Blu-ray Review: WINDJAMMER Broadens Your Scope, It's A Cinemiracle! (Flicker Alley)
You see, in the beginning of the widescreen revolution there wasn't any single standard. Sure, a lot of films began to be shot and framed with 1.85 or 1.66 aspect ratios in mind, but producers were still finding their feet. As a result, curiosity and ingenuity led to a plethora of filming options. Some of these options, such as CinemaScope and VistaVision, went on to become industry standards -- both of them are still in use today. However, many others, in spite of their obvious attributes, were deemed to be too expensive, too complicated, or just too specialized to go into broader use. Among these were the Cinerama process, Todd-AO, and CineMiracle, a process so specialized that Windjammer was the only film ever shot in the format.
CineMiracle was a format very much like Cinerama in that it used a triple camera to film an extremely wide angle of view and project from three projectors simultaneously. The camera weighed nearly 600 pounds and was a massive hulking beast, rendering any kind of freedom of movement to be an impossibility. However, the resulting image was, if the historical documents were to be believed, astounding. Windjammer was the only film ever made in this format, and it is exactly the kind of film that this ultra-widescreen presentation was made for. Sweeping ocean views, dramatic storms, gorgeous travelogues, and a bit of harmless romance made for an audience experience that was not to be forgotten. Unfortunately, Windjammer fell by the wayside over the years, and CineMiracle was looked at as little more than a glorious failed experiment.
Flicker Alley has revived the film on Blu-ray for a new generation. The film certainly looks dated; a cross between a Sound of Music styled European musical and an epic travelogue, the film reminded me very much of Disney's foray into the Spanish language market, The Three Caballeros, only without the cartoons. Windjammer is an epic in every sense of the world. We follow these young boys as they cross the ocean from Norway to the Caribbean and back again, meeting all sorts of interesting folks along the way. We are treated to songs, dances, and lots of real life sailing action, it is a lot of fun if you're into that sort of thing, and thankfully I am. The experience is documented by this massive camera and crew and the result must've been glorious on the massive CineRama screens that became its home for years.
It is wonderful to have Windjammer back on the market, as the only available versions have been piss poor bootlegs and washed out cropped DVDs. This restoration is pretty darned good, and the use of the smile box image (not unlike Warner Brothers' How The West Was Won Blu-ray) really helps to capture the scope of the experience, though I'm sure it pales in comparison to seeing the film on the huge screens with the waves lapping at your feet.
Windjammer is my first experience with Flicker Alley, and I have to say right off the bat that I'm damned impressed. The first thing that struck me was the amazing packaging job. Flicker Alley have used the same clear cases that Criterion does for their discs and the box is packed with a massive booklet (which I'll get to later) and that weight helps me to feel like I've got something significant. The image, while not mind-blowing, is pretty awesome, as well, especially considering what the folks at this little label had to work with. The negative was in awful shape, so they had to use a 35mm positive to create this transfer. The result is a bit all over the place. Colors can be unstable, and fine detail is lacking, but having seen where they started, it has to be said that this is a massive improvement. The smilebox presentation takes a second to get used to, but it definitely adds to the feeling of the film, and that aspect of the transfer is wonderful. The audio is significantly less damaged, and the wonderful sounds of Windjammer, both natural and man-made, are fantastic.
I don't know what I expected in terms of extras for this largely under-appreciated film, but what I got is great. There is a 56 minute behind the scenes documentary featurette on the film gathering many of the stars for interviews which is fantastic. This documentary also includes rare photos and video of the film's creation and release. The most enlightening featurette for me, however, was the Windjammer Gets A Facelift doc on the extensive restoration process that led to this disc. Sometimes we nerds underestimate how costly restoration can be, and the Flicker Alley team smack some sense into the viewer by showing just how much work goes into a project like this. There is also lots of publicity material, photos, slide shows, a reconstructed trailer, and a present day tour of the boat on which the film was shot, the Christian Radich. One neat feature is the original "breakdown reel", a 13 minute stretch of film to be played when the film encountered projection issues. Very cool. Last but certainly not least is the booklet which features a page-for-page reproduction of the Windjammer booklet that audiences would've received back in 1958. I love stuff like that, and it is great to see that producers went through the trouble to explain their gamble to their audience.
Windjammer is a great film done right from Flicker Alley. I definitely recommend it and look forward to checking out more of their work!