VIDEO / Sneaky previews: Videos for Christmas: the good, the bad and the dodgy: If your 101 Dalmatians is a real dog, you've probably been had by a pirate. John Lyttle on the boom in fake children's videos and the current (genuine) releases

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The Independent Culture
It looks too good to be true. 'Disney Home Video]' the street trader howls, holding a colourfully packaged tape aloft. 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs]' the booming voice announces, lending the title a saucy tabloid feel. 'Never before on video. Get it for Christmas] The kiddies will love it. And only pounds 7.99, girl, a real bargain. Much cheaper than the shops, isn't it?'

'And when they come back to the street market the next week because it's a pirate copy and the picture and sound quality is terrible, the trader will be long gone, or he'll argue that the customer got it cheap, so what did they expect?' says Reg Dixon of FACT (Federation Against Copyright Theft). Dixon has the air of a man who has heard the same story too many times. Three weeks ago he accompanied the police on a raid and found a spectrum of forged logos, duplicate covers and imitation inlays, not to mention over 100 copying machines poised to pump out a broad spectrum of pirate videos.

'It's a huge, organised criminal business and it was preparing for the Christmas rush,' Dixon says. 'And increasingly Christmas means children's titles. They're easier to shift because the demand is high. Then, of course, there's sheer emotional blackmail. You want your child to have the tape, and here's a cheap way to do it. Never mind that you're actually being ripped off. Or that video piracy is costing the industry around pounds 150m per year - and that's simply the rental market.'

The markets for children's titles have been expanding steadily for some years. The ante was upped, though, by the overwhelming success of 1991's 90-day release of Fantasia, ironically a film which barely managed to recoup its original cost, so poorly did it fare at the box office. The title's video release, however, became an industry phenomenon, rumoured to have sold over a million copies. Of last week's Gallup Top 10 sell- through videos, five were children's titles - Hook, Ferngully: the Last Rainforest, Tales of Peter Rabbit and the much promoted Disney titles, Cinderella and Basil the Great Mouse Detective. (The market has become so voracious that even old television favourites, such as Rosie and Jim and Stingray, have been making a killing.)

Inevitably, of the Top 10 children's titles, six are Disney, the market leader and guarantor of top-flight entertainment. Carole Brown heads Disney's customer advisory service, and is thus obliged to deal with the criminal knock-on effects of Fantasia's achievement. 'This time last year we would get one or two complaints a month. Right now it's 10 to 15 per week. Parents buy what they think are genuine Disney tapes - which is easy to do because the pirates have become so clever at imitating covers - and they find that the quality is absolutely disgusting. They return them to me and are surprised when I tell them that they're fakes. Needless to say, this doesn't do Disney's reputation any good.'

'Disney are in a vulnerable position,' concurs Tim Murray, news editor of the trade bible Video Home Entertainment. 'Some of their titles are available in the States but not yet released in this country. Jungle Book is one, 101 Dalmatians is another. So the pirates move in.'

Where the pirates have been moving to is car-boot sales and weekend markets, which offer anonymity and a quick getaway, churning out more and more products to beat the recession. 'Video piracy is still a relatively easy way to make a fast buck,' says Murray, pointing out there are plenty of punters willing to part with pounds 6 or pounds 7 for a tape rather than the official tab of pounds 10-15.

Reg Dixon knows such bah- humbug penny-pinching is a false economy. 'The pirates do it cheap because they overrun the new recordings on old tapes. You can laugh, but we've had horror story after horror story of children watching tapes which suddenly switch into hardcore pornography, scenes of extraordinary violence or snuff movies.'

'Just buy from the recognised outlets, from the major stores and video shops,' says Carole Brown. 'No one wants their child to wake up on Christmas morning and be disappointed. And isn't that the real risk after all - a disappointed child?'

Original children's titles available on sell-through video in time for Christmas include:

BASIL THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (Disney U 71 mins). Sherlock Holmes recast as an animated rodent is the sort of concept that makes you want to cut off someone's tail with a carving knife, even if mice are a Disney tradition, from Mickey's first steamboat outing to The Rescuers Down Under. No matter. As Christmas looms the overwhelming point of a Disney tape purchase is that, unlike certain religious leaders, it really is infallible. This despite Basil being dumb, exhausting and cutesy to the point of gastric upset as evil Professor Rattigan and his battish henchman cast covetous yellow eyes on the monarchy. Ho hum. The video retails at pounds 13.99 or less, should you be willing to shop around.

Indeed, most of the Disney classics are now available, except those two biggies 101 Dalmatians (available in the US, and due here, legally, next year) and Snow White. See your local video outlet or department store for, hopefully, something approaching the full range - from Pinocchio to the just unleashed Cinderella.

Among the most recent releases and re-releases is the Mickey-Donald-Goofy-Pluto reunion The Prince and the Pauper (U 26 mins) pounds 8.99; the stodgy sci-fi opus The Black Hole (U 109 mins) pounds 10.99; the marvellous White Fang, perhaps the ultimate boy and his dog story, shot against spectacular snowscapes (U 104 mins) pounds 10.99; long-time favourite The Wind in the Willows (U 38 mins) pounds 8.99; Willie the Operatic Whale, sheer, undiluted fun, especially as Willie bears more than a passing likeness to a certain Mr Pavarotti (U 29 mins) pounds 8.99; Shipwrecked will definitely appeal to adventurous older boys and girls who dream of conquering nature on a desert isle (U 89 mins) pounds 10.99; while A Walt Disney Christmas (U 46 mins) and Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too (U 45 mins) exploit the Yuletide with tales of wishes gone astray and snowball encounters, etc. Each costs pounds 8.99.

WHITE CHRISTMAS (CIC U 120 mins). This overtly sentimental 1954 remake of Holiday Inn is currently incarnated in a Widescreen version, so those who want to can happily peruse all of Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye's skinny legs as they dance from dressing room to swimming pool, disappointing millions by not falling in. Best to concentrate on the joyous Irving Berlin score ('Blue Skies', 'Sisters', 'Count Your Blessings', the eponymous, shamelessly staged title number), the glorious Technicolor and the sweet inter- play of Rosemary Clooney and the Old Groaner - Bing Crosby - a performer who knew how to milk a song down to the last tear-drop.

Retail price: pounds 9.99.

BATMAN RETURNS (Warner 15 121 mins). 'The Bat, the Cat and Penguin' proclaimed the posters, though even a cursory viewing might lead the lackadaisical to the conclusion that Michelle Pfeiffer's kitten with a whip deserves top billing. She, at least, has the vibrancy the movie requires as it lumbers from the deformed baddie's plans to locate his parents to the final orgy of destruction at Gotham Zoo. Over-designed, over-scored and over-the-top though the picture is, its flaws seem necessary to director Tim Burton's vision, as do Pfeiffer's kinkiness, Michael Keaton's romantic alienation and Danny DeVito's grotesque bursts of violence. The hero, villain and villainess are as locked into their quests for identity as the picture is locked into its search for something resembling a narrative.

On release. See Competition.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (First Independent U 93mins). 'A heartwarming comedy from Arnold Schwarzenegger' - which, roughly translated, means no one gets their head blown off in slow motion or eaten alive by slug-fiends from outer space. These scenarios exert a certain attractiveness once Arnie's directorial debut gathers what might be referred to as momentum. See dizzy Dyan Cannon in the updated role originally essayed by Barbara Stanwyck, playing a TV cook who can't boil water, about to fall into the lumpy arms of homeless forest ranger Kris Kristofferson. The humour is so heavy-handed (Schwarzenegger even includes an in-joke reference to The Terminator) that ratings-crazed producer Tony Curtis - Tony Curtis] - almost comes across as subtle.

On release.

THE SNOWMAN (Polygram U 30mins). Decade-old Raymond Briggs story, now acknowledged as a seasonal classic and also repackaged with a commemorative sleeve. A simple story - sleepless young James is flown around the world by his snowman and taken to a snowman's party - simply told, marred only by Aled Jones and (spit, hiss) 'Walking in the Air'.

Retail price: pounds 9.99.

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS (CIC Video U 89mins). It's American, it lavishly features precocious tots (Thora Birch, Ethan Randall), Santa (Leslie Nielsen makes a guest appearance) and it's about parents being reconciled on Christmas Eve. What it isn't is Miracle on 34th Street, despite saccharine frosting and attempts at hommage.

On release.

FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST (Fox Video U 76 mins). Ecologically-sound cartoon tells of fairy folk threatened by massive deforestation, an ancient evil spirit with songs by Sheena Easton, Elton John et al. Lush colour, New Age ideology and a fairly tense final 10 minutes combine to generally engaging effect, though nothing quite matches the scattershot vocal contribution of Robin Williams as Batty the Bat, a warm-blooded animal who hasn't quite recovered from the effects of human experiments.

Retail price: pounds 12.99.

AN AMERICAN TAIL / AN AMERICAN TAIL TWO: FIEVEL GOES WEST (CIC U 80mins/74mins). Extremely entertaining animation, produced by Steven Spielberg. The first follows the adventure-prone mouse, Fievel, from Russia and the rage of rampaging Cossack cats to the promised land of America, separating him from his bewildered family along the way. The tone is darker than you'd expect of children's entertainment, especially as the mice's journey is deliberately identified as a despairing Jewish immigrant voyage to (relative) freedom. Still, not even exploitation of slave labour can stand in the way of a Happy Ending. Fievel Goes West sees the Mousewitz clan heading for the mythic wide open spaces, and straight into the welcoming claws of the opera-loving Cat R Waul (superbly voiced by John Cleese). Clever visual gags, and enough smart verbal asides to keep adults chuckling as cheerfully as their progeny. A solid double-bill.

pounds 10.99 / pounds 12.99.

(Photograph omitted)