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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: The Lovely Bones

April 17th, 2010

The Lovely Bones - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

The Lovely Bones was Peter Jackson's first film in four years. In the five years previous to his absence, he had four films released. Combined, those four films earned close to $3.5 billion at the worldwide box office, not to mention 20 Oscars and countless other awards. Granted, no one thought The Lovely Bones would do that well at the box office, but there were still a lot of high hopes for the film. In fact, there was plenty of Awards Season buzz months before the film was released, while $100 million domestically was a possibility, especially if it picked up some major awards. However, early reviews were less than kind and it didn't exactly live up to the higher end of box office predictions. Is the film really disappointing, or is this just a case of great expectations ruining a film's chances?

The film tells the story of Susie Salmon, a 14-year old living in suburb of Philadelphia. It starts in many ways like a coming of age film: we see her first crush, becoming a budding photographer, helping her father make ships in bottles, and generally being a kid that's growing up. Her life was good, except she lived next to George Harvey, who takes a special interest in her. After school when she is going to the mall to meet the boy she has a crush on, he lures her into a small room he dug underground. When she tries to leave, he kills her. Sounds like a spoiler, but it's not. The film then spends the next 100 minutes looking on how she deals with her afterlife and how her loved ones on Earth deal with her death, as well as whether or not her killer will be brought to justice.

To be more precise, it spends about 20 minute on the story and about 80 minutes on special effects shots.

Okay, so that's not literally true, but it feels like it. Portraying heaven on film is not easy, as no matter what you do it won't match the expectations of the audience. Here Peter Jackson goes with a special effects laden world filled with colorful wonders for Susie and Holly, another dead teenager stuck in limbo. There are lush fields and butterfly dresses, rainbows and waterfalls, sunny beaches and snowy wonderlands. While I will admit that there are times this can be a visual treat, it is emotionally hollow and just proves to be a distraction from what should be the real heart of the film. The heart of the movie should be how Susie Salmon's family deals with her tragic death, but it takes a backseat to the special effects. Even when it is in the forefront of the film, this aspect of the movie is still unsuccessful for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the movie has trouble finding a clear and even tone. Sometimes it is a family drama dealing with emotional scars, sometimes it is an overly sappy look at a teenage girl living in the afterlife, other times it is tense thriller dealing with Jack Salmon trying to catch George Harvey. Then there's Susan Sarandon as Susie's tipsy grandmother, which is played for comic relief. Not only does this character not fit with the tone of the rest of the movie, the role is woefully undeveloped. Speaking of undeveloped characters, Rachel Weisz plays Susie's mother, who is unable to deal with Susie's death or her husband's obsession with the unsolved crime, so she leaves to work on a farm in California. Not only does this mean that she gets almost no screen time, but it seems like a rather abrupt decision. (Apparently there were several scenes cut out of the movie, which explains this to some degree.)

It's funny: after the film proved it wasn't going to be an Awards Season player, the studio stopped advertising it as such and concentrated on that thriller / pursuit of justice part of the story with a father obsessed with bringing his daughter's killer to justice. It made the movie feel more like Taken than what it actually was. The later ads emphasizes what was a relatively small part of the film and while this is not the first time an ad campaign has switched gears, it is rarely a good sign.

Don't get me started on the ending. All that time spent building up the suspense over whether or not George Harvey would be brought to justice, and -- MAJOR SPOILER ALERT -- and he's killed by an icicle. Nope. Not acceptable.

There are some parts of the movie that I liked, including the performances by Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci, but it's not enough to warrant an enthusiastic recommendation.

There are no extras on the DVD, which is unacceptable. I know it didn't live up to expectations, so I wasn't expecting a two-disc set loaded with extras. But nothing?

Also, I don't have the Blu-ray to review yet. Hopefully I will get it soon. It does appear that there's a multi-part "making of" featurette, while it only costs about 35% more, which is inline with expectations, especially given the visual nature of the movie.

The Verdict

The Lovely Bones fails to live up to its potential for a number of reasons. In the end, I think Peter Jackson was just trying too hard. He tried to give the film a style that would enhance the story, but instead the style overwhelmed the story. It's not a total write-off and for many it will be worth checking out, but a rental will be enough. If you are interested in buying, go with the Blu-ray, as the featureless DVD is not worth the purchase price.

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