Sony and Their Many Monty Python and the Holy Grails (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparisons)

Quick!  What's the difference between the Collector's Edition, Special Edition, 40th Anniversary Edition and Extraordinarily Deluxe Edition of Monty Python and the Holy Grail?  It's a comedy classic and, apparently, money in the bank for Sony, who seemingly re-release this film on home video every year in a new edition.  And I bet even the people who worked on them couldn't keep them all straight.  Is the new blu-ray different than the old blu-ray?  Did some newer editions lose special features that were on previous editions?  Does the framing and picture quality change dramatically between them?  Are some editions actually exactly the same discs as others, simply released in new, gimmicky packaging?  The answers to all these questions are: yes, yes, yes and yes! And I've decided to get to the bottom of it all.
Is Holy Grail the best Monty Python film?  The Pythons themselves have said that The Life of Brian seems to be their most celebrated film in their home country, and Grail is the most popular in America.  For me it's hard to settle on a single best.  They're all so fragmented, and there are segments in each of their films that that stand out as favorites.  Grail might suffer a bit more than the others in that their are lines and moments that are so iconic than a younger viewer approaching the films today may well have heard half the jokes out of context before even seeing the movie, so it can feel like corny, old material even though this is where it originated.  But there are certainly elements that keep it fresh and ageless, including terrific production values dedicated to presenting an authentic and dung-ridden medieval period, a fantastically frustrated straight man in via the performance of Graham Chapman as King Arthur, and the stylish score and animation.  So even if the humor doesn't always do it for you, it's still an undeniably impressive little movie.
So let's get into answering our thesis question: what're all these varying editions all about?  Well, I've found you can boil it down to to five different discs, starting with the original, barebones DVD from back in 1999.  There are more than five releases, even just limiting it to DVDs and blu-rays put out in the USA market; but only five editions where the content of the actual discs change.  So, first, let's just briefly talk about where they don't change:

*The 2003 Collector's Edition is the same 2-disc set as the 2001 Special Edition, except in limited packaging with a hard copy of the script and a collectible film cell.

*The 2005 And Now For Something Completely Hilarious collection features the same disc first disc as the 2001 Special Edition (and single discs of the other films), but lacking the second disc of special features.

*The 2008 Monty Python's Holy Trinity set, happily, fixes that by including both discs from the 2001 Special Edition, which also came with a book and T-shirt (as well as 2-disc sets of the other films).

*The 2015 Limited Edition Castle Catapult Gift Set just includes the same 40th Anniversary blu-ray disc, but with a whole, wacky playset.
So, that was all the editions that stayed the same.  Now, let's look at the differing editions.  First, there's the 1999 barebones DVD.  It's widescreen, but non-anamorphic.  Then there's the 2001 Special Edition, a 2-disc set which is now anamorphic.  The 2006 Extraordinarily Deluxe Edition, which not only has new special features unique to this edition, but boasts an updated transfer with a new aspect ratio.  Fourth is the first blu-ray release, which of course gave the film its HD debut in 2012.  And finally, there's the 2015 40th Anniversary Edition, which has new, additional special features.  Here, have a look.
1) 1999 DVD 2) 2001 DVD 3) 2006 DVD 4) 2012 blu 5) 2015 blu.
So, yeah, it's interesting to see how this film's come along over the years.  The original 1999 DVD is a non-anamorphic 1.76:1.  It's also a bit murkier, definitely softer, with detail smoothed away.  The 2001 special edition brightened the image - though they pushed it a bit red - made it anamorphic and definitely brought in more detail.  It's got a little dead space in the overscan issues, which it would've gotten away with in its time, presenting the film in the widest of all its aspect ratios: 1.81:1.  Don't be impressed by that, though, because it was accomplished by trimming the most off of all four sides, making it actually the most cropped edition.  The 2006 edition corrects that, bringing us to a taller 1.67:1 aspect ratio.  It doesn't add much more clarity, but does restore more picture around the edges, particularly vertically.  Coming to the HD blus, the aspect stops shifting around; it's 1.67:1 from 2006 'till today.  But the color palette is more natural (look at the historian's skin tones), and it's definitely clearer.  Even the best, 2006 DVD looks pretty soft.  It's pleasingly sharper now on both blu, which are for all intents and purposes identical, with detail as clear as it's likely to ever be, and grain now highly visible and distinct.  Technically, they must be different encodes, but you can match each granular pixel between the two's screenshots.

Audio-wise, the original DVD just had the mono track in Dolby 2.0 with optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.  The 2001 special edition introduced a new 5.1 mix as well as a French mono dub to those options, plus joke subs "For People Who Don't Like The Film," which just plays text from Shakespeare's Henry IV pt 2.  The 2006 Extraordinarily Deluxe Edition keeps all of that, and adds additional language options, specifically a Portuguese 5.1 mix and Chinese, Portuguese and Thai subtitles.  Then both of the blu-rays bumps the audio to lossless DTS-HS and adds even more audio options: a Japanese 5.1 mix as well as Japanese, Korean and Mandarin subtitles.
Now let's really dive deep and take a look at the special features.  We start off easy: the 1999 DVD only has a handful of bonus trailers, not even the Holy Grail trailer.   Then the 2001 Special Edition comes with almost all of the extras that have been on any and every subsequent edition: two audio commentaries, one by directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, and one by the remaining Pythons: John Cleese, Michael Palin and Eric Idle.  Both of these maybe get a little cheesy at times, but are mostly both informative and entertaining, and I doubt any Python fan would want to skip them.  There's a really fun documentary called Quest for the Holy Grail Locations, where Palin and Jones tour the old filming locations, and there's a nice, 13-minute behind-the-scenes featurette made for British television.  There's a couple trailers, stills galleries, a trivia track and weblink kinda stuff... and then, if you thought those Henry IV subtitles were a bit silly, buckle in.  Sony has packed all these DVD and blu-ray editions with a plethora of silly, gag extras, that do little to add to the film experience, but are just jokes in and of themselves.
The film starts with a bluff, fake educational short called Dentists On the Job, as if you got the wrong disc or something, which plays for about two minutes before the real movie begins.  Michael Palin also does a spoof educational short on how to use coconuts as horse hoof sounds like they do in the movie.  There's a fake location scouting film where Gilliam and Palin narrate some old travelogue footage as if it was their real experiences.  There's a few short clips of the Japanese dub presented as extracts, clips from the musical numbers presented as sing-a-longs, and a pretty amusing Lego rendition of the Camelot scene.  It's more fun than the big budget Lego movies they release theatrically now, if you ask me, because except for the animated faces and fire effects, it's all real stop-motion photography of actual Lego pieces, not CGI cartoons in the Lego style.
A featurette only available on the 2006 Extraordinarily Deluxe Edition DVD.
So then we come to the Extraordinarily Deluxe Edition.  Now, in 2006, the main reason to upgrade to this version would've been the updated transfer with the corrected aspect ratio.  But that can be tough to sell to the general public, so they had to spice things up with some new features.  But they also didn't have a whole lot to add, so there are a few new things here, but they're pretty thin.  First of all, everything from the previous special edition is carried over.  And it came packaged with a third disc - a CD of the soundtrack album.  But in terms of new, on-disc content there's: a new trailer, that starts out very serious and dramatically before revealing that it's for this silly movie, a little trivia question game and most substantially, a seven minute featurette called A Taste of Spamalot.  Obviously promoting the Broadway show, it features clips of songs from the films (not the full songs) set to Gilliam inspired cut-out animation.  Interestingly, these exclusives remained exclusive to this release, and were not included on subsequent releases, i.e. the blu-rays.
The 2012 blu-ray did include all the other special edition stuff, however, and added two decidedly better extras to the mix.  There's almost twenty minutes of extended scenes and outtakes with an intro by Terry Jones, and then about thirteen minutes of animation outtakes and unused clips, with an introduction and narration by Terry Gilliam.  Also, disappointingly, they lost the original trailer, which sucks because it had some unique jokes that are only in the trailer.  ANd the film no longer has the Dentists On the Job fake-out clip.  Oh, and it touts another big exclusive called "The Holy Book of Days Second Screen."  It's a direct connection to a website full of behind-the-scenes videos or something, but it doesn't seem to actually function.  If you go to the website, it directs you to a link in the App Store; but the app isn't actually in the App Store, despite their claim.  Their help page says the option to sync it up to the blu-ray is no longer available (I'm not convinced it ever really was), but the whole thing seems to no longer exist in any capacity, except for a false promising landing page.  So it boils down to being just a dead, useless weblink.
And now we come to the latest release, the 40th Anniversary Edition.  They've done away with "The Holy Book of Days Second Screen," naturally, but this disc includes an insert directing you to that same landing page with a link to the non-existent app.  Oh well.  Stupid tease.  Anyway, it includes all the content from the 2012 blu except for that, and adds a bit more.  First of all, they brought the trailer back, which is nice.  I assume the 2012's dropping of it was an oversight.  But really what the 40th Anniversary Edition brings to the table, what justifies its existence since it's otherwise the same transfer and same collection of features, is a new half-hour featurette.  It gives us two festival Q&As with the Pythons from Holy Grail screenings, one of which is hosted by John Oliver.  It's okay.  They tell a lot of the same anecdotes they tell in the commentaries and other extras, and they clown around a bit, but nothing especially funny.  It's certainly worth the watch if you've got the disc, but not worth double-dipping for. 
At the end of the day, though, it's pretty good news.  Ultimately, while again I'd say don't double-dip from the 2012 blu for the 2015 blu unless you're the Pythons' #1 fan, it is the best edition going.  And it's available super cheap.  Best Buy sells them brand new for $6.99 in my neighborhood, as long as you're happy getting the edition without the castle playset.  The Q&A's were underwhelming but not a total bust, and it's nice to have the trailer back.  And the only content you're missing out on across all the past editions, really, is that little Spamalot featurette and Dentists On the Job.  I also wouldn't recommend going back to buy that DVD just for that, though if you feel you must, you can surely get that super cheap, too.

If Sony really wanted to justify yet another edition down the road - and given their track record, they surely will - what I'd really like to see is all that mysterious "Holy Book of Days" content put on a second bonus disc that we can actually just watch like regular people, without trying to sync our blu-rays up to our ipads or whatever other ridiculous broken idea they had.  And maybe a new featurette with more legit Spamalot content, like a little footage of the Broadway show and interviews with the cast.  They could even go back and recover that little animated featurette, just to placate the obsessive completists.  I mean, if nothing else, the 50th Anniversary is going to hit us eventually; and I'd like to see something more than just novelty packaging and swag.

But yeah, in the meantime, the 40th Anniversary Edition is all you need.

1 comment:

  1. What a mess, thanks for detailing the editions!