Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas: Better Animated than Live

I heartily apologize for not posting recently. I've been trying to create a post about Christmas movies for the last few weeks. Unfortunately, I've been unable to get any of the stills to illustrate the article, plus I'm working weird hours, and apparently a nerve in my right arm is making some of my fingers numb...let's just say there are reasons.

However, I want to leave you on this season with this thought: animated holiday films, on the whole, have been more entertaining than their live action counterparts.

Think about it. There are only three main types of live-action Christmas films. By "Christmas films" I mean films that involve the meaning of the holiday. A film that just happens to take place at Christmas, like Billy Wilder's The Apartment, isn't a Christmas film. Here are the three types, in what I consider most interesting to least.

1) It's a Wonderful Life. The last few generations of Americans have made this film important, because it talks about our disease of this season, Christmas Depression - and the feeling underlying it, that all our good works of charity mean nothing. The film is so appropriate and so meaningful, only one person has tried to imitate it. And Marlo Thomas, playing a female George Bailey in It Happened One Christmas, lacked the humanity and humor of James Stewart. The original still stands alone.

2) A Christmas Carol. Dickens's story is fairly simple; a miserly, uncharitable man regains his humanity. This story in all its filmed forms is less involving, since it is so melodramatic and predictable. People who want to prove they are capital-A Actors love playing Scrooge, from Patrick Stewart to Henry Winkler to Jack Palance. That may be the only reason so many versions have been made, each one showcasing Scrooge histrionics. Think about it; do you remember anyone in these various versions who played Tiny Tim or Bob Cratchet, for instance? You crank through these Scrooge-fests, knowing what will happen, hoping for some little variation in the hoary pattern. Even a wiseass, tongue-in-cheek version like Bill Murray's Scrooged held no surprises, except how little we woundup caring for Bill Murray.

3) How I Helped Santa Claus Save Christmas. There is no film with this name, but that is the topic of a lot of inferior holiday films. It involves taking Santa Claus, the immortal and magical spirit of Christmas, and making him a wimp. Something conventional is about to screw up Christmas, like an accountant, a lawyer or an arctic oil-driller, and only Kate Jackson or Ernest P. Worrell can solve Santa's impossible problem. These are the eternal, disposable Christmas films that always fill up TV schedules. Fred Claus, Ernest Saves Christmas, The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, Santa Claus: The Movie...

Now, look at some of the unique ways we have experienced Christmas in animated form. These are anything but cliches.

The South Park Christmas Specials. The whole series began with "The Spirit of Christmas," whose topic seemed silly but cut to the heart of America's Christmas dilemma - is Christianity really deposed by the commercial holiday interests? When the series started, "Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo" showed how Jews feel alienated in the Christmas season - and how political correctness makes "fairness" unfair. Parker and Stone have unfailingly found something each Christmas worthy of comment. Perhaps the greatest moment was in "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics," with Mr. Garrison singing his song of right-wing Christian intolerance to Muslims, Shintoists and Hindus: "Merry F***ing Christmas."

Olive, the Other Reindeer. On a lighter sense, here is a silly special based on puns, done in a strange computer-animated form that looks like animated 2-D cutouts on a 3-D background. A dog named Olive (voiced by Drew Barrymore) hears on the radio that Santa has lost one of his sleigh-pullers, and will depend on "all of the other reindeer." She sees this as a call to action, and starts heading to the North Pole. Amazingly, producer Matt Groenig restrained the cynicism of The Simpsons and Futurama and worked the Christmas angles completely for fun. When did you last see a live-action Christmas show that was just plain fun?

Moral Orel: The Best Christmas Ever! Adult Swim aired this show out of order; it was intended to be the season-ender, but aired as the first episode to fill a void in Christmas shows. It turned out to be a brilliant move. It established the basics of the Moral Orel universe: the hypocracy of Christians in the town of Moralton, the emotional coldness of the people who attend "God's Favorite Protestant Church" - and how despite it, little Orel still believes in the goodness and mercy of God. The closing shot, of a hopeful Orel slowly being lost in a snowstorm, is the most moving moment I have ever seen in an Adult Swim original program.

The Pinky and The Brain Christmas Special. This Emmy-winning show brought about a change in its characters, the two lab mice intent on world domination. Previously, Brain (voiced by Maurice LeMarche) was simply the obsessed, anal mad scientist who failed through random accident or a mistake from his dumb partner Pinky (voiced by Rob Paulsen). In this special, the Brain's plan almost succeeds - until he reads Pinky's letter to Santa, in which he asks for nothing, only for the Brain to be happy. Smitten by this tenderness, Brain allows his plan to blow up in his face. He became a full character in that moment; arguably, the only fully-fleshed character to come from the Warner/Amblin cartoons.

I could provide pages more of examples, but let me mention a few briefly. The Rankin-Bass stop-motion specials are always memorable, but I don't think it's the animation. It's the music, written by established pop and Broadway composers, that carries these shows. Nobody on the talent level of Johnny Marks is writing music specifically for Christmas specials these days. When Disney made Mickey's Christmas Carol, it brought the character of Scrooge McDuck out of the comics (where he was created by the unsung artist/writer Carl Barks) and into animation. That paved the way for Disney's early animated TV shows.

We Cartoon Geeks, a few years ago, named our favorite specials. Michelle chose the Richard Williams animated version of A Christmas Carol, and it is very different from the live-action and other animated versions. Williams, the troubled and hassled animator, made his Carol dark and moody, even including the ghastly children Ignorance and Want, usually left out of other versions. It also featured Alastair Sim as the voice of Scrooge, the part he played in live action in the acclaimed 1951 live-action version.

Martin chose Bill and Opus: A Wish for Wings that Work. And he's happy this tale was finally released on DVD. The moody and troubled penguin Opus wishes for something impossible - and even in the cynical and dark Bloom County universe, that impossible wish happens.

Tom's favorite is Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, the first special animated for television. In it, Jim Backus's pompous and nearsighted character becomes a dramatic and emotional Scrooge in a stage production. It was the first time I'd ever seen a "funny" cartoon character become serious, and it expanded my understanding of drama and animation.

Think about it, and I think you'll agree - the spirit of Christmas, the one that goes beyond a narrow religious interpretation and has meaning for everyone, is better served by animation than any other way. And in that spirit, on behalf of all of us, may I wish you all the best animated Christmas ever, and a great animated New Year to come.