Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas 2013: December 17

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

When writing about “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” I called it the most successful Christmas special of all time. Maybe it is. Even if it isn’t, that raises other questions. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is probably the most famous Christmas special, what with it contributing a term to the dictionary. But the most beloved Christmas television special? It’s got to be this one, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “Rudolph” and “The Grinch” air every year but Charlie Brown is frequently the highest rated. The film spawned countless other holiday-themed “Peanuts” special, covering everything from Thanksgiving to Arbor Day. The “Christmas” original is easily the most popular and probably the best of the Charles Schulz inspired productions.

I personally think “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has endured for nearly fifty years because it addresses many of the feelings the holidays bring, not just the snowy, candy-cane present-laden happiness. Honestly, Schulz’ comic strip could frequently be incredibly depressing. This is a series that started with two side characters declaring their hatred for the main protagonist. “Peanuts” and its many spin-offs subsist on Charlie Brown’s misery. Why does everyone hate this kid so much? Because he has thoughts in his head. Nonconformity breeds contempt even among children. Charlie doesn’t buy into the crushing cheer of the holiday season. Snow is on the ground, lights are strung on all the trees, and his fellow kids are making up Santa wish list. Yet Charlie just feels a general malaise about the season. Even in 1965, people were fed up with the rampant commercialization of the holiday but that’s not the only reason Charlie is down. Suggesting the melancholy the end of the year can bring, and a search for meaning in the festivities, puts “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on a different level then most other holiday specials.

Which makes it a bit disappointing that the special ends on such a shrug. Charlie Brown is enlisted to direct the local Christmas pageant and unsuccessfully puts up with his classmates’ bullshit. That doesn’t do the trick. Instead, Linus’ monologue about the holiday’s Biblical origin seems to turn the title character’s mind around. His not-really-friends then bond over the adorably shitty tree he’s chosen. So… Is that it? Charlie Brown strikes me as the skeptical type and just reciting the nativity story alone doesn’t seem like it would be enough. I guess there’s only so much ground a half-hour television special can cover. Either way, I like to look at the ending as Charlie Brown coming to his own conclusion about the holiday, finding his own peace with it.

The story’s humor comes from its supporting cast. Lucy is either the world’s youngest hipster, dismissing December snowflakes as too mainstream, or an early example of a young Republican, looking for any opportunity to capitalize on her friend’s misery. She’s also a massive bitch, threatening to punch Linus and charging her friends money to listen to her parrot useless textbook advice. Snoopy was right to take the shit out her meaningless speechifying. Though even Snoopy disrespects Charlie Brown. No wonder he grew up to smack his girlfriend around. Anyway, a lot of the small gags and lines of dialogue are highly memorable. I like Pigpen’s promise to keep a clean inn, Sally’s brutally honest letter to Santa, or Linus’ response to Chuck’s seasonal melancholy. Schulz’ greatest gift, aside from his whimsical artwork, was probably his ability to quickly establish amusing, lovable characters.

The show’s score is rightfully, widely beloved. The jazzy tones and soft, choir music was unique sounding for the day and has never been quite replicated. The animation is cheap, the character design loose and sketchy, the background bland and undefined. However, this winds up creating a timeless feel, since it’s so closely adapted from the source material. It’s easy to see why “A Charlie Brown Christmas” resonates with audience so much, even today. [8/10]

A Garfield Christmas Special (1987)

The most regrettable legacy “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has is that it made comic strip adaptations and holiday specials synonymous. The trend has died down over the last two decades but it used to be every December brought a new holiday-themed special starring a familiar character from the Sunday funny papers. Even Opus the Penguin and Casper the Friendly Ghost took a crack at it. “A Garfield Christmas Special” is far from a yearly classic but it is fondly remembered by a portion of the population. His huge success and hacky writing has made Garfield widely mocked yet the same internet that invented “Lasagna Cat” and “Garfield Minus Garfield” seems to have embraced the fat cat’s various vintage holiday specials.

“A Garfield Christmas Special” is, in particular, way better then it has any right to be. In a strip, Garfield’s sarcastic asides come off as mean-spirited and barbless. In animation, with the beautifully dead-pan vocals of Lorenzo Music behind him, Garfield becomes a sardonic straight man to the upbeat supporting cast. Thom Huge’s Jon is so obnoxiously caught up in the holiday cheer that Garfield’s snide remarks come off less like snarky asides and more like proper reactions. Music’s delivery makes lines that otherwise would have been groaners, like comments about the spicy sausage gravy or the décor of the building, quite amusing. The special doesn’t back away from mocking its hero a few times too, like when the cat gets lost in the snow or awkwardly climbing a tree.

The story follows the expected Christmas special outline. Garfield, as the opening dream sequence displays, only cares about getting as many presents as possible. He’s preoccupied with the “receiving,” not so much the giving. As the story goes on, he, of course, learns the true meaning of the holiday. However, the special goes about this far more subtly then expected. Instead of focusing exclusively on Jon, Odie, and Garfield, the script introduces Jon’s family. His meek brother Doc Boy (Doc Boy?) shares Jon’s child-like enthusiasm for the holiday, best displayed when the two wake up their parents at one in the morning. Jon’s Mom is your typical sitcom mother, cooking an absurd amount of money while being boringly wholesome. Dad Arbuckle is the straight man of the group, reacting to his sons’ antics with agitated bemusement. He is most amusing when forced to read the traditional Christmas story in an overly enthusiastic manner.

Yet the undeniable VIP of “A Garfield Christmas” is Grandma. Perpetual old lady Pat Carroll, best known as Ursula from “The Little Mermaid,” plays the grand mother as more then a little loopy. She sabotages her daughter-in-law’s cooking, arm-wrestles her grandson, and does unexpected push-ups. She immediately bonds with Garfield, finding a kindred spirit in the snarky cat. However, Grandma is more then just a goofy, spry old lady. The special’s best moment, and the scene that establishes its emotional heart, involves the grandmother talking about her late husband’s love of the holiday. Grandpa was a traditional old man, unable to express his feelings most of the time. But on Christmas, a gleeful, child-like wonder shined through. These words always spoke to me especially, since they also perfectly describe my grandfather, gone for many years. It’s a sad, sweet scene and not one you’d expect to find in an eighties Christmas special staring a fat, sarcastic cat.

The music is better then average too, much of it provided by Lou Rowls of all people. “Gimme, Gimme” and “Can’t Wait ‘til Christmas” always stuck out to me. Of course, as is typical of Garfield, no body questions how weird it is that Jon takes his pets with him on a holiday. Or that he talks to his cat like he can hear him. Or that the cat winds up giving the best gift of the night. Goes with the territory, I suppose. The animation holds up fairly well too. So is it blind nostalgia or is “A Garfield Christmas” actually kind of good? Either way, it usually finds its way into my yearly Christmas movie rotation. [7/10]

Ziggy’s Gift (1982)

Somewhere near the bottom of the comic strip-based Christmas special totem pole resides “Ziggy’s Gift.” Wikipedia claims that Tom Wilson’s creation is still being published with tie-in merchandise a-plenty but I haven’t seen any proof of this. It seems the character peaked in popularity during the late seventies and has been drastically dropping off in recognition every since. When mentioned at all today, it’s as an easy target of mockery. Do kids today even know what a Ziggy is? Anyway, in the early eighties there was a cartoon.

“Ziggy’s Gift” seems to be a fairly accurate representation of its source material. Ziggy puts up with a lot of bullshit from a cruel world but his undying sincerity sees him through, exposing the gooey sweet heart in every one. The plot here has the speechless hunchback unknowingly joining up with a circle of con-men, dressing as Santas, ringing charity bells, and making off with the donations. Despite this, the iron pot the con-man gives Ziggy winds up magically producing gifts and money. This magical plot device proves our hero’s innocence to the clueless cop pursuing the crooks and converts a slimy, snake-like pick-pocket.

That saccharine sweetness is most evident though that plot line. Ziggy gives a wad of bills to a group of sidewalk carolers. He produces a scarf for a freezing homeless man. At the end, Ziggy winds up gifting an orphanage with fresh Christmas toys and a brand new pet kitten. This is harmless enough. The special’s attempts at blatant humor are more confusing. Broad ethnic stereotypes seem to be the gag of the day. The police officer is named O’Conner and speaks with the kind of Irish accent that would make Chief O’Hara blush. An Italian butcher selling crates full of turkeys is especially broad. The kind old woman who runs the orphanage speaks with a large German accent, a stereotype I was previously unaware of. Some of the more surreal asides are even more off-putting. Store front displays, like a mechanical Santa Claus or choir of singing angels, malfunction in wild, borderline creepy ways when faced with the overwhelming sincerity of Ziggy’s magic pot.

Even Harry Nilson’s theme song, “Give Love Joy,” is sappy and lazy. I mean, I don’t hate “Ziggy’s Gift.” I watched the damn thing all the time as a kid and return to it every December. The animation is kind of pretty, I’ll give it that, and the whole thing is weirdly hypnotizing in its visual and sound design. Still, I’m shrugging. [5/10]

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