Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas 2013: December 12

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

It’s not really Christmas without Rankin-Bass. The studio’s stop-motion animation specials have been playing yearly since the early 1960s. None of their programs are more iconic then their very first, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Many of the studio’s specials have been forgotten and overlooked but “Rudolph” gets a plum time slot every year. You can never predict what bits of holiday debris is going to wind up being a perennial classic. But why “Rudolph?” What makes this one so much more important compared to the other Rankin-Bass products? My most recent re-watching, one of a hundred probably, might have revealed the answer. This cartoon is kind of weird.

You don’t notice the weirdness at first. Like many of the Rankin-Bass specials that would follow, “Rudolph’s” story is framed by an omniscient narrator, voiced by a slightly washed-up musical celebrity of the day. In this case, Burl Ives as the folksy Sam the Snowman. The story embellishes on the widely beloved song while hitting all the expected notes. Rudolph is born with a freakishly sunny nose, one that gets him ostresized from his friends and family. This same deformity winds up making a star of Santa’s sleigh team come an especially foggy Christmas Eve. The special packs the margin between those two story beats with a lot of unrelated nuttiness. An elf who wants to be a dentist? An eccentric prospector looking for gold in the Artic? An Abomniable Snowman pissed-off for undefined reasons? An Island of Misfit Toys, overseen by a flying lion king? What the fuck does this have to do with a shiny-nosed reindeer? If the special wasn’t so famous, and so inseperatably connected with the original song, I think people would question how odd a lot of that is.

Okay, so some of the weirdness is right there on the surface. My personal favorite element is the neurotic Santa Claus, too nervous to eat, forced by his nagging wife to pack on the pounds, disinterested in the traditional Christmas shenanigans. You wouldn’t think a holiday could be cancel because of the weather but I imagine this Santa Claus was probably looking for an excuse. The Island of Misfit Toys is an especially whimsical touch, though I can’t see any kid turning their noses up at a spotted elephant plushy. Yukon Cornelius is probably the most honestly amusing thing about “Rudolph,” his clueless blustering providing a lot of entertainment. His sled dogs being made of tiny breeds like a dashaund or a poodle is a cute visual joke. It’s endearing characters is probably the real reason “Rudolph” has stayed afloat in the pop culture sphere for so long.

But that’s not the weirdness I’m talking about. The hour-long special is concerned with outsiders and goes to, sometimes, unintentionally hilarious lengths to make this point. As far as birth defects go, a shiny nose doesn’t seem especially deforming. Don’t tell that to Donner, who is chastising his son minutes after birth, or Rudolph’s couch or classmates, who mock him mercilessly. Even Santa is horrified by Rudolph’s red nose. Similarly, Hermie’s desire to practice dentistry is met with aghast, exaggerated horror. (Though maybe his reaction is because stuffed animals with teeth are terrifying.) The point is: Every authority figure in this kid’s program is a total ass. Maybe it’s just this modern viewpoint of mine but I can’t help but pick up on some unintentional commentary on prejudice. Hermie and Rudolph are rejected by their society for being different and immediately find a kinship with each other. And what’s the first thing the effeminate Hermie does upon meeting Rudolph? Mount him. Later, the two share a bed together. That’s taking it too far but I couldn’t help but notice. Clarice’s parents disapprove vehemently of her relationship with Rudolph, much like how you’d expect a Southern family to react when their daughter brings home a black boy. And, much like in real life, the Santa society has no interest in Rudolph until his deformity proves useful, an unusually honest lesson to teach kids.

I know I’m reading too much into it. “Rudolph” probably endears because of its colorful characters, ear-worm-y music (even the numbers that have little effect on the story), and the charmingly stiff animation and character designs. The humor is undeniably corny, the story predictable, and, even at only an hour, the pacing drags a little in the middle. Still, you can’t watch something every year of your life without finding something of note in it… [6.5/10]

Invader ZIM: "The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever"

“Invader ZIM” was, for a while anyway, the reigning animated cult classic. Canceled after a season and a half for skewering closer to teens then Nickelodeon's target seven-to-ten crowd, the show posthumously found a following among mall Goths and animation nerds. At one point, like half of the shit Hot Topic sold was devoted to the show, even with it being off the air for several years. Despite still beautiful animation and an enormously talented voice cast, the show hasn’t aged the best. At its worse, “Invader ZIM” is unbearably shouty and random-for-random’s sake. However, when the series was good, it was delightfully odd, packed with unexpected meanness and bizarre pop culture parody. “The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever,” the series’ final episode and holiday special, is a good example of that prevailing attitude.

The episode’s premise starts out with a familiar outline before heading off in an expectantly oddball direction. Fish-out-of-water, would-be alien conqueror Zim hears about Christmas and Santa Claus for the first time, devising a scheme that takes advantage of the world’s love of the holiday. After sucking Christmas info out of a mall Santa’s brain, he creates a bio-mechanic Santa suit and sets about earning the world’s love, all in order to teleport the masses back to his alien home world. As his plot comes unusually close to succeeding, series anti-hero Dib finds himself in the position of having to save the world by destroying Santa Claus and ruining Christmas. For those unfamiliar with “Invader ZIM,” this is a fairly typical set-up.

The best parts of “The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever” is the sheer amount of inappropriate shit Jhonan Vasquez and his writers sneaked into this. The episode features not-really-subtle-at-all jabs at Christianity. Santa “returns to his people,” direct quote, to bring hope and cheer. The world follows him mindlessly, so desperate to believe in anything that they don’t notice their supposed Santa is, obviously, a malevolent alien from space. The episode goes even further, Santa-Zim’s flag featuring a candy cane swastika. The hero being forced to destroy Santa with a missile-spewing giant robot is subversive enough but his mad scientist dad comes prepared with an anti-Santa arsenal, preparing for years to destroy Santa and Christmas. The episode even throws in blatant references to decidedly-not-kid-friendly subject matter like “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and, hilariously, David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” The expected plot line of Zim’s Santa suit absorbing too much Christmas cheer and turning good even goes dark, with Santa becoming a giant, spider-like eldritch abomination… Which bleeds cranberry juice upon defeat. This is amazingly fucked-up for a kid’s series.

Among Zim and GIR screaming incoherently, there is some truly inspired absurdity. The most memorable moment involves the fascist Christmas Carol, “Jolly Boots of Doom.” There are small, hugely amusing bits like Zim’s recollections of inventing the suit, someone being imprisoned in a candy cane “Jingle Jail,” and the futuristic framing device of a grumpily dead-pan robot snowman. Richard Horvitz’ typically fearless vocal performance turns a number of tiny lines, like “Oh yeah!,” into total hilarity, while Andy Berman and Rodger Bumpass have fun screaming their lungs off. It’s a funny episode and nice counter-programming to your usual Christmas fare. It’s a shame Jhonen Vasquez is such a misanthropic, hateful prick and has done nothing but collect residuals from this show over the last decade. In a time when “Adventure Time” can become a pre-fab hit, the world is finally ready for “Invader ZIM.” [7/10]

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