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The Original Christmas Classics Gift Set(TV) (1964-1970)
See individual titles for their synopses.
Three-disc set includes "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964), "Frosty the Snowman" (1969) and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" (1970). "Frosty Returns" (1992) is available as a bonus feature as well, albeit presented in standard definition with lossy audio.
For more about The Original Christmas Classics Gift Set and the The Original Christmas Classics Gift Set Blu-ray release, see the The Original Christmas Classics Gift Set Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on October 18, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Paul Frees, Burl Ives, Billy De Wolfe, Mickey Rooney, Stan Francis, Keenan Wynn
Narrators: Jimmy Durante, Fred Astaire
Directors: Arthur Rankin, Jr., Jules Bass
This Blu-ray bundle includes the following titles, see individual titles for specs and details:
The Original Christmas Classics Gift Set Blu-ray Review
A trio of remastered holiday favorites in one convenient little package...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, October 18, 2010
The names Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass may not mean anything to upstart cinephiles or children of the '90s (who, to the chagrin of thirty and forty-somethings everywhere, are currently circling college), but for those of us who've succumbed to Christmas' gravitational pull over the last three or four decades, the names Rankin and Bass are synonymous with classic holiday television specials; annual animated institutions like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. Whether it's Burt Ives singing "Silver and Gold," Jackie Vernon exclaiming "Happy Birthday" or Robie Lester grumbling "Burgermeister Meisterburger," those who've been raised on such indispensable Rankin/Bass holiday specials have a visceral reaction to every voice, song and quotable quote that graces each one. See for yourself. "A toy is never truly happy until it is loved by a child." Feel something stirring deep inside? "Whew! Stay in here much longer and I'll really make a splash in the world." Feel that smile creeping across your face? "Toys are hereby declared illegal, immoral, unlawful! And anyone found with a toy in his possession will be placed under arrest and thrown in the dungeon. No kidding!" Grinning? Chuckling? Hearing sleigh bells deep within the snowy recesses of your brain? Then this Rankin/Bass Christmas collection from Classic Media, despite its faults, is most definitely for you and yours.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer isn't just the first Rankin/Bass animated television special, it remains one of the since-retired studio's finest. Based on the 1949 Johnny Marks Christmas song of the same name, Rudolph is as fresh today as it was when it graced the airwaves in 1964. Times have changed, sure. A half-century has passed, no doubt. But young children still struggle with the same feelings of inadequacy, the same fear of failure, the same budding desire for individuality that haunted their parents in grade school. (Anyone who's spent even ten minutes with How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3 or really any other modern animated film will know exactly what I mean.) On its surface, the story itself is almost as simple as Marks' song -- Rudolph (voiced by Billie Mae Richards), a ridiculed reindeer with a shiny red nose, runs away from home with another outcast, a day-dreaming elf named Hermey (Paul Soles) who'd rather be a dentist than a toy-maker, and learns that being different isn't a hurdle, but rather a blessing worth embracing -- while its sing-songy depths, from commercial break to commercial break, is never short on colorful characters or memorable tunes.
Who doesn't remember feisty prospector Yukon Cornelius (Larry Mann) and his indomitable spirit? Who doesn't have a soft spot in their hearts for Rankin and Bass' hard-working but short-sighted Santa (Stan Francis), Hermey's irritable supervisor (Carl Banas) or the fearsome Abominable Snow Monster? Who isn't well acquainted with the soul-piercing sting of the Island of Misfit Toys, the warmth that exudes from Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives, who narrates the tale) or the joy that comes when Rudolph finally wins the respect of his fellow reindeer? Who hasn't sat with baited breath hoping Rudolph would earn the affection of Clarice (Janet Orenstein), prove his worth to his own father (Paul Kligman) and light the way for Santa's sleigh? Who can't sing a few lines from "Jingle Jingle Jingle," "We're a Couple of Misfits," "Silver and Gold" or "There's Always Tomorrow?" Sentiment, nostalgia, tradition... whatever the allure, Rudolph is a tried-and-true Christmas season essential; one parents continue to share with their children year in and year out.
Is it any wonder though? With a healthy dose of iceberg-hopping adventure and heart-melting life lessons lying in wait around every corner, the special still shines, even by today's standards. Its pacing isn't just polished, it's nearly impeccable. The story doesn't slow down for a second, yet never feels hurried or rushed; it rockets along with purpose, but never lurches or stalls; and steadily builds toward a satisfying three-pronged climax without crumbling beneath the weight of its many interweaving subplots. Its music isn't just festive, it's infectious, meaningful and, dare I say, unforgettable. Its animation, quaint and stocky as it may strike modern animation fans, isn't just endearing, but continues to entertain children of all ages with an avalanche of expressive faces, charming character designs, grandiose set pieces and flights of stop-motion fancy. And it does it all without relying on complex sleight-of-hand or genre-skewing subtext. No, dear readers, it's Rudolph's enchanting simplicity and disarming sincerity that allows it to resonate, stir up genuine emotions and elicit both shivers and cheers some forty-six years after its debut. No small feat in a society where each passing Christmas season seems busier than the last.
Frosty the Snowman hasn't aged as gracefully as Rudolph -- its narrative drags a bit, its songs sometimes seem like an afterthought and its characters, save Frosty (Jackie Vernon) and his nemesis (a selfish magician voiced by Billy De Wolfe), are rather interchangeable -- but in the hearts and minds of its faithful devotees, the 1969 hand-drawn Rankin/Bass TV special is as much a part of the holidays as its Red-Nosed predecessor. Inspired by the popular Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson song of the same name, Frosty tells the somewhat sluggish tale of a snowman brought to life by a magical hat. But even at twenty-five short minutes, the special struggles to stretch the original song into a compelling story. There are rosy cheeked children, rebellious white rabbits, evil magicians and friendly woodland creatures galore, but writer Romeo Muller neglects to fill out the simple-minded snowman's world (at least to the extent he did when penning Rudolph's script). That's not to say the entire special falls flat or lacks that patented Rankin/Bass holiday magic, just that it doesn't hold up as well as more nostalgic tinsel-towners might expect.
What does work? Frosty's colorful, hand-drawn animation -- painterly pastels, fluid lineart and all -- captures the humble charisma of its bustling schoolyards, snowy forests and hearthy greenhouses. Though a tad dated (Professor Hinkle's shifting facial hues are a telltale sign of the special's age), it's tough to resist its energy and even tougher to resist its late '60s moxie. Bass and Rankin's voice cast delivers as well. June Foray grabs hold of each scene with notable exuberance, singer and comedian Jimmy Durante is pitch-perfect as the special's narrator and Wolfe is a devious old cuss worthy of his character's villainous status. (Vernon does well with what little he's given too, even if his dim-witted snowman, at least as written, isn't the engaging protagonist or magical macguffin he could be.) Moreover, Frosty's runtime isn't indulgent or tiresome. More digestible than some later Rankin/Bass specials (The Year Without a Santa Claus comes to mind), its story wraps just before wearing out its welcome and rarely extends sequences beyond their limit. If it sounds like I'm being hard on Frosty though, it's only because it doesn't stand shoulder to shoulder with Rudolph and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. Original classic? Definitely. As I mentioned, it's as much apart of the Christmas season canon as its status suggests. Timeless classic? Not by my estimation. Sorry to crack any fragile snow globes, but its cute, classy demeanor is a fitting treat once a year, no more.
Santa Claus is Comin' to Town is even smarter and sharper than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. No, kids won't be as enthralled with its sly, decade-spanning origin tale, and no, its individual characters and storylines aren't quite as captivating as Rudolph, Hermey and the North Pole's misfit toys. But its nimble deconstruction of the Claus mythos, as well as its clever approach to long-established holiday folklore, makes it a more playful film than its Rankin/Bass progenitor. When the cantankerous mayor of Sombertown, Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees), outlaws toys, it's up to an orphan to restore the village's Christmas spirit. The orphan? Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney), an affable boy adopted by elves and forced to contend with the stubborn mayor, the malevolent Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) and the waning hopes and dreams of the Sombertown denizens. Along the way, seeds are planted and threads are spooled. Bass and Rankin's go-to writer, Romeo Muller, unravels Clausian mysteries, dissects the development of Kringle's selflessness and even tracks the evolution of the once-and-future Santa's hearty laugh, bearded face, crew of elven helpers and North Pole residency, all with breezy winks and nods to stories children have taken for granted for years.
Claus' voice performances and elaborate stop-motion animation are remarkable (particularly for a 1970 television special), but it's the film's carefully constructed dialogue and shrewd storytelling that steal the show. Muller, Rankin and Bass let loose, toying with the conventions of Christmas and embracing everything that makes the season's enduring legends so much fun. They tackle everything from the inconsequential (Santa's resounding ho-ho-ho) to the fundamental (Kringle's drive and motivation) with glee, and even manage to make it all feel like an organic extension of the mythology at large. Kris' red suit invites scorn and distrust before it earns its place in Christmas lore. His beard comes from his need for a disguise. He finds a secondary use for chimneys, earns the loyalty of his trusty flying steeds and hones in on the one day of the year best suited to worldwide toy distribution. In fact, Muller, Rankin and Bass handle each development with such precision that it's difficult to separate their vision of St. Nick from his widely accepted incarnation after watching Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. And yet their deconstruction is never pretentious, unwieldy or unfocused. Plot progression sizzles, pacing is spot on, humor and heart are layered within every scene, a darker ending lends the special a fittingly epic tone and plenty of family friendly hijinks will keep children as engrossed as their parents.
Ultimately, Classic Media's Original Christmas Classic Gift Set lives up to its name with three holiday staples. And while Frosty the Snowman isn't as potent or poignant as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, it remains an indelible special treasured in homes the world over. With DVD-trouncing video transfers, lossless audio mixes and an enticing pricepoint, this one's a no-brainer.
The Original Christmas Classics Gift Set Blu-ray, Video Quality
Of the three 1080p/AVC-encoded transfers in the Christmas Classics Gift Set, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's polished presentation fares the best. While not as crisp or fittingly grainy as Warner's impressive lineup of holiday special releases (A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Year Without a Santa Claus among them), the Blu-ray edition of Rudolph still thoroughly trumps every DVD to date and, minor issues notwithstanding, weathers the film's forty-six years well. Colors are sublimely saturated, Santa-suit reds and snow-brushed evergreens are delightful, black levels are spot on and contrast is warm and pleasing throughout. Detail is revealing as well (despite the prevailing softness that permeates the source and some slight noise reduction used to occasionally tame the special's grain). Closeups of the Rankin/Bass models look great -- individual hairs, the texture of Sam's face and beard, the fibers in Hermey and his supervisor's jackets, the Bumble's wily fur and a number of other elements look fantastic -- and wider shots don't suffer at the hands of any egregious problems. Artifacting, banding, aliasing and other anomalies are nowhere to be found, print blemishes are kept to a workable minimum and the whole of the presentation is well worth the cost of admission.
The biggest point of contention is Rudolph's color timing. Yukon Cornelius' wooly coat, for years a bright blue, is suddenly, undeniably, unabashedly green. It isn't a deal breaker by any means, and it may very well be in line with the original source, but it took a few minutes to overwrite years of nostalgia. It's worth noting that the various Yukon Cornelius toys, stuffed dolls and merchandising tie-ins over the years have all sported a blue coat, making this an obvious distraction that may give Rudolph purists pause. Regardless, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has never looked better and -- unless a larger studio acquires its rights and invests considerable funds into a complete restoration -- probably never will.
Unfortunately, Frosty the Snowman's transfer is the runt of the Christmas Classics remastered litter. It too looks significantly better than its various broadcast and DVD incarnations -- its animated palette is brighter and bolder, its lineart sharper, its blacks deeper, its print blemishes more contained and its presentation more proficient than ever before -- but several oddities are sure to raise red flags. Pulldown irregularities produce brief bursts of horizontal lines (small patches of white stripes that flicker along the edges of characters during quick movements), color fills are a bit unstable and prone to arguably negligible blocking, minor banding is apparent from time to time and the special's grain has been subdued with a measured application of noise reduction. It isn't overly disappointing, but it is less than ideal. Compared to Warner's treatment of the Charlie Brown holiday specials (whose source materials are also fairly soft), Frosty's finer qualities simply aren't as distinct or distinguished as they could be. Don't get me wrong, Classic Media has paid remarkable respect to the 1969 television special's humble roots, but a fuller overhaul would have resulted in a less problematic presentation.
Santa Claus is Comin' To Town falls somewhere in between. Like Rudolph, its colors are lovely, its shadows are dark and organic, its closeups highlight the hand-stitched care that went into each Rankin/Bass doll and the high definition encode, more often than not, doesn't stumble. Details emerge that I've never noticed before and the meticulously crafted North Pole set pieces shine in all their homespun glory. The film may be rapidly approaching its fortieth birthday, but Classic Media has rendered concerns about its age moot. However, like Frosty, a few lingering technical issues undermine its integrity. Errant pulldown mishaps sometimes spoil the fun (although not nearly as often as they do in Frosty), faint artifacts pop up here and there, Santa's surviving grain is still a bit soupy compared to similar Warner releases from the same era, and print damage is a tad more intrusive than it is in the other Christmas Classics specials.
While I doubt anyone will make too much of a fuss over the three presentations in this collection -- particularly Rudolph's -- the transfers aren't as immune to criticism as they could be. Would Warner have produced more reliable encodes? Probably. Would it have made a significant difference? Probably not. Those with larger displays and trained eyes will grumble more than others, but even the most hardened videophiles will shrug off each fault in an effort to reconnect with their childhoods. All told, the Christmas Classics Gift Set, imperfect as it may be, deserves to find its way onto many a holiday wish list.
The Original Christmas Classics Gift Set Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town charms with comparable, entirely competent Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks. They aren't transformative, they aren't invigorating sonic standouts. No, these are simply faithful, consistent, surefire mixes that do a commendable job rejuvenating each Rankin/Bass classic. From the outset, the biggest complaint audiophiles will have concerns the lack of rear speaker activity. Small touches and wintry flourishes are present, but not exactly engaging or enveloping. Faint ambience and tempered soundtrack support is appreciated, but rarely involving. Be that as it may, I'll take three somewhat flat television remixes (that originated in the '60s and '70s, mind you) over three flashy but superficial 5.1 misfires any day of the week. Directionality is non-existent as well, but again, it hardly matters. Likewise, voices don't sound as if they were recorded yesterday, but it would take a Christmas miracle to get anything more out of each film's original elements. If you hadn't guessed it, approaching each special with appropriate expectations is key.
That's not to suggest Rudolph, Frosty or Santa set their bars low. Dialogue is relatively clean, clear and decently prioritized, and only a hint of unfortunate noise and hiss creeps into the mixes. Sound effects, music and lyrics are festive and fulfilling, and nary a melody goes by that doesn't resonate (if not in the ear, at least in the soul). Low-end support is primarily reserved for more aggressive sequences -- Rudolph's abominable attacks and Santa Claus' more harrowing scenes take welcome advantage of the LFE channel -- but still lends just enough weight and heft to each film to make its lossless presence known. Rudolph, Frosty and Santa Claus sound like products of the '60s, sure. But they've never sounded better than they do here. Frankly, I seriously doubt they ever will.
The Original Christmas Classics Gift Set Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Classic Media's 4-disc Christmas Classics set doesn't include any special features per se, but it does offer two bonuses: the oft-panned 1992 Frosty the Snowman pseudo-sequel, Frosty Returns (SD, 23 minutes), and an audio CD with seven holiday favorites sung by the likes of Burt Ives, Brenda Lee, the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jimmy Durante and Bobby Helms. Unfortunately, Frosty Returns is presented in standard definition with lossy audio (hardly a deal-breaker since the special itself isn't remotely good).
The Original Christmas Classics Gift Set Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Yes, the Blu-ray editions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Comin to Town offer holiday filmfans the very best AV presentation of each film to date. Yes, the differences between Classic Media's remastered releases and previous DVD versions are both substantial and apparent. And yes, snagging all three lovingly remastered Christmas gems for less than thirty bucks is a steal. Several video anomalies will give some viewers pause, but in the grand scheme of things, the collection's shortcomings aren't distracting enough to issue any serious storm warnings. I was quite pleased with the overall package and I have a feeling most of you will be too.
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