Sony’s restored “The Mask of Zorro” scores on all fronts

Updated: May 11


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

(1) Zorro (Antonio Banderas) battles Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson). (2) Zorro is not just a great swordsman but has amazing acrobatic skills.


(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)




“THE MASK OF ZORRO”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1998; PG-13 for some intense action and violence; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu, YouTube (4K)

Best extra: Ported-over documentary “Unmasking Zorro” (digital & disc)







FROM THE opening moments of “The Mask of Zorro,” you’re in for a fabulous 4K watch. The restored picture, with striking clarity and elevated Dolby Atmos soundtrack, makes this late ‘90s swashbuckling adventure a top contender for one of the best 4K discs of the year so far.

For years Sony Pictures has been the Hollywood leader when it comes to 4K restoration of their library of movies captured on 35mm film stock. It can take more than a year to restore just one film. The upcoming “Lawrence of Arabia” — part of the first Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection, which will include five other films — took three years to finish, from scanning the 70mm film stock to full restoration with HDR.

The Spanish hero is played by Antonio Banderas, who grew up pretending to be the Robin Hood of Mexico. Director Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale”) relays on his commentary track how co-star Anthony Hopkins first turned down the role of the elder Zorro – a.k.a. Don Diego de la Vega — because of a bad back, and how producer Steven Spielberg spotted Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones while he was watching the TV mini-series “The Titanic.” She plays Elena, the kidnapped daughter of Don Diego, whom the evil Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) takes as a baby, kills her mother, and ends up raising her while imprisoning her father for two decades.


Fray Felipe (William Marquez) orders brothers Alejandro (José María de Tavira) and Joaquín (Diego Sieres) back to the mission. (2) The Mexican peasants are protesting the soon to be killing of three random people by the evil Don Rafael Montero. (3) Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) the corrupt governor of the region and his advisor Don Luiz (Tony Amendola). (4) Zorro - a.k.a. Don Diego de la Vega - surprises the two brothers.



Set in early 19th century Mexico and California, Montero rules the land with a wicked hand, killing peasants by firing squads. Fast forward 20-years later, and the film becomes the tale of the “old master and the young kid,” says Hopkins. Don Diego meets the former street urchin Alejandro, now played by Banderas, and trains him in the way of the legendary Zorro, from fencing to horsemanship. The chemistry between Banderas and Zeta-Jones is just right, which eventually led to a sequel, “Legend of Zorro” (2005). Campbell would direct, but the storyline doesn’t hold up and its box office was half of “The Mask Zorro,” which topped $250 million worldwide. Sony has also released “Legend” on 4K, but only on digital platforms.

VIDEO

Sourced from the original 35mm camera negative (2.39:1 aspect ratio) the 4K scan is top-notch with HDR10 toning that’s controlled from highlights during bright daylight scenes to deep blacks during night scenes and dark interiors. The colors are natural from facial toning to the warm palette. The only issue we found was a slight flicker in the darkest areas of the frame with the wide shots inside Don Diego's training cave. You can also see it selecting frame-by-frame via the remote. It's most obvious on the 4K disc and lesser on 4K digital via Movies Anywhere. On YouTube 4K where they've zapped most of the natural film grain, the flicker isn't noticeable and the same with the enclosed Blu-ray which is the same 2009 disc without 4K mastering.

A salute to Sony’s restoration team’s understanding of the importance of keeping the natural film grain intact, to ensure the highest clarity and sharpness.

AUDIO

The Oscar-nominated sound continues to provide a deep bass response, with the eight-channel Atmos soundtrack from explosions to pounding dance steps, while the sword fights choreographed by Bob Anderson (“The Princess Bride”) rings throughout your sound system – alone with James Horner’s active orchestrated score.


(1&2) Zorro leaves his mark on Don Rafael Montero while defending the peasants and commoners of Las Californias. (3) Alejandro and Joaquín get a necklace from Zorro. (4) A duel between Don Diego and Don Rafael. (4) Twenty years later a bounty hunter brings brothers Alejandro and Joaquín to Mexican authorities.





EXTRAS

The documentary included on digital platforms and the Blu-ray highlights the character’s history, starting with Johnston McCulley’s first 1919 Zorro pulp novel, “The Curse of Capistrano,” in which the word “Zorro” is translated from the Spanish as “fox,” for the “wily and clever character,” says Creative Director for Zorro Productions Sandra Curtis. At the time, McCulley and other pulp writers got paid just a penny a word, so they cranked out the novels to make a living, “while trying to create an incredible world of adventure for readers,” she says. A grand total of 66 Zorro stories were written, with the last one “The Mask of Zorro,” coming just before McCulley’s death in the late 1950s.

Silent star Mary Pickford suggested the story to her husband Douglas Fairbanks Sr. during their honeymoon cruise from New York to Europe, resulting in the first movie, “The Mark of Zorro” (1920). Zorro was a fantastic swordsman, a stunt rider and athlete, “he was also much more clever about defeating his enemies and humiliating them,” says Curtis. The film was a huge box office hit and inspired a whole genre for Fairbanks.

The project for “The Mask of Zorro” launched in 1991, as a joint screenplay project between John Gertz, President of Zorro Productions, and his screenwriter twin sister Nancy Larson. The first draft got varying offers from Hollywood studios, but once TriStar and Amblin Entertainment, owned by Spielberg, became attached, the film project started rolling. It went through many incarnations, as Spielberg was intimately involved in the development and conceptualization of the production and script, says executive producer Laurie MacDonald.


(1-3) Don Rafael returns to California with Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who's now a beautiful woman. (4) Escaped prisoner Don Diego spots his daughter Elena.





Campbell’s reinvention of the Bond series with “GoldenEye” (1995) starring Pierce Brosnan as the new 007, made him a top candidate to helm “Zorro.” He first examined the old movies and felt the script had the right balance between humor, adventure, and romance. “It has a great operatic quality,” says Campbell. Plus, the storyline had two heroes instead of one, and a strong woman character. The director had high praise for Banderas, who at the time had appeared in 52 films – mostly Spanish language, made in Spain – “who brims over with ideas and has a terrific Latin passion.”

Banderas remembers watching the adventures of Zorro on Saturday afternoons on the national channel in Spain, and afterward play-acting scenes with his brother. After nearly 40 productions from around the globe, Banderas would be the first Spanish actor to play Zorro. “It gave me a lot of good feeling just to be part of the movie,” he said.

Zeta-Jones tells how Martin Campbell had the final say whether she would get the role, and required a screen test in Mexico, “which was nerve-racking” she says. Within a few weeks, she had the job and started training in Mexico, where the movie was filmed, for sword fighting, dancing, horse-riding, and nailing the Spanish accent. “It was a bit of a whirlwind,” says Zeta-Jones.

The production designer, Cecilia Montiel, found two major haciendas in Mexico. One was 400 years old, and the other 500, which they restored to their original states for the production.

Producer David Foster said, no one could get any sleep during the shoot, thanks to the “sounds of clanking swords,” as Hopkins, Banderas, Zeta-Jones and Bob Anderson were training at all hours. Anderson had high praise for Banderas’ sword skill, saying, “he had all of the hallmarks of Fairbanks, but had a modern approach to it.”

The 4K disc includes 10-minutes of never-before-seen deleted scenes, but strangely in standard-def, and three trailers that look like they're in 4K, but without HDR.

Watching “The Mask of Zorro” only whets the appetite for more 4K wonders from the fine folks at Sony. Keep them coming.

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer


(1&2) Don Diego prepares to transform Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas) into the new Zorro. (3) Zorro steals a black stallion at a garrison and surprises the men. (4) Alejandro poses as nobleman Don Alejandro del Castillo y García and has a firey dance with Elena.





(1&2) Peasants and prisoners are used for slave labor at a secret gold mine "El Dorado" and Don Rafael plans to use the money from the gold to buy California from Santa Anna. (3) Elena duels Zorro. (4) Don Diego confronts Don Rafael, to tell Elena the truth about her mother and father.




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