an effective feel-good movie because it asserts the notion that everyone, regardless of how insignificant they may seem, can make a difference. The angels describe life as "God's greatest gift", and Capra delivers the message that worldly riches mean nothing compared to love, family, friends, honesty and integrity. This all culminates with a goosebump-inducing finale, which never fails to leave this reviewer a blubbering mess. Indeed, anybody who is not moved by the flick's final few minutes should wonder what is wrong with them. Additionally, It's a Wonderful Life is so often referred to as cheesy and sentimental, but it's also surprisingly dark at times. The lead-up to George's depression is heart-wrenching in its bleakness, and George's lurid odyssey through Pottersville - a community in which he was never born - contains traces of film noir, as it's realistically gloomy.

    Capra makes the most of the estimated $3 million budget; It's a Wonderful Life is a technically impressive motion picture from top to bottom. The fictional town of Bedford Falls seems authentic, as the crew actually constructed an elaborate main street consisting of numerous buildings and stores; consequently, it feels like a lived-in town as opposed to a studio back-lot. Additionally, filming took place during summer months, necessitating the creation of artificial snow. Fake snow often fails to convince, but every flake of snow in It's a Wonderful Life looks genuine. Admittedly, there are a few technical issues, such as wide shots not precisely matching close-ups, or a shonky transition as Clarence disappears during a scuffle, but such shortcomings scarcely matter. Capra's pacing is magnificent, while the black & white, 35mm photography (courtesy of three credited cinematographers) bursts with visual flair. And although the film is vehemently a drama, gentle humour livens the proceedings from time to time, making the viewing experience even more delightful.

    While Capra and his co-writers (Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) deserve some of the recognition for It's a Wonderful Life's brilliance, Stewart's immaculate performance truly makes the film work. Stewart portrays George Bailey with a deft mixture of innocence and integrity, not to mention humanity and fallibility, which ensures viewers will root for him from the outset. Stewart fits the role like a glove - he's amiable and convincing, and his desperation and despair is increasingly apparent when he's submerged into the vision of Pottersville. Equally striking is Reed as George's wife, Mary. Reed was not Capra's first choice, but it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role, as she embodies the sweetness required to convincingly capture George's heart. Meanwhile, as George's guardian angel, Travers is utterly charming. The rest of the supporting cast is just as impressive - Barrymore emanates cunning and malice as the wicked Potter, while Thomas Mitchell makes for an endearing (albeit incompetent) Uncle Billy. Capra never allows a faulty acting moment to sneak into his masterpiece.

    With It's a Wonderful Life's strong reputation and almost unanimous acclaim, it's difficult to believe that it was not a hit during its theatrical release. In addition to mixed reviews, the box office earnings were underwhelming, which doomed Capra's newly established production company, Liberty Films. It earned a few Academy Award nominations, but won nothing at the ceremony. Subsequently, It's a Wonderful Life fell into relative obscurity until the picture's copyright expired and it entered the public domain, meaning that television stations could play it ad nauseam without the need to pay royalties. Thus, it was used as a TV time-filler during the Christmas season, resulting in its rediscovery by a whole new generation. At last, decades later, the reviews were uniformly positive, and It's a Wonderful Life received the love and acclaim it always deserved. If It's a Wonderful Life was never created, the world would have been worse off for it.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    It's a Wonderful Life finally debuted on Blu-ray in Australia back in 2014, but only in colourised form. It wasn't until the 70th Anniversary Edition in 2016 that Australians were finally given the treasured classic in black & white on Blu-ray, but the transfer left much to be desired. The high definition transfer, which dates back to 2009, is slathered in digital noise reduction, removing fine detail and the movie's filmic texture. For years, fans and videophiles have clamoured for a superior remaster of It's a Wonderful Life, which Paramount eventually delivered as an iTunes stream in 2018. Paramount spent over a year painstakingly restoring the film, using the original nitrate negative as much as possible, while also making use of two original fine-grain prints (basically second-generation interpositives) for portions that were either missing or too deteriorated. The result is the best possible archival version and quite possibly the best version of It's a Wonderful Life imaginable. Although Paramount stated back in 2018 that no plans were in place for a disc release, the studio hath delivered with a JB Hi-Fi exclusive set containing the movie on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, as well as a 1080p Blu-ray which also makes use of the brand-new remaster. Paramount's 4K disc is only a BD-66, but it's sufficient to accommodate the movie as well as the extras, resulting in an average video bitrate of 45 Mbps. Additionally, the disc contains Dolby Vision High Dynamic Range (though it will play in regular old HDR10 on non-DV equipment), and this enhancement layer augments the bitrate even further.

    The resulting 2160p, HEVC/H.265-encoded presentation is a revelation from the very first frame. The smeary, grain-managed HD master of old is gone, replaced with pristine textures, beautifully fine grain, and inky blacks. It's also sharp as a tack without exhibiting any signs of nasty artificial sharpening. Just see young George at the cash register at 7:37; you can now read every intricacy on the register. Likewise, the poison label at 8:14 is more comprehensible than ever. Clarity is simply magnificent, revealing the finest complexities on faces, clothing and sets. Admittedly, there are a lot of optical shots throughout It's a Wonderful Life, with shots containing fades and wipes that are a generation or two removed from the original negative. There are some slightly soft shots as well, such as the close-up of George and Mary at 49:00 which is probably intentionally diffused to create a more angelic quality. A few optical shots look to have been taken from the fine-grain prints, and therefore don't look as richly detailed or as sharp as the negative. Still, at least such shots aren't subjected to digital manipulation to remove grain or artificially sharpen everything - instead, this master looks organic and filmic, without any smeariness, edge halos, or other artefacts. In the restoration featurette, the team speak about removing some of the grain to balance out the presentation, erasing the seams between the negative and the dupes. Grain management also serves to balance out the optical shots, which are always heavier on the grain. Talk about grain management had me concerned, but there is no evidence of such tampering in the finished product; the effort is invisible, creating a pleasingly consistent transfer.

    The underlying master is pristine, with the efforts of the restoration team on display from start to finish. Telecine wobble from the previous master is eliminated, resulting in a pleasingly stable transfer. Tiny white specks are occasionally apparent, but they're infrequent and minor, and most people probably won't notice them. Other than that, I couldn't detect any significant print damage; no scratches or hairs. Even the archival World War II footage at the 76-minute mark, which looked so rough on the original Blu-ray, has been cleaned up considerably, removing the print damage to make these sections look spotless. There's some flickering and wobbling, not to mention chunky grain, but that's not a big deal considering such archival material is likely 8 or 9 times removed from the original negative. What matters is that the first-generation material looks fracking gorgeous, with superbly fine grain that never overwhelms the imagery. The encode, with its generous bitrate, ensures the grain looks finely-resolved as opposed to blocky or chunky. Hell, most of the restored first-generation material looks sharper and more textured than some movies produced in 2019.

    Most people associate High Dynamic Range with colours, as HDR allows colours to look deeper and more accurate, which would beg the question: what's the point of HDR on a black and white movie? Well, HDR also serves to augment highlights, particularly in darker scenes or when harsh light sources are used. The HDR is therefore subtle here, restoring specular detail and highlights in windows and lights. Also, see George getting out of the taxi in the rain after the wedding, at 52:18; you can make out every single drop of rain running down the side of the cab. You can practically count the falling snowflakes, too. I concentrated on the Dolby Vision presentation for the purposes of this review, and therefore the score and verdict is reflective of the DV. For what it's worth, a few cursory comparisons revealed the HDR10 iteration to be noticeably darker, while the Dolby Vision creates a brighter and more balanced presentation. I prefer the DV greatly.

    As previously stated, Paramount's encode is spotless. The grain looks gorgeous as a result, and I was unable to detect any compression anomalies - no macroblocking, aliasing, banding, or any other artefacts. The occasional use of dupes is sometimes apparent on a larger TV screen if you're looking for it, the opticals aren't as refined, and there are soft shots which make use of diffusion filters, but that hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. The first generation material looks so incredibly delicious in terms of textures and sharpness, making this 4K edition the definitive archival version of such a beloved movie. I doubt it will ever get much better than this unless someone can use a time machine to heist the original nitrate negative, in pristine condition, from 1946. As someone who has watched It's a Wonderful Life every Christmas for the last fifteen years, Paramount's 4K Blu-ray is a stunner and a revelation. If you have the necessary equipment, this is the set to buy. And even if you haven't upgraded to 4K yet, this set also contains a remastered Blu-ray, which makes this the best option for everyone. I can't recommend it highly enough.

    Subtitles are included in a variety of languages, including English and English for the hearing impaired. Sampling the English tracks, I could detect no issues.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    For the first time ever, Paramount allows fans to experience It's a Wonderful Life with lossless sound: the primary audio option on this 4K disc is an English Dolby TrueHD 2.0 mono track, while dubs in other languages are also available, in lossy 2.0 mono. There's also an English descriptive audio track, for those interested. Due to the age of the movie and the limitations of the recording equipment of the era, don't expect It's a Wonderful Life to sound as clear or pristine as a 2019 production. And since this is a mono track as opposed to a 5.1 remix, the audio is exclusively front-centric, with no subwoofer or surround sound activity. Still, the lossless encode is a huge benefit, with improvements in terms of clarity and volume. The track is nicely textured in terms of atmospherics, with sounds like heavy wind accompanying the dark vision of Pottersville, while sounds of cars and horns fill the speakers during external scenes in Bedford Falls. The audio is adequately remastered, with no hissing, popping, clicking, or any sync issues. No encoding issues arise, either. I have no complaints - this is the best that the film has ever sounded.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Three all-new special features have been assembled for this release. The previously-released "making of" featurette and theatrical trailer are not included; you'll need to hang onto the old Blu-ray to retain those. These same extras are also on Disc 2 of the set, and again the older, archival extras are missing in action. Why, Paramount, why?

Restoring A Beloved Classic (UHD with HDR; 13:03)

    This brand-new featurette takes a close look at the recent 4K restoration of It's a Wonderful Life, with the archivists at Paramount Pictures explaining the intricate process. The featurette also shows unrestored pieces of the negative which were unusable, and reveals how other prints were used to create the best possible archival version of this beloved film. Anybody with an interest in film preservation should check this out.

Secrets From The Vault: It's a Wonderful Life (HD; 22:11)

    Another brand-new featurette, this extra amounts to a "making of" featurette about It's a Wonderful Life. It contains interviews with Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, who discuss Capra forming Liberty Films, how several scenes were made, the creation of the artificial snow, how Linwood Dunn achieved several special effects shots (which are virtually invisible in the final film), and the commercial disappointment of the film upon its release in 1946. The interviews are intercut with film clips, stills, behind-the-scenes photographs, and even some never-before-seen excised establishing shots. The discovery of the wrap party footage is also covered, all of which is available in the next extra.

It's a Wonderful Wrap Party (HD; 8:04)

    Silent (except for music) footage of the wrap party is included here. Nice for historical purposes.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This is the same 4K disc that was released in the United States. However, our release has the edge, as our set also contains the remastered 1080p Blu-ray, while the U.S. release comes with the colourised version instead.

Summary

    Its reputation speaks for itself: It's a Wonderful Life is essential viewing. It's a quintessential Christmas movie, though it can be watched at any time of the year. It's a touching, wonderfully-acted drama that confidently stands the test of time.

    Finally, after years of being stuck with poor-quality DVDs and the dated Blu-ray, Paramount has given this beloved classic the love and care it deserves. The 4K remaster is magnificent, a superb reminder that "old movies" can still look great with the proper care and attention. And it's a treat to finally be able to watch the movie with lossless audio for the first time ever. Throw in a satisfying collection of special features and a remastered 1080p Blu-ray disc, and this one gets my highest recommendation.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Callum Knox (I studied biology)
Monday, December 30, 2019
Review Equipment
DVDSony UBP-X700 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output
DisplayLG OLED65E6T. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 2160p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
AmplificationSamsung Series 7 HT-J7750W
SpeakersSamsung Tall Boy speakers, 7.1 set-up

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