A Trip to the Moon – in color

The color restoration of A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) is available as a limited edition 2-disc (Blu-ray/DVD) Steelbook from Flicker Alley, and can also be purchased through Amazon.com.

Note (4/2/2012): In addition to the missing narration It has been noted by one person (both at the Blu-ray.com forums and in a comment to this article) that the Robert Israel score is out of sync on the black and white version of the film, but this is most certainly not the case on my Blu-ray. The sync is just fine in my copy, including the punctuation of the gun firing, the landing on the moon, and so on. The same has reported sync issues with The Astronomer’s Dream, a problem my disc is free from as well.

As a film, A Trip to the Moon should need no introduction. Arguably the best of the longer form stories to emerge from pioneer Georges Méliès’ prolific turn-of-the-century dream factory, A Trip to the Moon is both one of the earliest of literary adaptations for the screen (freely skimmed from Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, as well as a contemporary stage production of the same, and H.G. Well’s The First Men in the Moon from 1901) and a proving ground for early on-screen special effects. Starring Méliès himself as a bearded professor, the 13 minute adventure concerns a group of astronomers and the fantastic things they encounter after being shot to the Moon in a massive shell. Told with thrilling momentum and boundless imagination, A Trip to the Moon still enchants as pure cinema even as it celebrates its one hundred and tenth year.

It’s impossible to overstate the amount of time and effort that went into restoring this color edition of A Trip to the Moon (the film was one of many that was made available both in original black and white and elaborate hand-colored editions), a process that stretched from 1999 to the premiere of the finished restoration at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. A labor of love elaborated upon at length in the 2011 documentary The Extraordinary Voyage (which is included in this dual format release), this hand-colored edition was painstakingly pieced together from a badly decomposed Spanish print (the reel was essentially a solidified puck when it arrived at the facilities of France’s Lobster Films) with its missing pieces compiled from the complete sections of various black and white prints. Even for such a brief film, no more than a few handfuls of shots all told, it was a truly monumental undertaking.

As exemplified by the comparison above, taken from The Extraordinary Voyage, the end result is impressive indeed – particularly when the extreme age and impossibly corrupted quality of the only available hand-colored source are taken into account. A Trip to the Moon has been given life anew, and the brazenly artificial color plays well into the similarly unbelievable design of the film itself.

Previously noted for their releases of such silent classics as Abel Gance’s La Roue and their DVD collections of Méliès’ short films, niche label Flicker Alley have now made the color restoration of A Trip to the Moon available for home consumption by way of an elegant limited edition Steelbook containing both Blu-ray and DVD presentations of the film and The Extraordinary Voyage.

Of all the classic cinema to make its way to Blu-ray thus far this may well be of the most historical importance, and Flicker Alley have done well by it in the video department. A Trip to the Moon is presented in both restored color and black and white here (1080p for each), and looks quite good in both instances. The color version flickers, shakes, and worse at times, but likely represents the best that could ever be expected from the materials at hand (that a near-solid chunk of century-old celluloid could be made watchable at all is, for lack of better words, miraculous). The black and white is similarly imperfect but improves upon the color version in terms of contrast and clarity. As with the color version I find it impossible to complain. A Trip to the Moon looks better in both editions than I’ve ever seen it look, allowing me to spot some details I’d never noticed before (like the outlandish faces made at points by the cast), and the texture of the more precise black and white edition is tremendous.

Both versions of A Trip to the Moon, The Extraordinary Voyage, and all of the disc’s supplements are housed on a single layer BD25 with reasonable success. The Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded video is set to an average bitrate of 17.6 Mbps throughout, but the image goes generally unperturbed by the digital artifacts expected from such a low figure. Zooming in revealed some minor blocking in the film texture, but nothing that distracted from my viewing. While I’d have appreciated higher average bitrates and a push to dual layer, what Flicker Alley have provided is perfectly satisfactory.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

The one downfall of the presentation, strictly with regards to the color restoration, is the audio selection. As was no doubt contractually stipulated when Flicker Alley licensed the restoration for distribution, the only audio option for this version of the film is a new soundtrack composed by the French duo Air (presented in lossless DTS-HD 5.1). Derivative of a variety of popular artists and rarely, if ever, appropriate for the material in question, Air’s music is distracting at best and downright awful at worst.

The black and white version of A Trip to the Moon has its own audio troubles, though they’re blessedly of a more temporary nature. Due to a production error, the primary audio selection for the black and white feature – the original orchestral score by Roger Israel accompanied by the original English narration written by Méliès – does not actually include the narration. Flicker Alley have have been quick to address the issue and will be mastering new Blu-ray discs to resolve it (the DVD is unaffected). These discs will be sent out by request to customers who have purchased the package. You’ll find the “Disc Replacement Form” linked in towards the bottom of the company’s A Trip to the Moon page. Two other audio options are also included for the black and white feature – a ‘troupe of actors’ voicing various characters to piano accompaniment by Frederick Hodges, and lone Frederick Hodges piano accompaniment. The latter two options are presented in 16-bit LPCM 2.0, while the defective primary track is Dolby Digital 2.0 – each sounded just fine to these ears, missing narration notwithstanding. There are no subtitles.

Addendum 05/07/2012: Flicker Alley’s replacement Blu-ray disc arrived earlier today, and a quick look shows the narration is now present for the Black and White version (though some have complained that the Robert Israel score is out of sync, neither of my now two Blu-ray copies have that issue). In terms of overall specs the new disc appears identical to the original, and our with regards to the rest of the presentation still stand.

The supplemental package for the release is quite strong, though the primary supplement is arguably more a co-feature. The Extraordinary Voyage, a 66-minute documentary that tracks the ups and downs of George Méliès’ brief cinematic career and relates the details of the restoration of A Trip to the Moon, premiered alongside Méliès’ film at Cannes 2011 and it’s lovely to have here for home viewing. The documentary was produced in HD and is presented as such on this Blu-ray, with audio presented in DTS-HD 5.1. Far less interesting is a 10-minute interview with Air (HD, 16-bit LPCM 2.0) on their dubious contribution, in French with English subtitles.

Flicker Alley have also included two thematically appropriate films from Méliès. The first, and best, is The Astronomer’s Dream, a delightfully eccentric 3-minute piece that has a bearded astronomer tormented by both a devil and a gigantic carnivorous moon. Originally produced in 1898, The Astronomer’s Dream may be the oldest thing yet to hit Blu-ray. The second film, 1907’s The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and Moon, is indicative of Méliès in his waning years. Longer at 10 minutes, but not to any good purpose, the film has a professor and his students observing the eponymous Eclipse and other celestial phenomena. Both films are presented in 1080p HD, but are upscaled from standard definition transfers and present with the expected video artifacts (ghosting, aliasing). Despite this The Astronomer’s Dream looks perfectly presentable, while The Eclipse shows more of its SD video roots. Audio for each (musical accompaniment only) is presented in 16-bit LPCM 2.0.

The Astronomer's Dream

The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and Moon

Though the Steelbook phenomenon has never really caught on in the US, even those who dislike the format will have a hard time decrying Flicker Alley’s beautiful work. The G2 (standard Blu-ray packaging height) Steelbook comfortably houses both the Blu-ray and DVD as well as a booklet of film stills and notes excerpted from Gilles Duval and Séverine Wemaere’s book A Trip to the Moon Back in Color. The wonderful cover is based upon an illustration by Méliès himself, and ranks as one of the more attractive packaging designs I’ve ever encountered.

Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray / DVD issue of A Trip to the Moon isn’t perfect, but its many positives more than make up for its few shortcomings (the biggest of which – the missing narration on the black and white version – is in the process of being resolved). I’ve had the release pre-ordered since I first learned of it in mid-January, and even after two and a half months of anticipation I wasn’t disappointed. Méliès in HD may not be a necessary fixture on the average home video shelf (though it should be!), but if you have even a passing interest in cinema history then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up. Recommended.

The color restoration of A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) is available as a limited edition 2-disc (Blu-ray/DVD) Steelbook from Flicker Alley, and can also be purchased through Amazon.com.