Saturday, December 11, 2010

More About Prep & Landing (2009)

I'm sure Lindsay's writing something about this, too, but I'm going to say my piece all the same.

Prep & Landing is a new addition to the holidays, but it's already claimed a spot.  I know most of you have never seen this - have probably never heard of it - but that has to change.  This is one of the best Christmas specials ever produced.  It can hold its own with just about anything out there.

First, let me give you some background.  A few years back, Disney "bought" Pixar.  The word "bought" is in quotes for the simple reason that, as part of the deal, Disney more or less handed the reins of their entire corporation over to Pixar's leaders.  In other words, Disney paid Pixar a large amount of money to take control of Disney.

This is, incidentally, why Disney suddenly started producing films that don't suck again.  It also left John Lasseter in the position to green light things like Prep & Landing, a half hour Christmas special about elves who help prepare for Santa's arrival and the landing of his sleigh.

When I put it like that, it kind of sounds dull.  But... here's the thing.   These elves are about 6 inches tall.  And they could kill you.  They could snap your neck like a twig.

They won't - they're Christmas elves, and as such, they're benevolent beings.  They wouldn't want to hurt you.  But, if they did, they could.  You see, Prep & Landing is a dangerous job, and the elves assigned to it are as badass as they come.  We're talking seasonal black ops here.  Sure, they spread Christmas cheer and all that, but they do it with ruthless efficiency and little regard for their own well being.

I haven't gotten into the testosterone and fairy-dust fueled reindeer.  Unlike the elves, they probably do want to hurt you.  Well, maybe not Santa's team, but... it turns out Dasher has a cousin who you do NOT want to get angry.

You wouldn't like Santa's deer when they're angry.

Prep & Landing is a Christmas special for James Bond.  That's not to say it isn't warm: it is.  It will warm your heart and make you love the holidays.  But it's a hell of a ride to Christmas cheer.

Incidentally, the music is handled by Michael Giacchino, who scored The Incredibles, Star Trek, Up, and dozens of other films.  If anyone from Disney is reading, what I really want for Christmas is for you to start selling the soundtrack.

Disney hasn't released this on DVD yet, but it shows up online around the holidays.  In addition, there's a new seven minute short you can find, called "Operation Secret Santa."  Minute per minute, it's just as good.  Supposedly, there's a half hour sequel in the works for next year.  There aren't a lot of movies coming out next year I'm looking forward to as much as that TV special.

Prep and Landing (2009)

Mission Impossible elves!

I may swoon! I simply adore this, easily the best new holiday special in years.

If you didn't see it last year, go now. NOW. It's free, it's online again, GO. Alternate Link. I'm even including it below. Click already!

If you saw it last year, see it again. Did you notice the amazing music by Michael Giacchino (my current favorite composer)? Did you remember all the amazing details, the gear, the lingo, all the small jokes in the background?

Prep and Landing has the most fantastic Christmas Elves ever. It's sweet and funny, has both action and heart, and features the best sleigh take-off I've ever seen.

I love the characters, I love the humor, I love the story, I just love this special!

See this one. Revel in the warm glow brought into being by the Disney/Pixar merger.

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

As something of a Santa Claus aficionado, this is a movie that fascinates me on an academic level, which is a good thing because it's not a very good movie otherwise.
This movie is very clearly emulating (if not outright copying) Blitzen's Superman.  Apologies - I've just remembered that Donner directed the 1978 Superman movie (Blitzen was at one point in negotiations, but that fell through).  At any rate, there's no denying the parallels: the first third of each movie focus on an otherwise unrelated origin story, both film attempt to transport their respective mythologies into a relatively realistic setting, and in each the villain is Lex Luthor.
The only real difference between the two productions is that Superman was a good movie.
However, Lindsay is explaining why Santa Claus was crap, and I see no reason to repeat the same points.  As such, I'd like to discuss why it was almost good.
And that, of course, brings us back around to our title character, good old Saint Nick.  Or it would, if they'd incorporated the actual origin of the character's name.  Instead, they opted to "borrow" from several Rankin/Bass specials and give him the toymaker origin.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about these sequences.  On one hand, the opening sequence where he and his wife travel to a village to give out presents is probably the best in the film.  The problems are introduced when he's granted immortality and the title, "Santa Claus."  I appreciate that children aren't going to have any problem with this, but it severely cheapens the premise.  When the origin of the name and red robes is ignored, it dishonors the mythology it's supposed to be celebrating.

I have no problem with Christmas specials that paint over this aspect of the character, but that's because those are working in a different tradition (that of L. Frank Baum's "Life and Adventures of Santa Claus," to be specific).  This attempts to treat Santa like a realistic character and insert him into history.  When someone does this, I expect them to at least contend with some of the questions and issues that idea raises.

The character's origin doesn't make this a bad movie, and changing wouldn't have made it good (to do that, they'd have to overall everything about the elves, the villain, and the plot).  But this is indicative of the overall failed philosophy of the movie: to treat Santa as myth until it becomes hard, then retreat into the safety of children's entertainment.

This is cowardly.  And, worse, it's stupid.  There's nothing in the mythology of Santa Claus more ridiculous or absurd than that in comics or other works of fantasy, and I'd like to see someone take the character seriously.

Someone should really write a book or something.


Anyway... this isn't as readily available as it once was.  Netflix will mail you a copy, but they don't have it up for instant view.  Amazon has it available, but I'm of the opinion that no one should ever pay money to see this movie.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Union Square "Holiday" Market

Every year something, well, not wonderful.... something okay happens in Manhattan.  The Holiday Gift Markets appear.

These are places where you can buy overpriced trinkets while standing with large crowds of people in the cold.  It's surprisingly cheerful at times.  Especially on a weekday morning when relatively few people are there.

You have to remember, these pictures represent the lowest possible population density.

These pictures are of the Market in Union Square.  
(There's another one by Columbus Circle, and an unrelated one in Bryant Park.)

Most of what you can buy here falls into just a few categories:

Jewelry, Crafts (especially knitted products), Framed Art, Food, and Christmas Ornaments.

And most items have an additional modifier, like:
Sustainable or Green products, Products made in impoverished regions, or Handmade Locally.

Occasionally you find a trifecta, like a booth selling kitchy coin purses that were handmade in Columbia out of recycled candy wrappers.  Actually, those are pretty common.

When the market sets up, it becomes hard to get through parts of the park.  Part of it has this path behind the booths:

But the path lets out right into the shopping area.  In this picture you can see where it runs up against the Greenmarket on the west side of the park. (Trinkets for sale on your left, vegetables on the right)

The market takes also over the southern end, forcing the truly local artists who normally sell in the park to the outskirts of the sidewalk.

The booths surround this entrance to the subway:

This area, which is a fountain in warmer weather:

And this statue:

But despite squatting across one's path like an impassable, depressing tribute to the kitsch one gets for people one doesn't know well but feels obligated to buy a gift for, it's a cheerful place to shop.  Really.

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Wow, this movie has serious pace issues.

It is slow slow slow.  It switches plot at least three times, and each new storyline is only tangentially related to the others. This makes the movie feel even longer than it is. The plots themselves don't make a ton of sense, and the tone is wildly inconsistent.

The worst part is that every so often there's a sliver of a moment when it is almost a good movie.  You can see where it could have turned away from stupidity (by, say, not changing plots again, or by not making Dudley Moore suddenly the focus) and been something actually good.  Erin pointed out while we were watching it that every time it started to look serious or magical or otherwise interesting, in came the annoying repetitive cartoon music and the slapstick-prone elves.

I should mention that these are some mighty unconvincing elves.  The height and behavior isn't consistent at all.  It also didn't help that all the toys the elves make look ridiculous, so when they start breaking (and why doesn't that actually come up again?) it's just funny.

And I know they were parroting Superman, but why?  Why not come up with your own plot structure, something that doesn't involve introducing John Lithgow at the 11th hour as a cartoonishly evil toy exec?  Now, wait a minute, you're saying, that sounds interesting!  It isn't.  Even watching Lithgow mercilessly chew the scenery can't quite pull this movie up.

Oh, and why were there two kids out of Dickens dropped into the 80's?  That was utterly surreal, and I just didn't buy their situations at all.  A lot of the plot seemed to depend on the audience making illogical assumptions about what was happening off-camera.

Not to mention that the final climax is an anticlimax, utterly pointless, and has zero emotional weight.

This is not a good movie, although it is occasionally pretty.  Skip it.

(If you want to punish yourself, it's on DVD.)

Card: A Glass of Good Cheer

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Spirit of Christmas: Frosty Vs. Jesus (1992) and The Spirit of Christmas: Santa Vs. Jesus (1995)

I'm not sure whether the titles for these shorts were inspired by the 1950 Bell presentation, "The Spirit of Christmas," but given Parker and Stone's love of puppetry, I can't rule it out.

If you're not familiar with these shorts, you are familiar with their legacy: cut out of construction paper, these are the first two South Park shorts.

As a show, I have conflicted feelings about South Park.  On one hand, I've seen some episodes I absolutely love.  At its best, the show is clever, cunning, and subversive in a way that's both original and shocking.  The thing is, whenever I've tried getting into the series in any serious depth, I always stumble across an episode containing images or ideas I can't stomach.  The fact they manage to disturb or offend me using what amount to paper cutouts is something the show should be commended for.  Still, it limits my interest.

At any rate, while I've never gotten too involved with the series, I love these shorts.

Until now, I've never seen the first, Frosty Vs. Jesus, but I really enjoyed it.

I've seen the second, Santa Vs. Jesus, multiple times, but apparently I didn't remember it as well as I thought I did.  I made the regrettable mistake of trying to drink some water while watching, and managed to spit it all over myself laughing.

These aren't exactly kid-friendly, but they're absolutely genius.  Minute-per-minute, I think The Spirit of Christmas: Santa Vs. Jesus may be the funniest Christmas special ever made.  These aren't just something you should see once; these require an annual pilgrimage to YouTube every Christmas, so you can remind yourself what the true Spirit of Christmas is.

About Plastic Trees...

As Erin said, our conceptions of 'proper' Christmas decorations differ because we both have strong memories of what was done in our parents' homes.

I just don't understand what he has against multicolored lights.  I'm with him on the Victorian all-white look: it's kind of bland and boring.  But all blue makes the room look cold.

There's another issue at play here, though: 'real', i.e. dead tree, or fake tree?

My parents had a fake tree that they hauled out every year, and my mother had me convinced that this was the environmentally and morally responsible thing to do.

But here's's take on the environmental impact:

Sum-up of the article: Many fake trees can break down and release nasty chemicals into your air, but years and years of real tree transport is more polluting than shipping a fake tree once from China. So it's almost a wash, with a slight advantage toward real trees because of disposal issues.

Erin and I have had a real tree just once in the years we've lived in apartments.  They start out smelling okay, but you have to keep them watered (and not spill water all over the floor like I did), and if you have it for a while the water starts to get rank, and the tree stump can molder, and you'll be vacuuming up (and stepping on) tiny sharp flammable needles until Valentine's Day.  You could leave my parent's fake tree up and decorated until Valentine's Day if you really wanted to, and it just waited patiently to go back to the attic.

After a year when she got the look exactly how she wanted it, my mother started leaving the lights twined around the branches in storage.  This saved lots of time, and makes sense to me.

My favorite ornaments are bells.  My parents have a collection of bells, both free-hanging, and a few lovely metal ornaments that consist of stylized snowflakes surrounding a bell.

Going through the ornament box is a lot like a time warp, because there are so many old art projects, old gifts tucked into odd corners.  The pom-pom mice wreaths are actually still kind of cute.

To close: Erin is crazy, multicolored lights are much prettier, not so much of how they look on the tree, but because of the way they look in the room when the other lights are off.  The whole space glows with a warm shifting color. 

Or so I remember, from evenings spent napping and reading, snug and dry under the branches of a plastic tree.

About Dead Trees....

Among the many aspects of Christmas Lindsay and I don't see eye to eye on is what decorations belong on a Christmas tree.  She seems to think that Christmas trees should look the way they did from her childhood, while I, being far more open and objective, hold that decorations should mirror the look of Christmases from my childhood.

The real crux of the issue comes down to the lights.  She's a fan of a traditional assortment of multicolored lights, while I'd rather a tree have nothing but blue lights.  At present, our debates are mainly theoretical: we don't have space for a tree in our Queens apartment, so the issue is largely rendered moot for the time being.

Growing up, most my family's trees were trimmed in this style.  We had a good sized place in Maine, with a dining room who's primary purpose was to house the tree (it went largely unused the rest of the year - more often than not, we ate in front of the television in the living room, like any well-adjusted family).

Most years we'd pick up the tree late.  I remember once we waited until Christmas Eve, and the salesman, surprised to see anyone still shopping that late, gave us the tree free of charge.

Blue lights give the tree a uniform look, complementing the natural color of the needles.  My father insisted that it echoed the appearance of seeing stars through the branches of a tree in the woods, and I've always kind of bought into that.

Not being religious, my parents skipped the traditional tree toppers - no angels, stars, or anything of the sort.  Instead, we had a bird ornament that always wound up at the top.

I do want to add that I have nothing against trees decked out with all the lights of the rainbow.  Actually, there are a lot of Christmas trees I like.  Well decorated, these can feel like a toy or a candy factory; certainly an enduring image of the holidays.  Even over done, they elicit that gaudy, absurd feeling that's fun in itself.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are Victorian trees, with neat white lights and gold decorations.  I like these, too, though I find them lacking in warmth.

While I like most trees, I can't get over my love for the decorations I grew up with.  Too many good memories of sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to sit and stare at the lit Christmas tree, I guess.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

X-Men: Have Yourself a Morlock Little X-mas (1995)

My recent experiences with this show gave me doubts about this episode, and while I don't enjoy the series as wholeheartedly as I did in 1995, I was sucked in for this episode.

Jubilee is excited about her first Christmas as an X-Man.  But when she is out shopping with Wolverine and Storm, they run into some Morlocks stealing medical supplies.  They learn that Leech is sick, and the Morlocks resent that Storm (their putative leader) hasn't been there for them.  So they go to try to help, and possibly hope for a Christmas miracle.

Overall it's a cute episode. It's fairly well written, though some of the jokes fall flat. I couldn't resist the silliness of Jean Grey and Gambit fighting over holiday cooking, although I would completely understand someone cringing at those scenes.

The animation is oddly static in places compared to what is commonly done now, particularly in characters' faces.  It wasn't too distracting, but it is sometimes hard to see much emotion.

Yes, there are some very dorky moments, and the whole ending is pretty over-the-top sentimental, but I enjoyed it.  It's a kind of holiday sappy that I am occasionally okay with.  Erin didn't like the sappy ending, but he doesn't have as many old memories of this series as I do.  This is the show that really hooked me on superheroes, even before Batman:TAS.

Should you see it?  Sure.  It's cute, and very seasonally cheerful, without being too forced.  It made me smile.  Be aware: normally I would choke on this level of sentimentality, and I think Erin did, so your mileage may vary.

I had this episode on an ancient VHS tape, but you might be able to find it on YouTube, or it's available on Volume Four of the DVD sets.

Rudolph, sort of

This is video is freaking hypnotic.  Thanks to Nils for the heads up.

Babes in Toyland (1961) - A Second Opinion

This one hurt a bit.

I don't think I've ever actually seen this before, at least not in its entirety.  It's not exactly a bad movie, but it's got a lot of problems, starting with the pace.  This movie crept along at a painfully slow pace, and I was ready to slam my head into a brick wall before this was a third of the way through.

Unfortunately, that wasn't part of the deal.  I said I'd watch it, so watch it I did.  Through the slow-moving songs, the cheesy villains, and the entire swirling technicolor nightmare.

The sad thing is that I can actually respect this.  Sure, it's slow and tedious, but it's also quite beautiful.  The sets are incredibly inventive (even if they do look like a closed-down amusement park), and the ingenious use of animation to weave comic-book like sound effects into the imagery predates similar techniques in movies like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Speed Racer by half a century.  On some level, this represents an experiment blurring the line between live action and animation, and, visually, it was far more successful than the majority of CG-hybrid films made in the past twenty years.

I almost wished I'd seen this chopped up in pieces, so I could have simply admired the effects.  But the whole is definitely more boring than the sum of its parts, and - personally - I can't recommend sitting through this thing.
Amazon's carrying it, but I'd recommend just using YouTube to find clips.

Short Fiction: The Real One

The Real One
By: Erin Snyder

This is the North Pole.  Or it might as well be.  It's a tundra, desolate, empty.  Cold.  The heat's barely on during the month before Christmas.  A week ago, there were so many shoppers it was eighty-five.  Day after Thanksgiving, ninety.  But now, tonight, Christmas Eve, it's freezing.  Even under this coat and white polyester beard, it's freezing.

My legs are stiff from sitting all day, from kids jumping up and down on my lap or kicking me again and again while they swung their feet.  It hurts to walk, but at the same time it feels good to be on my feet, to be moving.

I give them everything I've got.  All that energy, all that time.  For what?  Ten bucks an hour?  A month's worth of work.

I reach the food court and stumble over to Starbucks.  The clerk smiles out of one side of his mouth and calls me Nick.  I force a grin and ask for a coffee, taking out my wallet.  He waves his hand and tells me to put my money away.  "Merry Christmas," he says, handing over the cup.  "On the house."  Like most of us, he's probably seasonal, and Christmas is just the end of a job.  What's he care if Starbucks is out a few bucks?

I head down a hallway through a door labeled, "Employees only" and find my locker.  I set my coffee on top and open it, pulling out my real shoes and a blue coat I've owned for ten years.

For the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas I don the red and white armor and march into battle.  I sit, while kids plead and shout and wet themselves, and for what?  Just so they'll say aloud that they want a goddamn doll or GI Joe while their parents are in earshot. 

That's our part in the whole system, our part in Christmas.  There are thousands of us, all across the country, grown men in gaudy red and white costumes you wouldn't wear to a Halloween party, shirts stuffed with cotton (though every year I seem to need less and less padding).  But, in the end, that's what makes it work.  I put up with this, and Tommy gets his damned car and Sally gets her bear.  Their parents get to feel like they passed on a bit of Christmas magic, and the mall gets its cut of the profits.

For that, we suffer through the season, picking up colds and developing back problems.  And we'll just be back next year.

Because I am Santa.  The real one.

We all are.

Who else would put up with this shit to make sure everyone gets what they want for Christmas?

Card: Something for the Heart

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Spirit of Christmas (1953)

This goes beyond "so bad it's good" into the land of "so horrible it's great." This half-hour, made-for-TV special is brought to us by Bell Telephone, a fact that's reiterated by the Bell representative, who introduces the two segments while standing in front of a brigade of grinning phone operators.

The first half is described as telling the tale of how Twas the Night Before Christmas was written. Turns out, this guy had an idea on Christmas Eve and wrote a poem in his study using paper and ink.

This riveting tale is interrupted by the poem brought to life. When I say "brought to life," I'm lying outright, because there's no similarity whatsoever between the cold, dead marionettes on screen and anything alive. In fact, in spite of their bright paint, these resemble the walking dead, both in appearance and in movement. When Santa tilts his head to one side and looks through those cold, empty eyes, you can sense his hunger for the flesh of the living.

The horror, however, keeps it interesting. For all its faults, this segment never gets dull.

Now, let me tell you about part two. The Nativity. The host describes this as "The Greatest Story Ever Told" at least three times, presumably as in an attempt to convince the viewer of this truth, despite everything they're seeing to the contrary.

Credit where it's due, the puppets are quite a bit better this time: someone spent some effort making these, and it shows. These are beautiful works of art. Pity they're used in such a boring production.

Granted, the birth of Christ isn't exactly an action-packed extravaganza, but there's no reason it has to be boring. Certainly not THIS boring. Even so, I got a twisted joy out of watching this draw on. It's like watching paint dry in really interesting ways.

If you're looking for a well put together, intelligent, heartwarming pair of stories, forget about it. However, as an unintentional comedy and bizarre look into the days when calls were connected manually, this might be worth a viewing.

How to see it:
If you have Netflix, watch it on instant-view. Otherwise, check libraries, the internet, and old VHS tapes. This is available on DVD, but please - for the love of God - don't spend money on it.

Babes in Toyland (1961)

Oh, I love old technicolor musicals. I love the silliness, the energy, the big dance numbers.  If you do not love old technicolor musicals, then by all means skip this one.

This is particularly surreal, even for a holiday musical.  The whole thing takes place in Mother Goose Land, or something, in which Mary (quite contrary) has a lot of foster kids and a big secret inheritance.  There is a sappy love story and a mustache twirling villain, but first there is a ridiculously long song and dance number.  Overall there are a few too many songs, and many of the dances go a little too long, even for me. Plus one really odd scene that is apparently about the tragedy of a single woman not confident in her math ability.  Very odd.

After about half the movie, the action moves to the Forest of No Return, the plot gets simpler, the music more fun, and the whole thing more enjoyable.  My favorite part might be the menacing singing trees.  The costumes and sets are a lot of fun throughout.

While the dialogue is overall wittty and the lyrics clever, I didn't enjoy Babes in Toyland so much that I'm going to seek it out regularly, especially since the end is a bit of a let down, and the protagonists' performances are pretty flat.

If you're a fan of corny musicals like I am, you may want to see it at least once, just be aware that it is rather long and the plot meanders a lot.

Babes in Toyland is available on DVD

Mega Man X-Mas

Check out this Mega Man inspired Christmas Tree I spotted over at Sprite Stitch!

More pictures at the original post at 8bitfix.

Makes thematic sense to me, I mean in Christmas you defeat the 8 reindeer, then move on to the boss...

The He-Man & She-Ra Christmas Special (1985)

Growing up, I always hated He-Man.  Everything about the show repulsed me; I'm not entirely sure why.  I certainly liked other bad cartoons, but something about He-Man just felt wrong.

Well, I'm older now, and am no longer disturbed by the program.  Actually, I really enjoyed the 2002 reboot.  Sorry - I'm getting off topic.

The point is, The He-Man & She-Ra Christmas Special wasn't part of my childhood.  The first time I saw it was at a Christmas party a few years back.  The second was last night on Hulu.

Placed firmly in the "so bad it's good camp," I have to admit this is really entertaining.  I mean, yeah, it's awful.  Really, really awful.  But it's also hilarious.

The story - to the extent the term applies - follows the misadventures of Orco, as he accidentally teleports a few children from Earth to Eternia.  The kids tell everyone about Christmas, which pisses off Horde-Prime, who seems to be the overlord of an evil empire.

Horde-Prime sicks Skeletor and Hordak after the kids, promising rewards to whichever of them captures the children.  If I were ruler of a galactic space empire, I'd make it policy never to pit two generals against each other like that: they just end up fighting amongst themselves until the good guys win.

In addition to those two, a group of giant, transforming robots called the "Monstoids" get involved for no apparent reason.  The kids spend at least a few minutes in everyone's surprisingly merciful clutches, while He-Man and She-Ra race to the rescue, battling incredibly lame obstacles on the way.

In the end, the children get hover-belts and a one-way trip back to Earth, Prince Adam dresses like Santa, and Skeletor learns the true meaning of Christmas.  No, really.

There's nothing good about this special, at least not in the traditional definition of the word, but you need to see it.  Everyone needs to see He-Man and She-Ra comforting Skeletor because he's freaking out from all the Christmas cheer.

For what it's worth, I totally know how he felt.

Now, technically, you could go buy this on Amazon, but that would be a waste of $8.  At least for the time being, Hulu's streaming this for free.  If you were really looking to drop $8, you'll never guess what the ENTIRE 2002 He-Man series is on sale for.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Babar and Father Christmas (1985)

We found this episode on an old VHS tape while visiting Lindsay's family for Thanksgiving and popped it in.  I don't know about Lindsay, but I was expecting this to make me want to find something hard to bash my head against.

But, much to my surprise, I wound up liking it quite a bit.  Lindsay described it as "charming," which I think wraps it up nicely.  While it's not about to become one of my all-time favorite specials, it was well worth the half-hour it took to watch.

Sure, it was aimed at a young audience, but the jokes were well orchestrated.  The story had a decent number of twists and turns which, while simple enough for five year-olds to follow, didn't feel stupid or random .

The music, which I'm assuming appears in every episode, complimented the children's book animation style.  What really made this stand out, was the depiction of Santa and his shop.  I haven't seen this take before, and it feels simultaneously original and somehow very in tone with the legend.  The episode's resolution, which I'd rather not spoil, played subtly with the reality behind the question, "Does Santa really exist?"

Add to that a parade of bizarre and fascinating characters - most of which get a single scene to stand out - and you've got an impressive addition to the vast warehouses of Christmas specials (a family of helpful French rats living in a hotel were especially lovable).

This isn't something I expect everyone to love, though I can't quite imagine many disliking it.  If you have young ones and can find this online, I think you'll be very happy with the result.

The Stranger

Good God.  This mash-up from Gratuitous Art Films goes too far.  And yet, it goes there with such style, such grace, that it's impossible not to admire the twisted brilliance that made this:

A new classic? Perhaps.

The Tick Loves Santa! (1995)

Ultimately, "The Tick Loves Santa!" is on par with most episodes of the animated series, which is to say it's absolutely phenomenal.

The story introduces Multiple Santa, a bank robber who steals a Santa suit from someone on the corner, gets electrocuted, then develops the power to multiply himself.  The Tick, of course, is unable to bring himself to strike the clones out of fear that he might inadvertently be hitting the "real Santa."

Along with brilliantly conceived action sequences featuring dozens of evil Santas (a surprisingly disturbing image, it turns out), this episode offers some of the best one-liners ever to grace holiday programming (personally, I'm partial to the villain's boast, "The streets will run red with Santas").  On top of that, this offers an ingenious and original portrayal of Saint Nick and his elves I'd rather not spoil.

This is easily one of the best Christmas episodes out there.  If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and track it down.  This time of year, I'll bet you can find it on YouTube easily enough.  If you want an official copy, I suggest picking up "The Tick Vs. Season 2," which is a great collection (although there's a episode omitted due to rights issues).

Book Review: The Atheist's Guide to Christmas

Crossposted from The Blue Fairy's Bookshelf

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas
Edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers, 2010

I loved this book. I didn't love every last one of the 42 essays, a few covered the same ground and a few I didn't completely understand because they depended too much on British Christmas traditions for the humor.

But I still thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The general vibe is what I expected: Christmas is much more about presents and food and family than anything else these days, and it's okay, as a nonbeliever, to enjoy presents and food and family, and not to be a nuisance unless the other person starts it. Simple. way of summary let me say this: if only practicing Christians can use the word “Christmas,” then only Vikings can use the word “Thursday.”  - Mitch Benn,“How to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Christmas”
There are some compelling cases made for everything from why humans have celebrated midwinter since time immemorial to why one might want to avoid the enforced season of good cheer, and then how to do so. There's a piece about the dearth of atheist protagonists in film, and more than one about holiday music. There are a few fiction pieces and some personal stories, including a romantic double dose by both partners of a married couple. There are humorous instructional pieces about defusing family fights and decorations that can be seen from space.

Some of the pieces are laugh-out-loud funny, some of them are sweet, and some of them are downright inspirational. (Inspiration not being the province only of the theistic.)
At some point over the Christmas period switch on an analog radio and retune it so that you are not on any station. Instead of “Jingle Bells” or “Away in a Manger,” all you should be able to hear is white noise. This gentle, calming hiss is the audible output caused by all sorts of random electromagnetic waves being picked up my your radio aerial. You cannot single them out, but rest assured that about 1 percent or 2 percent of these waves are due to microwaves from the Big Bang. In other words, your humble radio is capable of detecting energy waves that were created over 13 billion years ago. - Simon Singh, “The Sound of Christmas”
I'd like to send a shout-out to the awesome Jen McCreight, without whose blog I may not have picked up this fantastic volume. (Plus her piece was great.)

I've always had trouble with the holiday season, between being non-religious and often depressed by the pressure of the season. Keeping this book close at hand gives me a rare shot at keeping my sanity and good cheer intact.

You can buy The Atheist's Guide to Christmas on Amazon.

Card: The Good News

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Darkwing Duck: It's a Wonderful Leaf (1993)

This is a cute episode which is unfortunately fragmented.  In general, Darkwing Duck doesn't hold up as well as I wish it did. I still find it amusing, but often it's far too slapsticky for my taste.  (Whenever the writers turn up the seriousness just a little, it becomes a much better show.)

This episode starts out pretty good, but fizzles towards the middle. The main story revolves around Bushroot taking over the town's Christmas trees and setting them to stealing presents. I wished that there was a smidge more explanation of his plotting, or that he were a bit more competent.

It's just too much plot for the episode length.  There isn't enough prep time for the B-plot (Gosalyn switching from being selfish about presents to being charitable) to have any emotional weight. There isn't enough attention paid to the details of what's happening, so following the events gets dicey.

There are some amusing bits, and a few jokes that land.  I wish that I could recommend this, but it is just mediocre.

Available on Volume 2 DVD Set.

A Holiday Melody

Fair warning: some of the language in this song might not be appropriate for all occasions:

I think this little ditty sums up the spirit of holidays better than just about anything I can imagine.

Special thanks to Beth for the heads up.

All that's missing is the popcorn

My favorite fight of the holiday season isn't between parents trying to kill each over the last doll on the toy shelf or crowds ready to push their neighbors on the ground to try and reach a $20 microwave before Walmart sells their last - though both events are immensely fun to watch.  No, my favorite fight of the year is one over semantics:

Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays.

Every year, competing boycotts pop up targeting stores on the basis of company policy.  If employees are told to wish customers a "Merry Christmas," secular groups encourage their members to shop elsewhere.  If the rule is to say "Happy Holidays," religious groups take it as an affront to their beliefs and protest.

I can only assume that national chains analyze the demographics of their clientele before making such determinations.  After all, we're really talking about a function of marketing, which is focused on increasing revenue, not making a religious or philosophical statement.  Sure, there are probably a handful of companies whose executives are trying to deliver a message, profit be damned, but for the most part corporations are trying to make money.

So, ultimately, you've got two sides countering each others' hollow protest against a simple marketing determination.  God, I love this time of year.

Of course, it's bigger than just a greeting.  This is but one front in a culture war fought over Christmas and everything connected to it.

Tis the season for showdowns over decorated trees.  I love watching those play out.  It usually starts with someone objecting to a Christmas tree showing up in a school or government building.  When I'm lucky, the other side tries to claim it's a holiday tree.  That's when the real fun begins.

The argument almost immediately descends into nonsense.  People will actually claim "holiday trees" aren't connected to Christmas.

Not that it matters: the dark secret, the ultimate joke behind it all, is that it's all irrelevant.  Because Christmas isn't a religious holiday.

You want to know what Christmas really is?  It's the English name for a holiday festival the human race has been celebrating for thousands of years (probably tens of thousands; hundreds of thousands isn't outside the realm of possibility).  This is holiday that exists because people noticed the change in seasons.  And, considering that the seasons affect whether food grew or not, people tended to consider these significant.

I realize that the English word is derived from the word "Christ," but don't let that fool you.  It's just a name.

I want to be clear about a few things: I'm not rooting for one side or the other.  In fact, I don't want either to ever win.  This is an epic battle that should continue for all eternity.  This is pageantry, a performance I get to watch on the news every December.

So, by all means, keep at each others' throats.  Don't let up in your crusade against retailers whose demographic analysis slightly favors the other side.  If you see a gaudy Christmas display in a public place, I'm begging you, try to get an equally tacky display put up supporting your religion (we can never get enough decorations or comically oversized religious icons transformed into a ridiculous caricature of their original meaning).

And, by all means, if you feel that the holiday you think is celebrating the birth of your savior is getting too commercial or is losing its intended meaning, please don't keep it to yourself.

Because it's all just another Christmas special to me.

Christmas in the DCU

DC Women Kicking Ass has begun a marvelous series of Christmas-themed Wonder Woman posts.  This is my favorite so far.

From: The most wonderful time of the year: Day 4 of Holiday Wonder Woman

Santa and the Three Bears (1970)

This is the second Christmas special I've seen from the 1970's that focuses on the idea of bears delaying hibernation in order to learn about Christmas, the first being 1973's "The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas."

This one is quite a bit less surreal.  While the bears can speak, they're significantly less anthropomorphic.  Living in a cave in Yellowstone Park, they're friends with the park ranger, one of only four characters to receive any real screen time.

Like a lot of specials, this is artistically impressive, while still being a complete and total failure.
The story would feel stretched at thirty minutes, making the special's hour-long running time superfluous and tedious.  A significant portion of the special is spent cycling through reused animation while music plays in the background.  In terms of actual content, this is one of the sparsest Christmas specials I've seen so far this year.

Apparently, I should consider myself lucky - according toWikipedia, there's actually a 76 minute version, which incorporates a live action segment.  I'm really, really glad Netflix doesn't have this up.

That said, this isn't without redeeming features.  The characters - particularly of the mother - are surprisingly realistic (other than the fact she's a bear, that is).  The fact she's simultaneously fed up with her kids' behavior and deeply concerned about their feelings rings true.

In addition, while it's certainly not complicated, there's something appealing about the animation used here.  It's reminiscent of old Hanna-Barbara, and it's easy to be drawn in, at least for a few minutes.

I do want to add that the special's relationship with religion is a little bizarre.  When telling the bear cubs about the origin of the holiday, the ranger describes the birth of Jesus (though I don't think he ever referred to him by name).  He explained that Christmas existed to celebrate the boy's birthday, and that gifts were still exchanged to remember the gift Jesus brought to the world (neither of which is remotely accurate; so much for educational content).
The ranger initially describes Santa as a "legend," though of course we learn better by the end.  I'm always baffled by things that attempt to integrate Jesus and Santa Claus into the same worldview (if you ask me, South Park accomplished this far better than anything else I've ever seen, certainly better than this special).

While there was definitely some love and care put into this production, it just doesn't justify the length.  You could fit this tale comfortably into a five minute short without it feeling rushed: by the time you've reached the end of the hour special, you're certainly wishing they had.
If you really want to put yourself through that, both Netflix and Hulu have this up for instant viewing.