The Inside Story on the Latest DVDs

The bonus material separates winners from losers

It's easy to see now, 27 years and three Academy Awards later, that The Godfather is a cinema classic. But watching the "making of" documentary included in the new The Godfather DVD collection shows you just how much of a crapshoot that first picture was. Young director Francis Ford Coppola was lucky to have secured the rights to Mario Puzo's book before it became a best-seller. Paramount Pictures second-guessed Coppola's casting, at one point suggesting that Marlon Brando, who would later win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Don Corleone, post a bond in case he got flighty during shooting. The studio, thinking it might need to replace Coppola in midfilm, even had a backup director follow him around.

Such are the juicy extras you get with DVDs. Sure, the picture and sound quality are great. And at around $20 per disc, the price is right. DVD marketing, though, has become a war of bonus material. Some is brilliant, a lot is little more than a commercial for the movie. To separate the good stuff from the fluff, I settled onto my couch and explored every last feature in a stack of major yearend releases. Here's what I found:

The Godfather set is a keeper. The five-disc package from Paramount, available for as little as $74.95, includes early screen tests of Brando, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro, who tried out for the Michael Corleone role Pacino made famous. There's also the Best Picture acceptance speech from the first film's producer, Al Ruddy, who bounds onstage in a brown satin tuxedo. Then you have the three films, which Coppola describes as Michael Corleone's journey from reluctant Mob soldier to angst-ridden crime boss. No movie library should be without this collection.

In terms of copies sold, Walt Disney's much-hyped Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will likely be the biggest winner this year. It deserves to be. The two-disc set (list price $29.99) includes kids' games, such as a trivia contest called Dopey's Wild Mine Ride. Adults will appreciate Barbra Streisand's rendition of Someday My Prince Will Come and a series of documentaries on the history of the Walt Disney Co. (DIS )

The 60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition of Pearl Harbor (Disney, $29.99) seems eerily appropriate in the wake of September 11. In addition to the film, the set includes two documentaries--one from the producers, the other from the History Channel. They reveal just how many scenes in the recent flick came from Pearl Harbor survivors. Viewers also get to see what 700 sticks of dynamite and 3,000 gallons of gasoline in plastic garbage cans look like before they explode. One note to collectors: In May, Disney will release another version with commentary from director Michael Bay and an additional documentary from National Geographic. It'll cost $20 more.

For the right combination of technical achievement and good entertainment, Shrek (Dreamworks, $26.99) is the best bet. The two-disc set, when played on a computer, includes a karaoke-like feature that lets you record your own voice and dub it over characters' lines from the movie. Classic-film fans should get Citizen Kane (Warner Bros., $29.99). The set includes a documentary on Orson Wells' battle with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst that is almost as enjoyable as the movie.

Barbie in the Nutcracker (Artisan, $19.98) might make a good stocking stuffer. Although the movie is rather slow and humorless, it is visually stunning, a tribute to what computer image generation can do. The disc includes a special feature that lets kids act along with scenes from the movie.

Among the crop of new releases are two to avoid: Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace (Fox, $29.98) and Jurassic Park III (Universal, $26.98). The fourth Star Wars picture is an overwrought snoozer. Watching the bonus features clues you in to just how much money director George Lucas had to burn. Lucas finished scenes he had already cut from the movie--and put them on the disc. Jurassic Park III is visually striking, and the disc contains a lot of discussion about creating the special effects. Too bad the computers couldn't generate a better script.

By Christopher Palmeri

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