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Scrooge Month Day 17: Daffy Duck in BAH HUMDUCK! A LOONEY TUNES CHRISTMAS (2006)

Bah Humduck 2006Director: Charles Visser

Writer: Ray DeLaurentis, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Joe Alaskey, Bob Bergen, Billy West, June Foray, Maurice LaMarche, Jim Cummings, Tara Strong

Notes: This is actually the second time the Looney Tunes characters have tackled Dickens, the first being in the 1979 short, Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol. I would have included that in this little experiment, because at only eight minutes it would have been the easiest article ever, but it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD at the moment. Warner Bros should get on that. Anyway, in this version we see Daffy Duck (voice of Joe Alaskey) cast as the owner of the Lucky Duck Superstore in the Scrooge role. Although the Looney Tunes characters basically play themselves, they fill in the assorted Christmas Carol roles appropriately. Porky Pig (Bob Bergen) is Daffy’s assistant manager and the stand-in for Bob Cratchit. Bugs Bunny (Billy West) kind of takes nephew Fred’s place, although the role is somewhat expanded. Sylvester “the Investor” (Alaskey)  is our Jacob Marley substitute, Porky’s daughter Priscilla (Tara Strong) fills in for Tiny Tim, and the ghosts are filled up by a tag-team of Granny (the legendary June Foray) and Tweety (Begen) for the past, Yosemite Sam (Maurice LaMarche) for the present, and the Tasmanian Devil (Jim Cummings) for Christmas Future.

Thoughts: The Looney Tunes characters, traditionally, have not proven to be quite as versatile as the Disney crew. While Mickey and Company can star in more traditional versions of Dickens, The Prince and the Pauper, The Three Musketeers and the like, it’s much harder for the Looney Tunes to do so. They shouldn’t be embarrassed by this – it’s because they’re just plain funnier, and therefore it’s harder to wedge them into a drama. That said, Ray LeLaurentis managed to match them to the Dickensian roles in this film pretty neatly.

Daffy, as the head of a superstore, hates Christmas and families, mostly because he never had either of his own. Early on we see him being terrible to assorted Looney Tunes characters in assorted ways, most cleanly when he dismisses Assistant Manager Porky’s wish to spend Christmas with his family. Daffy may not be the most Scrooge-like of the Looney Tunes characters, being more of a grump than a skinflint, but he’s their biggest star that could fit the role. As such, the film doesn’t paint him as a spendthrift the way Scrooge usually is, but just somebody with a nasty disposition who decides to target Christmas with his ire.

“Sylvester the Investor” is a former CEO and idol of Daffy’s, not specifically his old partner, and he’s the character that really made the continuity geek that lives in my brain full-time struggle. There are two ways the Looney Tunes are usually portrayed: either as “themselves,” living an ostensibly normal life while going through wacky adventures; or as actors in crazy cartoons playing crazy roles. This movie seems to exist in some sort of weird in-between place. Daffy is himself, Porky, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian and many of the others are his employees. But Sylvester and the ghosts come across more like the “actor” versions of the characters. There is, of course, the possibility that I’m simply expending way too much energy trying to rationalize the structure of a Looney Tunes movie.

After Marley’s visit, Daffy continues to torment his employees, even announcing that the store will be open from 5 a.m. to midnight on Christmas Day, making this 2006 movie seem sadly prophetic. He and Bugs wind up trapped in the store overnight, though, giving us the biggest Looney Tunes star at vital points of the tale. Granny and Tweety pop in as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and take Daffy back to the Lucky Duck Orphanage where he grew up. Lucky Duck, as it seems, didn’t live up to its name for Daffy. We’re shown a Christmas where he is literally the only child at the orphanage who does not get adopted. The scene is so pathetic that even the ghosts cry for him, until they snap out of it and Tweety lays a verbal smack-down on him and Granny tells him his own lousy childhood doesn’t give him the right to ruin everybody else’s Christmas.

Yosemite Sam, who played Scrooge in Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol, here dons the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. He whips Daffy around to show him how sad his various employees are, ending it with Porky telling adorable little Priscilla he can’t be with her on Christmas. When she asks him why Daffy’s so mean, Porky tells her it’s probably because he doesn’t have a family to spend it with. She wishes on a star that Porky could spend Christmas with her instead of going to work, and Sam smacks Daffy upside the head. Seriously, Daff, when Yosemite Sam is calling you out for being a jerk, you know you’ve gone too far.

Daffy finds Bugs decorating the store for Christmas and begs him to hide him from the final ghost, giving Bugs the chance to reenact a classic sequence of brutally bad hiding places from one of his old cartoons. None of it will protect him from the Tasmanian Devil as Christmas Future, though. Although Priscilla isn’t sick like Tiny Tim, Daffy sees a future where he’s dead and the store is closed thanks to his stupid effort to leave it to himself in his will. Now all of the employees are out of work just in time for Christmas. Just to drive the nail in, Priscilla promises to visit Daffy’s grave every Christmas. Taz weeps openly and Daffy asks for a second chance.

Well c’mon, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t get one, would it?

Back home, Daffy finds a frozen Fudd who informs him it’s still Christmas, and Daffy declares there’s work to do. When the employees return to the store in the morning, Daffy starts handing out gifts: a rocket for Marvin so he can go home for the holidays, a chef for the perpetually starving Wile E. Coyote, and raises and vacations all around. His 20-second interaction with Speedy Gonzales makes the whole film worthwhile.

As Daffy looks around he almost relapses, realizing how much the raises and vacations are going to cost him, but Priscilla’s grateful words to “Uncle Daffy” cut him off. She also gets the last word – not “God bless us, everyone,” but swiping her Dad’s usual proclamation of “That’s all, folks!”

The cartoon – at a brisk 45 minutes – doesn’t spend a lot of time on the details of Dickens. Instead, it uses the classic framework to tell a story with more original characters and a lot of old-school Looney Tunes slapstick. These are timeless characters that still make me laugh when they’re done right, and for the most part, this special pulls it off. I’ve actually enjoyed the new Looney Tunes Show the Cartoon Network airs, but this slightly more traditional version of the characters is always going to be where my heart lies.

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 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.