Blog Archives

Scrooge Revisited Day 3-Cosmo Spacely in A Jetson Christmas Carol (1985)

jetson-christmas-carolNote: 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: Ray Patterson

Writer: Barbara Levy & Marc Paykuss, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: George O’Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Janet Waldo, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Frank Welker

Notes: This cartoon was originally made as an episode of the 80s-era revival of The Jetsons. It would later be released on its own on VHS, and has been shown as its own special on occasion since then (although to date the only place to get it on DVD is part of the Jetsons Season 2 set). It logically casts George Jetson’s boss, Cosmo Spacely (Mel Blanc) in the Scrooge role, with George (George O’Hanlon) taking the Bob Cratchit part. Their dog Astro (Don Messick) fills in for Tiny Tim after he swallows a gear from his Christmas present, which somehow results in him turning green and running a temperature. What can I say, medicine works differently in the future. Hanna-Barbera, of course, also tackled Dickens in A Flintstones Christmas Carol, and at least one other time, in the Scooby-Doo cartoon A Nutcracker Scoob, which so far I’ve been unable to locate on DVD, because clearly somebody at Warner Bros hates joy.

Thoughts: This special is a nice balance between traditional Christmas Carol tropes and the puns and goofs that Hanna-Barbera cartoons do so well. After things kick off with Mr. Spacely forcing George Jetson to work overtime, we lapse into all the main beats – Spacely is visited the ghost of his old partner “Jacob Marsley” (Blanc again) followed by a trio of mechanical ghosts who show him the past, present, and future. The Past and Future are old computers, while Present is a talking gift box. It’s actually my favorite joke in the show, and my wife’s least favorite joke of 2016. Christmas Future takes a nice twist as well – Spacely isn’t dead in the future, just out on the streets after the Jetsons sued him over Astro’s death. As far as changes go, this is the most amusing one – it would be too much for the children’s cartoon to show Spacely’s death, so instead they kill off the dog.

The special adds a little interesting backstory to the characters. In the “Christmas Past” segment, we see that George and Spacely are actually contemporaries, rather than Spacely being George’s senior. What’s more, Spacely has been bullying George and jerking him around financially since they were children. I’m pretty sure this is literally the only time in the history of the cartoon that such a thing is mentioned.

Ultimately, nothing else that happens in the cartoon is terribly surprising. It’s a standard version of A Christmas Carol, mixed in with a standard episode of The Jetsons. If you enjoy either of those things, you’ll like this as well. Fortunately, I do.

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!

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!

The Christmas Special Day 23: A Scooby-Doo! Christmas (2004)

scooby-doo-christmasDirector: Scott Jeralds

Writer: Jonathan Collier & James Krieg

Cast: Mindy Cohn, Grey DeLisle, Casey Kasem, Kathy Kinney, Frank Welker

Plot: A group of kids find an enormous snowman in the woods. When they try to take its nose, it comes to life, removes its head, and hurls it at them, making them run away in a panic. Nearby, the gang in the Mystery Machine is on their way to Mill’s Corner to spend Christmas at a condo owned by Daphne’s (Grey DeLisle) uncle. The bridge to the condo is out, forcing them to detour through the town of Winterhollow, where they meet the kids fleeing from the Headless Snowman, who also startles Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker). When they walk into the local diner, a man called Old Jeb is raving about the Headless Snowman who has been terrorizing the town for years. Sheriff Perkins (Kathy Kinney) calms him down and tells the gang there’s no way to get to Mill’s Corner that night with the bridge out. The gang checks into an inn, which is full to bursting with people who have had their homes damaged by the Snowman. The innkeeper, Asa, tells them the town doesn’t celebrate Christmas anymore due to the snowman… some of the children have never even seen a Christmas tree.

Everyone is summoned outside when a loud noise signals an attack by the snowman. There they find a boy named Tommy telling the Sheriff the snowman startled him and smashed his chimney, ripping open a wall in his house. Fred (Welker again) tries to comfort the boy, promising they’ll try to save Christmas. As the gang searches, the Snowman chases them all into a tiny shed, when they send plunging down the side of the mountain and hurtling through the air before smashing to safety. Asa calls a professor from Mill’s Corner to help, and Velma (Mindy Cohn) takes note that Asa’s business seems to benefit greatly from the snowman. Professor Higginson tells them the story an old prospector called Blackjack Brody who froze to death hiding gold bricks he stole from a local man, and that his ghost is sending the snowman to destroy the older homes in Winterhollow searching for his gold. Velma brings the gang to Jeb’s house, expecting the ghost to come there next. They hide when the Snowman appears and starts tearing apart the walls. A sneeze alerts him to our heroes and chase resumes via the classic horror movie technique of the musical montage. Eventually, Scooby and Shaggy lure it away and Sheriff Perkins arrives, claiming to have followed a set of mysterious footprints. Fred, Daphne and Velma go off to set a trap for the monster, but it attacks Scooby and Shaggy instead. They lead it into a series of heat lamps the others set up, melting the snow and revealing a robotic core being piloted by Professor Higginson. Velma reveals that Higginson is a descendant of the man Blackjack Brody stole his gold from in the first place, and he’s been searching for the gold he believes is rightfully his. Remembering how heavy the bricks in the smashed chimneys were, Velma finds the truth – Brody painted the gold and it was used to build the houses in the town. Tommy gives the shivering Higginson his scarf to warm him up, and he realizes the error of his ways. As the gold is rightfully his, he donates it to the town to help them rebuild. The gang sets up a Christmas tree – Winterhollow’s first in years – and everyone gathers around to watch it glow.

Thoughts: This is pretty atypical for a Christmas special, but a perfectly normal episode of Scooby-Doo. The formula is time-honored and well-worn for these characters. Like virtually every episode of the assorted cartoons, a “monster” shows up terrorizing people for reasons that are dubious, but usually somehow financially motivated. The gang investigates three or four suspects, all but one of which are red herrings. They catch the monster, Velma unmasks him and explains how she knew it was really him. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’m told some of the more recent Scooby-Doo cartoons actually try to mix it up by having real monsters, but I haven’t seen any of those… in fact, with a 2004 air date, this is the most recent visit with the original Scooby Gang I’ve ever seen. I do, however, have to give the makers of this cartoon credit for managing to tell a story with a Christmas feel without restoring to many (if any) of the typical Christmas tropes. Don’t misunderstand – I love those trope, those tropes are great. But I’ve been watching these specials for weeks now, and one can’t help but appreciate the change of pace.

The atypical part comes in at the very end, when Higginson repents instead of being carted off shouting that he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those rotten kids. It’s a Christmas special, so I can accept the villain who repents at the end – that’s what Christmas is all about, after all. But the way the people of the town are so willing to forgive is nothing short of supernatural. This is the man who has terrorized their town, destroyed their homes, and stolen Christmas itself from an entire generation of children, and they’re ready to forgive him even before he offers to use the gold to help them fix their houses. Ladies and gentlemen, either Winterhollow is the most forgiving town on this or any other planet, or the good Professor had some sort of mind-control apparatus that the gang somehow missed while they were hopped up on Scooby Snacks.

Come to think of it, it’s not like he even really needs the gold. The man has the money to either purchase or develop and build a robotic upside-down top that has the ability to animate and control snow, which it somehow endows with superhuman strength sufficient to rip apart a brick… freaking… wall. If you can do that, what do you need hundred-year-old gold for? Market it! The possibilities for a Vegas stage show alone are staggering!

It’s not the strongest mystery, but then again, Scooby-Doo ain’t exactly Sherlock Holmes. I pegged the professor as our culprit even before he arrived for one simple reason: he told Asa he was coming into town from Mill’s Crossing – the same town the gang was unable to reach because the bridge was out. When he walked through the door I nodded to myself and said, “Yep, he was there all the time.” Startlingly, though, when Velma is doing her Reveal Sequence, this nugget of information is never mentioned. Deleted scene? Serendipitous screw-up? Who knows? I’m just going to take it as further evidence that I’m smarter than most cartoon characters, with the obvious exceptions of Simon from the Chipmunks, Brainy Smurf, and Snarf.

This is a relatively recent cartoon, particularly when you look at the rich history Scooby and the gang enjoy, but they still manage to work in most of the classic bits. My favorite scene is, indeed, the musical montage, when the gang tries to outwit the monster. They even usually succeed, at least for a few seconds. Scooby and Shaggy douse him in syrup and almost have one monster sno-cone, the others start singing Christmas carols and he temporarily forgets he’s a demonic hellbeast and offers them hot chocolate… This may not be a laugh-a-minute show like some of the other Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but when it’s on, it truly has some of the funniest tropes in the cartoon kingdom.

Like I said back when we discussed A Flintstones Christmas, it’s a shame I couldn’t work in more Hanna-Barbera into this countdown. There are dozens of cartoons spread out amongst their various franchises that just fill you with the Christmas spirit. Unfortunately, almost all of them fall into one of the three categories that I disqualified from this project: they were run as part of the regular series, they’re too long and therefore count as a TV movie rather than a TV special, or they’re a take on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – such as one of my favorite Yuletide adventures with the Scooby gang, “A Nutcracker Scoob.” But fear not, friends. Reel to Reel is a long-term project. There’s always next year.

The Christmas Special Day 21: A Wish For Wings That Work (1991)

wish-for-wings-that-workDirector: Skip Jones

Writer: Berkeley Breathed

Cast: Michael Bell, John Byner, Joe Alaskey, Tress MacNeille, Andrew Hill Newman, Robin Williams, Alexaundria Simmons, Frank Welker

Plot: As Christmas approaches Opus the Penguin (Michael Bell) has one wish: a new pair of wings, because the ones he’s been saddled with don’t allow him to fly.  Opus and his friend Bill the Cat (John Byner) have found themselves the subject of torment by a group of ducks (Joe Alaskey) who mock Opus for being flightless, to the point where Opus is going to a support group led by a young child named Ronald-Anne (Alexaundria Simmons). The other birds in the group rave, particularly a Kiwi (an uncredited cameo by Robin Williams) whose wife has left him for an albatross. After an effort at becoming an airborne vigilante fails spectacularly, Opus turns to Santa for help.

On Christmas Eve, though, Santa Claus (Frank Welker) suffers a mishap and falls from the sky. Opus, meanwhile, sleeps fitfully, having dreams of being a pilot. Even in his dream, though, the plane falls from the sky, because penguins can’t fly. He wakes up and finds himself accosted by the ducks, who are in a panic. They take Opus to the lake, where Santa is perched on his sleigh, stranded in the middle. The ducks are scared of the icy water, and it’s up to Opus the Penguin to glide out and save Santa Claus. Grasping the reigns in his beak, he tows Santa back to dry land. Having lost his hat in the rescue, Santa gives Opus his own hat, and makes him see that his courage is a gift that more than makes up for flightless wings. Opus’s joy is short-lived, however, when he realizes he isn’t getting his Christmas wish. On Christmas morning, he steps outside to see that the three ducks have returned, with dozens more. They grab him and pull him outside, taking him with them into the air. Bill, who we discover suggested going to Opus for help in the first place, begins running behind, and the support group disdains him from the sidewalk. But Opus doesn’t care. For one day, Opus the Penguin can fly.

Thoughts: I’m not sure how popular it is today, but in the 80s I remember Berkeley Breathed’s comic strip Bloom Countyas being one of the more clever, slightly subversive features in the newspaper (definitely the ones carried by the New Orleans Times-Picayune). It was sharper and a bit more pointed than a lot of other strips (coughFAMILYCIRCUScough) without ever reaching the preachiness of a Doonsbury and getting bogged down in its own self-importance. The strip has been rebooted a few times over the years – under the names Outlands and Opus – and the so-called penguin Opus has not always been the star, but to me, he’s the icon.

While animated in a soft, lovely style that is perfectly acceptable for children, early in the special we see signs that this is an elevated cartoon, something that will go over the heads of the playground set, and possibly bore them. Opus blames the “accident of birth” that left him as a flightless bird on Congress rather than his mother, and suggests that Bill move into a recycling bin rather than a garbage can. These are the sort of things that adults will see as satire and kids will see as gibberish. Other not-so-subtle bits include the Kiwi who is outraged that his wife left him for a better endowed bird, a war toy store called “Stormin’ Norman’s” and a cross-dressing cockaroach.  Although it does a better job of disguising itself than Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, it’s not a show for children.

The trouble is, this was 1991. The Simpsons was still new, South Park wasn’t a glimmer on the horizon, and cartoons were still for kids, as far as anyone was concerned. The prime audience for this special likely dismissed it without even tuning in, and the kids who turned in looking for an alternative to their 900th screening of Rudolph gave up and turned back before Yukon Cornelius even showed up. The sequence where Opus dreams of being a pilot – helped along by footage from an old war movie – is quietly amusing in a way that isn’t instantly memorable, but brings a smile to your face when you come back and watch the special again the next year.

And it’s a shame, because the special has a sweet little message that you don’t really see anywhere else. Like Rudolph or Nestor, we’ve got a story about a main character who suffers from some physical characteristic that he sees as a disadvantage. Like Rudolph and Nestor, in the end it is precisely his abnormality that allows him to save the day. Unlike Rudolph and Nestor, though, this realization isn’t enough for Opus. While the message of Rudolph’s story is a good one (be proud of who you are), Opus’s message is considerably more realistic. Discovering you can do something useful is not, in and of itself, enough to make a person forget a lifelong dream. It’s pretty unlikely that Opus had never taken an ice-cold swim before, too, so it’s not like he even discovered something new like Rudolph and Nestor did. Rudolph’s nose helped him achieve his dream. Opus was told his gift made his dream unnecessary, which any child could tell you is a load of penguin guano. (I know penguins don’t really produce guano, please don’t send me e-mails about this.)

Still, for all the cynicism, the special ends on a very positive note. While we weren’t looking the bullies, the ducks, experience their own change of heart and help our little hero have his dream after all. Most of us will never be that lucky, of course, but it’s a more realistic conclusion to this particular hero’s journey than most of the others we’ve watched. Of course, this is a cartoon with a cross-dressing cockroach, so “realistic” is something of a relative term.

Although I would have been 14 when this special premiered, I don’t remember watching it at the time. At some point, I became aware of it, then a few years ago I found it on DVD and watched it for the first time. There’s something quiet, sweet, and lovely about this special, and if you can find it, it’s well worth rotating the 22 minutes into your Christmas cartoon marathon.

The Christmas Special Day 14: A Chipmunk Christmas (1981)

chipmunk-christmastDirector: Phil Monroe

Writers: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Hal Mason

Cast: Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Janice Karman, June Foray, Frank Welker, Charles Berendt, R.J. Williams

Plot: Five days before Christmas, the Chipmunks rouse David Seville (Ross Bagdasarian Jr., taking over the roles of Dave, Alvin and Simon from his late father, with Janice Karman playing Theodore) from a sound sleep and start to rush him out the door. As the boys go to the stores, Alvin overhears a little girl admiring a golden harmonica like Alvin’s, wishing she could get it for her sick brother Tommy (R.J. Williams). Tommy’s mother, however, seems skeptical Tommy will live to see the holiday. As the Chipmunks head into the recording studio, Alvin’s spirit has been diminished, and he heads out on an unscheduled break just minutes after recording begins. He finds Tommy at home and visits the sick boy, giving him with his harmonica and telling him he won it in a contest. Alvin rushes back to the studio and joins in the singing, his spirits restored. The Chipmunks are later booked to do a Christmas Eve concert at Carnegie Hall – a huge break – but they want Alvin to do a harmonica solo. Alvin can’t tell Dave (who gave him the harmonica) he gave it up, so he and his brothers try to buy a new one. He dresses up as Santa and charges kids for a picture, which Dave breaks up, admonishing his sons for trying to use Christmas to make money. When his brothers bumble out that Alvin needs money to buy something for himself, a disappointed Dave sends him to his room. That night, Alvin dreams of visiting mad inventor Clyde Crashcup (Charles Berendt), asking him for a loan, but the addle-brained Crashcup proves little help. Dave’s disappointment only grows when he walks past the dreaming Alvin, hearing the boy cry out for money in his sleep.

With two hours to go before the Christmas Eve concert, Alvin sets out to try to buy a new harmonica. While he’s gone Dave gets a phone call from Tommy’s mother, telling him the harmonica did wonders for the sick child. At the mall, Alvin stares at the harmonica he still can’t afford, when a kind old lady (June Foray) comes from nowhere and buys it for him. To thank her, he begins playing “Silent Night,” and a crowd forms to listen, including Dave, Simon and Theodore. Dave apologizes for misjudging Alvin, and the Sevilles head to Carnegie Hall for the concert. As he finishes his harmonica solo, Alvin runs into Tommy, out of bed and well. Alvin pulls him on stage to play an encore with the Chipmunks. Their song even reaches Santa Claus (Frank Welker), passing overhead on his rounds.  He returns home to Mrs. Claus, telling her she should get out on Christmas some time and see what it’s like. As he drifts to sleep Mrs. Claus – a familiar, kindly old woman – looks at the audience and hushes us… why tell Santa, after all?

Thoughts: The Chipmunks, those animated anthropomorphs who rocketed to novelty album fame with “The Chipmunk Song,” had been off TV screens for some time in 1981. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this special was the start of a comeback, leading into a new Saturday morning cartoon that would be the version of the Chipmunks throughout my formative years. And it’s fitting, as their first hit was a Christmas song, that Christmas would factor into their comeback as well.

This special was something of an all-star piece, with the already-great June Foray stepping in as Mrs. Claus and the soon-to-be great Frank Welker as her husband. Even better, Chuck Jones pitched in on animation and character design for the special, and having watched it so relatively soon after How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it’s not hard to see some of his trademark gestures and designs, even if the flow of the animation isn’t really his. Some of the visual gags are distinctly Jonesian, though, such as Alvin as a miniature Santa being hoisted and lowered onto kids’ laps via a pulley… there’s a Wile E. Coyote flavor to it. (There’s also a great nod to Jones and Foray’s previous Christmas collaboration, as Alvin encounters a little girl named Cindy Lou.) The Clyde Crashcup sequence is a double whammy, bringing back a great (and mostly forgotten) cartoon star of the past, as well as presenting a sequence of confusion and misunderstanding that echoes a Dr. Seuss poem – or even one of Jones’s few feature films, the great The Phantom Tollbooth.

Although the Chipmunks would return during the run of their TV show with takes on A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, this special was all-new, and a really refreshing change. So many Christmas specials hinge on a character lacking Christmas spirit and finding it at the last minute. This time we see Alvin – often presented as the self-centered one in the group – show true Christmas spirit at the very beginning, and still winding up in a jam. The arc of the story is utterly unlike any other Christmas film I’m aware of. There’s not even really a lesson to be learned – Alvin knows and does the right thing right away, without having to go through trials or face the intervention of some wise mentor. If there’s anything he does wrong it’s not confessing to Dave that he gave up the harmonica, and given the circumstances, I think most people would have done the same thing. It’s a really refreshing change of pace, and makes for a unique special, unlike any of the others we’ve watched so far.

I have to confess, friends, I think the Chipmunks have hit something of a low point. I’m not at all a fan of the current movie series, where I think some of the silly charm of the original has been traded in for gross-out humor and tendrils of raunch that just don’t fit the spirit of Ross Bagdasarian’s characters. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still love Alvin and the boys, and especially at Christmas, I like looking back at these old cartoons and remembering when they were… y’know… good.