By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 12:00 AM
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" earned 12 Academy Award nominations for its sprawling, ambitious story about a man coming of age by growing up backwards. But there is another "Benjamin Button"-related narrative that is equally compelling, multi-faceted and -- with a running time of nearly three hours -- lengthy.
That's "The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button," the exceptional making-of documentary that serves as the centerpiece of the two-disc, Criterion Collection edition of the film, out today on DVD and Blu-ray ($39.99). Virtually every element in the evolution of the David Fincher drama is documented here, from the project's attachment to numerous other directors during the 1990s (including Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard), to its shoot in 2006 and 2007 on the steamy streets of New Orleans, to its complex, CGI-intensive postproduction process.
When I say that no detail goes untouched, I'm really not joking. Want to know how Cate Blanchett's head was superimposed on a ballet dancer's body for some key, pirouette-filled vignettes? Done. Curious about how they made that freakish, wrinkled animatronic Benjamin Button baby? Covered. Want to watch Brad Pitt perform with glowing-green, motion capture spackle all over his face? (And honestly, who doesn't?) Once again, you're all set. Of course, viewers who prefer not to scrutinize any of the movie's pixie dust may be better off skipping "The Curious Birth" since it strips away much of the motion picture's seamless magic. But for cinema buffs who, like me, appreciate certain films even more once they see the gears inside the machine, viewing this documentary will be an enlightening, thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Given their commitment to classy, exhaustive DVDs, it's no surprise that Criterion dishes out even more extras in addition to that comprehensive doc. Those include some additional featurettes, photo galleries and a commentary track from the always opinionated, often engaging Fincher. In it, the "Fight Club" filmmaker shares his pet peeves (he can't stand the flyaway hairs on Blanchett's auburn-colored wig), some advice (never cast twin infants in a movie) and choice revelations (the baby Pitt holds in one scene is actually his own daughter, Shiloh, because the tiny actress originally cast in the role cried incessantly in his presence).
Some critics understandably found "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" a bit heavy on schmaltz and low on substance. But I suspect most would agree that the film stands as a remarkable technical feat. And as a document of all the creativity, compromise and computer wizardry involved in achieving that feat, this DVD is unparalleled.
Juiciest Bonus Point: "The Birth of Benjamin Button" introduces viewers to Lola, the effects shop responsible for digitally enhancing the faces of Pitt and Blanchett so that in some scenes, they look 20 years younger than they actually are. But visual effects supervisor Edson Williams also notes that the company is usually hired to do "digital facelifts" for actors who, um, need a little extra help. "It has been great working on this project because we can actually tell people what we're doing," Williams says. "Most of the work we do is so secretive, we can't tell anyone."