Saturday, December 17, 2011

Howdy Doody's Christmas (1957?)

This eight minute short came as part of a DVD collection I bought cheap on Amazon, but apparently it's easy to find on Youtube, too. Come to think of it, just about everything in that collection appears to be on Youtube.

At any rate, this has to be one of the strangest artifacts we've come across. I've never actually seen an episode of Howdy Doody before, though of course I know what it is. Or at least I thought I knew: now, I'm not so sure.

First off, let's talk about the horror.

See, every character in this thing, with the exception of Buffalo Bob, is outright creepy. Imagine Chucky but not as cute: that's Howdy Doody. And remember the clown from It? yeah, apparently his older brother's name was Clarabell, and he's in this. Then there's Ugly Sam. I guess he wasn't scary, just weird.

This thing starts a few minutes before midnight, with most of the above characters decorating a tree. They hide at midnight, so Santa won't see them (it's apparently an important detail that the fat man shows up at midnight, on the dot, which is even harder than hitting every house on Earth in one night). Well, 12:00 AM passes with no Claus, leading the characters to the unmistakable conclusion that something's wrong.

They're right - Santa's been captured by Ugly Sam, who mistakes him for an escaped convict. I'm... not going to expand on this. The others run to their spaceship and fly to the North Pole to rescue Saint Nick and save Christmas.

Wait - Howdy Doody owns a spaceship?

I'm pretty sure the spaceship "effects" are entirely done with stock footage from old serials, including the landing sequence. North Pole, my ass: that's an alien world.

At any rate, the short ends with Howdy Doody saving Christmas and destroying my brain. If you're a masochist, I'm embedding one of the versions on YouTube below.

Santa and Pete (1999)

This is one of the myriad made-for-TV family movies that gets churned out every year. We try to keep a few of these in our queue to ensure we're experiencing the entire spectrum of holiday fare.

As the title suggests, this one focuses on the character of Black Peter, a slightly obscure holiday figure, at least here in the US. For those of you not obsessed with Christmas lore, Black Peter is a child assistant to Saint Nick. Traditionally, he's the one charged with punishing children who were bad, an awkward bit of racist stereotyping which makes him an extremely difficult character to use. Since he never really took hold in America, it's pretty easy to skip him entirely and avoid the matter altogether.

This movie instead re-imagines him as a kind-hearted adult accompanying Saint Nicholas in his journeys. It's an attempt to reclaim the character while simultaneously raising him in prominence.

As a whole, the special isn't very impressive. Production values are lacking, and the setting is undermined by a barrage of anachronisms (I'm assuming these were intentional; regardless, they're not endearing).

The movie is narrated by James Earl Jones, who certainly lends some credibility to the frame story but can't help the story itself.

Despite all its problems, I wound up enjoying this quite a bit. The movie's redemption came from its portrayal of Santa Claus. Instead of the trite fat man, this version was more in line with European depictions of Saint Nicholas. Even when Santa and Peter moved to New Amsterdam and he began acquiring the American props and costume, he retained his gaunt face, more like a bishop's than a friar's. In addition, he was played seriously, without comic relief or over-the-top antics.

Ultimately, the movie isn't very good. If you're not a die-hard Santa-nerd, you'll find it tedious and pedantic. But the character of Saint Nicholas was so well handled, this Christmas geek enjoyed the experience.

Amahl and the Night Visitors (1955)

This was an interesting artifact to track down. Apparently, it was aired live in 1951, and then performed again in subsequent years to decent success, making it one of the first, if not the first, actual television Christmas specials to become a yearly tradition. This is the recording of the 1955 performance.

Watching it now is... odd. Erin flatly hated it, while I found it amusing.

Amahl and the Night Visitors is an opera about the Three Kings stopping to rest with a poor family on their way to find Jesus. Except that it's a light opera, so much of the kings' behavior is played for laughs. Amahl and his mother are destitute, but somehow have this building big enough to have a dance in, that has no furniture. I guess what I'm trying to convey is that any logic in the situation is somewhat lacking.

It's sort of slow and boring, although as I said, the humor was okay. I mean, Amahl goes at one point between his mother and the door, telling her a king is there, she doesn't believe him, he goes back to the door to check again, comes back to report (in song) that no, sorry, two kings are there, she doesn't believe him, etc. It's not brilliant, but it is silly.

I honestly really liked one scene, though. The kings sing about the wonders of the child they are seeking, and Amahl's mother sings an angry counterpoint about how her son is beautiful and kind and special, but no one would bring him gifts of gold.

After some ridiculous dancing provided by neighboring shepherds, everyone sleeps except Mom, who contemplates taking some of the gold so they won't have to become beggars. After some sung rationalization, she tries it, only to be caught by the kings' lone servant. Amahl mounts an impassioned, if ineffectual, defense of his mother, and that's the last interesting thing that happens.

I mean, more happens: the kings offer them the gold in another song about how good Jesus is, Mom refuses, Amahl wants to give the baby a gift and then is miraculously healed (he was a completely unconvincing cripple up til this point) and he goes off with the kings, promising to be home soon.

Mom letting Amahl go off with a bunch of strange men who were just singing about wanting to touch him (because of the miracle, but still) is somewhat unintentionally funny. As is the fact that the star (comet) they are following looks sort of like a space squid or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Overall, not a great piece of cinema, but historically important, and interesting if for no other reason than to remember that once, major networks commisioned opera, and people liked it.

Ooh, I found a clip. This is Mom singing about how rich people dont appreciate what they have. (Most of the special is not this dramatic.)

Only recommended if you already like light opera.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pucca, Season 2, 3 Christmas episodes (2006)

I came across this searching through Amazon's instant view options (having pretty much exhausted Netflix last Christmas), and selected it out of sheer curiosity. I feel like I've seen this referenced before, but had absolutely no clue what it was when I watched it. Honestly, I don't think I even bothered reading the description first.

After, I hopped over to Wikipedia to grab some context. Apparantly, this was a web series about a village of ninja. The animation's highly stylized; I guess the characters are supposed to be cute.

While I didn't really find them all that adorable, I really enjoyed the comedy, especially in the first of the three episodes.

I should mention the episodes are extremely short - about eight minutes each - meaning three together come out to about the equivalent of a half hour show (minus comercials, of course).

The first, "Tis The Season For Revenge", is by far the best, re-imaging Santa as a repentant ninja. His ex-partner has returned for revenge, and the subsequent fight is nothing short of awesome.

"Northern Lights Out" is next. Here, the Northern Lights have gone out, leading to an attack by an abominable snow monster. This has its moments, but it's probably the weakest of the three.

Finally, "Secret Santa" has an imposter kidnap Claus to reap vengeance upon his enemies. It's good, but again falls short of part one.

I thought these were pretty good overall, but I'd suggest starting with "Tis the Season for Revenge" then deciding whether you need to see more. I really enjoyed that one, but the others felt a little like overkill.

Disney Princess Christmas Album (CD 2009)

Eesh. This is the first one of these that's really making me cringe. Some of the singing isn't bad (It's probably mostly one or two voice actresses, the cd does not identify them), but all the forced dialogue and lines referencing different characters are extremely awkward.

Not too surprisingly, it's less awkward with characters from the more recent movies, when it sounds like the actual voice actress might be doing the song, rather than someone imitating an actress from one of the early movies.

Whoever hired the voice actors for the seven dwarves and wrote their dialogue has a lot to answer for.

A lot of the problem I have with this album, though, is the premise. There isn't one. So some songs are sung as a group, but most songs are very specific to each character and reference their own world. It seems stupid to me to put something like this together and not have some silly magic reason that all the princesses are throwing a party together, or something. Then they could talk to each other, instead of only ever talking to characters from their own movies, yet somehow singing together on other tracks without being in the same room. I don't know why it bothers me so much. I guess I just feel that something like this could actually be good, if anyone involved had tried.

Song List:

  • Christmas Eve Dinner
  • Christmas Is Coming
  • Have A Holly Jolly Christmas
  • I'm Giving Love For Christmas
  • Christmas In The Ocean
  • It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
  • Silver and Gold
  • Holidays At Home
  • The Holly and the Ivy
  • The Christmas Waltz
  • Ariel's Christmas Island
  • Christmas With My Prince
  • The Night Before Christmas
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas

About the Songs:

Ugh. The "Synthestrations" - yes, the CD liner says that - are just terrible. It makes everything doubly painful, but the music is especially egregious on Christmas is Coming (Snow White), Have a Holly Jolly Christmas (Snow White), and... okay, maybe all of them.

I'm Giving Love For Christmas (Cinderella): Why are there little synthesized mouse backup singers? This song was the first one I was thinking: hey this isn't so bad - until the synthy mice came in, because then it's just hilarious for the wrong reasons.

Silver and Gold isn't a terrible choice, actually. I mean, if you're going to make Pocahontas sing on a Christmas album for some stupid reason. At least they've edited out all the references to Christmas, and the end product, while not amazing, is at least tolerable.

Ugh, the synth instruments on The Holly and the Ivy (Mulan) are completely hideous. My-ears-are-bleeding hideous. Which is especially annoying, because the singing isn't awful, and they've written a version without Jesus. I'm always on the lookout for a good un-religious rewrite of this song.

I think this is the best version of A Christmas Waltz (Belle) that we have. I mean, that's not saying a lot, but it's fine.

Christmas in the Ocean (Ariel) is terrible, but Ariel's Christmas Island is actually pretty cute.

I was surprised that I kind of like Christmas With My Prince (Sleeping Beauty). For all the sappiness - and there is a lot of sappiness - it's trying to be a more grown-up romantic holiday song than anything else on this album, and it sort of succeeds.

The Night Before Christmas is the least annoying of Snow White's songs. It's a zany patter song about all the chores they've neglected to do to get ready for the holiday. It's still annoying, but not bash-my-ipod-against-concrete annoying.

Best Songs: Christmas With My Prince, Silver and Gold

Worst Songs: Holly and the Ivy, Christmas Eve Dinner, and any song with dwarves in it.

Do not subject yourself to this. Really.

Some sadist has put two tracks together on YouTube. Click, if you dare.

The Polar Express (2004)

I think it's important to note that movies based on short children's books can work. Look no further than "Where the Wild Things Are" for a primer in how its done. If something isn't long enough to adapt into a movie, DON'T ADAPT IT: use it as inspiration, and build a new story and world.

Whatever you do, don't stick with a plot that requires five minutes to function and try to pad it out into an hour and a half epic. If you do, you could conceivably wind up with something nearly as bad as Polar Express, a film so awful it more or less got its source - a beautiful, subtle picture book - removed from most peoples' lists of classics. It's common for us nerds to accuse a movie of ruining a book, but in this case, it's kind of true.

The Polar Express isn't the worst holiday movie we've seen, not by a long shot. But I'm having a very hard time thinking of another that's this bad made at this budget. As such, we're going to honor this with a slightly different approach. Lindsay and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on this one, and we both collaborated on the following points.

The movie's most obvious flaw is the character work. This was one of the earlier attempts at using motion capture to make an animated film. There's a reason that Pixar regularly boasts about NOT using this technology: while it's certainly opened some fantastic doors adding impossible characters to live action films, it's been a blight upon the world of animation since its inception. People move the way they move, in part, because of the size and shape they actually are. If you change that size and shape; say, by altering the relative size of a character's head (a common stylistic choice in animated movies) that changes how they should move. Capturing an actor's movements only guarantees you're going to get this wrong. Allowing them to exaggerate their mannerisms to fit an antiquated notion of what constitutes a cartoon just makes the whole thing look that much more absurd.

But movement is only the beginning. Characters' faces are inhuman in this film. There's something horribly wrong with the matting and/or perspective here. It looks as though they've overlaid a two dimensional face on a three dimensional head, leading to some extremely jarring angles. None of the characters look right in this movie, but there's a girl who's so far off, she looks like a space alien most of the time.

Let's move on to the voice cast, by which I mainly mean Tom Hanks, who voices six characters for no discernible reason. I suppose he does a fine job, provided he's trying to imitate Tom Hanks in all six of his roles.

Most of the kids are voiced by actual kids, with the exception of "the know-it-all," who was a 54-year old man masquerading as a kid. Badly.

Of course, all of this adds up to an indictment of style: let's take a minute to talk substance. This is, above all else, a movie with a message, with morals. Here, then, is a short list of the lessons we took away from this movie:

1. Kids should always go with strange men, because their vehicles might be "magic."
2. Always listen to hobos. Again, they could be magic.
3. Don't hesitate to go places that are clearly dangerous and not intended for kids. It's the best way to confront your fears.
4. Believe in things you can't see, like ghosts, Santa, and presumably Jesus. Then you'll see them, because they're obviously real.

The plot is thinned to the point that it's basically non-existent. To fill the time, they stick in a handful of crappy songs, boring adventures, and cheesy effects. The worst parts of this movie, without a doubt, are the scenes in it.

I'm going to set aside the North Pole, though, because I kind of like that sequence in spite of itself. It doesn't actually make sense - and it actually undermines the entire premise by showcasing a cryptic city echoing of abandoned malls and amusement parks unworthy of belief even if it existed - but the setting has a stark and disturbing tone I dig.

Then there are Ferengi elves, Santa Claus brutally whipping his puppet-like deer with a laser-whip, and a magic sleigh which hits 88 mph and takes Zemeckis back to a far better time in his career.

So, "The Polar Express" is one of the worst big-budget family Christmas movies out there.

However, the character designs are just warped enough, the sequences are just campy enough, and the North Pole is just screwed up enough, it might be one of the more enjoyable Christmas horror movies I've seen. Never mind that it's unintentional: this thing is terrifying.

I'm not sure I'd recommend it sober, but with a few drinks in you and the right crowd, this could be a hell of a lot of fun.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Dick Van Dyke Show: The Alan Brady Show Presents (1963)

Watching this episode was an odd experience, to say the least. I had watched The Dick Van Dyke Show in re-runs as a child, and remember it fondly. Erin had never, to his knowledge, seen an episode.

And thus we discovered that if you aren't familiar with the show, this episode makes absolutely no sense.

The premise of The Dick Van Dyke Show is that it follows the lives of the writers of a television comedy skit show, primarily focusing on the relationship between the head writer and his wife. The loose plot of this Christmas episode is that the characters perform a series of skits on the show themselves, in the spirit of the holidays. It's not exactly a great example of the series, more of a weird one-off that they did for fun. Wikipedia tells me that it's one of the few episodes that wasn't filmed in front of a live audience. The characters sing and tell jokes, and I found it kind of cute, but not generally that interesting. The costumes and skits are fine, but nothing special. The humor is broad and slightly old-fashioned. When they try for poignancy, it just turns dull.

I can't really recommend this as a holiday special, or even as an episode, although if you also have fond memories of the show, you may find it charming. If you've never seen the show before, you may find it boring and incomprehensible.

Third Rock from the Sun: Jolly Old St. Dick (1996)

I remembering watching this show back when it started. I saw the first season, but gave up after a few episodes in the second, so I never got to this one.

Before I go on, I'd like to point out that seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt when he was that young is really messing with me. To think that kid grew up to become Cobra Commander.

The episode is entertaining enough, and thanks to the series' concept, is actually about Christmas, not just set during the holidays.

Like pretty much every single episode of the series, this was a comedy of errors about the disguised aliens trying and ultimately failing to understand our strange world.

Ahem. That's why I got tired after a season back in the 90's. Fortunately, having not seen an episode since then, I was ready to jump back in.

You get subplots for each of the main characters, though Dick clearly had the most screen time. He was cast as the episode's Scrooge, though he was always kind of Scrooge, so that's not a huge shift.

The best sequence of the episode had him standing on his roof, hurling plastic decorations at screaming carolers below. The writing felt weak, but there's no denying this guy has comic timing.

The other plots were generally solid, with two of the aliens taking jobs at a mall and the third trying to find a gift for his girlfriend, despite lacking a basic comprehension of human etiquette.

I don't think anything in this episode qualified as exceptional, but it delivered more laughs than groans. I'm not sure you can ask much more from a sitcom.

Huge Props on Sixth

I was taking a walk up Sixth Avenue for a change, and realized that there is quite an amusing string of holiday displays along this route.

I love these giant Christmas lights:

If it's unclear, each bulb is more than three feet long. 

Another block down you get these giant ornaments:

Across the street from some of this is the brightly shining front of Radio City Music Hall:

Over in front of Radio City, I was highly amused by this special holiday bus-will-not-stop sign:

The last giant prop that I saw was this big toy train, also filling a fountain.

It's very large, not as large as a real train, but probably as tall as me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Looney Tunes: Bah, Humduck! (2006)

Bah, Humduck attempts to invoke the joy of classic Looney Tunes cartoons in telling a quirky version of A Christmas Carol, and it fails miserably on both counts. There's absolutely no charm, no fun, and no humor in watching this special drag out.

There's a sense that this was made to mimic better movies. The backgrounds are filled with a constant barrage of old characters from Warner's past, but the references are hollow, adding up to nothing. It's as though the producers are trying to convince the audience they love these characters, too, despite clearly not understanding what makes the classics entertaining.

The writing is dull and uninspired, driven by a need for instant recompense for any misdeed or heartless comment. The role of Scrooge is played, as the title suggests, by Daffy, who is impossibly rich for no discernible reason. If he threatens a child collecting for the poor, a door closes on him. If he dismisses Christmas, he falls down the stairs. Karmic payback is so consistent, you wonder why the spirits bother to show at all.

I don't recall laughing once throughout the entire hour-long run time of this thing. If you're perusing Netflix or Amazon and see this, peruse further. If you go to a Christmas party and see this on, leave. Then get new friends.

The Happy Elf (2005)

Okay, so apparently at some point Harry Connick Jr was delusional or high enough to think producing an animated special based loosely on a stupid song he wrote was a good idea.

And then somehow NO ONE involved thought: wait, this is a TERRIBLE idea!

Thus was born the steaming pile known as The Happy Elf. Ugh, even the name is boring.

The plot is idiotic, every single character is annoying. The only thing this has going for it is that it isn't very long.

Rob Paulsen plays the lead, and if anyone could have pulled it out of the dive and made the twitchy hyper obnoxiously Pollyanna elf charming, it probably would have been Rob Paulsen. But it was not to be. The dialogue is so terrible, and the performances are all painfully overwrought.

The animation... on a purely technical level, it might not be quite as bad as some of the CG we saw last year. It's bad, but the humans are maybe 5% less creepily mask-like. However, 99% of the designs and movements were poorly chosen, and the stylization of the faces of the elves is too far into freakish goblin-land.

It's just so BORING and stupid. The problem (the children in this town - which is apparently built to be depressing - are brats) is stupid, the solution (polished coal and holiday cheer?) is stupid, and the execution (hyper elf harasses children, polishes rocks) is stupid. Attempts at themes get their wires crossed and dissolve into nothing but forced wackiness.

Remember the classic Santa Claus is Comin to Town? Compared to Bluesville, setting of The Happy Elf, the domain of BurgerMeister MeisterBurger is a totally realistic presentation of human behavior and town politics. Have to watch this movie for some reason? Make it easier on yourself, take a drink every time they mention another completely ludicrous thing about this town - like that it's built at the bottom of a canyon, or the people are physically incapable of telling jokes. You'll be unconscious before the half-way point, and I'll expect a thank you later.

Prep & Landing: Naughty Vs. Nice

Well, this is depressing.

First the good news: this wasn't awful. In fact, taken on its own merits, it was even good. It was funny, cute, and kind of fun.

But that's just not good enough this time. This isn't a new special existing in a vacuum: it's the sequel to the single best Christmas special made in more than a decade. And this one doesn't measure up.

The original, while not being too dark for kids, was exciting. Yeah, half was devoted to heart, but when things turned, there was a real sense of danger. That was completely missing this time around: I never felt like the elves could actually die.

There were still some cool scenes, particularly the opening, which expanded the series's mythology by showing the other half of the operation: the elves there to punish the bad kids. For a minute, there was a darkness to the tone, but they just couldn't hold it. Almost immediately, we shifted to the comic relief. And guess who played that role.

If you said either of the two heroes from part one, you're wrong: it was both. Yeah, they're still capable of occasionally being useful, but overall they're played for laughs. For Christ's sake: Wayne was the elf equivalent of James Bond in part one. What happened?

If you're a big fan of the original, this is still worth seeing. There some good moments, and it's good to see Lenny and Wayne again, even if it has to be in these circumstances. But this series lost its edge. The first Prep and Landing is about a million times better, as is the short, "Secret Santa." Watch those first, then decide if you want to see the follow-up.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book Review: Christmas Curiousities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas

Lindsay bought this for me last Christmas, and - having taken a year to recover from the holidays - I recently cracked it open for a read. Like most books about the holidays, this was marketed as a Christmas present. The writer, John Grossman, is apparently a collector specializing in printed cards, promotional publications, and the like. Here, he's brought together some fascinating images demonstrating a darker side to the season.

As a collection of images, the book is awesome. As a look at history, it's less impressive. In the chapter introductions and image blurbs, Grossman makes some grand claims about how Christmas used to be, but he offers little context to back this up. The images certainly display some fascinating depictions of the holidays from the past, but he avoids addressing whether these represented the normal iconography of their respective eras or if they were outliers.

None of this impacts the book's value as something to flip through, of course. Images of various Christmas characters - including several of Krampus, Santa's demon assistant - are fantastic. Just don't expect many details from the text.

Wonder Woman: The Deadly Toys (1977)

Okay, this was kind of awesome. Well, it was weird and bemusing, cheesy and very surreal, but that can be a kind of awesome, right?

I had never seen a full episode of this series, but I think I'm going to have to watch more after seeing this one. The cheese factor is right on the level that I really enjoy: the occasional wink and nudge in good fun, charming, affable characters, somewhat silly fight sequences and dated but well-meaning special effects.

This episode isn't that impressive itself, though. Diana (in her civilian life as agent Diana Prince) is assigned to protect a trio of scientists. They each have knowledge of a piece of some doomsday weapon, and one of them has been kidnapped and... replaced with a lifelike android. If someone were to get all three scientists, then clearly, disaster! So Diana investigates, both in and out of costume, and eventually figures out the plot and rescues the scientists. No surprise there.

In the process there are more androids (who seem to melt down, literally, at the slightest challenge) and their toy-maker creator, played by Frank Gorshin, better known as the Riddler to Adam West's Batman. As toy-themed villains go, this one's actually pretty tame. And of course Wonder Woman has to fight a Wonder Woman android. I was very amused by the villains using their WW android to "trick" Diana Prince into coming to their lair. Her look of bemusement at the turn of events was great.

On the other hand, a lot of the plot points made little sense, and the ending was very odd; Diana's actions toward the villains become downright creepy if you give it more than a moment's thought.

Maybe this isn't a first choice as a Christmas episode, but it might match well, as far as tone goes, as a double feature with the Xena holiday episode, or with Lois and Clark. I do think I need to watch more of this show, though. After Christmas.

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Season 4 - The Night Before Mxymas (1996)

Like most, my memories of Lois and Clark are hazy at best. The only other episode I've seen in recent years - another Christmas episode, coincidentally - was pretty awful, and I have it on pretty good authority the series was more bad than good.

That said, when a friend mentioned there was a Christmas episode featuring Mr. Mxyzptlk, my interest was piqued. When I heard it was written by Tim Minear of Firefly fame, I was sold. Lindsay and I headed over to the WB site, found the episode, and settled in to watch.

Overall, the episode was pretty good, despite some painful - and I do mean painful - sappy speeches at the end. Mr. Mxyzptlk fits in with the holiday theme, though his elvish aspects never really came up. Mxyzptlk was actually a bit darker than he usually is in the comics. Not content with creating mischief, he's out for world domination.

Because his methods still focus more on tricks than outright destruction, enough of the character comes through to appease this comics fan, at least.

The problem, as I see it, with Lois and Clark was that it reduced Superman to a sitcom. However, Mr. Mxyzptlk fits in a sitcom environment, anyway, so this particular episode worked for me. It didn't fill me with holiday cheer - and it wasn't even in the same ballpark as the brilliant portrayal Mxyzptlk got in Superman: The Animated Series - but it was definitely worth watching.

You can see this episode on the WB streaming site. (Beware, their player didn't play well with all browsers.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: The Solstice Evergreen: The History Folklore and Origins of the Christmas Tree, by: Sheryl Ann Karas

The Solstice Evergreen is a collection of myths and stories related to evergreen trees, which together are ostensibly supposed to make some sort of point about their prominence during the holidays. In her introduction, the writer, Sheryl Ann Karas, explains that she wasn't raised Christian but was fascinated by the existence of the Christmas Tree. The book is kind of about coming to terms with that.

It's an interesting premise, but I think this could have been done better.

There are a few components to this book. Each chapter begins with a short essay about evergreens, Christmas, or mythology, then abruptly shifts to a bunch of very short myths and/or stories. These are taken from all over the world, with a disproportionate number originating from indigenous people whose stories (we assume) were neither influenced by nor had any influence on the custom under discussion.

To her credit, Karas doesn't claim otherwise. The stories are included due to thematic and topical parallels. But, in the end, all this adds up to is evidence that people are fascinated with trees that live through the winter. That's not exactly a profound revelation, and it certainly doesn't justify anywhere near this much space.

Karas is clearly intrigued by the idea of storytelling more than a study of how myths migrate and customs evolve. While I appreciate her interests, there's a sense of irrelevancy that permeates the book. Picking up a book like this, one expects some information on how the tradition of the Christmas Tree developed. She goes into this a bit, but in nowhere near the level of detail I wanted.

The stories themselves also lack sufficient notes. Until the end, which offers a few with known authors, all Karas includes is the country of origin. There's no indication as to the date (if known), the number and diversity of variations, or any other information. Worse yet, after mentioning in the beginning that she'd written composites of some of the stories while leaving others virtually untouched, she neglects to tell us which fall into which categories. At the end of the book, I found myself unsure which stories were authentic and which weren't.

If it weren't for the essays, this thing would almost work as a storybook. Even then, most of the stories are lacking nuance or detail. Anyone who's actually interested in the origins of the Christmas Tree should really look elsewhere. There's really not enough in this volume to be worth the time.

Elmo Saves Christmas (1996)

Like almost everyone who remembers Sesame Street before Elmo took over, I'm not really a fan of the red furball. I generally find him kind of cloying, and I wasn't really looking forward to an entire hour devoted to his adventures.

But this won me over quickly. While it's certainly not on par with Christmas Eve on Sesame Street or a Muppet Family Christmas, this absolutely carries on that tradition. This is everything Sesame Street should be: funny, endearing, and a tad subversive. Oh, I suppose it's got a lesson or something for the kids.

Right off the bat, the premise is explained in a loose frame story narrated by Maya Angelou (I don't think her presence really adds anything to the special, but then tossing guest stars in bit parts is common practice for these specials). Contrary to the title, the story is presented as the time "Elmo saved Christmas, then nearly lost it, again." And the special absolutely delivers on that promise.

Elmo is presented as an impish well-intentioned agent of destruction, which is a tad darker than I'd been expecting. The plot is fairly generic: after dislodging Santa Claus from his chimney, Elmo is rewarded with three wishes. He quickly wishes for Christmas to occur every day, to predictably disastrous results, which he gets to witness courtesy of a time-traveling reindeer (don't ask). The special's strength comes in the detail: there are numerous skits and side jokes that carry the story. I was impressed with how bad they let things get. No one dies or anything, but I imagine seeing Big Bird reduced to tears had to traumatize more than a few kids.

The real strength comes from the trademark wit and humor that permeate the special. This is genuinely funny, and most of the traditional Sesame Street characters get at least a moment or two.

Don't skip this just because you don't like Elmo. This is a solid addition to the line of Muppet-Christmas specials, and it deserves to be seen.

Book Review: Hogfather

Terry Pratchett, 1996

Crossposted at Blue Fairy's Bookshelf.

Premise: It's winter on the Discworld, so it's time for the Hogfather to bring presents to all the children. Except the Hogfather is missing. It's up to Susan, Death's granddaughter to save the day. She would really like to know why Death is climbing down chimneys, why new gods and fairies seem to be appearing, and what all this has to do with an Assassin with an unique view of reality.

I love many of the Discworld books, but this is one of my very favorites. It scratches all my holiday itches: the power of belief, ancient pagan roots, mocking "picturesque" holiday stories, and saving the world.

I love it from the very start. Here's page one:
Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree. 
But people have always been dimly aware of the problem with the start of things. They wonder aloud how the snowplow driver gets to work, or how the makers of dictionaries look up the spelling of the words. Yet there is the constant desire to find some point in the twisting, knotting, raveling nets of space-time on which a metaphorical finger can be put to indicate that here, here, is the point where it all began... 
Something began when the Guild of Assassins enrolled Mister Teatime, who saw things differently from other people, and one of the ways that he saw things differently from other people was in seeing other people as things (later, Lord Downey of the Guild said, "We took pity on him because he'd lost both parents at an early age. I think that, on reflection, we should have wondered a bit more about that"). 
But it was much earlier even than that when most people forgot that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. 
I would just sit here and read you the whole book if I could.

I love Susan, stubbornly trying to make her own way without using too many of her innate powers (lest she use them too much and forget what doorknobs are for), and how she makes quick work of any nonsense standing between her and her goal.

I love Death struggling with the more illogical parts of Hogswatch, while grasping the deeper aspects better than any mortal. The villains are creepy and the side plots entertaining. This book has some of my favorite scenes with progressive young wizard Ponder Stibbons and his thinking machine, Hex.

Of course through all the action and excitement runs the satire that Discworld is known for, in this case largely turned against holiday stories and traditions that don't really make much sense. I was particularly satisfied by Death logically demolishing that blot on humanity, the execrable Little Match Girl story.

There's a great sequence about childhood terrors coming true, and I found the reveal of the villains' plan very well done. The book is full of quotable lines and ends with a series of climaxes that leave me feeling quite pleased and full of a darker, truer sort of holiday cheer.

Highly Recommended.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Also see my review of the TV Miniseries adaptation.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jack Frost (1934)

Yet another short on a collection we found for next to nothing on Amazon. Going in, I didn't know what to expect from this eight minute cartoon about a young bear ignoring advice about staying in for winter, but I was really quite smitten.

The character of Jack Frost is presented as sort of a nature spirit who shows up to paint the changing season and warn all the animals it's time to get in out of the cold. He warns the main character - the aforementioned bear - about Old Man Winter, but the bear's convinced his coat of fur is more than enough to keep him safe. Long story short, Old Man Winter (personified as a creepy ice-man) is a bit tougher than the bear was expecting.

It's not particularly complicated, but it's my favorite of these eight minute shorts so far. Not surprisingly, it's readily available on YouTube, as the embed below suggests. Once again, if you're no fan of old cartoons, this isn't for you.

For those that are, it's kind of awesome.

A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All (2008)

This had a fairly simple premise which seems like it should have worked better than it did. It's basically a parody of a traditional holiday special, featuring a string of guest stars and songs. You can feel Colbert's genuine love of the format shining through his cynical exterior, but that's a part of the problem here.

Part of me wonders if this would have worked better if it were hosted by the "real" Colbert instead of his TV personality. Don't get me wrong: I love The Colbert Report, but that character only makes sense in that world. Removed from politics, the character feels flimsy, and the jokes lose some of their edge.

It's still funny, of course, but it's nowhere near as strong as most episodes.

The music is all original, mostly parodies of Christmas songs. It's pretty good, but nothing that makes me want to track down the MP3's. There are some great jokes, as you'd expect, but it ultimately adds up to good, not great. This special might be a victim of its own expectations: we were expecting great.

It's still worth checking out, just don't expect too much.

If you're seeing it on DVD, you'll actually get a little more. There are some phenomenal extras, including 25 new short clips arranged in an advent calendar and more than 15 minutes of a Yule log/book burning. I don't think it's worth buying the DVD just for the extras, but they're definitely worth checking out if you're renting or ordering through Netflix (as we did).

Book Review: Wreck The Halls

Wreck The Halls
Jen Yates, 2011

I just finished reading through the new Cake Wrecks book, and Erin can vouch for the amount of giggling, laughing and snickering which escaped me as I did so.

If you enjoy Cake Wrecks the blog, you know what you're in for: photos of embarrasingly bad professional cakes and amusing, often punny commentary.

This collection is tied together by holiday themes, starting with Thanksgiving and running through New Years. There's an enjoyable side trip to sci-fi cakes, as well, but by far the most number of photos are of terrible Christmas cakes. Scary santas, misshapen reindeer, unidentifiable lumps of 'snow'; all are well represented.

I especially liked the chapter which 'illustrates' ' Twas the Night Before Christmas.

You can verify with a quick trip to whether this style of humor is up your alley. It's not necessarily for everyone, and the use of exaggerated fonts in the book sometimes pushes the jokes toward eliciting groans rather than laughs. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed this collection.