Blu-ray review: A Trip to the Moon in many colors and musical scores

Why would anyone spend up to $40 (MSRP; you can buy it for less) for a Blu-ray of a movie that runs only 15 minutes?

There are several good reasons. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon is not only a fun and imaginative entertainment; it’s also one of the most important motion pictures ever made. One of the first to tell an original story, it became cinema’s first international hit.

And in this new Blu-ray/DVD release, Flicker Alley provides many ways to watch the movie. You can watch it in color or in black and white (it was released both ways in 1902). There are five separate musical scores and two options for narration. Add a fascinating, hour-long documentary and two additional shorts, and you’ve got a disc worth buying.

Magician-turned-filmmaker George Méliès is arguably the first artist of the cinema. He created astonishing special effects and placed them into whimsical stories. A Trip to the Moon, generally considered his masterpiece, is more fantasy than science fiction; the astronauts have no trouble breathing on the moon, but they must deal with snow.

This was filmmaking before cinema found its grammar. There’s no editing within scenes. Almost everything is in long shot, making the frame a sort of theatrical proscenium. There’s one close-up in Trip, and its one of the most famous images in cinema.

Flicker Alley’s package contains both a Blu-ray and a DVD. I’ve only looked at the Blu-ray.

The Two Versions

Like all very early movies, A Trip to the Moon was shot in black and white. Theaters had a choice between screening normal, black-and-white prints, or, for extra money, hand-painted, colorized ones. Black and white prints have been circulating for ages, but only in this century has Lobster Films and Technicolor restored the painted version.

The Blu-ray contains both versions, but the disc’s menus make finding them a bit confusing. The top menu’s Play Feature option gets you to the color version. You must select the Bonus Features option to find the black and white version. Each version has multiple soundtracks to choose from.

How It Looks

Color version: Very strange and beautiful. At times you’re not sure if you’re looking at a moving photograph or a moving painting. It’s not very sharp (you try painting thousands of photos, each less than a square inch), but it’s exciting and beautiful.

Black and white version: Not surprisingly, the monochrome version looks sharper and cleaner. You see things better, but it’s not as fun.

How It Sounds

The disc offers three musical soundtracks for the color version, and two different ones for the black-and-white.

And then there’s the issue of narration. A Trip to the Moon was made before anyone thought of intertitles, and Méliès intended it to be screened with a live monologue. The disc offers two options here, as well.

All soundtracks are in uncompressed, LPCM two-track stereo.

Color version:

  • Jeff Mills Score: Weird and unearthly. I liked it for the most part, but it sometimes interferes with the humor.
  • Dorian Pimpernel Score: I call this The Dark Side of A Trip to the Moon, because it sounds like Pink Floyd. As music, I like it, but it’s not right for an intentionally funny movie with no sense of pretention.
  • Serge Bromberg Score: The man who lead the restoration is also a showman and pianist, and here he performs his own score. It’s not exceptional, but it works, and is probably closer to what you would have heard in a 1902 nickelodeon. There’s an option to play this score with an English translation of Méliès’ original narration, spoken by Bromberg. He’s French and pronounces committee as comedy.

Black and white versions:

  • Robert Israel Orchestral score: This is the best score on the disc; too bad it’s not on the color version. Israel and his musicians capture the magic and the humor of the movie. There’s an option to play this score with the Méliès/Bromberg narration discussed above.
  • Fredrick Hodges score: This very good piano score helps carry the film simply and entertainingly. There’s an option to play it with voice actors “as performed in the U.S. in 1903” This is a lot of fun. The actors bring in silly names, fun voices, and additional humor, all in the spirit of the original. But I was disappointed that no one voiced the moon when it gets hit in the eye.

And the Extras

Booklet: 21 pages. If you can read tiny print, you’ll probably enjoy this long article about Méliès’ working habits, his studio, and the making of A Trip to the Moon. The article is not bylined, so I don’t know who wrote it. It contains much fascinating information.

The Extraordinary Voyage: 66 minutes. This wonderful documentary covers Melies’ career, the making of Trip, cinema history from there until now, and the very difficult color restoration.

The Astronomer’s Dream: 3 minutes. Another space-oriented Méliès short, and a funny one. At one point, the moon eats the astronomer’s telescope. Donald Sosin keeps it lively with a jazz-inflected piano score.

The Eclipse, or The Courtship of the Sun and the Moon: 9 minutes. This one doesn’t have much of a story, but it has some very funny bits. The best moment is the solar eclipse of the title, which feels obscene – but in a nice way. The music by Alexander Rannie gives the short a fine setting.