I love that, at this time of year, there’s lots of wonderful seasonal TV specials and movies to enjoy. I seek them out, and I enjoy them immensely. But you have to admit…some of them are super-wacky. I wrote an article last year about making a Rankin-Bass Holiday RPG, but this year, I’d like to look at the specials and movies that particularly give me a grin, while still putting me in a holiday mood.
“I’m Mr. Icicle…”
Oh, yeah. You know I have to give props to the classic masterpiece, The Year Without a Santa Claus. Believe it or not, there was a period when I was younger when this classic wasn’t aired every year. I’m not sure if it was for the vaguely pagan overtones or because it’s just bizarre, but, thankfully, now everyone can enjoy it, because it seems like it’s on every few minutes!
In case you hide under a rock at the holidays, this special concerns a year when Santa wasn’t feeling up to it. Ostensibly it’s because he’s not feeling well, but it becomes clear that he’s having doubt as to whether or not anyone still believes in him or needs him to show up. A couple of his elves head down south to see if people still do, they manage to find some Christmas cheer, and ultimately, Santa Claus gets up and does his thing, making the title of the piece a lie.
What I’m saving to mention at the end, of course, are the fabulous Miser Brothers – Heatmiser and Snowmiser. These two could not be gayer…they sing, prance around in amazing outfits, and even have smaller people around who look exactly like them…kind of like Liberace. Oh, and when they did that awful live-action version a few years back, Harvey Fierstein played Heat Miser. Need I go on?
They’re also what everyone remembers from this wacked-out piece of holiday oddness. In fact, they’re so popular that a year or two ago, they got their own special, A Miser Brothers’ Christmas. And it’s actually not half bad.
After season 3 of the amazing British historical comedic Blackadder ended, and before the oddly dark season 4 began, there was a great holiday special, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol.
In it, we see the very good and kindly Ebenezer Blackadder and his faithful clerk, Baldric, running a failing moustache shop. Despite their relative poverty, Blackadder gives to the poor and needy, even if it means shorting himself at the holiday times. A Ghost of Christmas comes by just to tell him how good he’s been, and makes the mistake of letting him see how bad his ancestors were. The result is a chance to get the cast of seasons 2 and 3 back together to show how Blackadders through history connived and cheated…but actually got money, wealth, and title out of it…which has the effect of making Ebenezer repent his good ways and become a complete bastard.
This is such a fun take on A Christmas Carol that I have to include it here. I particularly love the cheesy futuristic sequence, which sends up the BBC’s sci-fi show budgets as much as anything else. And I can’t tell you how many quotes from this fly around our household at Christmas time.
“This is so tinsel!”
A few years back, Pixar threw its computer animated hat into the ring of holiday specials by giving us Prep and Landing. Prep and Landing is the story of Wayne and Lanny, two of the Christmas elves who make sure a house is ready for Santa before he arrives. This is how they can be sure Santa can get in and out of every house in the world in one night – good planning. It’s Lanny’s first year, and he’s unbelievably excited to be a part of the team. But Wayne just got passed over for a promotion, so he’s engaging in behavior that’s making him head towards the naughty list. As a result, little Timmy, who innocently captures them on film, may end up without any Christmas at all…
This special, and its sequel Naughty vs. Nice, which came out this year, are both really fun takes on the traditional Santa’s workshop and Santa’s visits theme. Two of my favorite concepts are the Coal Elves, working class elves who deal with the naughty kids, making sure they get the coal they deserve, and Thrasher, the black ops reindeer who’s a little too dark to pull Santa’s sleigh.
“Never were babies, we.”
When you watch the Rankin-Bass animated holiday specials, you see a mythology spreading through their work. Characters cross over we one another, we learn their origins, and such. But they mostly fit in together. But then, there’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, based on the story by L. Frank Baum. My first exposure to this work was through a graphic novel created by the amazing artist Mike Ploog, and I was fascinated when I found there was a Rankin-Bass version.
This story tells of how an abandoned baby is raised by wood elves, with a lion as a guardian and friend. He is shown the world of men by the immortals, and he wants to help alleviate the suffering they experience. He eventually invents the concept of toys and brings them to children to make their burdens lighter. Over the course of the story, all of the traditional Santa Claus elements are explained.
Not many Christmas stories involve a war between elves and goblins, but this one does (although Baum gave them odd names…it’s still what it boils down to.) This one is harder to find than others, but it’s well worth seeking out, if only for just how darned different it is from all other Christmas specials.
There’s a traditionally animated version as well, which is actually a tiny bit truer to the original Baum, in a way. Both are worth watching.
“Red usually means caution…or beef if it’s a bullion cube.”
If there’s a Christmas movie more confused or flawed yet wonderful than Toys, then I haven’t seen it. This movie from Barry Levinson has an amazing cast, but the odd combination of names probabyl tells you just how kooky this movie is. Even though it includes Robin Williams, Michael Gambon, Robin Wright-Penn, Joan Cusack, and L.L. Cool J, very few people I know have seen it.
Eccentric toymaker Kenneth Zevo dies, leaving his world-famous Zevo Toys company to his brother Leland (Gambon), a retired military man, rather than to his children, Leslie (Williams) and Alsatia (Cusack). Leland hates working at the factory until his excitement is roused at the idea of thwarting corporate espionage. He turns the company into a police state with the help of his son Patrick (Cool J) and begins a secret project with military ramifications. Leslie and Alsatia fight back with the aid of Gwen (Wright-Penn), an employee whom Leslie is falling in love with. It all comes down to a battle between innocence and cynicism with more than just the company at stake.
I love this movie, but it is so very flawed and confused. It has incredible art direction informed by the paintings of Matisse and music from the likes of Thomas Dolby, Enya, Grace Jones, Wendy & Lisa, Tori Amos, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It was made in 1992, but it feels like a love letter to the 80s.
I intend to do a second column on the more traditional/mainstream Christmas movies that have a place in my heart. But do you think there’s an offbeat special I’ve missed? A favorite that needs mentioning? Let us all know!