*Click on ALL images in this review for full 1080p screenshots
Just a few short months ago, Dreamworks put their stamp on the holiday home video market with a collection of Halloween shorts, and there's no question that it was a delightful treat. Of course, it had an advantage, as there really aren't too many worthwhile Halloween specials on the market, but Christmas? The holiday brought forth by the sight of candy canes and decorative trees, as well as the smell of pine and gingerbread, has more than a healthy handful of classics that stand proudly beside it. You can't even talk about Christmas specials without thinking of Charlie Brown's barren tree, a stop-motion animated reindeer with a red nose that glows, or the joyous snowman that proudly announces his birth upon coming to life. To say it's a bold move for Dreamworks to think they can actually compete in this market is an understatement if there ever was one, and predictably, the Dreamworks Holiday Classics collection falls short many expectations.
First, let me reiterate why the Halloween release worked as well as it did - It actually nailed the spirit of Halloween. In all fairness, that's not exactly hard to do, right? Halloween means so many things to so many people - Some associate the holiday with thrills and chills, some with the prospect of obtaining candy, and others just like to dress up and party. All you really need for a good Halloween special is a story that takes place on all hallows eve, featuring the appropriate colors, costumes, ghouls, and atmosphere. Halloween is just a lot of silly fun that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Now, although Christmas is also often associated with parties and various other fun gatherings, it's more about warmth, compassion, giving unselfishly, and spending time with your family and friends. With that being said, it feels like there's something missing from the overall experience provided in Dreamworks Holiday Classics, and the reason for that is simple - Dreamworks tried to replicate the success of their Halloween offerings in very much the same way, which was to give us the proper visual cues and hope that made the final product feel Christmassy enough. Needless to say, it didn't. Most of these shorts have been solely designed to showcase the beloved characters of the studio, which makes the oh so important heart behind the holidays little more than an afterthought. A Christmas special should invoke the same kind of feeling you get when you see a majestically decorated tree for the first time all year, but in this case, it felt more akin to receiving an ugly Christmas sweater.
Don't get me wrong, it's not all bad. There are definitely some redeemable qualities to this collection. Things start off promising enough with Shrek the Halls, which is a terrific standalone effort that embraces the ideals of the holiday, as opposed to the superficial aspects that tend to go along with it. It does a wonderful job of conveying the fact that you don't need a bunch of fancy ornaments or decorations to have a good time, because what's truly important is spending time with your friends and family. Fun in the Shrek-verse continues with Donkey's Christmas-tacular, as the entire gang puts a comical spin on the most notable holiday tunes of all time.
Moving on to Merry Madagascar is where the sleigh begins to fall off its rails, though. I'm a big fan of the Madagascar franchise, believing each successive film to be better than the last, but this Christmas special just didn't do anything for me. Predictably, Alex, Marty, Gloria and Melman are hoping to make their way back to New York City in time for Christmas, but a series of complications thwart their plan - King Julien mistakes the gang's makeshift hot air balloon as the 'red night goblin' and blasts them out of the sky. Our Madagascar friends learn that this 'goblin' comes once a year and showers the lemur population with coal. Of course, this was only Santa Claus punishing King Julien for being on the naughty list, but as we already know, his ignorance knows no bounds. Santa shows up to deliver coal to Julien again, but he, too, is blasted from the sky. This gives the jolly man with the rosy cheeks a serious case of amnesia, which comes with the potential cost of having to cancel Christmas. The lion, zebra, giraffe and hippo come up with a plan to deliver the presents themselves so they might save the world from a fate of broken hearted children. For pure Madagascar fun, this is all well and good, but it's completely unoriginal. How many times do we really need the '(insert character names here) saves Christmas' story to be told? Ice Age sort of did the same thing, but they did so in a way that put a clever twist on the origin of the holiday. Merry Madagascar offers nothing but a fun ride, and again, Christmas is about more than that.
The Madagascar Penguins in a Christmas Caper continues down the slope of irrelevancy - All the creatures in the zoo are having a joyous and triumphant holiday, but the Polar Bear is feeling down in the dumps. Most of the penguins agree that he's not worth the effort of cheering up, but Private Penguin decides ignoring the big lug isn't in line with the Christmas spirit, so he sneaks out to find him a present that will turn his frown upside down. Unfortunately, Private Penguin is captured by the mean old lady from the first film for his troubles, and his crew have to spring into action to save his tail feather. The notion of giving rather than receiving is important, but is completely overshadowed by the rescue mission.
At least we end things on a high note. Gift of the Night Fury is a wonderful tale that acts as a direct sequel to How to Train Your Dragon. In Berk, they celebrate Christmas as well, but have dubbed it 'Snoggletog'. As the festivities are soon to begin, the dragons leave the island in a hurry, leaving people of Berk disappointed that their winged friends have left, especially at such an inopportune time. However, one dragon remains - Toothless, who cannot travel without his human friend, Hiccup. It's unbearable for the boy to see his dragon friend feeling left out, so he builds something that will allow Toothless to fly on his own. Although the dragon will miss his friend, he flies off to wherever the rest of his companions have gone, and this acts as the final blow to the community. Could this be the end of the friendship between humans and dragons on Berk, or is there an undiscovered secret that could bring them back for good? The premise is simple enough, but it's a touching story that emphasizes the many complexities of friendship, and just how crucial that connection is in our lives. The humans can't bear to celebrate Snoggletog without their scaly friends, because without them, there's very little reason to celebrate. Again, Christmas is about the relationships we've forged, friends and family alike, and certainly not the decorations or presents.
I hate to be a Grinch, but still - Are two solid entries really good enough? I guess in a way, they are. After all, there are plenty of other Christmas specials on the market that are sold as stand-alone, and at a premium price at that. Still, despite the fact Dreamworks is aiming to provide something a bit more extensive, I'll take quality over quantity any day of the week. For those of you that are basing your purchase on how much your children are going to enjoy the experience as a whole, there's really no reason not to pick this up. Although the adult in me wants to see a bit more heart presented through and through, there's no denying that everything in this collection a great deal of fun, so you're not likely to sit on the couch with a sourpuss on your face, wishing you were watching something else. This is really where the shorts as a whole excel - their entertainment value, and your kids are going to love every minute of it.
This 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1) is absolutely gorgeous. There's no question that these shorts have been provided the same attention to detail as their theatrical counterparts. Sharpness, detail and clarity are flawless. Black levels are deep and inky without any crushing, and the contrast is always spot on. As expected, every color leaps off the screen, be it the island of dragons, the various Santa suits we see, or all the Christmas lights and decorations. There's no compression artifacts or banding to worry about either. These Christmas specials meet the expectation of flawless presentation that Dreamworks films are known for on the format, and will be a welcome sight for anyone who appreciates these specials for what they are.
Is it any surprise that Dreamworks knocked it out of the park with their lossless 7.1 (Gift of the Night Fury and Donkey's Caroling Christmas-tacular and 5.1 Dolby TrueHD tracks (everything else)? After the stellar presentation on their Spooky Stories collection, I know I'm not surprised. Dreamworks are known for quality on home video, and their reputation remains untarnished as they didn't skimp on these shorts in the least, even though one might have expected as much considering these were mostly made for television. Yes, much like the video, the audio sounds like it was made for theatrical screenings. Dialogue is always crisp and clear, but that pretty much goes without saying. Unsurprisingly though, it's the sound effects that are the real star here - There's an impressive degree of environmental ambience, surround effects envelop you, and the LFE is loud but not overstated (when given the opportunity). The music has a quality that makes it sound like you're a part of it, and not merely listening to it. I know it sounds weird to say this about a bunch of shorts, but turn this one up loud for the best experience.
-Donkey's Caroling Christmas-tacular Sing-Along - This one is truly a head-scratcher. The actual short itself is 7 minutes and 46 seconds long, and consists mostly of singing. This supplement chops the filler to provide nothing but singing... but this only drops the runtime down to 5 minutes and 23 seconds. What's the point of making the cuts at all?
Also included are some Previews of pre-existing Dreamworks titles, as well as a look inside the World of Dreamworks Animation, which contains more previews and music videos for most of their main properties.
Although the Dreamworks Holiday Classics collection is a lot of fun - the characters we know and love are flawlessly preserved and the production value hasn't taken a back seat to their theatrical offerings - not everything in this collection is merry and bright. Although Shrek the Halls and Gift of the Night Fury are both terrific as modern holiday specials, the remainder are served up like the proverbial fruit cake - Pretty to look at, but unsatisfying otherwise. Still, your kids aren't likely to care about the shortcomings within, as they're bound to love everything from the gags, right down to the sights and sounds. Another thing I have to take into consideration, is the fact that Dreamworks could have released three of these shorts as standalone titles, such as Fox did with Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas Special, so even having only two quality titles at this price point is a treat. The extras have been given the Scrooge treatment - that is to say they're bare - but things on the A/V side are immaculate. Recommended.