The Cricket on the Hearth (1967)

What kind of fever-dream-caused-by-too-much-eggnog is this?

On the topic of Rankin Bass animated specials that we heretofore missed, we actually bought this on DVD years ago and then forgot we never watched it. And we definitely hadn't watched this before, because we definitely would have remembered it.

We were left with the overall impression of an animation director with a lot of big artistic ideas, a contracted number of songs, and absolutely no interest in whether the final product makes a speck of sense. The animation designs are stylized in such a way that they don't move well, and the whole experience is best summed up as "odd."

The story of the special isn't actually the story of the novella; the credits even say "suggested by," rather than "based on." I think this is a shame, as I actually enjoyed the original story (despite it not really being set at Christmas at all). The character list is pared down drastically and several characters are combined. Meanwhile, the cricket in the title, rather than being mostly a metaphor with a brief appearance, gets a voice, a snappy suit, and a starring role. 

After establishing the idea that crickets are lucky in a lengthy opening number, Cricket Crocket moves in with toymaker Caleb Plummer and his daughter, Bertha. Bertha's fiance, Edward, is a naval officer and is going away to sea for a few years. (Note that in the original story, Edward is Bertha's brother, Bertha is a very minor character, and there's a whole other family of characters that includes Edward's fiance.) That awkward fact aside, they sing about their love, Bertha sings about missing him, time passes, and we wonder when anything is going to happen. 

The songs are wild, I must note. The music is similar to other Rankin Bass productions of the same era, if a bit blander on average, and the lyrics are often bizarre. What was the point of a whole song about how sometimes you cry when you're happy? These average songs, however, are often paired with visuals that are inventive, odd, sometimes bordering on psychedelic. Those animators were asked to fill time, and they used all kinds of unique techniques to do so. This doesn't make the special great, but it does make it sometimes weirdly watchable considering how little happens over how much runtime.

Anyway, an evil-looking messenger arrives and tells Bertha quite brusquely that Edward was lost at sea. She is struck blind by this news, because Bertha was blind in the original story, although not due to lost love. Spending all his time looking after her causes Caleb to lose his business and their home, and we're starting to wonder what's so lucky about the cricket who's tagging along providing commentary on all this. 

Eventually Caleb finds a job working for Tackleton, another toymaker, although really he's being deeply exploited, working long hours for only meager room and board. He decides that Bertha doesn't need to know the truth about their desperate situation and so tells her that his employer is wonderful, their room is beautiful, etc. (There's a song about this.)

As Christmas approaches, Caleb takes in an old drifter on hard times (who is obviously Edward in disguise), and they prepare to celebrate. (There's a song about this, an awkward one that includes such groundbreaking info as the fact that there was no snow in Bethlehem!) However, the slimy Tackleton decides to propose to Bertha, and (knowing only her father's lies about his goodness) she accepts. (There's a song about this.) Caleb can't bear to tell her the truth and so doesn't encourage her to call off the wedding, which seems like a terrible thing to do to someone you claim to love. Edward almost tells her the truth about him, but runs off instead when he hears that she's engaged.

Cricket has been trying to sabotage meetings between Bertha and Tackleton, but Tackleton finally tells his crow (oh yes, he has a pet crow in this version) to put out a hit on the cricket. 

At this point, the crow enters into a heretofore entirely unseen parallel society of anthropomorphic animals, listens to a song at an animal nightclub/strip joint, and hires a monkey and a dog to help him kill the Cricket. I think we were just staring in utter disbelief. 

[Side note: A quick journey round the internets tells me that I am not the only person to notice the surface-level similarities between this and the weirdest scene in (the brilliant Disney classic) The Great Mouse Detective, but I haven't been able to confirm any influence or like source they were both paying tribute to. Anyone with info about this, please reach out!]

The crow and his accomplices decide to kidnap and sell the cricket rather than kill him, because apparently the Chinese pay well for English bugs in this upside-down world. This goes well until the ship captain that they sell Cricket Crocket to double-crosses them, and MURDERS THEM. Yup, just straight up shoots them.

Cricket escapes by playing dead and then riding an improbable number of inconsistently sized sea creatures (who would definitely not be in the Thames) back to London. When he arrives home, it's midnight on Christmas Eve, and... all the toys in the toyshop come to life. After a lot of pointless discussion, the toys tell Cricket that Edward is Edward and some of how he made it back to England. But before they can finish, their hour of life is done and they go back to being toys. Thanks for wasting our time with that entire digression. 

Cricket accosts Edward to get the rest of the story and Edward finally explains that he was in disguise because he didn't want to barge back into Bertha's life if she'd moved on from him. Cricket tells him he's being an idiot (adding in some fairly sexist language about Bertha, too) and convinces him to talk to her. They wake her, she's naturally ecstatic that Edward isn't dead, and they immediately get married, although the visual is just a pan over a weird still frame, not an animated sequence. (There's a song here, although it's a reprise.)

Tackleton is angry, but Bertha (still being misled, although I have no idea whether her blindness is permanent) says some nice things about him, and he decides that one person being kind to him is enough to change his whole personality. 

One more song, a return of the terrifying "old" version of Cricket Crocket who introduced the story, and roll the credits. 

Overall, this special is exceedingly weird, but every so often the animation does something almost intriguing. The rest of the visuals, however, are pretty low-budget and slapdash. I don't think it's worth sitting through, but if you have the right interests or the right attitude it might be so-bad-it's-good.