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August 2007

Those of you who are long-time supporters of this site know that more than anything else I am a supporter not so much of widescreen as I am of retaining the original aspect ratio (OAR) of any type of video medium. If a movie was made to be in widescreen, then it should only be shown in widescreen. If a move was made in Academy, then it should only be shown in Academy, which you probably know by its more popular euphemism, "full frame".

Remember way back when to February 2004. I received word that the first season of the TV series "Kung Fu" was about to be released on DVD in 16:9. Unfortunately, the series was filmed in 4:3, not 16:9. Releasing a widescreen version of a non-widescreen TV show was wrong. It was wrong then; it is still wrong. Apparently, all of us who support OAR and were outraged by this made an impact on Warner Home Video. The following seasons were all released in the appropriate 4:3 format. (Note, however, that the first season is still only available in 16:9 format.)

Sadly, it's happening again.

VCI Entertainment has announced that they will be releasing a two-disc, special edition of the 1951 release of United Artists' "A Christmas Carol" starring Alastair Sim on 23 October, at least in the U.S. This version is probably my favorite version, although I think that Patrick Stewart did a superb job in his remake a few years ago. This DVD release, however, is trying to be a release for everyone. As a result, VCI is doing several things that make my skin crawl in their effort to pander to the lowest, common denominator.

The movie will be digitally remastered from the original 35mm negatives. That should guarantee that the video and audio quality to be superb if the remastering process was done properly. It will also contain the 1935 version of "Scrooge" starring Seymour Hicks. I'm not sure why they're adding that, but I'm not going to argue. I've never seen that version, so it will be interesting to watch. Several featurettes are included, but not all of them are directly related to the movie itself, such as one titled "Charles Dickens His Life & Times". The original American and British theatrical trailers are also included.

With all of that, I can see why an 83 minute, black-and-white movie might deserve a two-disc set. Unfortunately, the real reasons why this is a two-disc set disgust me.

First, they are including a 16:9 version of the movie. This version of "A Christmas Carol" was released in 1951 before the widescreen process was used. It was filmed with a standard, Academy aspect ratio of 4:3 using the normal, spherical method. This movie should never be shown in widescreen!

Here we go, folks. I get to boast an "I told you so" moment - unfortunately. I warned you long ago that as 16:9 TVs become the norm, this sort of problem will rear its ugly head more and more often. I am of course assuming that they are chopping off the top and bottom to make it into a 16:9 frame. I cannot imagine that they would actually pillarbox the 4:3 image into an anamorphic, 16:9 signal. They are then daring to say that this version is "enhanced" for 16:9 monitors. Any method that distorts the aspect ratio of a movie can hardly qualify as "enhanced". This is indeed a degradation of the movie.

The other abomination is that they are also including a colorized version of the movie. In yet another attempt to woo the lowest common denominator, this glorious movie is being subjected to colorization. What is so wrong with black-and-white? The old, grainy black-and-white stock gives these old movies a character that modern movies don't have and cannot be adequately duplicated in post-processing. The movie was not filmed with color stock. I refuse to break with my consistent feelings regarding the theatrical presentation of movies. As a result, I completely dislike colorization just as much as I dislike pan-and-scan or artificial widescreen. Of all of the processes that can be done to improperly display a movie, VCI is implementing two of them in this release.

I'm surprised that they didn't go ahead and create these with newly remastered, 7.1 channel, surround sound with new theme music as sung by some modern singer and with all of the special effects completely redone through CGI. After all, if they're going to dishonor the movie with false widescreen and colorization, they might as well complete the triad and make the audio something other than what it originally was.

The colorization is disturbing enough; but unfortunately as Joe Q. Public buys more and more 16:9 TVs, they are still going to want their movies to "fill the screen". As a result, 4:3 movies and TV shows are going to end up getting the "Super 35" treatment instead of a more appropriate pillar-box transfer. I can just about guarantee that false widescreen releases will continue as 4:3 TVs are weeded out. Rather than take this opportunity to push the idea of OAR, the studios instead will shift their fear from people who complain about black bars on the top and bottom to those same people who will then be complaining about black bars on the sides. Heaven forbid that anyone be distraught because the movie doesn't fill their new, widescreen TVs and that the movie doesn't have any color, even if it was never in widescreen and never had color in the first place.

Granted, VCI is at least making the original, black-and-white version available. So, I can't call this DVD set a loss, especially with an MSRP of US$19.99. That's a lot of material for the price. But I'll feel very dirty putting my money down for this, thus potentially validating the disturbing trend that awaits 4:3 movies, especially those in black-and-white.

Until next time...