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Published: Thursday, 12/6/2001

Many holiday releases don't have that magic

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Why is it I can't sit through any Christmas special made after 1980? Aside from the terrific 1999 TV special Olive, the Other Reindeer, either the sentiment is cloying or the animation is predictable or they ask for your nostalgia and your heart with the impersonal geniality of a mall employee on Dec. 23.

Most seem just like Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at The House of Mouse ($29.99 for the DVD, $22.99 for tape), the highest-profile of a batch of new holiday video releases.

What is advertised as a new, full-length movie is really half a commercial for the House of Mouse TV series and half a recycling of old holidays shorts, including 1983's Mickey's Christmas Carol. The plot is depressingly cynical: Mickey is the nightclub owner of House of Mouse. When dozens of Disney characters find themselves stranded there, Mickey works the room like Hugh Hefner at a Playboy Mansion holiday party, greeting old friends, inviting others to perform, and in general, forcing good cheer.

Much better is the new DVD reissue of an HBO-Jim Henson classic from 1977, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas ($19.95). Narrated by Kermit the Frog, it's one of the Muppets' finest hours, telling the story of Emmet whoenters a talent show so he can win the money to buy presents. (When was the last time you saw poverty portrayed in a holiday special - thoughtfully, too?)

Even better than that is the three-disc set ($56.98) of wonderful Rankin-Bass animated productions from the 1960s and 1970s: Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman, and Frosty Returns. A couple are traditional celluloid animation, but it's the jerking stop-motion specials - remember the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph? - that really hold up.

If $56.98 is too much, the discs in the set are the same ones that were available last Christmas for $19.98 each. And if you want The Year Without a Santa Claus (the one with the Heat Miser soft-shoe number), Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, or Rudolph's Shiny New Year, they're all collected on one disc ($19.98). (Avoid Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & The Island of Misfit Toys ($24.95), a new not-very-magical sequel to the original.)

But if you really want nostalgia this year, do not miss Christmas Past: Vintage Holiday Films ($24.95 for the DVD from Kino), a new lovingly-assembled collection of nine silent shorts from 1901 to 1925. There's a melodrama from D.W. Griffith and a 10-minute Christmas Carol and tons of turn-of-the-century Santas, including one film featuring actual footage from the North Pole.

During a year when thoughts are turning to the way we were, Christmas Past is poignant enough to bring a tear to your eye.

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the real thing, Pearl Harbor ($29.99 for DVD, $24.99 for tape), an epic turned into a marketing plan, comes to video this week, and arriving so soon after the events of Sept. 11, its soullessness is even more evident.

But how does it look on DVD? Great. It's modeled after old-fashioned Hollywood melodramas, but with none of their inner glow. The two-disc DVD features a History Channel documentary - a $49.99 gift set includes a better National Geographic special - but if DVD extras are what you're looking for, wait until May 14.

That's when there's to be a Pearl Harbor box set with commentary tracks by the filmmakers and actual veterans, and, oh no, a new longer director's cut.

For something truly affecting, try America - A Tribute to Heroes ($19.99, on tape and DVD), the late September telethon that aired on nearly every broadcast and cable channel in the country simultaneously. Although celebrity fund-raisers tend not to succeed on an artistic level, America mostly worked and it's still touching. Start with Bruce Springsteen's chilling “My City of Ruins” and then listen to Neil Young's mournful reading of “Imagine” - you'll believe in celebrity benefit concerts again.

New this week (on DVD and tape): John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (typically fun B-movie from the modern B-movie master); American Outlaws (Think Young Guns with no one you've heard of); and Summer Catch (Freddie Prinze, Jr. 'nuff said).

New on DVD: 81/2 ($39.95). One of the all-time great Italian films, Federico Fellini's classic arrives in a new two-disc set from the Criterion Collection that actually warrants two discs: The second includes two excellent, nearly hourlong documentaries, one about composer Nino Rota and one from the late Fellini himself.

Chris Borrelli's Fast Forward column runs every Thursday in the Peach section. E-mail him at cborrelli@theblade.com.



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