Princess Bride, The (1987)
There was a time when Rob Reiner made excellent films. That time has passed, but he has left us with a film that is often regarded as one of his best. The Princess Bride was made after the critical success of This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Stand by Me (1986). Reiner would later go on to make memorable films such as When Harry Met Sally (1989), Misery (1990), and A Few Good Men (1992). This purple patch of his during the late 1980s and early 1990s cemented his reputation as a director with the golden touch.
Reiner once said in an interview that he was no Spielberg or Lucas. He did not know how to make a spectacular film because his technical knowledge was limited. He cared more about his characters and it showed in many of his films. In The Princess Bride, Reiner puts effort in giving audiences a host of characters that would ordinarily fit into a fantastical landscape, except that this is no ordinary fantasy. Told in a fresh and original style, The Princess Bride is a family movie that is a classic mix of adventure, romance, and humor. It is fun to watch, though the visuals have aged quite a fair bit.
Adapted by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969; All the President’s Men, 1976) based on his own book, The Princess Bride is a straightforward girl-meets-boy tale, set in a fictional medieval period. But like any fairy tale, the lovers are separated and it is the boy who must undergo obstacles to rescue his one true love from a despicable king who intends to murder her on their night of marriage. What makes Reiner’s film different from the usual run-of-the-mill fantasy is its approach. A grandfather is actually narrating the story to his sick grandson, and the film pauses in mid-time when the latter reacts to how the story unfolds.
For better or worse, the film does not feel cinematic enough. In fact, it feels like a staged play, elaborate and colorful in terms of art direction and set design, exaggerating in terms of dialogue and characterization, but the film never really truly transcends what exists within and is contained in its frame. The story has heart and we do enjoy the company of some of its characters, especially the supporting ones such as Inigo Montoya and Vizzini, but it must be said that I felt the film to be slightly contrived, suffering from bouts of artifice that make it difficult to fully appreciate the essence of purity that flows occasionally in the film.
The Princess Bride is light-hearted, not to be taken too seriously, though it is also satirical as far as the genre could afford to. Very much a parody in the vein of This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride tries its best to squeeze as much situational humor as possible from a host of familiar genre conventions. One scene sees a man challenging another to a revenge duel, but the latter uncharacteristically runs away in a panic. Another scene sees a character dressing like the Emperor from the Star Wars saga, scaring off armed guards.
As a story-within-a-story picture, Reiner’s film is obviously also critical of video-gaming as shallowly replacing book-reading as a pastime for youths, as shown in its prologue sequence. Though extremely ironically, The Princess Bride is literally a narration of a book for the screen, and I find the entire film a symbolic attack on the inability of the text to captivate as much as the visual. In a nutshell, while the film does have its moments of splendor, it never quite sails in the direction of moviemaking magic.