Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Thumpity Thump Thump

Frosty the Snowman and I are not tight. I never really liked him, and I was definitely guilty of showing notable disinterest when he came around every year. That aside, I still felt a small obligation to pay attention when he hollered, “Happy Birthday!” A Christmas special is a Christmas special after all, and regardless of how you feel towards a particular character, it remains every Christian child’s solemn duty to park their ass in front of the television and watch whenever 60 Minutes gets preempted in favor of the latest offering from Monsieur’s Rankin and Bass. Yup. Must see TV, they are, and while Frosty and I never really did hit it off, I can’t say the same about 90% of the other specials that hit the airwaves.

But what exactly was it about Frosty that I didn’t like? Well, for one, he was animated, and as any child well versed in the art of Christmas specials can attest, the best specials featured puppets and stop motion animation (a la Rudolph.) The two notable exceptions to this are A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Why? Because the first included the Peanuts gang and it would have been extremely weird to see them as stop motion puppets. The second is a Dr. Seuss creation, and Dr. Seuss is exempt because he’s the best children’s storybook author ever. (Important Note: The Jim Carrey movie, The Grinch, does not enter into the discussion anywhere. The fact that it was made at all was an insult to the good doctor’s memory. It does not count as a Christmas special. Whether or not it counts as a film is debatable. Carrey doesn’t even look like the Grinch for God’s sake. He looks like a mutant cousin in the Country Bear Jamboree.)

Anyway, since this was the first time since before puberty that I actually got to watch most of these classic old shows, I figured I’d play critic and post some highlights, lowlights, and synopses in case you happened to miss any of them. Of course, it only makes sense to start with…
  • Frosty The Snowman: You're familiar with the catchy tune, of course, but the Christmas special bears no resemblance. Frosty (bearing a horrific New York accent, thus ensuring the derision of many a New Englander) comes to life when a young girl named Karen places a magic hat - stolen from a bumbling magician named Professor Hinkle - atop his head. Nothing much really happens until Frosty, in his ignorance, enters a greenhouse and melts, much to Karen's dismay (and my joyous cheers.) Santa, however, comes and saves him though, and as Frosty takes off in Santa's sleigh, he exclaims "I'll be back again someday!" The end... mercifully. As an added bonus, Jimmy Durante (the narrator) inexplicably sings the theme song for us at the end of the show. Not bad, but one wishes he'd cleared his throat first.
  • Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: The king of all Christmas specials. Unlike Frosty the Snowman, this special pretty much follows the song, although it adds another element not previously sung about for a new wrinkle. The show starts off with Burl Ives (as a jolly snowman) telling us about the time Christmas was almost cancelled. Rudolph, just out of the womb, shocks his parents with his shiny red nose. Santa himself (a delightfully rude and prejudiced character in this special) voices his own disapproval when he comes to check in on Donder's newest son. At the same time, at Santa's workshop, Hermie, a blond-headed effeminate Niles Frasier type elf is also being ostracized because he doesn't like to make toys, and instead wants to be a dentist. Rudolph and Hermie both decide to run away together when they meet Yukon Cornelius - a prospector who can't find anything worth prospecting - and they all end up on the Island of Misfit Toys in an effort to escape the Bumble snow monster (who scared the crap out of me as a child.) Long story short, they come back to find they're useful. The bumble is subdued (and bounces as a bonus), and Rudolph with his shiny nose saves Christmas because he allows Santa to fly through the storm of the century and reach all the little children. See? Misfits rule. As a side note, I know all the words to this special and the lyrics to all the songs in it. I can recite them at a moment's notice. This special is a delight.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas: I've written about this special before, but here's a brief rundown anyway. Charlie Brown is going through a funk. He doesn't really get Christmas and just sees it as a holiday filled with greed and commercialism. Lucy, in an attempt to bestow upon him the holiday spirit, asks him to direct the Christmas play (which leads to some wonderful scenes involving a jazzy soundtrack and signature dance moves from all the Peanuts gang.) Trouble is, the rest of the Peanuts crew hates Charlie Brown's direction and they revolt, choosing to dance instead of rehearse. Charlie Brown then goes out and gets a Christmas tree only to find that the gang doesn't like that either. They blame him for not being able to do anything right, and send him into exile. Charlie brings the tree with him and sulks. Later on, the kids show up again, turn the tree into a thing of beauty, scream "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!" and sing 'Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.' Despite the crap synopsis I've just given, this special truly is a masterpiece. It's quiet, simple message is a joy to witness. The animation is spectacular, and the soundtrack can't be beat. Also, Linus gives a performance that rocks the house.
  • The Year Without A Santa Claus: Rudolph may be the king, but this one is certainly the court jester. Further, this special introduces us to two of the most beloved characters in all of Christmas specialdom - Heatmiser and Snowmiser (who can be seen doing their thing in the Youtube clip two posts down from this one.) Santa, suffering from a cold, decides to make some changes to his Christmas routine and take a holiday. Fearing the worst (yet another cancellation of Christmas), two of his elves scour the world looking for people who still have the Christmas spirit and can convince Santa to, you know, actually do his job. They land in a place called South Town, where the reindeer they were flying gets mistaken for a dog and thrown in the city pound. The towns mayor, jerk that he is, says he will only release the reindeer if the elves prove they are who they say they are and make it snow in South Town for Christmas (this is where Heat Miser and Snow Miser come into play.) Eventually, all that is hoped for actually occurs and Santa makes his trip after all. Rankin/Bass get another 'A' here for content, animation and music, but they lose points for, once again, using a heavy New York accent on one of the characters (this time a little boy named Ignatius Thistlewhite - a non-believing little heathen who pronounces Claus like Clawwwwz. Despicable - and in South Town of all places, too. I expect a twang, dammit.) Still, a great special nonetheless.
  • Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas: I love this special. I always identified with the Grinch growing up. Not because I hated Christmas, mind you, but because I fancied myself a grump. I adored the Dr. Seuss book, so when the special aired and it turned out to be exactly the same thing, but animated... well, I was hooked. Oh, the story... the Grinch, who lives on the top of Mt. Crumpet, absolutely hates Christmas and the Who's down in Whoville who celebrate it (located at the mountain's base.) The Grinch has lots of reasons for disliking the holiday but chief among them seems to be the "noise, noise, noise, noise!" So, he devises a plan to steal Christmas from the Who's. While they're all asleep, he goes down and steals all their toys, decorations, food, etc... Basically he steals everything from under their noses in the hopes that they'll wake up, act all depressed and keep their mouths shut. That, however, doesn't happen as the Who's still manage to celebrate Christmas even though they've been deprived of all their wordly goods. The Who's gather around the town square, clasp hands in a circle and sing the Fa Who Forays song. Seeing all this, the Grinch's heart grows three sizes and he becomes a do-gooder. He brings the stolen goods back down to the Who's, celebrates Christmas with them, and even gets to carve the Roast Beast. Not bad for an angry green man. This show's trademark is the Grinch himself. He's nasty, in a lovable sort of way, and his pet dog is pretty cool. too. Plus, the animation and story are all excellent. As an added bonus, heavy drinkers will enjoy playing 'The Who Game' during this special. Anytime the word 'Who' is said, participants must do a shot of their preferred beverage. Makes for some interesting discussion.
  • The Life & Adventures Of Santa Claus: This special first aired in 1985 and was based on a 1902 children's book by L. Frank Baum (of The Wizard of Oz fame.) Unfortunately, I wasn't privy to this information prior to first seeing it. A Rankin/Bass puppet stop motion animation job, this special is bizarre - and that's putting it mildly. It tells the story of Santa Claus as an abandoned baby found in the woods by Ak, Master Woodsman of the World (not to mention a bearded man with antlers.) Ak places the baby Claus in the care of the lioness Shiegra, however Necile - a wood nymph (huh?) - steals the baby because she wants to raise a child of her own, just like us mortal folk. This is agreed to, and the rest of the special describes Santa Claus' rise to fame (he takes up residence in the 'Laughing Valley of Ho Ha Ho' - what we know of as the North Pole, I guess) and starts delivering toys to kids. A council convenes to discuss whether or not he should be bestowed with the 'Mantle of Immortality' so that he can keep doing his thing indefinitely. See where we're going here? Neither do I. I'd go on, but I'm finding it a bit too painful. The special wasn't bad if you could suspend disbelief for a bit... wait, never mind. I forgot what we were discussing here. It might be worth seeing once, but avoid watching with kids. They will be thoroughly confused, and will have all their certainties about Santa shattered.
  • Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town: It's been years since I saw this one, but I will never forget the character of Burgermeister Meisterburger, simply because he has such a wonderful name. This one also throws the Santa story out of whack, but it's somehow more credible than the one used in 'The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus.' In this special, Santa Claus actually uses his real name, Kris Kringle, wears a red suit, and does Santa like things. But, more importantly, the story is interesting enough where you're willing to take it at face value. It's not too ridiculous to be dismissed. Plus, the bad guys, Burgermeister and the Winter Warlock, are truly frightening, and Fred Astaire narrates. Fred Astaire! Yup. This one is well worth viewing... even though I can't remember much of the storyline.
Many of you will note that this list barely scratches the surface. Indeed, the Rankin/Bass catalog is a huge one, to say nothing of those created by other visionaries. Perhaps next year I'll tackle some of the more notable omissions (Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey, The Little Drummer Boy, etc...) Maybe I'll even include some films (I can only ignore 'It's A Wonderful Life' for so long.) For now, though, I hope this list will tide you over.

To all of you reading, I wish a very Merry Christmas (if that's your thing), and I hope Santa brings you lots of fun toys to play with. I'll check in again before the New Year, but in the meantime, all you need to do is just "put one step in front of the oth-er, and soon you'll be walkin' cross the floo-ooo-oor!"

Stay cool, Misfits.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Sally Brown said...

Isn't he the cutest thing???

8:05 PM  
Blogger GB said...

Danzig would be proud

1:26 PM  

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