This isn't the first go-around for The Original Christmas Specials Collection on Blu-ray, but thanks to the addition of bonus features, the adding of a couple new Rankin/Bass specials, and video quality that's ever so slightly (but still noticeably) better than the prior releases, this is the best existing bundle of these titles currently available. Recommended.
If you were lucky enough to be a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, no Christmas holiday was complete without the airing of the Rankin-Bass holiday classics. Although they created a few traditional animation projects (two of which are on this release), their claim to fame was stop-motion animation (using hand-crafted puppets). Combined with some great acting talent and memorable songs, many of their projects became classics, including the headliner of this Blu-ray release and their very first stop-motion production: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
It's perhaps been lost in history, but Rudolph was originally created by the Montgomery Ward department store chain as a Christmas giveaway book promotion way back in 1939 (written by Robert L. May). Of course, Rudolph really took off in popularity when the story was adapted into a song (the first version being sung by Gene Autry in 1949), and the Rankin-Bass stop-motion special in 1964 would help make the shiny nosed mammal a permanent part of Christmas folklore.
I'm guessing there are very few of you who haven't seen Rudolph at least once in your life, so I won't rehash the story in this review. Needless to say, including Rudolph, Hermey, Yukon Cornelius, the Abominable Snow Monster, and those great, great tunes sung by the late Burl Ives (playing the narrator of the story, Sam the Snowman).
Disc two of this four-disc set brings us Frosty The Snowman, one of Rankin-Bass' traditionally animated specials. While only half as long as Rudolph (at around 25 minutes), it takes the classic "Frosty The Snowman" song (again, first sung by Gene Autry just a year after his "Rudolph" hit) and turns it into a bigger story with a magician named Professor Hinkle trying to get his magic hat back from Frosty, and a young schoolgirl named Karen befriending the big lump of snow and trying to help him out by getting him to a colder climate before he melts.
Disc three contains the stop-motion Santa Claus is Comin' To Town, which remains one of the best Santa origin stories ever told. In this one, the evil Burgermeister Meisterburger has banned toys (he hates children) and it's up to a young Kris Kringle (who comes from a family of toymakers) to both return joy to the kids of his hometown and find his true destiny for children around the world. While Rudolph is easily the most popular special in this set, Santa Claus is Comin' To Town gets my vote for the most original and best written (although Rudolph still has the better songs).
Disc four contains the duo of The Little Drummer Boy and the all-but-forgotten Cricket on the Hearth, with the former being another stop-motion puppet animation special and the latter being traditional animation. The Little Drummer Boy isn't nearly as popular now as I remember it being when I was a kid – ranking right up there with Rudolph and Frosty as one of the "must view" seasonal favorites. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that it's the most overtly religious of all the Rankin/Bass specials, telling the story of a young boy who hooks up with the three wise men on their journey to see the baby Jesus. It, of course, is not exactly a Biblically accurate tale, but it does manage to get the spirit of the season right for those looking for a more Christian-themed holiday story.
Finally, there's Cricket on the Hearth, which is based on a Charles Dickens' story and was made by Rankin/Bass in traditional animation (with a live-action intro by Danny Thomas) in 1967. It originally aired as an episode of "The Danny Thomas Hour" TV series, and hasn't gotten a whole lot of air time since then. If it aired during my childhood years (I grew up in the '70s), I sure don't remember it. It tells the story of a talking cricket (voiced by Roddy McDowall) who helps out a toymaker and his blind daughter (who goes blind when she learns her love is lost at sea...no, I'm not kidding). The songs here are pretty forgettable and the animation is uninspiring (although colorful), which is pretty much all you need to know as to why this Rankin/Bass special has been pretty much invisible from the network airwaves for the past 50 years.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Original Christmas Specials Collection spreads holiday cheer on Blu-ray with four 50GB discs (The Little Drummer Boy and Cricket on the Hearth are both together on a disc) sharing a pair of plastic hubs inside a slightly thicker-than-standard Elite keepcase. The keepcase comes housed inside a sturdy cardboard slipcover with a slightly embossed cover and spine. It's nice-looking packaging with a Christmas theme.
There are no front-loaded trailers on any of the discs, whose main menus feature a still of the representative special, with menu selections vertically down the left side of the screen in the typical Universal menu design. The disc for The Little Drummer Boy/Cricket on the Hearth has viewers select which title they want to watch before jumping to the respective menu.
The Blu-rays in this release are all region-free.
With the exception of The Little Drummer Boy, which looks pretty aged and contains more than its fair share of dirt and defects on the print, most of these specials look solid – particularly Rudolph, which appears to have gotten the most care when it comes to remastering. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town looks nice as well, although not in the same ballpark as Rudolph. Surprisingly, Cricket on the Hearth looks as good as Frosty does, although both specials still have occasional debris and dirt on the print. But the colors are nice and bright, and don't appear all that faded.
This isn't the first release of these specials on Blu-ray, but it is the best to date in terms of image quality, as this seems to be a mild but noticeable step up from the prior releases on Blu-ray. I think that may be due to the fact Universal may have used a higher bitrate than the previous release, since I don't believe these titles have been re-mastered a second time. It's possibly even enough to warrant an upgrade if you own the prior set, as this one includes two more specials and bonus features.
The featured audio for all the Christmas specials except The Little Drummer Boy/Cricket on the Hearth is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, with various additional audio options for each individual special. Rudolph and Frosty also offer English, Spanish, and French 2.0 Mono tracks, while Santa Claus is Comin' to Town only offers a Spanish 2.0 Mono track. The Little Drummer Boy/Cricket on the Hearth both have 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Mono tracks, but only The Little Drummer Boy has another audio option – with a 2.0 Spanish mono track.
All the English audio tracks listed above are mostly clearly rendered, with very few problems with muddiness, hissing, or popping that you might expect from dated specials such as these. The one exception is the 2.0 track for The Little Drummer Boy, which – while far from "bad" – comes across as a little flat and lifeless and contains some mild hissing at times that those with sharp ears will pick up on. The 5.1 tracks are particularly fun to listen to, as the songs sound great and things like winter storms provide an occasional feeling of immersion. Dialogue is also clear and free of any serious glitches.
Subtitles are available in English SDH on all discs.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Frosty the Snowman
Santa Claus is Comin' to Town
You'd have to be a bit of a Scrooge not to get a few hours of enjoyment from The Original Christmas Specials Collection, the latest home video bundling of a handful of the popular Rankin/Bass specials that many of us remember growing up with. While neither the video or audio quality here is top-notch, thanks to Universal taking Santa's reins for this latest Blu-ray release, the picture and sound are ever so slightly better than we've seen before, making this title the best of the currently available multi-disc Rankin/Bass releases from which to choose. Recommended.