Saturday, July 30, 2016

Revisiting Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979)

First of all, we've covered this already, over here. Lindsay wrote up a pretty glowing review for this and slapped on a "Highly Recommended" label, mainly because it managed to coalesce nearly the entire Rankin/Bass catalog into a single coherent Christmaverse and rebuild Rudolph's backstory using a mythic structure.

I'm not writing this as some sort of retraction, though upon rewatching, I do want to roll back the unconditional love we showered on it the first time around. While it accomplished everything listed above, that accounts for around fifteen minutes of its hour and thirty-seven minute run time. The rest oscillates between a series of mediocre love songs and a holiday-themed stop-motion circus show.

Obviously the main reason I want to revisit this now is to focus in on the "Christmas in July" elements we more or less skipped over the first time. Also, there are 31 days in July, we're doing our best to hold to our post-a-day commitment, and we're out of original content. So. Here goes.

Lindsay didn't want to spoil the magic for you the first time around; I'm not so generous. If you'd like to see this without knowing its secrets and just haven't been able to make the time in the past thirty-seven years, stop reading now.

The villain of the movie is a new character named Winterbolt who looks and acts an awful lot like the Winter Warlock of Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. Long before Santa existed, Winterbolt ruled over the north as a tyrant king, until Lady Boreal, queen of the northern lights, could no longer stand to watch his evil.

To stop him, she had to take on human form and use her magic to place him in a deep sleep. But to become human is to become mortal - her reign of the north couldn't last forever. As Winterbolt slept, the world changed: Santa came to the Northpole and became its king.

As Lady Boreal grew weak, Winterbolt woke. He learned that Santa had been crowned king of his empire, and that Claus was empowered by the love of the world's children. To remove his advisory's power, he planned to create a powerful mist to stop Santa from delivering his gifts.

But Lady Boreal overheard his scheme and, with the last of her life force, transferred her remaining magic into a newly born reindeer.

So, yeah. Holy shit. And that's the opening.

Unfortunately, we then take a left hand turn to focus on an ice-cream seller who's in love with a circus performer. She can't marry him, because the circus is about to be taken over by some guy who isn't but might as well be Snidely Whiplash. In order to stop this, a plan is hatched where Rudolph, and Frosty (along with wife and kids - see Frosty's Winter Wonderland) will head down to use their star-power to drum up an audience. In order to get the Frosty family to go along, Winterbolt gives them magical amulets that will keep them frozen solid until the fireworks are finished as part of an over-complicated evil scheme.

Santa agrees to swing by and pick up the snow-people at the last minute, and everyone stupidly assumes nothing could possibly go wrong.

Meanwhile, Winterbolt enlists the aid of an evil reindeer named Scratcher, probably the movie's most disappointing addition. The character's lead in involves a dark side to the fairy-tale world of these specials - a forest of burned Christmas trees, a cave of lost rejections - you get the idea. But Scratcher is whiny and lazy, not scary - he's a missed opportunity if ever there was one.

He heads down and plays nice with Rudolph, eventually convincing him to act as an unwilling accomplice in a theft. For some reason, this triggers the fail safe on Rudolph's magic: that it will only work so long as its used for good. He can't set the record straight, because Winterbolt blackmails Rudolph into staying quiet: he's already delayed Santa and Mrs. Claus, and only his magic can keep the Frosty family alive.

But that's not enough for Winterbolt. He learns the truth behind Frosty's hat, that its magic can be duplicated (again, that's pretty much how Frosty's family came to life) and could be used to create an army of evil snowmen.

Again - holy snow shit. The music's annoying, and the stuff I'm glossing over is boring, but when this thing goes dark, it goes dark. I guess Frosty's magic isn't inherently good or evil: it's a raw power of creation.

He gets it away from Frosty by offering to return Rudolph's magic, which is an outright lie. But by this time Rudolph's already had a vision of Lady Boreal telling him he can get his own damn magic back if he's brave. When he discovers Winterbolt has taken Frosty's hat, turning him into a normal (though still unmeltable) snowman, he gives chase, battling the snakes who pull Winterbolt's sleigh and the warlock himself. Rudolph recovers the hat and his magic, but Winterbolt's not quite done.

But he's close: the woman who owns the circus smashes his ice scepter using the iron handles of her gun (a line connecting the power of iron over magical beings would have been a nice touch, but we assume that's why this worked), and he screams in pain and terror as he transforms into a tree.

The Frosties melt, because his power's no longer sustaining them, but it's all cool: Big Ben shows up with Jack Frost, and they fix it, then Santa and Mrs. Claus ferry the snow-people back to the North Pole.

Oh, and Snidely whatever-his-name-was gets arrested, and the circus is saved or something.

After typing that, I feel better about spoiling everything, since I'm pretty sure I did a better job conveying the story than the movie did. Again, this is mostly filler, and what its filled with gets old fast. But the animation is good, and the core story is great.

The July elements operate on a few different levels. First, this is a fairly standard "Santa in the off-season" tale, though it's more an adventure than the usual vacation stories we see. It comes close to delving into the whole broken solstice trope I wrote about, but we never actually learn if Winterbolt plans to overturn the seasons (he has a line about the world being his snowball, but it's not clear how metaphorical that is).

The primary use of July is to introduce the warmth of the season to the Frosty clan, a concept used to some effect in Frozen, too. Though, it could be argued that Frosty is used as something to be threatened by the July weather: the character serves little purpose except as something the main character needs to protect. Ultimately, he's really a damsel in distress, at least structurally.

I still like this quite a bit, and I'll double-down on Lindsay's recommendation, with the caveat that it's not for everyone. For every sequence of ice dragons and dark magic, you've got a love song between Frosty and his wife that will make you seriously consider if it's worth it.

But, damn. I've got to recommend this for the revelation Frosty's hat could be weaponized for evil alone. That's just awesome.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Saved by the Bell, the New Class: Christmas in July (1994)

I’d like to say that we saved the worst for near the end on purpose, but it was just challenging to get a hold of this episode. It turns out that these DVDs are out of print for a reason.

Here’s what I know about Saved by the Bell: There was a character named Screech, and it must have come on after something I watched regularly, because the theme song is familiar.

Here’s what I know about Saved by the Bell: The New Class: When I was looking for Christmas in July television episodes, I found out that there was a spin-off of Saved by the Bell.

So, with that lack of knowledge in place, let’s begin.

This is a heavily Christmasy episode, which we appreciate, and it packs an impressive amount of plot into 22 minutes. It does this by making every line, beat, and sound effect exquisitely painful to experience, thus extending the subjective time spent watching.

I can’t say this enough: do not under any circumstances watch this show. Making it was a waste of electricity, props, and craft services. The writing is atrocious, the acting broad beyond the point of parody, the unnecessary laugh track and sound effects are distracting and awful.

The main cast seems to be a bunch of teenagers and young adults who work at a… I guess it’s a country club? I don’t know for sure. There’s a couple older adults too. Maybe this is a summer episode, and the “regular” episodes take place in school? The opening credits seemed to take place at school.

Anyhow, the country club holds a “Christmas in July” party every year. First up: Secret Santa Drawing.

Screech is still a character in this show, and every second he is on screen I want to put the actor out of all of our misery. In any case, he rigs the Secret Santa so he selects his girlfriend. And immediately I don’t understand. She doesn’t seem to work there (her dad is the head boss), while Screech and the teens do, and there are a lot of names in the bowl and a big fancy banner, so are both staff and guests involved in a mandatory gift-giving activity? That sounds horrible and vaguely in violation of good workplace ethics.

My misgivings are confirmed, incidentally, by the subplot about the two boys who draw the supervisor and the boss. Both adult men proceed to drop hints about expensive gifts to their underpaid juvenile subordinates. Everyone in this world is a horrible person, and that goes double for all the people on the laugh track.

Next Christmas activity: The Snow Queen Pageant.

In keeping with the “everyone’s a scuzzball” theme, this is a beauty pageant for the (juvenile, underpaid) female staff, and the prize is a thousand dollars towards college. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be annoyed by yourself, viewer. You can be annoyed at Megan, who heads up a subplot about the sexism inherent in swimsuit competitions. Her objections are so annoying and pathetic in execution that I can only imagine how many kids watching this decided that sexism was A-okay if it would drive off people like Megan.

The other plot is also a follow-on from the Secret Santa. Screech’s girlfriend (the boss’s daughter, remember?) receives a car from her dad, and Screech decides he has to get her something extravagant, proving that he doesn’t know her or the conventions of after-school television very well. First he sells pictures with “Santa” to raise extra money, and when that doesn’t work, he sells his scooter to buy her a gold sports watch.

These scenes interweave with the aforementioned “pressure teenage boys to buy presents for adult men” and “sexism 101” plots. Megan tries to get the other girls to walk out on the pageant, but they decide they need the money. The boys trade Secret Santa names and each come up with a half-ass solution.

Megan finally decides to crash the swimsuit competition in a ridiculous 80’s power suit and give a painful speech about it, thereby clinching the thousand bucks. She was ahead of her time in claiming the trappings of feminism to get herself ahead.

I guess Screech’s girlfriend knew they were supposed to do “Gifts of the Magi” but didn’t know how it went, because she bought him a used and broken-looking horn for his scooter but didn’t sacrifice anything. She does refuse to keep the bracelet. The episode closes on some awkwardly forced caroling.

So today we’ve learned rich people can have anything they want, sexism is bad but you can solve it by posturing to gain sympathy, and minimum wage employees should be grateful that all their bosses want out of them is overpriced gifts.

Merry Christmas in July!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Avengers: Take-Over (1969)

That's the British Avengers - a pair of super-spies - not their American counterparts. These Avengers predate Lee and Kirby's team by a couple of years.

I'm not 100% certain of this, but I think this is the first full episode of the classic series I've ever seen. It won't be the last - there's an actual Christmas episode from 1965 that's on our list. I have, however, seen the 90's movie, which I kind of love despite the fact it's an awful movie.

Apparently, the one we just watched isn't the best to start with. Both tonally and structurally, it's a long way from the norm. The episode opens with Steed and Tara going separate ways. Tara, filling in for the more iconic Emma Peel, is barely present at all: other than this scene and a few at the end, this is a solo adventure for John Steed, who's going to visit some old friends to celebrate Christmas in February.

Quick aside: I think we've already made it pretty clear that we're playing pretty fast and loose with the "July" part of "Christmas in July". As long as it's Christmas being celebrated in the wrong month, it counts.

That said, there's virtually no Christmas being celebrated in this episode whatsoever. The whole thing seems to be a quick gag, present for a single scene then abandoned. The conceit is that John and his war buddy were once POW's together, and they wound up losing track of time. Their calendar got a few months off, so they were accidentally celebrating Christmas in February. They made it an annual tradition, which has continued to this day.

You got all that? Great - forget it, because it's not coming up again.

See, Steed's friends are currently being held hostage when he arrives. He doesn't realize at first, because their captors have implanted miniature explosive pellets in their necks and are threatening to detonate them if Steed catches on. Forced to play along, the whole thing becomes an elaborate game of life and death.

Eventually, they wound Steed while hunting, and he manages to trick them into believing he's stumbled into a bog and been swallowed up by mud. He gets back just after Tara reappears, and the two of them stop the villains from assassinating a bunch of diplomats with a missile.

I suspect that sounded significantly more zany than it actually was. Unlike most episodes, this one was relatively serious in tone. Fortunately, the synopsis also reads a lot dumber than the episode came off. For all the weird turns, this delivered some decent suspense.

It helped that the villains were at once fascinating and disturbing. The lead bad guy had a fantastic voice that was simultaneously refined, commanding, and chillingly evil. The other significant villain was the brilliant young woman who invented the exploding capsules and the method for surgically implanting them. Her character comes off as eerily alien - she seems less evil than completely detached from human feelings. She's sort of a playful sociopath existing in her own world.

There are still quite a few bad decisions in the episode: the bog thing makes very little sense, it's not clear why Steed doesn't do more earlier, and the villains make a handful of mistakes. But the bad guys and the suspense succeed in redeeming this, at least as a standalone story.

As I said earlier, the holiday elements are basically present as an extended joke. Still, it offers an interesting look at the Christmas in July trope (even if it's off by five months). In this case, it's a holiday tradition with an interesting origin story. I'd certainly have liked more time on it (it was something of a plot point that his friends had forgotten all about it due to the home invasion), but it was a fun idea.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Christmas Music in July

Christmas in July is not the source of nearly so much music as its wintry predecessor, but there are a few songs out there.

Christmas in July, Sufjan Stevens

I’ll start with the one that we already had in our library. This singer is not my style, especially when it comes to holiday music. It’s not terrible, but it is not something I would actively choose to listen to again. The singing is just this side of whining, the edge of dissonance annoying, the lyrics thin and probably meaningless.

In this case, it seems Christmas in July is a metaphor for something being out of place, I guess? The only edge of meaning I can get out of this is annoying - anyone who alludes to the fish on a bicycle saying in the context of “missing a chance” doesn’t deserve to get the girl who eluded him.

Christmas In July, Jonathan Coulton & John Roderick

Aww, I like this one! This is a chipper little number. It’s a nice take-off on the “island holiday” tropes better known in songs like Christmas Island. The combination of holiday references and summer imagery is well done. It’s surprisingly not-snarky for a piece from Coulton.

Everyday Is Just Like Christmas, Ethel Merman in Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July

Not brilliant lyrics - it rhymes “day” with “day” - but I can get behind this piece. It's short and sweet, the kind of simple one-verse showstopper that only a voice like Ethel Merman can do justice to.

Christmas in July, Tracey Singer

This apparently obscure children’s singer/songwriter came up through a Google search, and I had no idea what to expect. Actually, for children’s music, it’s not half-bad.

It’s not exactly something I’d add to a favorite playlist, but it is an honest-to-goodness Christmas in July song, about a hypothetical second holiday. It’s bouncy and catchy with a chorus that would be easy for kids to learn.

The RNC Is Like Christmas In July, Stephen Colbert on The Late Show

Stephen Colbert’s song opening his coverage of last week’s Republican National Convention actually did a really fun job combining Christmas imagery with a song that has more in common with the Fourth of July than the summer tropes Coulton played with above.

And... that’s about it. There is an album or two with this title but I’ve already reached the end of actual songs about Christmas in July, at least that I was able to find.

Honorable Mention:

One more special shout-out to a song that may not be strictly Christmas, but as we said in our review, it’s certainly Christmas-in-July-adjacent:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Road to Avonlea: Christmas in June (1995)

When we borrowed this DVD from the library, I wasn’t sure whether I had seen this show. It turns out that my confusion is because the Disney Channel just called this show “Avonlea,” because the opening sequence was definitely stored in my deep memories.

Avonlea, or Road to Avonlea, is sort of a spin-off of Anne of Green Gables, based loosely on other L.M. Montgomery stories and produced as a joint production between a Canadian television station and the Disney Channel. That should be enough to give you an idea. It’s a melodrama, a soap opera safe for children, following the citizens of Avonlea through the vagaries of their lives.

However, I don’t remember this episode at all. It mostly focuses on Cecily King. I have some memory of her mother as a character, but I don’t remember her. (Aha, Wikipedia tells me that the character’s actress switched around this time.)

Cecily has tuberculosis, like you do if you live in the early 1900s and need some extra drama. She has been taken into a prestigious sanitarium in an effort to get well. Early on her mother visits her and later expresses to her husband a concern that it might not be the best place for Cecily to actually heal. But that isn’t the plot.

The plot concerns a group of charity cases - sick newsboys from New York. They were sponsored into the sanitarium by some foundation and proceed to cause havoc in the quiet hospital. The ringleader, Louis, is a brash tale-spinner with a very broad Brooklyn accent.

For sweet Cecily from quiet Prince Edward Island, a cliche puppy love was inevitable.

Cecily and Louis hate each other at first, of course, and they fight in the best LMM style, with wit and cutting remarks and occasional physical violence. (In this case a food fight, rather than a broken slate.)

One of the annoying and distracting things about this episode was the inconsistent and often poorly done makeup. They want the kids to look ‘sick,’ but they often look like they either fell into a flour sack or are auditioning for a vampire movie.

Louis’ charm and stories bring Cecily around, and they eventually become friends, which means she starts getting in trouble. He plays a prank on her in the middle of the night and they all get caught. He tries to make it up to her by preventing the head nurse from writing to her parents and accidentally starts a fire. He convinces her to sneak out again and they both fall in the river.

Well, he falls, and she goes after him and rescues him.

There’s some inconsistency throughout here: Cecily said several times that she wants to go home, but when faced with “behave or we’ll send you home,” she wants to stay. Part of that is Louis, but it’s unclear and inconsistent whether Cecily actually believes that the sanitarium is improving the patients’ health.

For all that I didn’t hate this, (because I can get behind an over-emotional melodrama when it’s dressed in pretty historical costumes) I did sometimes wonder if the same people were writing each scene, because characters’ motivations and plans seemed to change randomly.

But Lindsay, you’re saying, what about CHRISTMAS?

Well, near the end, Louis confesses his lies (about having a rich family who traveled the world) to Cecily, and mentions that he’s never even had a nice Christmas. Cecily’s parents come to investigate the reports of their daughter’s misbehavior, and she begs them to invite Louis to Avonlea once the holidays roll around.

Her father stares weirdly into the camera and says he has a better idea. That evening, Cecily wheels Louis (sick from the river escapade) out into the yard for a Christmas party in the summer. There’s a decorated tree, presents, and singing, and Cecily’s dad plays Santa.

Awww. But all cannot be fixed by out-of-season holiday cheer, and Louis succumbs to his illness the next day.

One more weird point: I don’t know whether it was the station, the writers, or Disney, but they never say, “Louis died.” They just say “we’re sorry,” fold his clothes somberly, and make poor distraught Cecily figure it out in silence.

Of course, this means no one has to point out that maybe the party was not such a great idea.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Existential Horror and Pagan Connections of Christmas in July

When we started this project, I expected media built around Christmas in July parties, along with a few "Santa in the off-season" stories, and maybe a few things that related to marketing events. What I wasn't expecting were stories built around pagan themes and elements of horror. But there were quite a few.

It turns out that Christmas in July, for all its jovial connotations, is potentially an extinction level event. In hindsight, I probably should have seen this coming.

At its core, Christmas - or more accurately the Solstice, but they're really one and the same - represents a sort of perceived compact with the seasons. The celebration marks the turning point when the days start growing longer. It's a ritual for bringing back the sun's light and warmth.

In this form, the invocation of Christmas in July can represent a shattering of this compact. But uncoupling Midwinter from its rightful place in time, we're potentially bringing about the coldest, darkest point on the calendar without any guarantee it will end. Arguably, it's an inversion of this moment, so instead of changing from cold to warm, we're transforming the warmth of summer into an endless winter.

Or, to put it in less pretentious terminology, attempting to pull in the pleasant aspects of the holiday can inadvertently break the system it represents.

We see this idea come up frequently in the Christmas in July stories, sometimes in surprising contexts. Transformers: Rescue Bots isn't exactly a deep show, but when a weather machine malfunctions, it nearly brings about eternal winter. We see variations on the same catastrophe almost occur in Phineas and Ferb Save Summer, and It's Punky Brewster. While the causes differ, the core idea remains - the price of bringing winter into summer may be the end of the seasons as we know them... and possibly the end of life.

Similar ideas are played with in Frozen. I've defended this movie as a sort of honorary Christmas movie in the past, but Christmas in July would be more accurate. Once again, the unchecked power of winter threatens to overtake the world. Summer becomes winter, and characters face the possibility it will never change back.

None of this seems to connect with the much more mundane origins of the Christmas in July tradition, but it's a fascinating subset of specials and episodes I assumed would lack any substance. And it makes a nice change of pace from everything focused on taking early Christmas card pictures and throwing ironic holiday parties.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Haven: Silent Night (2011)

Ostensibly based on The Colorado Kid, a mystery novel by Stephen King, Haven is probably better described as a homage to the genre writer's body of work. It centers around a police officer drawn to Haven, a fictitious Maine town beset by strange phenomenon.

This is the only episode we've seen - naturally, we were drawn by its Christmas in July connections. And what connections those were: this episode offers not only a unique spin on that conceit, but a new Christmas/horror archetype as well.

We've seen killer elves, killer reindeer, killer snowmen, killer Santa (so damn many killer Santas), killer Christmas trees, killer gifts, killer stockings, killer decorations, killer snow... honestly, I was pretty sure I'd seen it all. But this went and offered a new spin: killer Christmas.

It opens with a woman hearing Silent Night while surfing off the coast, seconds before being cut in half. Soon after, we cut to the town, where our main characters are finishing breakfast at the local bakery while holiday decorations are going up. This grates on police officer and supernatural detective Audrey Parker, since it's July. She gets into an argument with her partner, who dismisses her cynicism on the ground she just doesn't like Christmas.

See, while he knows it's July, he also knows it's Christmas Eve. Everyone in Haven does, in fact. And no amount of arguing or reasoning can get them to change their minds. But a off-season Christmas and some unnamed woman being cut in half aren't the only things wrong: people are vanishing, seemingly being erased from existence and memory. Only Audrey is immune (my understanding is that she's immune to all the weird stuff that happens in town). She hears a few bars of Silent Night right before it happens, giving the tune an even creepier vibe.

It takes a while, but we finally get some context for the woman cut in half: she was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a glass dome appeared over Haven. But this time it's not aliens - it's a snow globe. More specifically, Haven's being transformed into a giant snow globe, and a minor character Audrey met in a movie theater at the beginning's at the center of it all.

The girl in question inherited supernatural powers from her grandfather, who had a similar experience around model trains decades earlier. People around him vanished, never to return. But around the time all the series regulars but Audrey had disappeared, it was pretty clear this one would have a happier ending.

Actually, the ending was far too happy. Audrey helped the angsty teenage girl cope with her parents' separation, which allowed her to undo the damage. Everyone who'd vanished reappeared, having no memories of the day, and the woman who'd been cut in half... wasn't addressed by the writers. Instead Audrey made peace with the holidays, and threw a Christmas in July party for all her very confused friends.

The holiday elements were definitely the strong point this time around. The music, coupled with the growing sense of isolation as more and more characters disappeared, created a genuinely disturbing tone, even as the absurdity of treating Christmas itself as a formless, existential threat offered limitless humor. The Christmas in July concept only ratcheted up the comedy and creepiness further - bravo. This was a really inspired premise and execution... at least up until the end.

Calling the resolution sappy is an understatement: the writing in this scene got downright painful, and the attempt to parallel the girl's emotional problems with Audrey's own holiday reservations was cloying to watch. Things like this always make the mistake of shoehorning in a classic Scrooge-style turnaround, which is rarely satisfying. I'd have been far happier if Audrey had walked away from this more turned off by Christmas than ever - it would felt less redundant and truer to the character and her journey.

On top of all that, I'm actually kind of irritated they never got around to covering whether the surfer lived. Audrey had seen her body, but it vanished earlier. The fact we never saw her go to check makes her come off as a horrible police officer and person. Either there's half a woman on the beach waiting for a kid to trip over it, or there's a woman who's very lucky the unexplained temporal anomaly wasn't malevolent in nature. You'd think she'd at least look into it.

All that said, I liked the interesting twists more than I disliked the issues. While the characters and the overall premise of the series might come off as an amalgamation of X-Files/Twin Peaks/every other supernatural show on TV, the premise of this particular episode was quite a bit fresher. I still can't quite bring myself to label this highly recommended (the merits are skewed towards those of us who have seen a lot of Christmas episodes), but I enjoyed it quite a bit.