Santa Claus: The Movie (UK - BD RB)
Our Chris attempts to get into the festive mood with Optimum's Blu-ray release...
Hundreds of years ago a kindly peasant woodcutter named Claus (David Huddleston), his wife Anya (Judy Cornwell), and their reindeer Donner and Blitzen, are delivering toys to the children of the land when they are caught in a deadly snowstorm. They are saved from almost certain death by a mysterious force and transported to the Ice Mountains at the top of the word, where they meet a group of elves who inform them that their arrival was foretold in prophecy. The oldest and wisest of the elves explains that Claus and Anya have been given the gift of immortality and, having no children of their own, that they will spend the rest of eternity delivering toys to all of the children of the Earth. From that day forward the woodcutter would be known as Santa Claus. The story then jumps to modern times and finds one of the younger elves, Patch (Dudley Moore), competing for the right to become Santa’s assistant. He wins the contest by using an automated machine to mass-produce toys, but the inferior quality tells on Christmas Day as many of the toys break. Ashamed, Patch leaves the North Pole and heads to New York City where he meets the villainous toy manufacturer B.Z. (John Lithgow), who plans to exploit the elf for his own gain. Facing stiff competition from B.Z. and his all-new 'Christmas II', Santa must join forces with B.Z.'s young step-niece Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim) and an orphan called Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick) if he is to rescue Patch and save Christmas.
The image quality of the DVD release of Santa Claus: The Movie was pretty unremarkable, so it's fair to say that I wasn't expecting much from this release. While undoubtedly among the least impressive titles in my collection, the 2.35:1 (1080/24p AVC) Blu-ray transfer does manage to improve things in a few key areas. The most obvious improvement is colour rendition, which is much, much stronger than the standard-definition version. (In fact, it's sometimes a little too strong.) Contrast and brightness are also improved, eliminating the washed out look that plagued the DVD release. The combined effect of these improvements creates a more natural image, with greater impact. Obviously one of the main draws of high-definition is the enhanced detail, and while not as dramatic as some releases the Blu-ray does offer an improvement in this area. You're not going to pick out the sort of fine detail that you find in most transfers, but comparing scenes from the DVD to the same scenes from the BD reveals better definition in things like clothing, snowflakes and even Santa's beard! I was also pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the image, which I expected to be littered with artefacts.
On the downside, there is a fair amount of grain on show. Now while I'm not one of those anti-grain people, the real problem here seems to be that the grain is quite inconsistent; some scenes can be relatively clean, while others are literally swimming in it. The effects shots are the worst affected, but darker scenes also show considerably more grain than the rest, exacerbated by some less than inky blacks. With that said, while certainly not a revolutionary transfer, it is still the best looking version of the film that I've seen and it generally exceeded my pre-review expectations.
The only available audio option is PCM 2.0 (English and German), which is technically a step up from the old two-channel Dolby track on the DVD, but still not particularly impressive. Dialogue is always perfectly understandable, but fidelity is severely lacking throughout and there's often unwanted reverb. With that said, it is actually fairly expansive for a Stereo track, with the snowstorm at the beginning of the film serving as one of the stand-out moments. The many upbeat musical numbers are well represented in the mix and there is also a little bit of grunt at the low end every now and then, which came as a surprise. I guess the track does have its charms, and it reminded me of my childhood visits to the cinema, but it's more of a case of getting the job done than of impressing. Apparently some DVD releases have included a 5.1 remix, which might have made for an interesting alternative if only for comparison purposes.
Although not technically extras, this seems as good a place as any to mention the horrendous forced trailers that Optimum has placed on the disc (three in total). They have chosen to disable the skip and menu buttons, but you can at least fast forward through them. Please, for the love of all things good, stop this annoying practice.
The first of the real bonus material is the lengthy Making of the Movie (00:50:16 HD), which is presented at 4:3 inside a 16:9 frame and narrated by a well-spoken American gentleman. This is one of those good old-fashioned eighties documentaries that largely cuts through the promotional bullshit that dominates today's DVD documentaries and offers some real insight into the film-making process. The various interviews and behind-the-scenes footage are far more informal than today's documentaries, and most of footage is shot in a 'fly on the wall' style. The amount of work that the British production team put into the film really was quite impressive, whether building Santa's massive workshop of designing miniature remote controlled reindeer. I did notice a couple of audio glitches, but they weren't terribly distracting.
Two theatrical trailers follow. Trailer 1 (01:52 HD) and Trailer 2 (02:10 HD) are your typical eighties film promos. The first features quite an upbeat voice-over and focusses on the fun elements, while the second trailer is a little bit more serious. Both reveal too much of the plot for my liking.
Next up is a featurette entitled Shooting the Press Conference Scene (28:12 HD), which is also presented at 4:3 inside a 16:9 frame. The footage is very rough, covered in scratches, and has patchy audio, but it is actually quite an interesting look at the way a scene is constructed. We get to see the rehearsals, hear conversations between the actors and director, see numerous real takes, and more.
Finally we come to the deleted scenes (07:13 HD) section of the disc. Numerous extensions to existing scenes are the order of the day here, so there's nothing particularly revelatory. The audio is also a bit on the muffled side, but I think it's commendable that they're on the disc at all.
If there's one thing that I've come to understand it's that childhood favourites are largely critic-proof. I saw Santa Claus: The Movie as a kid (I was around ten at the time) and although I had long-since stopped believing in Santa Claus I can remember enjoying it. Flash forward more years than I care to admit and I can see all of the flaws, but I still enjoy it. It's not a particularly great film, but it is full of hope and good intentions, which is just what you expect from a Christmas film. It reminds me of simpler times and conjures up all manner of images and memories from my childhood, and it's also one of my wife's favourite films (she's a lot less cynical than I am).
Technically the disc isn't really anything to write home about, but it is a significant improvement over the DVD version in a couple of key areas (notably the colour rendition and extras). It's up to you to decide whether those improvements are enough to warrant spending considerably more on the Blu-ray than you would on the DVD. Me? Well, I have no doubt that it will find its way into the BD player come Christmas Day (along with Gremlins if I have my way).
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable for all
Release Date: 2nd November 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: PCM 2.0 Stereo English, PCM 2.0 Stereo German
Extras: Making of the Movie, Trailers, Shooting the Press Conference Scene, Deleted Scenes
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Cast: Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, David Huddleston, Judy Cornwell, Burgess Meredith, Christopher Ryan
Genre: Family and Fantasy
Length: 107 minutes
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