Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 15

The Gathering (1977)

Just yesterday, I reviewed one of the many inane and cheap cartoons Hanna-Barbera produced throughout the seventies and eighties. Now, there's no doubt that their cartoon creations, whatever you may think about their quality, are bound to be the company's greatest legacy. But the studio occasionally tried their hand at something live-action. One such production was “The Gathering.” A made-for-television film that aired in 1977, the movie couldn't be further from what you'd expect from Hanna-Barbera. A slow-paced, downbeat drama dealing with serious themes of death, family, and forgiveness, it couldn't be more different than “Yogi Bear.” The film was well-received, winning an Emmy. Despite its relative obscurity, the film seems to have its place in television history.

Adam Thornton has just received the news. He's been diagnosed with a terminal condition and he only has a few months to live. Adam is estranged with most of his family, having separated from his wife several years ago. Most of his children resent him. He hasn't even met several of his grandchildren. Knowing his time is short, Adam decides to invite everyone to a Christmas family gathering. Adam doesn't tell his kids that he's sick, instead hoping to just have a normal, peaceful one last Christmas with his family.

“The Gathering” is a TV movie from the seventies. The visual presentation is fairly stationary and unmoving. However, this ends up working in “The Gathering's” favor, in an odd way. The frills-free presentation forces the audience to focus on the character and their performers. We see the characters have intense, emotional conversations in intimate, personal settings. It's a lot like a play in that way. Considering “The Gathering” is a simple story of a family putting aside their differences, this approach really benefits the film. If it wasn't for the television presentation, “The Gathering” probably would've pushed into melodrama. Instead, things are kept grounded.

The main reason I was really curious about “The Gathering” was that it's a starring role for Ed Asner. As a man grappling with the end of his life, Asner is perfectly understated. He keeps the tidal wave of emotion mostly under the surface, doing his best to apologize for a life time of mistake. Asner leads an overall very strong cast. Maureen Stapleton displays a surprising strength as the matriarch of the family, who is determined to make this reunion successful. Bruce Davison is nicely nervous as George, the husband of one of Adam's daughters, who fears the rest of the family thinks of him as a no-good mooch. Gregory Harrison is also well cast as Bud, the son Adam has the most tense relationship with. Really, the entire cast of “The Gathering” does a very good job.

Due to its intimate tone and strong cast, “The Gathering” is able to pull off a truly effective atmosphere of warmth. The scenes of the family together, reconnecting, feel genuinely sweet. Some of the holiday shenanigans they get up to might seem too large on paper. One scene has Adam setting off fireworks on the front lawn, in the middle of the night. Another has the men singing songs and dirty limericks while drinking too much. Yet it all works well, especially when placed next to the quieter moments, such as the kids deciding on who shall receive what gifts or the grandchildren getting exciting and unwrapping their toys. You truly feel like you've stepped into a real family's lives, watching them go about their business, aware of the tension bubbling underneath and pleased to see them overcome that.

I don't know what inspired Hanna-Barbera to try their hand at a serious drama like this but I'm glad they did. “The Gathering” is actually really well done. Though pretty melancholy, it's ideal Christmas viewing, as the film acutely understands the stress and pleasures of reuniting with family around the holidays. “The Gathering” was such a success that a sequel, checking in on the family two years after their father's death, was produced in 1979. Asner, obviously, did not reappear in the sequel. I don't know if that one is worth seeking out but maybe it will surprise me. The original did. [7/10]

The Nanny: Oy to the World

Who hear remembers “The Nanny?” It was a starring sitcom for screechy voice actress Fran Drescher. Every episode began by explaining the program's premise: Drescher was a cosmetics salesman from Flushing who randomly ended up at the how of a rich English widower. She was then selected to be the family nanny, despite her flashy style obviously clashing with the family's dignified appearance. Over the course of six seasons, Fran attempted to seduce the dad and raise the kids, while sniping with C.C. Babcock, a rival for Mr. Sheffield's affections. It was a pretty stupid show but, for whatever reason, my Mom and I watched it together all the time. Even weirder, in its third season, “The Nanny” featured an animated Christmas special.

This might seem especially random but makes a little more sense in context. That expositionary theme song was accompanied by an animated opening, showing the main cast as cartoon characters. “Oy to the World” - the Vandals reference was presumably unintentional – extends the animated bit to a full-length episode. It also adds a talking dog. The plot concerns Nanny Fine taking the family's middle son out on Christmas day to the homeless shelter, in order to teach him a lesson about giving. Along the way, Fran hits her head and has an elaborate dream. In her dream, her boss is recast as Santa Claus, the kids become various elves, and she has to rescue Christmas from an evil wintry wizard.

As I said, “The Nanny” doesn't hold up very well, as far as stupid bullshit I remember from the nineties goes. The show was heavy Bursh Belt schtick that was already dated when it originally aired. “Oy to the World” is no different. The animated special has several especially groan-worthy jokes. The leader of the elves is named Elv-ish, leading to several obvious Elvis jokes. Several of Santa's reindeer are re-imagined as a grouchy jew and a flamboyant gay. The plot is resolved with a dumb-ass reference to “Rain Man.” Here, the area surrounding Santa's work shop is made of chocolate and sweats, leading to far too many gags about Fran pigging out and watching her weight. Buried within these lame one-liners are one or two cute bits, like the talking dog's annoyance at not being taken seriously.

I've long suspected that “Oy tot he World” was meant to launch an animated spin-off of “The Nanny.” The special has a somewhat uncertain reaction to being animated. There's a few moments of overly cartoon-y theatrics, like running legs become a spinning swirl, that seem deliberately on the noise. Then again, there's a pretty terrible musical number, suggesting the show creator were fairly sincere in their attempt at creating a holiday special. (I guess the mostly unearned moral about giving feeds into that as well.) By the way, the animation is okay. The character designs are at least distinctive. Mostly, I rewatched “Oy to the World” mostly to confirmed that this thing I vaguely remembered from my childhood actually existed. Now that I know this is real, we may go back to never mentioning it ever again. [5/10]

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