Long ago, The Princess Bride was borne as a loving spoof of beloved fantasy tales, but somewhere along its three-plus decades, a wonderful thing happened. Viewers latched onto its gentle humor, quotable dialogue, sharp performances, and cheerfully retro aesthetic. It became beloved in its own right. Now, parents pass The Princess Bride down to their kids, who will some day pass it along to theirs. Along that journey, Bride passes the truest test of an all-time classic: It doesn’t just hold up–it actually improves.
Based on the book, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, The “Good Parts Version (William Goldman adapts his own work), the film frames its blustery fantasy around a delightful subplot: A sick young boy (Fred Savage) is bundled in bed, and listens to his rascally grandfather (Peter Falk) engage in a spirited reading of the book. The grandson is rightfully skeptical of this dusty old relic. I mean, it’s probably loaded with cooties and kissing, right? Still, this is a tale well told, and as the boy gets hooked on the story, so do we.
That story takes us to the fictional kingdom of Florin, set in a time of chainmail and goblets of mead. Out in the rolling countryside, beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright) lives with her loyal farm boy. Every time Buttercup works up a menial task, Westley (Cary Elwes) delivers the same response: “As you wish.” Over the years, she begins to realize his dutiful devotion is nothing less than love. As she gazes into his puppy dog eyes, Buttercup happily realizes she loves him right back.
Unfortunately, it can never be that easy in a fairy tale. Fate soon parts the loving couple, and the years pass. Westley is rumored to have been killed at sea, by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Crestfallen, Buttercup tearfully vows to never love again.
Of course, haughty Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) decides to ignore that statement. He proposes to Buttercup, and she has no choice but to accept. Humperdinck arrogantly assures her that love will come to her in time. How could it not? Seriously, the Prince is almost as gorgeous as he thinks he is. Even though she’s betrothed to royalty, Buttercup still lives in a lovesick haze for her long-lost Westley.
Humperdinck and Buttercup’s engagement is short-lived. One night, three ruffians steal away the would-be princess and race to the open sea. These swarthy bandits are quite the disparate group: Fezzik (Andre the Giant) is a man-mountain with a penchant for rhyme. Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) is an accomplished fencer with a genial personality and a burning vendetta. Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), the leader and self-appointed brains of the group, loves to hear himself blather.
As the group attempts to flee to a neighboring kingdom, they notice a ship stalking them through the night. They make landfall, and a mystery man gives them chase. Dressed in Zorro black, this unknown character seems to have the skills to beat each of Buttercup’s abductors. He also has a secret agenda, all his own.
If you haven’t seen Bride yet, I don’t want to spoil any more of it for you. Part of this film’s enchantment lies in the sheer silliness of its winding story. You may find yourself chuckling at just how much Goldman’s story drunkenly wanders on and off the beaten path.
Bride gains even more magic from its star-making performances. Elwes is perfectly cast as Westley, the hunky farm hand who’ll do anything for love. (And unlike Meatloaf, he will do that.) Patinkin gets the role–and speech–of a lifetime as the revenge-bound Inigo Montoya. Shawn’s nasal honk matches perfectly with his character’s snooty outbursts. (Once you’ve seen this movie, “inconceivable” might just enter your permanent vocabulary.) Andre the Giant brings real poignancy to his hulking bodyguard. Finally, Billy Crystal and Carol Kane nearly walk off with the whole damn production, as a kvetchy witch doctor and his loud-mouth wife.
More than anything, The Princess Bride feels like one of those old-school movies they just don’t make anymore: Many of the backdrops are matte paintings. Some of the sets are obviously on a soundstage. The special effects are simple and practical. All this brings forth strong analog vibes, kinda like the smell of a vinyl album or touch of a leather-bound book. Sure, Bride pokes fun at those hokey fairy tales that whisk you to a world of monsters, sword fights, and–damn it all–kissing. But along that journey, this film does exactly what all great fairy tales do: It makes you feel like a kid all over again.
98 min. PG. Disney+.