Release Date(s)2022 (February 14, 2023)
Studio(s)Amblin/Reliance Entertainment (Universal Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Steven Spielberg has given us many memorable films, among them Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List. His most recent, The Fabelmans, a fiction based on Spielberg’s early life, shows how a young boy’s fascination with cinema leads him on a dedicated career path.
As a young kid, Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) accompanies his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) to the movies and is so impressed by a staged train wreck in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth that he duplicates the event over and over with his own model trains. Concerned about damage from these repeated crashes, his mother suggests that he film one last crash so that he can enjoy it whenever he pleases without doing the expensive train set permanent harm. The results spark an intense interest in moviemaking, and Sammy frequently uses his home movie camera to make short, scripted movies with his friends and sisters, replete with special effects.
Burt is an engineer in the burgeoning field of computing. Mitzi is a talented pianist who gave up potential fame to be a full-time housewife and mother to their four kids. Burt and Mitzi’s close friend Bennie (Seth Rogan) is ever present and later causes a rift in the family.
As a teenager, Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) moves on to bigger cameras, creates ever more elaborate special effects, motivates his actor friends to elicit emotion, edits his footage to maximize visual impact, and devises techniques to enhance production values. Burt regards Sammy’s involvement with film as a mere hobby but Mitzi recognizes his need to express his creativity and never wavers in her support. A brief visit by Mitzi’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) is significant. A colorful character with an atypical past, Boris recognizes a kindred spirit in Sammy and encourages him to pursue his dream. Later, in editing his footage of a family trip, Sammy discovers an unpleasant truth and recognizes that film can reveal secrets.
Williams is excellent as a woman devoted to family and frustrated by a life that might have been. Mitzi is a devoted mother and tells Sammy at one point, “You do what your heart says you have to. ‘Cause you don’t owe anyone your life. Not even me.” Williams’ ability to project a cheerful manner, genuine laughter at the smallest things, and pure joy of being with family create a warm, though complex, character. Williams has such wonderful expressions that the viewer can see into Mitzi’s thoughts, frustrations, unhappiness and conflicted feelings.
Dano’s Burt is soft-spoken, seldom raising his voice or losing his temper. Seemingly consumed by work, he puts his career first, uprooting the family as his job demands relocation even though this presents hardships for them. Lacking the warmth of Mitzi, Burt appears only half present when he’s in the same room with his wife and kids.
Rogan’s Bennie is the beneficent big lug of the story with his wide smile, humor, and generosity. He makes Mitzi happy and she enjoys having him around. In another film, Bennie might be portrayed as the bad guy—a virtual home wrecker—but in Spielberg’s story, there are no villains. The screenplay by Spielberg and Tony Kushner treats the character of Bennie with kid gloves. He’s a nice guy who has become a mainstay of the family and even gets Sammy a costly camera upgrade.
Judd Hirsch has only one scene in The Fabelmans but makes the most of it. With a heavy Eastern European accent, broad hand gestures, and an impassioned delivery, he embodies a true individualist. Boris is the family outlier—the one who dared to traverse an unusual path and join the circus. Boris understands that Sammy’s creativity must be nurtured. Hirsch’s performance is both humorous and touching.
The screenplay by Spielberg and Tony Kushner shows Sammy’s growing fascination with filmmaking as the Fabelman family dynamic plays out. Balancing humor and pathos, it moves briskly and never feels padded despite its 2 1/2-hour running time. With big studio films of late dealing with fantasy and comic book characters, it’s refreshing to see a story about real people. As co-writers, Spielberg and Kushner have fashioned an engaging script.
The Fabelmans was shot by director of photography Janusz Kaminski on 8 mm, 16 mm, and 35 mm film with Arri Alexa Mini LF, Arriflex 16 ST, Arriflex 416, and Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 cameras with Panavision PVintage and Panavision Primo lenses. One scene was captured digitally in the ARRIRAW (4.5K). All of it was finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image on the Blu-ray is sharp, with excellent detail. Sammy’s home movies vary in quality and lack the brilliance of the main footage, reflecting his increasingly ambitious attempts with small-gauge home movie film. Contrast is excellent, and compositions varied and interesting. A high school beach party and dance feature scores of extras choreographed to look natural. Scenes of Sammy laboring over an editing machine show a glow on his face that helps illustrate his fascination with the process. The color palette is varied. A sequence showing Sammy and his friends making a war movie is shot under bright sunlight. Interiors reflect normal household lighting from lamps and overhead fixtures.
The soundtrack is English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD. Other options are Spanish 7.1 Dolby Digital+, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and English 2.0 DVS (Descriptive Video Service). Subtitle options include English SDH, Spanish, and French. Dialogue is clear and distinct in all scenes. Judd Hirsch uses an Eastern European accent but every word can be understood. Key sound effects include a model Lionel train chugging along, a homemade, staged crash, imaginative special effects created by Sammy, crowd applause when Sammy shows his film of the high school beach party, ambient noise at the dance, and a well-placed punch to a character’s face. John Williams’ score is evocative, suggesting sentiment, longing, and a feeling of nostalgia.
Universal's 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack contains a Digital Code on a paper insert, as well as the following bonus materials in HD:
- The Fabelmans: A Personal Journey (11:00)
- Family Dynamics (15:28)
- Crafting the World of The Fabelmans (22:04)
The Fabelmans: A Personal Journey – Steven Spielberg talks about the genesis of The Fabelmans and its basis in his formative years. The idea came to him during the COVID-19 lockdown, when he thought it was time for him to make a personal film. He asked Tony Kushner to collaborate on the screenplay because he knows Kushner well and was able to open up to him about events in his youth. Kushner refers to their collaboration as “the most pleasurable writing experience.” The film isn’t a vanity mirror but a communal mirror that touches on universal themes and is a reflection of different American families with their combination of funny and tragic moments. Spielberg alludes to the time, as a 16-year-old, when he stopped looking at his mother as a parent and saw her as a person.
Family Dynamics – Cast members Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch and others discuss working on the film and having access to Spielberg’s own home movies to see the people they were portraying. For the role of Sammy, Spielberg was looking for an actor who was better-looking than he was at that age and more attractive to girls. Actor Gabriel LaBelle was very inquisitive and a “control freak,” much like Spielberg. Rogan, according to Spielberg, is a fine dramatic actor although known primarily for his many comedies, and Hirsch’s performance is a “show stopper.” Referring to director Spielberg, Paul Dano notes, “He’s letting you into how he sees the world.”
Crafting the World of The Fabelmans – Key crew personnel, including the production designer, costume designer, director of photography, and editor discuss their contributions to the film and their working relationship with Spielberg. Special attention is paid to musical scorer John Williams, then 90 years old, who has been collaborating with Spielberg for 50 years. Spielberg declares that The Fabelmans is the “most personal movie of my career.”
The Fabelmans is a coming-of-age film, a time capsule of the 1950s and 1960s, a character study of strong-willed individuals, and a valentine to the magic of moviemaking. Impeccably cast, well written, and beautifully shot, it takes its inspiration from Spielberg’s early years while dealing with the highs and lows of an American family.
- Dennis Seuling