DVD Review: Shaun the Sheep: We Wish Ewe A Merry Christmas

Hi again!

Before you ask, yes I know it’s not quite Thanksgiving and I’m reviewing a Christmas-themed DVD. My family will be the first to tell you I’m a bit of a Grinch when it comes to the holidays. After working one holiday season in a mall with Christmas music playing 24/7, it pretty much burned away any love I had for decorations and forced holiday spirit. That said, I have a soft spot buried deep for the core thought around that time of year: ‘Tis better to give than receive.

Sometimes a product will sneak through my defenses and tickle that small bit of holiday spirit I have left. When you take a set of characters I already know and love – Shaun the Sheep and the rest of the gang on the farm – and offer holiday-themed stories that are both entertaining and heart-warming, how can I resist? Shaun the Sheep: We Wish Ewe A Merry Christmas offers seven five-minute episodes from the Shaun the Sheep series by the creator of Wallace & Gromit. And every episode is a delight.

As I’ve mentioned before in other DVD reviews, this series takes stop-motion claymation techniques and uses numerous slapstick, silent film, and Vaudville techniques to present fun, heartfelt stories without the use of speech. It’s more akin to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Keystone Kops than most modern animated shows (except maybe for the first half of Disney/Pixar’s WALL-E). Though the animals and human characters sometimes make noises, it’s the gestures, expressions, and actions that are used to tell the tale. And the animators at Aardman have this style of storytelling down to an art that continues to amaze me episode after episode.

Shaun the Sheep: We Wish Ewe A Merry Christmas is the first holiday-themed DVD from Lionsgate, HiT entertainment, and Aardman featuring Shaun and the whole cast, and it doesn’t disappoint. There is plenty of winter mayhem to be had by these lovable characters. Three of my favorite episodes in the collection are “Fireside Favorite,” “An Ill Wind,” and “Shirley Whirley,” but my daughters’ favorite was the title episode “We Wish Ewe a Merry Christmas.”

In “We Wish Ewe a Merry Christmas,” Shaun, Bitzer, and the rest of the gang see the Farmer is going to be spending Christmas Day alone and they can’t have that. They all work through the night, finding a Christmas tree, locating directions, making presents, and getting it all set up before the Farmer wakes up on Christmas morning. It’s that kind of holiday spirit that warms my Grinch heart a bit, so I was happy that Santa Claus also made an appearance to help them out!

“Fireside Favorite” sees Bitzer suffering from a cold. When the Farmer brings him inside to rest and recuperate, Pidsley the Cat gets mad because the dog is in his spot in front of the fire! It becomes an all out battle between the cat and the sheep to keep Bitzer inside where he can get over the cold. Don’t worry though, karma eventually catches up with Pidsley…

With “An Ill Wind,” the Farmer gets an electricity bill with a truly staggering amount and decides to do something about it. He builds a windmill and hooks it up to provide electricity for his house. But somehow I doubt he planned on it becoming an amusement park ride for the sheep which leads to all sorts of fun with the Farmer’s TV set!

Lastly, there was “Shirley Whirley.” If you’ve seen any episodes, you know Shirley as the biggest sheep of the flock and a virtual eating machine. But when she gets so big that Shaun has to enlist help to push her out of the barn, Shaun knows he has to do something… So he puts Shirley on wheels and sets up a remote control to drive her around the farm. Unfortunately, the Farmer’s TV remote seems to be on the same channel, which sends the big sheep zipping all over the place causing havoc!

If you have little ones, they will probably like Timmy Time, which is a Shaun the Sheep spinoff for preschoolers. Included on the DVD is a sneak peek of the show featuring “Timmy’s Tune #1.” Also included is a “Sheep Shearing Game,” but it’s a bit clunky and gets very repetitive for little replay variable.

Shaun the Sheep is always a favorite at our house and whether you’re 1 or 100 I bet you’ll enjoy their antics too! Shaun the Sheep: We Wish Ewe A Merry Christmas is available now!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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DVD Review: The First Easter Rabbit, Deluxe Edition

Hi all…

Most of the kids I grew up with expected the Easter Bunny to arrive at their house before Easter morning, leaving behind baskets of candy and multi-colored eggs and hidden surprises around the house or yard to try and find. And inevitably he would appear, like clockwork, on Easter morning. We’ve been trying to keep that tradition alive with our kids now, so I was pleased to see The First Easter Rabbit, Deluxe Edition released on DVD for the holiday this year.

Originally airing in 1976, The First Easter Rabbit tells the story of how a lovable little stuffed bunny became the first Easter Bunny ever and how he was helped that first year by Santa Claus! This animated special was done by Rankin/Bass – founded originally by Arthur Rankin, Jr and Jules Bass – who were famous for making stop-motion holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town and many more between 1960 and 1980.

Though it was done in traditional 2D animation, not stop-motion, The First Easter Rabbit tells a story somewhat based on The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. In the special, a little girl gets a stuffed rabbit for Christmas and calls him “Stuffy.” Unfortunately, she gets Scarlet Fever and her doctor orders all of her clothes and toys taken away and burned in case they may be carrying the disease on them and thus prevent her from getting better. Stuffy the stuffed rabbit is saved by a fairy who brings him to life and sends him off to Easter Valley – a magical place at the North Pole where it’s always springtime.

Unfortunately, a mean-hearted person called Zero doesn’t like the fact that he can’t make it snow in Easter Valley. Zero is in charge of keeping the North Pole cold and seems to have control issues. He knows there’s a magic flower in the valley that keeps the winter away, but he can’t find a way into the valley to steal it.

With help from some rabbit friends Stuffy meets on the way to the valley, and a little help from Santa Claus, Stuffy finds a way to bring baskets of Easter goodies to the kids in the town with the little girl, who has gotten better.

Though The First Easter Rabbit isn’t my favorite of the Rankin/Bass productions of the era, I have to admit that I hadn’t seen it since it aired in the mid-70s. And it was nice to be able to share its message of hope and celebration with my two daughters. And it’s tough to beat Burl Ives, who not only narrates the show, but sings the song “The Easter Parade.” There’s something magical about Ives’ voice, who was a part of many of the Rankin/Bass productions.

If you’re looking for a good Easter gift, pick up a copy of The First Easter Rabbit, Deluxe Edition and hide it away for next year’s Easter basket!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other Easter treats below!

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DVD Review: A Miser Brothers’ Christmas

Hi there!

In the stop-motion style of the great Rankin/Bass from the 1960s and 70s, A Miser Brothers’ Christmas has come on the scene just in time for the holidays. From Warner Brothers Animation and Cuppa Coffee Studios, this story picks up after the events of the 1974 classic The Year Without a Santa Claus… The Miser Brothers, Heat Miser and Snow Miser, are still fighting after all these years. But this time they’re joined by the rest of Mother Natures’ family to tell a brand new musical tale.

Rankin/Bass were responsible for many of the great holiday specials that still air between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year. First there was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, then others such as Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and many others. Like the Peanuts holiday specials from Charles M. Schultz that remind us the holidays are near, it’s hard to imagine a Christmas without hearing songs like “Silver and Gold” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” sung by Burl Ives during these animated gems.

To say I was surprised anyone was thinking of continuing the Rankin/Bass series would be an understatement when I heard about this new special. In my mind, nothing could really compete with the originals, though I was interested to see if these animators did more than just ride the coattails of what had come before.

We were delighted to see the creators of A Miser Brothers’ Christmas did their very best to do justice to the Rankin/Bass tradition. And as I watched with my two daughters, I could see this was going to be another big hit at our house for Christmases to come.

In the beginning of the show, Heat Miser and Snow Miser head off to a family reunion with Mother Nature and the rest of her children around the world – including the Tides, Lightning and Thunder, Earthquake, and the North Wind. The North Wind, a bit of a “Mama’s Boy,” asked Mother Nature what might happen if Santa couldn’t deliver toys. And she offhandedly tells him that he could take control in that case… And that’s where things get interesting.

Meanwhile, Santa Claus is testing a new super sleigh created by his chief mechanic, Tinsel. The North Wind sends his minions to sabotage the sleigh and Santa crashes near the Miser Brothers’ mountains and hurts his back. The Misers think it’s their fault that he crashed, and so does their mother. So they’re assigned the task of helping out at the North Pole while Santa gets back on his feet. And all this time, the North Wind works his fiendish schemes to take control of Christmas himself.

Though some of the songs are a bit over the top for me, my daughters were singing right along with them about half the time. These are meant to be larger than life characters teaching a lesson about greed, getting along and doing the right thing. I think the animators succeeded in doing so in their 44 minute special.

Also included on the DVD is the feature “What Makes Stop Motion Go?” which focuses on the many aspects of pulling this film together. It took nine and a half months to create it and many different teams to get things right, from the animators and set designers, to the costumers and voice actors, and even the digital magicians who helped pull things together with a few CGI effects here and there. We were all entranced as the various people involved explained what they did. You could tell each of them wanted things to be just perfect.

Evidently this special aired in December 2008 during ABC Family‘s “The 25 Days of Christmas” programming. Somehow we missed it last year when it was on but were delighted to see it on DVD this holiday season. If you’re looking for another great holiday special to share with your kids, this is a good one to add to your holiday arsenal!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great holiday specials below!

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