While today's children's literature offers a wide range of topics, few events have sparked as many stories as the celebration of Christmas. This is a holiday that kids truly love, and the many books on the subject often capture the magic and whimsy that the Christmas season brings. Scholastic, a company which is well-known for its distribution of children's book, has joined with New Video to bring a collection of holiday tales to life. These shorts are all based on kid's books and the collection offer a nice variety of styles.
(As this DVD contains several different episodes, each will receive a capsule review which includes an overview of the video and audio aspects as well. It can be assumed that these shorts were captured on film for classroom use. Each contains a stereo soundtrack.)
"The Night Before Christmas" -- 5 minutes -- Outside of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", this is probably the best-known Christmas story, but it doesn't get any special treatment here. This version is simply a series of still drawings, with the camera zooming and panning. The narration by actor Anthony Edwards is fine, but the presentation lacks any sort of life or vitality. This story is supposed to evoke the magical nature of Santa Claus' visit, but this retelling makes it seem like an everyday affair. There has got to be a better version of this tale out there somewhere, as this classic by Clement C. Moore deserves much better treatment, and kids will be bored by this one. On a positive note, the picture is sharp and clear, showing no defects. The colors are very good, and the audio is fine.
"Max's Christmas" -- 4.5 minutes -- Max is very excited about Christmas, and becomes even more enthusiastic when his sister explains that Santa is coming to visit. So, Max decides to stay up to see St. Nick, despite the fact that his sister informs him that this is against the rules. This statement doesn't deter Max, who's determined to meet Santa. "Max's Christmas" is a entertaining story, with narration by "American Werewolf in London" and "Logan's Run" star Jenny Agutter and Rex Robbins. Short and sweet, Max's behavior will be familiar to anyone who has ever wanted to be there when Santa drops down the chimney. The video here is quite grainy (there are many white backgrounds, so the grain stands out) and there are noticeable defects from the source material.
"Morris' Disappearing Bag" -- 6.5 minutes -- It's Christmas morning, and Morris and his three rabbit siblings are very excited about opening their presents. Morris's brother gets hockey equipment. One of his sisters gets a make-up kit, while the other gets a chemistry set. Morris gets a stuffed bear. Morris longs to play with the other presents, but he's told that he's too small. Then, Morris spies an unopened present under the tree. (Yeh, because kids don't thoroughly search for presents.) In the box, Morris finds a disappearing bag, which gives him the power of invisibility. Then, the fun begins. "Morris' Disappearing Bag" perfectly capture the excitement and confusion that is Christmas morning. The animation is slightly amateurish, but the colors are good. The video displays some shimmering effects and there is a fair amount of grain.
Owl Moon -- 8 minutes -- "Owl Moon" isn't a Christmas story at all, but rather a winter story. The equating of Christmas with winter is one of my pet peeves. I've never seen a "White Christmas" and probably never will, so snow and Christmas aren't a constant for me, and most likely, many others. (Allow me to go on record as saying that "Winter Wonderland", "Let it Snow", and "Jingle Bells" aren't Christmas songs at all, but winter songs. But, they're always trotted out at Christmas.) Anywho, "Owl Moon" tells the story of a little girl who goes "owling" with her father. They travel through a quiet, snowy wood at night, in hopes of catching a glimpse of an owl. The story is told in the first-person, from the girl's point-of-view, as she walks through this strange, cold world. She has waited a long time for her father to take her owling and we feel her excitement. As with "The Night Before Christmas", this entry isn't animated, but is rather a series of still images. But, these pictures come to life anyway, due to the brilliant detail put into each drawing. The story is narrated by the author. There is only a slight amount of grain here, and the contrasting dark and light elements of the drawings look very good in this presentation.
This disc features two bonus stories.
"The Clown of God" -- 10 minutes -- It takes a long time for "The Clown of God" to be related to Christmas, and the journey is a long and depressing one. The story follows a young boy named Giovanni, who goes from being a poor beggar to becoming a famous juggler. With his painted clown-face, and his jugging balls, Giovanni becomes a great performer, but as the glory fades, he must learn what makes him and others truly happy. This story, from author Tommie DePaola has a nice message, but the content is very heavy and not entirely secular. I'm not sure if kids will enjoy this one, and I recommend parental guidance for viewing. The audio on "The Clown of God" is loud and distorted, being nowhere near as even as the other stories. The image is grainy and the colors are muted.
"Too Many Tamales" -- 12 minutes -- Yet another still-image only offering, this one reminiscent of the book adaptations shown in PBS' "Reading Rainbow". Maria is very excited about her family's Christmas party and is helping her mother make tamales. When her mother steps away, Maria begins to play with mom's diamond ring, and accidentally drops it into the tamale mix. She then recruits her cousins to eat all of the tamales and help find the ring. This is a cute story, but it's connection to Christmas is tenuous at best, and the ending is anti-climactic. The images have a certain kinetic energy, but actual animation would have helped "spice up" this one. The video shows little grain, and the colors are very good.
The final extra is not really an extra at all. A "read-along" is offered, but this is essentially the addition of English subtitles on each of the main selections. The subs are the same size as standards subs. They would need to be bigger to be effective as a "read-along".
This collection is a true toss-up. The stories offered on this DVD make a nice contrast to the usual fodder that shows up on TV around Christmas, but despite their literary background, the tales here aren't perfect. Some children may find these entertaining, but they run back to "Rudolph" as soon as the DVD ends.