Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas 2013: December 19

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

I’ve spent most of my December Christmas reviews asking if the various established holiday classics deserve to be classics, if they survive for any other reason then nostalgia and pop culture osmosis. Would we be watching most of these specials if they hadn’t been forced down our throats every December? I feel no need to have this conversation when it comes to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I genuine love this movie.

The previous decade has seen many attempts to adapt the works of Dr. Seuss into feature length films. All of them have been failures to different varying degrees, from the absolutely wretched “Cat in the Hat” to the just-tolerably-mediocre “Horton Hears a Who.” They all have the same problem. You can’t really fill out a twelve page picture book to feature length without ludicrous amounts of padding. The classic animated adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” doesn’t have this problem. Mostly because it’s only 26 minutes long but also because the animators felt no desire to stray from the source material. All the spoken dialogue is taken directly from Seuss’ original book, the majority provided by the brilliantly cast Boris Karloff and his soulful reading of the words. What additional material was added evolves naturally out of the material. The three songs have lyrics provided by the original author while any zany slapstick added contrasts nicely with Seuss’ absurd, nonsense rhyming.

The content is all Seuss but the visuals are purely Chuck Jones. In Seuss’ illustrations, the Grinch looked far more feline. In the cartoon, the Grinch takes on a troll-like appearance, supposedly modeled after Jones himself. The director’s style dominates the half-hour with a whimsical sense of inventive silliness. The Whos come in all sizes, from standard human height to three inches tall. Jones was the right man to bring Seuss’ absurd creations to life, as he realizes the ridiculous toys the Who children play with fantastically. Max the Dog is a minor character in the original story but is transformed into a star player here. His slapstick antics prove highly amusing, either cowering in fear from his cruel master or happily running to the front of the sleigh.

Yet Jones’ interpretation of the Grinch is by far the best aspect. The title character’s evil grin grows and grows, taking over his whole face, his hair parting into devilish horns. His dumpy body and gangly limbs are ill-suited to the role of Santa, a great visual joke. His crooked teeth look like they could literally be the home of termites. He slithers between the presents, gnaws nervously on his nails and generally enjoys his villainy to great degrees. Jones even handles the Grinch’s charitable transformation well, his red eyes switching to soulful blue. The x-ray showing his withered heart growing three sizes is such a simple, brilliant visual clue. Imagine if grown-up movies with real people could get away with visual short hand like that…

It seems the best Christmas fare focuses on finding a deeper meaning in the holiday. There’s no grand standing over the moral. Christmas came all the same, the Whos celebrating family and togetherness, not their awesome toys and present. Of course, “The Grinch” tries to have it both ways with its anti-materialism message, the villain returning the stolen gifts after his change of heart. With the way he’s immediately accepted into Who society, perhaps the message we’re suppose to focus on is one of forgiveness? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Of all the perennial classics, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is the most brilliantly constructed and well done. Maybe, as an act of cinematic masochism, I should watch the Jim Carrey version next year? [9/10]

It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (1992)

As with any beloved institution, thoughts eventually turned towards sequelizing “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Of course, “It’s Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown” came twenty-seven years after the original, after the “Peanuts” specials had cycled through every other calendar event imaginable. A lot had change in those two and a half decades. The “Peanuts” supporting cast had evolved considerably. Iconic pop culture quasi-lesbian couple Marcy and Peppermint Patty had long been added to the crew. Snoopy had gained a sidekick in the form of Woodstock and his army of similarly yellow, chirpy clones. Charles Schulz had even gotten around to adding a token black kid to the group.

The changes those years brought are most evident in the special’s opening minutes. Last seen disenfranchised with the commercialization of the holiday, Charlie Brown is introduced here trying to sell Christmas reefs door-to-door. Good grief. While the animation has improved considerably in the time between, “It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown” is deeply episodic. It’s really, really obvious that the animators just took a bunch of Schulz’ daily comic strips and strung them together. Short scenes play out in an orderly fashion, building up to a simplistic punch line. Such as Linus’ early attempt at cardboard box sledding, Snoopy’s go at charity bell ringing, or any of Marcy and Peppermint Patty’s interactions. Plot lines slowly form. Chuck is selling reefs in hopes of making enough cash to buy the Little Redheaded Girl a nice Christmas present. Meanwhile, Sally, Marcy, and Peppermint Patty get involved in the school’s Christmas pageant, the exact same story the characters were attempting to tell in 1965. The focus is primarily on those duos, Lucy, Linus, and even Snoopy getting pushed to the sidelines, Schroeder, Pigpen, and others not appearing at all.

It’s not that “It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown” isn’t funny. A number of gags pay off nicely. Sally’s more direct attempts to sell reefs, Patty’s reaction to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” or the little sister stressing out over her single line of dialogue are all amusing enough. The dialogue is sharp and funny. However, there’s nothing particularly memorable about this one. While the original “Charlie Brown Christmas” had something to say about the season and invoked a deeper meaning to the holiday, “It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown” merely uses Christmas as set-dressing for typical “Peanuts” shenanigans. It accompanied the better made and better known special for a few years before disappearing into obscurity. Which isn’t surprising at all. [6/10]

Batman: The Brave and the Bold: “Invasion of the Secret Santas

In my brain, Christmas and Batman are inescapably linked. “Batman Returns” was the Bat-film of my childhood, after all. That film’s seasonal setting was probably just Tim Burton indulging in his particular fetishes but the character and the holiday contrast nicely. Christmas is bright and cheery. Batman is dark and brooding. Yet Christmas lights at night are sort of eerie and there’s something vaguely macabre about dragging a dead tree into your home and covering it in lights and shiny metal balls. I plan on reviewing “Batman Returns” for an eventual Tim Burton report card and I’ve never gotten around to buying “Batman: The Animated Series,” which featured two excellent Christmas episodes. So instead I’ve made a habit of watching “Invasion of the Secret Santas,” the Christmas edition of “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” every December.

Though, if we’re being honest, “Brave and the Bold” is probably my favorite alliteration of the Dark Knight anyway. While there have been many great stories told during the character’s various dark and gritty stages, the campy insanity of the Silver Age is undeniably charming and creative. I also love “Brave and the Bold” for exposing the more obscure corners of the DC Universe to a wider audience. (Not to mention having an OUTRAGEOUS Aquaman.) I’ve always enjoyed Dietrich Bader as well. His deadpan delivery was a spectacular match for Batman, making the character a hilarious straight man to all the wackiness around him while never downplaying his Bat-badassery.

As for the actual episode itself, “Invasion of the Secret Santas” is a good primer for the uninitiated. It displays the series’ keen balance of Silver Age tomfoolery, genuine comedic timing, respect for the source material, character insight, and colorful animation. Robotic hero Red Tornado is baffled by the Christmas holiday and, as part of his quest to become more human, becomes determined to experience the holiday spirit. Since this isn’t “TV Funhouse” and he can’t go out and freebase some Cheer, he instead wears poofy sweaters, covers his house in decorations, sings carols, and gives gifts. (His gift to Batman is one of the episode’s best gags.) Even this isn’t enough to get the robot feeling completely seasonal. Luckily, an evil plot by Toyman expy Funhaus allows Red Tornado, with a little help from Batman, to discover the true meaning of the season.

“Invasion of the Secret Santas” has a nicely subversive, even twisted, sense of humor. When evil robotic Santas attack the city, the heroes are forced to repeatedly explode, burn, and dismember Santa Claus in front of children. In either a funny sight-gag or a clever way to reuse animation, the same woman is caught in three crises, reacting the exact same way each time. The episode slyly attacks commercialism too, since the villain’s plan involves using the season’s hottest toy as a tool of evil. The action sequences are beautifully animated too, such as a ride across several flying saucers, an out-of-nowhere reference to “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” Among all the goofiness, the episode even finds time for some heart-warming moments, such as Bruce’s flashback to his own childhood. I wouldn’t call “Invasion of the Secret Santas” one of the series’ best episodes but it’s a good seasonal entertainment nevertheless. [7/10]

No comments: