Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Films from My Childhood

When you're a kid, few times of the year can match the absolute magic of Christmas I feel. Whether it's the amazing bright lights and decorations, the fact that you're off of school for a time, the crisp white snow (depending on where you live, though, seeing as how the only white Christmas I've ever had was just a couple of years ago), or, best of all, the presents, there's no doubt that Christmas is something you never forget when you're a child. And everybody has their own special traditions for the holiday as well. One that I had for the longest time was that myself and my two cousins would spend the night with my grandmother a week before Christmas. It would just be a chance for us to spend some time together and hang out. Nana would always give us some little tiny presents that night (like suction-cup guns or slinkies) and even though she knew that we were too old and wise to fall for this, she would always say that Santa Claus brought them by and would actually have us go in the next room while she put whatever she got us into our stockings and would then run to the door, waving and yelling, "Bye, Santa!" Old habits die hard, I guess. Anyway, that tradition lasted up until middle school, when we got a little too old to do that. One tradition that has still lasted, however, is the fact that we go to the house of my grandmother on my father's side (the one that let us spend the night with her) on Christmas Eve and to the house of my grandmother on my mother's side on Christmas Day (usually anyway, because sometimes we've had to go to my sister's house). We eat dinner, exchange presents, and, overall, spend the holiday with people from both sides of the family. As I said in my review of A Charlie Brown Christmas, while Christmas has lost some of its luster for me in recent years, it's personal, ongoing traditions like those that still manage to bring a smile to my face every year and remind me that Christmastime can still be a joyous, enjoyable season.

In any case, that's not what this post is going to be about. As the title says, this is going to be about Christmas stuff that I remember from when I was a kid. This is not going to be like my Memories of Horror post where I go throughout my entire life and talk about how Christmas changed and evolved for me because that would be beyond what the scope of this blog is meant to be (even that introduction up above is kind of pushing it). Instead, I'm just going to muse for a little bit about movies, cartoons, and so on from my childhood that I have memories of. Some of them are good memories, naturally, but some of them not so much. In fact, some of these... things are kind of traumatizing for a little kid and, to this day, I'm not exactly sure why this stuff is put in with actual Christmas material. I'm not exactly sure where this thing is going to go because I'm kind of doing this by the seat of my pants and it was something I came up with just a couple of days before I started writing it. I'll try my best to keep it coherent and to the point though.

Let's start with a good memory. Everybody has those Christmas films that they grew up with that pretty much epitomize the season and their childhood memories of it. For many, it's classics like Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life or even more contemporary films like A Christmas Story (I'll get to that presently) but for me, it's a select group of films from the early 90's that I saw many times while growing up. One is the film that has basically become a Christmas tradition all its own: Home Alone. I've already reviewed this film so I won't take up much time with it here but I remember back when I was a young kid, NBC would always play this film either on Thanksgiving or the day after as a sort of tradition to commemorate the end of Thanksgiving and the beginning of the Christmas season (not that that applies to nowadays, though, seeing as how the Christmas season now seems to begin right after Halloween or even a little bit before) and I have fond memories of always watching it around that time. It's one of those films where I can't remember exactly when I saw it for the first time, seeing as how I was only three when it was originally released, and, if I were going to make a guess, I probably first saw it not too long after it came to video due to one of my cousins having owned a copy (I never owned it myself, though) but, how ever it came into my life, it's just a film that's always been a part of Christmastime for me ever since I was young. When I was a little kid, I obviously enjoyed the slapstick involving the burglars near the end of the film but, as I've gotten older, I've learned to enjoy the film's deeper themes such as the importance of family around Christmas as well as just the warm feeling that the music and visuals give me every time I watch it (particularly the ending scene where Kevin sees that Marley has reconciled with his son and now won't have to spend Christmas by himself). Granted, there are some things about it that I'm not too keen on (I still want to punch Buzz and Uncle Frank every time I watch it) but, still, it's always been a tradition for me, especially now that I have the DVD. I try to watch it every Christmas. The same goes for Home Alone 2, although I'm even less sure of how I first saw that one. NBC never played it (in fact, it's always been looked down upon when compared to the first one), but I remember seeing it a few times as a kid as well. Maybe I saw it on some other channels or it could have been due to my cousin again but what ever the case, it seems to have always been as big a part of Christmastime for me as the original. While it is little more than the original done again in a new setting, I think there are some things about that are just as enjoyable. In fact, I think it's a lot funnier than the original when it gets to the slapstick as well as when it comes to the schtick with Tim Curry as the hotel concierge (the part where Kevin fools him an inflatable pool toy and a recording of his uncle singing in the shower always cracks me up as well as the rehash of the gag with the old gangster movie from the first film). It may not quite have as much as heart as the original, sure, and more than likely it was meant as just a cash-in on that film's incredible success but, like the first one, it's always been a tradition for me to watch it at Christmastime (which isn't hard to do seeing as how ABC Family plays the crap out of it around this time).

The other Christmas film that was the embodiment of the season when I was a child was the 1993 Disney flick, The Santa Clause. If Home Alone was the film from my childhood that personified the family side of Christmas, then this was the movie that did that for the magical fantasy side. Let's face it, as a kid we all believed in Santa Claus. It doesn't matter that we eventually discovered that he isn't real. We simply believed in something truly magical at one point in our lives and, for me, this movie embodies that perfectly. Like Home Alone, I'm not exactly sure when I first saw The Santa Clause but I'm pretty sure it was either at school during one of those times when the teachers had nothing to teach us one particular day and decided to show us a movie or it was one of the many times the film was shown on ABC's Magical World of Disney in December. In any case, it became another film that I've loved ever since I was a kid and it also "taught" me how Santa Claus makes all of his toys, how he delivers them, how he gets down chimneys that are far too small for him or even into houses that don't have chimneys (which I myself wondered, seeing as how our chimney has never worked and is actually blocked off) and so on. Plus, it doesn't hurt that Tim Allen is just awesome in the film. I actually knew of him when I first saw the movie because of the popularity of Home Improvement, although I was too young to watch and enjoy the show at the time, and so, it was interesting to see him become Santa Claus. I never actually thought that he really was Santa but I did think he did a good job "playing" him, enough so that I was sure that the real Santa was very proud. Looking back at this film as an adult, I think it's a testament to Allen's talent that he could begin playing the character of Scott Calvin as such a cynical person who doesn't believe in Santa, wants no part in becoming Santa himself, and initially tries to pass the whole thing off as a weird delusion but eventually embraces his responsibility and becomes Santa in every way imaginable, all in such a believable fashion. It takes a really good actor to do that, which is what I've always felt Allen is. In any case, I think The Santa Clause, like Home Alone, is a modern Christmas classic worthy of being alongside all those others from yesteryear. I haven't seen the film in a long time though but, hopefully, I will get a chance to see it again this year. And before you ask, I've never seen either of the sequels, mainly because by the time they finally came out, I didn't really care but also because I've heard that they weren't that good either. It's a testament to the fact that some films just don't need sequels.

Like I said earlier, the movie that personifies the holiday season for many people is Bob Clark's A Christmas Story from 1983. Whenever somebody asks me if I've ever seen that movie, my response is always, "It'd be impossible not to," due to TBS' 24-hour marathons of it lasting from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. A Christmas Story is an odd film for me because it's one of those movies that I've always been aware of, whose most famous scenes and lines I've always known (the frozen tongue scene, "You'll shoot your eye out, kid," and so on), and yet, I can't remember how it first came into my life. Now, this is not in the same way as it was with Home Alone and The Santa Clause. Yes, I can't pinpoint the first times I saw those movies but that said, I remember watching them from beginning to end whenever they played on television when I was a kid and, like I said, they became holiday staples of mine. A Christmas Story, however, is sort of an enigma to me. The first time I may have really watched it was when we were shown it during middle school but I'm pretty sure that I had seen bits of it beforehand, particularly that part with the tongue. Granted, those 24-hour marathons of it began on TNT in 1997 when I was ten years old so I no doubt first caught snippets of the film around that time but, again, this is all speculation on my part. And, honestly, until just last year, I had never seen the film completely from beginning to end. I had seen so much of it during those marathons that I felt I knew the story and didn't really see the point of watching it all the way through. But, however I first became aware of it, I can safely say that, as an adult and having finally seen it all the way through, I do understand why it's such a beloved flick. Even though it's set in the 1940's, the film's depiction of childhood and Christmastime is quite relatable, be it from really wanting a great gift for Christmas, having to deal with bullies, peer pressure from your fellow classmates to do something both painful and stupid (though I can't remember the kids at my school ever saying, "I double-dog dare you,"), saying your first swear word in front of your parents (something that I remember all too well, I'm afraid), and so on. It really is a film that encompasses all of your memories of both the season and just growing up in general. For that reason, I can definitely understand why people love this film so much and I also can, in all probability, see myself checking it out again come Christmas Eve.

Cartoon Network played a lot of Christmas-oriented cartoons and films during their annual Christmas marathons, something which has now been taken up by Boomerang. As I said in my review of it, this is where I saw The Town Santa Forgot for the first time. Of course, there was a lot, lot more to it than just that. They played Christmas episodes of The Flintstones and The Jetsons, episodes which you never saw for the rest of the year, I might add. The former episode was about Fred getting a part-time job as a department store Santa and eventually having to perform Santa's Christmas Eve duties when ol' St. Nick comes down with a cold. Typical episode but enjoyable nonetheless. As for The Jetsons, their episode was always one from the 80's revival of the show and basically told the story of A Christmas Carol, with Mr. Spacely being visited by the three ghosts of Christmas after he's been very Scrooge-like to George and his other employees. There's also a subplot with Astro accidentally swallowing a sprocket after messing around with a mechanical cat he got as a present and being in danger of dying since all the veterinarians are closed for the holiday. It's a nice episode, although the only reason why Mr. Spacely decides to "change" his ways and help the Jetsons save Astro is because he hears that he'll eventually die in poverty because George sues him for making the sprocket that killed Astro, which leads to the Jetson family becoming millionaires. Not a very noble reason for Spacely's change of heart but, regardless, it's still an enjoyable episode I think. Going back to The Flintstones, there were a couple of other Christmas specials involving them. One was simply called A Flintstones Christmas, which had the same fundamental plot as that aforementioned actual episode of the show except Barney joins Fred in taking Santa's place and this time, it's actually Fred's fault since Santa sprains his ankle on Fred's roof. A much later special from 1994 called A Flintstones Christmas Carol also often played during the marathons and still does during the Boomerang one nowadays. It's not exactly what you would think it would be, though. Instead of a simple retelling of the story except with the Flintstones characters playing the various parts, it's actually about Fred being cast in the role of Scrooge in a performance of it at a Bedrock theater but he becomes so obsessed with it that he starts to become greedy and selfish himself and goes through the same arc that Scrooge did while performing the play. While I personally like A Flintstones Christmas more, this is still pretty good and let me tell you, Fred does the whole Scrooge thing much better than Mr. Spacely.

While The Smurfs was never a show I was all that keen on, I did end up watching a couple of Christmas specials based on it during those marathons. One, simply called The Smurfs' Christmas Special, I thought was the better of the two and involved the Smurfs helping two young children who are separated from their grandfather when an evil, powerful man causes their sleigh to turn over. The best thing about this special is that villain. You never find out who he is or where he came from (although Papa Smurf seems to recognize him, a concept which is never explained beyond that) but it's suggested by his powers that he could be of Satanic origin and, unlike Gargamel, he's quite an intimidating and, at times, even frightening presence. The fact that he's after these two kids and never explains what his true intentions are makes him even creepier. The other special, 'Tis the Season to Be Smurfy, is a much tamer story about Grandpa Smurf and Sassette traveling to a human village where they try to help an old couple have a merry Christmas. It was okay but I never got that excited about it, which is why I can't go into much detail simply because I don't have many solid memories of it. An odd little thing that was shown during the marathons was Christmas Comes to Pac-Land, a spin-off special of that little cartoon series based on the video game (I actually kind of remember watching that show but only vaguely since it never became something that Cartoon Network showed regularly). It's another basic story: Santa Claus, while on his Christmas Eve delivery mission, crashes his sleigh in Pac-Land and Pac-Man and his family and friends try to help him get back in the air. Of course, the Ghost Monsters end up complicating things for everyone. It's okay but was never something that I went out of my way to watch. There were also a couple of films involving Yogi Bear and the gang. One was Casper's First Christmas, which involved Yogi and the gang getting lost and ending up at an old house that, unknown to them, is inhabited by Casper the Friendly Ghost and his friend Hairy Scary. They fix the house up for Christmas and befriend Casper but Hairy Scary, who likes to scare people, at first ruins everything but has a change of heart when he discovers that Casper wrote a letter to Santa Claus in which he wished to have the housed saved from an upcoming demolition for Hairy. Another special that was okay for what it was but, again, I could take it or leave it. A better film was Yogi's First Christmas, which involved Yogi Bear and Boo Boo's normal hibernation pattern is interrupted by the Christmas festivities going on at a nearby lodge and when they realize that it's Christmastime, they decide to stay awake for the holiday. Several subplots involve the gang trying to keep the visiting lodge owner from closing it down, Yogi and Boo-Boo getting jobs at the hotel with Yogi constantly being promoted without intending to, the gang having to deal with the owner's spoiled brat nephew and a Christmas-hating hermit who is trying to have the place closed, and Yogi eventually having to fend off Cindy Bear, whom Boo-Boo awakens from her hibernation to help Yogi with his various tasks. This is actually a pretty good little flick, with lots of laughs, some nice songs, and a genuine feeling of Christmas spirit. I've never really been a fan of these characters but I have to admit when I think something is done well and for me, this film is.

And, of course, while we're on the subject of cartoons, we have to talk about Christmas-oriented cartoons featuring the classic characters most people, myself included, grew up with. I saw a lot of these not only during those marathons but also simply on VHS tapes and on Cartoon Network in general. There's the Tom and Jerry short called The Night Before Christmas, which was only the third Tom and Jerry cartoon period and also has the distinction of being the only Christmas-oriented episode from the original Hanna-Barbera era of this series. I've only seen it a few times but I remember it being pretty good, not only containing some good gags involving a bunch of toys that Jerry uses to hide in as well as to battle Tom but also a fairly moving ending when Tom chases Jerry out into the freezing cold and blocks the door so he can't get back in but he eventually has a change of heart and rescues him. The whole scene is quite striking and dramatic due to shots of Jerry desperately trying to warm himself in the freezing wind and the sounds of a choir singing carols about peace and goodwill. It's also nice to not only see Tom save his adversary from the cold and give him a candy-cane as a peace offering but for Jerry to do the same and prevent Tom from getting his tongue caught in a mousetrap that Jerry hid in his milk bowl. This plot was repeated later in one of the cartoons from the Chuck Jones era called Snowbody Loves Me, which has Jerry sneaking into a cheese shop in the Swiss Alps and Tom, who lives in the shop, begins chasing him. The ending is also the same, with Tom throwing Jerry out in the cold but he soon feels guilty about it and saves him. It was done a lot better in that earlier short in my opinion, though. And here's where I have to bring up an odd sort of theme to these cartoons. As far as those in charge of network programming and putting together compilations are concerned, all a cartoon has to feature in order to be considered Christmas-oriented is snow. There are quite a few of these old shorts that don't have anything to do with Christmas but, because they take in a snowy environment, you will often find them amongst those that actually do take place during the holiday. That's the case with Snowbody Loves Me and it's also the case with another Tom and Jerry cartoon you often see around this time of year: The A-Tom-Inable Snowman, another short that takes place in the Swiss Alps and involves a running gag where Tom has to be revived by a St. Bernard's brandy and is drunk throughout the entire cartoon. It's funny, there's no doubt about that, but it's not Christmas related at all.

As far as the Looney Tunes go, one cartoon that I often saw placed amongst Christmas cartoons was Fresh Hare, a short featuring Elmer Fudd (during his fat period in the early 40's) as a Mountie who is trying to track and arrest Bugs Bunny for a laundry list of crimes that he's been perpetrating. There's only one reference to Christmas in this cartoon and that's a gag that happens when Elmer is chasing Bugs beneath the deep snow and bashes into a snow-covered pine tree. The snow falls off the tree to reveal Christmas decoration and Elmer emerges with snow on his face that makes him look like Santa Claus. You hear Jingle Bells playing in the background and Bugs comments, "Merry Christmas, Santy." Except for that one joke, this short has nothing to do with Christmas and yet I always saw it during Christmas marathons as well as on compilations on VHS (which they could do since this one is public domain). It's okay but, again, nothing to do with the holiday. (Weirdly enough, I once saw this cartoon during a Valentine's Day marathon on Cartoon Network and they only put in there because at one point, Elmer hits a wall of ice and the impact creates a heart with an arrow through it. That, by far, is an even bigger reach.) There was also a Sylvester and Tweety cartoon entitled Tweetie Pie that had nothing to do with Christmas but, again, took place during snow-covered winter so it was always included in marathons and compilations. One that was Christmas-oriented was Gift Wrapped, which involved Sylvester trying to eat Tweety, whom Granny receives as a Christmas present, and all the while Hector the Bulldog is trying to eat Sylvester. I actually remember seeing that on a VHS that had a weird cartoon adaptation of The Night Before Christmas and another on stories from the Bible featured on it as well. Also, when I would watch these Looney Tunes cartoons on Saturday mornings as a kid, I often saw Bugs Bunny's Christmas Carol, a short from a 1979 compilation called Bugs Bunny's Looney Christmas Tales that featured Yosemite Sam as Scrooge, Porky Pig as Bob Cratchit, and Bugs as someone who tries to teach Scrooge the true meaning of Christmas by pretending to be a ghost and threatening to take him to see "the man in the red suit" (i.e. the Devil) if he doesn't change his ways. I haven't seen this cartoon in a while since it didn't play on Cartoon Network much and, obviously, it's not exactly the truest adaptation of the Dickens story, one of the biggest reasons being that it runs the typical Looney Tunes running time of just eight minutes, but I do remember some funny moments, like when Bugs puts snow in Scrooge's hot bath and so on.

While I have a lot of memories of watching Christmas-related Looney Tunes material, Disney kind of got the short end of the stick on that score when I was growing up. As I've said many times, while I watched a lot of Disney stuff when I was very, very young, I went through a phase from eight years old up until high school where I almost completely shunned it since it was a general consensus among my peers that Disney wasn't cool. Because of that, I didn't see stuff like Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas when they were originally released and when I finally did, it was when I was much older and, therefore, is beyond the scope of what this post is meant to be about. Now that said, I do have memories of seeing some Christmas-related Disney stuff as a child. The biggest one was Mickey's Christmas Carol, which played on ABC during a Disney holiday special of some sort when I was very young. I remember liking it as a kid but, naturally, I now appreciate it much more so as an adult. As I said in my actual review of it, it's amazing how well the story is adapted into a twenty-minute short and how striking the atmosphere and setpieces are. The visual of Mickey Mouse shedding a silent tear over Tiny Tim's gravestone is still quite a powerful image, especially since it's being performed by a character whose mainly known for being very happy and cheerful. And Scrooge McDuck is just awesome in playing the role of his namesake character. So, the bottom line is this is a great Christmas cartoon without a doubt and definitely worth watching on Christmas Eve. The only other Disney Christmas cartoon I remember seeing from back in the day was Pluto's Christmas Tree, a 1952 short where Mickey and Pluto chop down a little pine tree and take it back to their house. Unbeknownst to them, though, Chip and Dale are living in the tree and soon create havoc for poor Pluto. I've seen this cartoon a few times over the years and it's okay. But there's nothing special about it at all and I've never been a big fan of Chip and Dale so I don't go back to it that much. And Disney itself isn't immune to that idea of something being a Christmas cartoon just because there's snow everywhere. The one I almost always saw around this time of year was Donald's Snow Fight, where Donald Duck goes sledding one snowy day and his decision to aggravate his nephews results in all-out war with snowballs as weapons. It's a fun short, yes, but, again, it has nothing to do with Christmas except for when Donald sings Jingle Bells at the beginning. A similar one was Polar Trappers, where Donald and Goofy are at the South Pole trapping animals and while Goofy tries to trap a walrus, Donald, sick of eating beans all the time, tries to lure a bunch of penguins into his cooking pot (I'm not even going to go into how disturbing it is to think of a duck wanting to eat penguins). That's pretty much all I've got for Disney-related Christmas stuff. It's not much, I know, but I explained why it is so.

One Christmas cartoon that I saw a few times as a very young kid was Peace on Earth, a 1939 short from MGM. At that time, I was far too small to comprehend just what it was really about but now, as an adult and especially living in a time like this, I understand it all too well. One Christmas Eve, two young squirrels ask their grandfather about the "men" who are mentioned in the lyrics, "Peace on Earth, good will to men." He proceeds to tell them that men don't exist anymore and the reason for that is because their constant fighting and warring led to them being completely wiped out. Looking at this cartoon now, it really is quite powerful. The fact that the animal world in this cartoon viewed humans as monsters, as illustrated by the grandfather squirrel describing how they looked with their war gear on, implying that that's how he and all other animals always saw them, and that the young squirrels, upon hearing this description, say that they're glad that men don't exist anymore, is a rather sobering concept. Equally so is when the grandfather says that he could never understand why men fought with each other all the time, saying that another fight would start up as soon as the one before it was settled. This all leads up to a scene of the last two men on Earth shooting each other dead; enemies to the end, even though there's nothing left to fight about since they're the last of their kind. It's a grim scene to say the least. Afterward, the animals rebuild society and follow the teachings of a book that they found in a destroyed building (the Bible), especially its most important one, which inspires them to create a world ruled by peace instead of violence. Needless to say, this entire cartoon is quite an impressive piece of animation, with much more complexity and deeper meanings than most cartoons produced at the time (and, sadly enough, its message is even more relevant now than ever). I highly advise any animation buffs to check it out if they already haven't because it will definitely make you think.

As for Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, I don't think I ever saw that cartoon until I was like thirteen years old so it's teetering on the cut-off date for this post. In any case, I know the reason I saw it was because of the release of the Jim Carrey movie (and don't get me started on that atrocity), which prompted Cartoon Network to play it and I think both it and Boomerang have continued to do so in the years since. In any case, this is another Christmas special that I personally think is just okay. There's nothing wrong with it at all, it's well animated, has some memorable moments and songs, and Boris Karloff is great as the narrator and voice of the Grinch but it's not something I go out of my way to watch every year. If I come across it, I'll check it out if there's nothing else on but if I don't, then it's no skin off my nose. I don't have much else to say about it and I know some will be disappointed that I don't have that much of an opinion of it but, as always, I just have to be honest.

As far as cartoons go, Warner Bros. and Disney were the primary studios back in the day. However, there were other cartoons not produced by those studios that most of us undoubtedly saw on some public domain VHS tapes when we were little. These cartoons tend to be unlike any other cartoons produced around that time. It's hard to explain but when you watch them, you get the feeling that they exist in their own special little world. These cartoons are mostly standard fare but some of them are actually kind of scary and others are just bizarre. I saw most of these on tapes that my grandmother bought back when my cousins and I were kids and mainly during our annual Christmas sleepovers at her house, which is why I talked about that tradition at the beginning of this. It wasn't our preferred way of spending the latter part of the evening but it was harmless as well. The most unremarkable one was a three-minute, black and white musical adaptation of Frosty the Snowman from 1954. It was an okay, harmless little piece of fluff from UPA but not exactly something you would go out of your way to see over and over again. One that I did quite like as a kid and I kind of do is Santa's Surprise, a 1947 cartoon about a group of kids from all over the world who stow away on Santa's sleigh during his Christmas Eve deliveries and, upon arriving at the North Pole and seeing how exhausted Santa is, they decide to clean up his workshop and house for him. The main reason I like this cartoon is because of its depiction of Santa Claus. I just love how jolly he is, going all over the world and delivering presents to good kids, no matter where they live, and I think the song he sings while doing so shows how he takes pride in his work and asks for nothing in return. I can't find the name of the guy who voiced Santa here but I think he did it really well. It's also a nice gesture for the kids to help Santa out by tidying everything up as a token of their gratitude. Granted, I don't know how they expect to get back home from the North Pole or what they were originally planning on doing by sneaking into his sleigh but still, it shows some selflessness on their part. The only major problem with this cartoon is that some of the designs on the racially diverse group of kids are not exactly politically correct nowadays. The design of the black and Asian kids are especially cringe-inducing. But still, if you can look past that unfortunate staple of 1940's animation, this is a nice little Christmas cartoon that is worth a watch.

A rather bizarre cartoon was Jack Frost, a cartoon from 1934 that depicted the titular character as an elf-like painter who literally paints the fall colors on all of the plants. He warns the animals of the forest that Old Man Winter is on his way and advises to begin their hibernation but a snarky little bear cub doesn't heed his warning, thinking that his warm fur can keep him from freezing. However, when he sneaks out of the house when he's supposed to be hibernating since his mother spanked him for trying to do so earlier, he eventually runs into Old Man Winter and is forced to run for his life. This is just a weird little short with some bizarre musical sequences, particularly the one that involves a scarecrow coming to life and doing some weird scatting song along with the trees in the background (actually, I don't have a clue what he's supposed to be doing so I'm really just speculating). The bear cub is just annoying with his constant declaring how warm his coat is and, therefore, I don't have much pity for him when he's chased by Old Man Winter, who is portrayed as an ugly, bearded man made of snow and ice and can freeze anything that he touches. Again, it's harmless enough but it's just strange (and is another one that has nothing to do with Christmas). One that is definitely not harmless, though, is a black and white cartoon simply called The Snow Man. You want to talk about something that shouldn't be put amongst Christmas cartoons! As a reviewer on IMDB once said, this thing is more appropriate for Halloween. It's about an Eskimo kid and his animal friends who decide to build a snowman one day. Basic setup. They build the snowman and dance around it, much like you would see in a cartoon about Frosty. However, this short soon becomes as far from Frosty as you can get. The snowman unexpectedly comes to life and turns into an ugly, destructive monster who terrorizes the animals, tramples the little nearby igloo village, and so on, all the while growling and cackling like a madman. There isn't much funny in this cartoon, honestly. The scene where the snowman comes to life is terrifying, especially when his face melts into the hideous one that he has for the rest of the short, and one point, he actually swallows a little fish whole, stretches his beard out, and then laughs evilly! Even more disturbing than the snowman, though, is the singing that this walrus organist and a group of penguins are doing at a nearby church made of ice. I don't know if it's because of the bad sound quality of the cartoon or what but the singing (or at least what's supposed to be singing) that these animals do will make you want to pull your hair out! All in all, The Snow Man is a well-done and effective short but, that said, it's definitely not a Christmas cartoon and shouldn't be shown to little kids. (Although, I must say that when I saw it as a kid, I thought it was kind of cool. But, again, I was weird when I was a kid.)

While we're talking about some rather scary stuff, one Christmas-related horror flick that I have vivid memories of watching as a little kid was Gremlins. I've reviewed this movie so I won't go into too much more detail but, in any case, Gremlins was a movie that I rented many, many times when I was young. It was one of those weird sort of films that had stuff that children could enjoy like Gizmo, the Christmas setting, and the madcap, almost Looney Tunes-style gags and stuff that happen when the gremlins take over the town and yet, it still had some scary scenes like when the gremlins hatch out of their cocoons (which always freaked me out) or when the science teacher gets killed in classroom and so on. Because of all of this, you're really not quite sure who the movie is for. But, that didn't seem to matter since the film was an enormous hit and is still generally well-liked today. I caught up with it again in 2001 after having not seen it since I was a kid and since then, it's been a movie that I've always tried to watch every Christmas. I still think it holds up really well, from the likable characters to the well-done puppet effects and so on. While I don't think it should be shown to very young kids since it might scare them (as it kind of did me, even though, as I said, I rented it a lot back then), I do think it's deserving of being referred to as a Christmas classic. And since we're talking about Christmas horror films, you're probably wondering what I think of the notorious slasher flick, Silent Night, Deadly Night. The answer is... nothing. I've never seen it. Yeah, as much as I love horror films, that's always been a movie that's flown under my radar. I remember that VHS box cover when I saw it in the horror section of my local video rental store but that's it. I've never seen the actual movie. To be honest, I actually went through a period where I sort of avoided the movie because the idea of someone defaming the image of Santa Claus to the point of killing people while dressed up like him is one that I find disturbing. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not like all of those people who protested the film. I know that in the film, it's just an insane man dressed up as Santa and not really him but, still, that idea is rather troubling to me. I guess I'm just not really comfortable with something that I held near to my heart as a child being treated that way. I'm sure I'll see it and review it one day (it is one of the most infamous slasher movies ever and I am a fan so I kind of have to see it) but for now, I have nothing to say about it.

To wrap things up, let's talk about some stuff that almost everyone, for many generations, saw when they were growing up: the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. Yeah, if you were a kid at any point in time from the mid-60's on, it was almost required that you would watch these specials. Ironically enough, I know that for some, watching these specials was kind of terrifying. Something about the stop-motion animation used in the majority of these specials has had the effect of weirding some kids out and I can actually kind of understand why. Stop-motion is great when used along with live-action elements like in those old 1950's monster movies and in the films that Ray Harryhausen worked on like Jason and the Argonauts and such. But, when a film is done completely through stop-motion, it takes on a bizarre quality that can be kind of freaky. For example, those Wallace & Gromit cartoons sort of freak me out. Even though when I actually watched those cartoons I did enjoy them for the most part, something about them (as well as all of Nick Park's films, for that matter) was always kind of... 'nyaah' about them. While I personally was, for the most part, never scared by the Rankin/Bass stuff, I can understand why other people were. Maybe it's because everything is clearly artificial and the image of these wooden things moving and talking is downright creepy. Maybe it's because of the blank expressions that these characters have on their faces, even though they're talking and going through all of the various emotions. (Although, for me personally, the expressions and facial movements of the Nick Park characters make them much freakier.) It's just really hard to describe and I'm probably not doing a very good of doing so but I think those who have had this feeling while watching these specials or something similar will understand what I'm talking about. But that's not what I'm here for. I just felt I'd better bring that up because I know it's a common topic whenever these specials are discussed. In any case, let's now actually talk about these individual specials, shall we?

There were two in particular that I watched a lot as a young kid, mainly because I had them on video. One was Santa Claus is Coming To Town. That was the one that I watched the most out of all of them, even though I was too young to comprehend just how epic it was in telling the origin of Santa Claus. I never quite grasped that the character of Chris Kringle grows up to be Santa Claus (even though I knew that Chris Kringle was one of Santa's aliases) but, nevertheless, I enjoyed watching it. There were some parts of it that were a bit scary like the evil Winter Warlock, particularly when you first see him in shadow at the beginning of the special but, other than that, it was enjoyable for me. And, looking back on it now, while I don't go out of my way to watch it, I still think it's a nice little cartoon and I particularly like the voice acting of Paul Frees as the cranky burgermeister who wages war on Chris and toys in general after he hurts himself by tripping on one. I also find it interesting as an adult to see how they explain the various aspects of Santa's mythology: why he goes down chimneys, how the idea of stockings filled with toys came to be, how they got reindeer to fly, how he met Mrs. Claus, how and why his workshop was built, and why he visits all of the children in the world on Christmas Eve. In fact, some of the ways they do so are pretty creative, like how Santa started going down chimneys because the burgermeister had ordered the doors of all of the village's houses to be locked and how Santa knows if someone is being naughty and nice with the use of a magic snowball that acts as a crystal ball. Again, while it's not something that I'd go out of my way to watch every year, I do think of it as a nice little Christmas cartoon from my childhood.

The other one that I owned on VHS as a kid was Frosty the Snowman. While I didn't watch it quite as much as Santa Claus is Coming To Town, it was still one that I have fond memories of. I actually wish that Rankin/Bass had done hand-drawn animation more often than they did because I think the character designs and overall look of this cartoon are quite appealing. Again, looking at it now as an adult, I think it does hold up fairly well. I still think it has some funny moments like the whole schtick with Professor Hinkle (although he turns nasty rather quickly, I must say), that moment with the traffic cop (it's interesting to see how they build on things that were referenced in the songs these specials were based on), and so on. I think Jackie Vernon's performance as Frosty is appealing, playing him as a naive, slightly dim-witted but loveable guy and I really like Paul Frees' brief performance as Santa Claus, coming across as jolly but also forceful when he has to (if you can't tell already, I really like Paul Frees as a voice actor). Anybody who's researched this special knows that legendary voice actor June Foray originally provided the voice of Karen, the young girl who becomes Frosty's best friend but, for some unknown reason, her performance was replaced in 1970 by a girl whose identity remains unknown to this day. Whoever she is, I always thought she did a likable enough job as Karen, particularly during the emotional moments, but it's just weird that there is no information on her whatsoever. Somebody needs to track her down, if she's indeed still with us. And that leads me to the reason why I didn't watch this cartoon nearly as much as Santa Claus is Coming To Town: the scene where Frosty is melted in the greenhouse and Karen is crying over the puddle of water that used to be him. That is downright traumatizing for a little kid to see! It's made even worse by that dream-like sequence afterward with Jimmy Durante mournfully singing the song Frosty the Snowman. Yes, I know Frosty is eventually brought back to life but still, it's really sad, especially with Karen crying her eyes out (and, apparently, this other girl couldn't cry because I'm sure that's June Foray's voice when she's crying). To this day, I look at that scene and all I can think is, "Oh, that's a cruel joke, guys." But, that sad moment aside, I still think this is a Christmas classic. Just be careful what kids you show it to, particularly if your child is really sensitive. As for the sequels to this special, I've never seen Frosty's Winter Wonderland so I can't comment on it. I have seen Frosty Returns, the 1992 cartoon that CBS produced. While it isn't really a sequel since Frosty doesn't actually return from anything but just sort of shows up, it's always showed along with the Rankin/Bass cartoon so it might as well be considered a follow-up. While I don't think it's anywhere near as charming as its predecessor, I don't think it's as downright awful as a lot of people seem to think it is. I like Jonathan Winters and, while I don't think he fits the spirit and personality that Jackie Vernon established for Frosty, John Goodman does a decent enough job with what he has to work with. The animation, character designs, setting, and so on are nothing like the Rankin/Bass film and I don't think the lead girl is as memorable or likable as Karen but, for me, Frosty Returns isn't terrible. It's just okay and there's nothing wrong with that in my book.

As for the other Rankin/Bass specials, I have memories of watching Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer a few times whenever it aired on CBS. I haven't seen it in a few years but I remember liking it, particularly when it came to the snowman character that Burl Ives played and Yukon Cornelius, a prospector who's one of those characters that is cheerful and full of energy that you can't help but love him. The character that kind of scared me as a kid, though, was the Abominable Snow Monster. I didn't care that he became a good guy by the end of the film, he still freaked me out with the way he looked and the frightening roaring and growling he did. And, finally, from what I can remember from the last time I saw it, I liked that they decided to take the lyric from the song about Rudolph being shunned because of his nose and expand it into a message for kids: it's okay to be different. (Although, I remember Santa being kind of a jerk in this cartoon, since he, like nearly everyone else, wanted nothing to do with Rudolph because of his nose. You'd think that, since he's the boss, he would have told the other reindeer to treat Rudolph the same as everyone else.) And the last Rankin/Bass cartoon I remember from my childhood was Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, which may have been the craziest thing the company ever produced. Again, I haven't this cartoon in a long time but reading the plot synopsis, this is very overly complicated for something meant for children. It has to do with an evil wizard who awakens from a spell that he was put under years ago and has to get rid of Rudolph because his nose contains the only power that can defeat him as well as take back his territory from Santa Claus and he decides to take advantage of Frosty and his family in order to do so. What were the people at Rankin/Bass smoking when they came up with this? I remember watching this as a little child and not only not understanding a damn thing about it (I don't even get much of it now as an adult) but being more scared of it than any of the other specials that the company produced. The wizard, Winterbolt, is quite an intimidating villain (he's another character voiced by Paul Frees, who gives what could have been his best performance in any of these specials) but even scarier is the Genie of the Ice Scepter, who takes the form of a carved face in a wall of ice with glowing eyes, a mouth that slowly moves up and down, a strange "dinging" sound that you hear every couple of seconds, and a creepy voice. I cannot tell you how much that thing terrified me when I was little. Even looking at him now, he's still freaky. I have to wonder if they really thought that would go over well. In fact, Winterbolt's lair is creepy as well. With the ice all-around and the dark blue lighting combined with the stop-motion animation, it's all very surreal and nightmarish in a way. In any case, that's all I've got for the Rankin/Bass specials. I know that there are many that I didn't talk about but those are the ones I remember from my childhood. Save for The Mouse on the Mayflower, which I may have seen at school (which is all I do remember about it), I've never seen any of the other specials they produced.

Well, those are the Christmas films and cartoons that shaped my childhood. They sure do run the gambit, don't they? From wholesome family entertainment like the Home Alone films and The Santa Clause to nice cartoons like those from Warner Bros. and Disney to some that are a bit freaky, like that Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, and others that are just bizarre, like some of those public domain cartoons. But, for better or worse, those are a big part of what I think of when I remember what Christmas was like when I was a child. Whether they're good or bad, though, it is important to have memories about the most special of holidays period and those are definitely some colorful ones for me. So, this holiday season, be sure to make some memories of your own. Have a safe and merry Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Town Santa Forgot (1993)

This is a holiday special that I just stumbled upon during one of Cartoon Network's Christmas cartoon marathons. I'm not exactly sure how old I was but I think it's safe to surmise that I was around nine or ten years old when I first saw it. I only caught the tail-end of it the first time and I'm pretty sure I saw the entire thing on Christmas Day. At first, I was a little put-off by it, mainly due to the fact that the entire thing is told in rhyme. When you're nine or ten years old, the last kind of cartoon you want to watch is something that's told in rhyme or at least that's how it was amongst my peers when I was that age. But when I actually watched the whole cartoon, I did find myself enjoying it. It wasn't my absolute favorite Christmas-related cartoon and even then, parts of it made me cringe due to the schmaltz but I did find myself smiling by the end of it. Cartoon Network stopped showing this special around 2005 or so and that's when their subsidiary channel Boomerang picked it up. A few Christmases ago when I was channel-surfing, I came upon Boomerang's annual Christmas marathon and, since I hadn't seen the special in a few years, I decided to look ahead on my TV's built-in guide to see if it would be playing any time soon. The only time it was played during that Christmas, or at least the only time that I was aware of, was at 3:00am on Christmas Night (which, technically, would have made it December the 26th). Yes, that was pretty late but having not seen the cartoon in years, and since I'm a night owl anyway, I decided to stay up and watch it. After seeing it again, I still thought it was a nice little Christmas special. It's not perfect and some of it could have been handled better in my humble opinion but, for the most part, I still think it's a charming cartoon that not a lot of people talk about.

One Christmas Eve, an old man and his two young grandchildren wait for Santa Claus to arrive at their house. The kids make it very clear that they're anxious for Santa to arrive and that they're going to extremely mad if they don't get everything that they asked for from him. Seeing this, their grandfather decides to sit them down and tell them a Christmas story that he feels they are old enough to understand. He tells them about Jeremy Creek, a selfish, spoiled little brat who had enough toys for dozens and dozens of children but never shared them and always wanted more. He would force his parents to buy him toys by throwing loud temper tantrums whenever they would refuse him. However, his parents eventually grow tired of their son's overly greedy personality and tell him that they are not going to give him any more toys. Although he at first sulks about it, Jeremy soon decides to ask Santa Claus to bring him more toys. He writes Santa a ridiculously long list and mails it to the North Pole. When Santa receives the list, he decides that no one child could need so many toys and deduces that "Jeremy Creek" must be the name of a place. He and his elves search his map of the world and discover that there is indeed a little town by that name and, moreover, it's not Santa's usual route, meaning he has been bypassing it year after year. Santa decides to order every item on the list and deliver them to the neglected swamp town. So, little does spoiled Jeremy Creek know that his presents aren't going to come to him at all. Will this make him throw an even bigger tantrum than he ever has before or will this actually teach him an important lesson about Christmastime?

This special had a lot of interesting people involved with it both on the production side as well as in terms of the voice actors. For one thing, it was produced by Hanna-Barbera, whose production quality standards by this point had risen far above the cheapness that they had once been known for. The director is Robert Alvarez, who has been working in animation in the 1960's and has been involved with stuff like The Superfriends, He-Man, the 1980's revival of The Jetsons, G.I. Joe, Smurfs, Snorks, DuckTales and many, many others. As a director, he's done episodes of shows like Tom and Jerry Kids, the 90's Addams Family cartoon, Swat Kats, and Cartoon Network's classic original shows like Dexter's Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, The Powerpuff Girls, and so on. Oddly enough, the executive producer is David Kirschner, who normally is involved with family-friendly stuff like this, with credits like An American Tail, Once Upon a Forest, The Halloween Tree, and The Pagemaster but he's also been a producer on all of the Child's Play movies. I know that family stuff is his typical bread and butter but for me, who was terrified of Chucky when I was a young kid, it's just weird to see his name associated with anything that's meant to be kid-friendly.

The talent that this special benefits the most from is good old Dick Van Dyke. There's a reason why this guy is such a beloved American icon and that's because, no matter what he does, he always manages to exude absolute warmth as well as a whimsical twinkle in his eye. He's like the grandfather that each of us always wanted to have, which is made reality here with his voicing the grandfather in the special's framing device as well as narrating the story. It also doesn't hurt that he has one of the great voices of American pop culture, which is perfect for telling a nice Christmas story. He tells it with great sincerity and enthusiasm, not just droning on but rather complimenting every emotion displayed in the story, whether it be Jeremy Creek's parents' frustrations with their spoiled kid (like when describing Mrs. Creek exploding at her son, he says, "And then, Mom lost it!"), Jeremy's pouting about not getting any more new toys, (when he says that Jeremy stomped up to his room and remarks, "It just wasn't fair"), Jeremy's initial selfish dismay when Santa Claus doesn't bring him the toys he wanted, and finally, Jeremy's realization that it's better to give than to receive. He hits every note not only perfectly but almost effortlessly. And also, while I do feel that some of the other actors are maybe just a little hampered by the rhyming, Van Dyke manages to get through it without becoming monotonous or overly whimsical and, instead, sounds completely natural the entire time. I know I'm really gushing over Van Dyke here and my description of why I feel he's so good is probably making you gag but he really is why this special works as much as it does to me. Again, there are few voices that would be better at telling a Christmas story than his.

Jeremy Creek, the spoiled brat who is the focus of the grandfather's story, is voiced by Miko Hughes, who not only appeared in family-friendly shows like Full House but also acted in a few noteworthy horror films such as Pet Sematary and Wes Craven's New Nightmare. He plays Jeremy Creek fairly well. He's really good at throwing loud, screaming tantrums, which Jeremy does a lot of in the story, and although he doesn't have much real dialogue, I think Hughes manages to give Jeremy a real touch of absolute greed. Watching this special, it really is amazing just how selfish this little brat is. He has dozens and dozens of toys and yet, shares them with absolutely no one (at one point, you actually see him chase off a kid who is riding on a big toy horse in his front yard) and torments his poor parents with his tantrums, which go as far as to make them the target of their irritated neighbors who have had it with Jeremy's screaming. On top of his writing Santa a list that's half a mile long, when Christmas Eve arrives, Jeremy climbs up onto his roof and says that when Santa flies by, he plans to use a net to grab everything in his sleigh. He not only wants all the stuff that he himself asked for but what other kids asked for as well. Of course, when Santa bypasses his house, Jeremy at first cries himself to sleep and then the next morning, when he learns where his toys went due to a news report, he becomes very enraged. But, when the kids of the town say a thank you to the mystery person who wrote the list that brought them the toys, Jeremy gets a good feeling from it and his selfishness is replaced with kindness. Unfortunately, this is where I feel Miko Hughes' acting kind of stumbles. While I can believe that something as sweet as those kids saying "thank you" would give Jeremy warm, touching feelings of kindness, some of the stuff that Hughes says does feel overly forced and schmaltzy, like when he says, "How greedy can one kid be?" and when he even says that his greed has been replaced with kindness. Yeah, that was a bit much and could have been handled better. But, that aside, it's still nice to see such a mean, spoiled kid become somebody who gives a lot of his toys away to other children and continually helps Santa deliver presents on Christmas Eve until he outgrows his seat in the sleigh (which I don't quite get seeing as how tubby Santa can fit but Jeremy, who grows up to be tall and thin, can't). And, in a twist you no doubt could see coming, it turns out that the grandfather who's been telling the story is Jeremy. Predictable, yes, but it doesn't derail the cartoon's really good points.

Hal Smith, best known for his role as Otis on The Andy Griffith Show, gave one of his last performances here as the voice of Santa Claus. He played a very jolly and kindly version Saint Nick, with a lot of ho-ho-hoing, laughing, and with a real sense of goodness in his heart when he discovers that he's been passing up the town of Jeremy Creek year after year. It's really hard not to love this incarnation of Santa, particularly when he offers Jeremy anything he could possibly want despite how greedy and selfish he used to be since the children of the town asked Santa to reward their benefactor. The only question I have about Santa here is when he appears to Jeremy, he tells him that he knows all about him and how greedy he used to be. Did he just now discover that the enormous list he got was indeed written by a person named Jeremy Creek and that that kid used to be a selfish brat? You would think but one of Santa's first lines to Jeremy is, "I know about all," suggesting that he always knew about Jeremy. If that's the case, then why did he come to the assumption that Jeremy Creek was the name of a place instead of a person? I guess you could chalk it up to the naughty and nice list but still, that would mean that Santa decided to just act like he had never heard of someone named Jeremy Creek and instead decided to say it had to be the name of a place, which means he could only hope that there was such a place. Okay, okay, I'm probably thinking about this a lot more than I should since it's just a cute little Christmas cartoon but it's something my normally lenient mind can't help but think about. Still, Smith made a great, jolly Santa Claus and, like I said, this ended up being one of his last pieces of acting. He died the following January at the age of 77.

There's not much else I can add when it comes to the voice acting. None of the other performers are all that special. Phil Proctor and Melinda Peterson voice Mr. and Mrs. Creek, Jeremy's parents who are often at the mercy of their tantrum-throwing son. Their acting is passable but it's often a little overly done, particularly when they're admiring the apparent good deed of a certain person that's being talked about on the news. I know it's a cartoon but stuff like that can get to me. I do, however, smirk when Mrs. Creek has finally had it with Jeremy's temper tantrums and screams, "Just settle down!" A lot of the voice actors I can't match with what characters they played simply because I can't find that information. Veteran voice actor B.J. Ward (whom I know best for voicing Princess Allura in the English version of Voltron) is in there somewhere, possibly as an outraged neighbor of the Creeks who yells that Jeremy's screaming is keeping her kids awake or as the female reporter on the news who talks about the miracle that came to the town of Jeremy Creek. I'm not sure which, though. I don't know who voiced any of the elves (although one of them had to create the predictable high-pitched voice for his or her particular elf) and I only know one of the kids who voiced the grandchildren in the wrap-around, namely Ashley Johnson as the granddaughter (the grandson might possibly be played by someone named Haven Hartman). I know all of this probably doesn't matter to most of you but, as you've probably figured out by now, I like to be as thorough as possible in these reviews and it's kind of disappointing when I'm unable to find all of the facts about the various aspects that I like to discuss.

I also must say that the visuals of this cartoon are very pleasing to the eye. The art direction and such are nice and colorful and while nothing about the overall design is very special or stands out, that's really not the point. It all just simply serves its purpose in a fair enough manner. The animation, while not theater-level or anything, is passable enough. Like I said, by this point Hanna-Barbera had really enhanced and built upon the limited animation that plagued them back in the 60's and 70's and you can definitely see that refinement here. The designs of the various characters are very appealing as well: typical cartoon style, with a lot of circles and roundness used to create body shapes. Santa Claus is especially round and it further emphasizes the fact that he's simply a jolly, tubby old man. I also have to say that I particularly like the design of the character that Dick Van Dyke voices in that he looks like the type of kindly grandpa you'd want to have with his gray hair and moustache, glasses, and pine tree-green sweater. In fact, he has more than a passing resemblance to Van Dyke himself, which I'm sure can't have been a coincidence. Finally, I have to comment on the design of Jeremy Creek himself. What I have to say is that it's impressive how they're able to make him look really bratty and mean for the first half of the show (albeit with an overall cute design as well) and then turn that around and make him look benevolent and kind when his selfish heart melts away. That can't be easy to do without making it look very artificial and phony and I think they did that very well.

As I said earlier, one of the weak points of this cartoon for me is Miko Hughes' acting when Jeremy Creek learns that it's better to give than to receive. Actually, I think the way the grandchildren in the wrap-around react to the story's moral could have been done a lot better as well. Now, I'm not saying that the message that the cartoon is trying to convey isn't important because it is: don't be greedy and selfish. That's something everybody needs to learn. But, the way the children change their minds about the gifts they wanted from Santa after their grandfather finishes telling the story feels forced, even more so than Jeremy's change of heart. When the boy says that he now doesn't care about what he gets and the girl says that even if she gets nothing, it's no big deal, I just don't buy it. For one, they didn't experience the feeling of giving themselves like Jeremy did and even though I still think Miko Hughes' acting at that point is a bit hokey, I'm able to accept it more because, again, he actually felt how warm and good it feels to give rather than receive. And for another, while I'm not saying that hearing a story like the one the grandfather is telling the kids absolutely wouldn't make them understand the moral (that's why he told them it in the first place, because he felt they were old enough to understand), it doesn't ring true to me that the moral would automatically hit them once the story is over and inspire them to stop being so greedy. I just feel that taking something to heart happens gradually rather than automatically and I would have believed it more if, after the story was over, the grandchildren were still eager to get their presents but, after thinking about the story a little more, they became less and less greedy until they decided that it wouldn't be a big deal if they got nothing. Or, at the very least, right after the story is over, have them say something along the lines of, "You know, we're still hoping to get what we want but even if we don't, we won't be upset." Basically what I'm getting at is characterize them like real kids instead of having them become saintly goody two-shoes all of a sudden. Again, I know that this is just meant to be a cute little Christmas special with a clear enough message that kids could hopefully understand and maybe I'm being a smidge too cynical towards it but I just think that would have been a better way to go about delivering the moral.

As for the music in this special, I'm really at a loss for words because there's nothing that I can really say about it. It's cute, little Christmas-style music and serves its purpose well enough for this type of thing, complimenting the emotions and such in a fair manner, but other than that, I can't say much of anything. It's just not a score that's particularly memorable. And what's weird is that it's composed by John Debney, who has gone on to score huge movies such as End of Days with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Passion of the Christ, and Iron Man 2, so there's obviously some talent behind the music but I guess he decided to just go through the motions and make some music that was suitable for this type of film. And you can't make the excuse that maybe it was early in his career and he didn't know what he was doing because he's been composing since 1980. Who knows? But what I can say is that there's a song called So Little Time 'Til Christmas Day by Peter Lurye, who's done barely anything since this show save for a few other kids programs, that I could rather do without. It's just corny, with some cringe-inducing lyrics, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of structure to it either. It feels random and not needed. I know that's harsh for something like this and usually I'm tolerant of songs in stuff meant for kids but this just felt unnecessary. Also, this is the only song here so it's as if they were like, "Okay, we need to get through this section quickly so we might as well put a song in for the kids." Harsh maybe but that's my observation.

With all of the criticisms that I've given, you're probably wondering if I actually do like The Town Santa Forgot. I can assure you that I do. Hey, I stayed up to 3:00 in the morning one time in order to see it again so that should say something. While I still think that certain aspects of the moral, as in the effect it has on the children involved, could have been handled better, I still think that this is a nice, charming little Christmas cartoon with a nice, colorful design and animation, a moral that is important for kids to learn, especially around this time of year, and some great voice acting by Dick Van Dyke and Hal Smith. Even though it's not talked about much, it gets a 7.8 rating on IMDB so obviously it's liked by those who have seen it. To sum up, it may not be a classic or anything but it's simply a nice, sweet little special that I think is worth checking out at least once during Christmastime, just in case you want to see something other than the Christmas films that are always discussed.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

As I've said before, there are some films and television shows that I saw during my childhood that I enjoyed and had fun with what they gave me as pieces of entertainment but, in the long run, I was too young to comprehend just how profound they were and it wasn't until many years later as an adult that I realized that some of these things had bigger aspirations than just keeping a hyper little kid's attention while his parents tried to get things done. This is certainly one of them. I've never talked about this before but I am a fan of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang. I've never read the comic strip, mind you, but I always enjoyed the various cartoons based on it, whether it be primetime specials like this one or the feature films like Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown. Like most kids, I remember seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas a couple of times when I was growing up, seeing as how it's one of those annual primetime holiday specials that the family gathers around to watch, and I remember liking it for what it was, although it was never my favorite Peanuts-oriented flick, as it's definitely not the funniest one, which, naturally, is what I looked for at that age. And, like I said, I was far too young at the time to understand the deeper meaning to it. In fact, I hadn't even seen that special in years and so, I decided to catch up with it, watch it, and do this review. Having now watched it with an adult mindset, I must say that this is quite an inspiring and very genuine little special. I always thought it was just a quaint little Christmas cartoon, much like those Rankin-Bass specials; I had no idea that there was a deeper complexity to it that I could actually relate to! It's still not my absolute favorite Peanuts-related thing, as there are others that I enjoy a lot more, but this is still a good and notable one.

Everybody knows the plot: Christmastime is here and all of the Peanuts Gang is excited and happy... save for Charlie Brown. Despite how much he loves getting presents, sending Christmas cards, and decorating Christmas trees, he still feels depressed and doesn't understand why. He eventually settles on the feeling that he just doesn't understand what Christmas is about, due to the over-commercialization of it and whatnot. Trying to find a way to deal with his sad state of mind, he visits Lucy's makeshift psychiatric booth and she tells that he needs more social involvement. To that end, she asks him to be the director of a Christmas play the kids are putting on. Charlie Brown is initially enthusiastic at the prospect but, when he gets to the auditorium, his hopes are dashed when the children are more interested in jazzing the play up with modern music, dancing, and such, rather than telling the actual story of the nativity. Charlie Brown remains determined not to let the play become over-commercialized like everything else but will it turn out the way he hopes? And will he finally come to terms with his frustration over the holiday?

The director of A Charlie Brown Christmas was a man who would end becoming forever linked with the animated Peanuts specials: Bill Melendez. Melendez started out as an animator at Disney, doing animation for films like Fantasia, Pinocchio, and some of the Mickey Mouse cartoons, but left after the studio's strike in 1941. He worked at Warner Bros. for a while, doing animation for cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and then moved to UPA, where he worked on cartoons like Gerald McBoing-Boing, as well as countless commercials. It was while making a commercial for Ford Motors featuring the Peanuts characters in 1959 that Melendez met Charles Schulz and, from then on, became the only person Schulz allowed to make cartoons featuring his characters. Melendez's own studio, founded in 1963, has worked on every single special and film involving the characters and not only did Melendez direct a large majority of them, he also provided the vocal effects for Snoopy and Woodstock as well. He continued making Peanuts specials up to his death in 2008 at the age of 91, with his last directing job being He's a Bully, Charlie Brown in 2006. From what I've read, Melendez was always somewhat embarrassed about A Charlie Brown Christmas becoming such an annual thing due to all of the technical flaws in the special. While it is true that Melendez and his studio would become much better in producing these cartoons as they went on, I think the flaws of this special, as distracting as they can be if you let them, give it something of a sincere charm, that these people were determined to make this thing despite all of the obstacles in front of them (which were numerous, as I'll get into next). One last interesting bit of trivia is that over the years, Melendez considered going back and fixing a lot of the problems that the special had but Charles Schulz wouldn't let him (George Lucas should take a page from Schulz's book!)

It's interesting to go back and research the history of this special because that's when you realize that it ended up almost not getting made at all. The thing was shot with basically no money, resulting in very simple animation, which was done in the last four months of production, and art-work and some rather poor sound (which I'll expound upon later). In addition, most of the child voice-actors had no experience whatsoever and, therefore, some of the acting here comes across as wooden and unnatural at times (that said, I think it always works better when you actually use kids instead of adults trying to sound like kids, which is often really unnatural and distracting). Bill Melendez and Charles Schulz also had to really fight with the network executives to secure their vision of what the show should be, as the executives hated almost every part of this thing, from the child actors to the soundtrack and so on. They actually complained that there wasn't a freaking laugh track present like you would hear in cartoons at the time like Scooby-Doo and such. (Personally, I'm really glad that they didn't go with that idea because laugh tracks in old cartoons like that annoy me to no end.) And, most of all, they didn't like the moment where Linus recites from the Gospel of Luke, which, as I'll get into shortly, is the very heart of the entire special. Fortunately, Melendez and Schulz didn't back down and made the cartoon they wanted to make, which turned out to be a flawed but very genuine piece of animation.

I don't think I need to do a real introduction to the character of Charlie Brown (at least, I hope I don't). He's simply one of those unique characters who, despite being as much of a mopey, bad luck-magnet as he is, you just have to love the guy. In this cartoon, as well as several others made afterward, he's voiced by Peter Robbins, and while I think some of the other actors who came after him did it better, Robbins did a fair enough job here with what he had to do. At the beginning of the special, he makes Charlie Brown an absolutely depressed sack of crap and it's very odd hearing a kid who is so young (Robbins was only eight when he did this) talk in such a weary, depressed way about how he hates what Christmas has become in recent years. The line that really gets me is, "I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday to emphasize it?" Good God, have you ever met a kid that young who's so miserable?! I'm sure there are kids like this out there but, man, that just floored me after hearing and fully understanding it as an adult. But, that said, you really have to root for someone this young who wants to have a Christmas that isn't commercialized and hyped all to crap, while all of the other kids around him are buying into that sort of thing. No matter what happens, he refuses to let the play he's directing get away from the roots of the holiday, going so far as to get a little, scrawny tree, while everyone else wanted a huge, overly done aluminum one (to that end, it's not exactly subtle that the only real tree on that tree lot is such a sickly, neglected one as well). Of course, he's mocked for his choice and is initially completely despondent but, when Linus tells him, as well as everyone else, what Christmas is really about (that image of him looking at what appears to be the North Star while remembering Linus' recitation is quite impactful to me), he decides to not let the commercialism that everybody else wants ruin his holiday. Granted, at the end of the special, he does become rather hopeless about his own resolve when he puts an ornament on his little tree and it falls over but he cheers up when he sees that the other kids have taken his feelings and Linus' recitation to heart, decorating the little tree and making it look really good. He may be the "Charlie Browniest" of all the Charlie Browns in the world, as Linus says, but he's a good kid at heart and, as the other kids learn, his resolve is something to be commended instead of mocked. I'll say this, I like the ending and the way things turn out for Charlie Brown a lot more than the way a number of these cartoons handle it, as they have a tendency to go overboard and come across as rather mean-spirited.

I have some mixed feelings about Christopher Shea's performance as Linus here. Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first: his voice and way of speaking sound really awkward to me. I'm not sure how old he was at that time but, regardless, he sounds a little too young to understand the stuff that he's saying. I know that's a weird thing to complain about the Peanuts, where all of the characters are technically too old to act the way they do and say the stuff that they do, but throughout this cartoon, I just find it hard to buy that this kid comprehends some of the stuff that he's saying. And yet, despite that Linus gives what I and everyone else feel is the very heart of this special, which is when he recites from the Gospel of Luke to let Charlie Brown and the other kids know what Christmas is all about. Despite Shea's voice, it's a very powerful and awe-inspiring moment and he delivers it so well that this is where I think, "Maybe Linus does know what he's saying." It's the same reaction you'd have if you were at a local Christmas pageant and a kid that young recited something that well and perfectly. I'm probably doing a crappy job of explaining how I feel but, basically, what I'm trying to say is Christopher Shea is awkward in some spots but in others, especially the one that really counts, he's quite good. I also do like Linus' character overall. He's the one kid who's sympathetic to Charlie Brown's despair over what Christmas has become and tries to help him in any way he can. I originally was going to say that if he recited that Bible passage to him earlier, he could have spared Charlie Brown a lot of misery but, after thinking about it, I realize that the intent was for all the kids to hear it and understand that they were too hard on Charlie Brown. On top of the heavy stuff, Linus has a moment that I've liked ever since I was a kid, when he asks Lucy to give him one good reason why he should go through with memorizing all the dialogue that he has to and she says, "I'll give you five," then proceeds to fold her fingers up one at a time while counting until it makes a fist, with Linus responding, "Those are good reasons!" I will say, though, that I think his embarrassment at Sally fawning over him is done much better and funnier in future Peanuts cartoons. In conclusion, good characterization but the voice actor's performance is mixed.

On the flip side, I have nothing bad at all to say about Tracy Stratford as Lucy, as she plays her cynicism, bluntness, and overbearing personality very well. What I like about her is that she's a blatant embodiment of the commercialism that Charlie Brown is depressed over. When Charlie Brown visits her psychiatric booth, she makes him pay his five cents in advance and, when he puts the nickel in the can, she spents fifteen or twenty seconds talking about how much she loves the sound of cold hard cash clinking in the can. Even better is when Lucy tells Charlie Brown that she understands his being sad about Christmas because she never gets what she wants, as she always gets a bunch of toys and such. When Charlie Brown asks her what she does want, she says, "Real estate." Yeah, it's really over the top for someone this young to be so interested in money and freaking real estate, but it works here because, like I said, she represents everything that Charlie Brown hates about what Christmas has become. Plus, there's just something about the very blunt, matter-of-factly way that Stratford says those lines that make you believe her. And, of course, even though she makes Charlie Brown the director of the school play, she's the one who tries to be in charge and probably just made him the director because she knows she can push him around. My favorite part with her is when she asks Charlie Brown if he thinks she's beautiful and when he hesistates to answer, she takes offence and tells him that she knows when she's been insulted. I don't know why but that part, while not laugh out loud funny, always makes me smirk. She also forces the commercialism onto him, telling that's all that Christmas really is, and is the one who sends him out to get a big aluminum tree. But, while she does mock Charlie Brown's choice of Christmas tree like everyone else, she also, in the end, realizes that his intentions were pure and decides to join everybody else in sprucing the tree up.

The most awkward part of the special is Kathy Steinberg as Sally. This little girl had never acted before and was so young that she couldn't read, forcing Bill Melendez to have her record her dialogue one line at a time, and boy, does it show! You can really sense that this girl has never done this before and probably isn't all that sure about what she's saying. Fortunately, Sally isn't in the special much but, still, it's cringe-inducing. Trust me, I'm not trying to be mean to the girl because I'm sure for a little kid doing that for the first time, it had to be weird and nerve-wracking, but this is one instance where the choice of using real children hampered the special a little. And yet, ironically, it makes the idea of someone this young having her older brother write a letter to Santa Claus that begins by buttering him up before going into great detail about the gifts she wants funnier than it would have already been.

None of the other kids have that much of a role in the story but some of them still have some interesting and memorable moments for me. I don't know if this was his gimmick in the comics or in other specials but it is interesting how Pig-Pen (I'm not sure who voiced him; one source says that it was another voice done by Peter Robbins, whereas another says that he was played by a kid named Geoffrey Ornstein) is so dirty in appearance and yet, he talks in a rather sophisticated and proper manner. Again, I don't know if that's always been his gimmick or what but I did think that was a little funny in an ironic way. Schroeder (voiced by Chris Doran) has a funny moment with Lucy while they're waiting for Charlie Brown to return with their Christmas tree. He shows Lucy the music he's picked out for the play and then proceeds to play Beethoven's Fur Elise. When he tells her that it's Beethoven, Lucy comments on how he wasn't so great since he never had his picture on any bubblegum cards, causing Schroeder grumble, "Good grief." Lucy later asks Schroeder if he can play Jingle Bells, which he proceeds to, although when he does play it, it sounds like he's playing it on a traditional grand piano. Lucy interrupts him, saying that he doesn't get it and tells him to try again. So, Schroeder plays the piece again and this time, it sounds like a pipe organ when Lucy interrupts again and tries to give him more inspiration, telling him, "Ï mean 'Jingle Bells.' You know Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe and presents to pretty girls." (That latter part and the way she looks at Schroeder is the only hint of her trademark crush on him in this special.) Schroeder, by this point exasperated at her interrupting him, proceeds to play the song on a single, little key and is completely dumbfounded when she yells, "That's it!" I thought that was funny. The other kids include Shermy (also played Chris Doran), who complains that he's always cast as a shepherd in these school nativity plays; Frieda (voiced by Ann Altieri), whose only point of interest, as always, is her curly hair and making sure that it stays curly; Violet (Sally Dryer), who doesn't catch Charlie Brown's sarcasm when he thanks her for sending him a Christmas card that she, in fact, didn't send; and Patty (not Peppermint Patty but a random girl voiced by Karen Mendelson), who, even though she has only one line, I think is kind of cute when she talks about how fun it is to catch snowflakes on your tongue.

And, of course, you can't talk about anything Peanuts-related without mentioning the antics that Snoopy gets into. Although, while I do think that Snoopy does some funny stuff here, I personally think he's much funnier in the later Peanuts cartoons. That said, though, I can't help but smile at how Snoopy's decorating his doghouse for a Christmas lights contest depresses Charlie Brown even more since he feels that even his own dog has gone commercial (and Snoopy actually wins the contest, which doesn't cheer Charlie Brown up either). The most well-known gag that Snoopy does here is when he's making fun of Lucy behind her back when she's telling the other kids that they must take direction and when she tries to slug him for doing so, he licks her, prompting her to yell about how she's been infected with dog-germs. As funny as that is, I actually find the bit before that when Snoopy shows how talented he is at imitating other animals to be funnier. That dog has some skills! I don't really laugh at the part where he's dancing on top of Schroeder's piano to the music, though. I know it strikes others as funny but it just doesn't do anything for me other than come across as kind of cute.

For me, out of all animated adaptations of comic books and strips, the Peanuts cartoons are the ones that really do look and feel like the source material in motion. A part of that could be due to the fact that none of these things, especially this one, had very big budgets, forcing the filmmakers to create very simple animation and backgrounds. While I'm normally very critical of cartoons that don't do much in terms of their techniques (the sheer static quality of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons in particular just irritates me), here, while I can't quite explain it, it adds a real charm to it. Like I said, it and the rest of its progeny really do look like moving and talking versions of those comic strips. I guess that is why it's so special but, again, it's just hard to explain for the most part. But, that said, there are some noticeable technical mistakes in both the animation and sound, with the most notable example of the latter being a moment when Schroeder stops playing his piano but, if you watch some of the kids, they continue dancing for a few seconds afterward. The audio track is where the biggest technical errors lie, though. Besides the aforementioned inexperience of many of the child actors, the sound quality is all over the place. Sometimes, it sounds fine, but other times it really dips in quality, becoming rather choppy and hard to hear. And you also generally have to turn the volume up rather high on what ever format you're watching it on in order to hear it. Obviously, given the limitations they had while making it, it's amazing that you can hear and see it at all but, still, those issues are blatant. And, going back to the animation for one last moment, I've noticed that in this special, there are some movements and facial expressions that the characters make here that I don't remember seeing again in any other Peanuts special. This is really hard to explain like everything else but the way the characters' eyes narrow whenever they're irritated or some of the faces they make when they're exasperated seem to appear in only this special, except maybe in It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (I'd have to see that one again to be sure). Maybe it was because they refined their animation techniques and the character designs as they went on and whatnot but it is something I can't help but notice. Again, I know I suck at explaining this but watch this special, watch the characters' animation closely, and then watch some other Peanuts cartoons and I think you'll see what I mean.

Back in my introduction of this review, I said that, after watching this special again through adult eyes, I was actually able to relate to it. What I mean by that is that, in recent years, I've felt the same way that Charlie Brown feels here about what Christmas has become. Oh, don't worry, I'm not as depressed about it as he is but I fully understand where he's coming from. When I was around that age, Christmas was just awesome. I couldn't wait for it to get here because it meant two things: time away from school (which I couldn't get enough of) and presents. However, now as an adult, Christmas has lost a lot of its magic for me. I don't if it's because your priorities change the older you get or you become more cynical or what but I can safely that I just don't get as excited about it now as I did back then. I still enjoy myself and whatever gifts I get from my family I do appreciate whole-heartedly but it really isn't what it once was. And, as everyone else has said, the older you get, the earlier Christmas seems to arrive. I can't explain why that is but I do understand what they mean by it and it's another thing that robs Christmas of its luster for me. A big part of it has to be what Charlie Brown is down about here: the over-commercialization of the holiday. The fact that the media and such start shoving Christmas down your throat nowadays with commercials even before Halloween has past really takes the specialness out of it and so does the feeling that you must rush out and by your gifts as soon as possible, with Black Friday and everything. It makes it less like you want to give a loved one a good gift and more like you feel like you have to, like there's some big consumer machine making you do so. It's really sad to think that what was once a very joyous holiday where friends and families got together to share their love for each other in addition to presents has become a big competition to see who can get the hottest holiday item before it runs out or who can be the biggest present cash-cow in terms of quantity and quality. Now, granted, I still ask for some things that I would like to have for Christmas but I don't get too irritated if I don't get it because, in this age of and other online retailers, I know I can get it myself after the holiday has passed. That's another reason why getting gifts isn't that special anymore: everything is much more available nowadays. And, also, you're given an image of Christmas being just a gigantic joyous celebration due to all of the advertisements and stuff that you see and when it doesn't come to pass, like Charlie Brown himself says here, you feel let down even though you may like getting presents and such. So, while I don't think it's entirely to blame, the over-commercialism of Christmas is still a big part of why it's no longer all that magical and, sadly enough, makes A Charlie Brown Christmas more relevant now than it was back in 1965.

The soundtrack to this special, composed by Vince Guaraldi, has some tunes that have become synonymous not only with the Peanuts but, in some cases, with Christmas in general. The most notable one is the "Linus and Lucy" theme, which is first heard when Schroeder plays it several times during the rehearsal for the play; now, of course, it's pretty much thought of as the Peanuts theme.. There's also that slow, quiet song, Christmas Time Is Here, that plays at the very beginning of the special, which has become a popular Christmas song since the cartoon's first airing. That song has such a strange, soft, and oddly melancholy-like quality to it that I think it really fits with Charlie Brown's depression over what Christmas is nowadays. But, because of that, I'm not sure if I like the fact that it's become so popular and linked with Christmas. I'm not saying that it will make you depressed but still. On the opposite end of the spectrum, hearing the Peanuts Gang sing, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, is something that I can't help but smile at and that really will put you in the Christmas mood, as does that nice piece that plays when the kids are watching the snow come down. There are also soft, piano-versions of various Christmas songs that play throughout the special that seem to further emphasize Charlie Brown's melancholy mood of this over-commercialized Christmas season. I can't help but wonder if the gang singing a joyous, sincere version of, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, at the end of the special when they've understood what Charlie Brown meant by getting that scrawny tree is supposed to have some sort of symbolic meaning since it's the only really joyous Christmas carol heard in the entire special, while everything else has that melancholy sound that I've just described.

While I still wouldn't say that A Charlie Brown Christmas is my favorite Peanuts cartoon, rediscovering it after all these years and talking about it here was quite an experience. While its technical flaws are very evident in regards to some of the voice-acting and the low budget animation and sound, it's still a very heartfelt holiday special and, unlike most made around that time or even in recent years for that matter, is absolutely intent on reminding us about the actual true meaning of Christmas. Not only does it do so with flying colors but, even better, it manages to do it well without being overbearing or negating some of the fun of it as well. If you haven't seen it in a long time or you think it's just a silly old Christmas cartoon, I'd highly advise checking it out. It's not only charming but, in many ways, its ultimate intention is even more relevant nowadays than it was back when it was originally released.