Saturday, November 27, 2010

Frosty Returns (1992)

As is often the case, the "Frosty the Snowman" DVD we took out of the library came with a second feature attached.

"Frosty Returns" is one of the most bizarre specials I've seen in some time.  It's highly uneven, containing some brilliant humor interspersed with some of the most awful songs ever composed for a Christmas special (I'll let that sink in for a minute).

Even worse is the narrator, a sort of cross between a lumberjack and pixie who appears at the start and end of the special riding on a snowflake.  This thing would make Mr. Mxyzptlk cringe.

There's very little tying this to the original special, though Frosty's appearance does seem connected with another magic hat.  Unlike the original, his existence doesn't seem dependent on it - he's able to remove it and even give it back.  The end gives the implication that he's some kind of nature spirit or snow elemental, which certainly fits the overall theme.  Maybe he hangs out with Swamp Thing.

Neither the animation nor design are rooted in the original special.  If anything, they seem to have been derived from Peanuts, both in appearance and behavior.  Meanwhile, vehicles spraying snow-remover look like they rolled out of a Dr. Seuss book.  In the animators' defense, all of this felt more like tribute than theft.

In terms of story, "Frosty Returns" is a heavy-handed (not to mention simplistic) metaphor for global warming.  Even for this environmentalist, it gets painful pretty fast.

For all its negatives, the writing is actually fairly good when they're not ramming their message down your throat.  Ultimately, it's worth seeing this thing once just to hear a kid suggest they go outside and build a fertility goddess in the snow.

As a rule, this seems to come packaged with Frosty, regardless which version you get, despite the fact there are more in-continuity sequels out there.

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

When you filter out the sequels, knock-offs, and derivative works, I count four quintessential animated holiday specials: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, and Frosty the Snowman.

That isn't to say that those are necessarily the best specials out there (though The Grinch and Charlie Brown are definitely in the running), but they're the most iconic, the most "classic."

And, for years, I've been of the opinion that three out of four of them deserved that honor.  The exception being Frosty, which I considered poorly animated, cheesy, and just not particularly interesting.

When we slid the DVD in, I was wringing my hands in anticipation of ripping it apart when I wrote this article.

Then a funny thing happened.  I liked it.

Maybe I just hadn't paid attention the last few times I watched.  The writing is actually quite clever, and the pace moves along at a fair clip.  The relationship between Karen and Frosty is sweet, and the drama, as each sacrifices their own well-being for the other, plays out well.

Sure, it has faults.  The villain is played for cheap laughs (most of which fall flat), the designs aren't particularly inspired, and the animation quality is far from spectacular.

But, all that said, I really enjoyed this viewing.  At a half-hour, this is absolutely worth catching up on.

Plus, the children commit at least three serious crimes: stealing the hat (ignore the narrator - it's clearly the legal property of the magician), breaking into a refrigerated railroad car, then breaking into a greenhouse.

Not a lot of respect for private property.

Anyway, I'm sure you can find this on TV this year.  Otherwise, Amazon has a few options.

What it all means to me

I wanted to take a moment to let you know where I'm coming from and what this holiday actually means to me.

And that's going to take a little background about me, my family, and why, despite most of what you see on this site, Christmas continues to occupy a very special place in my heart.

No small part of that is due to what I was raised to believe.  Faith and spirituality aren't subjects I touch on much: they tend to smear my otherwise impeccable image as a cynic.  But this is Christmas, where cynicism and spirituality meet face to face, then bash each others' faces in with picket signs arguing whether store clerks should greet customers with "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" as a matter of company policy.

But that's another discussion for another day.  This is about ME.

Yes, I was raised to believe in something greater than myself.  Something eternal.  Something that loved me; indeed, that loved us all.  This faith defined me as a child, gave me hope, and shaped who I'd become.

I'm speaking, of course, of the real reason for the holiday: Santa Claus.

No, really.  My belief in Santa was total, complete.  And it wasn't the presents (well, not JUST the presents - again, another topic, another day).  It was because he was magical, impossible, and yet still verifiably real (at least to the limited empirical skills of a five year-old).  I kind of find it strange that more isn't made of the worship of Santa.  It's a religious tradition upheld by the vast majority of young children in the country.  In terms of practitioners, it's got to rank among the top religions in the United States.

As outlined in the dedication to my first novel, my father is mostly to blame for this.  A devotee of Tolkien and folklore, my dad's stories painted a very different picture of the old bearded elf than I saw on Christmas specials or in the mall.  As a rule, I find that the children who believe the longest are the ones who are taught to make this distinction early on.

When eventually told that Santa wasn't real, I rebelled.  The first philosophical thoughts I can remember entertaining were devoted to redefining the nature and meaning of "reality" to include Santa.  The first existential crisis I faced was over the idea that Saint Nicholas wasn't a real person living at the North Pole.

Bet I'm not the only one.

It's interesting to contrast this with my early memories when I was exposed to that other tradition.  I remember one instance when I was watching a cartoon about a baby, a manger, and some farm animals.  There was something about a star, some wise-men, and the son of God.

My mother came in and saw this.  She sat down and said she wanted to discuss what I was watching.  I remember her explaining that some people strongly believed the events in the cartoon were real, but that she did not.  I remember her explaining that I'd have to make up my own mind, but she wanted me to know what she thought.

I remember laughing out loud.  There were people who believed that cartoon was real?  I'd only turned it on because I was bored, and I was about to turn it off because it hadn't helped alleviate the situation.  But now that I knew there were people who thought this was a true story, it had taken on a whole other level of entertainment.  It was an unintentional farce; a comedy.

I like to think that incident - and others like it - also helped shape the person I became.

I don't actually remember how old I was when I saw that special; four, five, six... who can tell?  But I know one thing.  At the time, I still believed in Santa Claus.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Santa Claus (1898)

I don't know how to classify this - technically, it's a movie.  In fact, it's one of the first movies ever made.  But it turns out that back in 1898, they didn't expect movies to have three-hour run times.

This one, for instance, clocks in at a minute and change.

There's no real story, per se.  The short film shows some kids getting tucked into bed, we see Santa show up (featuring some early special effects), he leaves some gifts, and he's on his way.



It's interesting to see an early version of Santa, sporting an outfit - and waistline - more reminiscent of his origins as a bishop than his current incarnation as a Coke-drinking, cookie-scarfing, overweight elf.

Some of the effects are also intriguing.  To simulate the lights being dimmed, they use a curtain that covers most of the set.  I find it fascinating to look at movies from when they were still incorporating stage techniques.  You get the sense that this was directed more like a puppet show or magic trick than anything else.  The very existence of movement and transformation on a screen was a draw in and of itself, and you can almost sense the glee its pioneers must have felt as they explored and played in the burgeoning art form.

So, is it worth seeing?  Sure.  At less than a minute and a half, you really can't lose.

Greeting Card: Remembrance

Mainlining Christmas is pleased to present the first in our line of holiday greetings.


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus (1959)

We had barely recovered from Santa Claus (1959) the first time, when we went back in to watch MST3K go at it.  It was highly therapeutic watching others hate that stupid surreal film. 

Read Erin's post about the original movie before going on, because I am not subjecting you to another full writeup of the plot.

Some notable thoughts and quotes:

During the hideous imitation of "It's a Small World" that opens the film: the sad and bored looking children are funny for the first 3 minutes or so, then they're just depressing.

“If there is a soundtrack to Seasonal Affective Disorder, this is it”

The ethnic stereotypes joked about by the robots aren't nearly so offensive as the ones in the movie.

“Santa's laughter mocks the poor.”

The interstitial puppet segments are cute but forgettable, which is pretty common for MST3K.

FYI: This version cuts both the horrid nightmarish nutcracker rip-off dream sequence and the endless Merlin scenes.

Because it's dubbed, and completely insane, I found that I often had trouble telling movie dialogue from parody comments.  The film is full of over-explanatory narration and dialogue, in the grand tradition of bad translation and poor dubbing.

The wind-up reindeer are TERRIFYING.

“Uh Oh, Santa got drunk and delivered all the gifts to the moon again.”

Watching the actor playing Santa get into and out of the sleigh is painful. It takes an embarrassingly long time.

The only bright spot (besides the commentary) is that at least it looks like the guy playing the devil is  enjoying himself. I almost enjoy his parts on the same level as cheesy old movie musicals. He has a dancer-y (if usually corny) way of moving.

With the humorous commentary, this movie might be worth seeing, for the reason one ever watches MST3K: to laugh at bad filmmaking. But considering that Santa is quite scary and only managed to visit three kids in the whole night, I can't say that it's done much for my level of holiday cheer.


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus is available streaming on Netflix Instant.
Also Available On Demand at Amazon.com

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Spirit of the Season is Upon Us

Black Friday may be one of our newest holidays, but I would argue that it is nevertheless the most primeval one celebrated by our culture, as well as the one most reflective of our values.

America is truly a capitalist country, as was made abundantly clear during our last election.  What better way to celebrate this blanket rejection of socialism than by dismissing government-recognized holidays for those the market deems holy.  And surely there is no day more sacrosanct to corporations than this.

It is also the only holiday we have involving human sacrifice.  Sure, these aren't officially sanctioned or - so far as we know - planned, but inside you know that, every year, someone, in most cases an innocent store clerk just trying to do their job, is going to be killed by a stampede of customers, or a couple of shoppers will get into a dispute over a TV and shoot each other dead.

The method of the sacrifice may change, but the reason is always the same.  These people die for greed.  Whether it's the greed of their fellow shoppers, the people they're trying to help, or a corporate marketing plan designed to whip customers into a frenzy so they'll spend a bit more money, every mall and department store in this country becomes an altar to this hunger.

And somewhere, someone will be laid before one of those altars.

There can be only one reaction to this truth: jubilance.  And, as they always do, the media is already out in force to give the holiday's most enthusiastic fans their due.

Good will and peace on Earth are for suckers: this is the true spirit of the holiday season.  And Black Friday is the day that spirit is consecrated.  In blood.

Don't cry for the victims, though, for theirs is the best of fates.  Anyone sacrificed on Black Friday will live forever in that glorious Walmart in the sky, where they can shop for all eternity.

Merry Black Friday, one and all.

A Message from Mainlining Christmas

It's Thanksgiving, and we at Mainlining Christmas would like to take a moment to tell you what we're most thankful for this year, as we settle down with family to enjoy this glorious holiday.
 
Just kidding - everyone knows there's no such thing as Thanksgiving; not anymore.  No, today is actually the Thursday before Black Friday.  This is a day of rest before the official start of the Christmas shopping season.  Even most retailer stores are closed today, so they can force their workers to come in at midnight and start setting up.
 
Yes, today is a day to kick back, eat some food, so you'll have energy tomorrow, and try to trick your loved ones into telling you what they want for Christmas (this is why families traditionally come together on the day before Black Friday, by the way).  It's a day to fire up the old computer and search for deals on Amazon, before they start selling out of DVD sets and iPads.
 
So get your shopping plans in order, your cars full of gas, eat some food, and enjoy your last few minutes of peace.  Because, let's face it, none of us are going to have anything to be thankful for until December 26th.

'Twas the Day Before Thanksgiving...



And all through the city, the workers were hopping, so the parade would be pretty.

So sue me, I'm no poet.  As we are missing the parade due to travel this year, I dropped by the neighborhood the day before, to take some pictures of the set-up.

As I walked toward Macys from the south, I could see that Broadway was blocked off in front of the store.



Here's a closer look, the street was filled with trailers and support vehicles.


More Pictures after the jump!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Santa Claus (1959)

If you thought you'd have to wait a while for something "worse than the Star Wars Christmas Special," have I got a surprise for you.  I stumbled across this dubbed version of an Mexican production from 1959 on Netflix.

They also have an Mystery Science Theater 3000 version.  I haven't seen that just yet, but we're planning to get around to it next.

What really concerns me - what horrifies me - is that Netflix predicted I'd consider this a three-star movie.

I kind of wish I'd visited Wikipedia before watching this instead of afterward, so I'd have known it ranks on the IMDB's top 100 worst movies of all time list.

For the record, I would still have watched it; I just wouldn't have done so sober.

This is more a morality play than a movie.  Santa is a clear stand-in for Jesus, who gets name-dropped once or twice.  The moral of the story isn't exactly nuanced: do good, and you'll be rewarded in the end - this is actually stated a few times.  Not exactly deep theology.

To the extent this has one, the plot revolves around Santa battling with a demon over the souls of children.  If that sounds interesting, I assure you it's because I've done such a poor job describing the film.  Their battles, by and large, take the form of a series of practical jokes.  The most extreme act taken by the demon is to sic a dog on Santa so he's trapped up a tree.  This, incidentally, leads into the movie's climax, where Santa, having lost most of his magic items, needs to find a way to escape his predicament before the sun rises and his mechanical reindeer turn to dust.  Not exactly the stuff of legend.

I should mention that all of the action - and I use the term VERY loosely - takes place in the second half of the film.  The first half is spent introducing us to Santa and his young helpers, who are separated into delegations from various country.

And how are we introduced to them?  Through a musical number, of course.  One by one, the narrator announces each group.  They each sing in turn, while Santa plays an organ.

This goes on for a good five or ten minutes (yeah, I know I should go back and check... not going to happen).  The children seem very tired and very bored during this sequence, possibly because they're singing songs like "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and possibly because they've spent the past year building toys.

That's right.  Child labor.

Did I mention that Santa lives in space?  Or that his jolly laugh is that of a supervillain?

Anyway, when we're finally through this display, Santa begins spying on the children of Earth in his observatory.  He does this through the use of a series of hybrid magic/technological devices, usually incorporating a fabricated body part.  If the film's designers were going for whimsy, they missed by a nightmare.  In particular, the oversize moving mouth on the computer is going to be haunting my dreams until Easter at least.

In addition to the cast of "It's a Small World," Santa has two adult helpers.  First, he has a shirtless "key master," who makes him a giant key that can open any door on Earth.  This actually may be my favorite part of the movie.  The key master never gets a name in the English version, although Wikipedia claims he's identified as Vulcan in the original.  I kind of like Santa having some kind of magical blacksmith on staff: that works for me.  Too big to be inserted, the key is scraped over locks, causing a bunch of sparks to fly.  This is probably the most visually interesting effect in the film.  Not that it's a high bar, mind you.

His other helper is "Mr. Merlin."  I want you to stop reading for a moment.  Because, whatever you're thinking of right now - now matter how awful - is actually better than what's in the movie.  Unless you've seen this.  In which case, I sincerely apologize for dredging up these memories.
While I actually love the notion of Saint Nick having access to alchemy and magic (as anyone who read my first novel is aware), this doesn't exactly broach the subject in a serious manner.  Merlin is pure comic relief.  Just like Santa Claus.  And the demon.  And almost everything else in this movie.

There are a few attempts at drama using the kids Santa's been spying on.  Needless to say, none of it works very well.

Now.  All that said, I will give credit where it's due.  I've already mentioned liking the magical key.  In addition, Santa's castle looks pretty cool, and I appreciate the notion behind trying to integrate science and magic in Santa's workshop, even if the execution fails miserably.

But, ultimately, the bottom line is whether or not you should see it.  And the answer to that is Hell, no.  If you ignore this warning, you can watch this on Netflix, assuming you have a subscription.  If for some godawful reason you feel like you need to own this, you could - in theory - get it through Amazon.