Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Movie Review: Christmas Double Feature

Merry Christmas to everyone.  In honor of this blog’s first Christmas, I thought I’d do something a bit different.  It’s my first double feature!  This installment will contain reviews for two different Christmas movies for your enjoyment.  But which movies would I review?  There are a lot of great movies out there to choose from.  There’s The Santa Clause, a comedy in which Tim Allen portrays Scott Calvin, an advertising executive who suddenly finds out that he has to become Santa Claus after the old Santa fell off his roof.  However, as brilliant as that movie is, it ended up falling prey to the crummy sequels, which I would probably have to address within the review, and I’m sure no one wants to remember those sequels.  I could choose one of the family favorites like A Christmas Story, or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which are both well-deserving of their popularity.  But I’m sure much better reviewers than I have had a look at these gems, and there’s not much else I can say about them.  Finally, after much thought, I decided to focus on a Rankin/Bass Christmas special.  This particular film company are famous for their holiday specials, most of which are still watched to this day.  These include Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and The Year Without A Santa Claus.  However, I decided to go with a less-well-known film, one that explores the origins of the legendary Santa Claus.  This is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, the last of Rankin/Bass’ stop motion specials and a story based on the book written by L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and official sequels.
The story begins in the Forest of Burzee.  A magical figure known as The Great Ak has called a meeting with the Immortals.  These Immortals include the queen water spirit, the lord of sleep, the master of sound imps, the chief wind demon, and others whose titles I could not quite catch.  The Great Ak has called these Immortals together to try and convince them to place immortality on a mortal called Santa Claus, who is said to be dearly loved by all and is the one human who deserves to live on so he could continue his great works.
            The Great Ak proceeds to tell the Immortals of Santa’s origins.  60 years prior, the Great Ak came across an abandoned baby at the edge of the woods.  Why this baby was abandoned and what became of his parents, is never touched upon.  Since the Great Ak has enough on his plate being the supreme woodsman of the world, he leaves the baby under the care of a lioness called Shiegra.  A wood nymph called Necile, upon hearing of the baby, is instantly curious, as immortals do not age or have children of their own, as the Great Ak explains through a short song.  (Like most Rankin/Bass holiday specials, this is a musical.)  So, having never seen a child, she heads off to get a glimpse of the baby under Shiegra’s care, and upon seeing him, decides she can surely care for the boy as well as she cares for her trees.  Despite the law stating that no mortal man must ever enter the Forest of Burzee, the Great Ak relents and allows Necile to keep the baby, with Shiegra becoming their main source of protection.  Necile calls the baby Claus, which means ‘little one’ in the language of the nymphs.
             Time passes, and, through a musical montage, we watch as Claus grows from a small baby to a young boy, receiving language lessons from a sound imp called Tingler.  One day, the Great Ak takes Claus on a journey through the world, in order to give Claus a view of the world of men.  Becoming invisible to all mortals, they watch a cruel landowner telling off a family of poor farmers for not producing enough crops, refusing to accept their explanations about how the weather prevented a large harvest, two boys training to be samurai, a pair of poor beggar children who have to survive on their own, and some knights fighting to the death over some unknown cause.
            Claus decides to venture out into the mortal world to try and help put an end to the darkness he witnessed, with Tingler, and Shiegra accompanying him.  Claus settles into a place called Laughing Valley, and is immediately accepted by the human children in a nearby village, whom he is shown reading to and playing with within a second musical montage.  As this montage ends, Claus is now a full-grown adult, complete with the beginnings of his signature beard.  At this point, we are suddenly introduced to a black cat called Blinky, who was sent to them by Necile.  Immediately after Blinky’s introduction, Claus discovers a small boy passed out in the snow outside his home.  He takes the boy inside to get him warmed up.  When the boy wakes up, he introduces himself as an orphan named Winkum.  Winkum comments on how much he likes the cat Blinky, and wishes he had one just like her.  When Winkum wakes up the next morning, Claus presents him with a wooden cat he’d carved and painted to look just like Blinky: the world’s first toy.  The Blinky toy is such a big hit with the other children at the local orphanage, they announce that they all want one of their own, with the help a full-fledged musical number entitled ‘Big Surprise.’   
       This song is what inspires Claus to continue making toys for the town’s children.  The demand for his toys become so great, the wood nymphs and other denizens of the Forest of Burzee all come to help him make the toys.  However, not everyone is happy with Claus’ toymaking.  One day, Claus receives a letter from King Awgwa that threatens him to stop making toys.  Awgwas, as Tingler explains, are evil beings who can become invisible at will and delight at influencing children into doing bad things.  Claus decides to ignore King Awgwa’s threat.  Thus, Claus is immediately tied up and abducted by the Awgwas and brought to a cave where a large snake and spider threaten him.  However, Claus is rescued when he calls upon the Knooks, strange creatures who have control over the animals. (One of Claus’ friends from the Forest of Burzee is a Knook named Peter, so he knows their secret passwords.)
            King Awgwa refuses to give up, however.  Every time Claus heads off to the village, the Awgwas steal the toys, making it impossible for Claus to deliver them.  In time all of the toys are stolen.  The Great Ak approaches King Awgwa, commanding him to cease harming Claus, but King Awgwa refuses to listen.  King Awgwa’s defiance leads to an all-out war between the Immortals and the Awgwas.  In a rather anti-climatic battle, the Immortals all defeat the Awgwas effortlessly, leaving Claus free to deliver his toys without any interference.   
            Because there are so many toys, Claus cannot pull the sled that carries them.  Peter Knook solves the problem by providing a small herd of reindeer to help pull the sled, instructing Claus to have them back before dawn.  Another problem arises when they arrive at the village.  Claus finds the front door locked, and cannot enter the homes to leave the toys.  It is Tingler who suggests that Claus enters the house through the chimney.  Once inside, Claus notices that the children who live in the house have left their stockings hanging over the fireplace to dry them, and he decides to take advantage of that by leaving the presents inside the drying stockings.  When the children wake up the next morning and find their new toys, their parents refer to Claus as Saint Claus, prompting the two children to start calling him Santa Claus.
            Back in Laughing Valley, the newly dubbed Santa Claus is being reprimanded by Peter Knook for not having the reindeer back before dawn as they’d agreed.  However, for the sake of the children, Peter Knook agrees to let Santa use the reindeer again, on the condition that Santa only delivers the toys on one night each year, selecting Christmas Eve as the appointed night.  Tingler despairs to this, stating that Christmas Eve is only ten days away, and that they’d never make enough toys in time.  The day is once again saved by Peter Knook, who arrives at Santa’s home with all the toys that were stolen by the Awgwas, which were recovered off-screen somehow.  This part kinda makes me scratch my head in confusion.  We see Santa saying ‘oh, if only we had those toys that the Awgwas stole’ and suddenly, we see Peter Knook bringing them back.  It never explains HOW Peter Knook found the toys, and if it was that easy, why didn’t they bring the toys back immediately after the Awgwas were vanquished?
            We now return to the Greak Ak’s audience with the Immortals, as he wraps up his story.  He tells them that Santa Claus has been delivering toys for many years now, and has reached a very old age.  As such, the spirit of death is almost upon him.  Meanwhile, Santa Claus, who knows that his time on Earth is growing short, has decided to decorate a tree in his front yard with toys, as a kind of memorial to his life mission of delivering toys.  Tingler vows that they will decorate the tree every year to remember him. 
However, as Santa falls asleep that night, the Immortals unanimously vote to agree to the Great Ak’s request, and bestow the Mantle of Immortality upon Santa.  And on that note, the movie ends, with the knowledge that Santa Claus will continue delivering his toys to all the children in the world every Christmas Eve.
            While this story is a credit to the collection of Rankin/Bass’ holiday specials, it is quite rushed at times.  The whole battle against the Awgwas is over in less than a minute, and they kind of gloss over Blinky’s introduction and the retrieval of the stolen toys.  Although in the year 2000, Universal Studios released their own version of this story.  
           Naturally, there are some differences between the two versions.  Peter the Knook is renamed Will.  The wood nymph Necile names the baby Nicholas instead of Claus.  Instead of the sound nymph Tingler, we get a shape-shifting pixie named Wisk.  (Personally, I find Wisk to be a much better character than Tingler, especially since Tingler’s tendency to make various sound effects and spout off the same word in different languages does grate on my nerves a bit.)  The animated version of the story also provides a bit more build up to the Awgwas, making them principle villains in the movie.  In the Rankin/Bass version, they just sorta appeared out of nowhere to add some conflict to the story, but in Universal’s version, they’re mentioned quite frequently in the beginning, so the audience knows all about Awgwas when they finally make their appearance.  There’s also an actual scene when they show the Immortals fining the stolen toys within the Awgwa’s cave.  As a whole, I admittedly prefer this animated version to the Rankin/Bass version, but if you have the chance, you should definitely see both.
            The second movie for today’s double feature involves one of the most time-honored Christmas stories.  The immortal classic, Charles Dickon’s A Christmas Carol.  Out of all the beloved Christmas stories, this one has quite possibly the most adaptations, from films to stage productions to musicals.  Even everyone’s favorite childhood icons have done their own version of the story: Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Mr. Magoo, Sesame Street, and even Jim Henson’s Muppets.  However, there are some who might overlook one particular adaptation of this popular story.  That is the version I will discuss today: the 1988 movie known as Scroodged.
            In this comedic rendition of A Christmas Carol, Bill Murray stars as Frank Cross, a cynical programming executive for the fictional television station, IBC, a parody of ABC.  The film opens in Santa’s workshop up in the North Pole, (just stay with me, because this will make sense in a moment) where Santa and the elves are busy making toys.  Suddenly, the workshop is attacked by gunmen, prompting Mrs. Claus to whip out assault riffles.  It soon is revealed that this is just an advert for one of IBC’s upcoming Christmas specials, a charming little family film entitled The Night the Reindeer Died, which stars Lee Majors.  Other commerce’s include Bob Golet Old Fashioned Cajun Christmas, and Father Loves Beaver, the latter apparently taking the concept of Leave It To Beaver and adding some rather perverted humor.  (And yes, I’m kinda surprised they did that joke here, as allegedly, the little children in this movie’s reality would be seeing this promo, but on the other hand, the joke would probably go over little kids’ heads.)  As these promos come to an end, the other IBC employees all turn to Frank for his reaction.  Frank shows no real reaction, and simply requests to see the Scrooge promo.  It turns out IBC is planning to film a live television broadcast of Charles Dickens’s story on Christmas Eve.   They’ve got a lot of big stars to appear in this, too: Jamie Farr, Buddy Hackett, and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim (who, as the promo shows, will start performing acrobatics after loosing the crutch).  The promo for this live broadcast plays up the involvement of these stars, but Frank is less then pleased with this, and is quick to announce his disgust with the promo and his irritation with his employees for making it.  One of the chairman, a timid man called Eliot Loudermilk, points out to Frank that the promo has been running for a month now and is getting a very good response, but Frank is immediately dismissive, stating that people merely wanting to watch the life broadcast is just not good enough.  According to Frank, the public have to be petrified about missing it.   
Scrooged (TV show) (L-R) Bill Murray as Frank Cross and Alfre Woodard as Grace Cooley in ``Scrooged.'' 
He then proceeds to show them his own promo for the live Scrooge show.  This promo contains horrifying images, including scenes of someone shooting up, people getting shot within their cars, and even a plane blowing up.  After the other IBC employees stagger out of the room, all deeply disturbed by what they’ve seen, Eliot tries to talk to Frank about his concerns surrounding the darker Scrooge promo, stating that the promo might be to frightening to their viewing audience.  While Frank pretends to take Eliot seriously, he then instructs his secretary, Grace, to have Eliot escorted off the building.  Grace is shocked that Frank would fire Eliot, but when she reminds Frank about it being Christmas Eve, Frank responds by simply stopping Eliot’s Christmas bonus as well.
            What follows is some other little elements that show Frank’s similarity to the character of Scrooge, such as refusing to go his brother’s Christmas dinner, stealing a cab from an elderly woman, and forcing his assistant Grace to work late, even though she had to bring her son, Calvin, to a doctor’s appointment she’d scheduled months in advance.  (He even gives Grace a towel and a facecloth instead of a Christmas bonus).  That night, Frank is alone in his office when the door is blown off its hinges.  In walks the decaying corpse of Frank’s old boss, Lew Hayward, who died seven years prior of a heart attack while golfing.  Lew, echoing the words of Jacob Marley, warns Frank that he is about to be visited by three ghosts, with the first arriving at noon the following day.  Immediately after Lew vanishes, Frank’s phone inexplicably starts dialing a number by itself.   When Frank hears the answering machine of a woman named Clare on the other end, he jumps to his feet and leaves a message for her, saying that he really needs to talk to her, despite knowing it’s been 15 years since they’ve last spoken.  As we eventually learn, Clare was once Frank’s girlfriend, but they split up for reasons that will be explained later.
            The next day, Frank learns that his dark Scrooge promo literally scared an 80-year-old grandmother to death.  Frank shows no concern over this information, and simply sees it as publicity.  He then goes down to the set of the live Scrooge show.  After an argument with the censor, who is annoyed by the presence of the scantly clad Solid Gold Dancers, he is approached by Clare, the woman he’d left a message for.  For a while, the two share awkward conversation, but it is clear that Clare becomes alienated when Frank first suggests stapling antlers to a mouse and then is particularly harsh when he comes across little Calvin, whom Grace has brought to watch the live broadcast.  However, Clare still gives Frank her contact information, asking him to call her if he needs to talk.
            Sometime later, Frank is meeting with his boss, Preston Rhinelander, who informs him that he has hired a man named Brice Cummings to assist Frank.  During the meeting, however, Frank starts experiencing alarming hallucinations, which include a bloody eyeball in his water glass, and even a man catching on fire.  These hallucinations force him to step outside for some air.  He hails a cab, only to discover that the cab driver is in fact the Ghost of Christmas Past.   
The Ghost Cab Driver takes Frank back to his childhood home back in 1955.  Here, it is revealed that Frank’s father was a harsh, unreasonable man.  On this particular Christmas, Mr. Cross arrives home from his job at the butchers and gives his son a pound of veal.  Little Frank states that he wanted a toy train for Christmas, but his father callously tells him that if he wants a toy train, then he should go out and get a job, even going so far as to dismiss the fact that Frank is only four-years-old as just another lame excuse as to why he can’t work.  The next stop on this trip down memory lane brings Frank and the Ghost Cab Driver to 1968, when Frank first met Clare, when she accidently opened a shop door in Frank’s face (which inspired Clare’s nickname for Frank, ‘Lumpy.’)  The teenaged Frank and Clare immediately hit it off and begin dating.  However, when Ghost Cab Driver brings Frank to the year 1971, we find Frank holding a job portraying Frisbee the Dog in one of those live TV shows that are filmed in front of an audience.  As they wrap up the day’s episode, Frank is invited to have dinner with his boss that night.  Frank immediately accepts, knowing that doing so would greatly help his carrier.  However, Clare shows up shortly afterwards and reminds him that they were invited to have Christmas dinner with their best friends.  This conflict, for some reason, leads Clare to suggest that they should separate.  I suppose we’re supposed to conclude that they were already having problems, because it seems a bit unreasonable for two people to break up after one disagreement.
            Back in the present, Frank leaves the studio to head off to Operation Reach Out, a homeless shelter where Clare is currently working, all the while muttering about the fact that Clare left him that night, trying, I gather to alleviate some of his guilt.  He is immediately approached by three of the homeless men, who mistake him for Mr. Burton.   
One of the homeless people is a man named Herman, who is always seen with a pocket watch (This will be important a bit later).  When she sees Frank there at the shelter, Clare is ecstatic and the two start talking.  However, when some of the other volunteers at the homeless shelter approach Clare for help with finding fuses and to inform her that the turkeys they were promised haven’t arrived yet, Clare immediately tells Frank that she’ll be back in a moment as soon as she’s gotten things straightened out.  Frank, on the other hand, immediately gives her the cold shoulder, telling her that she should learn to focus on saving herself instead of others.  With a ‘Bah Humbug’, Frank storms off, returning to the television station, where the actors are in the middle of their final dress rehearsal before the live broadcast.  Upon his arrival, he finds that Brice, the man who was brought on to assist him, has virtually taken over things at the station, the first indication that he is really after Frank’s job.  When they actors break for dinner, Frank instantly encounters the Ghost of Christmas Present, a psychotic ballerina-esque fairy who delights in abusing Frank.  In fact, her very first act is to deliver a kick to Frank’s groin.
            The Ghost Fairy takes Frank to the home of his secretary, Grace.  Frank watches as Grace spends time with her children, taking note of how everyone seems to be having fun, even though they don’t have much money.  He also takes notice of Calvin, who is shown to be rather bright as he quickly solves a marble puzzle that his older siblings were having trouble with.  The Ghost Fairy informs Frank that Calivn has not spoken a word since he witnessed his father’s murder five years prior.  The information stuns Frank, who did not realize Grace’s husband had died.  He announces that he will make sure to raise Grace’s salary.  Next, Frank is taken to the home of his brother James’ Christmas party, where he is visibly touched to see James toast him, although he is a bit irritated by the fact that James has difficulty in correctly naming the boat that took them to Gilligan’s Island.  Finally, Frank is dropped off into an icy sewer, where he finds Herman, the man with the pocket watch who we saw briefly living in the homeless shelter.  The horrified Frank discovers that Herman has frozen to death.  After Frank berates Herman’s body, shouting that he (Herman) should have stayed at the homeless shelter, where Clare would have taken care of him. Frank then notices a door within the sewer and walks through it.  The door magically returns him to the TV station, where everyone is just about to begin the live broadcast of Scrooge.  Frank is escorted to the elevator that would take him to his office by Grace and Brice.  When the elevator doors open, Frank is horrified to see the third ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Future, standing there.  Frank initially reacts in fear, but it turns out that this isn’t the real ghost.  He’s just the actor appearing in the live broadcast of Scrooge.  “That guy’s going to be a big star,” Frank comments.
            Once Frank is up in his office, he pours himself a drink as the live broadcast is filmed downstairs, with Frank watching the broadcast via the TV screens in his office. As the broadcast continues, the REAL Ghost of Christmas Future suddenly appears behind Frank, although Frank does not notice this.   
The ghost reaches out for Frank, but before it can grab him, a vengeful Eliot stumbles into Frank’s office, carrying a loaded rifle.  Eliot has been driven to near madness after he was fired on Christmas Eve, and was subsequently deserted by his wife, who also took their infant daughter with her.  Eliot chases Frank through his office, until Frank is saved at the last possible second when the elevator doors open and Frank jumps inside.
            Once inside the elevator, Frank finds himself right in front of the Ghost of Christmas Future.  At first, Frank thinks that this is simply the actor from downstairs again, but quickly realizes that this time, the ghost is the real deal.  The GoCF shows Frank the images of the possible future.  Grace’s son, Calvin, is now confined to an institution, where his mother can only see him during scheduled visiting hours.  Clare, who was once caring and loving to everyone, is now cold and callous, and even snubs some hungry children.  Finally, Frank is shown his funeral, which only James and his wife attend.  As Frank’s coffin is lowered into a furnace, Frank cries out that he wants to live, and the elevator doors reopen.  Frank rejoices that he is still alive, but this thought is short lived, as Eliot immediately aims his rifle at Frank again.  However, Eliot’s murder attempt is quickly thwarted when the reformed Frank rehires Eliot, complete with a salary increase.  The pair then team up, and as Frank walks out in the middle of the live TV broadcast to personally address the people watching the show, Eliot storms into the control room to ensure no one disrupts the broadcast.  On live TV, Frank publicly apologizes to his brother, James, and asks Clare for another chance.  He then instructs everyone who had been watching the live broadcast to spend Christmas with their loved ones instead of watching TV, and to keep the spirit of Christmas within their hearts all year round.  Frank’s speech prompts Calvin, who had been present in the TV station to watch the live broadcast being filmed, to step forward and deliver Tiny Tim’s famous line, ‘God bless us, everyone,’ thereby breaking free of his mute condition.
As the overjoyed Grace embraces Calvin in happiness, Frank happens to glance up and sees Clare has arrived at the TV station, smiling back at him.  As Frank and Clare rekindle their relationship, everyone at the TV station celebrate, including Lew Hayward, the three Christmas Ghosts, and the spirit of Herman, who have also appeared to join in the festivities (even though only Frank can see or hear them.)
            On the whole, Scrooged may not be the most faithful to the original source material, but all the important elements are there.  Every vital character in the original story is represented.  Frank Cross is Scrooge, his brother James is Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, Lew Hayward is Jacob Marley, and Calvin, obviously is Tiny Tim.  Even Scrooge’s lost love is represented in Clare.  As for the character of Bob Cratchet, his role is divided between Grace and, arguably, Eliot.  What makes this movie particularly interesting is that we’re watching A Christmas Carol in two different ways within the film.  Not only do we get Frank’s journey and transformation into a better person, they’re also filming their own version of A Christmas Carol at the same time.  The only real issue with the movie is rather small.  While Frank does do some rather cruel stuff at times, he isn’t quite as bad as some of the Scrooges in other versions of this story.  Even before the point in the story where Scrooge’s character reaches his epiphany, Frank is already voicing his intentions to make things better, and when he comes across Herman’s frozen body, he does show some measure of remorse for the man’s death.
            And that concludes my Christmas Double Feature.  I hope everyone had a great Christmas, and that their coming year is filled with hope and joy.  But before I sign off, I’d like to promote one last Christmas story.  This time, the story is a little known children’s book from my childhood that I feel deserves more recognition.  The Christmas Cat, written by Isabelle Holland and illustrated by Kathy Mitchell.   
 This book tells the story of a stray cat named Peter.  Because he’s a stray, he’s constantly being told that he’s not important.  However, Peter has a distant memory of his mother telling him that ‘a cat may look at a king,’ which gives Peter hope that things will someday be better.  One day, he sees a caravan passing by and overhears that the caravan is traveling to see a king.  Remembering his mother’s words, Peter decides to follow the caravan, hoping to see this king as well.  Along the way, he’s joined by Caleb the dog and Balaam the donkey, and while Caleb and Balaam are doubtful that this king will want to see animals that are as unimportant as they are, Peter continues to urge them on, repeatedly quoting his mother’s words.  In the end, Peter, Caleb and Balaam all manage to reach their destination and see the new king with their own eyes.  As a result, they each receive the happy ending they deserve.  This story has always had a special place in my heart, and it is a must to anyone who enjoys stories with a Nativity theme.  Even better is the message that even those who are seen as unimportant really do matter.  If you are lucky enough to come across this book, by all means, give it a read.