Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 13

Babes in Toyland (1961)

Last year, I reviewed that really weird adaptation of “Babes in Toyland,” starring young versions of Drew Barrymore, Keanu Reeves, and about twenty kilos of cocaine. During that review, I noted how there are two, far more famous film versions of this story. While Laurel and Hardy have their place in history, the “Babes in Toyland” most people will remember is the 1961 version. Produced by Walt Disney and starring Annette Funicello, it took great liberties with the source material, like seemingly every version of “Babes in Toyland.” Walt Disney hoped the film would become his studio's “Wizard of Oz.” Gee whiz, did he succeed in that lofty goal?

It's a happy day in Mother Goose's village. Two of the neighborhood's star citizens, Mary Quite Contrary and Tom Tom the Piper's Son are to be wed. The celebration comes to a sudden end when Tom mysteriously vanishes. The villain Barnaby, eager to claim Mary as his own, has kidnapped her boyfriend. However, his henchmen screw up the details and Tom quickly returns to the village. The reunited couple then enter a foreboding forest, looking for Bo-Peep's lost sheep. The path leads them to Toyland, home of the Toymaker, where Barnaby is determined to have his revenge.

“Babes in Toyland” is one those musicals that annoy me. The film is full of song and dance sequences that do not move the plot forward. Characters are singing almost every damn minute of the overly long 105 minute run time. Sequences that should have been short-lived are extended into laborious songs. A troupe of gypsies come into town and sing a number that goes on and on. The villain dances with a fountain for a solid two minutes. The henchmen sing for way too long about Tom sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Most of the musical numbers in the film have that problem. They extend far pass their logical end point and begin to annoy the viewer.

Having said, there's still an occasionally colorful moment in “Babes in Toyland” that works. When Mary considers the possibility of marrying Barnaby, she launches into “I Can't Do the Sum.” This sequence has her imagining multiple versions of herself, dancing around the room. They stand on their head and heft up mathematics sums. It shows off some neat effects and the song isn't too bad. Barnaby's “Castle in Spain,” before it goes on too long, is probably the catchiest number in the film. A sequence involving haunted trees in a spooky forest is pretty neat too. Surprisingly, the title-lending song “Toyland” plays a shockingly small part in the film.

Truthfully, once the film gets to Toyland, it starts to fall apart. Ed Wynn appears as the Toymaker and is typically shrill. An especially nerve wrecking moment is devoted to the Toymaker's assistance building a toy-making machine. Naturally, this quickly grows out of control, leading to lots of noise and shouting. The audience doesn't really feel for the Toymaker's plight, when he's this annoying. This leads up to the film's big, effects-filled finale. This is where the tin soldiers come in. Surprisingly, they are normal sized soldiers, with everyone else being shrunk. There's plenty more yelling, shouting, and jumping around. Sword fights, cannon balls, paint brushes, and more follow. It crosses the border into obnoxious slapstick really quickly.

“Babes in Toyland” does feature some pretty spiffy production design. The entire film is presented as a stage play Mother Goose is performing. This lends the film an intentionally artificial angle, which is interesting. That certainly makes up for the rather flat direction, which too often hangs back and watches people dance. Disappointingly, “Babes in Toyland” is pretty low on the Christmas content. The holiday is mentioned and the Toymaker is ostensibly making toys for Santa. Yet the fat man is a no show and a little snow isn't proper compensation. “Babes in Toyland” strikes me as very much of its time. Next time I want to visit Toyland, I'll stick with Drew Barrymore and the evil Christmas trees. [5/10]

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas

For a while, I was a fan of “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” I found the first four seasons to be consistently hilarious, full of awful people acting absurdly and hysterically insane dialogue. I never stopped enjoying the show but just drifted away from it, with the intention of always catching up someday. “A Very Sunny Christmas” is from one of the seasons I missed but I couldn't pass it up this December. In the A-plot, Dennis and Dee plan to reap some “Christmas Carol” style revenge on Frank, who uses the holiday as an excuse for more selfish cruelty. Charlie and Mac, meanwhile, try to fill themselves with the Christmas spirit. All they end up doing is ruining their happy childhood memories. It all concludes with a naked elf, a bloody Santa Claus, a weaponized snow blower, and – naturally – a musical number.

“It's Always Sunny” doesn't just use its holiday special as an excuse for more antisocial mayhem, though there is plenty of that. Instead, an interesting theme emerges. Throughout the episode, the four main characters reflect on their childhood Christmases. Mac realizes that what he thought was a beloved tradition was actually his dad just stealing other people's gifts. Charlie learns that the procession of Santas that brought him presents were actually johns seeing his mother, a part-time prostitute. Dennis and Dee, meanwhile, had their Christmases ruined by their father's psychotic behavior. Frank would gift the kids empty boxes while giving himself the presents they most desired. This seems to comment on how nostalgia clouds our memories. How our childhood recollections are never as good as we they appeared to be.

This being “Sunny,” even expected plot points can spin into unexpected directions. When Dee and Dennis discover that Frank believes his old business partner to be dead, they decide to recreate the “Christmas Carol,” in hope of teaching their dad a lesson. They run into their first problem upon realizing that former business partner, played by a perfectly nonplussed David Huddleston, is now a devout Christian. I love Dennis and Dee's horrified reaction every time he mentions Jesus. Cries of “I don't want to hear about the Lord!” greatly amuse. Frank's reaction to the supposedly ghostly ex-partner involves swinging a golf club around. In general, Frank resists his kids' attempt to teach him a lesson. He either admits that he wants to be buried in the trash or, in probably the episode's craziest gag, sews himself inside a leather couch.

It's funny but I prefer Charlie and Mac's bizarre Christmas journey. It begins with the two joyfully bickering about which direction is left, escalates to them casually admitting they murdered dogs as kids, and reaches Charlie's very confused reaction to a game of Simon. A hilarious sequence involves an OmniBot, a failed attempt to return a stolen gift. A visit to the mall gets even crazier. Mac nearly attacks a toy store owner for not knowing who Mike Schmit or Von Hayes is. This builds to clearly the highlight of the special. Charlie has a flashback to his traumatic childhood after spotting the mall Santa. This builds to ludicrously entertaining act of seasonal violence. As is often the case, seeing the gang interact with normal people produces hilarity, non-deranged folks utterly baffled by their insanity.

“A Very Sunny Christmas” wasn't made for television, originally. Instead, it was released direct-to-video. Which explains the episode's unbleeped profanity, male nudity, and extra long run time. That additional time allows for an extended finale. The traditional end of the episode is Frank's Rankin/Bass style hallucination. Which involves racist raisins, elf nudity, and acts of extreme violence. Instead of ending, “A Very Sunny Christmas” just continues to build. An attempt at caroling goes horribly, hilariously wrong. Vengeance, perhaps undeserved, is visited upon every member of the gang. As ribald, insane, and darkly funny as most of the episode is, “A Very Sunny Christmas' wraps up on a surprisingly touching. Because sometimes throwing rocks at trains – or spending time with friends – is the best gift you can receive. [9/10]

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