Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 10

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

You can’t be a grown-up nerd like me without some love for the Rankin-Bass holiday specials. I’ll admit to being a fan of a few of them. Yet not every Christmas special the company would produce became a classic. “The Little Drummer Boy” was in pretty regular rotation once upon time but doesn’t crop up that often on TV anymore. It’s never been a favorite of mine. At the very least, it’s definitely one of Rankin-Bass’ odder specials.

Considering “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was based on a popular Christmas song, maybe Rankin-Bass was hoping that formula would pay off a second time. “The Little Drummer Boy” expands greatly on the Christmas standard. The titular character becomes Aaron, an honest-to-goodness misanthrope. His hatred of humanity springs from his parents being murdered by night time bandits. Aaron’s only friend are animals, whom frequently dance to his drumming. When traveling entertainer and conman Ben Haramed discovers Aaron’s talent, he kidnaps the boy and forces him to be a part of his troupe. Eventually, the boy’s story crosses paths with three men on a pilgrimage to visit the newly born Christ child.

With “Rudolph,” Rankin-Bass successfully expanded on a two-minute song with a bunch of weird elements, like a winged lion and an eccentric prospector. The company makes a similar attempt with “The Little Drummer Boy.” This time they throw in dancing animals (which look incredibly creepy in the stop motion style), murder, child abduction, and an all-abiding hatred of humanity. Those are odd elements to add to a Christmas special. “The Little Drummer Boy” takes place in a world where seemingly everyone is motivated by greed. While the song’s moral boiled down to never letting social class determine someone’s worth, the holiday special has Aaron’s faith in mankind being restored. This occurs after his beloved pet lamp is killed by a runaway cart, only to be resurrected by Jesus. I certainly don’t mind dark or weird elements in my Christmas entertainment but the oddness in “The Little Drummer Boy” never solidifies into something satisfying.

“The Little Drummer Boy” isn’t especially memorable as a typical Christmas special either. The stop-motion animation is typically creaky. Unlike “Rudolph,” whose fuzzy and round characters were visually appealing, the puppets here are fairly bland. The songs aren’t especially memorable. “When the Goose is Hanging High” is insipidly catchy but the others, which includes a ditty called “Why Can’t the Animals Smile?,” aren’t very memorable. The comic relief, such as Haramed’s buffoonish juggler, is fairly dire. The lead character stumbles into the climatic meeting with Christ. Of the vocal performances, only Jose Ferrer’s hammy turn as Haramed’s makes an impression. Teddy Eccles as Aaron is incredibly flat.

I have no nostalgic attachment to “The Little Drummer Boy” which may be why I’m somewhat dismissive of it. These Rankin-Bass things become a lot harder to judge unless you loved them when you were a kid. As a grown-up, you tend to mostly notice the flaws. I genuinely love the original Christmas carol and I find this animated version twists the story in some very unwanted directions. [5/10]

The Weird Al Show: The Obligatory Holiday Episode

That’s right, you guys. Weird Al Yankovic had a TV show. It ran for one season in 1997. Though the beloved parodist envisioned the series as a new generation’s “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” the program had a troubled production. First off, it’s time slot was shifted around, frequently being dumped in the early morning. Mostly though, the network insisted the show have an educational element. The heavy-handed attempts to insert moral lessons into every episode frequently derailed Yankovic’s sense of humor and made his character look like a dick. Al and his team were always fighting to insert absurd jokes against the network mandates. In many ways, “The Obligatory Holiday Episode” is typical of the problems the show runners struggled with.

In the split-level cave twenty miles below the surface of the Earth where he lives, Al has decided to throw a holiday party. Which holiday? All of them! He’s invited all of his friends, many of whom come dressed in various costumes related to their holiday of choice. However, Al is so focused on making sure that the party goes well that he doesn’t listen to his friend’s individual concerns. As a result, everyone gets pissed and leaves, forcing Al to question his hosting skills.

Like every episode of “The Weird Al Show,” the forced-in moral lesson of “The Obligatory Holiday Episode” is repeatedly hammered home. “You should listen to your friends’ problems” is the intended message. The episode references this repeatedly. Every commercial break bumper features the show’s announcer - none other then Billy West - addressing this issue. Every single supporting character in the episode begins to discuss a concern or problem with Al, only for him to wander off or change the subject. The target audience for “The Weird Al Show” was probably the seven-to-twelve crowd but the writing seems to be aiming for the preschool set with its stone-thick obviousness. It sometimes makes the show embarrassing to watch through mature eyes.

However, Al and his team worked hard to make a suitably weird, funny show, despite the limitations. “The Obligatory Holiday Episode” features some delightfully goofy elements. Cross-breeding all the different holidays result in some bizarre edible creations, like heart-shaped ham or cornbread dressing-stuffed gingerbread cookies. (Or, subtle joke the show doesn’t emphasize, candy-corn-on-the-cob.) My favorite of these odd foodstuffs is the Mood Pie, a pulsating jello concoction that changes color in reaction to the room’s mood. Since Al is such a lousy host, the Mood Pie frequently becomes a sickly, dried-blood black. When the party turns around, it changes to shimmering silver.

There are other fun, absurd elements. This being the holiday special, most of the show’s supporting characters are accounted for. This includes Judy Tenuta as Madame Judy, the high-strung psychic that pulls an April Fools Day joke on Al. Or how about Eddie Deezen as the Guy Boarded Up in the Wall or an underutilized Stan Freberg? Al shows off a family home movie, which includes the Amazing Jonathan as a very mischievous uncle. The show’s producer, Dick Clark, helps the cast count down to the closing credits, which is a nice touch. Two of the characters come dressed as Uncle Sam, which causes some amusing conflict. Lastly, the episode’s show-within-a-show segment includes a visit with Pa Huggins, the sickingly sweet (and mentally disturbed) children’s show host also played by Yankovic.

It takes a bit of trying to overlook the obvious flaws “The Obligatory Holiday Episode,” or “The Weird Al Show” in general, has. However, if you can look past the producer meddling, you can definitely find some amusing bits of absurdity. I mean, any show that introduces the Mood Pie or gives a supporting role to Harvey the Wonder Hamster can’t be all bad. [6/10]

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