Saturday, December 25, 2010

10 Observations

Before I go, I'd like to pass along ten observations I've had about the holiday.

1. The human capacity to stand any non-parody version of The First Noel is inversely proportionate to the clarity in which the lyrics are sung.
2. Really awful Christmas specials and movies are nowhere near as bad as mediocre ones.
3. The Christmas Story is not, in fact, the "greatest story ever told," however the version told by Linus in It's Christmas, Charlie Brown is the greatest version of the Christmas Story that's ever been told.
4. Gaudy Christmas lights can be beautiful, but only in extreme concentrations.
5. Inflatable Christmas lawn displays were conceived of and produced by the Devil.
6. With very few exceptions, parodies of Christmas songs are superior to the originals.
7. As a general rule of thumb, the less appropriate a holiday episode is to any given television series, the better the result will be.
8. Among the thousands of forgotten Christmas specials, there are few, if any, gems. In almost every case, if you haven't heard of it, it's awful.
9. Nativity scenes are made of the same substance as nightmares.
10. Thanksgiving has now officially been carved up and served on a platter to Black Friday.

I wish I could say I believed this was really it, but I'm pretty sure the holidays will stay with me a bit longer. Yup, every time I shut my eyes, I see sugarplums dancing. Maybe I'll be able to sleep soundly in a few months, but that might be a little optimistic.
Regardless, thanks for riding this holiday out with us. If you got an e-reader for Christmas, be sure to download your free copy of A Man of Snow and Other Seasonal Stories if you haven't already. If you didn't get an e-reader, just start returning sweaters and ties until you build up enough store credit to get one. Also, you might want to sit down with your family and have a serious heart-to-heart about picking out gifts.

Sum-up from Lindsay

Well, I didn't learn to appreciate Christmas, although my uneasy truce with the holiday may be a trifle less Grinchy.

I'm looking forward to escaping the time vortex effect. For several weeks, I've ben unable to shake the feeling that Christmas was “tomorrow”, even when “tomorrow” was Dec 5th. I expect that sensation to fade soon... right?

I'm also looking forward to not listening to holiday music for a while... I am pretty darn burnt out on it. I actually took off my headphones in the Laundromat the other day when I realized that they weren't just playing Christmas music, unlike all the stores.

We watched about three-quarters of the list of specials I compiled at the beginning, and finally just ran out of time.

So long for now, me and my copy of The Atheist's Guide to Christmas have a holiday to get to.

Checked it Twice

We're coming upon the end of this Christmas experiment - at least for this year - and, as such, I'm legally obligated to offer some best of/worst of lists.  I don't think it's fair to group movies and specials together for the "best of" list, so I'm going to set the three best movies aside now.  In no particular order, the best holiday films I saw this year are:  Nightmare Before Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and Elf.

I'm not going to differentiate between Christmas specials and holiday themed episodes, though I am going to set one ground rule: these need to be full length.  This eliminates some of the best - including The Spirit of Christmas South Park short where Jesus fights Santa.

Here, then, are the top 10 Holiday Episodes or Specials:

10. Christmas With the Joker: This is a tough one - a case could easily be made that Holiday Knights or Comfort and Joy are better.  But I'm going with my gut and picking the classic.  All three are worth seeing, though.

9. The Powerpuff Girls: The Fight Before Christmas: This is everything an hour-long Powerpuff Girl episode should be.  I actually kind of like the Powerpuff Girl Movie, but there's no question that this is better.

8. The Tick Loves Santa: The Tick's comrades inform him they don't believe in Santa, and he replies: "And you call yourselves superheroes."  Every line in this is brilliant.

7. A Muppet Family Christmas: For fans of the Muppets, it doesn't get much better than this.  Three shows worth of Muppets, and John Denver's not invited.

6. Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas: I surprised myself putting this before A Muppet Family Christmas: last year, these would have been flipped.  But, on this viewing, I was really taken with the depth of Emmet Otter's world and the beauty of the music.

5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas: "You're a Mean One," might just be the best song ever written for a Christmas Special.  On top of that, the animation is fascinating to behold.

4. It's Christmas, Charlie Brown: this and number 5 arm wrestled for the spot, but I think this edges it out.  The attention this pays to tone is just astounding.

3. Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration: This is a stunning work of animation.  I'm still having a hard time getting my mind around the fact that the human mind is actually capable of making this.

2. Prep & Landing: Seriously, now: is anything cooler than highly trained black ops elves?  This delivers as much cheer as Rudolph and as much action as Die Hard.

1. The Snowman: Simply put, this is the most beautiful and unapologetic Christmas special ever made.  It's an incredible work of art that delves into the wonder of childhood and the tragedy of its loss.

Before we get to the worst, I want to take a minute and cite the best of the bad.  None of these four specials are in any way "good," but they're all worth seeing:

4. The Smurf's Christmas Special: They fight the devil.  With the worst song ever written for television.

3. Frosty Returns

2. The He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special: In which Skeletor learns the true meaning of Christmas.

1. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: This is just bizarre.  I'm not actually sure you need to watch the entire thing, but it's worth sitting through at least the first half.  It gets grouped with the 1959 Santa Claus a lot, which makes no sense to me.  That one, you don't need to experience.

Seeing as "bad" is already a subjective assessment, I'm going to instead dub this: The Five Most Painful Things I Experienced This Year.  I know I said grouping movies and specials together wasn't fair in the 'best of' list, but, to tell the truth, I don't really care whether I'm fair to these.  Every one of these is more than an hour long, and none of them benefit from that fact.

Without further ado...

5. Comfort and Joy: This Lifetime Original Movie was horrible.  Every second hurt.

4. Santa Claus (1959): When it tried to be whimsical, it was creepy.  When it tried anything else, it was even worse.  The MST3K commentary makes this watchable - don't make the mistake I made and approach this without it.

3. The Star Wars Holiday Special: I know, I know.  When I originally reviewed the 1959 Santa Claus movie, I said it was worse than this.  But then a funny thing happened: I re-watched The Star Wars Holiday Special.  All two hours of it.  And, you know what?  I was wrong....

2. Barbie: A Christmas Carol: Imagine Hell being redecorated by a six-year-old girl, and you can conjure an image of this thing's reflection on the wall of Plato's Cave Allegory.  Watching this is an exercise in madness.

1. Casper's Haunted Christmas: It's been said that no one sets out to make a bad movie.  I'm not 100% sure that's true, but I know the makers of Casper's Haunted Christmas didn't: there's simply no way someone could set out to make a bad movie and succeed this completely.  There's nothing good here.  Nothing.  No good jokes, no inspired animation.  Not a single emotional beat resonates.  Not even a little.

Lindsay's Holiday List of Lists

We watched an approximate total of 75 movies, specials and episodes this month. Sheesh.

Here are a few stats I put together:

Based on my List, we watched
16 Movies, 36 Specials, and 23 Episodes

9 of these were in some way a version of A Christmas Carol
6 had sizable references to Twas the Night Before Christmas
3 had spins on It's a Wonderful Life
3 had a version of The Gift of the Magi

25 had Santa as a major character (Real Santa, more than one line, significant part of the piece)
6 had Jesus as any size character, (basically on screen at all) plus 2 more used him as a good sized plot point.

My 10 favorite things we watched, in no particular order:
The Snowman
Mickey's Christmas Carol
A Muppet Family Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Blackadder's Christmas Carol
Animaniacs: A Christmas Plotz/Little Drummer Warners
Prep and Landing
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
BtAS: Holiday Knights
The Powerpuff Girls: Twas the Fight Before Christmas

My 5 least favorite: In order to end up on this list, the item had to be more than boring. I had to be actively angry that I was sitting through it.
We Wish you a Turtle Christmas
Santa Claus (1959)
Casper's Haunted Christmas
Alf's Special Christmas
Santa and the Three Bears

And a few Honorable Mentions for things that didn't quite make the favorites list:

Most Warm Fuzzies:
Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
A Muppet Christmas Carol
Justice League: Comfort and Joy

Best New Surprises: Things I liked quite a bit that we hadn't watched before (or not in years)
George of the Jungle: Jungle Bells
Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration
Babar and Father Christmas

Friday, December 24, 2010

Black Christmas (1974)

Good horror movies differ from bad ones more in the moments that aren't scary than those that are.  It's the time between the deaths and bloodshed that develop tone and build characters we care about, thus giving their deaths meaning.

A good horror movie cherishes these moments, making the most of every second.  Black Christmas, on the other hand, does not.  The characters remain dull, often coming across as being as bored with the movie as I was.  Time drags between killings.  Which isn't to say the deaths are all that interesting, either: by and large, they're as ridiculous and slow-paced as the rest of the film.

As far as the plot's concerned, logic is a stranger to this film.  A sorority girl disappears, and the police conduct a thorough search of the park.  But not the house she lived in.  If they'd bothered to look there, they'd have found her body in the attic.  Along with the killer.

It's not so much that the movie is absurd that bothers me: it's that they try to pass laziness off as terror.  Who's the killer?  We don't know.  Who are the suspects?  There's only one, and he winds up being a red herring (presumably: the ending is a tad ambiguous).

Ambiguity is fine, but only when used well.  I have a great deal of respect for movies that use this tool to deliver multiple endings simultaneously (Total Recall being a prime example: because we're never told which interpretation is real, the movie effectively fits several endings into a single scene).  But Black Christmas uses it as an excuse to offer nothing: no explanation, no resolution, nothing.  Just an hour and a half of characters we don't care about marching closer to their deaths at the hands of some unseen killer.

Who cares?  This one was a waste of time.

Oh, yeah.  One more thing.

Merry Christmas.

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)

I have serious memories tied up in this special. This means I even like the sappy parts. It's such great classic Sesame Street, though, that I suspect you'll like a few of the sappy parts too.

I was going to start off by saying that the opening with the oversized skating costumed characters is pretty useless, but on re-watching, Bird Bird skating with the little girl is pretty cute, even though it isn't the same little girl he's friends with through the rest of the special.

Living in New York City adds a whole other level to watching Sesame Street, and something like this from the 70's makes the original target audience (inner-city kids) really clear. There is a sequence based in the old subway, with beat-up turnstiles and a guy who sells tokens. (The subway car and the station are obviously sets, but I don't know about the platforms.) I love that it's set so firmly in New York.

I love Oscar in this, he's so delightfully snarky. I even love him trying to convince Big Bird that Santa isn't coming. This is the main plot, by the way: Big Bird, along with help from Kermit and Grover, trying to discover how Santa gets down the chimney.

Sesame Street characters are friends to all children. They do a bunch of candid kid interviews about Santa that are pretty awesome.

This special is just an hour of great television. Cookie Monster has a great running gag about trying to write to Santa. Oscar has a fabulous song about the holidays. Ernie and Bert play out one of the sweetest versions of Gift of the Magi I've ever seen, and cap it off with a truly lovely rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

I even like the corny songs that the humans sing. Sesame Street is too entwined with my childhood for it to be otherwise.  I don't believe in miracles, true blue or otherwise, but I still get all sentimental during "True Blue Miracle":
"I believe in miracles and I can tell you why
Once a year the street I live on sparkles like the sky
All hung with lights for Christmas / Twinkling ev'rywhere
The world turns bright for Christmas
And if that isn't a true blue miracle / I don't know what one is"
I recommend Christmas Eve on Sesame Street to everyone who has ever liked Sesame Street.

It's available on DVD, or you can look around the internet.

Okay, I'll help you find one part.

Justice League: Comfort and Joy (2003)

This is another episode that we watch every year, and every year I forget how good it is until I watch it again. The only one-part episode in the first two seasons of Justice League (before it became JLU), this holiday episode is just fantastic.

Batman got enough holiday cheer in his two previous holiday episodes, and Wonder Woman doesn't appear either, but everyone else has great moments. The episode consists of an intro about the last mission before the holidays, and then three inter-cut storylines.

One revolves around Green Lantern and Hawkgirl. It continues the thread of their growing attraction; GL shows Shayera how much fun it is to play in the snow, and she shows him how they celebrate on Thanagar. Can I add here how much I adore this Hawkgirl?

One follows the Flash as he attempts to find a popular toy for the kids at a Central City Orphanage, when his plans are derailed by a run-in with Ultra-Humanite. Humanite gets a lot of the best lines in Justice League, and this episode has some great bits with him.

The last storyline follows J'onn. As a Martian, he doesn't celebrate our holidays, but Superman convinces him to come to Kansas for Christmas. Ma and Pa Kent welcome him in, and he struggles to understand the holiday.

The whole thing is so sweet. Everyone gets a great moment, the episode is just stuffed with nice touches. It makes me very happy, especially the little nods to the larger DCU:

Clark: That reminds me, where's Kara?
Ma Kent: Skiing with Barbara. She'll be home for New Year's.

I have to admit that I giggle with fangirl glee at that one.

Comfort and Joy is on the Second Season DVD set, or you might be able to find a few copies floating around the internet.

Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988)

I enjoy all of Blackadder, but this Christmas special might just be my favorite part of the franchise. I adore it for the simple premise: it's a reverse Christmas Carol.

Blackadder, if you've missed it, was comprised of four short seasons, several specials and a movie, set through various times in British history.  (Actors often play similarly named characters in different time periods, ostensibly relations/descendants of previous characters.)  In most of the series (the first season was a bit different) the protagonist Blackadder is cunning, self-serving and highly intelligent, and is always either trying to get ahead in society, or trying to evade responsibility and danger.

At the beginning of Blackadder's Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Blackadder is the “kindest and loveliest  man” in London.  That doesn't exactly last.

I have seen this over and over, and I still laugh out loud.  That's the mark of great comedy for me.

The first half is great because it's so odd to see Blackadder being nice.  His dialogue is still witty, and isn't that different from normal, but it's shifted in tone to soft and apologetic.

His constant servant, Baldrick, is by his side, and is more perceptive than usual, perhaps to balance out Blackadder's overly rose-colored worldview.
Baldrick:  It'd be a lot more [profits] if you didn't give away so much money to the poor.
Ebenezer:  Well, yes, but in the feeling-good ledger of life we are rich indeed.
Baldrick:  Yeah, I just wish we weren't doing so well in the bit-short-of-prezzies-and-feeling-a-gullible-prat ledger.
Happily, a spirit drops by to show Blackadder the evil deeds of his ancestors (new scenes in the settings from seasons 2 and 3), as well as the potential fate of his descendant in the far future.

I love this special, and I watch it every year.  It's the most marvelously anti-sentimental version of A Christmas Carol I know, and I highly recommend it to those who, like me, aren't always that keen on holiday cheer.

Blackadder's Christmas Carol is available on DVD, usually packaged as an extra with Season 3.  I have it on the Complete Series Set.

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Is this really as bad as you've heard?  Yeah.  It might be worse.

If you haven't had the pleasure, this is a variety show featuring a surprising number of cast members from the movie.  Most of the established characters get a scene or two, although Chewbacca has a larger role.  It's his family celebrating "Life Day," after all, and he's trying to get past an imperial blockade to get home in time.

Of course the real stars are Chewbacca's family, who are given extended scenes in which they go about their lives, talking and arguing without translation.  When they bother to call humans, we find out - again and again - that they're worried Chewie won't make it back.

Around this riveting frame story, we get a number of short "comedic" bits, as well as some "musical" numbers (yes, those quotation marks are called for).  A few of the musical acts aren't awful - Jefferson Starship's number is fine.  The there's the Diahann Carroll scene.  Her song is nothing special, but the scene around it is incredibly bizarre and surreal.  It's more than a little disturbing, in fact: it's presented - and seemingly enjoyed by Chewbacca's father - as pornography.

I'm not making this up.

Most everyone agrees the best scene is a short animated bit, which actually introduces Boba Fett years before The Empire Strikes Back.  It's fair to say this is better than the rest of the movie, but it's still kind of boring and uninspired.  His plan is needlessly complicated, and it falls apart for the dumbest reason imaginable.

What's really astonishing about this is the run time.  At two hours, this just won't end.  Most of the actors who were in it refuse to discuss it these days.  There's a reason for that.

I've seen it twice now, and it doesn't get any easier.  No one watches this because they like it or think it's good.  Rather, this has sort of become a nerd right-of-passage.  You watch this because it exists; because there's no real reason to sit through it.  By now, you already know whether you fit in that camp.

You can't get this on DVD.  Actually, it was never released on VHS, either.  And it only aired once.  The only copies in existence were taped off the television in '78.  Fortunately - or perhaps unfortunately - it's available on YouTube.  Start here, if you dare.

It's Christmas. We Got You Something.

So. We've been wracking our brains trying to think of something to get you. And, frankly, it wasn't simple: you're not easy to shop for.

But then we had a revelation. We remembered you were getting an e-reader tomorrow, and--

Oh. Oh, God. That was supposed to be a surprise, wasn't it? We're really sorry. I mean it: we feel awful. Don't let on that we told you, and try to look surprised.

Anyway, seeing as you're about to have a brand new e-reader, courtesy of your parents, child, and/or significant other, we thought, hey! Why not get you a digital book?

Just in time for the Holidays, we're releasing "A Man of Snow and Other Seasonal Stories" FREE of charge. This collection features four pieces of fiction from Mainlining Christmas, as well as a fifth bonus story, which is longer than the other four combined.

It's our way of saying, Merry Christmas. And, Happy New Year. Have a good Easter. Enjoy the Fourth of July.

And so on and so forth.

You can download "A Man of Snow and Other Seasonal Stories" for the Nook here. Kindle format - as well as a half dozen others - are available on Smashwords, in case you get a Sony Reader or something (we're just kidding - your family loves you enough to get you something better than a Sony Reader).

It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002)

If you're not already a fan of the Muppets, "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas" is a bad place to start.  In fact, if you're only a casual fan, this probably isn't for you, either.  It's an uneven movie: there's a solid chunk that just throws dated pop-culture references at you, including a particularly painful parody of the Crocodile Hunter I'm betting the producers are now wishing they'd skipped.

But, for all of that, if you are a die-hard Muppet fan, this made-for-television movie is something you need to track down.  It's imperfect, but what it does well it does REALLY well.  Structured like "It's a Wonderful Life," the movie explores a world without Kermit.  For the minor characters, this is accomplished in a fairly unremarkable scene using the movie's villainess (more on her in a moment).  But for the really major characters - Fozzie, Gonzo, and Miss Piggy - another approach is taken.

The events of the 1979 Muppet Movie are never directly addressed.  No one talks about how they met or their first adventure together.  But, with utmost care and attention to detail, the movie creates an alternate universe where Kermit never traveled across the country and pulled these characters into his dreams.  It rewinds the characters' lives, removes that moment, then leaps to the future.  And, in each case, the depiction feels completely right.

How much care and thought was put into this?  I'll put it like this: there's a scene in the alternate world where Kermit stares in horror and disbelief at a Doc Hopper's restaurant, which is now a national franchise.

In addition, there are some surprisingly good non-Muppet characters and moments.  The frame story involves an angel going to God to plead Kermit's case.  The depictions of Heaven and God - played by Whoppi Goldberg - are absolutely brilliant.

The movie's villain is played by Joan Cusack, who's always great.  She's almost a Muppet, herself, and she strikes an incredible balance here.  The role is basically an over-the-top caricature of a cartoon villain obsessed with money, but Cusack plays it with such humor you almost sympathize.  She's an brilliant banker who's sick of self-righteous idealists prattling on about dreams.  It's not hard to see her point, particularly when she's able to get the upper hand in almost every interaction.

Again, if you're not a fan of the Muppets yet, this one isn't going to change that.  This movie's strength comes from its relationship with the Muppet Movie: if you haven't seen that, you shouldn't see this.  But, if you are a fan who's seen The Muppet Movie a half dozen times, you're going to be impressed with this one.  I know I was.

The Snowman (1982)

This is a half-hour of gorgeous animation with brilliant use of music; it's just beautifully done, and one of my absolute favorites. It's wordless except for the short introduction and the one song. It's based on the picture-book of the same name, and the style of the animation looks just like a living illustration.

The animation looks like it was done with pastel and crayon, and the skill that is evident in the work is astounding. Particularly amazing is the flying sequence, which uses just perspective and careful planning to convey an amazing amount of movement and depth.

The song from this haunted me a while back, when I hadn't seen the special in years. I remembered that it was good, but not much else about it. When I finally tracked it down and sat Erin down to watch it, the opening strains of “Walking in the Air” began to introduce it, and I burst into tears.

It's a melancholy piece, but all the more beautiful for that. I love this special, but it still makes me cry.

The Snowman is available on DVD.

Make sure you see the introduction by Raymond Briggs (other versions were produced, and I find David Bowie obnoxious and out of place). It should begin simply with a figure walking across a field, and the voice-over: 
I remember that winter, because it brought the heaviest snows I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long, and in the morning I awoke in a room filled with light and silence. The whole world seemed to be held in a dreamlike stillness. It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the snowman.
Unless you count the lyrics to "Walking in the Air," those are the last words in the special.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

We Wish You a Turtle Christmas (1994)

AHHHHH. AHHHHH. No. Why. WHY? Just... Just NO.

Someone watched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie and then vomited out this horrid direct-to-video thing in about 10 minutes. The writing is uniformly terrible, but it's worse when they half-almost try to write the characters like the movie. I'd rather that they didn't, really.

It's awful. The costumes are hideous and terrible, with animatronics that don't work, and they have no feet. The budget appears to have been about $50 and I'm assuming they spent most of it on beer. Also, the costumes are really scary-looking. We're talking horror-movie-possessed-toy scary.

The voice “actors” occasionally do atrocious imitations of the movie cast, but it's really uneven. It burnsss... According to IMDB, it looks like either the entire cast and director did this under fake names, or they never worked again. Either sounds plausible to me.

The voice syncing is basically nonexistent. The plot is just a tissue-thin excuse for a series of terrible parody songs. It's just... just awful. There are random children. The whole thing makes zero sense.

It's Star-Wars-Holiday-Special-Level Bad, you guys. It's shorter (only a half-hour), which is good, and it's not boring or slow, but I would say it's far more horrible to its characters.

Still want to hurt yourself? Look on YouTube. Look on YouTube, ye fools, and despair.

More About "A Muppet Family Christmas" (1987)

I find it baffling that this isn't better known.  Everyone seems to remember The Christmas Toy, Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, and John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, but most seem to have blocked this one out.

It's a shame, too, because this is phenomenal.  Incorporating characters from at least three Muppet productions (debatably more - the Muppet Babies get a nod at one point), this thing is made for longtime fans.  It's just buried in decades of references and continuity.

It's a massive crossover event, sort of a Secret Wars for the Muppet-verse.  Seeing the Sesame Street characters engage in small talk with Doc from Fraggle Rock is awesome, as is seeing Rowlf have a discussion with Sprocket.  When characters come together to sing a medley, the amount of thought that went into determining who gets what verse is kind of astonishing.

My favorite scene comes when the Swedish Chef gets a look at Big Bird and realizes there's a potential for the largest roast in history.  He invites Big Bird into the kitchen, and what ensues is nothing short of brilliant.  Think back to the first time you read The Dark Knight Returns and saw Batman face off against Superman.  You remember how the fight was nothing like you'd have expected, but after you'd never be able to imagine it differently?  That's what this is like.

The special closes with Jim Henson himself making a rare cameo.  He sticks his head out of the kitchen to observe his creations celebrating before turning his attention to the dishes.  I'm not sure whether it was intentional, but it definitely feels like he's standing in for God.  It's a touching moment, especially considering the man himself passed a few years later.

I've often reflected on the injustice of L. Ron Hubbard having his own religion while Henson doesn't.

A version of this is on DVD, but don't buy it: it's missing some important scenes.  Your best option is to track this down online.  It might take some work, but it's definitely worth it.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

This is the last of the "four pillars" of the classical animated Christmas specials.  No, wait.  It's the last of the four AMERICAN animated Christmas classics.

There is... another.  But we'll leave that ominous assertion for another day.

Rudolph is a tough nut to crack.  It's a decent special, but it certainly lacks the consistency or quality control of How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Charlie Brown Christmas.  This is a flawed gem, that much is certain.  There are some slow spots, some weak writing, and some songs that are hard to sit through year after year.  Plus, all character growth takes place off screen: between scenes, Rudolph miraculously decides he can't run away from his problems, even as everyone at Santa's workshop realizes they were ripe bastards.

Despite all that, it's really intriguing.  It's just so damned imaginative, it's impossible not to like.  Between the elf wanting to be a dentist, Yukon's team of show dogs, and Sam the Snowman, it just draws you in.

Before long, you're at the Island of Misfit Toys, and you just go with it, despite the fact sentient toys don't make sense in even that surreal setting.  I actually love the Island, especially its ruler.  King Moonracer is sort of the antithesis of Santa Claus.  Instead of circling the world to give out presents, he pulls a Peter Pan and picks up the lost and unwanted misfits.  As bizarre as this sequence is (again, why are these toys conscious and not those at Santa's workshop?) it kind of fits in the mythology.

That doesn't even touch on the Bumble, a villain who's surprisingly frightening at times.  Or Santa, who comes off as a flawed and believable ruler, ignoring his elves and passing judgment on Rudolph.  The scene where Rudolph comes back and you seen Santa humbled by the pain he helped cause is pretty spectacular.

I doubt my recommendation is going to mean much here.  You know this special as well as I do, and you'll see it or skip accordingly.  For what it's worth, I'm glad we re-watched this one this year.  There are plenty of problems, but I still find myself drawn into the fantasy after all these years.

Batman: The Animated Series: Holiday Knights (1997)

Damn. When this show is good, it is so amazingly good. I love this episode. We watch it every year, and every year I'm reminded anew how great it is.

“Holiday Knights” consists of four little holiday vignettes, in which plenty of characters get a chance to shine.

On Dec 22nd, Harley and Ivy drug Bruce Wayne so he'll pay for a holiday shopping spree. It's a fantastic showcase for the two villainesses, and a fun piece in general. A great use of an extended shopping montage, and there's an especially excellent score in this section.

On Dec 24th, Batgirl is shopping at “Mayfield's” when she has to help Bullock and Montoya arrest some shoplifters who aren't what they seem. Barbara is smart and professional here, and the cops are undercover in an amusing disguise.

On Dec 31st, the Joker plans to massacre the New Year's Eve crowds, and Batman and Robin (Tim) go after him. Nice planning by the Joker here, and his character is very well written: a good balance between humor and homicide.

The final vignette is a short one that directly follows the Joker's attack (Jan 1, 1:55AM). I won't go into details, but it has what I think is one of the most touching moments in superhero film.

This is a fantastic episode, with real holiday charm. Watch it, you won't be disappointed. You can find it on the Volume Four DVD set.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

Just about everyone my age has some memory of watching this when they were young, although most of us can't seem to remember the details all that well.  Lindsay and I came across this in a drug store about a year ago and snatched it up.

This viewing actually helped me put this in perspective.  By the time we got around to it, we'd already seen around seventy or eighty Christmas specials.  You'd think the burnout would work against this one, but, if anything, the contrast underlined just how good this special is.

Before I get involved with that, let me take a moment to explain why such context might be needed.  The thing about Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (and, just to be clear, it is a THING, not an ISSUE), is that it's slow.  Last year, when I saw this for the first time in two decades, I found it a little too slow for my tastes.  If it makes sense, I wouldn't call the special "boring," but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't bored.

There's a fine distinction between slow and boring, but that's where context helps.  I've seen a lot of genuinely boring Christmas specials in the past four weeks, and Emmet Otter doesn't sink to their level.  Not a second of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is wasted or superfluous.  The special spends its time carefully, building tone, setting, and characters with methodical care.  Yeah, it moves slowly, but it does so because the world it inhabits moves slowly.  The characters' lives move slowly.

A bit of context helped the songs stand out as well: I honestly can't think of anything I've seen this year with original music that can compete.

The care that went into this permeates the piece.  In addition to the songs and puppets, the set and model work is incredible, and the use of light and color is simply breathtaking.  Some of the birds they built for this look and move like the real things.  In some ways, this represents the most fully realized fantasy world the Creature Shop ever constructed, possibly eclipsing even The Dark Crystal.

I'm also impressed with the intricacy of the plot, which I'm assuming was taken from the source material.  In addition the brilliant play on Gift of the Magi, the story's use of the Riverbottom boys is deceptively complex.  While ostensibly antagonists, they're essential to the story having a happy ending.  Try to imagine the special's conclusion with either Emmet or his mother winning: the other would have been miserable.

It doesn't hurt that Henson ensured that the Riverbottom Nightmare Band deserved that prize.  If I'd been judging that competition, I'd have voted for them, too, even knowing about their behavior the prior day.  I mean, come on: that song was AWESOME.

If it's been a while, this is definitely something worth revisiting.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is available on DVD.

Shrek the Halls (2007)

This felt really long, and I don't think it's just because we were watching it on TV with commercial breaks.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of Shrek at the best of times.  I thought the first movie was cute, but already felt dated when I watched it, and I don't remember the second one at all, although I know I saw it. So if you are a huge fan, your mileage may vary.

Overall it's an okay special, I guess, but there is too much idiotic sitcom-style behavior in one half hour for me.  What do I mean by sitcom-style?  Characters changing their personality or motivation scene-to-scene as demanded by the plot, painfully obvious misunderstandings, useless plot twists that just add time, poor usage of dramatic irony... that sort of thing.

There are about 20 seconds at one point where it gets pretty cute, and then the characters are all idiots for 15 minutes, and then the end is okay.  Okay, but still unfunny and plagued with terrible music and Eddie Murphy.  Nothing was ever made better by the inclusion of Eddie Murphy.

Although I did like a few of the lines and chuckled a couple times, unless you really like the Shrek series, you can safely skip this one.

If you want to see it, I'm sure you can find it.  I refuse to enable you, though.

A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

Remember how in my review of The Muppet Christmas Carol, I said it wasn't my favorite Muppet holiday thing? This is my favorite Muppet holiday thing. In this rarely seen television special, the Muppet gang is headed to Fozzie's mother's house for Christmas.  Much singing is done.  I watch this entire hour with a big silly grin.

(FYI: Because of rights issues, in the United States three full songs and two partial songs have been cut from all video releases.  Don't believe anyone who tells you this doesn't impact the quality of the special; there are plot points in those songs!  I found a full copy on YouTube. )

The special plays out like a fantastic extra-long episode of The Muppet Show: loosely connected vignettes and songs, and only one human to be seen.  There are ten full songs, plus a medley of eleven more.  There's no new music for this special: it's all classic holiday songs, except Pass It On from Fraggle Rock, and Together at Christmas from The Christmas Toy.  It's a music heavy hour, and all the songs are done beautifully.  The Electric Mayhem does Jingle Bell Rock.  Miss Piggy sings Home for the Holidays.  The cast of Sesame Street sing Deck the Halls.

Oh, did I mention that this special is particularly significant for bringing the far flung branches of the Muppet family together for the holiday?  Muppets, Sesame Street, Muppet Babies, and Fraggles all put in an appearance.

You'll appreciate this special more and more for each of these characters you're familiar with, although I think everyone can find a moment that touches your heart. If you're a Muppet fan, though, you'll love when the characters start interacting across groups: Rowlf and Sprocket, Ernie and Bert talk to Doc,  Kermit and Robin sing with the's like an hour-long love letter to everything the Muppets ever did under Henson.  It helps that the writing is great: every character's dialogue is spot on.

If you're an even higher level of Muppet fan, you'll enjoy moments where two characters played by the same puppeteer get a moment together, like Gobo and Robin, or Animal and Cookie Monster.

I love that A Muppet Family Christmas makes me feel like all of the Muppets, Fraggles, etc. are one big crazy extended family.  It closes with an 8 minute carol medley that's just full of good moments.  The number of puppets in each shot is nothing short of astonishing.  It's a warm, loving hour, and I think everyone should try to see it.

Not enough to convince you?  Read a few more big Muppet Fans gush about this special here.  (Warning, lots of spoilers in this commentary if you haven't seen it.)

Look online for the full version of A Muppet Family Christmas, or you can buy it on DVD if you're outside the USA.  The cut version (which is not as good, but still has plenty of great stuff) is on Amazon, but only for lots of money.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Alf's Special Christmas (1987)

First of all, I'd like to send a very special "thank you, but I thought we were FRIENDS" to Jeff Burns for sending us the link to this delightful holiday classic.

I actually remember seeing this when it first aired.  Hey, I was a child of the 80's, and Alf was a part of that.  I remember Gordon Shumway, Melmac, and even that music video he made for the Tanners' daughter.  I have good memories watching this show as a child.

Yes, Virginia, children are stupid.

That editorial, by the way, gets read twice during the special.  It's the abridged version you hear everywhere, of course, with all the great fairy references omitted.

The "plot" of the hour-long special revolves around Alf getting in a fight with the Tanners and winding up trapped in the back of a van with a bunch of Christmas presents on their way to the hospital.  He winds up getting handed over to a dying girl, who teaches him the true meaning of melodrama in a long, drawn out, sappy sequence.

On his way out of the hospital, Alf helps deliver a baby after an unbelievably convoluted sequence of coincidences traps him alone in an elevator with a woman giving birth.  By the way, I don't know what woman complain about - I've learned from TV that the process is extremely quick and simple.  I mean, the entire childbirth took about twenty minutes, and the baby was clean as a whistle.

Then it's off to an attempted suicide sequence ever so similar to the one in "It's a Wonderful Life."  I mean, did they have to name the character George?  Alf, conveniently (and inexplicably) dressed as Santa Claus is on hand to save the day, and the crappy special moves on to its crappy conclusion, having finished proving that everything positive I remember about this show is a lie.

Don't believe me?  It's up on Hulu right now.  Go on.  Click through.  I dare you.

The Great Santa Claus Switch (1970)

If you're a Muppet fan, you may have heard of this, but you may not have seen it. It is technically a special episode of The Ed Sullivan Show, and hasn't been released on DVD. All the great early Muppet staff worked on it: Jerry Juhl, Joe Raposo, Frank Oz, and of course Jim Henson.

It's obviously early work, but solid.  The plot revolves around Cosmo Scam (an evil wizard) and his plan to replace Santa Claus.  Both Cosmo and Santa are played by Art Carney, everyone else is a Muppet.

Sesame Street would have been just in its second year, and this feels very much in tone with Sesame Street.  There's nothing too scary for kids (all of Cosmo's monster lackeys have soft hearts) and there's moments of sly humor on the side for adults.  Also, plenty of very bad puns.

The music is sweet and funny, and overall I found the hour charming, although it was slow here and there.  Later work would learn from this, tighten the pace, reuse puppets and ideas created here.  It was an important step in the development of the Henson company.

I found a poor quality copy on YouTube, with fuzzy sound and gaps in the video.  Unfortunately, I think this is probably the only way to see The Great Santa Claus Switch right now, besides seeking out one of the museums that have a copy.  As much as I'd like to recommend this special, the quality issues mean that really you should probably only seek it out if you're a major Muppet fan.  If the rights holders were to restore it and release it on DVD, it would be a very nice holiday special for families.

Eureka: Oh, Little Town (2010)

I've never seen an episode of Eureka before, but a friend recommended it and it was on Hulu.  Overall, I thought this was pretty good, though it had some issues.  The main problem was the drama.  Some writers can handle it; others can't.  If you're working in television (or any other media for that matter) a good rule of thumb is never to start a monologue with the words, "When I was young."  If you must go down this path, make sure you do so no more than once per episode.

Yeah, this one was really slow at times.  Fortunately, there were enough clever moments and fun ideas to pick up the slack.  The episode took an interesting approach to the legend of Santa Claus, all the while dealing with your requisite Christmas cliches.  Fortunately, it offered a twist to just about everything going on, and there were some great jokes.

As for the rest, I can't speculate whether I'd have liked it better if I knew the characters or premise.  Regardless, seeing as this is up free of charge on Hulu, I'm going to recommend it if you're looking for some light SF this holiday season.  It's a long way from perfect, but it's worth watching.

Fraggle Rock: The Bells of Fraggle Rock (1984)

The Fraggles are usually pretty great, and this episode is no exception.

In this Christmas/Solstice themed episode, Gobo questions the utility of their holiday, The Festival of the Bells. He sets out to challenge the myth and find out whether or not the Great Bell actually exists.

There's a surprising amount of existential angst in this episode for a children's show starring puppets.

Meantime, Doc and Sprocket do a bit of exploring of different holiday traditions, and Doc teaches Sprocket about the link between Saturnalia and Christmas in about ten seconds. It's awesome.

There's more than a bit of sappy “look inside for the truth” type stuff by the end, but it really amuses me that not having their festival has actual measurable implications.

Also, I'm a sucker for Fraggles, and a sucker for Solstice-themed holiday episodes. I really enjoy the main song of the episode: “There's a Promise” aka “Raise Your Voices” is fun. And Cantus is in it! What's not to love?

The Bells of Fraggle Rock is available on the Third Season Box Set, the compilation of holiday episodes: A Merry Fraggle Holiday, and is streaming on Netflix.

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Of all the Rankin/Bass specials I've seen this year, I think I like this one least.

Oh, it's not all bad by a long stretch.  The Snow Miser and Heat Miser are fantastic, inventive characters: hell, they're the reason everyone remembers this as fondly as they do.

The thing is, those two are just about the only aspects of this special that are any good.  The rest of it is an incoherent mess.  There's no real rhyme or reason for anything that occurs, and the vast majority of characters are just bizarre and random.  There's a song that emotionally blackmails a kid into believing in Santa Claus I find particularly disturbing.  I'm all for encouraging kids to hold on to imagination and fantasy, but that doesn't mean it's okay to suppress rational thought and skepticism.

I like the idea of giving Mrs. Claus a chance to shine, but she mostly comes off as incompetent here (not to mention reckless: she almost gets a couple elves and a reindeer killed, then she later takes a child into harm's way).

For all its faults, the Miser brothers are a lot of fun, and their song has rightly gone down as a classic.  Plus, I love the version of Mother Nature who shows up.  She's sort of a sweet, kindly grandmother, who doesn't hesitate to emphasize her "suggestions" with bolts of lightning.

And that's how she talks to her kids.

Unless you have a need to relive childhood memories, I don't suggest sitting through the whole thing.  Sure, the Miser scenes are pretty fantastic, but that's what YouTube is for.

And Gaudiness is Next to....

In Attleboro, Massachusetts, there exists a magical place where, every year, the baby Jesus spits up two metric tons of Christmas cheer.

This place is La Salette.

La Salette Shrines is a ministry which takes the holidays very seriously.  How seriously, you might ask.  Well, to put it mildly, they bring in a fried dough stand.

Yes, their grounds includes numerous shrines and sculptures, all of which are wired up in the gaudiest Christmas lights imaginable.  They have an animatronic Virgin mother, and a real live donkey for kids to fawn over.

The following slide show offers a vague idea of the magnitude of the place, but it's something you really need to see for yourself.

Before leaving La Salette, we picked up a mug of cider, which came in a commemorative plastic cup.  I think, better than anything else, this captures the spirit of La Salette.  The spirit of Christmas:


Card: Childhood Dreams and Christmas Memories

Rockefeller Center Tree

You've probably all seen pictures of the tree at Rockefeller Center before.  It's always a very large tree.  I went a couple of times this year to document a few things you might not have seen.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pink Panther: A Pink Christmas (1978)

This was almost good.  Almost.  I remember enjoying Pink Panther cartoons when I was young, but memories are tricky things.

Mostly it was just too long, and too much of the same joke over and over.

The Panther is poor and hungry, and goes through a long series of misadventures trying to get his hands on Christmas dinner.  It's discouraging watching him come close, only to fail, over and over.  I'm sure this is the point, to inspire a sense of seasonal charity, but I felt it missed slightly.  I can't decide if it belabored the point slightly too much, or should have just been more direct, as well as shorter.

If you're already feeling the holiday spirit, this might be a pleasant half-hour.  The ending is sweet,  (although the very last moment kind of ruins it) and it's close to being touching.

It's just slightly too long, slightly too boring, and so it deflates.

If you'd like to see if you disagree, A Pink Christmas is currently streaming on Hulu.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is about as close to damn-near perfect as any Christmas special is going to get.  Which makes it all the more shame that I'm kind of getting jaded with the thing.

Oh, I still enjoyed watching this, and I can't help but smile at the animation.  My issue - if the word even applies - on this viewing was actually with the music.  Now - before you start yelling - let me explain.  I love the music in this special.

Actually, that's the problem.  I love the music so much, I've been listening to various interpretations of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" almost nonstop since I started this holiday experiment.  It's one of the few holiday songs I have that mitigates the relentless cheer of the countless carols and classical pieces I've been listening to.

But, as an unfortunate side effect, it seems to have watered down the effect the song has on me when I heard it in context.

Like I said, I still enjoyed every minute of the special.  It's hard to image a more faithful interpretation of Seuss's classic, and the casting is utter genius, as is the music.

By all means, see this at once if it's been a while.  It's easily one of the best Christmas specials that's ever been made.

Barbie in A Christmas Carol (2008)

Erin is going to take this movie WAY too seriously, so I'm offering a rebuttal.

It isn't good, of course it isn't good.  It's a CG Barbie movie.  But it's not crime-against-humanity levels.  It's pink and girly and very G-rated.  They gender swap all the characters (which is more than fine with me) and make the story more about the sin of vanity than the sin of greed.  Frankly, except for a few particularly painful scenes, I'd put this squarely into “so-bad-it's-good”.  Not quite good enough to seek out, but pair it with Beauty and The Beast: Enchanted Christmas, some sort of pink champagne, and a room full of enthusiastic young women, and you might have a very amusing time.

I mean. it's produced by Mattel Entertainment!  HA! The DVD has a sing-along mode.  The main character has a fat tag-a-long cat named after a different Dickens book.  The Ghost of Christmas Past is a completely manic Tinkerbell. The whole thing is nuts.

The animation is cheap, but not as awful as I expected for a DVD movie based on a doll.  The children are scary looking, though.

I love that Eden (Ebenezer) doesn't believe in the ghosts for some time.  It amuses me. 

Be aware: the spirits are more like good fairies than ghosts, and the frame scenes are pedantic and annoying.  The melodrama is poorly handled, they spend way too long in the past without enough to do there, the film is overall too long, there's more than one scene that crosses right over into creepy, and there is zero poignancy to the ending.

All that said, it made me laugh.  It's really stupid, but it made me laugh. 

If you are planning that aforementioned bad girly holiday movie night, you could do worse than Barbie in A Christmas Carol.  Make sure you provide your guests with liquor, and I advise you to sing along.

Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)

I remembered liking this when I was younger, but I remembered very little about the special itself until it got going.  In this case, I could have trusted my memory: it's an amazing special. This was produced by Will Vinton, so the animation is just stunning throughout.

The structure is a series of carols, linked by scenes starring a pair of dinosaurs who are “hosting” the special.  The T-Rex in the suit attempts to inject some education into the proceedings by giving the origin or history of some songs.  I appreciate the gesture, although I'm not certain all of the history they cite is correct.

We start in earnest with a fun version of We Three Kings.  The use of light in this segment is lovely, and the jokes only enhance the song.  There's a humorous Carol of the Bells, and a Fantasia-esque Angels We Have Heard On High.

There are jokes in this that I definitely missed as a kid, but what I most enjoy about this is the quality of the animation.  Oh Christmas Tree is a really adorable sequence, and the California Raisins guest star near the end to bring you a great version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I remember enjoying the running gag about the lyrics to Here We Come a Wassailing, even as a kid.  I wonder if this special is why I've always known the lyrics?

My favorite short is, of all things, Joy to the World.  The animation switches out of the claymation into a sort of... I can't even decribe it properly.  It looks like changing, living paintings, I guess.  It's beautiful.  The version of the song is a version like no other one I know, heavily drawing on soul and African musical traditions.  Despite it being explicitly religious, I love it.

I can't say enough about how good the claymation is.  The final scenes have dozens of characters, and the sets and details are astonishing throughout.

It's a really fun special even if you're not an animation nut like me, and it's non-traditional enough to make a nice break from all the “standard” specials.  If you can find it, this is a half-hour very well spent.

A Claymation Christmas Celebration was released on DVD with two other holiday specials, but it's kind of expensive for how short it is.  You could probably find it online if you look.

The Two Christmases (and that Other Holiday)

I've already offered some thoughts on the cultural battle I enjoy so much every year, but I wanted to approach it from another angle, as well.  Specifically, I want to discuss Hanukkah, and the push to get displays included in public places along side Christmas ones.

You might not know it from my involvement with the site, but I'm actually Jewish.  I'm non-practicing, but that doesn't change the fact I'm in the club (lifetime membership, and all).  My mother was raised Jewish, and my father was raised Christian.  Neither of my parents were ever what I'd describe as religious, but they respected tradition.

As such, I grew up celebrating two holidays every year.  The larger gifts were saved for Christmas morning, but we usually received a few small items and candy throughout Hanukkah.  You might think that would make Hanukkah irrelevant to a kid, but that wasn't the effect.  My family would gather together, sing Hanukkah songs as best we could (my mother was the only one who'd ever properly learned the Hebrew versions, so I'm sure the rest of us butchered the lyrics), and light the candles.

Growing up, Christmas felt big.  Christmas felt magical.

But Hanukkah felt sacred.

That's why I get a little confused whenever I hear someone is lobbying to put up a giant menorah to stand up to the sweeping yule-tide of Christmas cheer.  See, in my mind, Hanukkah was always better than that.  It was the holiday without all the pomp and circumstance, without the decoration.

The title mentions two Christmases.  This is because, in actuality, there are two separate holidays.  There's the Christmas I celebrate - that this website promotes, that holiday specials plaster over television screens, and malls vomit up - and then there's a second holiday I usually dismiss.  It's the Christian version of my Hanukkah: the Christmas celebrated by people of faith who spend it with their family or community.  This latter Christmas, for all intents and purposes, has been engulfed by the commercial Christmas.  Personally, I love that fact, but I can understand why not everyone shares my enthusiasm.

The point I wanted to build to is this: that first Christmas is unquenchable.  If you feed it Hanukkah, it will eat it.  That Christmas has nothing to do with the birth of Christ - it's a solar celebration that has endured, been assimilated by, and then assimilated countless cultures and traditions.  Hanukkah can be part of that.  Oversized menorahs and dreidels could be built in every mall, and I'm sure the baptists will be furious.

But is that really what you want?

I certainly understand why there's a push for more decorations and for Jewish holiday specials.  Culturally, they can give kids a sense of cultural relevance and place.  Contrary to my flippant comments about the culture war, I don't begrudge anyone for wanting that.  But I would caution anyone out there to stop, take a good long look at Christmas, and decide if they really want thousands of years of tradition tied up with Frosty the Snowman.

The Christmas Toy (1986)

The Christmas Toy, you may recall, was Toy Story before Toy Story. It's a Henson production, a television special about toys coming to life when you're not around.

My vague recollections of The Christmas Toy actually gave me some conceptual trouble with the Toy Story movies. The toys of The Christmas Toy die if they are seen out of place by a human.

They DIE.

Well, their consciousness is sent to some sort of Limbo, but it's basically the same. Without the same stakes, I sometimes had trouble with why the Toy Story toys bother to hide their mobility from humans. It's kinda weird, if you think it through too hard.

Well, the actual plot of The Christmas Toy is about Rugby the tiger, and how he doesn't understand that even though he was Jessie's favorite Christmas present last year, he'll be replaced this Christmas with a new favorite gift. (And it's about a space toy who initially doesn't understand that she's a toy.... but I digress. Although actually I kind of love the ridiculous scene/song revolving around Meteora, crazy space princess doll. Additional note: there are more significant female characters in this than in the first Toy Story.)

It's actually a sweet story, with a lot of cute moments, but it is slow and repetitive in places, the plot doesn't quite fill the hour, and there's a lot of beating of plot points in case the audience somehow missed them. The ending is pretty great, but some of the humor falls a bit flat.  I did enjoy almost all of the music.

I'd recommend this for kids, but I admit was a little bored on this viewing.

The Christmas Toy is available on DVD.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Barbie: A Christmas Carol (2008)

I just got through watching Barbie: A Christmas Carol, and wanted to write down a few thoughts while the movie was still fresh in my mind.

My first thought isn't so much a thought, per se, as it is an overall emotional response; a desire, in fact.  Right now, I want to find a Barbie doll - any Barbie doll - and yank its head off its shoulders.  I want to snap every goddamn joint on that thing, and, if possible, I'd really like to feed the pieces through a wood chipper.

And before you ask, no: I'm not overreacting.  It was really that bad.  It was worse - WORSE - than you'd expect a direct-to-DVD Barbie reinterpretation of A Christmas Carol to be.  In every imaginable way, it was worse.

The animation... oh, God.  Dear, God.  Why?  The characters were less lifelike than the toys they were based on.  They weren't just soulless: it was like some demonic spirit crawled up from the depths of Hell and inhabited these empty, plastic shells and brought them to a state of undeath.

Why would Hell do such a thing?  To ruin Christmas, of course.  To take a beloved holiday classic and twist it into a pink mockery of itself.  Think about it: this is a movie designed to simultaneously appeal to children who own Barbies, all the while it markets more Barbies to them.  At the same time, it pretends to preach a hollow message of giving.

They didn't just take A Christmas Carol and feed it to an overweight cat.  Oh, no.  They then collected the excrement and sold it.  TO CHILDREN.

This is crap, pure and simple.  If you have an enemy - someone you really hate - who has a young daughter, you could theoretically order their child a copy of this DVD here.  But, before you do this, ask yourself how much you hate this person, how much pain you wish to inflict upon them.  If there is any shred of human decency in them - if there is hope for redemption - DO NOT DO THIS THING.

For it will destroy them.  As it destroyed me.

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album

These days, I've got a lot of holiday albums, representing just about every imaginable take on Christmas you can imagine.  Yup.  At this point, I've heard it all.

And without hesitation, I can say that this is my favorite of the bunch.  I've had this for a few years now, and I keep at least a handful of the tracks in several set lists I play all year round.  There's some phenomenal music here.

The album was in part brought about by the band's realization they already had a surprising number of songs related to Christmas.  As a result of being written over the course of four decades, the music is highly diverse.  The album has several of my favorite re-imagined holiday songs, new versions of some classic Tull songs, and some others that aren't so well known.

It's that last category that particularly impresses me.  The best song on the album, in my opinion, is Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow, a beautiful little piece you need to check out.  The re-imagined God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen isn't far behind, though, and Last Man at the Party captures the isolation of the season as well as anything I've ever heard.

The album itself doesn't seem to be in production, but you can find used copies pretty cheap on Amazon or Ebay.  I strongly suggest at least checking out the samples.

Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997)

This is from the first round of direct-to-video sequels that Disney was beginning to crank out in earnest in the 90's.  As such, it's kinda bad.

I think it has enjoyable moments, as well as some so-bad-it's-funny parts, but Erin despised it. That is a totally fair reaction.

Given that Beauty and the Beast is sort of a self-contained story, the plot of the movie is a flashback that takes place in the middle of the original.  Sounds great already, doesn't it? The villain is a computer animated pipe organ, of all things, that fears Belle threatens his "special relationship" with Beast.  Yeah, it's kinda weird.

I felt for the voice cast during some of the worst scenes. All of the actors from the original movie reprise their roles, plus Tim Curry (as the organ, naturally), and Bernadette Peters as a decorator turned Christmas Angel.

There are moments of really terrible writing, acting, like most of the lines given to Beast throughout.  Especially when the filmmakers decide to expand on the whole "prince acting like a jerk before the curse" scene.  That is downright excruciating, but it's followed by some actually impressive animation of the fairy.

There are other cute moments, and other places where the animation is well done, but they're interrupted with humor that's out of place, or characters being badly modeled.  All of the CG was hideous.  I didn't hate the main theme, "As Long As There's Christmas," but all the other songs were just terrible.

I didn't despise watching it as much as some things we've sat through for this, but let me put it this way: it's not in the same ballpark as Return of Jafar.  It's not in the same country as the original film.

Unless you're going to get drunk and have a girly bad-movie-musical sleepover, I'd skip this one.

Book Review: A Christmas Carol

Cross-Posted from The Blue Fairy's Bookshelf

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens, 1843

With all the different adaptations I've been watching recently, I thought it was time to re-read A Christmas Carol.

I remember reading this in grade school, although I think that we read the dramatization, not the prose.

The most striking thing to me is how little is different. There are plenty of cute turns of phrase, clever bits of writing, but most adaptations of the story really do hit all the high notes. Particularly having just recently seen the Muppet Christmas Carol, I didn't think I added much to my understanding by reading the actual text.

A few nice moments are missing from the films. I liked the sweet moment between Scrooge and his sister in the past, it really pushed the early softening of the character. There is a good comedic moment in the narration that precedes the second spirit.
Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling.
I also think the description of the Spirit of Christmas Past is particularly good, and the idea that it has a constantly changing appearance certainly makes that aspect resistant to film interpretation. I like that the Spirit somehow embodies all the people of Scrooge's past. I don't really understand the scene where Scrooge puts him out like a candle.

Note: it is not the adaptations that push Scrooge to change quickly. I was surprised how almost instantly he becomes willing to change, and how soon he is thanking the Spirits for their help.

The prose is light and trips along, and I'm amused by some of Dickens' odd tangents, bored by others. One nice observation:
“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”
It was good, without being surprising or compelling. This story has become such a part of culture that reading it now is fraught with déjà vu. It is important historically, but I don't think I'll feel the need to read it again in a hurry.

Next year I'll just watch the movie again.