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Summer Series 2: The Karate Kid

Unlike the first franchise in this summer’s experiment, the Karate Kid is a franchise I was intimately familiar with as a child. I don’t know if anyone my age couldn’t recite the first movie by rote, and I know I watched the second one dozens of times over the years as well. I don’t quite remember the third one, although I’m sure I saw it at least once, and I’ve never seen The Next Karate Kid at all, so that will be an adventure. I know there was a remake a few years ago starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. I’m not counting it, as it’s obviously a total reboot and therefore not part of the original series, and also Jaden Smith is the most pretentious thing outside of a cologne commercial I’ve ever seen.

Karate KidThe Karate Kid (1984)
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, William Zabka

Thoughts: As I said, I watched this movie a lot when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen it in years. When the opening credit sequence began, with Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother Lucille (Randee Heller) loading up a station wagon in New Jersey to move across the country to California, I didn’t remember it at all. I was a bit taken aback, but once the dialogue started it all started clicking back, I found myself anticipating the lines before they started. There’s something great about watching an old movie for the first time in a long time. It’s kind of like coming home.

Anyway, the story is pretty universally known at this point – Daniel moves to a new town and falls for a girl named Ali (Elisabeth Shue). Ali’s creepy ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (perennial 80’s movie douchebag William Zabka) beats him up using the skills he learned from his Karate sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove). Just when things seem darkest, Daniel meets his apartment complex’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, in a genuinely iconic performance), who reluctantly takes Daniel under his wing and begins teaching him to defend himself.

I forgot just how long the build-up was in this movie. Daniel’s troubles take up an enormous chunk of the beginning, and in fact, he encounters Mr. Miyagi several times before he finds out the old man is a Karate master. Until that point, it’s about building the relationships between Daniel and his mother and Daniel and Ali, both of which work well. Maccho and Heller have great mother-son chemistry, with her gentle nagging and his quiet frustration rubbing each other just the wrong way. It’s also a more honest relationship than you see in a lot of movies – it seems like most of the time parents and children in cinema either have a flawless connection or are at each other’s throats with nothing in-between. Here it’s clear that Daniel and Lucille love each other deeply, but at the same time, the move west has caused undeniable and unavoidable friction between them. Ali is kind of a typical 80s teenager, at least for a PG movie and not a slasher flick, but part of that is due to Elisabeth Shue. Between this movie and Adventures in Babysitting, she was every 80s boy’s childhood crush at some point.

As this is going on, we see Daniel and Miyagi starting to bond. Miyagi helps him several times, teaches him how to trim a bonsai tree, makes him a disguise so he can go to the Halloween dance without being pulverized… and then the ass-kicking begins. Morita’s performance here, even 30 years later, is absolutely flawless. He’s a good man, a kind man, but a man who has seen enough violence and doesn’t want to see any more. Even when he sees Daniel practicing karate from a book, even when he sees the results of one of his beatings, it’s not until he has to step up and defend Daniel from nearly getting killed by a whole mob of Cobra Kai that we get any hint of the fierceness he’s capable of. And it’s only when Daniel practically begs him that he agrees to teach his young friend to fight for himself.

Plus he was more than capable of holding his own against the youngsters. Morita was 52 when this movie came out, but he played the character as that sort of wizened, ageless Asian character that seems to carry around an age that transcends his body. That’s why it’s so awesome to see him beat the crap out of William Zabka in such a convincingly choreographed fight scene.

Speaking of Zabka, it’s funny how time can change your perspective on a movie. When I was a kid, I always thought of Johnny Lawrence as the bad guy in this film. And while he’s certainly not a good guy, watching it again for the first time in years, I’m starting to see that Martin Kove’s John Reese is the real villain here. Johnny and his buddies are thugs, to be certain, but they learned to be thugs from Reese. This man is supposed to be a teacher. A mentor. Instead, he’s taken something that’s supposed to be about discipline and control and turned it into a weapon. He refuses to tell his attack dogs to leave the new kid alone, he tries to pick a fight with an old man, and he orders a teenage boy to lay a brutal and illegal hit on another one. That’s way more insidious to me now than some high school punk who beats up the new kid.

Again, because it’s been so long since I saw the movie, I’d forgotten just how 80s this soundtrack is. Virtually every song pumped in the background evokes feelings of elementary school for me, some of them going so far as to cause me to wistfully remember Kids, Incorporated. If you know what I’m talking about, I assume that you, like me, are currently being bombarded by Facebook posts by former classmates talking about an unpcoming reunion and making you feel about a million years old.

We all know how Daniel wins, taking out Johnny Lawrence in the final battle (which is technically illegal, as he hits him in the face, but the judges seem to ignore that – I’m going to assume because they all know John Reese is a jerk). When you’re a kid, this is wish fulfillment at its finest – the boy takes down his oppressor. He proves himself the better man. Every boy my age wanted to be Daniel, every one of us wanted to be trained by Mr. Miyagi. And yeah as an adult it’s easier to look back and see that in the real world a confrontation of this sort probably wouldn’t solve the problem. Johnny wasn’t going to be nice after being taken down in the ring. The Cobra Kai kids weren’t going to leave you alone after you beat them. If anything, it would probably simply escalate the problem. But in Movieland it doesn’t matter, in Movieland Daniel wins and the rivalry is settled for all time. Hell, in Movieland the defeated Johnny actually hands Daniel the trophy.

The real world doesn’t work that way. But man, it’s nice to look back a movie like this one, where it does.

Karate Kid Part IIThe Karate Kid Part II (1986)
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, William Zabka, Yuji Okumoto, Joey Miyashima, Danny Kamekona, Tamlyn Tomita, Nobu McCarthy

Thoughts: The Karate Kid Part II begins with a brief prologue that takes place right after the first movie ends. Right after the tournament, Miyagi encounters Kreese berating Johnny for losing, and winds up humiliating him in a fight by only acting defensively, then refusing to strike a killing blow. This was actually an unused ending written for the first movie but not filmed until production began on part two. I don’t know if it was changed at all, but it works very well to bookend the film, providing Daniel’s first lesson in his second adventure.

After the prologue we fast-forward six months to the end of the school year, where Daniel’s life is crapping out on him again. Ali has dumped him and his mother is being sent to Fresno for two months, so Miyagi decides to help him focus by having him build what turns out to be a guest room so he can stay in town. His relief is almost immediately derailed though, when Miyagi gets a letter from Okinawa telling him that his father is dying.

There’s a great moment early in the film when Miyagi is about to board the plane to go back to Okinawa only for Daniel to come running up behind him, having emptied his savings account to buy a plane ticket. This scene demonstrates two things. First, it shows just how deeply the affection these two characters have for one another runs. Second, it flips things from the first movie. In Part I, Daniel was the one who needed help from Miyagi. Here, Daniel is asking Miyagi to let him become the helper. The role reversal becomes plainer later on, but this helps show how Mr. Miyagi mostly takes the protagonist role from Daniel this time around. Later, when Miyagi’s father dies, Daniel tells him a story about the death of his own father, and Morita squeezes out very convincing tears. The student has become the teacher, and it’s done very smoothly.

Miyagi’s arc continues nicely from the first movie. When Daniel was first in trouble, it took an extreme situation to draw him out and you could tell there was a reason he didn’t want to fight. Here we find that reason. Again no matter how much Sato and Chozen provoke him, he doesn’t decide to fight back until it’s necessary to defend somebody else. The first time it was Daniel, this time it’s his entire village in Okinawa that’s in jeopardy. I doubt Kamen and Avildsen (who wrote and directed both movies, respectively) planned things quite this far when they were working on the first script, but the pieces come together very well.

That said, this movie does share a bit too much of the DNA of its parent, almost making it a clone. Miyagi’s former friend Sato (Danny Kamekona) takes over the Kreese role, Sato’s nephew Chozen (Yuki Okumoto) is the new Johnny Lawrence. Miyagi’s lost love Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), the woman who came between him and Sato, has no analogue… but there’s her niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) to take over as Daniel’s love interest. And just like the original the climax of the film boils down to a fight scene in which Daniel uses a “special move” he picked up from Miyagi almost as an afterthought in order to win.

Chozen, however, is more than just Johnny Lawrence redux. While Johnny was a bully, everything he did in the first movie was easy to chalk up to teenage bravado. Chozen is brutal and far crueler than Johnny ever was. He beats Daniel severely more than once, trashes Miyagi’s father’s house and garden, scams farmers in the town who rely on his family business for their livelihood… he’s an outright criminal. And while it may have been a bit of a stretch for Johnny to hoist Daniel’s trophy and proclaim, “You’re all right, Larusso!” it would be simply inconceivable for Chozen to do such a thing. Even after Miyagi saves Sato’s life and he relinquishes his vendetta, Chozen still carries around that chip, that blow against his “honor.”

But there’s enough that’s unique to this movie to make it compelling. It builds on the characters, particularly fleshing out Miyagi’s backstory, in a very pleasing way. For example, Miyagi tells Daniel that his father took him fishing as a child in 1927. Morita wasn’t even born until 1932, validating my feelings during the first movie about the ageless quality they tried to give the character. The final fight, this time between Daniel and Chozen, is also markedly better than the Daniel/Johnny fight. In fairness, though, in the first movie the fight was a strictly regulated battle for points, except for the judges letting Daniel get away with that kick to the face. This time, Chozen fights to kill and Daniel fights for his life. It’s a more brutal fight, with some pretty good choreography and a finale that bounces back to Miyagi’s defeat of Kreese at the beginning of the movie.

The first Karate Kid would have stood perfectly well without ever having a sequel but The Karate Kid Part II was a pretty good sequel to have.

Karate Kid Part IIIThe Karate Kid Part III (1989)
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, Robyn Lively, Thomas Ian Griffith, Sean Kanan

Thoughts: I only vaguely remember The Karate Kid Part III, but I find it amusing that – like Part II – it kicks off with a montage of moments from the first film. This montage also picks up the Part II prologue, where Kreese wound up with a pair of bloody fists after Miyagi refused to fight him. Did the 80s really have that big a problem with people forgetting what happened between installments of a film series? Is that simply something I don’t remember?

Anyway, after ignoring the rest of Part II, Part III jumps ahead in time to show us Kreese, now a broken man with an empty dojo and no students left. He goes to his old army buddy Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), a millionaire businessman who he owes back rent on the dojo. Terry isn’t mad, though, far from it. No, he wants to plot with Kreese to get revenge on Daniel and Miyagi for humiliating him. Our dynamic duo, meanwhile, are returning from Okinawa only to find that their apartment complex has been sold and Miyagi is out of a job. Oh, and Daniel’s mother has gone back to New Jersey to tend to a sick uncle and he’s been dumped again. I don’t know what this kid was doing between movies to drive these girls away, but he had to knock it off. In fact, when he meets this film’s love interest, Jessica (Robyn Lively), she preemptively breaks up with him by saying she’s got a boyfriend “back home” that she’s going back to after Thanksgiving. Before I met my wife, I always thought I had the worst luck with women in the history of the planet, but watching these movies back-to-back has made me realize I can only play for the Silver in this competition.

Anyway, Daniel again blows his college money for Mr. Miyagi’s benefit, this time helping to open a store selling bonsai trees. This is the same money he just brought back from Okinawa, mind you which means that all three of these movies take place in less than the space of a year. Ralph Macchio was 23 when the first one came out, and still capable of passing as a teenager. By 1989 he was pushing 30, and while he still had a babyface (and does to this day, honestly), it was getting harder for him to pull off playing the “Karate Kid.”

The Daniel/Miyagi stuff is strong, but Silver as a villain is comical. With his greasy, slicked back hair and his casual racism (I never noticed the ethnic slur Kreese used in the prologue of Part II when I was a kid, but I caught it this time, and when it showed up again in the recap in Part III, and again when Silver says it a few minutes later), it’s as if he plucked all the bits and pieces of his existence out of a Bad Guy Catalogue and turned into a generic jerk. He’s constantly turning up in bubble baths or saunas while he wheels and deals, recruiting a ringer named Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) to fight Daniel as he defends his tournament title. Of course, he doesn’t know that Miyagi has no intention of sending Daniel out to fight again. After all, a big part of Part II was Daniel learning the lesson of what real Karate is, and how it should be used for defense, and that fighting for the sake of a trophy would be stupid, which is why Silver exists in the first place. There needs to be some reason for Daniel to do Karate, or neither of the words in the title would make sense.

Aside from the plot, the dialogue in this film is painful. When Barnes and his flunky harass Daniel and Jessica, the best insult she can muster up is “slimeball,” and the best retort he can summon is “Did your mother teach you that?” I was in middle school when this movie came out, and evidently, so was whoever wrote these lines. (To be fair, Robert Mark Kamen wrote all three movies, but claimed this time his script was warped so much that he walked away from the franchise.) Silver’s plot – which involves him pretending to train Daniel while his hired goon threatens him – is bizarre and pointless in regards to his actual goal. He makes a speech at the tournament about training people with “values,” then sends out his student to beat Daniel around and take cheap shots in full view of everybody, which seems somewhat counterproductive. The metaphor of a bonsai tree standing for Daniel keep turning up over and over again, growing beyond merely strained to obnoxious. And Jessica, frankly, is pretty worthless as a character. This isn’t a knock against the actress – Robyn Lively is actually quite charming – but she doesn’t do anything. She’s not even a damsel in distress, which may be a trite and outdated cliché, but at least it’s a role.

Oh, and Daniel wins thanks to a casually-learned “secret move” yet again.

A great original film, a decent sequel, a weak part three. Now for the capper, the Karate Kid movie I’ve never seen. Is it possible that it could dip from here?

Next Karate KidThe Next Karate Kid (1994)
Director:
Christopher Cain
Writer: Mark Lee
Cast: Pat Morita, Hilary Swank, Michael Ironside, Constance Towers, Chris Conrad, Arsenio Trinidad, Michael Cavalieri, Walter Goggins

Thoughts: Mr. Miyagi is in Boston to get one of those military decorations that the previous movies clearly established were meaningless to him. While there, he drops in to visit Louisa Pierce (Constance Towers), widow of one of his old army buddies. Louisa is having a tough time – not only is she a widow, but she’s raising her teenager granddaughter Julie (future Oscar winner Hilary Swank, but man, you never would have guessed it from this film), who has carried around an anger with the world since her parents died in a car accident. We know this because Julie announces it in some of the most forced dialogue ever written. She could have easily ended the speech by screaming, “THERE! Is THAT enough exposition for you, GRANDMA?” and I wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest. At any rate, after approximately twelve seconds of movie time Miyagi tells Louisa to go chill at his house in California for a while so he can straighten Julie up.

Julie resists, of course, because there wouldn’t be much of a movie if she didn’t, and she gets mad enough to bolt into the street and almost get plowed over by a pizza delivery guy, which she avoids by jumping on the hood of the car. Miyagi recognizes the “tiger jump” she did, and gets her to admit she learned it from her father. They strike a bargain for him to teach her karate, which comes in handy after she gets suspended for fighting in school – although she was actually just trying to protect a hawk that’s kept in a cage on the roof… look, I know it doesn’t make any sense when I explain it but it doesn’t make any sense when I’m writing it either, so we’re on the same page. With her time off from school, Miyagi takes her to a Buddhist monastery where she learns to respect all life, which frankly doesn’t really seem like it was her problem in the first place.

And that’s the major problem with this film, friends. The writing in this movie is just plain sloppy. Aside from the awful dialogue, there’s the fact that Julie’s early exposition enunciation comes after her grandmother accidentally calls her “Susan,” her mother’s name. That would be a stretch in and of itself, but Louisa and Julie have the same last name, implying that it is Julie’s father who was Louisa’s offspring, not her mother. What’s more Julie’s dad learned karate from Louisa’s husband, who learned it from Miyagi… that feels like a father/son thing to me. More and more, Louisa shouting “Susan!” feels like lazy writing. This is the point where people in the comments will start saying things like, “well, maybe her parents weren’t actually married” or “what if Louisa had known Susan since she was a small child and thought of her as her own” or somesuch. My response to that is: if the movie intended for that to be the interpretation, then damn it, they should have said it somewhere. Otherwise it is sloppy damn writing.

Then there’s Michael Ironside, the bad guy in this movie, as Col. Dugan. Dugan is… it’s actually not clear what the hell he is. Is he an ROTC instructor? A really intense coach? Whatever. The point is, he teaches physical education by verbally brutalizing students, then punching one. Granted, I’ve never been in the military and I know they go to extremes to break their cadets down and bring them back up, but I can’t imagine a school in this country where a teacher who clocks a student in the jaw is going to have their job come seventh period. Not only does he stick around, but he’s training his students to be criminals with absolutely no coherent reason or motivation behind it.

I try to give screenwriter Mark Lee at least a little credit for winking at the fans’ expectations. When Miyagi agrees to teach Julie karate in exchange for doing all the homework she’s missed, he immediately tries to pull the ol’ “wax on, wax off” routine again, but she’s having none of it. Okay, clever. But then his alternative solution for teaching her discipline is having her babysit the hellions next door. Nineties-era feminism, ladies and gentlemen!

I’ll give him this too – although Dugan’s thugs are the antagonists here, the fights don’t really get physical until the end. Julie isn’t learning karate because she’s getting the crap beat out of her like Daniel did, she’s learning it as an anger management technique. (The real violence doesn’t happen until they attack her date after he has the audacity to point out that they nearly killed themselves when they bungee-jumped into the prom.) That, at least, is something different. And there are a few nice moments with Miyagi learning how to deal with a girl, including one rather charming moment where she thinks he’s giving her a karate lesson, but he shifts it into a dancing lesson to get her ready for the prom. Again this is not a great moment for women in cinema, but it feels nicely in-character for Mr. Miyagi, which is sorely needed, as nothing else in the entire movie feels even remotely like the original.

The weird thing is, despite the many, many flaws with this movie, I still think it’s better than Part III. This is different and is trying to do something new, which isn’t a bad thing, whereas Part III was pure rehash and really added nothing of substance to the mythology of the franchise. It’s not as good as the first two, but after Part III, The Next Karate Kid was at least a step up before the series died.

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Santa Week Day 4: Tim Allen in The Santa Clause (1994)

Santa ClauseNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: John Pasquin

Writers: Leo Benvenuti & Steve Rudnick

Cast: Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Larry Brandenberg, Mary Gross, Paige Tamada, Peter Boyle, Judith Scott, Frank Welker

Plot: Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is your typical Christmas movie businessman, an executive who just doesn’t seem to have time for his son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), putting the burden of the parenting task on his ex-wife Laura (Wendy Crewson) and her new psychiatrist husband, Neil (Judge Reinhold). After a disastrous Christmas dinner, Scott and Charlie hear noises outside. When Scott goes to investigate, he sees a man in a Santa suit on his roof. Startling him, the Santa slips, falls from the roof, and dies. I would like to remind everyone reading this that we are discussing a PG-rated Disney family film.

Scott finds a card in Santa’s pocket that instructs him to put on the Santa suit, and that “the reindeer will know what to do.” He looks up to see a sleigh and reindeer on the roof, then back down to find the Santa suit, empty of its late owner. The reindeer whisk Scott and Charlie from house to house, and Charlie convinces his father to put on the suit and take over Santa’s job. When the night ends, the reindeer bring the Calvins to the North Pole. The head elf, Bernard (David Krumholtz), gives Charlie a snow globe and explains to Scott what he’s gotten himself into: the card in Santa’s pocket was a legally-binding document with a clause – a Santa clause, get it? — stating that when Scott put on the Santa suit, he took on the job of Santa Claus. Bernard tells him he has 11 months to get his affairs in order before returning to the North Pole to prepare for next Christmas.

As school starts again, Charlie begins telling everyone his dad is the new Santa Claus. Laura and Neil try to logically convince him that Santa doesn’t exist, and when Scott tries to tell him the same thing, he blanches at the idea of ruining his son’s Christmas spirit and, instead, asks him to keep it a secret. Scott starts gaining weight, growing a beard, and watching his hair turn white. He has an insatiable desire for sweet, sugary food. Laura and Neil, worried that Scott is forcing a physical transformation to keep Charlie’s affections, petition with the court to revoke Scott’s visitation rights. Scott visits him anyway on Thanksgiving, as Bernard arrives to take him to the North Pole. They take Charlie with them, and the police find themselves on a search for the boy abducted by Santa Claus.

Charlie introduces several new innovations that Scott employs on Christmas Eve, and together they go out to make their rounds, but he’s nabbed by the police when he visits Neil’s house. The elves break him out and they return Charlie to his mother. Laura realizes Charlie has been telling the truth, and she burns the custody papers, inviting Scott to visit any time he wants. The police – and everyone else on the block – arrive just in time to see Scott take off from the roof in his sleigh. Later, after everyone has left, Charlie summons Scott back with Bernard’s snow globe, and Laura gives her blessing for him to join his dad for a quick ride in the sleigh.

Thoughts: The English teacher in me has great reason to despise this film. For the past 20 years, we have been subjected to outbreak after outbreak of people spelling Santa Claus’s name with an “E” at the end, and I place the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of Tim Allen and the Walt Disney Corporation and Shadow Government. However, in the interest of cinematic integrity, I promise to try to put that righteous anger aside for the remainder of this article, that I may discuss The Santa Clause in an unbiased fashion.

This was Tim Allen’s first big movie role, breaking from his hit sitcom Home Improvement, although the differences between Tim Taylor and Scott Calvin aren’t as pronounced as you might hope. Early on the film relies on a lot of Allen’s TV shtick – for example, a scene where he destroys Christmas dinner turns into an impromptu demonstration on why to keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Santa’s trademark “Ho Ho Ho” sounds suspiciously like the Tool Time grunts Allen used on his show-within-a-show. Even the director of the movie, John Pasquin, is a veteran of Allen’s sitcom (and would team up with him on many other movie and TV projects over the years).

That’s not to say his performance was bad. But it’s very different from pretty much any other version of Santa Claus. That’s understandable. This is one of the movies that plays off the “Santa Legacy” trope (more on that soon), so Allen isn’t exactly playing the same character as Edmund Gwenn, John Call, or David Huddleston. Rather than playing the Santa Claus, he’s playing a man who is attempting to accept his new role as a Santa Claus. It’s a fine distinction, but it’s one worth making, and it allows Allen a little more leeway in creating his own character instead of living up to the idea of Santa Claus. What’s impressive, then, is how he slowly transforms over the course of the film. He begins as a grumpy cynic who wants to maintain the magic of Christmas for his son, but eventually converts to a joyful, jolly manifestation of holiday spirit. Wearing a fat suit.

Although Allen was still, at this point in his career, relying on his same gags, the writing on this movie is really kind of clever, once you get past the unintentional Santacide. Charlie misunderstanding “The Night Before Christmas” leads to a cute gag about the “Rose Suchak Ladder Company,” for instance. Eric Lloyd is actually the heart of the movie – he’s the one who propels Tim Allen along when he wants to give up, whose faith never waves, who steadfastly believes in Santa Claus despite all evidence to the contrary. Far too many adults forget his simple lesson that “just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

It also brings in a theme I don’t think ever appeared in a Santa movie before this one – making the core of the story a father/son relationship. This isn’t exactly a movie about “saving Christmas” like so many of them are, but it’s about Scott and Charlie finding one another again and crafting the relationship they almost missed out on. Sure, there are a lot of stories out there about fathers and sons, but not too many of them deal with Santa Claus, which makes for a nice thematic departure in your holiday viewing.

One odd thing in this movie – and not just this one, but it seems to be an idea that’s been permeating for a few decades now – is the idea of Santa Claus not being any one particular man, but rather a legacy passed on from one individual to another. Sometimes the new Santa must be chosen by the old (such as in 1988’s Ernest Saves Christmas), sometimes it’s hereditary (as in the film we’re going to watch tomorrow), and sometimes, like in this movie, it seems entirely at random. But we’ve been seeing it over and over again, and I’m not entirely sure why. If I had to hazard a guess, it may be a sort of unconscious effort on the part of Hollywood to make Santa Claus a bit more “realistic.” After all, the notion that a Turkish priest from the 3rd century has been hanging around handing out presents for the past 1800 years is far less preposterous if you accept the fact that somebody else takes over the job every so often, right?

No, of course that isn’t right. For Heaven’s sake, we’re talking about a mythology full of flying reindeer, time-space dilation, naughty and nice surveillance techniques that would make the NSA drool with envy, and the most efficient postal system in the world… but immortality is the concept that people can’t deal with anymore? Nonsense. The weird thing is, when you apply this same logic (as many fans do) to the James Bond franchise, I absolutely love it – I think it makes perfect sense. But aside from having impeccable fashion sense, Bond and Santa Claus really don’t have that much in common.

Wow, that was a wild tangent, even for me.

Anyway, although the writing of the movie holds up, the special effects don’t, and it’s kind of inexcusable. Just a year earlier, we were treated to CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that were entirely believable. Comparing that to the weak greenscreen effects for the flying reindeer or the jet-powered Elf rescue squad makes it look even more ridiculous. Even Santa Claus: The Movie, released nine years earlier, had more impressive flying scenes. And c’mon – the scene with Scott and Charlie being followed by reindeer at the zoo would have been pathetic by 1970s standards.

Santa’s workshop, at least, is impressive – cleverly designed and brightly colored, although it has an oddly shiny, modern feeling to it. In a unique choice, most of the elves are played by children, and the kids are actually pretty darn good. The elves are immortal (but Santa can’t be? – sorry, not going there again) but appear eternally youthful, and the kids in the cast do a surprisingly good job of acting like old souls in young bodies. Paige Tamada as Judy, in particular, is impressive. She was 11 when this movie was released, but she gives off an air of someone much older and more mature. She winds up lapping Allen, becoming a sort of mentor, even motherly figure to him, which is funny on the face of it, but a darn impressive feat when you consider the demands on the young actress.

Although the sequels to this movie – particularly the third one – dilute the story terribly, this first installment is really quite sweet, quite charming, and worth watching as Christmas rolls around. And from what I’ve seen of the TV schedule, if you turn on your set right now there’s a 97 percent chance that at least one of the movies in this franchise is currently playing on ABC Family.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 10: Fred Flintstone in A FLINTSTONES CHRISTMAS CAROL (1994)

Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)Director: Joanna Romersa

Writer: Glenn Leopold, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Henry Corden, Jean Vander Pyl, Frank Welker, B.J. Ward, Russi Taylor, Don Messick, John Stephenson, Marsha Clark, Will Ryan, Brian Cummings, John Rhys-Davies, Joan Gerber, Maurice LaMarche, Rene Levant

Notes: This TV movie has become a staple of the Cartoon Network family of TV channels in recent years. Like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, this film also uses the conceit of the familiar characters putting on a theatrical production of the classic novel by “Charles Brickens”(voiced by John Rhys-Davies). The Flintstones do much more with that concept than Magoo did, though. There are a few Flintstones-centric subplots that run through the story – Fred (Henry Corden) is so caught up with playing Scrooge that he’s ignoring his friends and family at Christmas and allowing his ego to overwhelm him. Wilma (Jean Vander Pyl) is the stage manager of the play, which leaves her hands full to begin with, but things get even worse as different members of the cast come down the with 24-hour “Bedrock Bug” and are unable to perform. Adaptations of A Christmas Carol featuring classic characters seem to be cursed – like Clarence Nash saying goodbye to Donald Duck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, this was the final time Vander Pyl, Wilma’s original voice, played the character before her passing. Besides Fred as Ebonezer Scrooge (get it?), the Christmas Carol cast includes Barney Rubble (Frank Welker) as Bob Cragit, Betty (B.J. Ward) as Mrs. Cragit, Bamm-Bamm (Don Messick) as Tiny Tim, and Fred’s boss Mr. Slate (John Stephenson) as Jacob Marbley. Wilma gets called upon to play several parts as the actors drop out, including Belle and Christmas Past. The other Ghosts and the rest of the significant roles are filled by obscure or new Flintstones characters.

Thoughts: This film came out at a weird time in Flintstones history. It was the same year as the weak live-action Flintstones movie, and a year after two made-for-TV Flintstones movies which featured Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm as adults getting married, then having babies (twins). For them to step back to the classic era of the cartoon the next year was an interesting choice, but seeing as how they’ve done very little (by which I mean nothing) with the older versions of the characters in the two decades since, I imagine this film was their quiet concession that the characters work best frozen in the eternal forms they enjoyed in the classic TV series.

This is all to say: it’s a pretty good movie.

The Christmas Carol segments are relatively faithful to the book. The characters are true to themselves and they each fill the expected, suitable niche in the story. After watching nine different Christmas Carols though – eight of which are more or less straight-up retellings of the novel – it’s a nice change of pace to see this rendition. With the wraparound story, we don’t actually start the retelling of A Christmas Carol until a full 16 minutes into this 69-minute film. Once we actually get there, it’s nice to see some real “acting,” such as it is. Fred as Scrooge, for example. While it’s true he’s often a loud, obnoxious blowhard in the classic cartoons, he’s almost never pictured as being particularly stingy or cruel. In fact, the character’s biggest fault is that he goes to outrageous extremes in an attempt to provide a life far beyond his reach for his wife and daughter, hardly the actions of a traditional Scrooge. To compensate for the fact that Fred-as-Scrooge isn’t as obvious a comparison as, say, Scrooge McDuck, the movie takes its time to show you how being the star of the play has inflated his ego. Now they’re playing off an established character trait to turn his friends and family against him, making him a better fit for the part. The Fred-centric subplot runs throughout the film, whenever a scene of the “play” ends. He comes offstage bragging about the applause he’s gotten, frustrating Barney and Wilma to no end. It gets even worse when intermission hits and he realizes he left the presents he bought for Wilma and Pebbles at the store, then races out of the theatre to try to fetch them. He winds up having to break into the store, only to get busted by the police. Lucky for him, it’s his buddy Philo Quartz (Rene Lavert), who’s playing Christmas Future and needs to get him back to the theatre in time.

During Christmas Past, the actresses playing both the Ghost and Belle get sick and have to drop out, leaving Wilma to play the roles. Although we get the usual scenes of Scrooge in school, partying with Fezziwig (Barney again) and ultimately losing Belle, there’s an added subtext here. Wilma is legitimately pissed, and Fred – still focusing on his starring turn – can’t understand why.

Christmas Present is the only scene where the Bedrock Bug doesn’t cause havoc. Brian Cummings voices “Ernie,” the ghost who shows him the party at nephew Ned’s and the tender scene at the Cragit home. I know I made the same crack about the Flintstones celebrating Christmas in a time before Christ last year, but this time it’s really glaring. Barney delivers the old line about Tiny Tim hoping people remember “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” It’s a beautiful line, of course, one of Dickens’s best, and a vital reminder of the true reason for the Christmas season. But still, Barney, how can people remember a man who hasn’t been born yet?

Ah well. Sacrifices must be made in the name of great cinema.

Christmas Yet to Come is traditionally hooded and silent, and shows Scrooge the traditional scenes. The big curve ball here doesn’t come until the play is actually over, when Fred goes to congratulate Philo on his performance only to find that Philo got struck down with the Bedrock Bug, and Christmas Future was played by none other than his old pal Dino, putting in the greatest canine performance since Rin-Tin-Tin.

In the end, Pebbles (voiced by Russi Taylor) steals Bamm-Bamm’s “God bless us, everyone” line when he gets stage fright. The play over, though, everybody quickly turns on Fred. Fred apologizes to Wilma and the others for real, and they eventually, begrudgingly forgive him. This is the only spot where the movie falls flat. Although we see Scrooge going through his traditional redemption cycle, there’s never anything that indicates any sort of redemption for Fred. It’s as if Scrooge’s life lessons somehow apply to Fred as well, and work their magic on him. Even if we’re to assume that’s the case, why is the lesson only hitting him now, on the night of the performance, instead of the weeks of rehearsal leading up to the production? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Speaking of the production, let’s hear it for the Bedrock Community Players, can we? Their stage values are absolutely phenomenal. Somehow they have a full-size reproduction of the city on their stage, along with living dinosaurs and real snow, to say nothing of how they somehow make Fred and the Ghosts turn transparent in full view of the audience. I don’t mind tell you, friends, I’ve done my share of community theatre, and there have been times when we have it rough enough just trying to get the fog machine to work. If we could make our actors intangible, people would be abandoning New Orleans to see our performances in droves.

This is not, by any stretch, one of the all-time great productions of A Christmas Carol, but if you’re a fan of the Flintstones – which I am – it’s a fun little departure from the norm and worth watching each Christmas season.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!