Sunday, December 21, 2014

#1,588. Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Directed By: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Starring: Jackie Vernon, Billy De Wolfe, Jimmy Durante

Trivia: This special marked the first use of traditional cel animation (as opposed to stop-motion animation) for Rankin/Bass in a Christmas special

Confession time: I was never a big fan of 1969’s Frosty the Snowman. I mean, it’s OK. It has some nice music and tells a decent story, but back in the day, when December would roll around and I’d peruse the TV Guide to see what Christmas shows were going to be on, I never got all that excited when I saw Frosty among the listings. To me, it was always a “second tier” Holiday special, which is how I continue to view it to this day.

It’s Christmas Eve, and a classroom full of kids are sitting in school, waiting for the final bell to ring so they can go outside and enjoy the freshly fallen snow. Not even Professor Hinkle (Billy De Wolfe), a magician brought in by their teacher as a sort of Christmas present, can keep the kid’s attention (besides, as magicians go, Professor Hinkle is pretty rotten). Once school is dismissed, a group of friends, including young Karen (June Foray), build a snowman, which they name “Frosty”. After decorating their new creation with a pipe and some coal for his eyes, they put on the finishing touch: a discarded top hat that a few minutes earlier belonged to Professor Hinkle (who threw it away in disgust). To everyone’s amazement, the hat proves magical after all, bringing Frosty the snowman to life (voiced by Jackie Vernon). After having fun with his new friends, Frosty realizes the temperature is rising, and tells the kids he has to head to the North Pole to keep from melting. Karen, who’s grown very fond of Frosty, decides to go with him. But someone else is tagging along as well: the ornery Professor Hinkle, who, now that he knows it’s actually magical, wants desperately to retrieve his hat. In need of assistance, Frosty and Karen receive a helping hand from the animals of the forest and even Santa Claus himself, but will Frosty make it to the North Pole in time, or will he melt before he gets there?

One of the strengths of Frosty the Snowman is its narrator, Mr. Jimmy Durante, who along with relating Frosty’s and Karen’s story also gets to sing the title song (which is still my favorite rendition of this particular tune). As for the animation, it’s nothing special but it’s good enough (unlike other Rankin / Bass Holiday shows, Frosty the Snowman features traditional animation as opposed to stop-motion). Even still, Frosty always leaves me kinda cold (bad pun intended). To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time wondering why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that Frosty doesn’t feel like a Holiday special to me. Yes, it takes place on Christmas Eve, and Santa makes a cameo appearance, but ultimately, Frosty could have just as easily taken place in January or February (yes, I know they say it was “Christmas Snow” that helped bring Frosty to life, but if that’s the case, why does he revert back to a normal Snowman whenever the top hat falls off?). Shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town all have that Holiday vibe. For me, Frosty never did; it was always more a wintertime fantasy than it was a Christmas one.

Again, I don’t dislike Frosty the Snowman. It’s a fine piece of children’s entertainment. But if I were to compile a list of my all-time favorite Christmas programs, you can be sure Frosty the Snowman wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of it.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

#1,587. The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Directed By: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Starring: José Ferrer, Paul Frees, June Foray

Trivia: Originally sponsored by the American Gas Association, The Little Drummer Boy premiered on December 19, 1968 on NBC

Of all the Holiday-themed songs ever produced, “The Little Drummer Boy”, written by Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941, is my all-time favorite. Covered by artists ranging from Bing Crosby to Jimi Hendrix, the best version of the tune was recorded in 1958 by the Harry Simone Chorale, a rendition that rose as high as #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. So popular is this particular Christmas song that it inspired a Rankin / Bass stop-motion animation special, 1968’s The Little Drummer Boy, which, over the years, would become a Holiday tradition in its own right.

Set in biblical times, The Little Drummer Boy introduces us to Aaron (Ted Eccles), an orphan whose parents were murdered by thieves. Since their deaths, Aaron has wandered the desert with his three best friends: Joshua the camel, Samson the donkey, and Babba the sheep, who dance as he plays his beloved drum. Hoping to add the talented young man to his circus troupe, showman Ben Haramad (Jose Ferrer) kidnaps Aaron and forces him to perform in front of large crowds in Jerusalem, despite the fact the boy, still bitter over his parents’ untimely death, harbors a deep hatred for all human beings. During their travels, Ban Haramad and Aaron come across a caravan of three kings (all voiced by Paul Frees), who are following a bright star in the sky, which they believe will lead them to a king more powerful than any other on earth. To make some fast money, Ben Haramad sells Aaron’s camel, Joshua, to the three kings. In an attempt to reclaim him, the boy tracks the trio to the small town of Bethlehem, where they ultimately find the “King” they’ve been looking for.

Narrated by Greer Garson, The Little Drummer Boy is an unusual entry in Rankin / Bass’s canon of Holiday specials in that it presents a religious-themed story and not a straight-up fantasy, a la Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or The Year Without a Santa Claus (I admit it was a bit odd watching characters walk around in a desert as opposed to a snowy landscape). On a technical level, the animation in The Little Drummer Boy isn’t as fluid or inspired as some of the duo’s other films, but the fine work of its voice cast (Garson, Eccles, and Ferrer, as well as regulars Paul Frees and June Foray) more than make up for its visual deficiencies. Most impressive of all, though, is the movie’s title song, performed throughout by the Vienna Boys Choir, which delivers as good a version of the tune as any I’ve heard before.

While not as time-honored as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin / Bass’s The Little Drummer Boy tells a story unlike any they ever attempted, delivering a message of love and forgiveness most families will undoubtedly embrace.

Friday, December 19, 2014

#1,586. Gremlins (1984)

Directed By: Joe Dante

Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton

Tag line: "Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous"

Trivia: Originally planned and scheduled for a Christmas release, the film was rushed into production shortly after Warner Bros. found out that it had no major competition against Paramount's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Columbia's Ghostbusters for the summer movie season.

Watching Joe Dante’s Gremlins during its theatrical run in the summer of 1984 proved an interesting experience. A movie chock full of dark humor, it gave most audience members plenty to laugh about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t join in on the fun. Don’t get me wrong: I really liked Gremlins (still do, actually), but its title creatures was far too disturbing for this young viewer at the time, and as a result I didn’t so much as crack a smile during the entire picture.

As the movie opens, inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is strolling through Chinatown, on the lookout for the perfect Christmas gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). In one out-of-the-way trinket shop, he stumbles across a unique creature called a Mogwai, which he believes will make a good household pet. According to legend, there are three rules everyone who owns a Mogwai must obey: 1) Never expose it to light, 2) Never get it wet, and 3) Never, ever feed it after midnight. But rules are made to be broken, and before Billy knows what’s hit him, his Mogwai (who he lovingly nicknames “Gizmo”) has spawned a number of duplicates (getting a Mogwai wet makes them multiply), which then mutate before his very eyes (feed them after midnight, and the Mogwai transform into green, scaly creatures with a bad attitude and a penchant for destruction). It isn’t long before Billy’s hometown of Kingston Falls is overrun with these monsters, and it’s up to him and his new girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) to end the reign of terror once and for all.

Despite the fact the gremlins are responsible for all sorts of atrocities (including murder), director Dante clearly intended the film’s later sequences to be comedic in nature. While hanging out at a bar where Kate works, the little green bastards have one hell of a wild party, during which they pretty much trash the place (one gremlin in a trenchcoat even flashes Kate as she’s scrambling to keep the drinks coming). Still, no matter how funny the film tried to be, I simply couldn’t laugh. The reason for this, I think, is that I genuinely liked Kingston Falls, the small town at the center of it all, a place populated by mostly good people (the exception being Polly Holliday’s Ruby Deagel, a miserly old broad who, before long, gets what’s coming to her). How could I giggle and guffaw as these terrible monsters destroyed this peaceful town, and at Christmastime, no less?

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who reacted this way. Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (released that same summer), Gremlins is credited with helping the MPAA adopt a new rating, PG-13, signifying a film that, while not overly explicit, may contains scenes that very young viewers will find hard to handle. Nowadays, I think the movie is hilarious (my favorite sequence has the gremlins piling into a theater to watch Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), but in June of 1984, it was much too intense for me, and while others in the audience were definitely amused, I sat there horrified by what I was seeing. This may not have been the reaction Joe Dante was shooting for, but I’m betting he’d be somewhat pleased to learn that his “comedy” bothered me so deeply.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

#1,585. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Directed By: Charles E. Sellier Jr.

Starring: Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero

Tag line: "Santa's Here!"

Trivia: This film was known as Slayride throughout its production. Tri-Star decided to change the title to Silent Night, Deadly Night at the last minute

Condemned by parents groups and critics alike for its depiction of a killer in a Santa suit, the Christmas-themed slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night has gone down in history as one of the most controversial movies ever produced. The outcry was so big, in fact, that Tri-Star Pictures, the studio behind it, pulled the film from theaters after only a week. That was thirty years ago, and even though the public uproar has quieted down some, Silent Night, Deadly Night remains every bit as intense as it was back in 1984.

Ever since he witnessed the murder of his parents (Jeff Hansen and Tara Buckman), both of whom were killed by a psychotic in a Santa suit (Charles Dierkop), Billy Chapman (played as a kid by Danny Wagner) has had a problem with Christmas (he breaks into a cold sweat whenever he sees a picture of Santa Claus). The Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) of the Christian orphanage where he was raised believed all the boy needed was some good, old fashioned discipline, while his teacher Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) felt that Billy’s aversion to the holiday masked a much deeper problem, one that, if not handled properly, could cause him to lose control. Sister Margaret’s worst fears are realized when, a few years later, a teenage Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) takes a job at a small toy store. With Christmas just around the corner, Billy’s boss, Mr. Sims (Britt Leach), asks Billy to dress up as Santa for the kids, at which point his mind snaps, turning what had been a docile young man into a homicidal maniac.

Unlike John Carpenter’s Halloween, which gives us a killer (Michael Myers) whose motives are a complete mystery, Silent Night Deadly Night reveals the traumas that contributed to its lead character’s mental collapse. While a very young boy (played by Jonathan Best), Billy’s family paid a Christmas Eve visit to his grandfather (Will Hare), who tells the impressionable youth that Santa is someone to be feared (“You see Santa Claus tonight you better run boy”, the old man says, “You better run for your life!”). Alas, the very night Grandpa said this to Billy was the one on which his parents were murdered by that guy in the Santa suit (who shoots Billy’s father through the head, then, after trying to rape her, slits his mother’s throat). His psyche is further damaged by the severe treatment he receives at the orphanage, where the well-meaning but strict Mother Superior lives by the credo “punishment is good” (at one point, she whips the boy for leaving his room without her permission). With so many painful memories, it’s no wonder Billy eventually loses his mind.

Like most ‘80s slasher flicks, Silent Night, Deadly Night features a number of gruesome kills, with Billy using everything from Christmas lights (which are apparently great for strangling someone) to the claw end of a hammer to get the job done (in one of the film’s more memorable scenes, he relies on deer antlers to take out a victim). With its creative kills, powerful story, and an early appearance by Scream Queen Linnea Quigley (Return of the Living Dead, Nightmare Sisters), Silent Night, Deadly Night did more than survive the onslaught of negative criticism heaped upon it (even actor Mickey Rooney came out against the movie in 1984, saying the “scum” who produced it should be “run out of town”); it has since become a cult classic.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

#1,584. Mike's New Car (2002)

Directed By: Pete Docter, Roger Gould

Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman

Trivia: Screened exclusively with a limited two-week reissue of Who Framed Roger Rabbit to qualify for Oscar consideration

Mike’s New Car, a 2002 short produced by Pixar, marked a number of “firsts” for the studio. Along with being the first short film to star characters from a previously released work (Mike and Sully from 2001’s Monsters, Inc.), it was also the first ever to feature spoken dialogue (aside from sound effects and their musical scores, movies like Tin Toy and Geri’s Game were silent).

One morning, Mike (Billy Crystal) surprises his good friend Sulley (John Goodman) by showing him his new car (when Sulley asks what was wrong with his previous car, Mike replies “Three little words… Six Wheel Drive!”). Excited to take it for a spin, Mike hurries Sulley into the passenger’s seat, then takes his place behind the wheel (Sulley doesn’t have much room at first, but fortunately, the seats are adjustable). Before they begin, an alarm sounds reminding the two to put on their safety belts. This kicks off a comedy of errors after which Mike realizes that “new” isn’t always “better”.

As they’ve done with so many of their short films (including the previous year’s For the Birds), Pixar squeezes a number of big laughs into Mike’s New Car, most of which involve Mike trying to figure out how this new vehicle of his works. After inadvertently locking himself out of the car while trying to loosen his safety belt, Mike tells Sulley to “push the button”, which will supposedly re-open the driver’s side door. But when Sulley glances at the console, he sees nothing but buttons, and doesn’t know which one to push. Following a few wrong choices, the door is finally opened, but when Mike realizes he, too, has no idea which button does what, the car seemingly comes to life and attacks the two buddies. It’s a very funny scene in what, from beginning to end, is a hilarious short film.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

#1,583. Arthur Christmas (2011)

Directed By: Sarah Smith, Barry Cook

Starring: James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy

Tag line: "All elf breaks loose"

Trivia: First announced in 2007 under the title Operation Rudolph

One of the most common Holiday-related questions that kids ask is “How can only one man (i.e. Santa Claus) deliver toys to all the children of the world in a single night?” Arthur Christmas, a 2011 animated film co-produced by Sony Pictures Animation and Britain’s Aardman Studios, answers that question thusly: He does it with a little help from his friends (a few thousand of them, actually).

It’s a common misconception that, since the dawn of Christmas, there’s only been one Santa Claus. In fact, there have been twenty, all of whom could trace their ancestry back to the original St. Nicholas. The current Santa, Malcolm Christmas (voiced by Jim Broadbent), has held the job for 70 years, and is nearing the end of his reign. A lot has changed since he first became Santa. For one, he no longer uses a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. Instead, Santa now cruises the world in the S-1, a massive airship that can travel at the speed of sound and has room enough for thousands of elves, who assist him during his Christmas Eve run by delivering the toys on his behalf. Santa’s oldest son (and heir apparent), Steve (Hugh Laurie), oversees the entire operation from the North Pole’s mission control center, while his younger son, the always-optimistic but somewhat clumsy Arthur (James McAvoy), has the thankless job of answering the millions of letters sent by children from all over the world.

Alas, despite the technology at their disposal, no one notices until it’s too late that, at the end of Santa’s most recent run, a solitary toy was overlooked. For Steve, missing a delivery is no big deal (after all, they successfully handled over 2 billion packages that night), but for Arthur, the thought of a child’s Christmas being ruined is too much to bear. Hopping aboard the old sled that previous Santa’s used for hundreds of years, Arthur, along with his grandfather, aka Santa #19 (Bill Nighy) and an elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen), sets out for England, hoping to deliver the toy before Christmas morning. But will the antiquated sled make it there in time?

Right out of the gate, Arthur Christmas introduces us to a fascinating world where Santa and his elves have gone high-tech. We watch early on as the S-1 makes its way into a city, and marvel as elves drop from the ship onto the rooftops below, where, with military precision, they deliver gifts to thousands of children in a matter of minutes, using an assortment of gadgets to get the job done (one of the most interesting gizmos is a scanner that determines whether a child has been “good” or “naughty”). Equally as impressive is the mission control center, situated hundreds of feet below the North Pole, where Steve Christmas and a few thousand elves monitor the S-1’s progress. Aside from being very creative, these scenes establish the film’s overall tone, which can best be described as frantic. Even later on, when Arthur and his “GrandSanta” climb aboard the old sled, the energy remains at a fevered pitch, giving us one great sequence after another (having lost their way, the sled comes to rest in the Serengeti reserve of Tanzania, where its occupants have a close encounter with a pride of lions).

Utilizing the voice talents of an all-star cast (which also includes the likes of Michael Palin, Imelda Staunton, Laura Linney, and Eva Longoria) and delivering a message of hope that’s sure to resonate with many younger viewers, Arthur Christmas is arguably the most original Holiday film to come along in years.

Monday, December 15, 2014

#1,582. Zeppelin (1971)

Directed By: Etienne Perier

Starring: Michael York, Elke Sommer, Peter Carsten

Tag line: "The Great War's most explosive moment!"

Trivia: The air combat scenes were filmed using Lynn Garrison's collection of World War I replica aircraft, originally assembled for 20th Century Fox's The Blue Max

I’m sure that on paper, 1971’s Zeppelin had all the makings of a rousing adventure film, telling a World War One era spy story in which an experimental German dirigible is sent on a secret mission to invade Great Britain. To its credit, the movie does feature moments of genuine excitement (especially in its last half), but as an espionage thriller, Zeppelin fails to deliver on just about every level.

It’s 1915, and England is under a constant threat of attack from above. In an attempt to destroy the country’s morale, German airships, hiding in the clouds and flying thousands of feet higher than any airplane, have been bombing London on a nightly basis, a dilemma the British have thus far been unable to solve. Enter Lt. Geoffrey Richter-Douglas (Michael York), an officer assigned to a low-level clerical position in London. Born and raised in Germany, Richter-Douglas still has relatives in his former homeland, most of whom are aristocrats. In fact, he’s so missed by some of his cousins that the family has sent Stephanie (Alexandra Stewart), a beautiful German spy working undercover in England, to lure him home.

Loyal to the Crown, Richter-Douglas immediately reports this to his commanding officer, Captain Whitney (Rupert Davies), only to learn his superiors also want him to return to Germany, where, posing as a British traitor, he can observe first-hand the construction of a new dirigible, the LZ-36, designed by his old friend Professor Altschul (Marius Goring) and the professor’s assistant / wife, Erika (Elke Sommer). Once back in Germany, Richter-Douglas wins the confidence of Colonel Hirsch (Anton Diffring), an intelligence officer who does more than show the new arrival the LZ-36; he invites him along on its maiden voyage, a top-secret mission that, if successful, will force the British to sue for peace. During the flight, Richter-Douglas makes every attempt to warn the British of the impending attack, but will his messages reach the proper authorities in time?

Zeppelin begins well enough, showing us one of the many air raids that have been plaguing London since the start of the war. The movie also finishes in grand fashion, giving us a final half hour or so of non-stop action. The problem is what filled the time in-between, which, despite its promising story of spies and double agents, never gathered enough steam to capture my interest. Even Richter-Douglas’s “escape” to Germany, during which British troops (to make it look like a genuine defection) open fire on him, comes across as flat. On top of this, Zeppelin has some internal continuity issues that are impossible to ignore, including Richter-Douglas’ supposed fear of heights (after establishing this bit of information early on, the film all but ignores it once he climbs aboard the LZ-36) and, even more glaring, the issue of the dirigible’s weight restrictions (before taking off, both Erica and the ship’s Captain, Von Gorian, played by Andrew Kier, complain that bringing Richter-Douglas along unannounced will dangerously increase the ship’s weight, which had been meticulously calculated down to the last pound. Several scenes later, the airship docks with a boat in the middle of the ocean, at which point about 2 or 3 dozen additional German soldiers climb on-board. Surprisingly, nobody discusses weight in this sequence).

In a way, I hate telling you to avoid Zeppelin, due mostly to its effective battle scenes and the superb performances turned in by its cast (Michael York never struck me as a possible leading man in a war film, but he does a fine job nonetheless). Yet I can’t really bring myself to recommend it, either, because of the reasons I mentioned above. I can tell you that there may come a time when I’d be willing to watch Zeppelin again.

But it won’t be anytime soon.