Scholastic, under their Storybook Treasures line of DVDs, has released The Night Before Christmas...and More Classic Holiday Tales, a seven story collection of holiday-themed shorts revolving around Christmas and Hanukkah. With the shorts' graphics taken from the original artwork of the books featured here, one may wonder why this DVD is needed at all: why not just read the books with your children?
The seven stories included here - The Night Before Christmas, In the Month of Kislev, Seven Candles for Kwanzaa, Too Many Tamales, Max's Christmas, Morris's Disappearing Bag, and The Little Drummer Boy - are adapted from published children's books. And the artwork for the "animated" shorts (with the exception of Max's Christmas and Morris's Disappearing Bag) are taken directly from those books, with a rostrum camera "animating" the still artwork by panning and zooming around them. With narration added, a child can get the same sensation (somewhat) of actually reading the books, by watching these little films.
Which begs the question: why not just read the book to your child, instead of putting them in front of the TV to watch The Night Before Christmas...and More Classic Holiday Tales? Don't get me wrong; I'm not one of those parents that say watching TV is bad, and reading is good. In fact, I let my kids watch the hard stuff - you know, the cartoons and shorts that teachers and social pundits say are bad for your kid: the excessively violent (and hilarious) Tom and Jerrys, the surreal The Three Stooges, and the non-P.C. Our Gang comedies, for example. But we also read constantly to our younger children, so I'm not sure what I would do with The Night Before Christmas...and More Classic Holiday Tales. It's not that the shorts in The Night Before Christmas...and More Classic Holiday Tales are terrible, it's just that they're enervated and limp, no doubt due to their production, which is essentially "photographing" the book. The pleasure of having a child sit next to you while you read to them (and their following along), and the rapport you establish when you do this on a regular basis, is not duplicated when watching a DVD of someone reading the same book. So if the short fails to duplicate the impact of the book, why not just read the book to the child, for greater benefit (and more enjoyment, frankly)?
Of all the shorts here, In the Month of Kislev, based on the book by Nina Jaffe, illustrated by Louise August, and narrated by Theodor Bikel, is probably the most successful. Of course the original illustrations are quite wonderful, and the Hanukkah story is nicely turned out, but Bikel's sensitive reading of the narration puts this one over (something that can not be said of ER's Anthony Edwards, whose "gee whiz" delivery of Clement Clarke Moore's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas is one of the worst I've ever heard). Seven Candles for Kwanzaa, narrated by Alfre Woodard, is a generalized account of that "holiday" (some may say, "bowdlerized;" I recommend J. Lawrence Scholer's The Story of Kwanzaa for balance), while the Rosemary Wells' Max's Christmas and Morris's Disappearing Bag (the only truly "animated" shorts here) are cute but slight comedies.
Here are the seven stories collected in The Night Before Christmas...and More Classic Holiday Tales, as described on the DVD hardcase:
The Night Before Christmas
By Clement Clarke Moore, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson, narrated by Anthony Edwards. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
In the Month of Kislev
By Nina Jaffe, illustrated by Louise August, narrated by Theodore Bikel. A wealthy, arrogant merchant learns the true meaning of Hanukkah when he takes the family of a poor peddler to court for savoring the smell of his family's potato pancakes.
Seven Candles for Kwanzaa
By Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, narrated by Alfre Woodard. This unique holiday celebrates the strength of family, respect for ancestors, community, and gratitude for life's bounties.
Too Many Tamales
By Gary Soto, illustrated by Ed Martinez, narrated by Blanca Camacho. Maria feels very grown-up helping make Christmas dinner, until she realizes that she may have lost her mother's ring in one of the tamales!
Written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells, narrated by Jenny Agutter and Rex Robbins. Max is told that he can't stay up to see Santa, but he sneaks down anyway. Will Santa still come if Max is awake?
Morris's Disappearing Bag
Written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Morris thinks his brother and sisters have better Christmas presents. But inside the last box under the tree he finds a magical gift that makes all his trouble disappear.
The Little Drummer Boy
By Katherine Davis, Henry Oronati, and Harry Simeone, illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, narrated by John Jennings. Joyful drumming and glowing illustrations combine to celebrate the nativity.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfers for The Night Before Christmas...and More Classic Holiday Tales are acceptable, with generally good color and a medium-sharp image. Interlacing did appear, but overall, a fairly good transfer, considering the variety of source materials.
The English 2.0 mono audio track is okay, with dialogue clearly heard. Music cues are unspectacular, though. Subtitles are available in the "Read Along" mode.
Extras include a Spanish-language version of Too Many Tamales, while parents can access the "Read Along" mode of subtitles, which provides large-font transcriptions of the dialogue.
With the exception of the Hanukkah story, In the Month of Kislev, The Night Before Christmas...and More Classic Holiday Tales is a pretty bland collection of also-ran holiday shorts, "animated" by panning and scanning over the original books' artwork. Instead of plopping your child down in front of these "filmed books," you could read the actual books together - and have a better time all the way around. A rental is fine if there's a specific book here you really enjoy; otherwise, skip The Night Before Christmas...and More Classic Holiday Tales.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.