Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 12

Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979)

Rankin/Bass’ Christmas specials were usually economically paced affairs. It was very rare for one to run longer then an hour. However, in November of 1979, the studio took a risk. They decided to produce a feature length Christmas special. For such a momentous occasion, all stops were pulled. Nearly all of the company’s previous characters would meet in one massive crossover. “Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July” would pull from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and even “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.” The film also featured something like a preview of “Jack Frost,” which would premiere a month later. In other words, this was Rankin/Bass’ “Avengers.” Tellingly, the company would never attempt something like this ever again.

Disappointingly, Frosty and Rudolph do not fight and then team up. Instead, the two are introduced as being friends already. Considering they both live in the North Pole, I guess this isn’t too big of a leap of logic. Anyway, Rudolph and Frosty travel to the sunny coast to prevent a circus from closing. Why? Because a previously unmentioned friend, a balloon-dwelling ice cream man, wants to reunite with his tight rope walking girlfriend. This journey is being manipulated by King Winterbolt, an evil winter warlock powered by a nefarious, icy genie. A convoluted series of events follow, all designed so Winterbolt can regain control of the North Pole.

It’s evident that the Rankin/Bass writers were not used to scripting anything longer then an hour. In order to extend “Rudolph and Frosty” to feature length and include all the characters, they cooked up an especially convoluted plot. Winterbolt is explained to have ruled over the North Pole decades ago, before being depowered by the goddess of the Aurora. Upon reawakening, he attempts to retake the frozen capitol. The wintry fog that nearly ended Santa’s journey in the original “Rudolph’ is explained as his work. After arriving at the circus, “Christmas in July” spins in wackier directions. Winterbolt teams up with the unscrupulous businessman interested in buying the circus. He employs a treachery reindeer named Scratcher. The two collaborate to discredit Rudolph, so that his magical nose will fade. Frosty’s magical hat becomes a plot point. Even after the story is basically over, Frosty, his wife, and their kids melt, forcing someone to bring them back to life. Jesus, it’s surprisingly a lot to unpack.

One must also appreciate how fucking weird “Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July” is. The special explains the secret origin of Rudolph’s nose. Did you know his nose glows because the goddess of the Aurora placed a magical star inside it? And you thought it was just a birth defect! Various rules are in place, governing if Rudolph can keep his power. Winterbolt’s powers come from an icy scepter. This, in turn, is powered by a wintry genie. His lair also includes two snow-spewing dragons. Later, he builds a sled pulled by giant snakes. When his scepter is smashed at the end, Winterbolt painfully transforms into a tree. Scratcher, the bad reindeer, is kept in a weird cross between a prison and a hotel. Yes, Frosty and Crystal have procreated, producing two children named Chilly and Billy. One assumes they merely built them though their presence raises some disturbing implications. None of this considers a giant whale with a clock in its tail, a returning character from “Shiny New Year,” or Santa and Missus Claus being brainwashed by the villain. It’s all much stranger then you’d expect a stop-motion Christmas special to be.

Like “Rudolph,” “Christmas in July” is a musical. Clearly eager to recapture the popularity of the original shorts, the film reprises many of the title numbers. Frosty’s origin is recounted while the song plays. Rudolph’s first adventure is shown in flashback, to the tune of his trademark song. At the end, Frosty and Rudolph sing a slightly altered version of “We’re a Couple of Misfits.” There’s also a new song that sounds awfully similar to “Put One Foot in Front of the Other,” from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Most of the new songs are pretty lame and commit the cardinal sin of musicals by not advancing the plot. However, there is a rendition of “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” performed by the circus gang, that is mildly toe-tapping.

There’s a reason most of Rankin/Bass’ holiday specials ran less then an hour. At feature length, shit not only gets complicated but also starts to ware on the viewer. Having said that, “Christmas in July” is so out there, that a part of me can’t help but enjoy it. What other Christmas special features a cowgirl voiced by Ethel Merman smashing a magical object and turning a guy into a tree? Even if it was clearly made up on the spot, the batshit crazy mythology Rankin/Bass cooked up to unite their different films is endearingly nutty. I’ll probably never watch it again but I am glad I marked this one off my Christmas watch list. [6/10]

Malcolm in the Middle: Christmas

Once upon a time, “Malcolm in the Middle” was appointment TV for me. Fox smartly put the show right on after “The Simpsons.” Considering both series concerned dysfunctional families, they paired nicely. “Malcolm in the Middle” was basically a live-action cartoon. While I would eventually drift away from the show, the early seasons still hold up nicely. Season three featured a pretty good Christmas episode. In “Christmas,” Malcolm, Reese, and Dewey are raising Hell as usual. This so enrages their mother that she packs up all the Christmas gifts and decorations. If the boys are perfectly behaved for the next day, they’ll get their presents. Meanwhile, oldest son Francis visits Ida, the family’s hateful grandmother.

Forcing the Wilkerson Boys to be well behaved is a good set-up for comedy, considering their natural state is causing chaos. An especially amusing sequence has the brothers contemplating fighting over a waffle, a daily ritual for the family. Father Hal ends the silent debate by snatching the waffle for himself. Amusingly, the dad takes the Christmas regulations just as badly as his sons do. A hilarious moment revolves around him shamefully turning off a blinking Christmas sweater. For all the acclaim he would get as a dramatic actor, Bryan Cranston's comedic chops are also incredible.

The A-plot is pretty hilarious but the B-plot might actually be funnier. Francis, the abroad older son played by Christopher Masterson, is guilted into spending time with his grandmother. Cloris Leechman plays the old woman. With a thick Russian accent, she turns every kind gesture around into something cruel. A Christmas carol reminds her off soldiers killing babies. Francis’ simple question about the couch is turned around into a sarcastic rebuttal. Though Grandma Ida makes it difficult, Francis eventually develops some sympathy for the bitter old woman. “Malcolm in the Middle” being the show it is, this is also turned around. Turns out, Grandma Ida really is completely evil, in a hilarious reveal. Francis’ response is equally amusing.

The conclusion works extremely well. Lois feels terrible about her actions, prompting a change of heart. The boys have their own plan. When the two objectives collide, the solution is surprisingly diplomatic. “Malcolm’s” Christmas episode doubles down on the dysfunctional family interplay between the characters while perfectly capturing the holiday tension. [8/10]

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