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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Notes: This cartoon was originally made as an episode of the 80s-era revival of The Jetsons.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!

Dorothy Gale Week Day 3: Liza Minnelli in Journey Back to Oz (1974)

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????Director: Hal Sutherland

Writer: Fred Land & Norman Prescott

Cast: Liza Minnelli, Milton Berle, Margaret Hamilton, Paul Ford, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Mel Blanc, Dal McKennon, Larry Storch, Risë Stevens, Jack E. Leonard, Herschel Bernardi

Plot: In this animated kind-of sequel to the 1939 MGM film, a storm is brewing in Kansas again, and Henry (Paul Ford) is getting worried. His niece Dorothy (Liza Minnelli) feels a-tingle, remembering  how a similar storm once swept her away to the land of Oz, but her Aunt Em (Margaret Hamilton) swears to her that Oz is simply a figment of her imagination. As she sings to Toto about wishing to return, a cyclone snaps the two of them up and pulls them into the air. When Dorothy comes to her senses, she realizes she’s landed by the Yellow Brick Road in Oz, and rushes off to find her old friends in the Emerald City. Setting off, Dorothy encounters a creature with a pumpkin for a head (Paul Lynde). Pumpkinhead is fleeing from an evil witch named Mombi (Ethel Merman), who created him to help her conjure some powerful, terrible work of magic. Dorothy tells Pumpkinhead to come with her to the Emerald City, where her friend the Scarecrow will help him.

Dorothy finds Mombi’s hut, where a crow (Mel Blanc) invites her to peek at the cauldron simmering on the fire. Mombi traps her and reveals her brew will create an army of green elephants to conquer Oz and destroy the Scarecrow. When Mombi leaves to get firewood, Pumpkinhead sneaks in and rescues Dorothy. As they escape, they encounter a carousel horse called Woodenhead (Herschel Bernardi), stuck upside-down in the ground. They free him and he joins their party.

Arriving at the Emerald City, they warn the Scarecrow (Mickey Rooney about Mombi’s attack just as the Witch and her Green Elephants arrive. Dorothy and her friends climb on Woodenhead’s back, but Toto and the Scarecrow are captured in the escape. Dorothy, Pumpkinhead and Woodenhead set out for Tinland, to enlist the aid of her old friend the Tin Man (Danny Thomas).  At first he’s eager to help, but loses heart when told of the army of elephants. The Cowardly Lion (Milton Berle) initially puts on a show of bravado, but quickly reverts back to quaking when told of the elephants. Glinda, the Good Witch (Risë Stevens) who has been watching the proceedings with her… “Glinda-Bird”… arrives to offer her aid, and gives Dorothy a package which she warns her not to open until she arrives at the Emerald City.

Mombi sends a group of enchanted trees after the friends, but Glinda – watching through the Glinda-Bird – gives Pumpkinhead a magic axe that turns them into… well… hippies. Saved, they return to an Emerald City that has rapidly fallen into decay. They are attacked by an elephant, but Dorothy opens Glinda’s box and a swarm of magic mice pop out and chase it away, freeing them to assault the palace. The mice make it to Mombi’s chambers and chase her the gardens, where she disguises herself as a rose bush. The mice have sent the elephants on a stampede, though, and she is trampled flat. Toto, recognizing Mombi’s true form, leads Dorothy to the flattened rose, who blames Dorothy for her fate just as she dies. As she withers, the elephants fade and the Emerald City is restored to its former glory. The celebration is short-lived, though, as Pumpkinhead has fallen along with the rest of Mombi’s creations. Glinda tells Dorothy her magic cannot restore him, and Dorothy weeps for her fallen friend. As she cries, her tears touch Pumpkinhead’s face, and the magic of her love restores him to life. The Scarecrow awards his friends, making Woodenhead his own royal steed and knighting Pumpkinhead, then offers Dorothy anything she desires. She asks, as always, simply to return home.  The Scarecrow find a loophole in the Oz Constitution that will only allow Dorothy to return home the way she came, and Glinda creates a cyclone to carry her back.

Thoughts: In the 1970s theatrical animation could be divided pretty squarely into two categories: Disney, and everything else. This Filmation effort falls into the latter category: limited animation, competent but unimpressive voice acting and weak music. The idea of doing an Oz sequel was all well and good, but Filmation went with stunt casting (Judy Garland’s daughter voicing Dorothy, original Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton doing a cameo as Aunt Em, plus several celebrities of the time) and an uncredited rewrite of Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. This movie plucks some of the characters from that book – Mombi and Pumpkinhead – turns the Sawhorse into a Merry-Go-Round horse, then turns the plot into something that’s trying hard to be The Wizard of Oz all over again. Instead of that other story, in which a young boy named Tip and his friends wind up stumbling on a plot to conquer Oz by an army of angry women, this movie has Dorothy once again marching to the Emerald City, once again picking up unusual friends along the way, once again being plagued by a Wicked Witch out for revenge. It’s incomprehensible to me why, with 14 Oz books to choose from by Baum alone, filmmakers never seem to look past the first three for inspiration, and often try to shoehorn elements from the latter two into the mold of the first one all over again. It’s equally baffling why they would create new elements when the originals (such as General Jinjur’s all-girl army, which the elephants are standing in for) work so much better. And for Heaven’s sake, why elephants? Okay, they’re big, they’re powerful, but the way the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion react to them you’d think elephants are their natural predators or something. Even mammoths might make sense, but the Tin Man going into a panic over green elephants simply doesn’t make any sense.

The performances, as I said, are merely adequate. Liza Minnelli is clearly cast simply for the gimmick of having her take up her mother’s role, as she brings nothing to the part. She’s not terrible, but there are most certainly more talented voice performers who could have done more, granted the character the sweetness and innocence she demands. As it is, the only thing that really can be said about Dorothy in this film is that she “kinda sounds a little like Judy Garland.” The animation is weak as well – Filmation does a far better job with the non-human characters than Dorothy. She’s surrounded by characters like the Tin Man and Pumpkinhead, which at least look amusing, but Dorothy herself is a stiff, unemotive creature that only really has one expression. This isn’t one of those times where I’m willing to chalk it up to the limited resources of the time, either. If Disney could make magical, powerful characters in the 1930s, the only excuse for the poor animation of the 70s is pencil-pushers cutting corners, and that I refuse to forgive.

Some of the other characters are better, at least. Milton Berle as the Cowardly Lion and Mickey Rooney as the Scarecrow fit the parts nicely. Danny Thomas’s Tin Man is less impressive, and Paul Lynde… well, he’s pretty much Paul Lynde talking out of a Jack O’Lantern. Ethel Merman’s Mombi isn’t bad at all, but she’s playing a typical, stereotypical witch, not particularly doing anything innovative. But my biggest problem with them is more along the lines of characterization than animation. The notion that the Tin Man or Lion would ever refuse to help Dorothy is preposterous. Hell, the entire point of the Lion’s story arc in the first book (or movie) is that he will always overcome his fear to help his friends! You mean to tell me you wave a little thing like an army of magic green elephants in his face and the king of beasts will lose his ability to fight? Absolutely not, my friends. I cannot accept this. The scenes with the Tin Man and Lion ultimately have no impact on the plot anyway, they’re included simply so that the recognizable characters could put in an appearance. It would have been just as effective and far less insulting, from a story standpoint, if the movie skipped from the escape from the Emerald City to the point where Glinda pops up. (It would actually be better, in fact, because if Glinda was watching the whole time, why the hell did she wait so long before taking action?)

Speaking of Glinda, here we see one of those oft-used fantasy tropes that usually irritates me: the “don’t open it until the proper time” gimmick. Writers often use this to create some false suspense, but at least they usually make some effort to explain why the giver of the gift won’t say what it is: magic, arbitrary rules of the game, “you wouldn’t have believed me,” something. None of those are brought into play here, though, there was no reason for Glinda to make a secret out of the box’s contents. It’s just there so we can have a brief moment in the forest where Woodenhead suggests opening the box to escape the trees and Dorothy can tell him no, reminding us that she’s a good little girl who does as Glinda tells her.

The songs, like the voice acting, are merely adequate. Each character gets at least one, Dorothy gets several, none of them are particularly memorable. This was par for the course for films of this nature, sadly, and that’s even sadder when you compare it to the incomparable music from the 1939 film.

When I learned of the existence of this movie, I was initially very excited – as I always am when I find out about a version of Oz I haven’t encountered before. Sadly, the whole thing fell very flat for me. It was at least more recognizable than the 1925 Wizard of Oz, but in truth, that’s mostly because it was built on the back of the Judy Garland film. That’s not to say you can’t tell a good Oz story that way – many people have – but this didn’t hold up for me. Still, I can see a lot of similarities to the cartoons I grew up watching, the ones that hold a special place in my heart even today. On the other hand, I can also recognize that a large number of those cartoons I loved as a kid are terribly weak when looked back upon with a discerning eye. I suspect that if I had watched this movie as a child, I’d probably upon it with rose-colored glasses. As it is, I’m just left sliding the disc back into its NetFlix sleeve and feeling a little disappointed for the second time in this week’s experiment.

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 11: A Flintstones Christmas (1977)

flintstone-christmas-collectionDirector: Charles A. Nichols

Writers: Duane Poole & Dick Robbins

Cast: Henry Corden, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Gay Hartwig, Lucille Bills, Virginia Gregg, Hal Smith,  John Stephenson

Plot: It’s Christmas Eve in Bedrock and the Flintstones and Rubbles are finishing up their preparations. Wilma (Jean Vander Pyl) and Betty (Gay Hartwig) try to persuade Fred (Henry Corden, taking over the role seamlessly from the late Alan Reed) to play Santa at the orphanage’s Christmas party that night, but Fred refuses and heads to work. When he arrives his boss, Mr. Slate (John Stephenson) informs him that his wife wants Fred to play Santa for the same party. This time, to protect his job, Fred agrees. At home, Fred and Barney (Mel Blanc) prepare for the party, but hear a thumping from the roof. They find Santa Claus (great voice actor Hal Smith, who played Santa in no less than five different cartoon series over the years) in the snow. Although Fred is skeptical at first, Barney finds the sleigh and reindeer, proving they’ve got the real Santa in the Flintstone house.  Santa sprained his ankle on Fred’s roof, and Barney suggests Fred as a substitute while he heals. Santa gives them a dose of magic and sends them on their way.

Things go relatively smoothly for Fred and Barney’s first few deliveries, but some turbulence knocks the sack of presents out of the sleigh. Barney calls Santa on the sleigh’s CB radio (it was the 70s, people), and Santa tells them to go back to the North Pole for another load. As they wait for the sleigh to be reloaded, Fred and Barney take a tour of Santa’s high-tech operation and pitch in making some toys. They get back in the air and speed up their deliveries, realizing Fred is still scheduled to play Santa for the orphans. Back in Bedrock, the children are starting to get upset – almost as upset as Mr. Slate. Fortunately, Fred and Barney finally arrive, spilling in through the chimney with such a spectacular entrance Mr. Slate forgives their tardiness… until Fred realizes they’ve given out all the presents already. With a little of Santa’s Christmas magic, Fred produces more, and the children are overjoyed. As they open their gifts, the boys return home to send Santa on his way. Wilma and Betty return home, angry at their husbands for rushing out of the party, and Santa ducks out before they see him. Although the girls don’t believe Fred and Barney’s story about filling in for Santa, they forgive them and begin trading gifts. Fred is horrified to realize, in all the commotion, he didn’t get Wilma a present, but Santa saves the day one last time, slipping one down the chimney. Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm spot Santa flying away, and their fathers join them at the window, waving goodbye, while the girls just chuckle at the four kids looking up at the skies over Bedrock.

Thoughts: Like Fat Albert, this 1977 special takes characters from a popular cartoon show and gives them a Christmas adventure, although unlike Fat Albert, by 1977 the original run of The Flintstones had been over for several years. Fortunately, with animation, it’s easier to do a reunion special without worrying about actors getting older or passing away or refusing to reprise their role – in almost every case, a new voice artist is always a possibility. This special managed to get most of the original voices back, but one wonders if Mel Blanc felt a little confused that he was remaking a cartoon he’d done 13 years prior.

A Flintstones Christmas borrows much of its plot from the 1964 episode of the TV show, “Christmas Flintstone” (brilliantly clever with titles, these Hanna-Barbera folks), specifically the story of Fred filling in for Santa Claus after he injures himself. This special adds in more and different music and ages the children – Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm are elementary school age, whereas they were still babies in the original. They also trade out B-plots – in the original, Fred was working as a department store Santa for extra money, whereas here he’s dealing with Mr. Slate and playing Santa for orphans. The B-plot is used to give urgency to the A-plot as well, while in the original Fred was pretty much done with his gig when he stumbles into the real Santa and is called upon to fill in. Still, if one were to sit down for a marathon of the assorted Flintstones Christmas specials and episodes throughout the years (something a guy like me is honestly very likely to do), you’d be a bit shocked when you essentially saw the same show twice.

Having dealt with that particular elephant in the room (I’m going to ignore the one about characters celebrating Christmas before the birth of Christ), let’s talk about the story for what it is. The notion of Fred filling in for Santa is a wonderfully natural one – the heart of the character is that of a sort of good-natured lummox. For all the times throughout the years where Fred gets short-tempered or angry, at the core of the character is a deep, abiding love for his wife and friends, the sort of thing that lends itself perfectly to playing Santa. The actual mechanism for getting him into the suit was pretty clever for the time, although it seems that Disney picked at this cartoon when they made Tim Allen’s more morbid The Santa Clause.

Although there was music in the original version of this, this version has much more of it, almost making it into a full-blown musical as both Fred and Barney break into song about how much they love Christmas at assorted points in the show. While none of the music has broken out and become of particular note, it’s perfectly passable and a nice addition to the cartoon. The animation style is really indicative of the sort of thing we got from Hanna-Barbera, up to and including a nice little Rube Goldberg-style montage sequence in Santa’s workshop, where Fred and Barney spill out onto the conveyer belts and get temporarily caught up in the mechanisms of the toymaking machines. We saw this sort of thing a lot in the old Hanna-Barbera cartons, second only to the “hall of doors” chase scenes they did so often, particularly in Scooby Doo.

In terms of sheer volume, the good folks at Hanna-Barbera may have been second only to Rankin and Bass for producing great Christmas cartoons. However, there aren’t a lot of ‘em I could use for this project, as so many of them are feature film length, regular episodes of assorted TV shows or, saddest of all, not available on DVD. Maybe next year. But for now we’re not quite done with the Hanna-Barbera characters… not yet.