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Grey Owl

"Grey Owl" on DVD

Dances With Beavers

by Jim Bray

Richard Attenborough's "Grey Owl" is a biopic similar in many ways to his 1980's epic "Gandhi." It tells the true life story of Archie Grey Owl, a 1930's-vintage Indian trapper and guide who came to fame as one of the first environmental activists.

Grey Owl is a lot more than that, however. He's an author and a man with a secret past he doesn't want discovered, and that colors his life and affects his relationships with those closest to him, including his wife "Pony."

The Grey Owl character wasn't always a "tree hugger," (well, beaver hugger). He has an epiphany when he thinks one of the baby beavers his wife's raising (after he killed its mother) gets caught in one of his traps, and he decides to "study trapping no more." He then becomes a tireless activist against civilization's encroaching upon the wilderness, a calling that takes him across Canada and to England to present his arguments before thousands of fans.

Why it's okay for beavers to cut down trees and dam rivers yet it isn't okay for humans to do the same thing (despite both species being part of the same "circle of life") isn't explained. Then again, Grey Owl lived before most people had thought of environmentalism, let alone sustainable development...

But I digress...

Grey Owl was filmed mostly in Quebec, Canada (with a few sequences lensed in England), in some truly beautiful locations. Attenborough has given the film an epic look and feel, and it's easy to see why Archie Grey Owl would want to live in these lovely landscapes - and would fight to protect them.

Pierce Brosnan turns in an excellent performance in the title role. He's believable as the outdoorsman living off the land, as the reluctant lover, and as the traveling lecturer with the ecological message. This is not James Bond in skins; it's a full and subtle performance from an actor who's much better than most of his roles require him to be. The cast also includes newcomer Annie Galipeau as Archie's wife "Pony," and she was an inspired casting choice. She's authentic, earnest, and lovely, and she holds her own very well next to Brosnan.

Grey Owl is, in essence, a loving portrait of a misfit who followed - and found - his dream. It's also a loving look at the native North American society, much like "Dances With Wolves" was, that portrays the "Red Indians" as noble and civilized rather than as the "savage redskins" of many movie portrayals.

The widescreen "Special Edition" DVD is in Dolby 5.1 surround and the quality of the picture and sound are top notch. The French soundtrack is also offered in Dolby Digital 5.1, which is a nice touch.

The layer change on this dual layer DVD wasn't handled particularly well, however; on our reference DVD player (a mid-line Sony), the disc froze for about fifteen seconds before picking up where it left off and continuing on as if nothing had happened.

We've noticed this problem on a few other discs ("Amistad" was particularly bad) and it concerns us a bit. Why they would even need to use both layers of the disc for a film that runs 118 minutes is unknown. Sure, there are enough extras on the "Grey Owl" DVD to require the extra storage space, but why break up the movie? Why not use one layer for the film and the other for the extras?

We don't know. Perhaps it has something to do with having both English and French Dolby Digital soundtracks. Whatever the reason, the interruption ended up being almost as bad as the inevitable flipping over of sides on laserdiscs.

As mentioned, Columbia Tristar Home Video also loads plenty of extras onto the disc. There's a fascinating commentary by director Sir Richard Attenborough (and another one by producer Jake Eberts), bios/filmographies of the cast and crew, 2 featurettes on the genesis of the movie, a "Grey Owl trivia game" (which is, indeed, quite trivial), teaser/trailer, and captioning.

An unexpected, but very welcome, bonus is the inclusion of two vintage shorts on the real Grey Owl, filmed in the 1930's, that are very interesting.

There's also a bunch of DVD ROM stuff, including a copy of the complete screenplay that offers access to scenes in the finished film. You also get excerpts from the illustrated book "The Making of Richard Attenborough's Grey Owl," a biography of the real guy himself, a screensaver/wallpaper thingy, and more.

It's a very complete package worthy of such a fine and, unfortunately, underappreciated on its initial release, film.

Grey Owl, from Columbia Tristar Home Video
118 minutes, Widescreen (2.35:1), Dolby Digital
Starring Pierce Brosnan, Annie Galipeau,
Produced by Jake Eberts and Richard Attenborough, Screenplay by William Nicholson,
Directed by Richard Attenborough


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Updated May 13, 2006