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In Search of Santa DVD Review

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Movie & DVD Details

Director: William R. Kowalchuk

Voice Cast: Hilary Duff (Princess Crystal), Haylie Duff (Princess Lucinda), Kathleen Barr (Agonysia, Mrs. Claus, Queen Penelope, Katie), Scott McNeil (Mortmottimes, Bubkus Bill, Timebomb Tom), Garry Chalk (Derridommis, Cap'n Cragg), Dale Wilson (King Calvin), Lee Tokar (Max, Phillip, Pup), Jason Michas (Eugene, Gardener Elf)

Running Time: 80 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned

Release Date: November 23, 2004
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5); Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase


In Search of Santa tells the story of twin princess penguins from the South Pole, Crystal and Lucinda. As the first one to hatch, Crystal lays claim to the throne, something that annoys Lucinda from birth.

Now somewhat grown up, kindhearted, goldilocked Crystal (voiced by Hilary Duff) is a bit of a klutz. Crimson mop-topped Lucinda (voiced by her sister Haylie Duff) feels she should be future queen. A trio of intellects known as The Terribly Deep Thinkers concur with Lucinda, but King Calvin and Queen Penelope won't hear of it.

Things change when Crystal goes out on a walk one night with her friend (and maybe more) Eugene, who most of the penguins have branded as a fool. Crystal is struck by a jingle bell from above and shortly after discovers a book (apparently there are human residents at the South Pole too) and learns all about Santa Claus. She is certain that he's real.

The Deep Thinkers and the others consider the princess's assertion ludicrous and sacrilege. There's a big court fuss (you know those bureaucratic penguins), and since Crystal won't reject Santa, she loses her rite to the throne. This pleases the Deep Thinkers and the envious Lucinda who they've encouraged to spy on Crystal and now has become the royal heir.

Lucinda and Crystal make an entrance on their hatchday. The Terribly Deep Thinkers plot to serve their own interests in a not terribly deep film.

To prove she's right about Santa, Crystal sets off in a raft for the North Pole. Lucy joins her, as does a baby seal they rescue from a killer whale. The two sisters and their new pet (dubbed Pup) are picked up by a group of pirates headed by the Nefarious Cap'n Cragg. The pirates agree to take their captives to the North Pole, with the secret plan to tap into some of Santa's riches when they get there.

While the royal penguins are off globetrotting, back home the Terribly Deep Thinkers wish to consider the monarch's daughters dead and name a successor for their own agenda. Meanwhile, the girls' inevitable arrival at the North Pole introduces Santa (whose hair, eyebrows, and beard appear to be made out of flat sheets of cotton), who can apparently do martial arts and whose greatest device is a magic looking glass.

The most noticeable thing about In Search of Santa is that it is lacking both visually and structurally. The film's low-budget animation, from a production company named Colorland, possesses the polished, usually undesired look that doesn't make anyone for a second suspect that this was done on anything but a computer. The clunky-looking visuals don't succeed in conveying realism (apparently not a goal) or even convincing, alive cartoons. Instead, the film is inhabited by lifeless characters and mostly dull environments, both lacking the detail that the medium is capable of.

'Nefarious' Cap'n Cragg and his two lackeys are both good news and trouble. Eugene, the object of Crystal's affections and holder of baby seal Pup.

You may not notice right away why the animation feels weak, but it's mostly in the details. Compare the immobility of things like hair and fur here with the way Pixar has so masterfully brought their creations to life. It's almost as if the final step of computer animation - the lighting and shading - has been skipped. That department has not done a very strong job, when the result resembles an in-progress stage of the production demos on Pixar's DVDs. I wasn't surprised that this film called to mind for me the recently-released Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas, which had its own shortcomings in the visuals department, but is nonetheless bounds above the animation here. If anything, the point to take is that as technology continues to advance, it may be easier for studios to make full-length computer animated features (which was not yet achieved just ten years ago) but the wide gap in quality which exists allows for some CGI films to various poor-looking degrees.

As evident as the dull visual aspect is the uninspired nature of the story. There are a couple of amusing lines, but for the most part the script is as stale as the blocky character renderings. The film includes three musical numbers, which show glimmers of inspiration. But ultimately, the film chooses to cover the penguins' quest to the North Pole in a humdrum way reminiscent of the highly derivative Ice Age from Fox and Blue Sky. Things can't be too bright when the line delivered with the most spirit and force is "Follow the seal!"

The pacing and simple characters definitely cater to only the youngest and most undiscerning of viewers. These children won't know who Hilary or Haylie Duff are, so their casting seems to be in vein, aside from the prominent cover listing which may well prove to be the film's most alluring marketing push. Certainly, the Duff sisters don't seek to do anything memorable with their lead roles, but at least they weren't repeating the same sounds for a barrage of secondary characters the way the remainder of the stock voice cast is.

I'm sure there has been worse direct-to-video animated fare than In Search of Santa, but that's about as hearty a compliment I can give it. At its best, the film occasionally calls to mind some other holiday specials (the icy setting had me yearning for Rankin/Bass's Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Again, when the high point is to be merely reminiscent of something far better, the film has not succeeded in challenging, engaging, or even entertaining. Yes, it's colorful and somewhat lively, but you can do far better for your children and yourself.

Oh no! A weightless-looking bear is unrealistically chasing after me! Like everyone else in the film, Santa is a little bit creepy...looking!

VIDEO and AUDIO

There are no problems in the video department; the 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer faithfully presents the computer animation as rendered. As such, there isn't a great deal to say about the transfer, as the digital presentation merely conveys the colors and look of CGI animation that's not grade-A quality.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack provides a strong audio experience. The mix makes fine use of all speakers, and captures the environments aptly. There's a good amount of bass, and directional effects do serve the film well. The synthesizer-heavy instrumentals may not be my idea of great Christmas-y music, but it is adequately presented here.

In Search of Santa's Main Menu Haylie and Hilary Duff talk briefly on voicing penguins in the DVD's lone bonus feature.

BONUS FEATURES

There's just one bonus, a 3-minute featurette titled "In the Recording Studio with Hilary and Haylie Duff". With such a short running time, this obviously doesn't go into any depth on the making of the film. Instead, it offers some interview clips and footage of the Duff sisters stretching their vocal talents behind the microphones. Very briefly, they discuss their characters compared to their real personalities and the challenges of doing an animated voice. They don't explain why they're doing this film, but as they're the reason most people will see this work, I'm sure the filmmakers are glad they did. This extra definitely seems more like something to put on the DVD case than something to enlighten viewers and fans.

At the start of the disc, there are a few previews in Dolby Digital 5.1: the theatrical trailer for The Incredibles and spots for Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas and Eloise at Christmastime on DVD. The Sneak Peeks menu includes a second page with DVD previews of Power Rangers: DinoThunder, The Paul McCartney Music and Animation Collection and The Bear/The Animal Train double feature.

The entirely static and silent 16x9 menus feature colorful artwork from the film.

Crystal and Lucinda give their best emotionless faces. This disappointing realization of The North Pole seems more like the work of fledgling animation students than a film bearing a major studio name.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Not enough effort seems to have gone into this direct-to-video feature. It's not just that the animation is distractingly bland, but the characters and story are as well. I would imagine that the makers of In Search of Santa hope that the appeal of computer animation, Christmas, and the Duff sisters will encourage people to check their movie out.

But that appeal remains at the surface, as a useful marketing department recipe. Beyond that facade is a film whose makers have failed in their chief task to create something of substance and worth. In Search of Santa is not outright bad as much as it is forgettable fare that may only satisfy the youngest and most undiscerning viewers. In spite of its low price, with the number of great holiday films and specials that the years have given us, it's not hard to skip In Search of Santa in favor of something better that it can only echo at best.

More on the DVD

UltimateDisney.com | Review Index | Direct-to-Video Page | Disney's Christmas Films

More Holiday DVD Reviews
Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas | Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year
One Magic Christmas | The Christmas Star | I'll Be Home for Christmas

Also Starring Hilary Duff
"Lizzie McGuire" Box Set Volume 1

Reviewed November 21, 2004.

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