Although retail stores have been shamelessly hawking Christmas items for the past few weeks, now that Halloween is over we can all begin openly preparing for the biggest holiday of the year. As the song says, Christmastime is here, so why not jump-start the seasonal spirit by cranking up some high-def Christmas classics (and not-so-classics) on Blu-ray. After all, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and for the fourth year in a row, High-Def Digest is here to tell you what's new, what's essential, and what to avoid when it comes to yuletide viewing. Whatever your taste, be it romantic or irreverent, there's a disc that will infuse you with that warm, fuzzy holiday feeling, so mull that cider (or wine), cuddle up under your favorite Christmas blanket, and add some serious blu to the reds and greens that color your season!
New Releases: The most notable holiday film to join the Blu-ray family this year would have to be 'The Muppet Christmas Carol.' It's been 20 years since Kermit and the gang first paid homage to the Charles Dickens classic, and this surprisingly faithful adaptation mixes humor and warmth with an array of top-notch Paul Williams songs and a generous helping of Muppet lunacy to become a bona fide holiday favorite. Michael Caine makes a marvelous Scrooge, and Brian Henson's slick direction turns this family musical into a very delightful package. Also from Disney, the original 'The Santa Clause' and its saccharine sequel, 'The Santa Clause 2' join the insufferable 'The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause' on Blu-ray, at last completing the high-def transition of this popular trilogy. The clever first film is by far the best, filled with whimsy and wonder, but the sequel scores some points, too, as it charts the newly crowned Santa's search for a suitable mate. Tim Allen just might make a believer out of the crustiest naysayer, as the unassuming everyman who's tapped for arguably the biggest job in the universe, and strong supporting casts add appropriate verve to all three films. 'The Santa Clause 3' has been out on Blu-ray for five years, so it's about time Disney stepped up and released the first two films, and a special three-disc set is available for those looking to pick up the entire Santa saga.
A number of animated Christmas tales make their Blu-ray bow this season, beginning with the charming 'Arthur Christmas – 3D,' which puts a fresh spin on the age-old Santa story and features the voice talents of such esteemed actors as James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, and Bill Nighy. There's also 'Kung Fu Panda Holiday,' 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: Christmas with the Chipmunks,' 'Prep & Landing: Totally Tinsel Collection,' featuring both the original 'Prep & Landing' and the 'Naughty vs. Nice' sequel, and 'DreamWorks Holiday Classics,' which includes 'Shrek the Halls,' 'The Madagascar Penguins in a Christmas Caper,' 'Merry Madagascar,' 'Donkey's Christmas Shrektacular,' and 'Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury.' After all, what good is a franchise if it doesn't spawn a special Christmas installment?
Also on the family friendly list are two dubious sequels. While many rank 'A Christmas Story' (see below) as one of the all-time holiday masterpieces, did we really need 'A Christmas Story 2,' which takes place five years down the road and finds Ralphie eyeing a new car instead of an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle? I think not. Nor is there much purpose behind 'Santa Paws 2: The Santa Pups,' a tale of benevolent talking dogs on a mission to save Christmas that's exclusively for canine lovers. And do we really need 'An American Christmas Carol'? Isn't the British tale sufficient? I'm sure Henry Winkler makes a good Scrooge (renamed Benedict Slade here) in this 1979 TV movie, and shifting the setting to Depression-era New Hampshire adds an interesting twist, but if you crave a retelling of the inspired and inspiring holiday story, there are plenty of better options (see below).
Double Dips: Two notable double dips debuted last Christmas – one that's worth of your money and one to avoid at all costs – and they're still hanging around this year. The one that's worth an upgrade is VCI's 60th anniversary edition of the 1951 classic, 'A Christmas Carol,' starring arguably the cinema's finest Ebenezer Scrooge, Alastair Sim. This version is regarded by many as the most faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens' immortal tale, and Sim's portrayal – by turns sullen, dour, defiant, wounded, and joyously giddy – lends Scrooge more dimension than the role often receives. Though VCI initially put out 'A Christmas Carol' on Blu-ray a mere three years ago, this Diamond Edition substantially improves on that release with a slightly upgraded video transfer, lossless LPCM audio (the previous disc had a compressed track), and a slew of all-new supplements, including a fold-out, abridged reproduction of the film's American pressbook. (Note: The packaging and disc menu lists the audio as Dolby Digital 5.1, but it is indeed a lossless LPCM 5.1 track.) The second double dip – the one to steer clear of – is, surprisingly enough, a "collector's" edition of the all-time classic yuletide tale, 'It's A Wonderful Life.' I know, I know…say it ain't so! Believe me, I'm as disappointed as you. I love this film; it's an undeniable treasure and worthy of all the praise and affection heaped upon it. But this release is a travesty. The transfers (which are quite nice) and extras are exactly the same as the ones on the previously released edition, and the collector's extras – flimsy packaging, a chintzy commemorative Christmas ornament, and a generic booklet – are hardly worth the extra expense. Even if you've never purchased the movie before (and if you haven't, you need to!), go with the original Blu-ray, which takes up less shelf space and presents the emotionally affecting and inspirational (in the best sense of that word) story of George Bailey just as well as this unnecessary "upgrade."
All-Time Classics: We've already mentioned the 1951 version of 'A Christmas Carol' as well as 'It's A Wonderful Life,' both of which rank high on the list of all-time classics. (Other versions of 'A Christmas Carol' available on Blu-ray include Disney's 2009 blockbuster 3D interpretation starring chameleon Jim Carrey [available in both 3D and 2D versions] and an acclaimed 1984 television adaptation featuring the esteemed George C. Scott as the irascible Scrooge.) Not far behind them is the 1954 favorite, 'White Christmas,' a spritely Irving Berlin musical starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney. With high-spirited numbers galore, along with two renditions of the iconic title song, this breezy tale of romance and friendship ranks right up there with Hollywood's best holiday fare. Another great musical is 'Scrooge,' a buoyantly tuneful adaptation of Dickens' yuletide yarn. Starring the versatile and always impressive Albert Finney (who was just 34 years old when he tackled the iconic, miserly curmudgeon), this spritely film remains surprisingly faithful to the original novel, contains a host of memorable songs by Leslie Bricusse, and features a gallery of top British actors (Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, and Kenneth More among them) in key roles. The high quality video and audio transfers make this "spirited" film come alive even more, filling us with plenty of Christmas cheer. Though only about a third of Vincente Minnelli's classic Americana musical, 'Meet Me in St. Louis,' takes place at Christmas, the cheer quotient of this classic musical is pretty high, too, making this year-in-the-life chronicle of a typical American family circa 1904 one of the most beloved and endearing holiday movies of all time. (It covers Halloween, too!) First and foremost, it contains one of Judy Garland's finest performances, as well as a number of instantly recognizable tunes, including 'The Trolley Song,' 'The Boy Next Door,' and of course, 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,' which was written expressly for this film and performed with exceptional beauty and grace by Garland. And no discussion of classic Christmas tales would be complete without a nod to the original 'Miracle on 34th Street,' featuring an Oscar-winning performance from Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle. It's impossible not to believe in Santa Claus after watching this charming yet incisive comedy that gently reinforces the season's true meaning. Though the video quality isn't a huge upgrade from DVD, it's good enough to stuff this little beauty in your holiday stocking. (The 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, and Mara Wilson, is also available on Blu-ray, but who would ever want to see that?)
Modern Classics: If you like your annual helping of 'A Christmas Carol' a little more on the comedic side, you'll be happy with Richard Donner's 'Scrooged,' featuring Bill Murray as the Ebenezer-esque Frank Cross. With an updated take on the classic yarn that strikes a more relatable chord, and fine supporting work from such stalwarts as John Forsythe, Robert Mitchum, Karen Allen, and Alfre Woodard, this light-hearted comedy merges laughs with wonderful warmth and a bit of edgy bite, and will ultimately charm even the crustiest Christmas killjoy. Upgraded video and audio make this one a keeper. Sometimes age alone transforms a run-of-the-mill movie into a classic, and that seems to be the unfortunate fate that's befallen 1985's clunky, elephantine Kris Kringle biopic, 'Santa Claus: The Movie.' I remember loathing this bloated behemoth when it was first released, and haven't mustered the courage to see it since. Fonder (or at least more realistic) Christmas memories are explored in the nostalgic 'A Christmas Story,' the darkly comic 1983 adaptation of humorist Jean Shepherd's fictional memoir. Who among us can't identify with nine-year-old Ralphie and his dogged pursuit of his dream toy? With both wide-eyed wonder and a mischievous twinkle, this fan favorite deliciously skewers the season. And if you can't identify with Ralphie, then surely you've fantasized at least fleetingly about making your parents and/or siblings disappear, like Kevin McCallister does in 'Home Alone.' C'mon, admit it. Cute-as-a-button Macaulay Culkin battles bungling house burglars Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern after his family leaves on a Parisian vacation without him, learning a lot about independence and the meaning of Christmas in the process. Deftly juggling uproarious slapstick with honest sentiment, this John Hughes production makes us laugh and cry and appreciate the simple pleasures that make this holiday special. And speaking of Christmas vacations – or should I say "stay-cations" - no yuletide celebration is as wacky or wacked out as the one Chevy Chase and family experience in 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.' Running a close second, though, would have to be Buddy the Elf's Big Apple odyssey in Jon Favreau's surprisingly sweet, festive, and hilarious Christmas comedy, 'Elf.' As the orphan child raised at the North Pole and now on a quest to find his real family, Will Ferrell captures the essence of wide-eyed innocence, while James Caan makes a fine foil as his crusty, Scrooge-like dad.
Romantic Comedies: Christmas is certainly one of the most romantic times of the year, and two films blanket us with that warm, fuzzy feeling only a good love story can provide. 'Love, Actually' takes a mosaic approach as it chronicles the exhilaration and heartache of several couples as they navigate love's treacherous minefield. The all-star cast includes Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, and Keira Knightley, and though I'll never forgive Alan for what he does to Emma (and will never be able to listen to Joni Mitchell again without thinking about it), it's impossible not to embrace this well-crafted film. I also really like 'The Holiday' (sssshhh! Don't tell anyone!), Nancy Meyers' chick flick supreme about two lonely women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who trade houses at Christmas and find unexpected love with Jude Law and Jack Black. (I won't spoil who hooks up with whom.) It's a bit predictable and trite, but also strangely irresistible, especially if you've got the tree lit and a roaring fire in the fireplace. It's also one of the few movies in which I don't find Diaz unbearable.
Romance lovers and those who like their Christmas movies filled with inspiring messages might want to check out 'The Christmas Shoes' and its sequel, 'The Christmas Blessing,' two TV movies that emphasize the power of love, faith, and family in the face of disillusionment and despair. Rob Lowe and Kimberly Williams-Paisley star in the first film about a young boy determined to make his mother's final Christmas special, and Neil Patrick Harris plays the grown-up version of that boy in the sequel, grappling with issues from his past and strained familial relationships. 'The Most Wonderful Time of the Year' also falls into this category, with a more whimsical spin, as a harried single mother (Brooke Burns) and cynical son find the true meaning of the season, thanks to jovial Uncle Ralph (Henry Winkler) and the hunky stranger (Warren Christie) he brings home for the holidays.
Animated Fare: When I was a kid, one of the few things that could help speed the interminable wait between Thanksgiving and Christmas was the steady stream of children's holiday specials that flooded the network airwaves, and now almost all my favorites are now available on Blu-ray! Leading the charge are such perennially delightful programs as 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' (let Linus tell your family "what Christmas is all about") and 'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' as well as a must-have box set called 'The Original Christmas Classics.' And classics they are! 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' (narrated by Burl Ives), 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town' (narrated by Fred Astaire), and 'Frosty the Snowman' and 'Frosty Returns' are all included. Also high on the animated list is another top-notch entry, 'The Year Without a Santa Claus,' featuring the talents of Mickey Rooney and Shirley Booth as the beleaguered Mr. and Mrs. Claus, as well as one of the lesser titles in the Rankin/Bass catalogue, 1974's ''Twas the Night Before Christmas,' which was inspired by Clement Moore's immortal poem and deals with the timeworn premise of doubting Santa's existence. Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes, and George Gobel are among the stars who lend their voices to this charming tale. For Disney fans, 'Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas,' the direct-to-video companion to the acclaimed original, takes place while Belle is still a prisoner in the Beast's castle, and finds the lovely heroine on a mission to celebrate Christmas with festive cheer, much to the chagrin of her hairy and humbug captor. Though a far cry from its parent film, both artistically and thematically, 'The Enchanted Christmas' may not be 100% enchanting, but it provides enough tuneful warmth to satisfy audiences of all ages. There's even a cartoon adaptation of Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' starring the myopic Mr. Magoo – 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.' For those who prefer more innovative animated fare, check out Tim Burton's ghoulishly delightful 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' and Robert Zemeckis' magical 'The Polar Express,' which is available in both flat and 3D versions. Remember, it's never too early to get your kids addicted to high-def discs.
Quirky Christmas: Viewers with more offbeat taste may find these curios interesting… 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,' the 1964 cult classic about the abduction of Santa to the Red Planet, arrives at last on Blu-ray in a newly restored edition from Kino, while 'Santa Claus' is a 1959 Spanish language film from Mexico that checks in at #54 on IMDb's list of Bottom 100 Films (as rated by site users) and charts St. Nick's battle with the devil Pitch, who's determined to – you guessed it – ruin Christmas. Tyler Perry's indefatigable character Madea is also on a mission to save the holiday when family strife and secrets threaten to sabotage it in 'A Madea Christmas: The Play,' while a homosexual college student (Keith Jordan) crawls back into the closet to survive the holidays with his conservative parents (Derek Long and Kelly Keaton) until his boyfriend (Adamo Ruggiero) unexpectedly shows up in the warm-hearted comedy 'Make the Yuletide Gay.'
Turkeys: We all love turkey around the holidays, except when it comes to movies, and there are a couple of rancid offerings that will only serve to sour us on the season. Despite a strong cast that includes Oscar-winners Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Jon Voight, make sure you keep away from 'Four Christmases,' a tiresome slapstick comedy about a selfish couple (Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn) who visit a quartet of quirky, annoying, even frightening relatives when their balmy Christmas plans get canceled. Equally wretched is 'Deck the Halls,' a tiresome, completely unfunny chronicle of neighbors (Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito) trying to outdo and ultimately sabotage the other's massive holiday light displays. Thankfully, 'Christmas with the Kranks' hasn't yet found a Blu-ray release, and if studio executives are smart, it never will.
Dozens of other holiday Blu-rays are available to brighten (or darken) this Christmas, from traditional Yule log presentations and concerts to irreverent black comedies ('Bad Santa'), action flicks (I always enjoy giving the original 'Die Hard' a spin over the holidays) and, yes, even horror films. ('Silent Night,' a remake of the 1984 slasher flick 'Silent Night, Deadly Night' that chronicles the deadly rampage of a psycho axe murderer disguised as Santa, joining 'Silent Night, Zombie Night,' an equally bloody yuletide exercise from last season, and the always entertaining 'Gremlins.'). But for those who desire a well-balanced, family-friendly selection that plays well from year to year, you can't go wrong with any of the above choices (well, maybe with the exception of 'Santa Claus: The Movie,' 'Four Christmases,' and 'Deck the Halls'). So plop a few marshmallows in your hot chocolate, grab a comfy blanket, light that fire, and let these movies infuse you with seasonal spirit. Happy Holidays!!