Steven Spielberg's most personal film is a love letter to his family and the art form that has captivated him since childhood. Nominated for seven Oscars, The Fabelmans chronicles the formative years of Spielberg's alter ego Sam with warmth, grace, and insight, and features excellent performances from Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, and Judd Hirsch. A slick, vibrant, but not dazzling Dolby Vision transfer, top-notch audio, and a few above-average featurettes distinguish Universal's 4K UHD presentation of this touching, relatable, and impeccably mounted movie. Highly Recommended.
Much has been written about the autobiographical nature of The Fabelmans, director Steven Spielberg's thinly - and I mean thinly - veiled account of his childhood, middle-class family, and early passion for moviemaking. The names have been changed, but almost every episode in this elegantly crafted, deeply personal film comes straight out of Spielberg's formative years. Some of the vignettes feel a little self-indulgent, but Spielberg makes sure The Fabelmans is not just about his family, but about all our families and the dynamics, tensions, and agendas that shape each and every one. It's not a perfect film. It's not even one of Spielberg's best films. But the truth and reverence that course through it make it relatable and ensure its inclusion on the short list of this iconic director's most famous and enduring works.
Family dominates The Fabelmans, but from the opening scene, in which six-year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) attends his first movie with his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), film plays a large part in the story. And is there anyone better equipped than Spielberg to transmit all the emotion, power, and influence of motion pictures? From wonder, excitement, fear, and laughter to documenting events, capturing stolen moments, exposing hard, hidden truths, and creating an indelible illusion, all the magic, mirth, deception, and reality that make film such a fascinating medium are on full display.
Not only is Spielberg the man a vital element of The Fabelmans, so are the man's movies. You can't watch The Fabelmans without drawing parallels to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Super 8, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, and other Spielberg productions at various points in the plot. Weaving such an intricate tapestry is no easy task, but the script by Spielberg (his first since 2001's A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who also adapted West Side Story for Spielberg and wrote the screenplays for Spielberg's Munich (with Eric Roth) and Lincoln, deftly depicts how Spielberg's life influenced his movies.
Judaism has also profoundly influenced Spielberg and his work, and some of the best and most wrenching moments of The Fabelmans highlight the rituals of his faith and abhorrent anti-Semitic bullying a teenage Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) experiences when the family moves from Arizona to a wealthy suburb in Northern California in the early 1960s. The ignorance of Sam's fellow students, especially his Jesus-obsessed girlfriend (Chloe East), about Judaism is amusingly handled, but it's the religion's emphasis on family that really resonates, and Spielberg and Kushner beautifully and seamlessly stitch it into the drama.
My main gripe with The Fabelmans is its length. At two-and-a-half hours, it runs a good 20 minutes too long. The scenes with Sam and his girlfriend easily could have been trimmed, as well as several other sequences that supply atmosphere but don't propel the plot. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Spielberg to cut anything out of a film that's so deeply connected to his core, so it's tough to fault him for lingering a bit here and there, but like many movies these days, some judicious tightening would have improved the final product.
I also wish The Fabelmans focused a little more on Sam breaking into the film business. Perhaps my favorite scene in the picture is when Sam gets to meet legendary director John Ford (brilliantly played by director David Lynch), who gives him a gruff, very basic, yet highly influential tutorial about moviemaking. As a classic film buff myself, of course I ate up every minute of this stimulating sequence, which also made me pine for more in the same vein. Maybe if I'm lucky, Spielberg will make a sequel that chronicles Sam's early days in the industry and how he quickly rose through the ranks to become one of Hollywood's top directors. I'm usually not a huge fan of sequels, but that's one I would love to see.
All the performances are exceptional. Spielberg has always had a special rapport with child actors dating all the way back to Cary Guffey in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in E.T., and he gets terrific work out of Zoryan as the young Sammy. LaBelle must carry the bulk of the movie on his shoulders and rises to the challenge with an endearing, buoyant, and altogether believable portrayal of the teenage Sam. On the other end of the age spectrum, 86-year-old Judd Hirsch appears in only a couple of scenes, but maximizes every moment as Sammy's eccentric, brusque, black sheep uncle. His funny, blustery cameo justly earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and the distinction of being the oldest performer ever to be so honored.
Williams also nabbed a Best Actress nomination for her dimensional portrayal of the quirky, lively, passionate, and flawed Mitzi, who encourages Sam to pursue his dreams while sacrificing her own for her beloved family. It's a tricky part that easily could be overplayed, but Williams makes it real. Dano is equally good in a far less showy role, disappearing inside the mild-mannered, somewhat nerdy, and supremely devoted Burt, and in a rare dramatic turn Seth Rogen shines as the affable "Uncle" Bennie, a fixture in the Fabelman household who becomes a pivotal character in the family's story.
In all, The Fabelmans garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Music Score (John Williams), and Production Design. In an era of flash, fantasy, and violence, Spielberg fashions a nostalgic yet timeless film that celebrates life's core values, the passions that drive us, and the relationships that shape, inspire, propel, enrich, and torture us. Spielberg honors his family, but he doesn't sugarcoat them, and his fond, sometimes painful memories fuel our own.
The Fabelmans is a sweet, unassuming movie...nothing more. It won't change the world, but it reminds us how important and fragile our own little worlds are. Though he has made far more ambitious, thrilling, revelatory, and emotionally affecting pictures, The Fabelmans, due to its personal nature, will always be a special Spielberg film. And it just might turn out to be a Best Picture Oscar winner, too.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
The Fabelmans arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve with raised lettering. A leaflet containing the Movies Anywhere digital copy code is tucked inside the front cover and a 1080p Blu-ray disc of the film is included as well. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with Dolby Vision HDR and audio is Dolby TrueHD 7.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Spielberg employs different film stocks throughout The Fabelmans as Sam's talent as a moviemaker develops, and the 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with Dolby Vision HDR beautifully presents them. The vibrant, crystal clear picture may lack the wow factor of other movies presented in 4K UHD, but it maintains an essential film-like feel throughout and its muted color palette effectively transmits a subtle air of nostalgia. Grain is absent except during the 8mm and 16mm sequences, the clips of The Greatest Show on Earth and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance look terrific, and exceptional shadow delineation enhances many scenes. Despite the addition of Dolby Vision, hues lack that extra punch, although Williams' red lipstick and nail polish grab attention. Deep blacks, bright, stable whites, and natural flesh tones are other pluses and razor-sharp close-ups highlight pores, stubble and fine facial lines.
Amazingly, the 1080p Blu-ray transfer looks almost as good as its 2160p counterpart. The 4K UHD sports a richer look, slightly more intense color, and a bit more clarity, but the differences are surprisingly minor. I'd still favor the 4K UHD presentation, but if you don't want to shell out the extra bucks or don't yet have 4K UHD capability, you can't go wrong with the alternative.
The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track pumps out solid audio that showcases myriad nuances that enhance the drama. Surround activity is noticeable on occasion, but the rear speakers don't kick in as frequently as I would have liked. The howling wind, careening shopping carts, and windshield wiper noise during the tornado sequence are crisp, the various film sounds emanating from projectors, cameras, and editing equipment are marvelously distinct, and the gentle tapping of Williams' fingernails as she plays the piano are subtly juxtaposed against the music's rich tones. Sonic accents like slamming lockers, the pounding of a volleyball, fisticuffs, and shrieks punctuate the action, and excellent fidelity and tonal depth bring John Williams' delicate yet sweeping music score to brilliant life. No distortion creeps into the mix and no imperfections disrupt the purity of this effective, well-balanced track.
Three elegant, introspective featurettes add context to the film and shed light on its production.
Featurette: "The Fabelmans: A Personal Journey" (HD, 11 minutes) - In this intimate featurette, Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner discuss the genesis of the project and its title, the story's universal appeal and how it differs from autobiography, and the film's focus on Judaism and anti-Semitism. Spielberg calls the production process "a wicked, weird experience," but admits he wouldn't trade it for anything.
Featurette: "Family Dynamics" (HD, 15 minutes) - Spielberg talks about casting the various roles and Williams, Rogen, Dano, LaBelle, Hirsch, and several other actors relate how they approached their respective characters and express the awe, intimidation, and support they felt working with Spielberg from beginning to end.
Featurette: "Crafting the World of The Fabelmans" (HD, 22 minutes) - Production design, costumes, cinematography, editing, and music are the focus of this featurette, which also examines how various sequences were shot, the process of recreating Spielberg's home movies and 8mm films, and Spielberg's 50-year working relationship with composer John Williams.
The Fabelmans isn't Spielberg's best film, but this touching ode to his family and his craft will most likely stand as one of the director's defining works. Lovingly produced, well written, beautifully acted, and very relatable, The Fabelmans runs a bit long, but keeps us involved and deserves the slew of Oscar nods it received. Excellent video and audio transfers and a few engaging featurettes heighten the appeal of Universal's 4K UHD presentation of a future Spielberg classic. Highly Recommended.