Posts Tagged ‘Santa Claus

25
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 25: Prep and Landing (2009)

Prep and LandingDirectors: Stevie Wermers & Kevin Deters

Writers: Kevin Deters, Stevie Wermers & Chris Williams

Cast: Dave Foley, Sarah Chalke, Mason Vale Cotton, David DeLuise, Derek Richardson, William Morgan Sheppard, Nathan Greno

Plot: Before “The Big Guy” (William Morgan Sheppard) can make his rounds, it’s up to the Prep and Landing Elves to scout ahead and make sure your house is ready: children nestled in their beds, no creatures stirring, and so forth. For over 200 years Wayne (Dave Foley) has been a Prep and Landing elf, but this year he’s certain he’ll get promoted to Head of the Naughty List. He’s shattered when North Pole Christmas Eve Command Center Coordinator Magee (Sarah Chalke) tells him he’s been passed over in favor of his partner, an elf he helped to train. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s being given a new rookie, Lanny (Derek Richardson), an idealistic young elf who thinks he’s landed the “most tinsel” job in the world. Broken, on Christmas Eve Wayne starts to sleepwalk through his job, bumbling and eventually getting caught by a little boy named Timmy (Mason Vale Cotton). Lanny manages to put Timmy back to sleep, but a massive snowstorm is raging, and as Wayne has slacked off his work, Magee is left with no choice but to declare a “Figgy Pudding” situation — they’re going to have to skip Timmy’s house. Realizing the depths of his mistake, Wayne snaps Lanny into action, calling the boss back and transforming an inflatable snowglobe into a beacon to guide him in for a landing. Christmas is saved, but Wayne’s career may be over. The next day, the Big Guy calls him into his office. Wayne is ready to accept his punishment, asking only that the boss assign Lanny a good partner to replace him. But to his surprise, the Big Guy tells him he understands… everyone winds up on the naughty list once in a while, but he gave him Lanny precisely because he’s so god at his job. When Wayne leaves the office, he tells the waiting Lanny he was offered a promotion, to head of the Nice List, but he turned it down. He’s decided he’s more of a Prep and Landing guy.

Thoughts: One special is not enough to declare it a new Golden Age of Christmas Specials, but if Disney keeps turning out things like this – and starts inspiring other studios to do the same, we’ll have plenty to choose from very soon.

Disney really pulled out all the stops for this, with animation as crisp and energetic as anything they would put on the big screen, characters just as well-developed and entertaining, and even a musical score by Michael Giacchino. If they had showed this before The Princess and the Frog, not a single moviegoer would have been disappointed.

Prep and Landing is one of those cartoons that genuinely does everything right, starting with the characters and cast. Wayne and Lanny make for a fine odd couple, with Dave Foley bringing in the sort of exasperated worker attitude that worked for him on Newsradio and Derek Richardson matching it with an enthusiasm that would be obnoxious if it weren’t so sincere. Sarah Chalke’s Magee has a sort of frantic, manic energy that perfectly suits the character of the woman who’s doing the real legwork of running the north pole operation, and her interaction with her voiceless assistant, Tiny, make for a constant string of sight gags that still make me laugh after watching this a half-dozen times. I didn’t mention Santa’s reindeer Dasher and Dancer (Nathan Greno and David DeLuise) during the synopsis because they really don’t add anything to the plot. However, they bring out some fantastic comedic moments, adding to the conceit that Santa’s operation is treated like a cross between NASA and a military enterprise. The two of them put on the persona of hardcore, Top Gun-style pilots, while Magee runs things like she’s in charge of Mission Control and we’re about launch for outer space.

The characters, of course, play these things all perfectly straight. There’s no winking at the camera, no tongue-in-cheek moments where you get the impression the characters know they’re in a Christmas special. Instead, every beat of the story comes across like we’re watching a vital, life-and-death situation, even as Wayne’s depression sends him into mocking the Big Guy and his partner and Christmas in general (even shutting off a TV presentation of Mickey’s Christmas Carol – a nice touch).

It’s also nice to see the Elves elevated into stars for once. Most Christmas specials focus on Santa or one of his ancillary associates – Rudolph, Frosty, even Mrs. Claus. Until now, any special or movie that has shown the Elves in any large part has kept them in supporting roles. The only exception I can think of is the 2003 film Elf, and even that is less about the Elves themselves ad instead focuses on a goober who happens to think he’s an elf… not exactly the same thing. This is the first series I can think of that takes real Elves and shows us what they can really do, making them our heroes. It’s telling that “the Big Guy” is rarely mentioned by name, that his face never actually appears on-screen. Sure, we all know it’s Santa, but by keeping our distance from him it’s easier to look at Wayne and Lanny as our stars instead of worrying about what the boss is up to on this particular Christmas Eve.

This special has become the start of a lucrative franchise for the Disney folks. After winning a boatload of awards, they came back in 2010 with a seven-minute short (Operation Secret Santa) and, in 2011, another half-hour (Naughty Vs. Nice). Both of these have expanded the world of Prep and Landing, introducing more characters, more parts of the overall operation, and more worlds to explore with our favorite Elves. The characters even appeared in an eight-page Marvel Comic (Disney being Marvel’s parent company), in which Wayne and Lanny prep the Avengers’s headquarters for Santa’s arrival. Point is, these guys are becoming legitimate stars in their own right.

Unfortunately, last I heard a third full-length special was put on hold after Naughty Vs. Nice didn’t quite grab the ratings bonanza the first film did. But with both specials being shown all over ABC and ABC Family, and the DVD and Blu-Ray now available, there’s always hope. I love Wayne and Lanny, I love Magee and Tiny, I love the whole world of these gutsy little Elves, and I want to go back there again.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

24
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 24: Shrek the Halls (2007)

Shrek the HallsDirector: Gary Trousdale

Writers: Gary Trousdale, Sean Bishop, Theresa Cullen, Bill Riling

Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Cody Cameron, Susan Fitzer, Christopher Knights,  Gary Trousdale, Conrad Vernon, Aron Warner, Marissa Jaret Winokur

Plot: With only 159 days left until Christmas, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) begins pestering his friend Shrek (Mike Myers) to begin the preparations. Over the next few months, Donkey gets more and more insistent and Shrek more and more resistant, until it’s finally December 23 and he realizes for the first time his wife, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and their triplets are looking forward to their first Christmas as a family. Not wanting to let her down, Shrek sets out for town to figure out how to “make a Christmas.” He winds up with a copy of a self-help book, Christmas For Village Idiots, that promises to help him one step at a time make the holiday Fiona deserves.

The next day, Christmas Eve, Fiona wakes up to find Shrek decorating their house for Christmas. Although she’s happily surprised, Donkey shows up to drop off a Christmas card and criticizes the decorating job. Fiona and the babies pitch in, and by dark Shrek is ready to sit down and tell his kids the Christmas story, but he’s interrupted when Donkey bursts in along with all of their friends. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) entertains the kids while the others race around putting up more and more decorations, ruin supper and – in the case of the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) – make a pass at the angel-shaped Christmas Cookies. Although Shrek tries to hide from the chaos, Fiona lures him back, but things just get worse. He tries to get himself back into the spirit by telling his kids his Christmas story, but Donkey again steals the spotlight with an insane poem about a Christmas parade. Puss in Boots gets into the act with his tale of “Santa Claws,” and the Gingerbread Man jumps in with a story that’s really more appropriate for Halloween. A fight ensues and Shrek, while trying to hide his book, accidentally starts a chaotic chain reaction that ruins the party and sets both himself and the Christmas tree on fire. Boiling with rage, he throws Donkey and the rest out of his house. Fiona is upset that he threw out their friends, and sets out to find them while Shrek complains about how they ruined “his” Christmas. He catches up to them and tries a halfhearted apology, finally admitting that ogres don’t celebrate Christmas, and he has no idea what he’s doing. Everyone apologizes to each other and the odd little family returns to Shrek’s home to settle in for the night. Before lights out, Shrek tries once more to tell his Christmas story: a tale of a Santa Claus making his visit to an ogre home. As he finishes, they hear laughter in the air and rush outside to see Santa Claus flying across the moon.

Thoughts: My thoughts about Dreamworks Pictures Shrek franchise are fairly simple: I thought the first one was entertaining. As for the rest, my grandma always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. But even the worst franchise can sometimes turn out a charming Christmas story, so when Shrek the Halls made its network TV debut, I gave it a chance, and I rather liked it.

In truth, it suffers from many of the problems that plague Dreamworks Animation in general – too many topical jokes and current songs that hurt the special’s ability to become a real timeless classic. There’s a reason Rankin and Bass didn’t throw the Beatles into their specials… well, they also probably couldn’t afford them, but you see my point. In truth, this and oversaturation is one of the reasons Dreamworks will never quite reach the heights of a Pixar or Disney Animation Studio – they’re so focused on making a franchise that’s current and modern and now that the next generation of children will find themselves tuning out to the constant reminders of the world their parents grew up in. To put it another way, my two-year-old niece loves every Toy Story movie (and, in fact, everything Pixar has produced). I find it really hard to believe that she’ll latch on to Shrek or Kung-Fu Panda in the same way, even once she gets a little older and enters into the sphere of the intended demographic. They also rush out sequels, cranking out cookie-cutter cartoons that rarely, if ever, match the original, rather than allowing the story to dictate the future of the characters. Finally, there’s an emphasis on gross-out humor (such as the Gingerbread Man throwing up a chocolate kiss and the Donkey eating it) that shuts out older viewers… something else Pixar doesn’t feel the need to succumb to.

But don’t get the impression that I didn’t like this cartoon – I did. The animation itself is top-notch, and a lot of the characters and design are very imaginative… the giant Waffle Santa Claus, for instance. Puss in Boots is a great character, especially if you’re a cat owner and recognize how easily he slips from the persona of the suave Latin lover into a typical feline, which leaves him embarrassed.

Like any good Christmas special, the true test comes in when the hero learns his lesson at the end. Shrek has an interesting character arc here – he goes from being a complete Scrooge to suddenly wanting desperately to create a good Christmas for his family. From there he bumbles, he misunderstands the meaning of Christmas, he learns it, and then gets it all right. This time around, rather than giving a religious message or a message about the virtue in giving and sacrifice (all of which are well and good, by the way), the message is one of family. You may fight and struggle and drive each other crazy, but there’s a reason you stick around people besides blood. It’s a nice message about love and the truth about what a real family is, and it’s one even the children will no doubt be able to grasp.

Throughout most of the 90s and early 2000s, there was a dearth of new televised Christmas specials, which is why this particular Reel to Reel project has been so heavily weighted with films from the 60s through the 80s. (In a way, it’s the exact opposite of the problem I had with Lunatics and Laughter.) But in recent years, Dreamworks and Disney both have stepped up and started to change that. Have a wonderful Christmas Eve, my friends, and come back tomorrow for the finale of The Christmas Special with my favorite TV Christmas Special to premiere since I was a child.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

22
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 22: Hooves of Fire (1999)

Hooves of FireDirector: Richard Goleszowski

Writers: Andy Riley, Kevin Cecil, Richard Curtis

Cast: UK VERSION-Robbie Williams, Ardal O’Hanlon, Paul Whitehouse, Jane Horrocks, Steve Coogan, Caroline Quentin, Jean Alexander, Ricky Tomlinson, Rhys Ifans, Harry Enfield; US Version-Ben Stiller, Britney Spears, James Woods, Brad Garrett, Hugh Grant, Leah Remini, James Belushi, Jerry Stiller, Rob Paulsen

Plot: The red-nosedRobbie the Reindeer (Ardal O’Hanlon/Ben Stiller) has long dreamed of winning a spot as the navigator on Santa’s sleigh team, and it looks like he’s finally being given a chance.  He reports to the sleigh team, run by a taskmaster-lke Blitzen (Steve Coogan/Hugh Grant). As Donner (Jane Horrocks/Britney Spears) shows him to his room, Blitzen begins plotting… he’s been jealous of Robbie’s father ever since the day that (unnamed) most famous reindeer of all saved Christmas, and now he can take revenge on that reindeer’s son. Donner quickly develops a crush on Robbie, but he’s oblivious, only having eyes for Vixen (Caroline Quentin/Leah Remini). Robbie meets Santa Claus (Ricky Tomlinson/James Belushi) for the first time at a party the boss is throwing for the elves, where Santa gushes over Robbie’s father and Vixen rebuffs his advances. Santa has a surprise for the party as well: he unveils the Sleigh Mark II, a new high-tech vehicle full of bells, whistles, and a computer navigation system. Robbie suddenly realizes that, to keep his spot on the sleigh team, he has to be physically fit… which will be hard, as Blitzen has been sabotaging his fitness training. Disheartened, Robbie wanders out into the snow to walk south. He winds up frozen solid and would be lost if he wasn’t found and thawed out by a group of elves. He joins them working in their toy factory, but a series of mishaps bumps him lower and lower on the totem pole until he’s stuck using his antlers for a forklift – which is where he is when Donner finds him. She tells him he’s still got a chance to make the sleigh team, if he can compete in and win the upcoming Reindeer Games. She also convinces him Blitzen has been his enemy all along, and they turn to a legendary reindeer named Old Jingle (Harry Enfield/Jerry Stiller) for help.

They find Old Jingle in his house, precariously perched at the top of Pointy Mountain, and Robbie asks him to help him train. Jingle tells him his best shot at winning is the Steeplechase event, and Robbie begins training. On the day of the games, Robbie suddenly becomes a crowd favorite by saving a baby from a fall. Vixen tries to use Robbie’s crush on her to force him out of the games, but he’s fallen for Donner instead. He leaves the stadium, however, when he learns that Jingle has been trapped under his house. He rushes off and saves the old reindeer, but misses the start of the race, and Blitzen gets an enormous lead. Amazingly, Robbie makes up ground quickly, and one of Blitzen’s cronies has him stumble into a steeple. Robbie uses his special “Nose Jump” to vault to the finish line, but the photo finish reveals Blitzen to be the winner. Donner kisses him, and in his glee Robbie rushes off and performs in every event, breaking all the records, albeit unofficially. As Robbie’s dad sends a congratulatory blimp over the stadium, Blitzen is carted off for drug testing and Santa gives Robbie the keys to the sleigh for the night. He takes Donner out for a romantic evening on the moon, where together they watch the Earth come up.

Thoughts: It’s always nice to see a tweak to a Christmas classic, and this BBC special from 1999 definitely qualifies. While they’re always careful to avoid mentioning Robbie’s famous father by name, there can be no doubt who he is or what made him so famous.

Hooves of Fire picks up on Rudolph, creating a bizarre semi-sequel by way of sports story. Robbie’s tale echoes his father’s in certain ways – picking up on the Reindeer Games, for example. His journey is not just a copy of his father’s however. Although his own nose does some weird things, it never becomes the center of the storyline the way Rudolph’s does. Robbie is made an outcast not because he’s different, but because Blitzen holds an old grudge against his family. Even when Robbie pulls out his nose’s special abilities at the end, they don’t directly contribute to his success. Remember, he loses the games. He wins in the end because he’s made everyone love him for reasons that don’t have anything to do with his nose. Also because Blitzen is a jerk who, evidently, was ‘roided up.

The plot with the Reindeer Games is a mirror of cheesy 80s sports movies… particularly, and appropriately, films like Ski School. We have the jerk jock and the Yoda-style mentor there to help win the day, the goofy protagonist who focuses on the sexpot without realizing the cute girl next door type is in love with him. The writers load up the tropes, and it’s usually for the purposes of ridicule. That’s kind of the weird thing about the comedy, actually – half of it is straight-up parody of Christmas movies, of sports movies, of romantic comedies and so forth. In the other half, though, the BBC gives the show a really sharp, unmistakably British sense of humor, full of cutway gags and non sequiturs that feel almost Monty Python-esque in their scope.

The stop motion used here feels a step beyond Will Vinton, closer to the sort of thing Aardman Animation puts out on their best days. Something about the character design is really bizarre, but in a funny way. The reindeer, for example, are actually weird 2-D designs, with eyes and a mouth that all go on the same side of the head like a character in Peanuts. The designers keep that feel when they plump the characters out for their animated forms, resulting in a set of reindeer heads that obviously don’t work in the real world, but work perfectly in the quirky version of the North Pole director Richard Goleszowski puts forth. The costuming is cute as well: Jingle walks around with briefs on over his clothing, the elves have several diverse designs that range from the traditional to the mini-biker. The steeples in the steeplechase are actual steeples, looking like they were ripped right off the houses.

And Mrs. Claus had a beard. What else is there to say?

If there’s any major complaint, it’s that for some reason they re-dubbed all of the voices with American actors for the stateside presentation of the film. (Except for Blitzen. In his case, they replaced British actor Steve Coogan with… more widely-known-in-the-US British actor Hugh Grant.) I can only assume this was some sort of effort at marketability. In the 13 years since this film was first made, of course, British pop culture has become much more popular here in the US of A – I imagine if this cartoon was released for the first time today, they probably wouldn’t have bothered with the American voices.

Robbie has returned in two other cartoons – Legends of the Lost Tribe in 2002, and 2007’s Close Encounters of the Herd Kind, the latter of which I was actually unaware of until I did the research for this article. I’ve got an older DVD, with the first two cartoons on it, but now I’ve got a quest. I’ve got to see the 2007 film, because Robbie rocks.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

21
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 21: A Wish For Wings That Work (1991)

Wish For Wings That WorkDirector: Skip Jones

Writer: Berkeley Breathed

Cast: Michael Bell, John Byner, Joe Alaskey, Tress MacNeille, Andrew Hill Newman, Robin Williams, Alexaundria Simmons, Frank Welker

Plot: As Christmas approaches Opus the Penguin (Michael Bell) has one wish: a new pair of wings, because the ones he’s been saddled with don’t allow him to fly.  Opus and his friend Bill the Cat (John Byner) have found themselves the subject of torment by a group of ducks (Joe Alaskey) who mock Opus for being flightless, to the point where Opus is going to a support group led by a young child named Ronald-Anne (Alexaundria Simmons). The other birds in the group rave, particularly a Kiwi (an uncredited cameo by Robin Williams) whose wife has left him for an albatross. After an effort at becoming an airborne vigilante fails spectacularly, Opus turns to Santa for help.

On Christmas Eve, though, Santa Claus (Frank Welker) suffers a mishap and falls from the sky. Opus, meanwhile, sleeps fitfully, having dreams of being a pilot. Even in his dream, though, the plane falls from the sky, because penguins can’t fly. He wakes up and finds himself accosted by the ducks, who are in a panic. They take Opus to the lake, where Santa is perched on his sleigh, stranded in the middle. The ducks are scared of the icy water, and it’s up to Opus the Penguin to glide out and save Santa Claus. Grasping the reigns in his beak, he tows Santa back to dry land. Having lost his hat in the rescue, Santa gives Opus his own hat, and makes him see that his courage is a gift that more than makes up for flightless wings. Opus’s joy is short-lived, however, when he realizes he isn’t getting his Christmas wish. On Christmas morning, he steps outside to see that the three ducks have returned, with dozens more. They grab him and pull him outside, taking him with them into the air. Bill, who we discover suggested going to Opus for help in the first place, begins running behind, and the support group disdains him from the sidewalk. But Opus doesn’t care. For one day, Opus the Penguin can fly.

Thoughts: I’m not sure how popular it is today, but in the 80s I remember Berkeley Breathed’s comic strip Bloom Countyas being one of the more clever, slightly subversive features in the newspaper (definitely the ones carried by the New Orleans Times-Picayune). It was sharper and a bit more pointed than a lot of other strips (coughFAMILYCIRCUScough) without ever reaching the preachiness of a Doonsbury and getting bogged down in its own self-importance. The strip has been rebooted a few times over the years – under the names Outlands and Opus – and the so-called penguin Opus has not always been the star, but to me, he’s the icon.

While animated in a soft, lovely style that is perfectly acceptable for children, early in the special we see signs that this is an elevated cartoon, something that will go over the heads of the playground set, and possibly bore them. Opus blames the “accident of birth” that left him as a flightless bird on Congress rather than his mother, and suggests that Bill move into a recycling bin rather than a garbage can. These are the sort of things that adults will see as satire and kids will see as gibberish. Other not-so-subtle bits include the Kiwi who is outraged that his wife left him for a better endowed bird, a war toy store called “Stormin’ Norman’s” and a cross-dressing cockaroach.  Although it does a better job of disguising itself than Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, it’s not a show for children.

The trouble is, this was 1991. The Simpsons was still new, South Park wasn’t a glimmer on the horizon, and cartoons were still for kids, as far as anyone was concerned. The prime audience for this special likely dismissed it without even tuning in, and the kids who turned in looking for an alternative to their 900th screening of Rudolph gave up and turned back before Yukon Cornelius even showed up. The sequence where Opus dreams of being a pilot – helped along by footage from an old war movie – is quietly amusing in a way that isn’t instantly memorable, but brings a smile to your face when you come back and watch the special again the next year.

And it’s a shame, because the special has a sweet little message that you don’t really see anywhere else. Like Rudolph or Nestor, we’ve got a story about a main character who suffers from some physical characteristic that he sees as a disadvantage. Like Rudolph and Nestor, in the end it is precisely his abnormality that allows him to save the day. Unlike Rudolph and Nestor, though, this realization isn’t enough for Opus. While the message of Rudolph’s story is a good one (be proud of who you are), Opus’s message is considerably more realistic. Discovering you can do something useful is not, in and of itself, enough to make a person forget a lifelong dream. It’s pretty unlikely that Opus had never taken an ice-cold swim before, too, so it’s not like he even discovered something new like Rudolph and Nestor did. Rudolph’s nose helped him achieve his dream. Opus was told his gift made his dream unnecessary, which any child could tell you is a load of penguin guano. (I know penguins don’t really produce guano, please don’t send me e-mails about this.)

Still, for all the cynicism, the special ends on a very positive note. While we weren’t looking the bullies, the ducks, experience their own change of heart and help our little hero have his dream after all. Most of us will never be that lucky, of course, but it’s a more realistic conclusion to this particular hero’s journey than most of the others we’ve watched. Of course, this is a cartoon with a cross-dressing cockroach, so “realistic” is something of a relative term.

Although I would have been 14 when this special premiered, I don’t remember watching it at the time. At some point, I became aware of it, then a few years ago I found it on DVD and watched it for the first time. There’s something quiet, sweet, and lovely about this special, and if you can find it, it’s well worth rotating the 22 minutes into your Christmas cartoon marathon.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

16
Dec
12

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 280: A Very MSTie Christmas

showcase logo small

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 280: A Very MSTie Christmas
by Blake M. Petit, Kenny Fanguy, Daniel Jacob & Mike Bellamy
As the Yuletide spirit warms the cockles of our hearts, the Showcase boys get together for their annual Christmas marathon. This year we’re peeking into two episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Santa Claus, along with two RiffTrax holiday treats, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny and Magic Christmas Tree. Blake sticks with the holiday picks with Donald Duck: A Christmas For Shacktown and the seasonal tale in Ghostbusters #16. Contact us with comments, suggestions, or anything else at Showcase@CXPulp.com!

Music provided by Music Alley from Mevio.

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 280: A Very MSTie Christmas

15
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 15: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

The Life and Adventures of Santa ClausDirector: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writer: Jules Bass, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Earl Hammond, Earle Hyman, Larry Kenney, Lynne Lipton, Bob McFadden, Lesley Miller, Peter Newman, Joey Grasso, J.D. Roth, Alfred Drake

Plot: In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak (Alfred Drake) summons a council of the immortals. As dozens of fairies, nooks, and other fantastic creatures come together, the Great Ak tells them the mortal named Santa Claus is about to be visited by the Spirit of Death. This mortal, Ak says, has earned possession of the world’s one and only Mantle of Immortality. To convince them, the Great Ak tells them his story, the tale of the life and adventures of Santa Claus.

Sixty years prior, the Great Ak found a mortal baby abandoned in the snow. He gives the child to a lioness to rear, but the fairy Necile (Lesley Miller) is curious about what a “child” is. She observes the lioness and decides she wants to care for the baby herself. She begs the Great Ak permission, which he grants, assigning the lioness to remain with the baby as its protector. Necile names the baby Claus, “little one” in her language. Claus doesn’t remain little for long, though. In the view of the immortals, he begins to grow up in the blink of an eye, and young Claus (voiced by J.D. Roth) begins his education in the ways of the forest. Ak decides Claus should see his own people, and takes him on a magical tour of the world of Man, where Claus sees terrible misery, violence, and suffering. He also begins to understand that he is mortal, unlike Necile and his friends, and one day he will die and become just a memory to his loved ones. Claus decides to live in the world of mortals, hoping to make it better, and he takes his lioness protector and teacher Tingler (Bob McFadden) with him. As he grows older, he begins to visit the nearby settlements of mankind, taking particular care in being a friend to the children. (His voice also changes, just like real life! Adult Claus is voiced by Earl Hammond.)

One winter night, as Claus carves a cat out of wood, he finds a child outside his home, nearly frozen. He brings the boy inside to warm up, and the child quickly takes a liking to Claus’s cat, Blinky. As the child sleeps, he finishes carving the cat, paints it, and gives it to the boy when he wakes up. When the other children in town learn of the wooden cat, they all want one of their own. He starts making cats, then other animals and dolls for the children… he has invented the toy. He brings his friends the Nooks to his home to help make toys in bulk, but soon receives a threat from a beast called King Awgwa (Earle Hyman), lord of the dark creatures who convince children to misbehave. King Awgwa abducts Claus, but the immortals easily rescue him. The Awgwa realize they cannot capture him easily, but they can prevent him from delivering his toys. They attack him the next day as he travels, stealing all the toys he’s made and taking them to their caves. The attacks continue, over and over. Finally, the Great Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, takes out his Silver Axe and leads the fairies and nooks into battle with the Awgwa and a mighty dragon. The Great Ak and his forces defeat the Awgwa, and Claus is free to deliver toys again. His sled is now so heavy with toys he can’t pull it, and his friend Peter Nook (Peter Newman) offers to allow Claus to use some of his reindeer to pull the sleigh, provided he can return them to their forest home by daybreak. The reindeer are impossibly fast, eventually finding the ability to fly through the air. Claus begins making regular trips to deliver toys, and is soon beloved by children everywhere, who call him “Santa Claus.” He returns home too late, though, and Peter is angry. Claus asks him to allow him to use the reindeer again, and Peter finally agrees, but only for one night a year… Christmas Eve. With just ten days, Claus won’t have enough toys to make the trip and will have to skip an entire year, unless he can find the toys stolen by the Awgwa. He goes to bed on Christmas Eve, convinced he’ll lose a year, but Peter Nook arrives with the reindeer and the sleigh full of recovered toys.

Years later, Santa Claus has won the love of all the world, and now stands on the brink of death. He decorates a tree with small toys as a symbol of his good work, and Tingler vows to decorate the tree every year. In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak petitions the rest of the immortals to give Claus the Mantle of Immortality. In all the world there is only one, and can only be given to one mortal. Touched by his story, the immortals agree to present it to Claus. Just before he dies, Necile delivers the golden shroud to her son. Revitalized, he thanks Ak, pledging to prove himself worthy of the mantle for all time to come.

Thoughts: It had to happen sooner or later, my friends. This, I’m sorry to say, is the last Rankin and Bass special in our Reel to Reel countdown. It’s not one of the best-known specials either, but it’s one of my favorites. Based on the novel by The Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum, this is a version of Santa Claus’s origin that doesn’t quite jive with any of the others we’ve seen, doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Rankin and Bass “universe,” but stands on its own as a lovely fairy tale version of this holiday icon’s story.

The Baum touch is one of my favorite things about this special, I admit. I am an unabashed fan of all things Oz and I love to see different takes on the Oz mythos. While Baum never directly linked this book to his Oz novels, there are enough of his magical creatures common to the different books for me to accept this as a part of the Oz Universe. Which I know is something only a nerd of my particular stripe cares about, but as I can say that for roughly 87 percent of the observations I’ve made this month, I feel perfectly justified in doing so again.

Children may find parts of this special a bit odd. Although it was made in 1985, it’s a faithful adaptation of a novel written in 1902, before many of the elements now considered part of Santa Claus lore became standard. He’s still a plump, jolly man who enters through the chimney, who rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. But kids will ask why his toy shop is in the Laughing Valley instead of the North Pole, why his toys are made by nooks instead of elves. My nerd response will be to tell them this is the Santa Claus of Earth-2. Of course, then you’ll have to explain that, so maybe you’d better just find a way to explain it that suits your own children.

Most of the Rankin and Bass specials are more or less timeless. If there’s anything that links them to their era it is a tendency to model their narrators after the stars who voice them (Fred Astaire in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Andy Griffith in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland being prime examples). This one is a little different, with the nook (or fairy or gnome – I’m not sure) named Tingler being clearly inspired by Chico Marx, of call people. Which would have made a lot more sense in an early Rankin and Bass special – this was made in 1985. It’s an odd choice, one that most kids watching this won’t even notice, but older viewers will see it quickly.

This special doesn’t have as much music as most Rankin and Bass specials either. The “Big Surprise” number the children sing to Claus is the centerpiece, coming almost exactly halfway through the film and helping Claus realize exactly what his mission will be. It works pretty well as far as providing the character with motivation, but it isn’t as great a musical number as we’d like from Rankin and Bass. The special also isn’t as funny as we’ve come to expect from Rankin and Bass. Except for the Biblical specials, most of their cartoons at least had an element of comedy to them. This has almost nothing. Claus is motivated by seeing true darkness in the world, and although the battle sequences aren’t gory or bloody, they’re fairly intense for a film of this nature. The violence is real, not played in a cartoonish nature.

These elements are all perfectly good, though. This isn’t another cookie-cutter Santa movie like so many of them are. (To fully understand what I’m talking about, just turn it on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime whenever you’re reading this. If it’s still December, there’s a 90 percent chance they’re showing a Christmas movie starring washed-up stars that is virtually indistinguishable from all of the other Christmas movies starring washed-up stars they show this time of year.) If you’re looking for something a little different – something that still has the charm and joy that comes with the names of Rankin and Bass but that is totally unique from every other version of the Santa Claus myth you’ve seen this year, this is the special for you.

NOTE: This story was remade as a traditionally animated direct-to-video movie in 2000 starring Robby Benson of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Don’t get the two confused. While the Benson version is… okay… the Rankin and Bass version is great.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

14
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 14: A Chipmunk Christmas (1981)

A Chipmunk ChristmasDirector: Phil Monroe

Writers: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Hal Mason

Cast: Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Janice Karman, June Foray, Frank Welker, Charles Berendt, R.J. Williams

Plot: Five days before Christmas, the Chipmunks rouse David Seville (Ross Bagdasarian Jr., taking over the roles of Dave, Alvin and Simon from his late father, with Janice Karman playing Theodore) from a sound sleep and start to rush him out the door. As the boys go to the stores, Alvin overhears a little girl admiring a golden harmonica like Alvin’s, wishing she could get it for her sick brother Tommy (R.J. Williams). Tommy’s mother, however, seems skeptical Tommy will live to see the holiday. As the Chipmunks head into the recording studio, Alvin’s spirit has been diminished, and he heads out on an unscheduled break just minutes after recording begins. He finds Tommy at home and visits the sick boy, giving him with his harmonica and telling him he won it in a contest. Alvin rushes back to the studio and joins in the singing, his spirits restored. The Chipmunks are later booked to do a Christmas Eve concert at Carnegie Hall – a huge break – but they want Alvin to do a harmonica solo. Alvin can’t tell Dave (who gave him the harmonica) he gave it up, so he and his brothers try to buy a new one. He dresses up as Santa and charges kids for a picture, which Dave breaks up, admonishing his sons for trying to use Christmas to make money. When his brothers bumble out that Alvin needs money to buy something for himself, a disappointed Dave sends him to his room. That night, Alvin dreams of visiting mad inventor Clyde Crashcup (Charles Berendt), asking him for a loan, but the addle-brained Crashcup proves little help. Dave’s disappointment only grows when he walks past the dreaming Alvin, hearing the boy cry out for money in his sleep.

With two hours to go before the Christmas Eve concert, Alvin sets out to try to buy a new harmonica. While he’s gone Dave gets a phone call from Tommy’s mother, telling him the harmonica did wonders for the sick child. At the mall, Alvin stares at the harmonica he still can’t afford, when a kind old lady (June Foray) comes from nowhere and buys it for him. To thank her, he begins playing “Silent Night,” and a crowd forms to listen, including Dave, Simon and Theodore. Dave apologizes for misjudging Alvin, and the Sevilles head to Carnegie Hall for the concert. As he finishes his harmonica solo, Alvin runs into Tommy, out of bed and well. Alvin pulls him on stage to play an encore with the Chipmunks. Their song even reaches Santa Claus (Frank Welker), passing overhead on his rounds.  He returns home to Mrs. Claus, telling her she should get out on Christmas some time and see what it’s like. As he drifts to sleep Mrs. Claus – a familiar, kindly old woman – looks at the audience and hushes us… why tell Santa, after all?

Thoughts: The Chipmunks, those animated anthropomorphs who rocketed to novelty album fame with “The Chipmunk Song,” had been off TV screens for some time in 1981. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this special was the start of a comeback, leading into a new Saturday morning cartoon that would be the version of the Chipmunks throughout my formative years. And it’s fitting, as their first hit was a Christmas song, that Christmas would factor into their comeback as well.

This special was something of an all-star piece, with the already-great June Foray stepping in as Mrs. Claus and the soon-to-be great Frank Welker as her husband. Even better, Chuck Jones pitched in on animation and character design for the special, and having watched it so relatively soon after How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it’s not hard to see some of his trademark gestures and designs, even if the flow of the animation isn’t really his. Some of the visual gags are distinctly Jonesian, though, such as Alvin as a miniature Santa being hoisted and lowered onto kids’ laps via a pulley… there’s a Wile E. Coyote flavor to it. (There’s also a great nod to Jones and Foray’s previous Christmas collaboration, as Alvin encounters a little girl named Cindy Lou.) The Clyde Crashcup sequence is a double whammy, bringing back a great (and mostly forgotten) cartoon star of the past, as well as presenting a sequence of confusion and misunderstanding that echoes a Dr. Seuss poem – or even one of Jones’s few feature films, the great The Phantom Tollbooth.

Although the Chipmunks would return during the run of their TV show with takes on A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, this special was all-new, and a really refreshing change. So many Christmas specials hinge on a character lacking Christmas spirit and finding it at the last minute. This time we see Alvin – often presented as the self-centered one in the group – show true Christmas spirit at the very beginning, and still winding up in a jam. The arc of the story is utterly unlike any other Christmas film I’m aware of. There’s not even really a lesson to be learned – Alvin knows and does the right thing right away, without having to go through trials or face the intervention of some wise mentor. If there’s anything he does wrong it’s not confessing to Dave that he gave up the harmonica, and given the circumstances, I think most people would have done the same thing. It’s a really refreshing change of pace, and makes for a unique special, unlike any of the others we’ve watched so far.

I have to confess, friends, I think the Chipmunks have hit something of a low point. I’m not at all a fan of the current movie series, where I think some of the silly charm of the original has been traded in for gross-out humor and tendrils of raunch that just don’t fit the spirit of Ross Bagdasarian’s characters. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still love Alvin and the boys, and especially at Christmas, I like looking back at these old cartoons and remembering when they were… y’know… good.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

13
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 13: Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street DVDDirector: Jon Stone

Writer: Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey

Cast: Caroll Spinney,Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Linda Bove, Northern Calloway, Debbie Chen, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Alaina Reed

Plot: On Christmas Eve the gang on Sesame Street takes a trip to the local ice skating rink. While everyone else is having a good time, Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney) decides to poke fun at the naive Big Bird (Spinney again), asking him how Santa Claus can possibly fit through the tiny chimneys the buildings on Sesame Street have. Dismayed at the thought that Santa may not be able to get in, Big Bird and his friend Patty (Debbie Chen) set out to solve the mystery. They turn to Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson, and if you didn’t know that stop reading my article right now, you heathen), who suggests turning to the Santa Claus experts – the children – to find the answer.

Meanwhile, Bert (Frank Oz) is stuck for a Christmas present for his best friend Ernie (Henson again, I mean it, stop reading if you didn’t know that already because I don’t want you here). When he comes across Ernie’s Rubber Duckie, he gets an idea. Ernie, facing a similar dilemma, stumbles across one of Bert’s prize paperclips and decides to get him a cigar box to keep his paperclip collection safe. Going to Mr. Hooper’s store, Ernie finds he doesn’t have enough money for the box, and offers Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) his Rubbier Duckie as a trade. As Ernie leaves, Bert enters with a similar offer: he wants to trade his paperclip collection for a soap dish where Ernie can keep Rubber Duckie. Mr. Hooper takes both deals, even though Bert and Ernie are both clearly distraught over surrendering their prized possessions.

When Kermit’s investigation proves fruitless, Big Bird and Patty recruit Mr. Snuffleupagus (Jerry Nelson) to try to test out a method for squeezing into a chimney. Snuffy, unfortunately, gets stuck. Outside, as Bob (Bob McGrath) and Mr. Hooper exchange holiday pleasantries, Oscar groans and launches into his own seasonal anthem: “I Hate Christmas.”

Bert and Ernie exchange gifts, and both are stunned to realize they’ve been given a gift intended specifically to compliment the very item they have sacrificed. Neither wants to confess to the other that his gift is now useless, and before either of them have to, there’s a knock at the door. Mr. Hooper is there with gifts for the boys – Ernie’s Rubber Duckie and Bert’s paperclips. Bert and Ernie are overjoyed at having their treasures back, but sadly say they haven’t a gift to give Mr. Hooper. The kind old man smiles and tells them they’ve already given him the best gift ever: the chance to see everyone get what they want for Christmas.

When the snow begins to fall that evening, Big Bird sends Patty home. As she leaves she tells him not to worry, she’s certain Santa will come, even if they don’t know how he’ll do it. Left alone, Big Bird decides to go to the roof and wait for him. Patty later turns up at Gordon and Susan’s apartment (Roscoe Orman and Loretta Long, respectively) to tell them she went back to Big Bird’s nest and he’s gone. Everyone on Sesame Street begins searching for him, while on the roof Big Bird watches them, wondering what all the fuss is about. With the temperature dropping and everyone worrying Maria (Sonia Manzano) confronts Oscar over upsetting Big Bird in the first place. Guilty, Oscar sets out to find him. On the roof, away from his safe, warm nest, Big Bird falls asleep, unaware of the figure that has joined him there. When he wakes up he sees nothing, not even footprints, and decides to go downstairs and warm up. He meets Gordon and Patty on the stairs, and Gordon refuses to let him go back outside. In Gordon and Susan’s apartment, he finds a beautiful Christmas tree and stockings loaded with presents for everyone – Santa must have passed while he slept. Gordon explains to Big Bird that it isn’t important to explain a miracle; the important thing is that they’re all together again. Oscar turns up and tells Big Bird he’s glad he’s back… but the Grouch can’t resist one last dig. “How do you think the Easter Bunny can hide all those eggs in one night?”

Thoughts: Jim Henson and company return, although this time he’s joined by some of the other great “J”s of his era – Jon Stone, the writer responsible for so many of the greatest Sesame Street moments of your youth; Jerry Nelson, who gave us the Count and Mr. Snuffleupagus (a word which, somehow, is not in my spellcheck); producer Joan Ganz Cooney, the woman who conceived of using entertaining television to educate children in what would become the Sesame Street style. Henson and his Muppets were integral to the success of this show, but he sure didn’t do it alone. Regardless, as fantastic as each of those creators are, the true magic of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street isn’t brought to you by the letter J, but rather by C and S: Carroll Spinney, the Muppeteer responsible for both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Unlike the regular daily episodes of the show, this prime time special didn’t have any of the cutaway educational segments, didn’t include lessons on counting or spelling… instead, the Children’s Television Workshop used the opportunity to teach a moral lesson or three. And like they did in all their finest moments, they did so without preaching, presenting the lesson in a way that would be easy for children to accept, understand, and internalize.

The A-plot of this special belongs to Oscar and Big Bird in a way that shows off their relationship for what it is: an older sibling (Oscar) who enjoys picking on the younger (Big Bird), but still feels guilty and tries to set things right when confronted with the consequences of his actions. Anyone who has a brother or sister can probably relate – it’s crafted in a very realistic, natural and believable way. Spinney plays their relationship with Oscar’s edge and Big Bird’s unrelenting sweetness clashing at every turn, allowing the kids to worry along with Big Bird until the obvious conclusion is reached at the end. Spinney is a master performer, and I only wish I could have been there to watch him rushing back and forth between the two characters as the camera cut away. Dude must have been exhausted.

The story reveals a depth of character I don’t think is obvious when you’re a child watching these specials. It’s telling to me that only Maria, out of all the adults on Sesame Street, is able to convince Oscar to go out and look for Big Bird and fix what he did wrong. That’s not an accident – Maria and Oscar have a surprisingly complex relationship, in which Maria plays both mother and big sister to the Muppets. It’s one of the few moments in Sesame Street history where I remember seeing one of the human characters get genuinely, justifiably angry, and Sonia Manzano pulls it off wonderfully. Oscar comes across as the problem child who reacts to a stern but loving hand when gentleness fails. (I also maintain that Oscar – at least in my formative years of watching Sesame Street – was written to harbor a forever-unspoken crush on Maria, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The B-plot, featuring Bert, Ernie, and Mr. Hooper, is surprisingly only the second story in our countdown to play with the “Gift of the Magi,” although this is a much more straightforward retelling than Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Bert and Ernie fill the roles nicely, with writer Jon Stone playing on their legendary friendship and slightly childlike outlook to create a story where you can naturally accept them sacrificing for one another. Seeing Mr. Hooper step in to save the day is a lovely moment, and one that still touches the heart all these years after actor Will Lee’s death. (A rare non-Christmas tangent: if you’ve never seen the Sesame Street episode where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper has died, watch it on YouTube. And if it doesn’t make you cry, stop reading my blog forever and go back to your day job strangling baby owls and selling their feathers to stuff pillows for Neo-Nazis.) Although this story was once copied almost as often as A Christmas Carol, it’s fallen a bit by the wayside in recent years. That may be a good thing. A child seeing this special now wouldn’t necessarily see the ending coming, and the message of the piece will more likely remain intact.

One thing I didn’t mention much in my synopsis of the episode are the musical numbers peppered throughout. In truth, most of these do little (or nothing) to advance the plot, so they didn’t really belong there, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t memorable in and of themselves. Bob McGrath and Linda Bove (playing Bob and Linda, respectively) lead the children of the cast in the haunting “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” and the whole cast joins in for “True Blue Miracle,” another one of those songs that has transcended the special that birthed it and become something you may well hear on the radio or in a shopping mall. It’s nice to have some traditional music in there as well – Bert and Ernie’s duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is lovely. Hardcore Muppet fans can probably hear just a bit of Frank and Jim’s friendship in the performance as well. And Oscar’s “I Hate Christmas” is just a joy whether you’re a true believer or an eternal humbug.

There are other moments that don’t actually contribute to either of the two main plots. Grover has a few scenes where he interviews children about Santa’s efforts to enter the chimney, similar to scenes in the regular episodes of the TV show. There’s a running gag about Cookie Monster trying to write a letter to Santa and eating his assorted writing implements as well. It’s a good bit, but there may be no moment of sheer comedy in the special as great as when he realizes the traditional Santa Claus exchange: when he leaves you a present, Gordon tells him, you should leave him a plate of cookies.

But as far as those moments that don’t go with the plot are concerned, the champion is the very first scene in the ice skating rink. As wonderful as the rest of the episode is, this opening scene is still bizarre, with ice skaters wearing full-size costumes of the Muppets skating on the ice. Seeing a six-foot Bert and Ernie or an adult-sized Count is just bizarre. And yes, I know they’ve been doing essentially the same thing with the Sesame Street Live shows for decades. I think it’s weird there, too.

This special won two Emmy awards, ironically beating out A Special Sesame Street Christmas, which aired in prime time on CBS. Both of these shows are now available on DVD, and a quick comparison makes it clear why Christmas Eve walked home with the awards. Out of the two, this special is far more special than Special.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

12
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 12: Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas DonkeyDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writer: Romeo Muller

Cast: Roger Miller, Brenda Vaccaro, Paul Frees, Don Messnick, Linda Gary, Iris Rainer, Shelly Hines, Eric Stern

Plot: As Santa and his reindeer fly out for their Christmas Eve rounds, Santa’s donkey Speiltoe (Roger Miller) prepares for his annual rest, after a long year of pulling work carts and plows. As he observes Santa’s nativity scene, he sadly tells us the donkey doesn’t at all resemble the original, his ancestor. Breaking into song, Speiltoe begins telling us the tale of Nestor, the long-eared Christmas donkey.

Many years ago, a young donkey named Nestor (Shelly Hines) is mocked and dismissed due to his enormously long ears. On the winter solstice, the animals in the barn celebrate with gifts and goodwill, even to Nestor, who is given a pair of stockings to cover his ears. The joyful evening is ruined when a Roman soldier comes into the barn to buy donkeys for the emperor. They snag all of the donkeys except Nestor’s mother (Linda Gary), but when Nestor’s ears are uncovered they throw him into the snow and make off with the donkeys without paying. His mother breaks free and rushes into the winter night, finding her son buried in a snowbank. She covers Nestor with her own body, and perishes in the storm.

Nestor survives the winter, and as spring comes he meets a cherub named Tilly (Brenda Vaccaro), who informs him that his ears will allow him to do wondrous things some day. He is skeptical, but agrees to join Tilly on her way to Bethlehem. Eventually, Tilly has to leave him and he’s taken in by a merchant. A couple named Joseph and Mary try to bargain for him, but when the merchant realizes Mary is great with child, he gives them the donkey for nothing. Nestor, who had been sad and bone-weary, suddenly finds the strength to carry the young woman. When a sandstorm strikes, Tilly’s words ring through Nestor’s memory, and he hears his mother’s voice telling him to follow the singing of angels in the sky. He wraps his ears around Mary and leads them through the sandstorm, coming finally to Bethlehem. He finds a manger for them, and Mary bears a child. Nestor leaves them in safety, finding his way back home, where his friends celebrate him and his magnificent ears.

Thoughts: It’s back to Rankin and Bass land again, friends, for another tale of Biblical times… kind of. It’s also a return to a Gene Autry song as the inspiration, he who gave us both Rudolph and Frosty, and Nestor is the sort of character that would fit in nicely with the other two and their jolly band of misfits… although his story goes to dark places the others didn’t dream of. The threats Rudolph and Frosty face are more of the comical sort – a giant, bumbling snowman, an inept magician. Nestor’s threats are the Roman legion and nature itself. It comes upon us quickly as well, taking a shift from joy to sorrow faster than a Joss Whedon movie. Even as I was typing this paragraph, while watching the special over again, I was halfway through a sentence when I remembered what was going to happen to Nestor’s mother, and it was only through sheer force of will I managed to avoid turning it into an incoherent rant against the legionnaires and the Roman emperor and Rankin and Bass and Godfather’s Pizza. Because I was upset.

The plot itself is an odd one, bringing together elements of the Nativity story and mingling it with a character who, in many ways, apes Rudolph’s story a little too closely. Once again, we see an outcast born with some sort of deformity, driven away from home, forced into a situation where the deformity becomes his greatest advantage, and finally celebrated as special rather than dismissed as a freak. It’s certainly a positive message, but it gets repetitive after a while. If not for the last bit, these two could be X-Men. The story plays fast and loose with the Bible, of course, but not in a way that seems wrong or exploitive. Pretty much every account depicts Mary being carried on a donkey, and expanding that donkey’s story is a perfectly acceptable storytelling avenue.

Of all the Rankin and Bass specials I’ve covered, this one is probably the weakest from a musical standpoint. Roger Miller makes for a fine narrator and his voice is perfectly suited for the songs that accompany the special. The problem is that none of the songs are particularly catchy or memorable. After Rudolph and Frosty’s respective specials, you’re left singing their anthems. Nestor, not so much. If anything, it makes me want to sift through my iPod to find “Dominic the Christmas Donkey,” which I’m realizing now I haven’t actually heard yet this Christmas season, and I’d better rectify that.

My favorite bit in the special, however, comes at the end, when Santa and his reindeer return to the North Pole and join Speiltoe in celebrating the legendary Nestor. Again, the song itself is no great shakes, but the Rankin and Bass guys fill the scene with their all-stars. In the Biblical flashback scene we see the Magi and several other characters from Little Drummer Boy. When we come back to the present we see Santa, Mrs. Claus, Jingle and Jangle from Year Without a Santa Claus, and even Rudolph himself (who makes a rare appearance outside of one of his own specials). Again, this is the nerd in me, but it reminds me of when every Marvel superhero turned up for Reed and Sue Richards’ wedding in Fantastic Four, when all of the Tenth Doctor’s companions showed up together in Doctor Who, when Urkel did that guest appearance on Full House. There are certain characters you know all belong in the same family, even though you don’t usually see them together, and there’s an inexplicable sort of satisfaction that comes when you finally get them all in the same place. This is by no means a bad special, but it probably tells you something that the most memorable part is when all of the characters whose names are not in the title get together at the end.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

11
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 11: A Flintstones Christmas (1977)

Flintstone Christmas CollectionDirector: Charles A. Nichols

Writers: Duane Poole & Dick Robbins

Cast: Henry Corden, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Gay Hartwig, Lucille Bills, Virginia Gregg, Hal Smith,  John Stephenson

Plot: It’s Christmas Eve in Bedrock and the Flintstones and Rubbles are finishing up their preparations. Wilma (Jean Vander Pyl) and Betty (Gay Hartwig) try to persuade Fred (Henry Corden, taking over the role seamlessly from the late Alan Reed) to play Santa at the orphanage’s Christmas party that night, but Fred refuses and heads to work. When he arrives his boss, Mr. Slate (John Stephenson) informs him that his wife wants Fred to play Santa for the same party. This time, to protect his job, Fred agrees. At home, Fred and Barney (Mel Blanc) prepare for the party, but hear a thumping from the roof. They find Santa Claus (great voice actor Hal Smith, who played Santa in no less than five different cartoon series over the years) in the snow. Although Fred is skeptical at first, Barney finds the sleigh and reindeer, proving they’ve got the real Santa in the Flintstone house.  Santa sprained his ankle on Fred’s roof, and Barney suggests Fred as a substitute while he heals. Santa gives them a dose of magic and sends them on their way.

Things go relatively smoothly for Fred and Barney’s first few deliveries, but some turbulence knocks the sack of presents out of the sleigh. Barney calls Santa on the sleigh’s CB radio (it was the 70s, people), and Santa tells them to go back to the North Pole for another load. As they wait for the sleigh to be reloaded, Fred and Barney take a tour of Santa’s high-tech operation and pitch in making some toys. They get back in the air and speed up their deliveries, realizing Fred is still scheduled to play Santa for the orphans. Back in Bedrock, the children are starting to get upset – almost as upset as Mr. Slate. Fortunately, Fred and Barney finally arrive, spilling in through the chimney with such a spectacular entrance Mr. Slate forgives their tardiness… until Fred realizes they’ve given out all the presents already. With a little of Santa’s Christmas magic, Fred produces more, and the children are overjoyed. As they open their gifts, the boys return home to send Santa on his way. Wilma and Betty return home, angry at their husbands for rushing out of the party, and Santa ducks out before they see him. Although the girls don’t believe Fred and Barney’s story about filling in for Santa, they forgive them and begin trading gifts. Fred is horrified to realize, in all the commotion, he didn’t get Wilma a present, but Santa saves the day one last time, slipping one down the chimney. Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm spot Santa flying away, and their fathers join them at the window, waving goodbye, while the girls just chuckle at the four kids looking up at the skies over Bedrock.

Thoughts: Like Fat Albert, this 1977 special takes characters from a popular cartoon show and gives them a Christmas adventure, although unlike Fat Albert, by 1977 the original run of The Flintstones had been over for several years. Fortunately, with animation, it’s easier to do a reunion special without worrying about actors getting older or passing away or refusing to reprise their role – in almost every case, a new voice artist is always a possibility. This special managed to get most of the original voices back, but one wonders if Mel Blanc felt a little confused that he was remaking a cartoon he’d done 13 years prior.

A Flintstones Christmas borrows much of its plot from the 1964 episode of the TV show, “Christmas Flintstone” (brilliantly clever with titles, these Hanna-Barbera folks), specifically the story of Fred filling in for Santa Claus after he injures himself. This special adds in more and different music and ages the children – Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm are elementary school age, whereas they were still babies in the original. They also trade out B-plots – in the original, Fred was working as a department store Santa for extra money, whereas here he’s dealing with Mr. Slate and playing Santa for orphans. The B-plot is used to give urgency to the A-plot as well, while in the original Fred was pretty much done with his gig when he stumbles into the real Santa and is called upon to fill in. Still, if one were to sit down for a marathon of the assorted Flintstones Christmas specials and episodes throughout the years (something a guy like me is honestly very likely to do), you’d be a bit shocked when you essentially saw the same show twice.

Having dealt with that particular elephant in the room (I’m going to ignore the one about characters celebrating Christmas before the birth of Christ), let’s talk about the story for what it is. The notion of Fred filling in for Santa is a wonderfully natural one – the heart of the character is that of a sort of good-natured lummox. For all the times throughout the years where Fred gets short-tempered or angry, at the core of the character is a deep, abiding love for his wife and friends, the sort of thing that lends itself perfectly to playing Santa. The actual mechanism for getting him into the suit was pretty clever for the time, although it seems that Disney picked at this cartoon when they made Tim Allen’s more morbid The Santa Clause.

Although there was music in the original version of this, this version has much more of it, almost making it into a full-blown musical as both Fred and Barney break into song about how much they love Christmas at assorted points in the show. While none of the music has broken out and become of particular note, it’s perfectly passable and a nice addition to the cartoon. The animation style is really indicative of the sort of thing we got from Hanna-Barbera, up to and including a nice little Rube Goldberg-style montage sequence in Santa’s workshop, where Fred and Barney spill out onto the conveyer belts and get temporarily caught up in the mechanisms of the toymaking machines. We saw this sort of thing a lot in the old Hanna-Barbera cartons, second only to the “hall of doors” chase scenes they did so often, particularly in Scooby Doo.

In terms of sheer volume, the good folks at Hanna-Barbera may have been second only to Rankin and Bass for producing great Christmas cartoons. However, there aren’t a lot of ‘em I could use for this project, as so many of them are feature film length, regular episodes of assorted TV shows or, saddest of all, not available on DVD. Maybe next year. But for now we’re not quite done with the Hanna-Barbera characters… not yet.

Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!




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