Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 1

Let's try this again. Back in 2013, I decided I wanted to do a month-long marathon of Christmas-related movies and TV shows, a smaller and more relaxed version of the Halloween marathons I do. It was an unmitigated disaster. I only limped out eight reviews over all of December. In 2014, I didn't post a single Christmas review. Despite these past failures, I'm giving it another shot. "Third times' a charm," so they say. I can't gurantee daily updates but I'm hoping to ring in the yuletide with my own mix of holiday classics and demented obscurities.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Thanksgiving is my least favorite of the three major holiday, mostly because of its slow transition into Christmas Part I. (Also, because turkey leftovers are awful and everyone knows it.) However, there’s one thing about the day I genuinely look forward to. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gets through to my inner kid. The musical numbers are a bore and the commentary is always inane. I’ll admit to loving the elaborate floats and the giant balloons. After all, the Parade is the only place you’ll see Spider-Man, the Red Power Ranger, and Sonic the Hedgehog hanging out together. Though it occurs on Thanksgiving, the Parade is irrevocably connected to Christmas. Partially because Macy’s lent their name and their parade to a classic Christmas movie, 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street.”

A man calling himself Kris Kringle wanders through New York on Thanksgiving, eventually coming to the parade on 34th Street. He’s appalled to see the actor playing Santa Claus is a drunkard. He informs Doris Walker, the event director, and Kris is more then happy to play Santa in the Parade. Soon after, Kris begins working in the department store. His insistence on putting the happiness of the children over the store’s profits ruffles feathers and makes him popular. Meanwhile, Kris befriends Doris’ daughter, Susan. Doris and Susan, both sensible and logical women, are at first reluctant to believe Kringle’s claims that he’s actually Santa Claus. The eccentric man soon wins them over.

“Miracle on 34th Street” is the most sincere homage to consumerism ever made. The movie is basically a 96 minute long commercial for Macy’s and the Christmas shopping season. A major turning point in the movie comes when Kris happily sends customers to other stores, in search of a specific gift or better prices. Though the store manager is aghast at first, when he hears how happy this makes the shoppers, the store owner encourages the behavior. Kringle delights in the joy a gift brings kids. One especially touching moment has him conversing with a Dutch girl in her native language. The movie never questions the spirit of the season. It portrays buying someone a gift as a pure act of charity and love. Though the insanity of the Christmas shopping season can get under anybody’s skin, the absolute sincerity of “Miracle on 34th Street” can win over even the biggest Grinch.

The movie’s sincerity is built right into its DNA. The struggle against cynicism is the primary theme.  The script never quite judges Doris for raising her daughter to be doubtful of all things. It’s presented as a reaction to her heartbreak from a bad divorce. Naturally, both the mother and her daughter are skeptical of the man claiming to be Santa Claus at first. However, Kris’ sweet personality wins them both over. Kringle teaches Susan how to play. He allows both of them to loosen up a bit. Though Kris displays some impressive knowledge, he never displays any magical abilities. It’s strictly his behavior and personality that convinces both of them he’s Santa Claus. There’s a level of ambiguity to the film, the viewer left up to decide if Kringle is truly Santa or not. However, it’s likely most viewers will believe that the man is truly the legendary figure.

A lot of this has to do with Edmund Gwenn’s performance as Kringle. Gwenn, who I always recognize as the scientist from “Them,” is a pure delight. He’s jolly without overdoing it, creating a fully formed character who specializes in making people happy. A major event of the second act, when he conks a psychologist on the head for misdiagnosing a friend, shows the old man believes in fighting for those he cares about. Gwenn won an Academy Award for the part. It’s hard to believe a Christmas movie winning a major award these days but Gwenn is so lovable, it seems fair. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well. Maureen O’Hara never comes off as too hardened, instead playing her role as someone who has been hurt but is open to love. Natalie Wood is especially charming as Susan, showing a depth and commitment to performing that you wouldn’t expect from such a young performer.

The last act, of Santa Claus on trial, has rightfully become iconic. It’s easy to dismiss a Christmas movie as being maudlin or overly saccharine. Most of them are. Yet “Miracle on 34th Street” is rightfully a classic. The performances are wonderful and the script is clever and funny. The movie is genuinely touching, in a gentle, thoughtful way. For me, December really isn’t complete without it. [8/10]

Futurama: Xmas Story

When “Futurama” first premiered, I was in the fifth grade. At the time, it seemed like the most subversive thing on TV. When the series’ first Christmas episode rolled around, it only furthered that assumption. In the year 3000, Christmas is very different then what Fry remembers. First off, everyone calls it “Xmas.” Palm trees have replaced the extinct pine trees and homeless robots beg for booze in liquor kitchens. Most importantly, a robotic Santa Claus flies through the night sky, brutally punishing those he deems naughty. After hurting Leela’s feelings – the only person lonelier then him on Christmas – Fry embarks on a quest for a gift. Both Fry and Leela end up out after dark, wandering into the path of the psychotic Santa-bot.

“Xmas Story” is loaded with the type of hilarious sight-gags that “Futurama” was best at. The episode opens with a barrage of them, as the Planet Express goes skiing. An unconscious Prof. Fransworth skillfully skis down a slope, Fry fails to understand the purpose of fold-down trees, and Hermes inadvertently invites the others to a bobsled race. There’s plenty more where that comes from. Such as Amy’s jet pack-assisted attempt to top the tree, the first appearance of Tinny Tim, Fry debating between 500 lizards or an obnoxious bird, or his fall down the face of an electric clock tower. The murderous Robot Santa is probably the best example of the episode’s knack for demented gags. That climaxes in the episode’s brilliant resolution, where Santa is defeated along with his exploding reindeer sidekick, thanks to Zoidberg and his pogo stick. Thankfully, Robot Santa would become a reoccurring character, appearing in the series’ other Christmas episodes.

The laughs come quickly in “Xmas Story” but its secret weapon is a surprising heart. A moment that is equally funny and sad has Leela looking through a scrapbook. In it, she see photos of herself alone throughout her life. Fry attempts to patch up their relationship, after he hurts her feelings with his dumbness, are also dumb but weirdly sincere. Just as the two think they’re destined to die, Santa-bot aiming a bazooka at them, they lean in for a kiss. At episode’s end, Fry declares this oddball collection of robots, aliens, and weirdos to be his new family. As continually sarcastic as “Xmas Story” is, it was still capable of character-driven sweetness.

Bender’s B-plot has him pretending to be homeless so he can earn free booze. Later, he takes his team of robots around and mugs people. This is a bit to mean-spirited and doesn’t entirely work. Still, “Xmas Story” is a pretty great half-hour of television, another twisted Christmas tradition that is desperately needed during this time of year. [7/10]

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