Thursday, December 18, 2014

Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas (2014)

The stop motion characters were capably animated, and the minimalist theatrical backgrounds served as a strong connection to the special's Broadway connections. Likewise, the cast was good - it was great hearing Ed Asner reprise his role as Santa, and (as is so often the case) I didn't even realize I was listening to Mark Hamill as Buddy's father. The music, while somewhat mixed, included at least one great song, which opened the special.

Yes, this was made by talented people. And that's the tragedy. Because they wasted their goddamn time on a soulless special that systematically guts everything substantive from a great Christmas movie.

Buddy's Musical Christmas seems to be primarily based on the Broadway musical, which I've never seen. Based on the fact it was well received, I have to believe it was better than this. The music was pulled from the show, though I'm guessing most of the songs were truncated.

The best of the songs was aforementioned opening number, "Happy All the Time." The song, sung by Ed Asner, provides a quick overview of the North Pole from the perspective of a refreshingly irritated Santa. It's surprisingly subversive and a little dark - for approximately sixty seconds, I almost thought I was going to be watching something worthwhile.

Unfortunately, it also sets up the premise of the special. And, even more unfortunately, it's just the premise of the movie, minus Bob Hope's Papa Elf character. Actually, the elves this time are weird, blue monsters. Odd choice, but that's far from the special's worst aspect.

It becomes clear almost immediately that, in order to fit the network's schedule and still have time for a bunch of songs, any nuance or complexity is gone. That's never a good sign, but here it's particularly damning. The movie's strength comes from that complexity. James Caan's Walter Hobbs has problems, but he's believable and sympathetic. Here, they strip him down to a generic cartoon caricature. Likewise, Jovie's part is cut so far, you wonder why they bothered including the character at all. There's no emotion or reason to become attached to any of the characters.

Instead, they try to reuse as many jokes from the original as possible, again stripping away the context that made them actually work. They rewrite major sections and condense minor characters into composites just to recycle sequences we've already seen far better executed in live-action.

The special wasn't actually bad. There were some new jokes that did work, and the animation was cool. But it never actually provided any kind of reason or explanation for why it exists. The movie Elf already played like something with one foot in a Rankin-Bass special, but it knew how to balance placing the other in our world. This thing is just bizarre. It comes across as an over-polished, under-thought cash grab born in a marketing meeting.

Honestly, I found it far more infuriating than specials and movies far worse. I'd have loved to see these animators working on something with a purpose. Instead, it all feels like a wasted effort, at best.

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