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How the Toys Saved Christmas DVD Review (2011 Echo Bridge Edition)

How the Toys Saved Christmas: 2011 Echo Bridge DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com How the Toys Saved Christmas
Movie & DVD Details

Italian Theatrical Release: August 28, 1996 / US Video Premiere: October 21, 1997 / Running Time: 78 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Enzo d'Alς / Writers: Enzo d'Alς, Umberto Marino (screenplay); Gianni Rodari (fairy tale "La Freccia Azzurra"); Shelly Altman (English language script)

English Voice Cast: Mary Tyler Moore (Granny Rose), Tony Randall (Mr. Grimm), Neil Shee (Santa Claus), Walter Massey (Mr. Tinker), Michael Caloz (Christopher Winter), Sonja Ball (Jingles), Richard M. Dumont (Conductor, Skipper), Arthur Holden (Traindriver), Thor Bishopric (Pilot), Joanna Noyes (Maid, Ticket Seller), Jane Woods (Milford), Susan Glover (Alfred), Holly Frankle (Holly), Maggie Castle (Polly), Garry Jewell (Wizard, Statue), Mark Camacho (Rascal, Rocko), Bruce Dinsmore (Mr. Potter, Red Pencil), Terry Scammel (Chief, Green Pencil), Michael Rudder (Trainman, Theodore), Rick Jones (Duck, General Lajoie)

1.33:1 Fullscreen / Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: August 23, 2011 / Suggested Retail Price: $6.99
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5) / Black Keepcase
Available September 13th as DVD + Bonus Christmas Music CD set ($6.99 SRP)
Previously released on DVD by Buena Vista Home Video (December 9, 2003)

Buy How the Toys Saved Christmas from Amazon.com: DVD • DVD with Bonus Christmas Music CD

So numerous are Christmas movies and television specials that you could devote an entire year to watching nothing else and you'd probably barely make a dent, even excluding the epic, ever-expanding canon of Christmas-themed, regularly scheduled TV show episodes. Limit your seasonal viewing to the typical,
fashionable (and, some would say, excessive) two months and it is inevitable that you'll never discover the vast majority of filmed entertainment dealing with the holiday. One such thing you'd be almost certain to miss is How the Toys Saved Christmas, an animated 1996 Italian film titled La Freccia Azzurra (The Blue Arrow) in its native country, where it was the first production of Turin-based Magic Lantern.

This movie made its way over to America in 1997 as a direct-to-video release from The Walt Disney Company's Buena Vista Home Video, with TV legends Mary Tyler Moore and Tony Randall leading the English dub's voice cast, but that did remarkably little to challenge this cartoon's obscurity. As did a DVD release in 2003. As will this 2011 reissue from Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, who has inherited this title and hundreds other belonging to the Miramax Films library Disney recently sold.

In this case, the obscurity is well deserved. How the Toys Saved Christmas is an utterly unremarkable film that it's tough to imagine any child of the 1990s or today developing and maintaining an appreciation for.

These toys try to save Christmas in "How the Toys Saved Christmas." Evil Mr. Grimm (voiced by Tony Randall) isn't at ease flying on Granny Rose's broomstick.

Echo Bridge's new cover artwork is decidedly misleading. Its picture of a classical, human Santa Claus looking inside his bag of toys leads one to expect at least a live-action/animation hybrid, but this is strictly a cel cartoon. And those toys, so tiny on the cover, are most definitely some of the leading characters, featuring infinitely more than this misplaced Santa and his inexplicable white puppy.

I would love to know the rationale for such a cover design. Is the studio hoping hurried customers will mistake it for this year's holiday Buddies movie (of which there is none, for the first time since 2008), gift it, and not realize their mistake until it's been opened and disappointingly watched? A parent would have to be tremendously hurried and illiterate to make such a goof. Maybe there's hope that customers could mistake this for the fondly-recalled 1984 TV movie The Night They Saved Christmas, which has still not been released to DVD in the US? Another long shot, I know. But I'm at a loss to make sense of downplaying the film's animated nature; surely, animated children's videos have traditionally outsold live-action ones, the bestselling Buddies movies being the recent exception.

As if you couldn't tell, I've been putting off talking about the movie itself. That's because there's not a whole lot to say. This doesn't even lend itself to interesting criticism.

Granny Rose (voiced by Mary Tyler Moore) uses her authority to get benevolent orphan Christopher Winter released from prison. This statue lends some advice to the little toy pilot.

Our story presumably takes place in a magical version of then-present-day Italy, although it is based on a 1964 children's book (also titled La Freccia Azzurra) by Gianni Rodari.

Christopher Winter and the other children of the Foundling Home orphanage hope that local witch Granny Rose (voiced by Mary Tyler Moore), who makes Santa's deliveries in this town, will bring them toys for Christmas.
But Granny Rose is sick and bedridden. In her place, her newly-hired assistant Mr. Grimm (Tony Randall) sees an opportunity to turn his greed into financial gain, by depriving the children their annual Christmas Eve delivery and then selling the toys to their parents at a tidy profit.

When the toys catch wind of it, they aren't at all cool with Grimm's plan. The figurines and dolls, which include half-bearded sea captain Skipper, Jingles the dog, a French general, a pipe-smoking Indian, a cranky wizard, two girls in dresses, and a wind-up duck, take it upon themselves to reach the children they are meant for. After all, if they don't, the kids will stop believing in Christmas and we can't have that now, can we? The small playthings, traveling in part in the eponymous Blue Arrow, an expensive scale model of a real train, try to find their way to their intended recipients, while also eluding Grimm, who is not at ease on Granny Rose's flying broom. Meanwhile, Christopher runs into some trouble when a couple of punks use him to aid their criminality.

It's tough to believe that anyone saw transatlantic appeal in this project, let alone with enough confidence and resolve to get Moore and Randall to lend their support. The animation looks ten years behind its times and the storytelling is as bland and childish as any film I've seen running a standard feature length. Some charm emerges from the quaintness and Europeanness, but not enough to keep you invested or to have you warm to a single one of the whiny, thinly-drawn characters. Animation has survived as a leading art form because it has the power to play to a wide audience, without even assuming the something-for-kids, something-for-adults design of today's irony-laden CGI comedies. How the Toys Saved Christmas, however, will lack appeal for nearly all ages, its juvenile style too flimsy to support the story it wants to tell and yet its presentation being too talkative and humorless to win over the easily-wooed toddler sect.

The project's exportation seems especially curious when you consider the cultural refashioning it required. For instance, Santa's many mentions and his role as unseen narrator appear to be invented here, not fitting into the Italian lore of La Befana, who Granny Rose clearly represents, a fact that sets the original film not at Christmas, but on Epiphany Eve (January 5th). The one brief appearance made by Santa is in fact just a costume worn by Christopher's evidently dead father in a strange, horse-drawn carriage dream. Even after the extensive Americanization efforts, we still have a story where Santa's work is done by a witch, further calling into question that bizarre cover art.

In the movie's apex of both artistry and randomness, these colored pencils show their new owner their idea of a good time. Jingles becomes a real dog in the focal center of Echo Bridge's three-montage DVD main menu.

VIDEO and AUDIO

How the Toys Saved Christmas is presented in 1.33:1 "full screen." Who knows if that is its intended aspect ratio? The movie seems to have played theatrically in at least a few European countries. Coming forty years after the change to widescreen, it's believable that it would have been exhibited in dimensions wider than those of standard televisions of the time. But it could very well have been created with TV and home video in mind and simply matted for theaters.
The framing looks fine here. The picture meanwhile, looks like an old video master. There are some tiny specks and infrequent lines, but more troubling is the rampant interlacing, faded colors, and general lack of clarity. If you think you'll see a better transfer of this without the Miramax library changing hands again, you are mistaken.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is okay. The dub's lip-synch is surprisingly quite good, though it is undoubtedly helped by the animation's imprecision. The audio is just as fine as a 1990s cartoon should be. It's unfortunate, though, that Echo Bridge couldn't be bothered to supply either closed captions or subtitles, when Disney's DVD probably had one or both. At least, it's not like they would have come in handy for screenwriting professors. If you expect to find the original Italian audio here, then you don't know Miramax.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

There are neither bonus features nor playback options here. We do get an animated menu, which runs clips on the studio's ordinary triptych of screens while choral score plays. The film is broken into a reasonable fifteen chapters. There are no inserts or distinguishing features to the Eco-Lite keepcase. Well, perhaps it's worth noting that the disc's reformatting of the cover art results in a big hole in the dubious Santa Claus' head.

Half-bearded sea captain Skipper and his fellow playthings are surprised to see the real, large Blue Arrow coming their way in "How the Toys Saved Christmas."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I guess had no business expecting anything special from a movie as obscure as How the Toys Saved Christmas. In spite of my loves of Christmas, animation, and the '90s, this thin Italian cartoon did absolutely nothing for me, but I'm willing to place part of the blame on Miramax's deculturization efforts. I would guess that Echo Bridge's DVD is comparable to the movie's original one, only without subtitles or closed captions and with a preposterous cover. There's no reason to think of this as an upgrade, aside from returning the film to print and giving it the super low list price of $6.99.

While I've said enough to discourage any interest in this, if you refuse to be deterred, then at least take note: Echo Bridge is releasing this same DVD three weeks later with a bonus 10-track audio CD entitled Christmas Magic included at no extra cost. And though I doubt the unspecified music is any more magical than the film it accompanies, at least such a purchase would only be seven weeks prior to the early accepted "holiday season" start date of November 1st, as opposed to an inconceivable ten.

Buy How the Toys Saved Christmas from Amazon.com: New DVD / DVD + Christmas Music CD

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
New: Rio • Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil • The Fox and the Hound & The Fox and the Hound 2 • Mars Needs Moms
Animation in the 1990s: Toy Story • James and the Giant Peach • Hugo the Movie Star (with Go, Hugo, Go)
Christmas in the 1990s: The Santa Clause • Jingle All the Way • The Nightmare Before Christmas • Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving
Holiday Movies featuring "Mary Tyler Moore" Cast Members: The Christmas Star • Elf (both starring Ed Asner)
Tony Randall: The Odd Couple: The Third Season | Mary Tyler Moore: The Golden Girls: Lifetime Intimate Portrait Series
European Animation: A Town Called Panic | Christmas Movies: In Search of Santa • Santa Claus: The Movie

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Reviewed August 21, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1996 La Lanterna Magica, Fama Film, Monipoly Productions, 1997 Miramax Films, and 2011 Echo Bridge Home Entertainment.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.