"Santa's Magical Stories" A Semi-Magical DVD Set
Santa’s Magical Stories is another big Warner Bros. Christmas Special boxed set, and unfortunately, all of the specials here have already been released, either as part of one of the other box sets or individually. Not owning any of these other releases I can’t attest to how the video or audio quality of this set compares to the others, but honestly, I think there’s little in either of those departments that will either persuade or dissuade a potential buyer (though I will go over them as they come up). The main, criteria, then, will be how many of these you already have in your collection and how many of the ones that aren’t there need to be. So let’s look at this set disc by disc.
The first disc has the only non-Rankin-Bass special of the lot as its centerpiece: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which needs no introduction. This is a wonderful special, heart-warming and atmospheric, and I believe that this is a re-mastered edition, as the colors look particularly good here. One of the best things about this short is the brilliant way Chuck Jones’s animation plays along with the music and with Boris Karloff’s narration. It may not be the most well-animated of Jones’s repertoire but it is undoubtedly one of the best paced.
The extras are all Grinch-related. First is Dr. Seuss & the Grinch: From Whoville to Hollywood, an affectionate if somewhat slight look at the history of the special, focusing especially on Dr. Seuss. It’s pretty fluffy, and was obviously made to hold the attention of children as well as adults, but there are some interesting bits of information there, including a few aspects of Seuss’s life I wasn’t aware of, but it’s not especially essential as it doesn’t feature too many interviews with the people who were actually essential to the special itself. This problem also plagues Making Animation and Bringing it to Life, a commentary on the film by animator Phil Roman and June Foray: these two simply don’t have too much new to bring to the table about the film’s production. Next we have a trio of original pencil tests from the movie, and finally a feature titled Who’s Who in Whoville, which contains brief biographies of Chuck Jones, Dr. Seuss, Boris Karloff, and June Foray. A nice little collection, but ultimately nothing that can’t be skipped.
The disc also contains two obscure Rankin-Bass stop-motion efforts, The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold and Pinocchio’s First Christmas. These two will only really be of interest to Rankin-Bass aficionados; they’re visually interesting when not splendid and they each have their moments, but it’s easy to see why they are obscure. Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold starts out strong as a fairy-tale but is quickly plagued by a plot which–involving as it does the marital problems of Christmas Leprechauns–is nonsensical even by Christmas special standards. The heroes end up unlikable and bland while the villain is relatively colorful and sympathetic, and the premise laid forth in the title is quite a head-scratcher in itself. That said, again, it does provide some aesthetic marvels. The villain has a beautiful design, all crooked and looming, and her eventual defeat gives way to one of the more impressive effects these special have to offer.
Pinocchio’s Christmas fares a little better, but is still ultimately not a must-see. This film is a ragged adaptation of Collodi’s book, with a few influences from Disney, such as Pinocchio’s outfit and the role of the Cricket, and a really rather abrupt and pointless Christmasy spin. The songs are bouncy, the voice acting is competent, the character designs look nice, and the sets are really quite impressive, but the story never really gets going and the whole thing feels thin and unfinished.
Annoyingly, there are no chapter breaks within these specials.
The second disc has The Year Without a Santa Claus as its main event. This is a good special that never quite managed to reach classic status for me. It’s very inventive and beautiful, and its got some pretty memorable songs, but the plot is a little confused. There are three separate adventures which are all ended by anti-climaxes and the ultimate ending, which tries to be heartfelt, feels phoned in instead. It’s still worth having in your library, though–the slightly darker tone and crazy concepts make it unique among the Rankin-Bass portfolio.
The disc also contains Rudolph’s Shiny New Year and Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. These are two very atmospheric (And, yes, visually pleasing) specials that both have little to offer outside that. I love the idea of a Rudolph adventure story and I was impressed with the way Shiny New Year approached the slightly darker underbelly of the classic Rudolph story–sometimes you’re going to look funny and people are going to laugh and there are ways to live with that that don’t involve suddenly saving the day. But both of these aspects eventually fall flat. The special starts out very exciting and inventive but it becomes a predictable and boring journey (and one that reeks suspiciously of edutainment, I might add) pretty quickly, and the moral is danced around but never really broached with any finality. The run-time and, I suspect, preconceptions about what Rudolph can and cannot do, won’t allow this to be the adventure story it wants to be, which is a shame. Nestor is one of the few Rankin-Bass Christmas specials to involve religion–Nestor is the donkey that Mary and Joseph rode to Bethlehem, of course. There’s nothing much to say about this one–it’s got a heavy atmosphere befitting a quasi-religious story, but it feels too slight and Nestor is too weak as a protagonist for it to really make an impact. Both of these are worth viewing, but probably only once or twice.
There are two extras on this disc, both centered around Year Without a Santa Claus. We Are Santa’s Elves is a retrospective on the Rankin-Bass stop-motion in general and Year in particular, and while the specialization hurts it a bit–I’d rather watch something about the studio in general–it’s still very interesting, revealing a lot about the much-loved but rarely seriously studied duo. Then we have Stop Motion 101, which is a fascinating look at the animation process itself. These two have both the serious tone and the interesting testimonies that the Grinch extras lacked, and are the only extras on the set which are really essential viewing.
Disc three starts off with Jack Frost, an underrated classic and the best of the Rankin-Bass specials on the set. Frost boasts a catchy bunch of songs, a charming and likable protagonist, and one of the most bombastic, over-the-top villains I’ve yet to encounter. It’s also full of the weird, quirky little touches that make the company’s best work so charming–I especially like the villain’s gang of completely robotic underlings and the poor family’s pet duck.
Second on the third disc is A Miser Brothers’ Christmas, a 2008 special meant as a sequel/spin-off to Year Without a Santa Claus. It fails, in pretty much the exact way you’d think it would. The new songs are annoying, the new actors are inferior, the new designs are much too smooth, the new atmosphere is bland and generic–anything that the special didn’t openly borrow from its predecessor, it botches somehow. And the premise is flawed even conceptually–the Misers are too complex and colorful as characters to be shoehorned into such a bland morality tale. It has its moments- the rendition of the classic Miser songs is a blast and there are a few decent lines–but it’s still a definite miss.
The final special, billed as a Bonus Feature, is Rudolph & Frosty’s Christmas in July. This is an odd little production. It’s a very ambitious feature-length Christmas special crossover (in some countries it even ran in theaters) that casts Rudolph and Frosty in a very dark, theatrical-feeling adventure. As I mentioned with Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, that kind of thing is usually just my cup of tea, but this movie fails spectacularly. Instead of spending time on Rudolph or Frosty (who, surprisingly, have great chemistry together) the film creates an entire gaggle of insufferable original characters. Where it does rely on pre-established Frosty/Rudolph canon, it still manages to annoy–some characters from the vastly inferior sequels to those specials appear but no others from the originals do. A large amount of the time is given to insipid songs, and the lack of focus causes the darker tone to just feel out of place. The villain tries to be over-the-top, but this is Rankin-Bass and he just comes across as underwhelming and generic. Even visually it disappoints–most of the designs are fine, but the whole thing seems to take place on the counter in someone’s kitchen. There’s only one scene in the entire thing that I really liked, and that was a surprisingly sweet sequence between Santa and Mrs. Claus that had nothing to do with the plot whatsoever. It’s easily the weakest of the films included in this set … although, perversely, it’s also one of the most interesting. If the idea of Frosty meeting Rudolph makes you squee, I’d give it a scan despite it’s badness, if only to see how they go about this odd premise.
Disc three also has the weakest extras of the bunch. Totally Cool Crafty Creations is little feature that explains how to make your own snow-flakes and snow-globes and so on–I give the host points for insane amounts of enthusiasm, but does anyone ever watch these things? Snip’s Snow Sing-along has follow-the-bouncing-ball versions of three of the songs from Jack Frost: that’d be a perfectly acceptable extra, but why only three? They leave out the best one, too, the nonsensical There’s the Rub. What Makes Stop-Motion Go is a featurette on the making of A Miser Brothers’ Christmas; it’s interesting at times, but it’s hard to get too excited about the behind-the-scenes action of a special that left so little of an impact on me, and while not as child-oriented From Whoville to Hollywood it’s still pretty fluffy. After that an advertisement for Happiness is… Peanuts Snow Days rounds out the set.
So that’s everything. Is it worth a purchase? Again, that’s largely up to you. Most of the specials included here, even the horrible Rudolph and Frosty, have something to recommend to them, but most of the really good ones you’re likely to already have and the previous set included a special, The Stingiest Man in Town, that hasn’t been released on DVD anywhere else. Take a look at your Christmas library and come to your own decision.