Home Video Hovel: Melies: Fairy Tales in Color, by David Bax
Flicker Alley has made a kind of cottage industry out of releasing Georges Méliès’ short films on home video. But that’s not to imply that they’re cynically packaging and repackaging the same content over and over again. On the contrary, it’s almost amazing how each volume they put out seems to be more essential than the last. This time around, they’re expanding on the promise of last year’s release of Méliès’ landmark “A Trip to the Moon” in its original 1902 colors. That one is available here again but, with Méliès: Fairy Tales in Color, it’s only one of thirteen shorts, all restored from hand-painted nitrate prints and original camera negatives, many available for the first time on Blu-ray in the romantically, dreamily colorful way Méliès intended.
This collection may stretch the definition of “fairy tales” to include popular stories like those of Robinson Crusoe and Rip Van Winkle and even dramatizations of real life figures like Joan of Arc but the spirit of the term is honored by Méliès’ whimsicality and flirtations with darkness. The title of the release also hints at its goal of being kid-friendly. In fact, many of the shorts are available to watch with narration, turning the experience into a magical story time.
Some parents, though, may bristle at the thought of showing parts of this material to their children. Like with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, these can include some horror-level violence, like a demon tossing innocent humans into a fiery pot in “The Infernal Cauldron” or hellish minions roasting a man on a spit in “The Merry Frolics of Satan,” a particularly upsetting turn in an otherwise lighthearted entry.
On the other hand, if your goal is to teach your kids about mise en scène, look no further. Méliès wasn’t just a trickster and pioneer of in-camera special effects (though there’s plenty of that, from the dancing skeleton of “Whimsical Illusions” to the underwater land of “The Kingdom of Fairies”); he also knew how to artfully frame and block a scene like a classical painter, especially in crowd scenes like those in “Joan of Arc” or “Rip’s Dream.” The latter also includes imagery that is downright psychedelic, like a giant snake that keeps on wriggling around after it’s been chopped up until the individual pieces all suddenly turn into human beings. “Robinson Crusoe,” meanwhile, features a trompe l’oeil of a shipwreck that is nearly a befuddling optical illusion. And I’m fairly certain that “Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship” was directly referenced by David Lynch in the Twin Peaks revival. Not that that’s a surprise. Cinema has been quoting Méliès for over a century now.
Flicker Alley’s presentation features restorations by Lobster Films that are pretty spectacular given the age of the materials. There are the slight density fluctuations that come from scanning older and potentially warped film and, of course, some dirt and scratches. But overall clarity is more than acceptable. Anyway, the real star here is the color, which was regraded from faded sources. It’s brilliant, in every sense of the word.
In addition to the aforementioned narration tracks, which come directly from catalogues intended for the films’ distribution in English language territories, the disc also comes with a booklet featuring a new forward by Serge Bromberg and plenty of rare images.