Saturday, December 19, 2015

Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas (2004)

We went into this with a lot of trepidation, between the snooze fest that was the predecessor and the cruddy-looking CG. However, this special was actually much better than the first!

It follows basically the same format - short pieces linked by pedantic narration - but the pieces themselves are far superior. It’s as though the people writing them actually liked their jobs, liked the characters and cared about the humor (again, completely unlike the first special).

Furthermore, the special is the same length, but there are five pieces instead of three. The shorter format is much stronger.

The first piece combines artistry and humor as Minnie and Daisy try to outdo each other as the stars of an amateur skating show. They each have backup skaters from the Fantasia Dance of the Hours sequence. It’s sweet and funny without getting too sappy, and we were surprised with how decent the animation was.

(Complete side note: I don’t know if shipping Minnie and Daisy together is a thing, but if it is, those people should watch this piece. Total close-friendship-could-be-read-as-something-else going on here.)

The animation throughout is really decent. It helps that it doesn’t try to make the Disney characters more “realistic”, and the backgrounds stay highly stylized. Although, I guess is what I’m saying is the whole thing could have been done in 2D and not been different.

In the second piece, Huey, Dewey and Louie break into Santa’s workshop to try and write themselves into the Nice list. There is a lot of slapstick and physical humor in this one, but for the most part it works. We liked the set-up, we liked Santa’s operation. You can see some design ideas here that may have influenced Prep and Landing. This ends with the boys taking responsibility for causing trouble and remembering to think of others. Happily, the tone stays light and funny enough that the moral doesn’t sink into a cheesefest.

The next one pulls a bit of a 180 from the Goofy piece in Once Upon a Christmas. Max is now an adult (possibly a college student, possibly a little older, it’s not specified) and is bringing a serious girlfriend home for the holidays. All he wants is for his dad to not completely embarrass him. Most of the piece is done as montage over a song. The song is far too repetitive, but not out of tone for the piece. I found the whole thing sweet, although your patience with and enjoyment of this piece may be directly proportional to whether you loved A Goofy Movie in 1995.

In the fourth short, all Donald wants for Christmas is peace and quiet, but he’s haunted by carolers and bothered by family. This is probably the funniest piece. It does a great job with the kind of furious slapstick that Donald is best at. The ramp up to the climax was enjoyable enough that we didn’t even mind when it turns a bit cheesy in a heartfelt closing.

Finally, the last piece is about Mickey and Pluto. After Pluto destroys Mickey’s elaborate Christmas decorations, the dog is banished from the house in anger. While Mickey is out trying to replace his things before a planned celebration, Pluto runs off in shame and despair. He ends up riding a train all the way to the North Pole, where he’s adopted by Santa’s reindeer. Of course Pluto misses Mickey and Mickey’s in a panic when he realizes Pluto is gone. Everything turns out fine in the end of course, and all the other characters come by to close out the special with a little music.

That’s one last way in which this special was better than the first: the stories plausibly take place in the same world, which allows for a stronger closing and allows it to feel more like one coherent piece overall.

Was this brilliant, can’t-miss animation? No, but it was a heck of a lot of fun. If you’re a fan of the characters, you can catch this one on Netflix.

Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999)

This direct-to-video special comes from a particular time in the history of the Disney company. When it came to anything starring classic Disney characters, they hadn't yet embraced a modern sense of humor or story, but had rejected any edge or depth inherent in the early cartoons.

This results in stories so bland they could be animated entirely in beige.

Of course, the animation is actually bright and crisp. It's the writing that's so painfully inoffensive as to end up nothing but drivel.

The special consists of three separate pieces linked by some dull, poorly written rhymes read by Kelsey Grammer.

The first piece is a variation on the 'Christmas Every Day' story, which we've seen before in many forms. It features Huey, Dewey and Louie as the kids who wish for it to be Christmas everyday after they have a great holiday with Donald, Daisy, Scrooge and an over-emotional aunt character who I've never seen before. Unlike many times I've seen this story, the boys don't immediately start changing things. They seemed to live through several almost identical iterations of the day before getting frustrated and bored.

They finally decide to change things up by playing a series of mean pranks, aided by their knowledge of other character's actions. This results in a great deal of unhappiness and destruction. At this point, even though the story was pretty dull, it made sense for them to feel remorse and try to make up for their actions on the next iteration.

Of course, the writers couldn't assume that we'd understand that without some underlining, so they also took that lowest moment to have the boys read a corny card from Donald for the first time. The next day they use their knowledge of the repeating day to do favors and be kind to other characters. Donald is suspicious of the boys' good behavior, but they bring him around with a thoughtful gift, and the cycle is finally broken. Overall this was boring. The slapstick is dull when it isn’t distasteful, and even though I got a hint of sweetness around the resolution, it was all too obvious.

The second segment follows Goofy and Max. Max (Goofy’s son, for anyone who missed Goof Troop) is younger here than in anything else I’ve seen, and is questioning the existence of Santa. Goofy tries to support Max’s belief, and the writing is… odd. I’d bet money that there was a draft of this script that ended with the message that it didn’t matter if Santa exists or not, because what matters is the spirit of giving, and we can be Santa for each other.

But of course they don’t do that. They do come weirdly close, only to miss the mark. Goofy reassures Max that Santa will come through for him. Then Goofy and Max go to a neighbor whose family has fallen on hard times to share food and company, and Goofy comes in as Santa. Max buys it momentarily, only for his excitement to be dashed when the disguise is removed.

He sulks at home, and Goofy tries to get him to come up on the roof to watch for Santa. Some slapstick follows, and at one in the morning Goofy sees something on an adjacent roof and wakes Max. They’re both excited, until light reveals the shadow to be a burglar trying to rob Pete’s house. Goofy finally gives up on seeing Santa and goes in. Max is disturbed to see his father so downcast, and decides to dress as Santa to cheer him up. Goofy is excited and runs to ‘wake Max’, while Max tries to escape back up the chimney to preserve the illusion. They both end up on the roof again with everything revealed. This was a nice moment. Max and Goofy both had demonstrated that they understood the important thing was trying to make other people happy.

And then Santa came by and gave Max an expensive snowboard, thereby negating all the nuance and sweetness the story had built up. Never mind, I guess.

The last piece is Mickey and Minnie in a version of The Gift of the Magi. Mickey can’t make enough hawking Christmas trees for Pete to buy Minnie a nice gift, and Minnie’s Christmas bonus at the department store turns out to be a fruitcake. It’s all just fluff, we know this story.

Mickey trades his harmonica to buy Minnie a necklace to hang her heirloom watch on, and she trades the watch for a harmonica case. All the rest is running about and tiresome. It’s odd, though, because the necklace is still a nice gift without the watch, so I think they missed the boat a bit with the choices made for the adaptation.

A few odd notes: Minnie and Daisy work at the gift wrap counter, and there is a momentary animation callback to a much better Disney Christmas cartoon. Minnie owns Figaro (from Pinocchio), I suppose so that she can have a cat to balance the existence of Pluto.

The special wraps with all the characters singing a quick medley of carols.

This wasn’t offensive, it wasn’t badly animated or recorded, it was just badly written, like a committee had squeezed any true charm or humor out of each piece. You can catch this on Netflix, but I don’t really recommend it.

Toy Review: Talking Mistletoe

I feel like Hallmark is constantly trying to break its own record on most offensive holiday merchandise. Here's the most recent offering I've gotten my hands on:

I have a hard time imagining what the target demographic is for people who'd want to be sexually harassed by plastic mistletoe speaking in a fake accent so stereotypical, Pepé Le Pew would be offended, but apparently someone at Hallmark thought it was large enough to bet their job on.

I'd like to take a moment to point out I found this marked down from $9.95 to $1.00 at Walgreens, and the person behind the counter looked surprised when I said I wanted to purchase it.

The sound feature is loud and clear, which makes it easy to understand, even with the accent. It has eight different gags, which is more than things like this usually come with. Needless to say, both of these points should be considered as negatives.

Do I really need to say the jokes are bad? I feel like this thing speaks for itself. For those of you who didn't watch the video, the previous sentence was actually slightly more clever than the puns recorded on this thing.

And just in case the prior video wasn't terrifying enough, here's two of them facing each other:

Hey, for a buck each, I figured I should pick up a second as a gift. Who's getting it? Don't know yet: I'm waiting to see who pisses me off this year.

Arrow: Year's End (2012), Three Ghosts (2013), The Climb (2014), and Dark Waters (2015)

This is one of those times I stumbled across a few Christmas episodes while watching a series.

I saw Arrow's pilot back when it originally aired. I actually liked it quite a bit on its own merits, but was underwhelmed by the move away from comic book tropes. It felt like a really good dark and gritty take on a superhero origin, but I'd kind of had my fill of those. I decided not to follow it but to pick it up later if I heard it was worth it.

What actually got me back on board was The Flash, which was much more in line with what I wanted from the genre. A handful of crossovers convinced me Arrow would head in a more interesting direction given time. Besides, like I said before, the pilot was actually quite good for what it was.

Years End (2012)

The first Christmas episode occurs a little less than halfway through season one. The season started strong with a few missteps. But a few episodes before Christmas, it took a dive for the worst, and this one doesn't do much to correct that.

The episode primarily focuses on two plots. The first, and unfortunately more dominant, concerns Oliver Queen's attempt to throw a good old-fashioned Christmas party, just like his father used to arrange. I really can't stress enough just how far out of character all this is: Queen has pretty consistently viewed this part of his life as a sacrifice he has to make to continue his career as a vigilante. For him to proactively set a time and place he has to be present is an inexplicable move that of course comes back to bite him.

The better plot line revolves around a mysterious, evil archer who murders criminals Green Arrow (yeah, I know they don't call him that until season 4, but it's his damn name) threatened and who cleaned up their act. Essentially, he's removing the incentive for Green Arrow's targets to do what he says, all while framing him for the killings.

This of course comes to a head when he takes hostages during the Queen Christmas bash, which screws over Oliver. The twist was actually quite generous to the viewer, since until then we were stuck dealing with Oliver's issues with his parents, and the building relationship between Oliver's best friend and his ex.

Note to Arrow's writers: NO ONE CARES.

Back in the warehouse, Green Arrow manages to get everyone to safety by telling them they should probably leave. He stays to fight the villain, who kicks his ass. Green Arrow jumps out a window and calls for help before he falls unconscious. Mysteriously, he isn't found by the police who are surrounding the building due to the hostage situation, but is instead located by his partner, who takes him to the hospital and tells them he was in a biking accident. Presumably one that involved driving into a cart of arrows.

At the end, we learn the villain is Malcolm Merlyn, the father of Oliver's best friend. This would be more surprising if we didn't already know he was a villain and if the mysterious archer didn't have the same skillset as the comic book Green Arrow villain, Merlyn.

Like every episode so far, this one also featured several flashbacks to Oliver's time on the island. This time, his mentor battled Deathstroke (or at least a character based on him - my understanding is there's some retconning coming to give us a more accurate interpretation), Oliver learned more about the island, Hurley won the lottery, and the smoke monster made another appearance. No, wait. The smoke monster showed up in an earlier episode: I'm getting confused.

Where was I? Oh, yes. At the end, his family comes to visit Oliver in the hospital, where they forgive him for leaving the party he bugged them about all episode. So at least they're together on the holidays.

This show gets better again soon, right?

Three Ghosts (2013)

To answer my own question, it definitely gets better, though it still has issues. I'm picking this up having just reached the 2nd season Christmas episode, which is much improved, as is the series as a whole.

This is actually the second part of a 2-parter introducing Barry Allen and setting up the following year's Flash spin-off series. All of this made things a tad awkward, since I don't recall the previous episode taking place over the holidays, despite the fact they occur about 12 hours apart.

Setting that aside, this one opens on a cliffhanger. Oliver Queen is at death's door, having just received a beating from a super-soldier. To save him, his partners shot Barry Allen with a tranquilizer dart, brought him to the Arrow-cave, then revealed their secret identities and asked politely for his help.

If you're wondering why they didn't find a less stupid solution, I'm afraid you're on your own. At any rate, Barry Allen miraculously saves him, and Oliver is pissed off that his friends gave away his identity. Like I said, the show still has some issues.

All of that is in the first few minutes, but it sets up the concept behind the episode. Either because of the chemicals Allen used to save him or simply because he's messed up, Oliver hallucinates three ghosts over the course of the episode. We know they're hallucinations, because we learn one of them is actually still alive at the end. Those of us who know anything about comics actually knew this from the start, since the "ghost" in question was Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke, one of those characters geeks like myself insist is a major iconic character, despite the fact most of you have no idea who he is (I don't want to go over that here, so... just find someone who watched a lot of Teen Titans, and they'll explain).

In cast you were wondering, this is also the episode's primary tie to Christmas. Sure, there are a handful of decorations, a few characters randomly go Christmas shopping and Barry Allen gives Arrow's fans a present by forcing Queen to start wearing a damn mask (seriously - that thing is way overdue: we need to get on that thank you note), but I wouldn't even have written this up if it weren't for the Scrooge thing.

To their credit, it was quite a bit more subtle than Christmas Carol homages usually are. The ghosts felt integrated into Oliver's issues, and the scenes were pretty interesting. They actually could have dropped the Christmas aspects, moved this to a different date, and the ghost motif wouldn't have felt entirely random: that's a good sign the writers are putting in some effort.

The rest of the episode was kind of a mishmash of plot. Green Arrow took out the super-soldier, though he'll probably wish he hadn't: that guy's plot was an origin story for Solomon Grundy, so... never mind. Just... ask the nerd who explained who Slade was to clue you in on Grundy, too. They also continue to build up Speedy/Red Arrow, who's.... You know what? There's a decent chance that nerdy friend won't know what you're talking about, so you'll probably have to look him up online. Oh, then at the end Barry Allen was hit by lightning.

Well. As you can probably tell, I'm watching the series at a pretty quick clip, so there's a good chance this article is going to contain a third review. Either that, or I'll revise this and delete this paragraph before posting. So, if you're reading this, keep reading.

The Climb (2014)
Season three! Once again, we've reached a pivotal turning point for the series. Also, once again, the show runners demonstrate they're not too careful about holiday continuity. This one is set firmly in the holiday season, with decorations, parties, lights, and well wishes. The next episode starts three days later, and all that's gone.

This episode apparently solves the mystery of Sarah Lance's - a.k.a.: the Black Canary's - murder, which occurred at the beginning of the season. She was shot with arrows, incidentally; you'd think would limit the number of suspects, but about every other episode this season they run up against a new one.

Or in this case, an old one. Malcolm Merlyn, the villain from season one, was a suspect earlier in the season, but they were able to eliminate him after he pinky swore he wasn't involved. OR WAS HE? Apparently, he only meant that he didn't personally fire the arrows: he simply drugged his daughter - Oliver's sister, Thea - and got her to do it.

Yeah, so... Arrow is more or less a soap opera now.

This was all part of some massively over-complicated scheme to put Oliver in the position where he'd have to kill Ra's al Ghul to prevent the League of Assassins from hunting her down. It makes a little more sense in context, but not much.

Oliver challenges Ra's, who then gives him thirteen hours to put his affairs in order before meeting him at the top of a cliff to fight. Somehow, Oliver manages to go home and talk to his friends before taking off to duel the legendary warrior. How he managed to jump back and forth between three continents in thirteen hours is, of course, not explained.

At the end of the episode, they meet on top of a cliff, and Ra's al Ghul says some wise things meant to comfort Oliver, kicks his ass, then kills him.

To the show's credit, that's more or less how a sword fight between Green Arrow and Ra's al Ghul should go. Of course, he won't stay dead, but that's beside the point.

The Christmas elements were a bit more muted this time. There's a brief and ultimately pointless showdown between Green Arrow and Thea beside the over-sized Christmas tree in her apartment that felt significant, but otherwise it seemed more establishing than relevant.

That said, Oliver's death could be seen as connected to the solstice, as a symbol of the death of the year and the coming renewal. Or it could just be an attempt to keep the audience interested for the month and a half that elapsed between this episode and the next installment.

Dark Waters (2015)
Dark Waters is the season four Christmas episode and the third time in a row a holiday episode of Arrow ends with a major character appearing to die. Granted, this one seems a little more likely to stick - the character in question doesn't have a major role in the comics.

Dark Waters opens with Oliver at a campaign event. He's gathered a large group to help clean up the waterfront. This is interrupted by a drone, which shoots up the crowd. Oliver risks his life on camera to push a young girl to safety, and - oddly enough - this doesn't come up again. You'd think that would pretty much cinch the election for him.

Felicity deals with the drone by hacking it with her computer book and sending her dog, Brain, to... no. No, wait. I'm confused. She used an iPad. At any rate, she's getting a lot of screen time this episode, so you know things are going to work out alright.

Queen concludes Damien Darhk is behind the attack and retaliates by revealing Darhk's identity in a press conference, telling the public that he's the one responsible for this seasons' attacks against the city.

They mentioned "holidays" a couple times before the drone attack, but things get downright Christmasy after that. Well, actually they get Christmasy and Hanukkahy (or is it Chanukahy?) after that. Felicity's mom shows up to help decorate for the holiday party, and she makes sure her daughter's heritage is represented. While setting up, she comes across the engagement ring Oliver has been almost giving to Felicity all season. She shows her immediately.

Felicity and Oliver have a brief spat about this at the party itself, though Darhk shows up before Oliver can explain himself. He uses his magic to knock Oliver unconscious then abducts Felicity, John, and Thea.

Malcolm Merlyn, a.k.a.: the new Ra's al Ghul, shows up to help rescue his daughter. He suits up as Green Arrow and teams up with Black Canary while Oliver pretends to hand himself over. Darhk wants Oliver broken, not dead, so he tries to kill his friends while he watches. This goes poorly when Merlyn and Canary save them. There's some more fighting, and Oliver and Merlyn come surprisingly close to finishing off Darhk once and for all.

At a campaign rally, Oliver lights up a Christmas tree and proposes to Felicity, who accepts. Then they get in a limo and the song "The Little Drummer Boy" starts.

Hey. Have you've seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service? I've seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service. And I'm pretty sure whoever made this episode has seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service, because the car is attacked by goons with machine guns. Oliver manages to get them away, but when he opens the back to check on Felicity, she slouches over, bleeding.

It'll be more than a month before we find out whether they actually offed her. We know that someone's not long for the show, thanks to a flash-forward at the start of the season - they dropped a clip of that into the "previously on Arrow" montage that played before this. And they absolutely implied she was about to die the whole episode - arguably, the whole season. But... I don't know. I feels too obvious. Plus, she's a popular character. And, sure, those wounds looked fatal, but Oliver survives worse at least three times a season.

Still, it's not like they want to have Oliver Queen get happily married: that wouldn't fit with the brooding tone they like so much. I'd say it's pretty even odds she died, that she'll be fine after a few episodes recovery, or that they're trying to turn her into some kind of Batman-less version of Oracle. I really hope it's not the last one: I'm still holding out hope this will eventually acknowledge the existence of the Caped Crusader.

Ultimately, a pretty mixed episode. There were some good moments, but the drama lacked any real punch. The question of whether they'll kill off Felicity is more academic than emotional: I just hope that, whatever way they spin this, they do it without an overabundance of angst and melodrama.

There was more flashback in this one, but it was more concerned with a forced thematic connection than anything else (literal versus figurative 'dark waters'). Also, we got a few hints at Hive's plans when we saw a massive underground complex full of cornstalks.

The holiday elements felt more than a little tacked on for most of this, at least until they did the Little Drummer Boy sequence. Aside from tying this back to the death of Tracey Bond (don't forget - On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a Christmas movie), this mainly serves as contrast. We see and hear signs of the joyous holiday, but what's happening is tragic. Not original, but still the best scene in the episode.

We also got a glimpse of Darhk's home life in all of that. Turns out he's married with a daughter: they were getting ready to celebrate while Oliver and Felicity were getting shot at.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Music Review: Broadway’s Carols for a Cure 2015: Volume 17

I bought the 2011 Carols for a Cure album in person in New York, and I’ve meant to pick up another one ever since. I love the combination of classic carols and new songs, all done by current Broadway singers. I was excited to find that they’re now all available in MP3 for those of us not able to pick them up on Broadway!

The 2015 volume has a lot of gems. Here’s a quick run-down of what you’ll find this year:

CHRISTMAS VACATION - The cast of Beautiful - The Carole King Musical
Hey, this is a good reminder that I actually like this song when it’s divorced from the terrible movie. Fun!

JOY TO THE WORLD - The cast of Hamilton 
I'll admit it, this song is a big part of why I hunted down this album. Per the Mainlining Christmas rules, I can't go back to listening to Hamilton over and over until Dec 26, so this'll have to hold me over.
This track opens with narration and segues into the song, done in a style of overlapping harmonies and echoing lines that heavily evokes the Hamilton score. It also features a quote from Jefferson about belief and a short speech regarding freedom of religion. Neat.

HAPPY ALL THE TIME - The cast of Elf
This song was written for the Elf stage musical, and hearing it was the only good thing about the animated Elf special, so I’m happy enough to have this version.

GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN - The cast of Finding Neverland
Huh. I usually don’t like this song, but do it as an upbeat bluegrass ditty, and it’s kinda catchy!

A CRUNCHEM HALL CHRISTMAS - The cast of Matilda The Musical
Ooh, I can get behind a creepy, mostly-dissonant song about waiting for the start of vacation sung by British children.

WE THREE COOL KINGS - The cast of At This Performance
This is nice. Jazz meshes gorgeously with the original harmonies; this manages to keep the best of the original song and layer a lot more lush sound on top.

AULD LANG SYNE/RIVER - The cast of The King and I
Auld Lang Syne is very traditional and lovely, then transitions into River. It’s a nice recording, with three voice harmony on the chorus.

I SAW THREE SHIPS - The cast of The Phantom of the Opera
This is the first one that’s just… an okay recording of a traditional song. Nothing exciting or that interesting, although I guess there’s some good use of harmony.

SIGN OF THE DOVE - The cast of Dames at Sea
I’ve never heard this song, which either means it’s original or obscure. I’m betting on obscure. I was kind of enjoying it and the anti-consumerist message until we hit the chorus. The chorus is not only super-religious, the melody is ridiculously hokey. On the upside, it’s begging for a subversive version to that same stupidly upbeat tune.

CHRISTMAS IN FISHNETS - The cast of Chicago
That’s more like it! The ladies of Chicago give us a sultry love song to the life of a performer during the holiday season. The writing could have been more clever, but it’s plenty fun.

ONE LITTLE CHRISTMAS TREE - The cast of Kinky Boots
This could easily be too sappy, but the light dance/synth beat and the children’s voices really come together to make it cute, but not obnoxious.

HOME'S WITH YOU - The cast of Fun Home
This sweet original number celebrates non-traditional families and friend-families celebrating together. (Listen for free here) Everyone together now: Awwww.

O HOLY NIGHT - The cast of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Their version is pretty straight, but if you like this song (I don’t especially) it’s nicely done.

ONE STAR - The cast of Les Miserables
Huh, Les Mis is not the show I would have expected to lay on the autotune, digital effects and synth echo. This song/medley starts off slow, but it builds and builds to a wall of voice and sound. The tone is different enough from most holiday songs that I kinda like it.

MARY, DID YOU KNOW? - The cast of School of Rock
I’m not a huge fan of this one, but the singing is well done.

The cast of Aladdin have a ton of fun flipping back and forth between a very proper harpsichord version and a jazz version of the song, with plenty of scat. I like this one a LOT.

THE FIRST NOEL - The cast of Amazing Grace
This starts out pretty traditional, but the addition of a good beat and some energy does a lot to help this song.

AVE MARIA/HEARD THE BELLS - The cast of Wicked
You know, I don't know that I’ve ever heard a version of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day that did more than the first or second verse. I didn't know it was about peace on earth in the face of war. I don’t hate this. Ave Maria is very pretty and, whatever I think of the religious content, Arielle Jacobs imbues the ‘Bells’ lyrics with impressive gravitas.

12 DAYS OF SOMETHING ROTTEN CHRISTMAS - The cast of Something Rotten!
The cast of the Shakespearean spoof bring the album to a close with, naturally, a saucy Shakespearean spoof. You know what you’re in for as soon as the first gift of Christmas is “a Bard with a bulging codpiece.”

Not every track is a winner for me, but there's enough great stuff that I’m thrilled to add this to my holiday music rotation. You can get Broadway's Carols for a Cure, Vol. 17, 2015 as an MP3 album on

Fiction: The Collector of Old Toys

We've got a handful of holiday fiction for you. Today's is a short piece of magical realism - hope you like it! Check back on Sunday for another story!

The Collector of Old Toys
By: Erin L. Snyder

The cab fare comes to fifty dollars, and I hand over three twenties, suddenly wishing I’d used a few minutes of the ride to google what I should be tipping. Is ten dollars enough? When I’m coming to a place like this? Mother always called Grandfather’s home a mansion, and with good reason. It is by far the largest house I have ever been in, though in truth it’s only the third largest on its street.

The driver doesn’t look insulted by the tip, so I suppose it’s sufficient. My luggage consists of three pieces, which seems excessive for a four-day trip, even if one of the bags is mostly full of wrapped presents. Should I even have brought them? I almost didn’t, but the fear of being the only one who didn’t bring gifts beat out the fear that I’d be the only one with them. Besides, if no one else bothered, I can always keep them hidden and take them back with me.

I wonder, not for the first time, whether I should have come at all. The thought I might only be here to ensure an inheritance worms its way into my head, though I’m pretty sure it isn’t my motivation. It’s not the only thing motivating me, anyway.

I’m here, because it is Christmas, and it is the last time I will ever see my grandfather alive. The invitation spelled out as much.

I gather up my belongings and walk to the door, unsure whether to knock. Before I can decide, it slides open. The woman who opens it looks familiar, though I can’t recall who she is. She’s got to be around fifty, with a stern face. I am almost certainly related to her, though I can’t place her among the numerous great aunts and second cousins I haven’t seen in more than a decade. “Hello, Jenny,” she says, solemnly, making my memory lapse all the more awkward. “I’m glad you were able to make it.” She clasps my shoulders in a gesture reminiscent of a hug then releases me. “Step in. I don’t want to let the cold out.”

I follow her inside, and she shuts the door behind us. The hall is dark, and I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t warmer in the driveway. The thought of asking her name terrifies me, so I change the subject. “Do you know if Art’s here, yet?” She responds with a puzzled look, so I add, “My brother, Arthur.”

She clears her throat. “Your brother called last night to send his apologies. He was detained by business. I’d assumed you knew.”

“No. He didn’t tell me.” Because he’s a selfish asshole, I most certainly do not add. I had to quit my job to make the trip. Granted, I was a cashier in a bookstore, but at least it was something. I’d never have come if I knew Art was skipping out. Briefly, I wonder if I can get my job back if I grab a flight back to Queens tonight. But of course, it’s absurd: it’s two days before Christmas, and everything will be booked. Besides, the idea of begging for my old job is even more sickening than the thought of being stuck here for the holiday without backup. My coworkers looked at me like I was a hero when Mr. Drieston told me if I wasn’t there on Christmas Eve, he had no use for me ever again, and I responded that his second-rate bookstore had just worn out its use in my eyes. I wonder if they’d have looked at me with so much admiration if they saw where I came from. If they’d known I didn’t really need the paycheck to cover rent; that I could manage on my trust fund if I had to.

“Your brother must be so busy,” my unknown relation says, as if I needed some sort of explanation. “It is difficult for them. The men in our family. They work very hard, and sometimes they forget things.”

I nod and force a smile. But I know damn well this has nothing to do with Art’s job. Either the idea of wasting the time in a drafty mansion with relatives he doesn’t know or care about caught up with him, or a better offer came in. A girlfriend’s holiday suddenly cleared up, or a couple college friends were in town, and he decided to bail. Without giving me a head’s up, of course.

Before I realize I’m being led somewhere, I find myself in the dining room, and the woman who greeted me at the door announces my arrival. “Jennifer is here. Lawrence, you remember Jenny, don’t you?”

Lawrence, whoever he is, looks to be sixty, and he’s working on a crossword puzzle. He’s holding the newspaper inches from his face to make out the letters in the dimly lit room. “Yes. Jenny, of course,” he mutters, without looking up. “I trust the flight wasn’t too bad.”

“It was fine. We got in early. Tailwind,” I say, grateful the otherwise uneventful trip offered at least a bit of conversation. Every time the room goes silent, time here seems to slow to a crawl. I haven’t been here for five minutes, and it already feels stifling.

“A short flight’s a good flight,” Lawrence says, distantly, before mouthing the next clue in his puzzle.

“Sarah, of course, you know,” the older woman says.

“She won’t remember me, Caroline,” Sarah tells the older woman, whose name, I guess, is Caroline. It doesn’t help me place her. “You don’t remember me, do you sweety? You were six, last time we saw each other.”

“That’s not right,” Caroline butts in. “You sat together at Elisa’s wedding to Mark Reid.” I get a flash of a summer wedding in a garden outside what must have been a country club, followed by a jumble of images of tables with white cloths, a bag of candy no one stops me from eating, and a meal of grilled chicken beside a bed of greens dripping with a sweet dressing. I don’t remember any of these people, and I don’t think I could pick Elisa out in a photo. But the taste of that salad dressing is clear as day.

“We sat together, because Tiffany put me at the kid’s table. I was a junior in college at the time, which means it was eighteen years ago. Which would have made Jenny about six, wouldn’t it, dear?”

“I guess,” I respond, too tired to do the math. I still have my bags, and it slowly dawns on me I could at least put them down. But I don’t, since they’re my one avenue of escape. I part my lips to ask where I’ll be sleeping, but I pause one second too long.

“Is Marsha here?” Sarah asks the room. My mind lurches, and it takes me several seconds to realize she’s asking about my mother.

“No. No, she… she couldn’t make it,” I stutter. Not entirely untrue, though far from complete. My mother wasn’t asked, not that she’d have come if she were. She’s hated my grandfather for years, and for good reason. After the accident, he hired a detective to investigate whether she’d done something to the car to cause it. She’s never gotten an apology, as far as I know.

Caroline turns away. “It’s a shame,” she says, without a shred of conviction. “I’m sure Martin would have loved seeing her.” She sighs. “I’m glad at least one member of his immediate family was able to make it. This means a great deal to him.”

“I’m glad,” I say, trying to sound more convincing that Caroline. “Would it be alright if I dropped my things off in one of the rooms?”

“Oh, of course. You must be exhausted. Sarah, could you show her to her room?”

“Sure,” Sarah says, emphatically, as she climbs to her feet. Apparently, I’m not the only one eager to get away. I follow her out. Once we’ve put a hall between us, she asks, “How are we related, exactly?”

“I’m not sure,” I reply. “How are you related to my grandfather?”

“I think my mother is his niece,” she replies. “Either that or a cousin. I’m not entirely certain. In a family this large, it’s difficult to tell sometimes.”

Her family may be large, but mine is decidedly more compact. My grandfather had several siblings - if I ever knew the exact number, I’ve long since forgotten - but he only ever had a single son. When my father died, that left my brother and I as his only direct descendants, which is part of the the reason I’m still trying to convince myself money wasn’t a factor in my appearance. I don’t really understand what his fortune comes to, but it’s certainly a great deal more than I could ever expect to see in my lifetime. His company alone is likely worth millions.

They make greeting cards, incidentally. Every Christmas card my family ever sent is made by that stupid company. Even to this day, I keep buying them, though I can’t tell you why. It’s not like they’re especially nice. I suppose it’s just tradition.

Sarah drops me off in my room, which is completely unnecessary. If she’d said, “the guest room with the yellow painting,” I’d have known what she was talking about. Nothing about this place has changed since I visited as a kid, save a deeper layer of dust and several light bulbs having burned out without being replaced.

I linger in the room as long as I think I can get away without it coming off as antisocial then wander back, pausing to use the bathroom. I stare at myself in the mirror and try to tell myself it’s only a few days, that I never really cared that much about Christmas to begin with. It doesn’t help, but it’s a slightly longer reprieve.

“There you are,” Caroline says, the moment I re-enter the room. “I was starting to worry you’d gotten lost.”

I smile, as if I’d mistaken what she said for a joke, then ask, “Is Grandpa sleeping?” I notice her wince when I say the word, “Grandpa,” instead of something more formal or respectful.

“No. Martin is skulking about. You know how he is,” she adds, turning to one side. “Martin!” she cries out. “Your granddaughter is here!” There’s nothing in response, so she shrugs. “You know how he is,” she says again, though I really don’t know much about him. He was rarely around during the summers I spent here; I knew his late wife, Iris, better. She wasn’t my grandmother and would correct me when I called her that, but she was as close as I ever knew. My real grandmother died years before I was born.

Caroline removes a casserole from the fridge and heats it up for dinner. We eat in relative silence, broken by Caroline’s occasional prodding. “How is school going?” she asks. To her right, Lawrence sits, working on another crossword puzzle.

“I’m taking some time off,” I say. It’s not quite a lie, but it avoids the truth. I dropped out three years earlier. Of course, if I’d been a better student, I’d already have graduated, and her question would be just as meaningless.

“Have you thought at all about graduate school? Your brother went to Syracuse, didn’t he? I’m sure he could write you a recommendation.”

There’s so much wrong with that, I don’t know where to begin. Instead I say, “I’ll ask him about it the next time we get together.” I neglect to say it’s been more than a year since we were in the same place. This was supposed to be our big reunion.

“Syracuse has a fantastic business program. My doctor’s husband went there, and….” Her voice peters off as her attention is drawn to the doorway leading into the room. My grandfather is standing there, watching. “Sarah. Help him take a seat,” Caroline commands.

“I can make my own way,” he says, tersely, and starts making his way towards the mahogany table.

“I’ll fix a plate for you,” Caroline says, spooning out a large helping of casserole onto one of the dishes.

The water pitcher is near me, so I take it over to where he’ll be sitting and fill his glass. He arrives as I’m finishing and blurts out, “Thank you, Tina.”

“Tina left last week,” my distant relation says from across the table. “That’s Jenny. Your granddaughter.”

He turns towards me, somewhat surprised, and looks me over. “Jenny. It is you, isn’t it?” He smiles and nods. I pause, stealing myself for the same barrage of questions I’ve been enduring from Caroline, but he simply turns his attention to his food. There’s very little conversation after that, and I turn in early, closing myself in my room to reread the book I already read on the plane and regret not having thought to bring a spare.

The next morning, I find all four of them in the living room. Lawrence is working on yet another crossword puzzle, and I briefly consider asking if he has a spare. Before I can do so, Caroline pipes in. “Jenny, we’re going into town to do some shopping. Would you like to come with us?”

Before I can open my mouth, Grandfather interrupts. “No,” he says plainly. “There’s a matter I want to discuss with Jennifer. If that’s alright.”

“Yes,” I say, a bit at a loss. I didn’t really want to spend more time with the others, anyway. I have no idea whether this is better, but I did come here to see him, whether or not that was a good idea. For everything he put my mother through, he’s still my grandfather, and this will likely be the last time I see him alive.

It takes them almost an hour to leave, and Grandfather spends the entire time fidgeting. When they finally leave, he sends them with a list of things he’d like them to pick up. As their car pulls out of the driveway, I catch him grinning. “It should take them at least three hours,” he says. “I asked for blackberry ice cream, and I know for a fact no store in the area carries it. At least three hours to check them all.” I’m unable to suppress a smile. “Despicable people,” he adds. “But then, who else would come?”

“Are you okay?” I ask.

He gives me a look I remember getting from him as a child, in those rare occasions when I was actually around him. “I am dying. Slowly, and with less fuss than most. The pain hasn’t started yet, but my eyesight is not what it was. The doctors assure me I will get worse before long.” He sneers. “We will see. I am not so sure I’m so attached to this life to spend months lying in a hospital. Perhaps I will skip that stage.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, tilting my head.

“Suicide,” he says, without a shred of emotion. “I’m talking about ending my life before I wind up laying in my own excrement waiting for some nurse to clean me. It seems demeaning.”

I swallow, not knowing what to say or do. I certainly hadn’t expected that.

“I suppose I should apologize. I have a tendency to speak plainly. It is easy to forget my manners.” He clears his throat with a cough. “This is not why I asked to speak with you. I wanted to discuss the matter that brought you here. Your inheritance.”

“That’s not why I came,” I tell him. “I came here to see you.”

He laughs. “But that’s not why I asked you here. I asked you here to talk to show you what I’m leaving you. It is a profound gift, but it is even greater a responsibility.”

“You’re… you’re leaving me the company?” I ask.

“Of course not,” he laughs. “I’m leaving your brother the company. He is the one who devoted his life to business, after all. I am leaving you something greater. I am leaving you my life’s work.” I doubt many things about my grandfather right now, but his sincerity is not one of them. He is focused, and his breathing has slowed. “Come with me. I have much to show you before those idiots return.”

He leads me down a long hallway to the basement door, which he unlocks. I’ve only ever been to the cellar once as a child. Iris yelled at me when she found me there, saying I was not allowed there. I’d forgotten the incident until just now. She’d been far angrier than she should have been - I hadn’t broken or moved anything. I’d only been looking for a place to hide from my brother while he counted. But she’d been furious with me. No, that’s not right. She’d seemed angry, but she was scared. I was too young to understand at the time, but in hindsight it’s fitting together.

“Go on. I need to lock the door behind us,” my grandfather explains. I nod and move halfway down the stairs, while he does just that, despite the fact there’s no one in the house but the two of us. Then he begins down, cringing with each step. I move to offer my hand, but he sneers and shakes his head. “No. I have managed these years well enough. Go on.” I stay just a few feet ahead of him in case he falls, but he reaches the bottom without incident.

“What’s down here?” I ask, looking around. Diagonal shafts of light flow from a row of windows along the top of the right wall. Flakes of dust dance like snow.

“Do not concern yourself with this garbage. What I have to show you is ahead. I would not trust my collection in the open.” He leads me through a maze of metal shelves lined with boxes. We pass beneath several dangling cords in the dark, but it’s clear he knows the path. Finally, we reach a length of wall covered by a hanging cloth that faded to a pale grey. He pulls this aside, revealing another door, this one metal. Then he reaches beneath his collar and draws out a key. He unlocks the door and pauses for a moment. “This one is quite heavy. I could manage it, but we would be here a while.”

I grab the handle and pull. He wasn’t exaggerating: I have to use both hands and lean back to move it. But I succeed, revealing a secret room. My grandfather enters first and illuminates the enclosure with a light switch to his right. This room couldn’t be more different from the one we just left. The walls are white and lined with glass cases, displaying dozens of small wooden objects. In the back, there are several industrial machines. The area is almost spotless, besides some sawdust scattered around the devices.

“It had to be Christmas,” he says, solemnly. “I could not do this another time. Only Christmas. They were to go to my son, your father. But he was taken from us, so it will be you. I have thought on this a great deal, and there is no other choice.”

“They’re… toys,” I say, looking into one of the glass cases.

“They are old toys,” my grandfather replies, following close behind to squint over my shoulder. “Very old. That horse comes from Germany. It was given as a Christmas gift more than two hundred years ago. Some are much older than that. Please. Take your time. Look at them. Tell me what you see.”

I walk around the room, somewhat shaken. This is a test, of course. For some reason, I want to pass. More than that, I’m overtaken by the beauty of the objects in the case. There is a bird with blue paint. I can make out the individual feathers. A small boat, complete with oars, lies beside it. The curve of the wood is perfect. I move on: there are balls, wagons, dolls, animals, and a host of other playthings. “It’s the same kind of wood, I think. I don’t know much about woodworking, but it’s similar.”

“Good. Yes, you are right. What else?”

I shake my head but keep looking. “They’re all so detailed,” I say, noticing another bird, this one red with longer legs. I stop to study the feathers. “This was the same artist, wasn’t it? Whoever did the bluebird, did this one, as well.”

He leans close and adjusts his thick glasses. I hear a chuckle. “The bluebird was from Iceland. It is at least six hundred and fifty years old. The crane comes from Canada. I cannot date it earlier than eighteen ninety-four.”

“I don’t know much about carving,” I say, shrugging.

“You misunderstand. You were right about them being from the same hand. The same woodworker made the birds. The same man made every one of the toys you see here. Every last one.” He walks over to one of the cases, opens it, and removes a toy carriage. “This was my first. I received it when I was a boy. My father told me it was from Santa Claus, but I would not relent. It took years before he admitted he had purchased it from an old widower on the other side of town. I went to see the widower, and I asked if he had others he could sell me, but of course he did not. He had received it as a gift as well, when he was a boy. A Christmas gift.”

He walked to the back of the room. “When I grew older, I traveled the world and found others. The same materials, the same craftsmanship. I bought them when I could and brought them here. Sometimes, I am not sure. This is where I test them.” He opened one of the machines and set the object in. Then he reached into a box nearby and removed a plain block of wood. He set this beside the toy and closed the door. He swung a lever down. “This will achieve a temperature of six hundred degrees celsius. It will only take it a few minutes.” He sees me gasp and grins. “Wait. Wait and see. Look around the room. There is a toy house from Australia in one of the cases. It is one of my favorites.”

I wander around, unsure what to think. “Shouldn’t you give these to a museum?”

“They would not understand.”

“What are they? I mean, I understand they’re toys, and I know they’re antique. But who made them? How were they distributed so far?”

My grandfather smiles. “Be patient. I will show you soon.” He glances back to the oven. Even from the other side of the room, I can feel its heat. Finally, he moves the lever back and opens the door. A cloud of soot spills out, and he coughs, waving me to him. I go and look in, still horrified. “Do you see?” he whispers.

I fan the smoke away with my hand and squint. There, beside the charred remains of the block of wood, is the carriage. My grandfather takes a handkerchief from his pocket and uses it to pull out the toy and clean off the soot. Beneath, the paint isn’t even cracked. “Drills do not pierce them. Hammers won’t break them. Saw don’t cut them. Do you understand?”

I shake my head. “It’s impossible,” I say. “No wood lasts that long. Nothing does.”

“Magic,” my grandfather says. “Magic can last forever.”

I swallow. “I don’t know I believe in magic,” I tell him.

“Good. Only idiots believe in things they haven’t seen or tested. There are hammers and drills in that case. Test them to your heart’s content. You will see. These cannot be harmed. They were meant to last forever.”

“Who made them?”

“It is obvious. My father was right, all those years ago. These were the work of the toymaker.”

I shake my head. “That’s a fairytale. Parents buy kids plastic soldiers and say they’re from Santa Claus. He doesn’t really exist.”

“Do you see any plastic here? The stories come from someplace real. The toymaker exists. I do not know how, but he does.” Grandfather walks to one of the other cases and removes an old book, its cover faded and full of holes. “This is a journal. It speaks of my carriage. A girl in Virginia owned it a hundred years before it was given to the man who sold it to me. It was a Christmas present to her, as well.”

“Are you saying he takes them back, like in that Christmas special?”

“I do not watch cartoons,” my grandfather says. “No, I think the craftsman gave it once, and then it was passed on. Through the years, who can say how many hands have held it. But adults grow tired of such things. They forget the love they had, or perhaps they seek to pass it on. So they give them to another child or they sell them to a collector, never realizing what they possessed. I realized it. I found the truth.”

“I don’t understand. Why didn’t I ever get a gift like this? If Santa Claus is real, why doesn’t every child have something magical?”

“Because he is one man. Even if he makes fifty such marvels in a year, he could not give them to one child in a million. Most who receive his gifts acquire them as I did, handed down through the years. They are rare things. I suspect as many are lost, buried forever in the ground or beneath the ocean. But these--” His words cut out in a fit of coughing. He recovers and shakes his head. “I am sorry. These toys, the ones I have found, they are my life’s work. What gives me joy. I do not want them claimed by a museum. And most of all, I do not want them sold. I need your word you will never sell them, no matter the price. No matter how desperate you become.”

“I promise,” I say. “I won’t sell these.”

“Good. They are easy enough to care for. You will choose to keep them clean, but doing otherwise would do no harm. The temperature, the humidity… none of that matters. Security is more important. You must protect them from thieves.”

“Does anyone know about them?” I ask.

My grandfather shrugs. “A few others, I suspect. But none I know of personally, and none who know of me. Still, you will want a room no one can get into. If you cannot arrange one like this, then start with a safe. You will have money, as well. I have set funds aside for you and your brother both. But these I am trusting these to you. I would no sooner put them in your brother’s hands than I’d trust you with the company. I hope one day you will have children of your own to pass them on to when they are ready. The company is good for money, but the true legacy of our family is within this room.”

We talk more about the toys, about where and how he got them, and he hints at theories surrounding their creator. My grandfather doesn’t believe any of the fantastic elements - no workshop at the North Pole, no flying reindeer, and certainly no chimneys. When I mention elves, he scoffs and reminds me these were all made the same pair of hands. He’s sure of this, and says something about cut angles and patterns I don’t understand. When we leave the room, he locks the door behind him and hands me the key. “Keep hold of this until I am gone. Then come at once and claim them. The will is clear everything in that room is yours.”

Caroline and others return late that afternoon, and we eat steak for dinner. She apologises profusely for not managing to get the ice cream he asked for, and Grandfather simply listens silently.

Christmas comes and goes as if it was any other day. No one brings a gift for me, other than the key I was already given, so I leave the things I brought in my luggage. About half were for my brother, anyway, and I can’t imagine the trinkets and books I picked up for my grandfather would elicit more than a sneer.

On the twenty-sixth, I call a taxi to take me back to the airport. I spend the flight back to the city reflecting on the fact I never spoke to my grandfather about any of the things I’d meant to. I never got closure on his behavior towards my mother or asked why he didn’t spend more time with any of us when we were young. We never talk about my father’s childhood or how he remembers his son. I’d meant to ask him all those things, but I’d never found a time. I resolve to call him now that we have a connection.

I wish I could say I simply forget. But the truth is that, every time I sit and consider making the call, something stops me. I stop myself. Sometimes, I am scared. Scared he’d change his mind and leave the toys to my brother, or perhaps simply reveal the whole room had been a hoax and laugh at me. Other times, I’m simply too tired.

And then, it is too late. Caroline calls me one day - I do not know where she even got my number - and gives me the news, that my grandfather has passed. I don’t ask how it happened, whether he took his own life as he suggested or simply went naturally. I’m sure she’d tell me, but the truth is I don’t want to know.

As per his instructions, the will is read immediately after his funeral, which means there’s a crowd in attendance for both. I listen as various sums are passed to distant relatives and friends, and then when controlling interest in the company is passed to my brother, though I’m given a number of shares in addition to a sum of money to be doled out in yearly installments. Finally, almost as an afterthought, the attorney mentions that the contents of room on the western wall of the basement are being left to me before the remainder of the estate is put up for sale. A few people look confused, but almost everyone seems to forget the detail at once.

Late that night, I go into the basement, unlock the door, and gather up the toys. I pack them into suitcases and take them back to my apartment in Queens. That first year, I do as my grandfather asked. I purchase a massive safe - it costs hundreds just to have it delivered - and hide the gifts inside.

How do you own things of magic? How do you handle objects that will outlive you? I find myself opening the safe constantly to examine the toys, but they bring me no comfort. Holding them, I feel further from my grandfather than I did when he was alive. This is what he wanted, but I cannot stand sharing a house with these things. There are times I consider breaking my word. What could a collection of indestructible toys fetch at auction? What is proof of magic worth?

The idea is too horrible to contemplate. I cannot stand the idea of handing these over to another collector, who will set these away. A museum isn’t much better.

It is mid-December before I realize what I need to do. I open the safe one last time and move the toys to a large bag. Then I take them to a church where they’re collecting gifts for needy children. I empty the bag into the cardboard box, pausing only to consider the toy carriage. I consider keeping this, but even that feels wrong. I add it to the box with the others then leave without looking back.

My grandfather was right that these weren’t meant for museums, but they weren’t meant to be hidden away by rich collectors or locked away, either. He’d already figured out what they were intended for; he just couldn’t bear to part with them. Even when he was dying, he couldn’t let them go. But now they’ll be given out as Christmas presents. Not merely once, but countless times over the years and centuries.

I have nothing from my grandfather, save the old journal and the key. I haven’t decided what to do with the journal. But the key, I’ll keep. To remember.

I'll Be Home For Christmas (1998)

I'm having a very hard time resolving how lazy the construction of the individual scenes of this movie was with the fact that the premise was a relatively ingenious re-imagining of The Odyssey built around an eighteen year old trying to get home for the holidays. It's worth noting I'll Be Home For Christmas did this a few years before O Brother, Where Art Thou? got a lot of attention for a similar gimmick (though - needless to say - O Brother did it much, much better).

Jonathan Taylor Thomas plays Jake, the Odysseus character. Like his archetype, he's a pathological liar and conman. At the start of the movie, Jake is at college in Los Angeles, along with his girlfriend, Allie, who comes from the same town on Long Island (it's a plot point later that her family only lives a few blocks from his). If this seems absurdly unlikely, it's worth noting that you'll also have to suspend your disbelief around the film's portrayal of college, a place where nerds are locked in their lockers by jocks. Oh, and it's established that Jake's been at college for a few years, despite being eighteen.

Perhaps a few more rounds of editing were in order.

Jake and Allie have a fight when he tries to get her to stay in California with him for Christmas. We learn that Jake's mother passed away a few years earlier, his father remarried, and he's stayed away during the holidays since. His father offers Jake his 1957 Porsche to come back this year, which of course changes his mind. All he has to do is get home in time for dinner on Christmas Eve, and he gets the car.

That's worth, what? Seventy-five thousand dollars? Once you're done suspending your disbelief in carbonite, we can move on.

He makes plans to travel with Allie, but first has a plan to make some money off some jocks by helping them cheat. Eddie, a rival for Allie's affections, discovers the plan, messes it up, then frames Jake to make it look like he was trying to screw them. Eddie and the jocks knock Jake unconscious, dress him in a Santa suit, glue a beard and hat on him, and leave him in the dessert. The fact this doesn't kill him is almost plausible relative to that Porsche thing.

Meanwhile, Eddie shows up when Allie thinks she's been stood up. She agrees to drive across the country with him, despite not liking or trusting him. That's actually a little less believable than the Porsche bribe.

What follows is a series of misadventures as Jake tries to get across the country and Eddie, despite being portrayed as a despicable excuse for a human being, respects Allie's boundaries and wishes. I'm not going to go through the various sequences - they're really not all that relevant to the plot.

The resolution follows a (semi) reformed Jake, as he steals a sleigh, makes things right with Allie, then intentionally shows up a minute late to demonstrate he doesn't care about the car anymore: what's really important is family.

I think I'm going to throw up. Coincidentally, Jake threw up in the back of a car in Nevada. I think this means something.

The movie was not good. It was poorly written and rarely funny. That said, I was impressed how deep the parallels ran between Jake and Odysseus. They actually did a good job capturing his instinctive proclivity for lying, as well as his skill. The character is as super-humanly successful in manipulating those around him as the Greek hero. They even touched on his relationship with the gods, swapping out Athena for Father Christmas. Nothing objectively supernatural occurs, but there's a sequence I found very reminiscent of Odysseus's pleas to his patron goddess.

At its core, this was a modern retelling of the epic. Unfortunately, it was also a crappy holiday comedy. And, while its source material may be interesting from an academic perspective, the movie itself is a pain to sit through.

Nerdtivity: December 18, 2015

Yeah, we know you don't care about the holidays today, but we still have to stay focused. If you're interested, I saw The Force Awakens last night and reviewed it on The Middle Room. Be aware, there are a few spoilers.

Book Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Barbara Robinson, 1972

I have been seeing this book on lists of favorite Christmas books since we started the Mainlining project. But reading the back cover blurb made it sound entirely like a cheese-fest, overly religious, or otherwise sanctimonious, so I'd been putting it off.

I have to admit, though, for an eighty-page book written for young readers, this is impressively subversive. Although, it probably seemed less so in 1972.

The plot regards a group of unruly siblings who take over the Christmas pageant in a small town. In doing so, they force the townspeople to confront the reality behind the rote recitation of the myth. This may come as close as any religious-ish story ever has of evoking actual emotion in my cold, dead soul.

The most interesting thing is the narrator. The story is told in the first person, by a young girl. Her opinions and asides add color, humor and context.

The narrator is observant enough to report on all the things that 'everyone knows', while being open-minded enough to allow for other perspectives or new information. The narrator stays very childlike, though, which I think is key to the appeal. You never feel the hand of the adult author shaping the message. A child, in fact, could probably read this book and not realize how skillfully the message of kindness, charity and wonder is woven in.

I was bothered by the first chapter of the book, when the narrator is unquestioningly describing the Herdman family and the awful things they do. But it's exactly the unthinking way that a child thinks about other children: they must just be born bad, no one blames their father for running off, everyone hates them because they're bullies... while the same description allows for an adult reader to see through to a struggling family where the kids lash out at a society that doesn't care about them. The classism and callousness from the townspeople only gets worse over the course of the story, but because of the narrative voice, I didn’t feel hit over the head with it.

I've seen stories along these themes before, that either directly play with the logic of the nativity story or use parallels to explore the emotion or potential reality behind it. This fall, we've seen this narrative across social media with many pointing out that anyone who would tell a refugee family from a war-torn region that there is 'no room' in our country should really think about whether they can call themselves Christian.

The Herdman children have never encountered the details of the Nativity story before taking over the pageant, so they have lots of practical questions, like why didn't Joseph just box the innkeeper's ears if he was rude enough to leave a pregnant woman outside? They put everything into context in a way the other children and even the adults in the town never thought about, and in the end they bring out all the pathos in the plight of a young couple with no one and nothing to help them.

The style is light and funny enough that it never feels preachy, but I did find the ending quite moving. Which is super weird, for me.

I’ll admit it, this book probably belongs on all those 'best-of' lists.

Batman Automobilia No. 61: Batman: Noel

Eaglemoss Collections has been producing a line of die-cast Batman vehicles for a while now. I own a handful I've picked up over the past two years to supplement my collection of Batmobiles. This one's getting special attention, however, because the design is lifted from the story, Batman: Noel, a re-imagined version of the Christmas Carol which wedges the Dark Knight into the Scrooge role.

I'll get back to the car in a moment. First, it comes with a very short magazine. It's only ten pages long, counting the four-page fold-out in the middle, but it's heavy stock. The content is intended to provide both information about the car itself and the context of the character at the time.

I like the blueprints, though some of the text in here is a bit absurd. Passages like, "This was a Batmobile designed to handle the snow and ice of a seemingly endless winter." Likewise, there's a complete breakdown of all the crime-fighting gizmos built into the car, almost none of which are hinted at in Noel, and - as far as I know - this version of the car hasn't appeared anywhere else since. Likewise, there was really nothing in Noel that implied this Batmobile was in any way designed for the winter, at least not any more than any other version of the car.

Batman: Noel offered unique designs for Batman and his car, but my impression was that those were artistic, not practical alterations. To my eye, it's a sleek, realistic muscle car, not "a Batmobile designed to operate in a city caught in the icy grip of winter." But, hey - more justification for writing it up here, I suppose.

Eaglemoss did a good job recreating the look of the car. They use a mix of plastic and metal (everyone does these days). Overall, the vehicle does look a little flat - using a metallic paint would have given the surface more texture - but I'm really digging to find anything to complain about. Overall, this is a fantastic looking car.

You'll notice the car is always displayed on its base in my photos. It's attached with two small screws on bottom. I'm sure those could be removed easily, though I don't see any reason why you'd bother. This is more a statue than a toy car: the wheels don't even seem to turn. I don't consider that a problem - I'd rather have toy cars built for display than play - but it's worth noting.

The base is painted to look like a snowy road with tire tracks. It's a nice effect that helps tie the car back to its source. Likewise, these also come with a clear plastic display case and a "3D Lenticular" showing Batman standing in front of snow-covered alleyway. Both the Batsuit and the alley are faithfully done in the style from the book, and - if you look close enough - you can see the light from Christmas decorations shining through two windows in the background (this effect was used throughout the graphic novel to imply candles, similar to what you might have seen in Victorian London during the holidays).

Display cases will run you four or five bucks alone, and a similarly sized lenticular bookmark would run you two or three. I don't really care about the magazine, but having a ready-made display case complete with backdrop adds some real value.

These retail for about $20, though I was lucky enough to find one in a 50% off bin. Your best bet is to try your local comic shop, though you can probably find one on Ebay or Amazon, as well.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bush Christmas (1947)

Bush Christmas is an 1947 kid's adventure set in Australia. The movie's filmed on location, which is the most positive thing I have to say about the production.

I understand where the movie's set, but I'm a little unclear on when. This opens with school wrapping for Christmas break, and the children immediately grab their horses for the ride home. I really can't say for certain that there weren't areas in rural Australia where kids used horses to commute to and from school in 1947, but it seems a little antiquated. My assumption is that this was supposed to be set in the past. Maybe early 1930's? The clothes look fairly modern, and there were a few cars, so it couldn't have been much earlier than that.

Instead of going directly home like good children, a few of them go for a ride. On the way, they run into a pair of horse thieves. The kids, mistaking them for something else, accidentally mention their father owns a valuable mare. The robbers send them on their way, asking that they don't mention their meeting. The next day, the mare's been stolen.

The kids tell their parents they're going camping but instead go after the thieves. For some reason, they have better luck than the police and locate their camp. They sneak down at night and steal back their horses, along with the thieves' boots and food. What follows is best described as a 1940's version of Home Alone, as the kids follow the outlaws and torment them, all while leaving a trail for the police.

This is nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as it sounds. So, yeah - just like Home Alone.

Eventually, the thieves turn the tables by leading the kids into an abandoned town. Until then, they'd assumed the kids were a group of aborigines they'd stolen from. When they corner the kids, they lock them in a small room which holds them for about a minute and a half. Just before the thieves take off with the recovered horses, the police ride in and arrest them.

That's it for plot. Let's see - what haven't we talked about? Of course, how could I forget? THE RACISM.

One of the kids is an aborigine, and his speech patterns are about on par with the way Native Americans were portrayed in Hollywood movies of the era. To be fair, he wasn't exactly portrayed as stupid: if anything, his knowledge was what kept them all alive. But he was definitely presented as uncivilized compared to the white kids. Also, there was an extremely uncomfortable sequence where the kids all smeared charcoal on their faces to be less conspicuous at night, and the others laughed because when he tried it he looked exactly the same.

The one female kid was the oldest, and the movie did a decent job with her. She was more or less the leader and was generally competent. I suppose they should be commended for that.

The movie had some serious sound issues. The entire thing was obviously dubbed - I'm assuming because it was filmed on location. This was distracting with the dialogue, though that was the least of the problems. The foley on this thing was astonishingly bad. So bad, in fact, that I'm bothering to write about it. I'm pretty sure they were trying to pass squeaking doors off as horse sounds.

But the real issue with this is the most common problem with bad Christmas movies - it was boring. Extremely, excruciatingly boring. Even if I'd cared about the characters (which would have been easier if they'd been smarter and less sadistic), I'd have been lost waiting for something to happen.

I was also a little shocked how little they used their location. There were some great backdrops, but almost no local wildlife beside a couple birds. Maybe I'm just spoiled by the gratuitous shots of crocodiles and kangaroos in everything set in Australia these days, but at least crocodiles and kangaroos are interesting, even in stock footage.

I am a little curious whether this in any way inspired Home Alone - there was definitely some overlap in premise, the thieves, and what the kids did to them.

Regardless, I don't recommend tracking this down. It'd be painful to sit through even without the racism.

Prancer Returns (2001)

I'd like to offer more context for this direct-to-video sequel to the quasi-classic 1989 film, but there seems to be very little about the movie online. Searching for "Prancer Returns" on Wikipedia just redirects to the first movie, where there's a brief mention of the sequel's existence. IMDB has the cast/crew listed, but not many details.

I don't think a single actor or character shows up in both films, which is a little odd actually. They take place in the same small town just ten years apart, and the events of the first movie have been elevated to a sort of legendary status. We're told several major characters remember the events, but only one - Old Man Richards, played by Jack Palance - claimed to know the family directly. Ten years in a town that size is a drop in the bucket: it's a little surprising none of the previous characters were still around and odder still no one seemed to know what had happened to them.

While none of Prancer's actors seemed interested in appearing in this, the writer came back. Greg Taylor is a name I should probably just learn - in addition to the Prancer movies, he also wrote Santa and Pete, as well as a few other Christmas movies we haven't gotten around to yet.

This was directed by Joshua Butler, who seemed to spend a lot of the movie trying to demonstrate his horror chops. Halfway through, I looked him up on Wikipedia to verify that was his main genre. Not surprisingly, I was right - he's done a lot of low budget horror movies and TV.

In his defense, he seemed to know how to line up a shot. The movie looked decent, which isn't guaranteed at this budget. Before you start thinking this is heading in a positive direction, be aware his storytelling chops weren't so well developed: the movie moves at a glacial pace, several characters come off as two-dimensional cliches, and he apparently just told the lead kid to whisper everything softly and call it acting. But all of that looked fine, and the cuts between real reindeer and puppet heads were well executed.

Enough about the technical side of things, though - let's talk about the story. This one focuses on a boy who's recently moved to town with his brother and their newly-divorced mother. The older brother spends a lot of time angsting about wanting to move back to Chicago and live with his dad, while the younger - our main character - is having trouble making friends. He learns about the legend of Prancer from a local love-interest for his mom, then comes across the reindeer after being held in detention by the comically evil vice principal.

The twist is that Prancer dies a few minutes after we meet him. Instead, the kid adopts Prancer's son and names him after his dad. Okay - I have to admit I didn't see that coming. The whole thing might have carried more impact, however, if Prancer hadn't vanished in a flurry of magic snow upon dying.

The kid takes Prancer, Jr. home and hides him there for a few days. Given he lives in a relatively small house, it worked far better than it should have. Eventually, his brother finds out and convinces him to move the deer somewhere else before their mom finds out. I'm not entirely clear on how she missed the odor of the reindeer crap conveniently omitted from the film's narrative.

The kid drops Prancer II off at Jack Palance's farm (they became friends earlier when... just roll with it). But instead of staying there, Prancer invades the school, then bites the evil vice-principal to protect the kid. The vice-principal locks Prancer in an empty room then calls animal control, but the kid breaks him out. They go on the run and hide out in the woods. There's a search party out looking for the kid, but they stop looking when it gets dark. For some reason.

The kid's fine the next day, but he decides Prancer needs to fly off now. While trying to get him to try, the kid falls off a drop and ends up wounded. Prancer, of course, pulls a Lassie and leads the kid's mother (and mother's love interest) to him. The kid goes to a hospital while the reindeer is taken to the animal shelter. It's unclear why the vice principal's main goal in life suddenly shifts to making sure the deer that bit him is put down, but it happens fairly abruptly (before this, it was to bang the kid's mom).

The love interest calls in the press, and - given it's the night before Christmas Eve - there's suddenly a lot of pressure on not killing a reindeer that saved a kid who swears it's the son of one in the town's local legends. Still, there's no push to release the deer, either. So the kid, aided by some classmates and Jack Palance, stage a heist to break Prancer out, so it can fly up and meet Santa. There's a little more noise and conflict, but everything resolves as you'd dread - Prancer goes off to take his father's place as Santa's sleigh visibly leaves a comet trail through the center of town, removing any ambiguity or question as to the existence of Santa or magic.

Overall, the production values were decent, the writing was mixed, and the pacing was tedious.  But, hey. They actually offed one of Santa's reindeer in a kid's movie, so I guess that's something.

It was nowhere near the level of the first (which wasn't exactly brilliant to begin with), but it was better than most direct-to-video holiday productions. I wouldn't recommend it, but there are worse things out there.

The Little Drummer Boy Book II (1976)

Somehow, in year six, there are still Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas specials that we hadn't seen. I don't know how this happened either.

This one is just as boring as its predecessor, but it does have nicer animation.

It picks up where the first left off, Baby Jesus suitably entertained by Aaron and his magic drum. Aaron wants to do something more (further undermining the message of the original song) and Melchior drags him off to town to help look for some bellmaker.

Melchior looks a bit more Middle-Ages-Europe king than first-century-Damascus king to my eye. Just saying.

The bellmaker, Simeon, has been telling people that Jesus is coming, and while they haven't believed him, he has cast a set of giant silver bells in preparation.

At this point, Erin can attest that I gave the screen some incredible side-eye at the idea that they would co-opt, even just by reference, one of my favorite holiday songs for this dreck, but it never went further than that reference.

Some Roman soldiers come in to collect his taxes. Simeon first hides, then denies that he has any silver. Dude. You are literally standing in front of silver bells as large as you are. You can't give them the littlest one? Apparently Simeon would rather piss off the soldiers and lose all his bells. Not the brightest bulb, this one.

Melchior and Aaron catch up at this point and all three (along with Aaron's animal friends) follow the trail of the soldiers out of town.

Up until this point this special was boring, but not offensive. That is about to change.

Because guess which legendary Broadway actor is making a quick buck as the voice of Brutus, the lead Roman soldier? Zero Mostel. And guess what he's going to do next? Sing a song (one of a very small number in this short special) about the decline of barter and the rise of greed with the creation of money. Eesh. I'm just going to leave this link here and move on.

Aaron has the bright idea of going down to play for the soldiers and... doing something after that. Seriously, he doesn't actually have a plan. This backfires when Brutus decides to melt down the bells, and grabs Aaron's drum and sticks to use for kindling.

Wasn't this a magic drum in the last special? That doesn't seem to come up here, Aaron is just normal sad from his stuff being stolen, not freaking out that someone destroyed a magical artifact. In the meantime, the critters sneak the bells out of camp.

Given the size of the camp (small), the size of the wagon full of bells (large), and the size of the camel (camel-sized), I'm going to say that these soldiers are not as observant as your average absent-minded professor, because it works and the animals get away with the bells.

They elude pursuit by having the humans bury the bells so it looks like a dune. It would be funny if they couldn't find it afterward, but no such luck. Simeon erects a giant scaffold out of, apparently, thin air, and plays the bells to announce that Jesus was born.

Side Note: Hilariously, throughout this special, Jesus is only ever called "the Babe", as though he is either a baseball star or a relation of He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named.

The bell ringing introduces our carol for this installment: Do You Hear What I Hear.

I wrote last year about this song. I am more than a little pissed to see the way it's used here. The first and third verses are cut, removing any sense or progression. The lyrics traditionally follow the news of Jesus's birth from the natural world, up to the heights of power. The bells replace the first verse, removing the night wind entirely. Removing the third verse as well (said the shepherd boy to the mighty king) also removes the intended breakdown of class separation.

So what you've got left is a lamb telling a boy, and COMPLETELY UNRELATED a king telling everyone else what they should think. I'm offended on behalf of good storytelling.

Anyway, we wrap up with Aaron deputized to lead the crowds to the manger, ostensibly to chase off the animals and stink up the place, but not to bring Mary and 'the Babe' to an actual hotel with sheets or anything.

We had to order one of those 'Warner Archive' DVDs to see this one: the kind that aren't generally stocked anywhere because not enough people want to see it. I don't recommend you do the same.

Christmas Questions Triviapalooza Game

I bought this game about 3 or 4 years ago off a clearance shelf in (I think) a Barnes and Noble. I probably paid less than a dollar.

If you are interested in the true Mainlining Christmas Experience... If reading this blog makes you want to be here, bearing witness to the full depth of the holiday, I recommend you leave this page and find a way to buy this game immediately.

Okay, are the suckers gone?

This game is crap.

The packaging design is cute: the box folds out into a little board with four tracks. Inside, you'll find a deck of cards with questions on both sides, a sheet of directions, four cheap pawns and a die you have to create with stickers.

We actually have both the Christmas Questions and Christmas Music editions of this game, and in one of the boxes the sticker sheet wasn't properly die-cut, just leaving us with a solid sheet.

To play you simply go around, asking questions of other players. If you get the question right, you roll the die and either move forward that number of spaces or move another player backward the same number. If you land on one of those little 'swipe' spaces you can steal a question from the next player to answer.

The gameplay design wouldn't be so bad, except that the questions are terribly written. There is no balance; the trivia is either so obvious as to be insulting or so obscure as to be ridiculous. Furthermore, many questions seem to have little to nothing to do with Christmas (e.g. what is the circumference of the earth), and many just have incredibly boring subject matter (e.g. what year was Tamagotchi the hot christmas toy).

To win, you need to reach the center and then answer three (if you're playing with four people) questions on your turn. Which means you suffer for a very long time waiting for the stars to align bringing three answerable questions in a row.

When we played this, it soon became hilarious, because of four intelligent adults, two of whom run this blog, not one of us could manage to answer enough questions to win for round after round after round. I couldn’t even get close to the center.

But I stand by what I said above. If you want to understand the inane holiday minutia that it is possible to dive into, if you want to experience the corners people will cut to make a quick buck with holiday-themed crap, in short, if you truly want to understand the meaning of Christmas, you should definitely play Christmas Triviapalooza.