The Year Without a Santa Claus appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The show looked decent but not much better than that.
Sharpness was erratic. At best, the show displayed pretty good delineation, but I never saw especially concise visuals. Occasional bouts of softness appeared, but the majority of the show offered decent clarity. No examples of jagged edges or shimmering materialized, and edge enhancement remained absent. Source flaws weren’t intense, but they cropped up more than occasionally. Though these never became a notable distraction, they came along for the ride more often than I’d like.
Colors looked okay. The show tended toward solid primary colors, and they seemed acceptable but not much more. The show usually appeared a bit flat in terms of its hues; they weren’t bad, but they lacked much vivacity. Black levels seemed reasonably deep and dark, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. This was a generally mediocre presentation without much to lift it above a “C+”.
For this Blu-ray, the original monaural audio got a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Why? I don’t know – I guess they figure anyone who shelled out for fancy-pants Blu-ray players also wants everything to be multichannel, even when it doesn’t make sense.
That sentiment marred the audio of the recent Peanuts holiday Blu-rays, and the remixed Year followed that line. Like the Peanuts shows, the soundscape of Year was vague and mushy. Music failed to display stereo imaging. Instead, the score and songs simply spread blandly across the various speakers.
Speech remained centered, but effects showed weak localization. Various elements attempted to come from different spots, but they didn’t do so with much logic or clarity. Instead, the effects usually ended up in a strange auditory limbo – or in the wrong spot entirely, as bits that should come from one side would sometimes emanate from the other.
As for as quality went, speech fared best. The lines appeared fairly natural and distinct. Though the lines occasionally displayed some minor edginess, they always remained easily intelligible.
Music and effects didn’t work as well. Those elements tended toward a bland, mushy feel, without much clarity or vivacity. Neither sounded terrible, but the looseness of the soundfield affected them and left the track without a lot of life. Given the project’s age, I still thought it was good enough for a “C-“ – mostly because speech still sounded fine – but I wish the disc included the superior original monaural audio.
How did the picture and audio of this Blu-ray compare to those of the original 2007 Deluxe Edition release? Visuals were essentially a wash. I suppose the Blu-ray boasted a little more definition, but conversely, the superior resolution made flaws more noticeable. This meant that the Blu-ray didn’t seem much more attractive than its DVD predecessor.
As for the audio, I preferred the DVD’s sound. Its original monaural track had weaknesses, but I still liked it better than the messy remix on display here.
In terms of extras, the Blu-ray includes everything from the 2007 DE, including two additional Rankin/Bass "animagic" shows from the Seventies. First up is 1975's Rudolph's Shiny New Year, a program that may well be the only special devoted to that holiday. The plot relates to the start of the New Year; Happy, the baby New Year, has run away because everyone laughs at his huge ears. Since he's had similar experiences, Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards, the original voice of the character) is dispatched to find the wayward tyke and bring him to his senses. As the show progresses, Rudy travels through the Archipelago of Last Years to find Happy, and he meets a series of wacky partners along the way.
Narrated by Red Skelton, this special has a few moments but it generally seems slow and forced. There's not a lot of magic on display, and the songs are lackluster as well. It's a watchable but bland follow-up to the 1964 original.
I also found the show's message to make little sense. In Rudolph, we learn not to mock others who look different, especially because they might save your bacon someday. The same tone occurs during this disc's third special, Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. Shiny features a character with a physical deformity - Happy's giant ears – but instead of showing the virtues of his unusual situation, the baby's taught to laugh about it.
Actually, he's told that he should enjoy the fact so many people laugh at him because this means his freaky appendages bring joy to others. Unfortunately, it's clear everyone laughs at him and not with him. Even when little Happy's eyes well with tears, the cruel guffaws continue. It's a frightfully muddled message that makes little sense in this context.
By the way, if you watch carefully, you'll notice some recycled puppets. In one crowd scene, I detected Mrs. Thistlewhite from Year - with a different man! That hussy!
As I alluded above, we also get 1977's Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. Unlike almost all of the other Rankin/Bass specials, this one actually involves Jesus and that whole Bethlehem side of things - no signs of reindeer, elves or snowmen here! I believe the only other R/B shows that go this way are the two with the Little Drummer Boy.
Despite that twist, Nestor really is nothing more than a retelling of Rudolph combined with Dumbo. Nestor is hounded because of his long ears and gets the boot from his home when the owner loses money because of him. His mother runs to help him, but she buys the farm when she tries to protect him from a storm. All alone, Nestor ekes out a living and eventually is chosen to help out a needy couple who expect a baby. And with his heroic efforts, he becomes to toast of the town and everyone loves him, freakishly enormous ears or not!
Although it's not original, Nestor seems fairly entertaining. It helps that the show runs only 25 minutes opposed to the 50 minutes of most R/B "animagic" offerings; the derivative nature of the project might have been more problematic had the program run longer. As it stands, Nestor is a cute and endearing little special.
More recycled puppets: in an early scene, both Jingle and Jangle can be viewed, and we also see the same Mrs. Claus from Year. However, we find a different Santa for reasons unknown, other than possibly the thought that Year's St. Nick too strongly resembled Mickey Rooney. (Actually, given Rooney's diminutive size, it's possible that wasn't a puppet in Year - it might have been the real thing!)
We discover two featurettes. We Are Santa’s Elves runs 16 minutes, 33 seconds as it combines show clips, archival elements and interviews. We hear from historian Rick Goldschmidt, artist Don Duga, director/producer Arthur Rankin, Jr., musical director/composer Maury Laws, artist/character designer Paul Coker, Jr., and actors Bradley Bolke and Rhoda Mann. The program looks at the origins of the Rankin/Bass team and the development of their production company. We learn about the “animagic” process, general issues related to the creation of the specials, songs and scores, and a few specifics about Year.
My only complaint about “Elves” comes from its brevity. I’d especially like to learn more about the overall functioning of Rankin/Bass; the show breezes through those topics pretty quickly. Nonetheless, we get a nice overall view of the studio and learn a reasonable amount about Year as well. It’s a good little show.
Next comes the nine-minute and 36-second School of Stop Motion. It involves notes from Chiodo Bros. Productions’ Charles, Stephen and Edward Chiodo and stop motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen. They provide a look at the history of stop motion animation and how it works. As with “Elves”, the show’s shorter than I’d like, but it offers a nice look at how filmmakers create stop motion work.
Finally, the package includes a bonus DVD. This provides the same Deluxe Edition from 2007. It’s the one I prefer, as it boasts fairly similar visuals and superior audio.
In The Year Without a Santa Claus, we get a generally-decent Christmas special that rises to a higher level due to the inclusion of two fantastic production numbers. The Blu-ray provides fair picture and a nice set of supplements but suffers from unappealing remixed audio. The presence of the flawed remix – and visuals that lack much polish – mean that the 2007 Deluxe Edition DVD remains the best one on the market. Of course, if you buy this package, you get booth the Blu-ray and the 2007 DVD, but it’ll cost you $10 more than the DVD on its own, so that version remains my recommendation.
To rate this film, visit the original review of THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS