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What I’ve Watched In… December 2016

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Favorite of the Month: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. I Am Santa Claus (2014), A
  2. A Christmas Carol (2009), B-
  3. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983), B+
  4. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; RiffTrax Live Riff, B
  5. The Night Before (2015), B-
  6. Santa Claus (1959), F; Rifftrax Live Riff, B
  7. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), A
  8. Snow (2004), B
  9. Snow 2: Brain Freeze (2008), B
  10. Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978), A
  11. Christmas With Rifftrax: Santa’s Village of Madness, B
  12. The Shop Around the Corner (1940), A
  13. Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), B+
  14. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998), D
  15. Christmas Eve (2015), A-
  16. Scrooge (1970), B+
  17. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), A-
  18. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A-
  19. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), B-
  20. Trading Places (1983), B
  21. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), A
  22. A Very Murray Christmas (2015), A-
  23. Marvel Super Hero Adventures: Frost Fight (2015), B
  24. The Ref (1994), B+
  25. An American Christmas Carol (1979), B+
  26. Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest For Pappy (2004), C
  27. Ebbie (1995), D
  28. Scrooge and Marley (2001), C-
  29. Die Hard (1988), A
  30. Home Alone (1990), A
  31. Santa’s Christmas Circus (1966), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  32. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), A+
  33. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), A
  34. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
  35. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
  36. A Christmas Story (1983), A
  37. In the Good Old Summertime (1949), B
  38. Captain Phillips (2013), B+
  39. Hail, Caesar! (2016), B+
  40. Life of Pi (2012), A-
  41. 12 Years a Slave (2013), A
  42. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016), C
  43. Night Shadows (1984), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B
  44. No Country For Old Men (2007), A-
  45. Keanu (2016), B
  46. 12 Angry Men (1957), A+
  47. Wild Things (1998), B
  48. The Sting (1973), A-
  49. Singin’ in the Rain (1952), A+
  50. The Jungle Book (2016), C+
  51. For the Love of Spock (2016), A
  52. Ghostbusters (1984), A
  53. Ghostbusters II (1989), B
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What I Watched in… December 2015

Favorite of the Month: I Am Santa Claus

Favorite of the Month: I Am Santa Claus

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. I Am Santa Claus (2014), A
2. Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year (2002), B-
3. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
4. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014), D-
5. Home Alone (1990), B
6. Journey to the Christmas Star (2012), C+
7. The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966), C+
8. Babes in Toyland (1986), D
9. The Crucible (1996), A
10. A Flintstone Christmas (1977), B-
11. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), B+
12. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
13. A Merry Friggin’ Christmas (2014), B
14. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), B
15. Bad Santa (2003), B
16. The Santa Clause (1994), B+
17. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), A
18. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
19. A Christmas Story (1983), A
20. Arthur Christmas (2011), A
21. Love Actually (2003), A
22. Stage Fright (2014), B
23. Foodfight! (2012), F
24. Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014), B

Santa Week Day 5: James McAvoy in Arthur Christmas (2011)

Arthur ChristmasNote: 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.

Directors: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook

Writers: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith

Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez, Michael Palin, Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, Rhys Darby, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis

Plot: St. Nicholas of Myra, as we all know, is Santa Claus… or at least, the first Santa Claus. Over the centuries, his descendants have taken on the job, one after another. And now, after 70 years, Santa the 20th (Jim Broadbent) is ready to pass the torch down to his son, Steve (Hugh Laurie). While Steve runs a whip-smart, high-tech operation with military precision, Santa’s other son Arthur (James McAvoy) delights in the more joyful elements of the season. Santa is getting old, though, and in fact, Steve is largely running the show already, while his little brother – although enthusiastic as anyone could be – is mostly getting in the way.

Returning home, Santa is expected to announce his retirement and Steve’s first year on the job, but instead says he’s looking forward to his 71st mission next year. The tension gets worse when the elves discover Santa failed to deliver a single present – a bicycle for little girl named Gwen (Ramona Marquez). Steve convinces his father it’s too risky to try to deliver the last present before sunrise. Arthur, however, refuses to accept this. He and his grandfather, Santa 19 or “GrandSanta” (Bill Nighy) hop into an old-fashioned sleigh with old-fashioned flying reindeer to bring Gwen her present before she wakes up. They soon find a stowaway – a wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) – who joins them.

GrandSanta soon runs into trouble navigating a world that has grown and changed since his last flight 70 years ago. Their route from the North Pole to England has them cause havoc in Toronto and cause an alien sighting in Idaho before setting down in Africa, where Arthur just barely saves them from being eaten by lions. He’s discouraged when he realizes GrandSanta is more concerned with reclaiming his own past glory than giving Gwen her present. Landing in England, he and Bryony set out to find Gwen’s house. When they arrive, they find they’ve screwed up again – they aren’t in England, they’re in Mexico.

At the pole, Steve sees news reports about the chaos being caused by his brother and grandfather and the elves confront Santa and Steve about skipping a child. Santa and Mrs. Claus (Imedla Staunton) set out to find Arthur and deliver the present, but Steve again has to take the controls. After a detour to Cuba, Arthur manages to recover the sleigh, and the Clauses all race to England. The governments of the world scramble to face the “flying saucers” they’ve been spotting all night, and GrandSanta provides a distraction so Arthur and Bryony can get away with Gwen’s gift.

With three minutes to sunrise, Arthur races to deliver the present. Arthur, Steve, Santa and GrandSanta all arrive at Gwen’s house, where the latter three begin to argue over who gets to leave the present. When Arthur breaks up the fight insisting it doesn’t matter who does it, they realize that it’s Arthur who should do it. They hide and watch Gwen open her present, Arthur wide-eyed with joy, and Santa and Steve realize the mistake they’ve been making all along. One year later, Steve has been made executive coordinator of North Pole operations, Santa – Malcolm – joins his father in retirement, and Arthur has taken up his natural place as the new Santa Claus.

Thoughts: Like The Santa Clause, this movie takes the Santa Legacy trope and runs with it. Produced by Aardman Animation (the company known for the marvelous Wallace and Grommit films and the sublime Chicken Run), Arthur Christmas reimagines the Santa legend with a weird blend of fantasy and high-tech science. The modern Santa and his elves, for instance, travel not so much in a classic sleigh, but in a cloaked vessel that resembles an enormous flying saucer, and although Santa the 20th is on the ground, the Elves themselves are responsible for much of the gift delivery, milk and cookie removal, and so forth. An early sequence shows us this gift run over a city, as the elves take on pretty much the whole job for the aging Santa. The sequence is actually very similar to the Disney TV special Prep and Landing, which predates this film by two years, and I’ve got to wonder if that’s strictly speaking a coincidence.

As I’ve said before, the Santa Legacy thing isn’t exactly my favorite trope. I can’t wrap my mind around eliminating that part of the magic of the mythology while keeping so much of the rest of it. That said, Arthur Christmas is probably the film I‘ve seen that uses that idea to its fullest potential. By making Santa’s task a largely sci-fi operation, they minimize the fantasy element, making the loss of immortality slightly easier to accept. (This goes out the window, of course, when GrandSanta unveils his old sleigh and the magic reindeer that pull it, but what are you gonna do?) I also appreciate the fact that, for once, we don’t have a stale old story about the chosen one rejecting the call. Steve, the intended Santa, is fully prepared and capable of taking on the job. Arthur, our hero, doesn’t expect the job, and never for an instant shows any sort of anger or resentment over the fact that Steve is next in line to become Santa Claus instead of him, but from the very beginning shows the love and enthusiasm you want from your Santa. There’s no problem believing he would have leapt at the chance, had it really been presented to him earlier in his life.

The casting in this film is pretty effective. As an animated feature, of course, the focus is on the voice acting abilities of the cast rather than their look, and the four Santas we deal with fit pretty well. Broadbent as the current Santa has a sort of soft-spoken attitude, but comes across as just a little daft and ineffectual. Bill Nighy brings in the sort of wild, manic energy he usually produces to perfect effect as GrandSanta. Hugh Laurie isn’t soft and fluffy at all, but he still manages to create a stoic, cynical character without simply echoing his character from House. And then there’s James McAvoy as our hero – the youthful charm and exuberance in his voice is perfect, to the point where you’ve got to wonder if they modulated his voice up a half-octave or so.

Aardman Animation made its mark with stop-motion animation, and I admit to being a bit disappointed when they started doing CGI work, but I have to admit the animation in this film is gorgeous. The EVE – GrandSanta’s old sleigh – is a thing of beauty, something that the viewer falls in love with as purely as Arthur does. The character design is pretty good too – the human characters each have a distinct look, even as the members of the Santa family bear enough similar elements to accept them as being relatives. There are action scenes here – like Arthur’s oceanic recovery of the runaway sled – that I just can’t imagine being as thrilling in stop motion, even the best stop motion. And the design work is simply charming. One of my favorite touches is Steve’s beard, shaved into the shape of a little Christmas tree. Nice touch, Aardman. Could this have been done in traditional stop motion? Absolutely. But I’ve got to admit, it may not have worked as well.

This movie was pretty well received, but I feel like it’s been largely forgotten since it came out in 2011. If you haven’t seen it before, seek it out with your kids. Except for the original Miracle on 34th Street, I honestly think it’s the best Santa movie we’ve covered here this week.

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!

Santa Week Day 3: David Huddleston in Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Santa Claus the Movie PosterNote: 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: Jeannot Szwarc

Writers: David Newman & Leslie Newman

Cast: David Huddleston, Judy Cornwell, Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, Burgess Meredith, Jeffrey Kramer, Christian Fitzpatrick, Carrie Kei Heim, John Barrard,

Plot: On a Christmas Eve many years ago, a kindly, childless old couple named Claus and Anya (David Hudleston and Judy Cornwell) are lost in a snowstorm. Their reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, collapse from exhaustion, and it seems as though they are lost, frozen to death, until a star shines through the blizzard and reveals a secret community of elves. The elves have been waiting for them, for a very long time – a good-hearted toymaker with no children of his own to take on their eternal mission of delivering toys to all the children of the world.

One of the elves, Patch (Dudley Moore) prepares Claus’s reindeer to join their own, with a magical feed that enables them to fly. The next Christmas Eve, after a blessing from special guest star Burgess “Ancient Elf” Meredith, Claus begins his work. Over centuries, which we pass through by way of convenient montage – we see the legend of Santa Claus spread throughout the world, before we finally arrive in the slick, modern utopia of the 1980s. After centuries at work, Anya convinces Santa to appoint an assistant, a task which quickly turns into a competition. Patch suggests converting the toy workshop to a modern, state-of-the-art, fully automated assembly line, while Dooley (John Barrard) wants to keep making toys the old-fashioned way. Patch easily wins, but nobody realizes the machine has malfunctioned, resulting in a large number of defective toys.

In modern New York we meet Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick), a homeless boy who is given food on Christmas Eve by a wealthy girl named Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim). Santa notices Joe while he makes his rounds, and decides to take the boy for a ride – even taking him through a failed attempt at an old trick, “the Super Dooper Looper,” that Donner has never quite been able to pull off. Joe rides with Santa until they come to Cornelia’s house, where she offers to give Joe more food, and Santa encourages him to stay and eat, promising to see him again next Christmas. The next morning, Patch’s toys begin falling apart, and children all over the world turn on Santa. Patch, dejected, resigns as Santa’s assistant and flees the North Pole, hoping to find a way to redeem himself.

Traveling to New York, Patch sees a line of B.Z. Toys flying off the shelf, unaware that they’re being recalled for being cheap and dangerous. He tracks down the head of the company, B.Z. (John Lithgow) and offers to team up on a free giveaway for next Christmas, something that will show Santa his self-worth and that B.Z. sees as an opportunity for much-needed positive publicity. On Christmas Eve, Patch stars in a global commercial to announce his present – a lollipop mixed with the reindeer’s flying powder. B.Z., triumphant, returns home, where his step-niece Cornelia is watching the commercial along with the rest of the world. That year, as Santa delivers his toys, Patch drops off the magic candy in his own high-tech sleigh. Although many children have lost faith in Santa, he meets up with Joe again and gives the boy his first ever Christmas present – a wooden carving of an elf, made by Santa himself, who unconsciously carved the likeness of his missing pal Patch.

The lollipops allow children to float in the air, and Patch becomes an instant celebrity. When he announces his intention to return to the North Pole, B.Z. convinces him to stick around long enough to make a sequel to their hit – a candy cane more potent than the lollipop. Joe gets up sick and hides in Cornelia’s basement, but is found by a boasting B.Z. Things get worse when B.Z.’s flunky, Towzer (Jeffrey Kramer) tells him he discovered – the hard way – when the concentrated candy canes are exposed to heat, they explode.

Cornelia writes Santa and tells him Joe is in trouble. Santa sets out for a rescue mission down two reindeer – Comet and Cupid have the flu. Patch, meanwhile, finds Joe tied up in B.Z.’s basement. He doesn’t believe that Joe is truly a friend of Santa’s until he sees the carving Santa gave him, then the two of them set out for the North Pole together, not knowing the candy canes in the back of Patch’s super sleigh will explode when they heat up. Santa and Cornelia catch up to them at the last minute, as the candy blows up, and the reindeer pull off the heretofore impossible Super Dooper Looper to save them. B.Z., meanwhile, is tracked down by the police and gobbles candy canes to escape – but overdoses, rocketing to space. Santa offers to let Joe stay at the North Pole with him, and Joe asks if Cornelia can stay too… at least until next Christmas.

Thoughts: I was nine when this movie came out, old enough to start feeling cynical about things like Christmas and Santa Claus. And yet this movie never gave me that reaction. From the very beginning, there was something about David Huddleston’s performance as Claus that rang so wonderfully, beautifully true. I don’t know, maybe this is one of those cases where I’m watching the movie through rose-colored nostalgia goggles, but as I sit here almost 30 years later, watching it on the couch with my wife, I find it as sweet and charming as I did when I was a kid, eagerly awaiting the McDonald’s tie-in merchandize. (The product placement is actually pretty obvious now.)

As I got older, I started to realize that one of the reasons I loved this movie so much is because it’s not really the story of Santa Claus. It is in fact – and bear with me now, I can back this up – a remake of Superman: The Movie, which was also produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind and which follows a very similar formula. The movie begins with the introduction of the hero, a seemingly unsurmountable cataclysm, and the revelation that the protagonist is in fact being gifted with great power. We watch as he grows and develops his abilities, and the real villain and main plot isn’t even introduced until nearly the halfway point. Even the movie’s tagline, “Seeing is believing,” echoes Superman’s “You will believe a man can fly.” The Salkinds simply tried to make lightning strike twice, and damn if it didn’t work – at least on me.

Amazingly, Huddleston got third billing in this movie, after the more marketable Dudley Moore and John Lithgow. And don’t get me wrong, both of them are very good – Moore is a silly, loveable scamp with a pure heart, and Lithgow is chewing scenery like there’s no tomorrow, but appears to be having the time of his life while he’s doing it. But none of that would matter if it wasn’t for Huddleston’s performance. The energy and charm he brings to the role is one of the benchmarks I’ve judged other Cinematic Santas against ever since. From the start, he and Judy Cornwell are completely believable. I helps, I think, that they kick things off with a scene of them as mortals, already delivering toys to children, before they “die” in the snowstorm (and let me tell you, that part freaked out my wife, who hasn’t seen this movie in a very long time and didn’t remember much of it). That moment tells us who these people are, even before they meet their destiny, and like any true superhero origin story, that’s a vital part of believing the mythology.

Although this isn’t a musical, music plays a big part of the film. Henry Mancini steps in here to deliver a truly lovely piece of music, themes for Santa and the North Pole workshop that feel almost traditional, almost ancient, but still snappy and modern. The movie uses several montage sequences, and Mancini’s music pulls you straight through them one at a time. The set design at the North Pole workshop is also perhaps my favorite version of any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s bright and insanely colorful, to be certain, but everything is made of wood and has a handcrafted quality that other Santa films (such as The Santa Clause) don’t come close to matching.

Okay, admittedly, in retrospect certain things are a little hard to swallow. The notion that Santa suddenly chooses one homeless kid to take an interest in after centuries of ignoring them seems a bit convenient, for example. And if any child as trusting as Cornelia existed in the real world, she’d be the subject of an Amber Alert before you can say “Ten Lords A-Leaping.” Also, I suppose Santa is technically a kidnapper at the end, and they never entirely explain why the cops bust in on B.Z., necessitating he escape. But John Lithgow as the sleazy toymaker is 100 percent believable, except for the part where he suddenly becomes hellbent on Santa’s destruction for no apparent reason.

This is a case, though, where I can honestly get past that. Although the plot is a little shaky in the second half, the depiction of Santa himself and his workshop is absolutely flawless, and the whole movie has stayed with me for years.

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 2: John Call in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Santa Claus Conquers the MartiansNote: 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: Nicholas Webster

Writer: Glenville Mareth, based on a story by Paul L. Jacobson

Cast: John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti, Chris Month, Pia Zadora, Leila Martin, Charles Renn, James Cahill, Ned Wertimer, Doris Rich, Carl Don

Plot: On the planet Mars, a pair of Martian children watch a TV broadcast from Earth featuring Santa Claus (John Call) as he prepares for his yearly rounds. Their father, Kimar (Leonard Hicks) realizes that the children of Mars are restless and unhappy, and turns to the ancient Chochem (Carl Don) for advice. Chochem explains that the Martian children are upset because they don’t have Christmas, so Kimar takes the logical step of invading Earth to kidnap Santa. The incompetent Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) stows away, having never seen Earth before, and the Martians are soon discovered in orbit by the United States government, which scrambles to shoot the spaceship down.

Landing on Earth, the Martians encounter a pair of children, Billy and Betty (Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti), whom they abduct after interrogating them about where to find Santa. One of the Martians, Voldar (Vincent Beck) continues to express his displeasure with the plan, and the human children make his disposition even worse. When they arrive at the North Pole, the children escape the ship, and Kimar sends a robot to catch them, because for some reason Nicholas Webster thought it would be a better use of his funding to spray-paint some cardboard boxes silver than to pay a writer to take a second pass at the script. The robot also fights a guy in a really bad polar bear costume that the child actors fail to convince us is real. Once the robot recaptures the children, he and the Martians get Santa as well, using their previously unmentioned weapon that allows them to freeze time.

On the journey back to Mars, Santa comforts Billy and Betty and begins to win over all the Martians except Voldar, who we know by now is the villain because he has a black mustache. As a rocket from Earth follows the Martians, Voldar discovers that Billy sabotaged the radar screen, and decides to take care of things by shoving Santa and the kids in an airlock. No really, that’s what tries to do. And if it weren’t for Santa using his magic to save them – off-screen – they’d be dead and the audience would be happier. On Mars, Santa is given a large, elaborate machine consisting of a few chutes, buttons, and lights, intended to make his toys for him. As Santa and the kids try to make their peace with their new life of slavery, Dropo puts on one of Santa’s suits and begins dancing around like a lunatic, before being mistaken for the real Santa and kidnapped by Voldar, who sabotages the machine.

Voldar’s “forces” (such as they are) attack Santa and the kids in the toy room, where he is summarily humiliated by being beaten back by children and their playthings. Somehow, this convinces Kimar to take Santa home to Earth and make Dropo the Santa Claus on Mars. Don’t think about it too much, it’ll give you a holiday nosebleed.

Thoughts: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is, by any reasonable standard, an absolutely terrible movie. The story is absurd. The acting is incompetent. The special effects, make-up and set design look like they were all done by the same seven-year-old child who is desperately attempting to convey his vision of both the North Pole and Mars, all on a budget of approximately four dollars and eleven cents after remembering about it at 2:30 a.m. the night before it was due. And yet, despite that, it’s such a deliciously stupid movie that it has been riffed not only by Mystery Science Theater 3000, but by both of its successor franchises, Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. (Yes. I own all three versions.) Anything so bad has to be good.

But goodness, where to begin with the badness? Well… with Dropo, I guess. He’s a stupid character, to be sure, one that flashes around bland slapstick and over-the-top antics that nevertheless manage to be completely underwhelming. But it’s rather hypocritical of the Martians to attack Dropo – at least he’s open in his incompetence. The rest of the crew is just as stupid as he is, but less obvious about it. When Dropo is wearing Santa’s clothing, our main antagonist Volar is too idiotic to tell the difference, even though his skin is still green and the Santa hat is literally dangling from the antenna on Dropo’s permanently affixed Martian helmet. Their kidnapping plan is idiotic on the face of it, and from the moment they enter Earth orbit they make one mistake after another. They have a “radar screen,” but fail to use it early enough to prevent becoming targets. They show themselves to a pair of children in order to find out where Santa Claus lives, even though the answer to that question (it’s the North Pole, guys) was included in the very news broadcast that alerted them to Santa’s existence in the first place. They kidnap those same children so that they can’t tell the authorities what the Martians are planning, even though they do absolutely everything out in the open and in full view of the world, then put the kids in the care of the imminently stupid Dropo, who immediately starts breaking the rules by showing them around the ship and hiding them in a surprisingly spacious radar box. As alien menaces go, these guys rank somewhere below ALF.

Speaking of the radar, that’s the next thing that drives me crazy about this movie, and it’s a flaw in a lot of bad science fiction (which this most certainly is). At assorted points in the movie, the Martians use technology that would make the predicaments in other scenes way easier to resolve if they would only remember that such technology exists. Besides the aforementioned radar screen, which nobody remembers exists until it’s too late to keep the humans from discovering them, we also have a hilariously stupid robot that is never used except to fight a polar bear that makes the one that hangs out at the Coca-Cola store look convincing. Here’s a basic rule, people: if you control a battle robot, you use that robot all the time. And as for the time-freeze gun… why don’t they use that constantly? The situation with the children, the confrontation with Voldar at the end… hell, if I could make somebody freeze I would be waving that gun around on my way to the checkout counter at Walmart.

John Call, our Santa Claus, is probably the best thing about this movie. He’s not bad in the part, but the role is poorly written and he desperately tries to make the most out of the awful material. He sounds like a Santa, he has a dance in his step that feels like a good match for his jokes, which are so bad that even your father would be embarrassed to repeat them to anybody. But he doesn’t save the movie from the depths of mediocrity, and in truth, that’s probably a good thing. If it were even slightly better than it is, it probably wouldn’t have become the classic of cheesy cinema that it now is.

Also, in case you didn’t know, Pia Zadora is in it as one of the Martian kids. It doesn’t get goofier than that.

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 1: Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle_on_34th_StreetIcons is back, guys, for a week-long look at one of the greatest characters ever to grace the screen… Santa Claus!

Note: 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: George Seaton

Writers: George Seaton & Valentine Davies

Cast: Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge, Jack Albertson, Alvin Greenman, Harry Antrim, Porter Hall

Plot: Shortly before Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a charming man calling himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) discovers the Santa Claus Macy hired has arrived stone cold drunk. Horrified, he reports the problem to parade organizer Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), who in desperation hires Kris to take his place. Kris turns out to be a huge hit, and he is offered the job as Macy’s store Santa for the Christmas season. Single mom Doris returns home to find her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) watching the parade with their neighbor, lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne). Fred tries to bond with Susan over fairy tales, but Doris has raised the girl to be strictly pragmatic, not believing in such foolishness as giants or Santa Claus.

Kris turns the store upside-down when a child requests a toy Macy’s is sold out of, and he tells the boy’s mother which competitor still has some in stock. When word reaches toy manager Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), he’s briefly outraged until he realizes the goodwill Kris is generating is turning the parents into loyal customers. In fact, everyone starts to fall for Kris’s charms – even the stoic Susan is stunned when she overhears him speaking Dutch to a lonely child who is new to America. Doris asks him to explain to Susan that he’s merely an employee, but he surprises her by insisting that he is, in fact, the real Santa Claus. Shocked, she’s about to fire him, until R.H. Macy (Harry Antrim) congratulates her on the “new policy” of redirecting customers to other stores. Still nervous about his stability, she arranges for him to be examined by the store therapist, Mr. Sawyer (Porter Hall). Sawyer is the only person not taken in by Kris’s charm, immediately deciding the kind old man is potentially dangerous.

Macy’s policy of directing customers to other stores becomes so popular that competitors begin following suit, and Kris takes advantage of his proximity to the Walker girls to continue bonding with Susan, hoping to convince both of them of the reality of Santa Claus. He gets enraged, though, when he finds out that Sawyer has been analyzing his friend Alfred (Alvin Greenman), loading him with nonsense about hating his father and guilt complexes. He angrily confronts Sawyer, striking the therapist with an umbrella. He’s played straight into Sawyer’s hands, giving him the opportunity to paint him as dangerous and forcing him into a competency hearing.

Fred Gailey quits his law firm in order to represent Kris, and the trial becomes front page news. The Judge (Gene Lockhart) finds himself walking a thin line, not wanting to be the man to rule there is no Santa Claus in an election year, and Fred cleverly makes the District Attorney admit that Santa exists. The trial now rests on his ability to prove that Kris, himself, is the legitimate Santa Claus. He brings in one character witness after another, even Mr. Macy, to testify on Kris’s behalf. Things dangle precipitously in the air, though, until a pair of mail clerks see a letter addressed to Santa Claus at the courthouse (from one Susan Walker, who is writing to tell him she believes in him now). The clerks see an opportunity to dump the mountains of Santa Claus mail in their dead letter office, and send them all to Kris Kringle. In a magnificent finale, Fred argues that if the United States Post Office – a department of the Federal Government – recognizes that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus, the courts must do so as well. The judge agrees and Kris is set free.

On Christmas morning, at a party at the home where Kris lives, Susan is disappointed that she doesn’t see a sign of the present she asked for, and her faith in Kris is shattered. Kris gives Fred directions on a “shortcut” home, and on the way, Susan spots her present: a house she saw in a magazine. And, as Fred notes to Doris, it’s for sale. As they look at the house, they find Kris’s cane leaning in the corner, and Fred has to question if he really was such a fantastic lawyer after all.

Thoughts: I couldn’t possibly spend a week talking about Santa Claus in the movies without starting here, the quintessential performance of the character. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it, though, is that the movie is couched in such a fashion that you’re not supposed to be entirely certain if Kris really is Santa Claus or if he’s just a sweet-hearted lunatic. Obviously, with nearly 70 years of loving the film behind us, I think most people have taken it to heart that Kris was legitimate, that the magic he brings to the role is all real, but that doesn’t mean it was intended that way, that’s part of the baggage we’ve assigned to the film over the years. It’s earned baggage, though, earned by Edmund Gwenn and his flawless performance.

Gwenn has a timeless quality about him. He’d be perfectly suitable in a Santa story set in Victorian England or modern America, but he made Christmas in New York circa 1947 an extraordinary place. He relishes every moment in the role, whether suited up in red or walking down the street in a topcoat. (Speaking of red, do the world a favor and don’t watch the colorized version of this. It’s an abomination on to Rudolph. Stick with the glorious black and white.) He won an Oscar for this part, as best supporting actor, although I find it hard to imagine he wasn’t up for lead. The film, incidentally, also won “best writing, original story” and “best writing, screenplay,” and was nominated for best picture, losing to Gentleman’s Agreement. You guys have all seen Gentleman’s Agreement, right? Show of hands? That’s what I thought.

A word, if I may, about the history of this movie. When it was released in 1947, it actually came out in May, and the marketing did its best to hide the fact that it was a movie about Santa Claus, instead trying to make it appear like a simple romantic comedy about O’Hara and Payne’s characters. Word has it the studio head was convinced that more people see movies during the summer, and didn’t want to wait until the holidays to release it. It just goes to show you that short-sighted movie executives are nothing new. The film would have been moderately successful as a romcom, I suppose, but can you possibly imagine it having the longevity or cultural impact it did if it wasn’t a Christmas movie? Hell, can you even imagine what the plot would be without Kris Kringle? A May release? It’s practically insane.

The rest of the cast is very good, though. Maureen O’Hara and John Payne are a classic screen couple, with the kind of old fashioned glamour that you just don’t see in movies these days. Modern audiences may want to assign some sort of creepy attitude towards Gailey – he does, by his own admittance, start to befriend Susan in an effort to win over Doris – but he never comes across as inappropriate or sleazy. What’s more, the chemistry between Payne and young Natalie Wood is one of the high points of the film. There’s a sort of frustration that comes along with his attempts to convince the child that Santa Claus is real, and that’s something a lot of adults struggle with as the world their kids grow up in gets more and more cynical. It rings very true, very honest.

The bit players are fantastic too. Porter Hall as the nasty Mr. Sawyer is the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, and he sells the part solidly. Jerome Cowan as the District Attorney gets some really plum scenes, such as the one where his own son is called to testify to establish that even he has admitted Santa Claus exists. Gene Lockhart as the judge helps carry the film to its conclusion, and I Love Lucy’s William Frawley as the Judge’s campaign manager brings a touch of modern politics that keeps the film from becoming too saccharine.

This movie has been remade from time to time, including a particularly famous remake in 1994 starring the great Richard Attenborough, but nothing comes close to the sweetness and joy of the original. (And, to be honest, I simply can’t forgive them for the way they changed the absolutely perfect ending.) Accept no substitutes this Christmas, friends – stick with the original.

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!

Festive Firsts: I Am Santa Claus (2014)

I am Santa ClausNote: 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: Tommy Avallone

Featuring: Mick Foley, Russell Spice, Jim Stevenson, Bob Gerardi, Santa Claus

Synopsis: This documentary follows five very different men with the same important job – when Christmas rolls around, they put on the red suit and hat of Santa Claus. The movie shows approximately a year in the life of these Santas, all of whom come from wildly different circumstances, but take the viewer on a sweet, beautiful journey together.

Thoughts: I’ve never written about a documentary here at Reel to Reel before, because on the surface they don’t exactly fall under the aegis of what I started this blog to write about. I like to follow film trends and story structure and how one influences the other, and in a true, well-made documentary, most of those standards don’t apply. A documentary should, in essence, point a camera at reality and show the viewer what the world is like with as little structure or manipulation from the filmmaker as possible, regardless of trend or trope. I do like documentaries, however, very much, and when this one turned up in my annual Christmas movie binge-a-thon, it hit a chord with me that left me extremely anxious to talk about it.

As I said in the synopsis, I Am Santa Claus is about the journey of some department store Santa Clauses over the course of a year, leading up to the Christmas season. It’s one of those documentaries that takes a long look at something that is out there, in the real world, under our noses all the time, but that few of us ever really stop to think about. The movie lets you in on a lot of what it means to be an itinerant Santa, the realities of job hunting, of learning to be a Santa Claus, and of what kind of spirit it takes to essentially give up your own Christmas season in order to bring a little magic to other people. It also gives you a sense for what Santas all over the world must feel – at one point Santa Jim (who, it should be pointed out, has no real family of his own) starts to break down a little as he tells the story of how he once took a picture with a four-day-old child, and thinks about the fact that he’s going to be a part of this other family’s Christmas memories long after he has gone. It’s just one of many strongly emotional moments in the movie, and the waves of emotion coming from Jim pull the viewer I like few other movies, scripted or otherwise, that I’ve seen this year.

At the same time that director Tommy Allevone tells you about the mutual experiences of all Santas, he gives you five nicely individual stories as well. One Santa lives in his daughter’s basement, unable to afford any other accommodations. Another spends his time mostly alone, missing his boyfriend, who lives 700 miles away. A third is so dedicated to the role that he’s had his name legally changed and dream of the day he’ll own his own restaurant – where he’ll be Santa year-round.

The thing that may pull a lot of people to this film who wouldn’t otherwise spend their time on a documentary about 21st century Santas, though, is the story of Santa Mick, aka Mick Foley, the former WWE superstar also known as Mankind. I’m honestly not a wrestling fan – I never have been – but even I’ve heard of Mick Foley, so it was a bit of a surprise when I discovered this gargantuan man known for a pretty brutal form of entertainment has transformed himself into the gentle symbol of the Christmas season. In fact, the movie focuses on Mick’s first time out as Santa, and shows him in a light so inexplicably sweet that you genuinely start to tear up as you watch him interact with the children. They don’t know squat about Mick Foley, they don’t care about any wrestling championships, all they know is that they’re staring up into the eyes of Santa Claus, and that hits you right in the gut. Mick himself (who, it should be mentioned, is one of the movie’s producers as well as one of the subjects) comes across as someone with an endearing, lovely heart, and his desire to spread that love as Santa Claus never for a second feels contrived or put-upon for the cameras. It would be easy to dismiss him, to say that being a producer it’s easy for him to act the role or demand the cut that shows him the best in front of the cameras. I’m telling you though, friends, if he is acting in this movie, then he’s the best actor to come from the ranks of professional wrestling since Andre the Giant, because I bought it entirely.

I should mention that this is not a family film. Although the core of it is sweet and kind, there is some harsh language, a good bit of sexual conversation (most – but not all – about the rather unconventional lifestyle one of the Santas leads), and most importantly, it’s a movie that shows you exactly how Santas are made. Watching men bleaching their beards or limping along with a full-size candy cane as they try to make ends meet may well kill the magic for a small child. For older folk, though, I think it actually does an awful lot to bring the magic back.

The movie is currently available on Netflix streaming, as well as for rental on other VOD services, and for purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray, so check it out if at all possible. It’s one of the most unexpected – yet most charming – Christmas movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

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!

Reel to Reel: Icons

People who follow me on Twitter or Facebook have probably already noticed I’ve started watching more horror/comedies in order to beef up Lunatics and Laughter for the eBook edition of that project, which I hope to make available by Halloween. However, I’ve also started casting an eye towards what the next Reel to Reel project should be… and in so doing, I ran into a sort of wall. You see, the first two projects were both horror-based, which made it pretty easy to compile a list. Christmas specials was even easier. But when I turn to other genres, I quickly found a problem figuring out exactly how to arrange my selections. If I did science fiction next, for example, it’s much more difficult to draw a line between the great films of that genre than horror. Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future and Plan 9 From Outer Space are all science fiction, after all, but they all deal with wildly different ideas, themes, and tropes. How could I lump them together? When I tired to subdivide — time travel movies, for example — I had a hard time finding enough influential films to last the entire length of a Reel to Reel project.

Then, about a week ago, I realized something you clever people probably figured out some time ago… there’s no rule that says every Reel to Reel has to account for 30 or so movies at once. If a topic works better in smaller groups, why not make smaller groups?

So for the next Reel to Reel, I’m going to mix it up a little. Although I don’t have an exact “start” date yet, sometime soon (probably in March) you’re going to be greeted by the first week of Reel to Reel: Icons. In this project, I’m choosing iconic characters that have been played by five or more different performers and giving them each a week of their own. I’m also going to stretch this out, probably for the rest of the year, giving one week each month (with the exception of December, where I’m going to try to squeeze in two). Doing five movies in a month is a lot easier on me than doing 30, after all, especially when I’m working on a dozen other projects. I’m going to take the five different portrayals of each character and compare them to each other… how does Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood compare to Kevin Costner? How heavily did Brandon Routh draw on Christopher Reeve as Superman? And who’s really the best King Arthur — Sean Connery or Graham Chapman?

I’m also going to accept suggestions from you guys, because I haven’t quite decided all of the characters that will make up the project yet. I will most certainly consider animated versions, different interpretations (that’s kind of the point), and even characters from old movie serials if I can find them on DVD. But I’m going to stay away from characters like Jason Voorhees, who may have been played by multiple actors, but who all wore the same mask and gave essentially the same portrayal. (I know I just pissed off a bunch of Kane Hodder fans, but I stand by that.)

Oh, and one last thing: no James Bond for this project. I know, it’s the most obvious choice, but I think he deserves an entire R2R all to himself someday.

At the moment, these are the weeks I’m planning out:

Superman Week:

  1. George Reeves: Superman and the Mole-Men (1951 Movie Serial)
  2. Christopher Reeve: Superman (1978)
  3. Brandon Routh: Superman Returns (2006)
  4. James Denton: All-Star Superman (2011)
  5. Henry Cavill: Man of Steel (2013)

Batman Week:

  1. Lewis Wilson: Batman (1943 Movie Serial)
  2. Adam West: Batman: The Movie (1966)
  3. Michael Keaton: Batman (1989)
  4. Kevin Conroy: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1992)
  5. Christian Bale: The Dark Knight (2008)

Robin Hood Week:

  1. Errol Flynn: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  2. Brian Bedford: (Disney’s) Robin Hood (1973)
  3. Kevin Costner: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
  4. Cary Elwes: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
  5. Russell Crowe: Robin Hood (2010)

King Arthur Week:

  1. Rickie Sorensen: The Sword in the Stone (1963)
  2. Richard Harris: Camelot (1967)
  3. Graham Chapman: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
  4. Sean Connery: First Knight (1995)
  5. Clive Owen: King Arthur (2004)

Hercules Week:

  1. Steve Reeves: Hercules Unchained (1959)
  2. Nigel Green: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
  3. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hercules in New York (1969)
  4. Kevin Sorbo: Hercules and the Amazon Women (1994)
  5. Tate Donovan: (Disney’s) Hercules (1997)

Sherlock Holmes Week:

  1. Basil Rathbone: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
  2. Christopher Lee: Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)
  3. Robert Stephens: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
  4. Matt Frewer: The Sign of Four (2001)
  5. Robert Downey Jr.: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Dracula Week:
(Note: I am by no means ignoring Bela Lugosi’s classic 1931 turn as Dracula, but as I already wrote about him in the first Reel to Reel project, this week I would rather link to the original article and look at five other performances.)

  1. John Carradine: House of Dracula (1945)
  2. Christopher Lee: Horror of Dracula (1958)
  3. Charles Macaulay: Blacula (1971)
  4. Gary Oldman: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
  5. Gerard Butler: Dracula 2000 (2000)

And two weeks in December…

Ebenezer Scrooge Week:

  1. Reginald Owen: A Christmas Carol (1938)
  2. Albert Finney: Scrooge (1970)
  3. Alastair Sim: A Christmas Carol (1971)
  4. Michael Caine: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1994)
  5. Jim Carrey: Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Santa Claus Week:

  1. Edmund Gwynn: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  2. John Call: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
  3. David Huddleston: Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
  4. Tim Allen: The Santa Clause (1994)
  5. Jim Broadbent: Arthur Christmas (2011)

There’s still a little room in here to add a few more characters, so I’m open to suggestions… especially if you can think of any women that belong on this list. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, I’m struggling to come up with any truly iconic characters that have been played by more than five women in the movies. If you can help me out, please do so.

The Christmas Special Day 25: Prep and Landing (2009)

prep_postertDirectors: Stevie Wermers & Kevin Deters

Writers: Kevin Deters, Stevie Wermers & Chris Williams

Cast: Dave Foley, Sarah Chalke, Mason Vale Cotton, David DeLuise, Derek Richardson, William Morgan Sheppard, Nathan Greno

Plot: Before “The Big Guy” (William Morgan Sheppard) can make his rounds, it’s up to the Prep and Landing Elves to scout ahead and make sure your house is ready: children nestled in their beds, no creatures stirring, and so forth. For over 200 years Wayne (Dave Foley) has been a Prep and Landing elf, but this year he’s certain he’ll get promoted to Head of the Naughty List. He’s shattered when North Pole Christmas Eve Command Center Coordinator Magee (Sarah Chalke) tells him he’s been passed over in favor of his partner, an elf he helped to train. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s being given a new rookie, Lanny (Derek Richardson), an idealistic young elf who thinks he’s landed the “most tinsel” job in the world. Broken, on Christmas Eve Wayne starts to sleepwalk through his job, bumbling and eventually getting caught by a little boy named Timmy (Mason Vale Cotton). Lanny manages to put Timmy back to sleep, but a massive snowstorm is raging, and as Wayne has slacked off his work, Magee is left with no choice but to declare a “Figgy Pudding” situation — they’re going to have to skip Timmy’s house. Realizing the depths of his mistake, Wayne snaps Lanny into action, calling the boss back and transforming an inflatable snowglobe into a beacon to guide him in for a landing. Christmas is saved, but Wayne’s career may be over. The next day, the Big Guy calls him into his office. Wayne is ready to accept his punishment, asking only that the boss assign Lanny a good partner to replace him. But to his surprise, the Big Guy tells him he understands… everyone winds up on the naughty list once in a while, but he gave him Lanny precisely because he’s so god at his job. When Wayne leaves the office, he tells the waiting Lanny he was offered a promotion, to head of the Nice List, but he turned it down. He’s decided he’s more of a Prep and Landing guy.

Thoughts: One special is not enough to declare it a new Golden Age of Christmas Specials, but if Disney keeps turning out things like this – and starts inspiring other studios to do the same, we’ll have plenty to choose from very soon.

Disney really pulled out all the stops for this, with animation as crisp and energetic as anything they would put on the big screen, characters just as well-developed and entertaining, and even a musical score by Michael Giacchino. If they had showed this before The Princess and the Frog, not a single moviegoer would have been disappointed.

Prep and Landing is one of those cartoons that genuinely does everything right, starting with the characters and cast. Wayne and Lanny make for a fine odd couple, with Dave Foley bringing in the sort of exasperated worker attitude that worked for him on Newsradio and Derek Richardson matching it with an enthusiasm that would be obnoxious if it weren’t so sincere. Sarah Chalke’s Magee has a sort of frantic, manic energy that perfectly suits the character of the woman who’s doing the real legwork of running the north pole operation, and her interaction with her voiceless assistant, Tiny, make for a constant string of sight gags that still make me laugh after watching this a half-dozen times. I didn’t mention Santa’s reindeer Dasher and Dancer (Nathan Greno and David DeLuise) during the synopsis because they really don’t add anything to the plot. However, they bring out some fantastic comedic moments, adding to the conceit that Santa’s operation is treated like a cross between NASA and a military enterprise. The two of them put on the persona of hardcore, Top Gun-style pilots, while Magee runs things like she’s in charge of Mission Control and we’re about launch for outer space.

The characters, of course, play these things all perfectly straight. There’s no winking at the camera, no tongue-in-cheek moments where you get the impression the characters know they’re in a Christmas special. Instead, every beat of the story comes across like we’re watching a vital, life-and-death situation, even as Wayne’s depression sends him into mocking the Big Guy and his partner and Christmas in general (even shutting off a TV presentation of Mickey’s Christmas Carol – a nice touch).

It’s also nice to see the Elves elevated into stars for once. Most Christmas specials focus on Santa or one of his ancillary associates – Rudolph, Frosty, even Mrs. Claus. Until now, any special or movie that has shown the Elves in any large part has kept them in supporting roles. The only exception I can think of is the 2003 film Elf, and even that is less about the Elves themselves ad instead focuses on a goober who happens to think he’s an elf… not exactly the same thing. This is the first series I can think of that takes real Elves and shows us what they can really do, making them our heroes. It’s telling that “the Big Guy” is rarely mentioned by name, that his face never actually appears on-screen. Sure, we all know it’s Santa, but by keeping our distance from him it’s easier to look at Wayne and Lanny as our stars instead of worrying about what the boss is up to on this particular Christmas Eve.

This special has become the start of a lucrative franchise for the Disney folks. After winning a boatload of awards, they came back in 2010 with a seven-minute short (Operation Secret Santa) and, in 2011, another half-hour (Naughty Vs. Nice). Both of these have expanded the world of Prep and Landing, introducing more characters, more parts of the overall operation, and more worlds to explore with our favorite Elves. The characters even appeared in an eight-page Marvel Comic (Disney being Marvel’s parent company), in which Wayne and Lanny prep the Avengers’s headquarters for Santa’s arrival. Point is, these guys are becoming legitimate stars in their own right.

Unfortunately, last I heard a third full-length special was put on hold after Naughty Vs. Nice didn’t quite grab the ratings bonanza the first film did. But with both specials being shown all over ABC and ABC Family, and the DVD and Blu-Ray now available, there’s always hope. I love Wayne and Lanny, I love Magee and Tiny, I love the whole world of these gutsy little Elves, and I want to go back there again.