Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ranma 1/2: Tendo Family Christmas Scramble (1993)

Whee!  I made Erin watch this, even though I knew he wouldn't get it.  And if you haven't seen the rest of Ranma 1/2, you won't get it either.

I am fascinated by Japan's adoption of bits of Christmas.  It's not a national holiday there, very little of the population is Christian, they have just decided that it's an excellent excuse for a party.  Even just from what I can tell by watching a few anime holiday episodes, Christmas is seen as a time to have fun, give small cute gifts, and go out with your romantic partner.  I approve.

Ranma 1/2 is one of the few anime that I have made the time to see all of, because it amuses me to no end.  This episode is one of the OVA series, which is to say it was a video release, not part of the initial TV run.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Kasumi has a dream that Santa wants her to throw a Christmas party, so she does. Nearly every significant character in the 161 episode series has at least a cameo, so good luck keeping up. Of course, putting all the main characters in a house together makes for much silliness and plotting.

I hadn't watched any Ranma in a while, so it was a bit of a nice refresher, although I know there were references I missed. Overall it is a sweet episode, with some romance, a lot of decent humor, and a few very funny moments.

Plus there's singing, and magic snow, because it's silly and adorable.  I don't recommend this to non-fans, but I was very happy to rediscover it.

If you look online for this episode, don't forget to make sure you get it subtitled.  The standard dub on this show makes me shudder.

Ranma's season of OVAs is also available on DVD.

Santa Is Coming

The similarities between this video from Gratuitous Art Films and my nightmares over the past week are simply too numerous to be dismissed as coincidence.

Thanks to Gratuitous Art Films for sharing.

George of the Jungle Christmas Episode (2007)

This is one of four "specials" that came on a DVD titled "The New Christmas Classics" I found at Best Buy for a whopping $4.99.  When the back said "George of the Jungle," I was hoping it was the original series.  Instead, it wound up being from the new Cartoon Network series.

There were a bunch of shorts included, but only two that were Christmas themed: two halves of a Christmas episode.

The first short, Jungle Bells, had Ursula trying to explain Christmas and bring it to the jungle.  I was disappointed that it was the new series, and I was trying not to like this.

But I failed.  It was funny, and it grew on me pretty fast.  By the time George searched the world looking for Santa, I was chuckling.

The second part was called, "The Goat of Christmas Presents," and dealt with the after effects of introducing George to the holidays and issues arising from him wanting Christmas more than once a year.  The goats motif alluded to in the title were fairly brilliant, and I enjoyed this one, as well.

These represent a solid Christmas episode.  I don't think I'd suggest anyone devote time or effort to tracking them down - they were good, but they weren't that good.  Still, if you're flipping through the channels and come across this, you could do a lot worse.

How to see it:
If you really want to track this down, your best bet is to pick up the New Christmas Classics.  If you can't find it at Best Buy, Amazon has them available.

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas (1973)

This half-hour special from the 1970s tells the heartwarming story of a stoned bear who is tricked into a life of slavery by Santa Claus.

At least, that's what I got out of it.

The first few minutes are somewhat intriguing.  There's a "bear city", where a large number of anthropomorphic bears live and work.  There's a lot of attempted comedy around the supporting characters and the honey factory where they all work; a few of the jokes are actually worth a chuckle.  The designs exist somewhere in that nebulous region between Yellow Submarine and Dr. Seuss, and, while they're not bad, they're not exactly inspired.

While the rest of the bears are getting ready to hibernate for the winter, our intrepid hero, named... ergh... Ted E. Bear... wants to stay up and find Christmas.

Spoiler alert: he finds it in the most trite, obvious place possible, with the help of a strange man in a red suit Ted can't identify, despite having been obsessed with Christmas his whole life and having studied every known aspect of the holiday.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  First, he damages some equipment, gets interviewed by the bear news, and tries to buy a ticket to Christmas.  If you ask me, the other bears are right to laugh at him after that incident, which they do, mercilessly.  He bids a final farewell to his roommate and a woman who behaves like a love-interest, then, while his friends fly south to hibernate in a vacation-spot (you know what: I'm not even going to touch that), he heads out on foot in search of Christmas.

On the way, he stumbles briefly into a cave and is almost mauled by a real bear in a scene that makes me wonder what Ted is actually supposed to be.  This mystery isn't helped by his arrival in what seems to be New York City, where we finally get a sense of scale.  Like his namesake, Ted is toy-sized, so there's no need for the humans to fear him.

In fact, he doesn't even turn heads.  I realize this city is known for being hard to impress, but I'd think a walking, talking teddy bear would at least deserve some attention.

He spends some time in a toy store in a relatively disturbing scene where we get meet some rejects from The Island of Misfit Toys, then Ted crashes into Saint Nick in an alley, and takes his advice on where to head next.

Great lesson for the kids, that.

He ends up falling asleep under the Christmas tree of a poor girl living in a high-rise apartment on 33rd street, which is a good reminder of how times change.

In addition to being incredibly boring, the resolution is ultimately unsatisfying.  Structurally, this is a story about enlightenment.  Ultimately, this is laid out like Plato's Cave Allegory, but they've amputated the second half.  Ted discovers the truth behind Christmas, but he doesn't go back to share his discovery.

Come back next week, when we'll be discussing the Dialectic as it pertains to The Smurf's Christmas Special.

In the meantime, if you ignore my advice to skip this one, you can watch it on Netflix or, if you don't have a subscription, you can check it out for free on Youtube.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The 99 Most Essential Christmas Masterpieces

On some level, this album facilitated the experiment that is this site.  As such, I'm not sure if I should be grateful or angry at Amazon for making this available.

It turns out that if you want classical music, Amazon is happy to provide it in bulk for very little money.  I'm sure a lot of these recordings - or at least similar ones - are available for free, but this saves me the time of having to scour the internet for options.

I'm not sure the price will last, but I actually got this for $1.99, meaning I paid about two cents a song.  The recordings aren't fantastic, but then neither is my sound system.  The sheer number of pieces means I can put this on random and listen for hours on end without hearing the same songs over and over again.

Highly recommended if you want a collection of holiday music without the hassle that goes along with putting it together yourself.

Short Fiction: I've Come for the Mail

 When he said, "I've come for the mail," it was in a plain voice, deeper than average, but certainly not so deep as to be described as baritone or bass.  Nevertheless, one doesn't expect to hear a voice so deep from a man so skinny as the one who walked into the Torytown, Ohio post office, and Rita Yoring was obliged to give the visitor a more thorough look-over.  He was indeed thin, barely the proverbial skin and bones.  He was wearing spectacles, which until that very minute Rita always believed to be another term for eyeglasses, rather than a distinct object, but there was no mistaking it: these were indeed spectacles.  They had to be.  He wore a business suit, not a flashy one, but it had certainly been tailored to fit, and he had a fedora pulled down over the tops of his ears.

"Do you have a PO box?" Rita asked.

The visitor sighed.  "No box," he replied, rubbing his forehead between the bridge of his spectacles and the rim of his hat.  "But I represent an organization whose mail you're holding.  I've come to collect it and provide a permanent forwarding address."

"All right," Rita said.  "I can check in back, long as you've got proof."  She punctuated this with a wide grin.  "Who are you with, Sugar?"

Again, the visitor sighed.  Rather than answer, he set a leather briefcase on the desk and undid the clasps.  Then, without a word, he handed over a document.

Rita continued smiling politely, since one of them ought to behave politely, and looked at the form.  She skimmed the top until she found the name of the visitor's company.  She found it and read the name.  Then she read it again.  And a third time.

"Ma'am," the visitor said abruptly.  "If it's not too much trouble, I am in something of a hurry."

The woman laughed.  "This a joke, Honey?"

"It is not," the visitor replied, making eye contact so as to remove any doubt.  "I'm here for the North Pole's mail."

The woman laughed again.  "I'll, ah, I'll need to run this by George.  He's the--"

"The manager," the visitor cut her off.  "Please do."

Rita vanished behind a door, giving the visitor another amused look on her way.  To his credit, the visitor restrained himself from rolling his eyes until she was gone.  There were two people in line behind him, a middle-aged woman trying not to laugh and an older man, who just looked annoyed he had to wait.

Rita emerged, along with a man the visitor assumed was George.  George cleared his throat and stared directly at the visitor.  He didn't say a word and didn't seem happy.  Clearly he wasn't going to begin this conversation, so the visitor said, "I assume your clerk explained the situation."

The manager crossed his arms.  "All right.  What's this about?"

"As I already explained, I represent an organization which has reason to believe you may be holding some of its mail."

"And just what gave you that idea?"  He tipped his head forward, so he could glare from beneath his eyebrows.  Perhaps he thought it made him appear intimidating.

"It's our understanding that the vast majority, if not every one, of the post offices in the state of Ohio are currently holding at least some of our mail."

"I'd say every PO in the US of A has a few letters addressed to Santa Claus," the manager replied.  "Must be all those kids."  There was no discernible humor in his voice, and the visitor certainly didn't seem like he was liable to burst into laughter.  Rita and the woman in line, on the other hand, were turning bright red.  Even the older gentleman at the back of the line was amused.

"If you'll consult the documentation I've provided, you'll find everything in order.  We're a very old not-for-profit organization which has recently applied for tax-exempt status with the IRS.  You'll find details about our pending status, as well as legal permission to operate.  There's no reason to draw this out."

Now George did laugh, or at least chuckle, although there was nothing remotely warm or friendly about it.  "That so.  I can think of a few reasons.  You could spend a lot of time behind bars for this prank, son.  So maybe you should give it some thought before you keep wasting my time."

The visitor straightened his tie.  "I know chapter 63 of Title 18 by heart, and I assure you I'm in perfect compliance.  And, frankly, I'd appreciate if you addressed me in a professional manner.  The organization I represent is the same as any other.  We only want our mail."

"Maybe you should just give him the letters," the man in the back of the line suggested.  "I mean, it's not like they're valuable."

George leaned around the visitor, as though he wasn't there.  "Jeff, all due respect, that'd be like giving out the addresses of half the kids in town."  The man in the back of the line shut up, and George turned his attention back to the visitor.  "Besides, we were going to ship those letters to New York.  They got a North Pole there, as well."

"I'm aware of the town," the visitor said, growing irritated.  "We've filed for legal action again the township.  Under Title 18, chapter 63.  Of course.  But that's irrelevant.  I represent the actual organization that mail is addressed to, and as such, have a right to take possession.”

“I don't care what that paper says.  Unless you've come in sleigh driven by eight magic reindeer, you're not getting near those letters."

The visitor clenched his teeth.  "I came in a van.  And I must insist."

"Look, I don't know what you're getting at, but I'm about five seconds away from calling the cops."  George held up his hand, all five fingers extended.  The first dropped.

The visitor looked upset.  Beneath his breath, he muttered, "Eight years.  Eight years of law school,” and two more fingers fell.  "Fine!  Fine!"  His hand moved in a blur, faster than George, Rita, or either of the customers could see.  All of them had stepped back instinctively.  The visitor was no longer upset or even angry: he was furious.

And then, in a single motion, the hat came off in his hand.  He clenched it in his fist.  "Are you happy?" he demanded, practically shoving his head into George's face.  "Are you happy now?"

The four people in the post office just stared in disbelief.  The visitor shut his eyes, took three deep breaths, and returned the hat to his head.  When he opened his eyes, they were still staring.  He grabbed his form from Rita's hand, and she made no move to stop him.  When he spoke again, his tone had returned to its previous level, though his voice shook the slightest bit.

"I'll take the mail when you're ready, and I'd like to leave a forwarding address so we never need to go through this again."

Rita stuttered, "You mean... an address... at the North--"

"In eastern Illinois," the visitor said, snidely.  "It's a regional distribution center we're setting up, since mail sent to the actual street address of our corporate headquarters hasn't been getting through."

"Oh," Rita said.  "Yeah.  I'll... I'll go get the mail from the back.  Right?"

"Right," George agreed, still staring at the visitor.  "I can take your address."  The visitor pulled out another form from his briefcase, already filled out.  As he did so, George observed, "You've got a lot of forms in there."

"Yes," the visitor replied curtly.  "I have a few more stops after this one."

When he'd been given the mail, amounting to two full boxes, George followed him out to his van.  "Look, pal... I'm sorry I had to insist, but...."

"You were looking out for the children in your town," the visitor said, balancing the boxes on the bumper while he unlocked and opened the back.  "As a representative of an organization looking to promote and improve the welfare of children, I don't begrudge that."  He adjusted his spectacles, while he pushed the boxes of mail in up against two dozen others.  "I'd just like to get through one stop this week without having to remove the hat," he whispered.


We've been watching Christmas specials every day for over a week now.  I can feel my mind starting to splinter around the edges.

Last night Erin put on Santa Claus and The Three Bears. (Review coming eventually...) About fifteen minutes in, I learned that it was not a half-hour special, but rather an hour-long special.  (Well, 44 minutes, but you know what I mean.)

I practically strangled poor Erin, and then hid under the covers for the duration of that pile of crap.

It isn't as I've watched nothing else this week.  I went to see Tangled, and watched the Castle episode I had missed. (It was a really great episode, by the way)

I really feel like tomorrow should be Christmas already.  If it isn't, then WHY CAN'T I STOP THINKING ABOUT IT?  Seriously?  Not for weeks?

I might explode before this is over.

Although, I am interested to see the experiment through.  I'm a notorious humbug about the holidays, but I figure to test that.  By Dec 26, I'll either be so full of cheer that I'll bleed red and green, or I'll never want to celebrate this damn holiday again.

Right now I'm giving it even odds.

Card: The Bells of Christmastime

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Goof Troop: Have Yourself a Goofy Little Christmas (1993)

It's been a very long time since I've seen any Goof Troop, one of my least favorite series that was part of the Disney Afternoon lineup.  The holiday episode is cute, but odd, and exemplifies what I remember about the series.

That means it has the strengths of the series: family stories, told with heart, with the occasional very funny line.  That also means it has the weaknesses that plagued the series: unrelenting ill luck that isn't actually funny, and an awkward mesh between the character based humor and the over-the-top slapstick.

There is also a certain level of unexplained zaniness and a few really confusing cuts that made me wonder if the episode was cut down from a slightly longer special.  The ending, for example, seems to come out of nowhere and makes no sense.  I couldn't find any information about it, though.  It could easily just be poor writing.

Have Yourself a Goofy Little Christmas gets an A for effort and a C- for execution. Skip it, unless you have super-fond memories of the show.

Also known as A Goof Troop Christmas, look online for this special, because you don't want to try to track down the overpriced old DVD version.  Apparently there's a VHS of this episode and the Darkwing Duck holiday episode for pretty cheap... if anyone still has a VHS player.

Oh, yeah - I hated it more: Casper's Haunted Christmas (2000)

Lindsay got her review in first.  Normally, we don't gang up on a movie if we both hate it, but this gets to be a special case.

It's Christmas, so I'm going to start this review off on a positive note by finding some nice things to say about the computer animated, direct-to-video film, Casper's Haunted Christmas.  Give me a minute.  I can do this.

Got it!  The ghosts were animated with passable CG, unlike the people (more on that in a moment).  Also, the design of the fictitious town this took place in was kind of fun.

This concludes the positive section of this review.

Going in, I assumed this was going to be bad.  I mean, I bought it as part of a five dollar bargain set from Best Buy - the now infamous "New Christmas Classics" - and it wasn't even featured.  I mean, this is (unfortunately) a full length movie, and the people including it in their set didn't feel like it warranted more attention than a bunch of seven minute Gumby shorts.

Had I glanced at Rotten Tomatoes, I'd have seen another portent.  This was released a decade ago, and to date it has a single review.  I doubt anyone's going to be shocked by the revelation that the review wasn't a glowing endorsement.

The movie was disgustingly inoffensive and painfully dull.  Ostensibly, it was a comedy, but I didn't laugh at a single line.  In its entire hour and a half, the single best joke was the setting: Kriss, Massachusetts.

Are you amused?  Didn't think so.

The plot required some of the most bizarre contrivances imaginable, including the human characters remaining oblivious to the nature of the ghosts, somehow dismissing them as actors or, in the case of Casper, a living snowman.  The only way I can wrap my head around this is by assuming the script was intended as a traditionally animated movie, and no one bothered to adjust it when the switched to CG and translucent ghosts.  Depictions of Casper from the old comics look a great deal like a snowman; this one doesn't, rendering the entire plot even more meaningless than it already was.

I mentioned earlier that the ghosts didn't look too awful (I suspect that some of the models from the 1995 live action movie were recycled).  Now let me tell you about the designs around the human characters....

Comparing them to video game characters is grossly misleading, since video games have evolved light years beyond this.  At best, these were at the level you'd expect from the Playstation 1.  And not from the good games, either.

Stiff, wooden, and soulless, the humans were significantly more frightening than their counterparts.  The only thing creepier were a group of actors auditioning as "ghosts."  Their eyes were literally bulging out of the sheets.

It's also notable that humans were few and far between.  There were scenes were a crowd would have made sense, but instead there were only one or two people around.  I can only assume they were experiencing technical issues with their equipment, and just worked around them instead of trying to fix the problems.

This thing was a car wreck of boring proportions.  It was a family-friendly film that would make most toddlers want to blow their brains out.

For the love of all that's holy, listen to what I'm about to say: no matter what you do, DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE.

If you'd like to watch this movie, it's available on the "New Christmas Classics" set.  If they haven't been picked clean for the holidays, you can find that in Best Buy for cheap.

Casper's Haunted Christmas (2000)

Oh. I feel quite unpleasant now.  This is one of the worst pieces of utter tripe that I've seen in a long time.

First off, the animation is awful.  The movie is full of creepy CG people who just look hideous.  The ghostly effect isn't terrible, but everything is animated poorly.

The plot is utterly arbitrary.  At the beginning it seems that Casper's uncles (aka The Ghostly Trio) are about to get in trouble for scaring a parking lot full of people... but wait, then Casper's in trouble for not scaring people?  Make up your mind. The “plot,” so to speak, is completely imposed upon the characters with utterly no rhyme or reason.

They are sent to “Kriss, Massachusetts.” Shoot me now.

Then we meet the rest of the characters: a family in which the parents are completely terrifying and utterly certifiable in their obsession with all things Christmas.  I kept hoping they would die horribly.  They have a daughter who starts out okay, at least she hates them.  But of course she doesn't really hate them and secretly likes some part of Christmas.  When that was revealed I started yelling at the screen, because they had broken my last hope, that the little girl would become some sort of patron of Halloween and they would all brush off all that Christmas crap and move on.  But no.  This movie had no redeeming value.

Which reminds me, why is Casper such a whiny little baby?  I hate him and want him to be punished for being a terrible ghost.

Plus the writing is terrible, the jokes are painfully unfunny, the whole stupid thing is slow as frozen molasses, and the music makes me want to claw my ears off.

There's a completely screwed up dream sequence in which Casper and his little human girlfriend (EWWWW) appear to be trapped inside a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper.  Whales, Fireworks, and Rainbows, I kid you not.

The conclusion is just stupid ex machina, it comes out of nowhere, makes no sense and it broke anything amusing about any of the characters.  This movie really needs a giant warning sticker: DO NOT WATCH!

It's so much more horrible than you're thinking.  Trust me.  It's so bad.  So bad.  Don't even think about it.  I need to scrub my brain out now.

If you insist on subjecting yourself to torture, this came on the New Christmas Classics set Erin picked up at Best Buy.

I saved the worst for last: I got to the end, sat through the cringe-worthy exit music, and at the end of the credits saw.... No!  Mainframe, animators of my beloved Reboot and Beast Machines!  I know you've made a lot of crap, but this?  How could you do this to me!  I TRUSTED YOU!

Powerpuff Girls: The Fight Before Christmas (2003)

Oh, hell yes.

Given the vast number of Christmas specials I'm sitting through, I can't think of higher praise than what I'm about to say: this hour-long special felt short.

While there's certainly some bad Powerpuff Girls cartoons out there (seasons 5 and 6, I'm looking at you), the majority is very, very good.  And this represents some of the best.

Even before the action picks up, just watching the Powerpuffs decorate is immensely enjoyable.  So much of what made the show a success was the contrast between childhood and super powers, and that's certainly on display.

The story involves Princess, who breaks into Santa's workshop to alter the naughty/nice lists.  It's well put together and fast paced, leading up to a world-spanning battle.

The end could have delivered more punch: the resolution felt a tad too easy (and nowhere near violent enough) for my tastes.  I also wasn't in love with the version of Santa used here.  Something about his design just didn't appeal to me.  But that's nitpicking.  This is a fantastic Christmas special.

They did release this on its own, but it's a ripoff at sixteen bucks.  However, this is also included as an extra in the complete series box set, which is itself worth picking up if you can find a copy.  Regardless, this special is highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It's a Wonderful Tiny Toons Christmas Special (1992)

Huh. I remember Tiny Toons being funnier than this.

The Tiny Toons Christmas Special is okay, but not great by any metric.  It's cute, not smart.  The story is completely straightforward: a passable riff on It's a Wonderful Life.

Where it really fell flat for me was an excess of jokes based on parodying celebrities.  I didn't get these jokes back in 1992, and now they're really dated.

That said, there was a good bit of the meta-humor that Tiny Toons was known for, all based on the awareness of being in a cartoon.  The visual of Buster thinking of throwing himself "out of the cartoon" is particularly nice. His rabbity angel is named Harvey.

If you're after specials from cartoons you may have watched in the 90's and you can't find any Animaniacs, or you still think Cher jokes are funny, this might warm the cockles of your heart.  If not, stick around, I'm sure I can recommend something more timeless.

Want to see it anyway?  Try YouTube, or it looks like it's available on the Tiny Toon Adventures: Season 1, Vol. 2 DVD set.

Card: Unexpected Friends

Click for larger version.

Gumby's Seasons Greetings (Various Dates)

I stumbled across a discounted series of Christmas specials at Best Buy going for $4.99, and decided to pick them up.  Along with Fat Albert's Christmas Special, some holiday themed George of the Jungle, and Casper's Haunted Christmas (along with some bonus episodes that had nothing to do with the holidays), there were a bunch of Gumby episodes, collected under the manufactured title, "Gumby's Season's Greetings."  Of these, only four actually seemed to be Christmas-related, so I put them on and skipped most of the rest*.

I should mention that I know nothing about Gumby.  I think I saw a few episodes when I was a kid, but I wouldn't swear to that.  As such, I know nothing about the characters, their world, or the show's premise I couldn't gloss from these.

Each "episode" was about seven minutes long.  None were particularly impressive, but a few were kind of fun.  Most of these were based on an interesting premise or joke, but, with the possible exception of the last, they never really went anywhere with the idea.

I should mention that I'm a little unclear when these were actually produced.  The first three seemed to be from the sixties - the intro listed 1967, but that seems to be just the copyright date.  The last looks to be from sometime in the eighties, but I don't have specifics.

Santa Witch
This might be the most interesting from a historical point of view.  The plot is cute: Pokey (Gumby is absent for this episode) wanders into a book about Christmas, only to find Santa's ill and can't fly his sleigh.  If a suitable pilot isn't located, Christmas will be canceled.  Pokey makes a quick call to a friend of his who's a witch (I'm assuming this wasn't her first or only appearance on the show).  She shows up and takes over.  Like most of these, it drags even at seven minutes.  Still, the conceit is cute.  More than that, though, I wonder if this influenced The Nightmare Before Christmas.  The witch resembles the ones in the movie, and there are several moments that feel similar.

Scrooge Loose
Again; cute concept, nothing more.  Scrooge, in an effort to humiliate Santa and destroy Christmas, wanders into his book.  Gumby and Pokey follow.  They try to stop him from sabotaging Santa's presents, only to make an equally large mess of things.

Pigeon in a Plum Tree
This one is just weird.  The Christmas elements are fairly light.  It's kind of fascinating, but nothing special.

This is easily the most interesting of the bunch, though I bet Gumby fans disagree.  Scrooge teams up with the Blockheads (again, I'm assuming these aren't new characters) and goes after Santa.  This time, they're out to kill him once and for all.  Gumby and friends give chase, and the result is a relatively intense adventure story.

Unless you're a huge fan of stop-motion, I don't think I can recommend tracking these down, with the possible exception of Humbug.  There are some cool ideas, but the shorts tend to revolve around a single, dragging joke.

If you want your own copy, the New Christmas Classics is a good way to get it.  Amazon has a decent price, but you might be better off stopping by Best Buy and digging through their clearance bin.

*I actually watched the two Thanksgiving episodes, as well, something I don't advise anyone else to attempt.  In particular, the depiction of Native Americans in "Pokey's Price" is downright painful.  I have a high tolerance for this kind of thing, but even I was cringing.

Silver Bells

Part of my relationship with the Christmas season can be explained, not with food or family, but with a song.

I grew up in Massachusetts. The Northeast is a good place to be for "traditional" Christmas: We usually got snow, my parents' house was set back in the trees, we had a big fireplace for Santa's presents, and there were the occasional town or school parties that actually had things like carols.

However, my favorite part of my parents' Christmas tradition was driving into Boston for one night to see the lights on Boston Common and the animatronics in the store windows. We would also drive around the smaller urban areas nearby, wherever there were lighting displays and holiday music in the streets.

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air, There's a feeling of Christmas

My second favorite part of Christmas was music, and my favorite song since I got too old for Rudolph (at about 6) was Silver Bells.

Originally it may have started because Silver Bells was one of the only secular songs in my Mom's Christmas for the Piano book that I both recognized and could play. It has grown into something a bit more.

Children laughing, People passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on ev'ry street corner you'll hear

There's also perhaps something to the fact that I was raised on Sesame Street.  Even though I didn't live in the city, I had an idea what it would be like, and I was in Boston or Providence just often enough for cities to be familiar, but not so frequently to become jaded by them. City life, to me, was as exciting and adventurous. Plus, for a kid involved in theater from a young age the occasional trip to NYC was simply magic.

Silver bells silver bells
It's Christmas time in the city
Ring a ling hear them sing
Soon it will be Christmas day

I love living in New York City at Christmastime. I love gaudy light displays and I love snow on twinkly lights. The whole idea of the Christmas Card aesthetic: little cottage in the snow with a fire and stars overhead... that's nice too, but give me Times Square decked out for the season.

Strings of street lights, Even stop lights
Blink a bright red and green
As the shoppers rush
Home with their treasures

I love finding decorations in odd corners of the city. The idea that everything is part of the season, is part of the rush. Coming upon windows I don't expect to be decorated, or the street theater inherent in masses of people all moving to a few destinations.

Hear the snow crunch
See the kids bunch
This is Santa's big scene
And above all this bustle, You'll hear

Yes, by January it will be slushy and gray, and the wind tunnels created by the skyscrapers will start torturing the populace. I'll start to miss living in the woods come February. But even though I've lived in or near cities for close to 7 years now, I still get giddy and excited whenever I see the city all done up in lights.

Silver bells, silver bells
It's Christmas time in the city
Ring-a-ling, hear them sing
Soon it will be Christmas day

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Disney Channel Christmas (1983)

I never had cable growing up, so "A Disney Channel Christmas" isn't a special I'm familiar with.  Apparently, Disney has been re-cutting and adjusting this since 1958, when it was called "From All of Us to All of You."  The version I saw, expanded to a numbing hour and a half, was released in 1983 and titled "A Disney Channel Christmas."

To today's viewers, most of this plays like an extended commercial for Disney DVDs.  It's easy to forget that most of the movies and clips featured wouldn't have been available for sale when this aired.  For a number of viewers, this would have served as an introduction to characters and movies they wouldn't see for years.  Now, the clips feel bizarre and esoteric.  Scenes from Pinocchio, Snow White, and Cinderella are included, despite the fact there's no discernible connection to the holidays or even winter.

The shorts are far more interesting.  I particularly enjoyed "Donald's Snow Fight," which portrays an escalating snowball fight between Donald and his nephews, culminating with Donald shouting "I will exterminate you," only to watch them decisively end the conflict.

This also contains "Once Upon a Wintertime," a sweet story told with some beautiful animation.

There were also some decent shorts from the thirties.  Apparently, "The Night Before Christmas" has been cut down over time to remove jokes that targeted minorities.  They missed at least one on the version I saw.  Even with this cringe-worthy reminder of the era the short was from, it's still worth seeing.

I'm not sure I can say the same for the special as a whole.  You're far better off tracking the individual shorts down individually than trying to sit through the whole thing.  Alternatively, if you're watching on video or DVD, be sure you have a remote handy to fast-forward through the clips you've seen.  Unless you're a huge fan of animation, you might also want to skip "The Clock Watcher," a Donald short which gets tedious pretty quickly (don't listen to Lindsay - I think this experiment is getting to her).

Your best bet for this is to search online.  Lindsay tracked down a few segments for you in her review, so that's a good place to start.  There was a VHS version called Jiminy Cricket's Christmas, but there's no way it's worth anywhere near what it's going for.

Memories of Retail Past

I only spent one year working in retail at Christmas.  About eight years ago, right after I finished college, I spent a year selling arts and crafts at a Michaels in western Massachusetts.

There were a lot of things I hated about that job.  For one, it wasn't exactly the sort of thing I'd imagined myself doing with my degree.  Also, about one in every three customers was certifiably insane.  I once had a hippie ask me how often we had to water the artificial trees.

However, I have to say that, despite everything, I really loved working around Christmas.

The hours extended, so I was there until after 10 half the time.  The seasonal Christmas merchandise was coated in a layer of glitter so thick that by the end of some days I looked like I'd applied it to myself (good thing that was before the days of Twilight: I'd have hated being mistaken for a cosplayer).  And they'd play the same half dozen cheesy Christmas songs day in, day out.

But frankly, if I hated the gaudier aspects of Christmas, this site wouldn't exist.  Plus, most of the job wasn't overly thought-provoking, so I had time to think while I worked.  I probably dreamed up half of the plot for For Love of Children while stocking shelves with Christmas supplies.

All things considered, it was good inspiration.

Plus, there was a nice energy to the whole thing.  Yeah, people get stressed around the holiday.  They'd get angry when the plastic trees marked down to $19.95 are sold out.  But that's all part of the charm.

Sometimes I miss salting the sidewalks in the middle of a blizzard or helping people locate something they were looking for.  Even running to the back room to haul a plastic tree to someone's car was good exercise.

That said, I think I'll stick with the nice desk job.

A Disney Channel Christmas (1983)

Man, I loved this when I was a kid. We had the Disney Channel when I was little, back when it was the channel that showed wall-to-wall old Disney Cartoons and "tween" programming wasn't yet a glimmer in a marketing director's eye.

I watched all the Disney Channel Holiday Specials.  There was one for Christmas, and one for Halloween hosted by the Magic Mirror from Snow White, and one for Valentine's Day, and maybe some that I'm forgetting.  They are essentially themed clip shows, but sometimes it would be the only time you would see some of these bits.

There were three main types of content spliced together to make this special, so I'm going to talk about each in turn:

1) Material from Movies

This is the least interesting part for me now, and I don't remember it much from watching as a kid, so maybe it bored me then too.  A few of the pieces fit the theme well, especially the skating scene from Bambi and the Waltz of the Flowers from Fantasia.  I do like those.  The sections from Peter Pan and Cinderella and Snow White are all pretty, cute scenes, but not especially compelling out of context.  And Pinocchio I just don't like.

Now I want to watch Fantasia, though.

2) Shorts

This is a mixed bag, but overall quite a nice selection.  The pieces chosen stretch across the years that Disney has been making shorts, and so there's a 50's piece with Pluto, Chip and Dale, an older short (Donald's Snow Fight), some Silly Symphony shorts from the 1930's, a black and white Mickey short from 1932, and more.

My favorite pieces were:

"Once Upon a Wintertime", because I'm a sucker for all of those 50's stand-alone shorts, especially the Merry Melody/Make Mine Music ones (like Johnny Fedora, Suzy the Little Blue Coupe, Bumble Boogie, etc.....) I just think they have a nice style.
Of course, this one is more appropriate to Valentine's Day, but I'm not complaining.

"The Clock Watcher", which is a 1945 short about Donald Duck having a job in a gift wrapping department.  It's a fun classic cartoon, one I've seen over and over, and it actually still makes me laugh.

3) Material Produced for Christmas specials

This includes the first two songs and the last one, mostly, and all the introductions.  I like "From All of Us to All of You", originally recorded for the first Disney TV specials in the 50's.  The song that was added after it for this 1983 special is absolute dreck.  Oddly, the special closes with "When You Wish Upon a Star", with the recording from the movie (quite lovely), and 'new' animation.  I put new in quotation marks there because it looks like some animation intern went back into the archives and created a mashup with existing animation. Bits are from Snow White, bits from Alice in Wonderland, bits from Cinderella, and the characters haven't been reanimated, just existing cells placed over a blank colored backdrop. It looks extremely surreal.

While this was a nice way to see these pieces together on cable, now with the internet I can just look up the specific short I want to see.  I'm nostalgic for this special, but I don't know that it'll become part of my traditions again.  Some of the shorts might, though.

See Once Upon a Wintertime on Youtube
See The Clock Watcher on Youtube

You can probably find the whole special if you look...

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Martian Christmas (2009)

Not to be confused with the classic "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians," this is an hour-long Christmas special about a ridiculously small group of Martians coming to Earth to blow it up.

I'm assuming this was intended to be shown on television, though I'm having a hard time finding evidence it actually ever aired. There's no Wikipedia page up for the special, and the page for PorchLight Entertainment, the company which made it, reads like it was written by someone working for the company. Or their mother.

All things considered, this really isn't a bad special. There are some solid jokes surrounding the Martians' misconceptions of Earth based on television broadcasts, as well as the similarities between the little green men from Mars and Christmas elves. Plus, they're ostensibly here to blow up the Earth, which always makes for good comedy.

The thing is, while this isn't bad, it isn't exactly good, either. The animation is pretty low end, about on par with flash videos you find on the internet. The special is cute and inoffensive, but it's not worth investing an hour of your time, unless you're too young to be reading this blog.

If you do want to track this down, Netflix has it up on instant view.  Amazon also offers it for sale, but there's no way this is worth ten bucks.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

This was a very confused movie. I'm not saying that just because I got a little tipsy before watching it, but you may want to keep that fact in mind.

The first five minutes are insipid crap, and then the action moves to Mars and I started to... enjoy the movie! The premise is, the kids of Mars are addicted to Earth TV, and they are depressed and not eating. The leader of the Martians calls up his deputies and seeks the advice of the Ancient One. The Ancient One tells him the kids are sick because with the Martian advanced learning technology, the kids learn how to be adults too fast, and never learn to have fun. He recommends seeking the specialist in childhood joy: Santa Claus.  And so the Martians set off to capture Santa.

Now, for all the inherent silliness, most (not all) of the actors playing Martians are acting just as serious about their roles as most any cast member of Star Trek, Forbidden Planet, etc. There is a serious problem on their planet, this will fix it, so they're going to do their jobs and save the kids. There's a significant sub-plot with one of the trusted lieutenant types who fears that Mars will lose its way if they import Earth-style frivolity. The conflict is simple, but as well done as nearly any sci-fi flick I've seen from this era. The leader's care for his children and his planet is very genuine and sweet.

This whole first half I actually quite liked, except when any Earth characters were on screen. The Martians were in a sci-fi movie, the Earthlings in a corny comedy. The contrast was odd.

After the Martians get Santa (and two handy earth kids) back to Mars and he starts in on making Martian kids laugh (creepy, incidentally), the movie turns campy all over. The evil lieutenant gets a pair of flunkies and they lose all their competence, devolving into slapstick.

The sweetness of the main Martian couple is maintained, but the end of the movie is pretty lame.

If you are a fan of 60's sci-fi, you could do worse than this for a zany Christmas treat.  I mean, not a lot worse. There's some pretty god-awful stuff: poor effects, bad writing, hammy actors. I felt for the Martian leader, though, trying to act his way into a better movie by sheer force of will.

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is currently streaming on Hulu
Also available on DVD

Card: Winter Memories

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977)

This is one of four specials included on a DVD I fished out of the bargain bin at Best Buy labeled, "The New Christmas Classics."  I'm not exactly sure what qualifies all of these as "New", let alone "classics."

If the internet is to be believed, The Fat Albert Christmas Special premiered in 1977, so it's been around for a while.  I put this on not having any idea what to expect - if I've ever seen an episode of this series before, I was too young to remember.

All right, let's get this out of the way.  This special is boring.  Not mind-numbing or painful, but it definitely drags.

The comedy doesn't help, either.  I don't know if the jokes are just anachronistic or what, but they didn't age well.

That said, the special is far from a total waste.  While the jokes fall flat, the drama hits its mark.  The story plays out surprisingly well, and the writing is heartfelt and intelligent.  The special weaves elements of the Christmas story and Scrooge together without directly focusing attention to the fact.  For all the faults, someone cared enough to invest some thought and effort.

I'm not sure I can recommend it, though.  This is good work, but the slow pace and flat humor make it a tough sell.

If you really want this, you can order the New Christmas Classics DVD here, though you might save some money if you can find it at Best Buy.

Cynicism in Small Children

I don't remember a time that I believed in Santa, I mean really believed. I spent a long time sort of believing in a "non-personified force of seasonal charity" that was conventionally understood as Santa, but I don't remember ever thinking that a literal person delivered gifts to the children of the world.

This position may have been prompted by the simple fact that 'Santa's' handwriting looked, well, exactly like my Dad's. Did other kids get letters back from Santa? Sometimes I thought it was just to explain why we didn't get what we asked for, but something else instead.

Or by the fact that while my parents said they wanted me to believe, and they made my brother and I go through the motions for a long time, it never quite seemed like they could get through the routine without seeming patronizing or winking. At some point, I had had it.

I was not going to put up with this flagrant deception any longer.  I don't remember how old I was, but it was before my brother got his own room, so I couldn't have been more than 8 or 9.

Late one Christmas Eve, I waited. After my parents did a little playacting about how "we're going to bed now too, so Santa can come!", they retreated to their room (no doubt to wrap some last minute gifts). I snuck back out into the hallway.

I was sure my parents were Santa, and I was going to prove it. If they couldn't get downstairs, and then Santa's presents did not appear, that would be conclusive evidence, and they would have to stop lying to me.

I took a big ball of pastel yarn, and proceeded to wrap it between the railings at the top of the staircase. 

Yes, this created a short fence of yarn across the top of the stairs.

No, I didn't stop to think that I might accidentally trip my parents and cause them to fall down the stairs.

Once I had run it back and forth until I ran out of yarn, I knotted it firmly, and retreated back to bed, mission accomplished.

The next morning, Santa's presents were on the hearth at the edge of the fireplace as usual. Of course, my yarn wall had been dismantled and put aside, so that proved nothing.

They didn't even bother to put it back up to try to fool me, and yet they persisted in pretending that Santa was real. 

I'm convinced this is why I'm such a Humbug. The closest thing to a fight Erin and I have ever had was about whether it is right to teach children a lie. Now you know where I stand.

Many, many years later I was helping clean the kitchen and I came upon the holiday stamps my parents had always used to sign the letters from Santa. I pointed it out to my mom, and jokingly mentioned that she wouldn't be able to fool me anymore.

She just said, "Oh, Santa has us hold them for him. The sleigh's so crowded, you know."

Rebuttal: Frosty The Snowman (1969)

I did not like this special.

I frankly don't find the over literal interpretation of the song charming, but rather, extremely grating. For example, the children say “We just know you came to life, we just know it...” and then the narrator sings: “He was made of snow but the children know how he came to life...”  It's almost too hokey for words. Wait, I have two. Bah, and Humbug, I say.

The sound is uneven, the foley choices terrible, the animation cheaper than dirt. I was almost more surprised when the mouths matched the voices than when they didn't. It didn't look like they were even trying.

I suppose it doesn't help that I'm only occasionally tolerant of a musical genre I call “crappy old novelty”.  Rudolph is okay, Frosty is on the margin. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is stupid. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer is a crime against music.

I say skip the damn thing.

If you must, Frosty is available all over the place, including on Amazon.