Fred Claus hasn't been met with pleasant criticisms since its release in theaters, so I wasn't really sure what to expect when I got the Blu-ray to review. The trailers looked funny, but it also looked like a film that was made with Vince Vaughn in mind, and when films are made to cater to a star rather than a story, things can get pretty ugly. After watching the film, I think a lot of the reviewers out there who had nothing but bad things to say about Fred Claus had a bad cup of eggnog, and haven't been able to let it go. Although this film doesn't scream its another holiday film classic that ranks up there with Home Alone or A Christmas Story, it was still an entertaining flick that was filled with comedy, Christmas magic, and lots of heart.
Sibling rivalry can affect the best of us. You can be leading a perfectly normal life and doing quite well with it at that, yet you somehow always seem to be overlooked because of your younger sibling. Sometimes brothers or sisters can patch up their differences once they reach some kind of mental maturity, and sometimes it just seems like it's too impossible a task. One is tired of feeling a guilt trip for being considered the 'better' one, and the other is tired of living in someone else's shadow. Can you imagine the stigma if your little brother was Santa Claus?
As the title of the film suggests, we follow the story of Fred Claus, and that's exactly the situation he's in. He grew up constantly being told, "Why can't you be more like your brother?" Fred slowly turned sorrow into resentment, and resentment into anger. He went on with his life and left his family behind.
Fast forward to the present, where Fred is a slick talkin' man who doesn't have a plan, but that's why he does all that slick talkin' to begin with! He has a girlfriend he's been able to hang on to for years, but she's getting fed up with broken promises and forgotten birthdays. With the most important relationship in his life only hanging on by a thread, the only other company Fred has in the world is a kid that lives upstairs from him, Slam.
One day, Fred is standing on a street corner trying to hustle a little money together Salvation Army style, so that he can use the money to open up an OTB, which he only has a few days to close the deal on. After a royal rumble with a whole lot of guys in fat Santa suits, Fred gets thrown in the slammer for running his operation on the street without a permit. Fred can't get in touch with his girlfriend when he's trying to find some bail money, so he sucks up his pride and calls his brother, jolly ole' Saint Nick.
Nick wants to help out his brother with the five thousand dollars he needs to get out from behind bars, and as certain people will do, Fred tries to turn an inch into a mile, and asks for the fifty grand he needs to open up his business with an iffy promise to pay him back with interest. Despite the years of differences between them, Nick agrees to the offer, as long as he can get his brother to come visit for the holidays, and help out around the Pole with whatever needs to be done before Christmas.
Its bad timing for Nick to invite his loose cannon of a brother however, as 'The Board' has sent an efficiency specialist to monitor his operation at the North Pole, and decide if it should be shut down. Nick is given three strikes before the plug is to be pulled, and unfortunately for all the workers at the North Pole, Fred is at bat.
As I said before, I thought this movie was going to be more about wrapping a story around Vince Vaughn than anything else, and I'm happy to say I was wrong. Although there was a lot of opportunity for Vince to lay down the quick talking comedic gauntlet that's worked for him thus far, it was perfectly suited for providing a character that was different from Santa in almost every way, while also leaving a credible amount of room for letting this person's heart grow.
The rest of the cast deserves honorable mention as well. Paul Giamatti has a pretty diverse resume, but he was able to pull off a Santa Claus that was a faithful portrayal of the jolly fat man we all know and love, and he was able to combine that character into someone that was also vulnerable at the same time. Kevin Spacey was perfect as the efficiency specialist, as he was very professional, but also creepy, as well as sinister without ever even coming close to crossing over into 'cartoon villain' territory.
The story has everything it needs to make for a great holiday film for the family. The story isn't just about using Christmas as a platform for seeing Santa fight with his older brother. This film is more about watching characters learn from each other, looking inside themselves, and finding the warmth the spirit of Christmas should give. Everyone has a journey they need to take within themselves. Fred needs to figure out if his girlfriend and his family are important to him, or if he's going to let his sibling rivalry keep him down forever. Santa has a lesson or two to learn when he realizes his system for judging who's naughty or nice, is a little too black and white. Even the efficiency specialist has a little bit of an arc.
Although all these elements are very basic, pulling them off is a completely different story. Working on these layers to a story, plus a couple of other small plot lines that make their way in the film, could have made this an affair that could have dragged on for weeks. I found the pacing to be very even however, and the 116 minute runtime seemed to fly by. None of the plot points got tangled up along the way, and I felt the emotion the film was trying to convey from time to time.
If you ask me, there's no reason why anybody couldn't sit down with their family during the holidays, and have a great time watching Fred Claus. Not only does it do a very nice job at keeping everything evenly paced and entertaining, it also brings the magic of Christmas to life with a North Pole that's believable. That's something that most Christmas films Hollywood spits out just can't do effectively. You'll laugh, you'll feel some of the pain the characters are going through, and certain moments are even going to touch you. An instant classic, Fred Claus isn't, but it's certainly not a Christmas film that should find itself forgotten a year or two from now.
Fred Claus is presented as a VC-1 encode at a resolution of 1080p, at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. It's actually a pretty impressive effort from Warner Brothers. The black levels and nice and inky, and help to compliment a wonderful contrast that pops, but never overheats the whitest of snow, or even Santa's white beard. Further complimented by the excellent blacks and contrast, is the color saturation. The greens and reds are expected to pop off the screen, but there are so many other golden tones that are used to give a little warmth to the interior shots at the North Pole that are equally impressive. Sharpness is never given additional treatment with ugly edge enhancement.
We're in the age of paranoia when it comes to DNR, and it's not always something that's clear cut and dry to find. There's actually a good amount of natural film grain throughout most of the film, so the grain does appear to be intact for the most part. There are times however, where you'll be able to notice less facial detail than you do at other points in the film, and during these moments you'll also notice there doesn't appear to be as much grain on the screen either. This happens during certain casual scenes, and not necessarily scenes that would be used to 'oooh' and 'ahhh' it's audience with a pretty picture, so I'm inclined to say that this filtering is due to some CGI work being done during certain scenes, and not a product of heavy DNR.
All in all, it's a great transfer that 95% of the time offers great detail on everything from the snow, to intricate patterns on clothing. There doesn't appear to be any compression issues, something that's undoubtedly tricky with all the solid colors that change shades easily by moving around in light (Santa's red outfit), and there's a great sense of depth as well. Warner Brothers did a nice job on this title.
Provided on this release, is a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It's a movie that's driven by mostly dialogue, so I can't say a lossless track would exactly be warranted, but you can tell a difference between lossy and lossless, even with dialogue. It's very disappointing that Warner Brothers wouldn't just include a lossless track, as this is pretty much a standard practice with every other film company. Well, at least most of the time.
That being said, the lossy track isn't bad. All the dialogue is presented without any distortion or cracks/hisses, and although there isn't a ton of sound for the rears to handle, they do convey a functional field of directionality. The soundtrack is what really uses your surround system, and the songs that are used can be pretty boastful. However, for a film that takes place on the North Pole, I really would have expected a much more dynamic sound field, and although the directionality is nice when it comes to play on the lossy track, I can't help but think a lossless track would have provided subtle nuances that would have made me feel like I was really at the North Pole. Get with it Warner!
Also included: French 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), Spanish 5.1, Japanese 5.1, and Portuguese 5.1 tracks. Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese.
Commentary by Director David Dobkin - It would have been nice if Vaughn and Giamatti could have sat in for the commentary, but Director David Dobkin does a good enough job on his own. He's very informative about everything from pre-production to throwing in the special effects, and he's very enthusiastic to tell us all about the film he put together. I feel bad for the guy after hearing this track. He loves what he does, and Fred Claus was met with, in my opinion, a lot of unnecessary hate. I feel bad for him, because I thought this movie was put together very well. This track is worth the listen.
Over 25 Minutes of Merry Additional Scenes - The 13 deleted scenes presented here aren't anything special. They're not bad material by any means, but this film was edited together about as smoothly as it could have, so it's no surprise to see these scenes and realize why they were cut. It's my personal opinion that a good Director is going to shoot more than he needs to though, and use what he has to make a tight picture, and I feel David Dobkin has done that. You can skip these scenes.
Vince and Paul's Fireside Chats - Sort of a promotional Q&A with Vince and Paul, five questions are lobbed their way, and the questions themed around Christmas. What's their favorite Christmas memory, their favorite Christmas carol... you get the idea.
Pause for Claus: Elves Tell All - It's a short featurette, but it's the only one thus far besides the commentary that shows any sort of behind the scenes footage at all. The actors who played some of the elves in the film are in character, telling the audience what it's like to work with the man in the big red suit. It's a cute idea, but the behind the scenes footage we get is really just a tease that's placed over a featurette that's purely filler.
Sibling Rivalry - It's difficult to talk about this without providing one of the more surprising comical scenes in the film, but this featurette stems from the scene I speak of, with cameos by Stephen Baldwin, Roger Clinton, and Frank Stallone.
Meet the Other Claus - This is the 'real' making of featurette we've been waiting for all along, but at only thirteen minutes in length, ends up merely being whimsical, as well as a big let down.
Fred Claus: Race to Save Christmas DVD Game - This game is the second of three discs that are included for this release, and apparently, it's exclusive to the Blu-ray release. Don't ask me why, considering this is a DVD game, and not a Blu-ray game. What you have here, are a bunch of mini-games that are aimed for little kids. This isn't surprising considering this was a family film and all. It will be good for your kids to play on the PC or DVD player during the holidays, but you'll probably want to avoid this, and chalk it up as a coaster disc if you don't have any kids that will enjoy this.
Also included, is a Ludacrismas music video, as well as a third disc that provides a digital copy of the film.
All in all, the special features aren't really special at all. They're sort of fun and kind of cute, but they're nothing more than filler extras. If it's information you want, stick with the commentary track, and consider yourself lucky it's not a bore to listen to!
Fred Claus may not be an instant holiday classic, but it's a charming film that reminds us what's important about family and the holidays. The story effectively provided both cries of laughter, and warmth in the heart, and it did so without ever dragging on. The acting was superb from everyone involved, with an extra thumb up to Giamatti for portraying such a 'real' Santa Claus. If you've already seen the gamut of holiday films that your video store has to offer, I think you and your family can find comfort in picking this up for a nice and cheerful evening at home, which is why I recommend this release. It's not a 'great' film, but it's certainly one I would consider to be a little above average. The video quality that was provided by Warner is fantastic to boot!
That being said, if you're dead set against buying a Blu-ray title that has lossy audio, then you may want to hold out on this for now.