Saturday, July 9, 2016

Phineas and Ferb: S'Winter (2008), I, Brobot (2008), Phineas and Ferb's Family Christmas Special (2011), and Phineas and Ferb Save Summer (2014)

It shouldn't be entirely surprising that Phineas and Ferb is a treasure trove for the "Christmas in July" trope: with more or less the entire series set during summer, they've found numerous excuses to play with holiday and winter tropes over the years.

A few of the episodes I'm looking at are admittedly a stretch - there's a reason we've only done one of the episodes below to date - but together they offer a surprisingly comprehensive look at the range of different approaches to the "Christmas in July" premise.

S'Winter (2008)

S'Winter is one of the earliest episodes of Phineas and Ferb produced. It's typically combined with "The Magnificent Few" to fill a half hour. But "The Magnificent Few" has jack to do with the holidays, so we'll just shove that aside.

I've been wrestling with this episode for several years. There's a argument it could count as a Christmas episode, but it falls just short of the litmus tests we use. Fortunately, while I can't quite justify this as a Christmas episode, it's a perfect example of the Christmas in July trope.

The episode starts with the same initial hook most Christmas in July pieces open with: the heat's too oppressive to deal with. In fact, the episode makes it clear that it takes place in the month of July (the vast majority of Phineas and Ferb occurs at an unspecified point in the summer - calling out the month is almost certainly a nod to the trope).

Before leaving for an antique sale, their parents give the boys a snow cone machine to help them beat the heat. As is often the case, Phineas and Ferb like the concept but not the scale. Using a massive amount of ice and a number of air conditioners, they create a snow-covered mountain in their backyard, complete with a ski lift, ice fishing pond, bobsled track, and countless other absurdly impossible additions.

From here out, the focus shifts to their sister Candace, who sets out to bust her brothers before getting caught up in teenage drama surrounding her future boyfriend, Jeremy, and a foreign exchange student, DD, who she becomes jealous of.

And of course their pet platypus, Perry, is called by the top secret government agency he works for to thwart his nemesis, who's attempting to use a massive laser (well, technically a melt-inator 6-5000) to melt and steal the city's chocolate. The episode uses the inator as a fake-out for what's going to happen to the boys' snow mountain. Instead of using the obvious solution, the inator shorts out the city's power, and - without the air conditioners to keep it from melting - it disappears before Candace can show it to their mother.

While I doubt this makes many top 10 lists, it's a solid episode. There are some hilarious visual gags, several clever twists, and a catchy song about the fused seasons in a style kind of reminiscent of the song "Sleigh Ride," complete with close harmony a la the Andrews Sisters.

That song's a good transition point into the holiday elements. Both tonally and lyrically it blends sounds and ideas associated with the conflicting seasons. Christmas is never mentioned directly, but there's a line about sleigh bells (as well as a constant jingle in the background), and another line describing it as a "S'Winter 'swonderland," parodying the holiday classic.

While the episode's holiday cred is debatable, the song absolutely counts as Christmas music. And, while it never name-drops it, there's an argument this may be the definitive Christmas in July song.

They also use holiday imagery, including picturesque giant snowflakes and pine trees (growing inexplicably on the newly-formed mountain of snow). In addition, the snow cone maker responsible is shaped like a Christmas tree, though this is never discussed.

On the spectrum of Christmas-in-July, this represents the snow-covered holiday transposed onto the hottest period of the year.

Like every episode of Phneas and Ferb, this is worth seeing. Re-watching it after seeing later installments is a little jarring - Phineas's voice is a little higher pitched and less expressive than it would later become, and there are a number of design and character elements that would change as the show developed - but it's worth it for the jokes.

I, Brobot (2008)

I'm going to try and keep this one short, because its holiday elements are few and far between. In fact, they never really show up in the A-plot, at all. However, they represent a very different aspect of the Christmas in July tradition and are just relevant enough to justify inclusion (at least in this Christmas geek's opinion).

The main story line concerns Phineas and Ferb building a small army of robotic versions of themselves to build several projects at once. In keeping with the premise, they lose control over their creations, who turn on them. Not in keeping with the premise, they thought to build a remote control.

While all this is going on, their sister, trying to prove her brothers are mad scientists, grabs one of the brobots and tosses it in a sack. Her plans are thwarted by a conveniently timed garbage pickup and fertilizer drop off.

I promise, there is some Christmas in this thing.

Early in the episode during the requisite "Where's Perry?" moment, Agent P activates a hidden elevator inside the chimney. On the way to his lair, the elevator stops on another floor, and Santa hops in. A few jokes are dropped here and in the next scene, and the story moves on.

Doofenshmirtz's evil (well, sort-of evil) plan this episode is to use a giant magnet to erase the recordings he left on his girlfriend's answering machine. At the end of the episode, he tries to drop the magnet on Perry, only for Santa to swoop in on his sleigh and carry it off. During this, Doofenshmirtz expresses disbelief at Santa's presence, pointing out it's the middle of July.

Following this, Santa flies over Phineas and Ferb's house, and the giant magnet drags the robots away, removing the evidence.

Granted, Santa's appearance and effect on the story were relatively interchangeable - they could have used the same intro/callback in dozens of different episodes without impacting the plot. Setting that aside, it does illustrate a rare alteration on the Christmas in July (which, again, the episode was careful to specify) trope: Santa in the off-season.

Setting all of that aside, this is a fantastic early episode. The writing's on point, the joke are hilarious, and the song - an 80's-style synth tune about robots - is a lot of fun. If you've never seen an episode of Phineas and Ferb and want a quick look at why the series is worth your time, this would be a great pick.

Phineas and Ferb's Family Christmas Special (2011)

Yes, yes. I realize I already reviewed this back in 2012, but it's too perfect a fit for this "Christmas in July" thing not to revisit. Besides, that was in the middle of our lazy period, when we'd write a few hundred words and call it a day.

Honestly, I wish I could justify revisiting Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Vacation as part of this, as well. I've seen that a few times since I gave it a somewhat tepid review, and it's really grown on me. But that definitely took place over Christmas Vacation (it's in the name and everything), so I'll have to put a pin in it and wait for a later time.

The 2011 "Phineas and Ferb's Family Christmas Special" opens with a similar premise to S'Winter - Phineas expressing an interest in cooling off during the hot summer months. But instead of following the show's usual structure, it pivots into an animated version of a classic Christmas special, complete with a log cabin, forced drama, and an abundance of musical numbers. Doofenshmirtz - in a slightly less evil than normal twist - builds a teleport-inator to beat the crowds he thinks are flocking to the stores to do their Christmas shopping (he mistakes the live broadcast of the Phineas and Ferb special as meaning it's actually the holidays).

Due to the format and extra songs, the episode is light on plot. Candace tries to bust her brothers, as usual, but her efforts feel much more muted, culminating in a very sweet moment between her and the boys. There's a short fight between the semi-aquatic mammal and the mad scientist involving wrapping paper and fruit cake, which concludes with Perry teleported back to Phineas, then the entire set dropped into Doofenshmirtz's living room.

The episode also guest stars Kelly Clarkson, who - in an extremely clever twist on a Christmas special cliche - doesn't wind up singing. Instead, the musical numbers go to the series regulars. Isabella sings an adorable version of Let it Snow, Buford and Baljeet do a parody of Good King Wenceslas (and still find time to offer some historical context), and the show wraps up with a modified version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

The "Christmas in July" aspects are somewhat muted by the fact this was clearly intended to be watched at the holidays - it's essentially a Christmas special masquerading as a Christmas in July one. That said, there are some elements we've seen in other Christmas in July pieces, starting with a warm summer day being the catalyst. This also had an early Christmas spreading confusion, another trope associated with Christmas in July.

On its own, it's a fun episode. The Buford/Baljeet song takes a great turn that will be appreciated by longtime watchers who understand there's way more to Buford than his exterior would suggest, and the Clarkson gag really is clever. It's by no means the best episode of the series, but it's absolutely worth watching.

But - and this certainly isn't the first time I've said this - the same goes for every episode of Phineas and Ferb. This was a phenomenal animated series containing comedy, heart, and a surprising amount of philosophy. If you've never seen an episode, start with the first and keep watching until you're hooked. You might not understand my affection at first, but trust me - give it time, and you will.

Phineas and Ferb Save Summer, Parts 1 and 2 (2014)

This two-part (that's two 30 full minute episodes, not two half episodes) has very tenuous Christmas connections, even more so than I, Brobot. In fact, the only time Christmas is referenced in any way is when the kids put on Christmas sweaters due to the cold.

That said, this embodies yet another aspect of the Christmas in July tradition: a near-apocalypse of eternal winter.

In the context of this episode, the broken seasons have nothing to do with Christmas. Actually, it's got very little to do with anything - Doofenshmirtz simply bought the wrong sunscreen. To correct this, he's planning on moving the Earth further from the sun, so he can get by with a weaker SPF.

When his colleagues in LOVEMUFFIN (the poorly-named organization of supervillains) discover what he's done, they have bigger plans: they capture all of OWCA's agents, build a larger version of Doofenshmirtz's device, and hold the world hostage. With Major Monogram fired (long story including one of the episodes better gags), there's seemingly no one to stop them.

Meanwhile, Phineas, Ferb, and friends know nothing about this. They do, however, piece together than the Earth's been moved for some reason. Getting help from elsewhere on the planet, they develop a system of giant rocket engines they can use to nudge the planet back where it belongs.

I'm skipping over quite a few details - as I said, this isn't really Christmas, and I'm mostly interested in where thematic elements intersect with Christmas in July tropes. And that really boils down to the concept of the seasons being undone. In a real sense, this fear lies at the heart of Christmas, a holiday marking the turning point when the days once again begin growing longer.

I doubt that was an intended aspect of this episode (though it is conceivable the decision to put the kids in Christmas sweaters was more than a gag). Still, it's a version of the trope we're covering, so it's worth mentioning.

Even if, this time, they specified the episode was set in August instead of July.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Christmas Presents in July!

What's Christmas without presents? A bunch of micro-humanoids singing around a tree while floating on a mote of dust through an unforgiving jungle? Screw that! I'm here to make sure your July is merry and bright. And to do that, I'm offering you the chance to download any or all of my books FREE this weekend.

That's right: FREE. Just click on the links below to be whisked off to the magical world of Amazon, where you'll be able to buy my novels for the extremely generous price of $0.00.

I'm practically giving them away! And by practically, I mean literally. And by literally, I mean the official definition of literally prior to 2015, when dictionaries were forced to acknowledge lingual drift meant the term had become synonymous with its antonym, figuratively.

You know, I'm concerned I may be wandering off topic. Here are the damn links:
Hurry - supplies are limited. Well, okay, they're not really limited. But they're only going to be free through Sunday, so get them now. Then send your friends the links and tell them to get them now.

Good reading, and Merry Christmas in July.

Camp Lazlo: Kamp Kringle (2007)

With no information about this show other than this episode, I can tell you it’s a Cartoon Network production about a boys’ summer camp, in which all the characters are animals and the humor is very broad. Lots of fart jokes.

Given that it isn’t really our style, we were surprised how much of this we kind of enjoyed.

The episode begins with the campers on a bus going up a mountain to watch a meteor shower. They’ve passed the snow line, so when the bus breaks down, the kids jump out to play. They almost immediately run across a decked-out holiday village, complete with surly elves.

Santa then appears and welcomes them in for a visit. (He explains that he moved his operation to this mountaintop because the polar ice caps are melting.) Santa’s workshop is quiet, however, because they’ve all worked hard to be done early so that Santa can have an overdue vacation.

Of course this is when a stray meteorite destroys all the toys.

Santa declares that he’s not giving up his holiday, so he’ll have to cancel Christmas. The kids are distraught, and Lazlo (he’s some sort of a monkey with a banana-shaped smile) convinces Santa to come back to camp with them, promising him a whole year’s worth of fun packed into a week. They leave the crotchety scoutmaster to look after the elves.

Santa isn’t exactly good at the kind of physical activities that traditional summer camp involves, and he’s about to give up when he discovers a talent for tetherball. After creaming a bunch of kids for days (the characters seem to read at age 10-11?), he declares that he’s never leaving.

There are a few not-very-funny attempts to convince him to hate camp again, but finally Lazlo and company give up. They decide to try to make toys themselves, but just tie a stick and a rock together. Santa is so frustrated with their incompetence that it inspires him to rediscover his love of making toys.

He rides the tetherball stick like a witch’s broom back towards the workshop, but the scoutmaster isn't interested in giving up elf servants and fancy plumbing. Cue the climactic fight scene!

Everything works out, and Christmas is back on schedule.

We appreciated this for:
  • including the classic Christmas in July trope of summer camp
  • including the trope of Santa’s off-season vacation
  • using altitude to bring snow to the summer
  • exploiting the surrealism to include a character disbelieving in Santa while standing in front of him
  • showing a subversive dry humor at times

We had less appreciation for the fart jokes and gross-out humor, although we had to admire the artists' commitment to the form.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Transformers: Rescue Bots: Christmas in July (2012)

Picture us sitting on the couch, trying to figure out what in the heck we’re watching. It’s ugly flash animation, it’s hard to follow, the writing seems to have been dashed off by a middle schooler pressed for time.

I don’t have any huge historical fondness for Transformers as a franchise, and even I can tell something is terribly wrong. Apparently this is a series about the loser bots who couldn’t make the cut, and Optimus Prime found a backward town to dump them in so they could learn to be subservient to humans.

It’s funny because I wrote that as a joke, but I just looked up the premise of the show, and it’s basically that.

So in this episode, the kid (there’s always a kid) is teaching the robots about seasons, because they’re space-faring life forms that somehow don’t understand orbits and weather. It’s summer and very hot, and one robot asks why they can’t have snow in the summer.

Cue lightbulb. The kid goes to visit a guy who is apparently the local mad scientist? There are a bunch of inventions that it’s implied he didn’t create, but were left behind by someone else, and the doctor says, sure there’s a weather machine, it’s back in the section for stuff we shouldn’t touch, I’ll get it out for you.

Long story short, the kid assembles the town for a little Christmas in July, the weather machine obligingly makes snow until it breaks and makes a blizzard.

This is about when Erin and I realized we didn’t understand the relationship between the robots and the town. They seem to just be standing there during all the town stuff, are they really “in disguise”? Wikipedia loosely confirms that except in front of the kid and his family, they are pretending to just be super-advanced transforming robots, not intelligent super-advanced transforming robots. Because that is totally something that people would just accept.

Most of the “tension” in the rest of the episode concerns things like plowing roads and getting snow off a roof by using a helicopter in a highly improbable way. Then a robot saves the friend of the kid (said friend is one of only two female characters with lines that I spotted) by learning to throw a snowball. Really.

Apparently other episodes have actual plot, but I am never going to find out for sure.

The Rescue Bots are supposed to learn from the humans and hone their search and rescue skills. I guess it’s supposed to appeal to little kids’ fascination with fire trucks and bulldozers. On the other hand, if the lesson the bots eventually learn is not to trust the humans who take them for granted and order them around, that instead they should ally with Megatron, someone let me know.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

It's Punky Brewster: Christmas in July (1985)

I'm following Wikipedia's convention and using the series's unofficial name to differentiate this from Punky Brewster. In the vein of Star Trek: the Animated Series, this is actually a sequel of the live-action series in which the main characters reprise their roles. Like many cartoons, each thirty-minute block was divided into two fifteen-minute chunks. We're only covering the half that relates to Christmas, obviously.

The episode opens on a hot day in July. Punky Brewster and her friends stop to admire a skateboard in a toy store window. Punky muses over whether or not she's going to get it for Christmas, and she laments that she won't know for months. Fortunately, Glomer, the 104-year-old magical half-gopher/half-leprechaun in her backpack reveals that he's friends with Santa and might be able to help her find out.

Maybe I should pause for a moment and give you a moment to review the opening credits to this show, which offer a tad more context:

I kind of wish Lindsay and I had watched that before jumping into the episode. Eh. Live and learn.

Where was I? Oh, yes - Glomer teleports Punky and her pals to the North Pole to meet Santa and ask what they're getting, only to discover the big man is away on vacation. An elf reluctantly unlocks the gate to let them come have a look, since they've traveled so far.

It takes the kids maybe a minute and half to fall onto a switch that simultaneously activates the automated factory and puts the world on a surprisingly unforgiving countdown to Christmas. A giant screen displays various cities suddenly beset by snowstorms in the middle of summer. The switch is stuck, and if they don't find a way to stop it, Christmas will be ruined for some unexplained reason.

While the rest of the kids try to keep the factory from falling apart, Punky and Glomer take the sleigh and two remaining reindeer to try and find Claus, who's on a tropical island somewhere. They search numerous islands off-screen, are nearly hit by a plane Glomer mistakes for a bird, then randomly find the fat man laying on a beach.

Santa's annoyed - Glomer overstated their relationship - but he hurries back to stop the Christmapocalypse. He fixes the switch, gets his hand tools, then fixes the rest of the world by finagling with some equipment under the monitor. I think that was a joke, and - if so - I find it clever on an intellectual level, even though there was no way in hell I could appreciate it while watching on account of how batshit insane every second of this thing was.

Honestly, batshit insane doesn't even begin to cover it. Glomer is essentially a fever dream Kowl would hallucinate after snorting a mixture of cocaine and whatever pixie dust kept pouring off Orko. And he's basically the main character of this show.

In other words, he's about as annoying as any 80's cartoon comic relief character can be, which is a hell of a bar to clear. On top of that, the animation is dated, the dialogue is stilted, and the voice acting is a very good illustration for why you should think long and hard before having a cast of child actors voice themselves in animation.

That said, there are elements here that are legitimately creative and clever, even if the tone and low production values cause them to fall flat. I mentioned that bizarre scene where Santa fixes Christmas the same way you'd repair a drain - there are a handful of other details like that: they made Santa a bit curmudgeonly, the workshop feels (intentionally) soulless, and while I might be overstating the sense of disaster accompanying the world-wide Christmas countdown, it was definitely present. Likewise, they had the common decency to end the episode without overdoing it. Santa's still annoyed, and Punky's smart enough not to ask about the damn skateboard.

In addition, this is to date the only Christmas in July episode we've seen which includes Santa Claus in a major role, and where Christmas is invoked early at a metaphysical level. That's actually kind of awesome.

But the real saving grave of this is its sheer manic nature. This absolutely crosses the line into so bad its good, in no small part due to its breakneck pace, in which it speeds through at least 30 minutes of plot in half the time.

This isn't for everyone, but if you're looking for a companion piece to Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas, The He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special, and The Smurfs Christmas Special, this would be a good short to put on during your holiday party while guests get wasted on cocaine in your bathroom.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Misadventures in Romance Reading (Christmas in July)

When we decided to tackle more Christmas in July media, I did a search for books. The main one that came up when I searched was a romance: Christmas in July (A Christmas, Colorado, Novel: Book 2) by Debbie Mason.

Romance isn’t a preferred genre for me, but sometimes I like it, and this book was available through my local library, so I decided to dive in.

At the beginning, I was intrigued. The book (and, I imagine, the series) takes place in a town called Christmas. The main character, Grace, is a baker. Her signature dessert is a Sugar Plum Cake with a “wish” hidden in the decorations. Her husband, Jack, was in the army, but he’s been MIA for over a year, and she’s finally decided to move on.

So far, a nice dash of holiday theme and an interesting premise.

Of course, this is the moment when her husband and his crew are found alive.

But he has amnesia, and doesn’t remember her, and he’s been attracted to this other woman in the meantime. And all of that could actually have been an interesting story, if Jack didn’t hit every horrible sexist romance trope I can think of.

He’s pushy and possessive. He’s proud of not listening to other people. He doesn’t care at all about what Grace wants or what she’s been doing to look after their son while he’s been gone, just about his own issues about the fact that he hated growing up in Christmas and can’t let go of his own hang-ups long enough to give a shit about anyone.

He consciously distracts Grace from asking questions about their plans, or him agreeing to work on a book with the other woman, or him disapproving of her owning the bakery, with sex.

And Grace, damn her, falls for it.

It’s like an attempt at an old screwball comedy in the worst ways. Horrible things happen to the characters (there’s arson and attempted assault based on horrible small-town gossip mongering, plus said other woman has serious PTSD) but except for Grace going further off the deep end because no one will take her seriously, characters react in casual, ‘humorous’ ways. Let’s break into this woman’s apartment in funny costumes to see if she’s the arsonist! Isn’t it funny?

There’s also a running joke about reading 50 Shades of Gray. I shit you not.

I started reading faster, and then I started skimming. I know everyone’s going to learn to love each other or something by the end, but I hate Jack and I hate Grace for putting up with his masculinist bullshit, and I think I may have permanently broken the part of my Kindle that judges reading speed because I just started moving faster and faster because I wanted the pain to end.

Finally I slowed down when the constant foreshadowing that Jack not listening to Grace was going to end in disaster (because giving a two-year-old adequate supervision is not the same as punishing him for being a little boy) culminated with hospital visits for everyone.

But then, like they’re being checked off on a list:
  • Dramatic obvious revelations,
  • Vaguely spiritual bit,
  • Everyone forgives everyone, blah blah,
  • They get everything they wanted because why not,
  • Everyone becomes good people and
  • Solve all their deep-seated problems in a few pages,
  • The end.

Ugh. If it had actually been set at Christmas, you could have at least blamed holiday magic. As it is, I’m left with a few hours I won’t get back and a vaguely nauseated feeling, but without eggnog to blame.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Merry Fourth of July

May you get everything on your list.

[Photo collage from Holiday 2015 Balsam Hill Catalog and July 2016 Toys'R'Us Catalog.]

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Camp Candy: Christmas in July (1989)

Camp Candy was, apparently, an animated series where John Candy voices a character based on himself at a fictitious summer camp he runs. I don't recall ever having seen or heard of this series before in my life, though if I still remember this episode an hour from now, I'll be both surprised and disappointed.

The Christmas in July episode opens the same way Wikipedia assures me every episode in this series starts, with Candy trying to teach the kids a sport, leading to a flashback of something that happened earlier in the summer. This is portrayed as a story being told by Candy, though it's unclear why he's telling the kids about an adventure they were present for. It's also unclear how he's able to provide descriptions and commentary for other characters' dream sequences.

Actually, this episode features dreams within dreams within a story. But don't get excited: it was all crap.

Once we're firmly entrenched within a flashback, the kids and Candy decide to throw Christmas in July (I know - you're shocked). They coat the camp in whipped cream, freeze a pond with an air conditioner, and empty a can of hair spray on the outside of the windows.

And the guys who want to cut down the forest are supposed to be the series's antagonists? At least Xavier DeForest III is trying to give nature a quick and merciful end.

None of this has jack to do with the plot, incidentally. This is all set up for when the greedy kid, a girl named Vanessa Van Pelt, gets a box of chocolates, eats all but two, then starts hallucinating that the remaining pieces are talking to her. Oddly, there was no such explanation for the talking bear and woodchuck who show up for a grand total of thirty seconds to make a few jokes about Christmas coming early.

Once Vanessa is high on chocolate, she has a dream where she's a queen reigning over a post-apocalyptic version of the camp, and... that sounds way cooler than it actually was. She's just kind of a jerk, and everyone does what she says for some reason. Also, as I mentioned before, John Candy continues narrating all of this as if it's really happening. The other kids join in the commentary track, too.

This devolves into a rather generic spin on A Christmas Carol, with minor characters cast as spirits. We get a flashback, a look at the world under Vanessa's rule, and a flash forward to what happens after DeForest is in charge. Him breaking Vanessa's stuff finally snaps her out of her dream, and she embraces the true meaning of Christmas in July or something.

The episode is full of jokes, none of which were at all funny. Structurally, it was almost interesting, but the writing is so awful, I can't even pretend it was anything other than the writers getting high and scribbling down crap until they'd filled thirty minutes.

The closest this gets to redemption comes from the premise's connection to the origins of Christmas in July: the concept essentially dates back to summer camps importing the holiday into July. I find that somewhat interesting in an academic sort of way.

Nothing else about this waste of a half-hour is remotely interesting in any sense.