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Touchstone Home Video presents
Dead Poets Society (1989)

"Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."
- John Keating (Robin Williams)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: January 10, 2006

Stars: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard
Other Stars: Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith, Josh Charles, George Martin
Director: Peter Weir

MPAA Rating: PG
Run Time: 02h:08m:38s
Release Date: January 10, 2006
UPC: 786936239911
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B-B-B+ B

DVD Review

"Old-fashioned" need not be a pejorative, though if you think of it as an insult, Dead Poets Society isn't the movie for you. It's so earnest and takes itself so seriously—almost like the adolescents on which it focuses—that it's kind of easy to mock; those of us who have Robin Williams issues (the relentless sad clown thing has gotten kind of tiresome, no?) will find plenty of fodder here as well. But director Peter Weir assembled the best young cast of actors since Diner, and even if the movie is kind of fuddy duddy, it knows how to push all the buttons.

Welcome to Welton Academy, where boys are trained to become men—or Ivy League freshmen, anyway. We seem to be a few rungs below the Choates and Andovers of this world; Holden Caulfield would be very much at home in this all-male bastion, where cigarettes are smoked on the sly, and breaking curfew is about the most dangerous thing you would even entertain doing. The story begins at the start of a new Eisenhower-era academic year, with the arrival of the newest member of the faculty: John Keating (Williams), a Welton alum, frankly looking to inspire. One of the boys in his class is sort of our guide, a new arrival, too—Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) is in the shadow of his older brother, who graced the halls of Welton a few short years ago. Todd's new roommate, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), is on his way to medical school, no matter what he thinks about it, because that's what Father wants; Todd falls in with Neil and his pals, who take their grades seriously, but, like all boys their age, are looking to cut up, have fun, and meet girls.

Keating poses a threat to the highest if unspoken virtue of Welton: conformity. His notion that he's there to get the boys to think for themselves doesn't set right with the administration, personified by the headmaster, in a stern performance by the wonderful Norman Lloyd—it's kind of quaint and sweet that these boys' idea of rebellion is fixing up a transistor radio, or reading Walt Whitman aloud to one another, and if you can't suspend disbelief about the power of poetry to transform utterly the soul of a 16 year old, the movie is going to seem nothing but silly. But run with it, for the boys revive the club of the movie's title, one established by Keating as a student—the dead poets sneak out of the dorm under cloak of night, with their contraband (raisins and cookies), and read poetry. It's so modest and kind of precious, a Great Books version of adolescent rebellion, but it sort of works.

The movie is carefully, almost schematically constructed, but it offers some food for thought: are these schools properly in loco parentis, the training ground for our next generation of leaders, or are they prisons? (The glee with which corporal punishment is meted out may push the balance toward the latter.) And the greatest ruckus the boys raise doesn't come from sex, or smokes, or beer—it's the mere mention of the word "co-education." Neil seems to find his true calling when he's cast as Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream—Father disapproves, of course, leading to disastrous consequences. Most guys I know can relate to Knox (Josh Charles), the sensitive guy smitten by the beautiful Chris, who unwisely goes out with the lunky quarterback instead; and as Charlie, Gale Hansen may most embody the spirit of the Dead Poets Society, tweaking some of the pretensions of Welton and its power structure, while always showing up for choir in the requisite coat and tie.

Lisa Birnbach, author of The Preppy Handbook, is credited as a technical advisor on the movie, and the look of it adheres precisely to our images of the period: chinos and Chuck Taylors, the knobs turned down just a little bit on today's Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs. There's no sparing on the melodrama, in the movie's conclusion especially—it's easy to scoff at some of this, but deep in our hearts, I think that Keating is the sort of teacher we all hope to encounter as students, or, as we age out, the inspiring figure that we all hope to be, to at least one person. Seize the day, friends.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: John Seale's postcard-perfect cinematography frequently looks as if it belongs in a brochure for New England tourism, and it's reasonably well rendered on this disc, with only occasional discolorations.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: The atmospherics on the 5.1 track can almost lull you into wooziness—it's all clear, though I might have gone easier on the strings with the scoring.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Annapolis, Flight Plan
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peter Weir, John Seale, Tom Schulman
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Director Peter Weir, cinematographer John Seale and screenwriter Tom Schulman were recorded separately for the commentary track—something about this story obviously lends itself to personal reminiscences, and we get to hear more detail than you might care to listen to about the adolescences of all three. Weir talks about making the story his own, and finding the right visual details; curiously, it's Schulman who speaks more about the moviemaking process, about drafts of the script and directors who were attached to the project before Weir, and about going through development hell. The hero of his story, saving his frequently autobiographical screenplay from insipid notes from midlevel studio executives, is Jeffrey Katzenberg, who oversaw the production while still at Disney.

Dead Poets: A Look Back (26m:55s) features new interview footage with Norman Lloyd, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and other members of the cast; the subject of discussion is almost entirely the actors' adoration of Weir, and his Keating-like relationship with the young men especially. (Robin Williams hardly gets mentioned here, leading one to suspect that if you can't say something nice...) Master of Sound: Alan Splet (11m:00s) is a tribute to the film's sound designer, who has since passed away—it begins with reminiscences from Weir, but most of it is given over to an audio interview with director David Lynch, over still photos of Splet. (It's hard to think of a movie that's less Lynch-like than Dead Poets Society.) Seale takes centerstage for a Cinematography Master Class (14m:49s), which shows him working with Australian film students on a re-creation of the set for Neil and Todd's dorm room—it features lots of cinematographic shop talk, and gives a revealing look at a frequently underappreciated aspect of filmmaking. The deleted scene (04m:40s) is of Keating visiting his acolytes unannounced during a meeting of the Society.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

What it lacks in subtlety it makes up in earnestness—this is the farthest thing from groundbreaking cinema, but it's classically sentimental Hollywood stuff, and it looks pretty spiffy on this DVD. Seize the disc.


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