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Showing posts from December 11, 2011

Howdy Doody's Christmas (1957?)

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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…

Santa and Pete (1999)

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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 lacki…

Amahl and the Night Visitors (1955)

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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 does…

Pucca, Season 2, 3 Christmas episodes (2006)

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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 re…

Disney Princess Christmas Album (CD 2009)

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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 th…

The Polar Express (2004)

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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 hono…

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

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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 nothin…

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

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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 shif…

Huge Props on Sixth

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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.

Looney Tunes: Bah, Humduck! (2006)

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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 payba…

The Happy Elf (2005)

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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 st…

Prep & Landing: Naughty Vs. Nice

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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 eith…

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

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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 o…

Wonder Woman: The Deadly Toys (1977)

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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 see…

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

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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 comic…

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

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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 para…

Elmo Saves Christmas (1996)

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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…

Book Review: Hogfather

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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 …

Jack Frost (1934)

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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 awesom…

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

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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…

Book Review: Wreck The Halls

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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 cakewrecks.com 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 el…