Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 8

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

A few years back, I half-jokingly thought up a screenplay pitch. At the time, Hollywood was going gaga over dark and gritty origin stories of public domain characters. After reading about the endless variation on Peter Pan and Frankenstein in development, I touched upon an idea. Who is a popular, beloved, and universally recognized public domain character? Santa Claus, of course! I spent about half a day sarcastically throwing together a treatment for “Sinterklaus Begins,” eventually realizing it was actually kind of a neat idea. Naturally, someone who has Hollywood connection beat me to this. On the other hand, it’s not like thinking up an origin story for Santa Claus is a new or novel idea. Rankin-Bass did it back in 1970, with “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

Set in and around a vaguely Alpine city known as Sombertown, the television special begins with an orphan left on the steps of the Burgermeister, the town’s leader. After he rejects the infant, the kid ends up with the Kringles, a forest-dwelling family of toy-making dwarfs. They raise Kris as their own. He eventually travels over the mountains to give the children of Sombertown the toys as gifts. In the process, he befriends a warlock, becomes a outlaw, fights against the establishment, and slowly becomes the beloved legend of Santa Claus.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” is probably my favorite of Rankin-Bass’ Christmas specials. It’s not as charming as “Rudolph” or as cute as “Frosty.” However, the special may have the cleverest scripts of any of them. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” manages to incorporate most everything you associate with Santa in a logical manner. We learn how he became a toy maker and acquired an army of toy making slaves. Through the same channels, he gains his trademark red suit. His status as a fugitive in Sombertown explains why he goes out at night, sneaks into houses through chimneys, and leaves gifts in stockings. Santa’s BFF, the Winter Warlock, is how his reindeer gain the power of flight. That’s also how he observes the behavior of the world’s children. The wintery setting explains the sled. His affinity for Christmas Eve is due to it being his wedding anniversary. About the only thing left out is the milk and cookies, the finger against the nose, and the immorality. It's surprisingly well done and makes up for a lot of the special’s kiddy, overly goofy elements. (Like the dancing penguin, which I'm just not going to mention.)

As with all of Rankin-Bass’ holiday specials, the stop-motion animation of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” is creaky and occasionally off-putting. The puppets move stiffly, the wires frequently visible. The barely changing faces of the children in Sombertown are kind of creepy. The vocal performances actually make up for some of that. Mickey Rooney, despite being my arch-enemy, is still the voice most people hear when they think of Santa Claus. His slightly craggy vocals actually gives the character a lot of personality. I’m used to seeing Keenan Wynn as the man who brings about the nuclear apocalypse in “Dr. Strangelove.” Yet he’s surprisingly charming as the Winter Warlock, whose heart is melted by Santa’s goody-goody ways. I’m also a fan of the framing device, which has Fred Astaire as the mailman answering children’s questions about Santa. How he interacts with those kids throughout the special is pretty clever. As far as the celebrity hosts of Christmas special goes, he could easily take Jimmy Durante in “Frosty” in a fight and would probably battle Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman to a stand-still.

Another fact in favor of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” is its genuinely catchy songs. I find myself humming many of them throughout December, totally unaware of it. “First Toymaker to the King” has a nice melody, though the rhymes are relatively painful. “One Foot in Front of Another” is better in that regard. “My World is Starting to Change” is legitimately pretty and features some trippy, early seventies animation. Not all the songs are that memorable. “If You Sit on My Lap Today” has some unfortunate lyrics that make it amusing to modern ears for all the wrong reasons.

As I’ve said before, you can’t really judge these Christmas specials through overly critical eyes. They’re for kids and are undoubtedly dated. Even while taking that into account, I think “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” holds up well. If you’ve ever been curious why Santa does the shit he does, it’s likely to satisfy your curiosity. And it’ll probably be more memorable then the dark and gritty Santa origin story, whenever that comes out. [7/10]

Community: Comparative Religion

Ah, “Community.” For three seasons, it was the premiere cult TV show, earning an insanely devoted following despite low rating. I was happy to declare it the only sitcom I bothered to watch for a while. It also had regularly awesome Christmas episodes. “Comparative Religion” from season one begins with Greendale’s oppressively P.C. secular holiday celebration. Shirley, a devout Christian, is offended and attempts to spread Christmas cheer to her diverse friends. Meanwhile, a bullying man-child targets Abed, forcing Jeff to stand up for his friends. The bully’s behavior is so belligerent that Jeff is coerced into fighting him after school. The Study Group attempts to keep the conflict secret from Shirley, who is trying to have a happy holiday.

“Comparative Religion” is consistently hilarious. Like the best episodes of “Community,” it balances character development, social commentary, and absurd gags. The fantastic cast is extremely well utilized in episodes like this. Pierce and Troy trying to teach Jeff how to fight produces some amusingly circular dialogue, as does their attempts to hide the scuffle from Shirley. The contrast of religion in the group provides plenty of laughs. Everyone’s reaction to Jeff’s agnosticism is one of the show’s best reoccurring gags. The Jewish Annie being handed a baby Jesus, and happily declaring him of her race, is hilarious, helped along by Alison Brie’s effortless charm. Yvette Nicole Brown really shines as Shirley, who allows the character to be hyper-religious without making her a shrill stereotype.

The fight subplot is the episode at its wackiest. Anthony Michael Hall as Mike, the ridiculously puffy bully, is a highlight. Hall gets the most out of the uselessly abrasive bully, who uses cookies and Spanish exams as an excuse to yell at people. Britta declaring the entire fight to be homoerotic reaches its peak when Mike’s gang abandons their shirts. The episode concludes with a hilarious, and unusually festive, fight scene. Candy canes and a reindeer get used as improvised weapons. As the show did when it was good, “Community” also finds a sweetness beneath its zaniness. The episode concludes with the group bonding as friends, putting aside their differences. (Well, if you ignore the Christmas Troy credits bumper, which is also hilarious.)  This is a classic for sure and one I’m happy to add to my Christmas watch list. [9/10]

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