MVD Visual: Witch's Night Out and The Gift of Winter (1974 - 1978) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of MVD Visual

Canadian based animator Jonathan Rogers (previously under the name John Leach) and art-director Jean Rankin previously collaborated in 1974 for the Canadian television short film special The Gift of Winter and ushered in a new subset of characters drawn in a particular artistic style that would later be rebranded Anytown.  Featuring voice talents of Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Catherine O’Hara, the short Christmas special focused on a group of kids and parents alike who were upset with the harsh bleakness of winter and begged for Mr. Winter to create the gift of snowfall for the rest of the world to enjoy as part of the season.  Running about twenty-four minutes, the broadly drawn comic-strip styled animated production which seemed to consist of rough drawings became a minor success on television and thereby prompted the production of what ultimately became the most well-known Rogers/Rankin piece with 1978’s ink cel animated Halloween special Witch’s Night Out.

With characters broadly drawn with colors representing each character, we meet Rotten (Bob Church) and Malicious (Catherine O’Hara) colored purple and green from top to bottom, Goodly (voiced by Jonathan Rogers), Fiona Reid as the pink Nicely and Gilda Radner as the dressed-in-black high-heeled magic-wand adorned witch, Witch’s Night Out running around twenty-eight minutes or so zeroes in on two kids wanting to go trick-or-treating while the adults conjure up their own idea for a Halloween party inside a haunted mansion.  Meanwhile the witch (Gilda Radner) facing her own midlife crisis as a forgotten witch plans to stir up shenanigans and mischief this Halloween but not before being summoned accidentally by the two kids and their teenage babysitter who wish to be transformed by the witch into either a ghost, a wolfman or a Frankenstein monster.  However, when they actually go to scare up the party of adults, they lose the magic wand and find themselves being pursued by a vigilante mob.

Digitally remastered by new producing partner and company owner James Cross originally for Mill Creek Entertainment before the rights reverted over to MVD Visual who did another new remaster of the film that fixes framing anomalies present in the Mill Creek release, Witch’s Night Out and the lesser known The Gift of Winter come to DVD stacked with a sizable amount of extras ported over from the Cross/Rogers Uncle Porkchop Productions website.  In addition to restoring and reissuing these two Canadian cartoon classics from the 1970s, Cross/Rogers are formulating plans to create new cartoons using all the same characters, a comic book version of Witch’s Night Out and further expanding the Anytown universe for future generations.

While the animation style takes some getting used to with the characters hastily drawn as blob-like color forms resembling human figures, not long into Witch’s Night Out the viewer adapts to this unusual visual look while getting drawn into the personalities of the Anytown neighborhood and Gilda Radner’s witch.  The soundtrack for the film includes a specially rendered disco track Witch Magic that plays over the opening and closing credits sure to get listeners nostalgic if not thinking of places to drop the song at Halloween parties.  The voice talents of Gilda Radner and Catherine O’Hara are fun with O’Hara doing an unrecognizably raspy screech and Fiona Reid’s play on Nicely suggests a stereotypical bubbly blonde bombshell character.

Coming full circle by watching a reviewing a film that I used to watch when I was still wearing diapers, MVD Visual’s special-edition DVD of Witch’s Night Out is a sizable upgrade from Mill Creek’s previous DVD edition and comes loaded with extras including the previously excluded The Gift of Winter.  From what I understand, Witch's Night Out was transferred from the original 35mm negative and likewise The Gift of Winter from 16mm back in 2014.  For this specific new release, this is the first time The Gift of Winter has been released together with its companion piece.  Moreover, it has been cleaned in some spots so it is a little better as far as not seeing dirt or animation numbers and flags on the sides of the image as with the initial Mill Creek disc.

Whatever else emerges from the newly formed Cross/Rogers creative vision remains to be seen but for now, fans new and old are inclined to pick up and enjoy this time capsule of genuinely unique 1970s Canadian animation in a lovingly restored and packaged edition sure to entertain for years to come.  Always fun to throw on during Halloween, a welcome antidote to years and years of Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, Disney’s Halloween Treat or most notably It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown which is admittedly still the pinnacle.

--Andrew Kotwicki