2D animation, A Christmas Carol, animated, animated musical, animated special, animation, bertha, blind, blind girl, blindness, Britain, caleb, cartoon review, cat, charles dickens, Christmas, Christmas cartoon, christmas episode, Christmas review, christmas shopping, christmas special, christmas story, christmas toys, cricket, cricket crockett, Cricket On The Hearth, Danny Thomas, Dickens, dolls, England, green, green guy, hand drawn animation, Hans Conreid, holiday special, irish animation, London, magic toy, magic toys, Marlo Thomas, musical review, Paul Frees, Phelous, Rankin Bass, review, Roddy McDowell, Romeo Muller, tackleton, television review, the danny thomas hour, toy factory, toy shop, toymaker, toys come to life, toys coming to life, traditional animation, tv review, tv special, uriah, voice actor
Ladies and gentlemen, I have found it.
The lowest of the low.
The Rankin-Bass special that even Rankin-Bass fans despise.
Call it a hunch, but I think Charles Dickens really had a thing for Christmas. His most popular novel has the holiday in the title and has been adapted for the screen and stage at least over 200 times. Dickens set a few other tales at Christmastime, no doubt to recapture the magic and spirit of the holiday in the same way A Christmas Carol did, but those were met with less success. Does anyone here remember that classic “The Haunted Man”? That one was a ghost story that also took place at Christmas. Where are the hundreds of versions of that tale? Or “The Chimes” for that matter? Or “The Battle of Life”?
Then there’s today’s tale, “Cricket On the Hearth”, which only received two silent film adaptations (the first directed by D.W. Griffith) and a long-forgotten stage play. For yet-to-be-fathomed reasons, Rankin-Bass deemed it the perfect material to follow up their smash hit Rudolph three years prior. Instead of stop-motion animation, however, we get hand-drawn animation. While that would normally be a plus in my book, I’m not kidding when I say this is some of the cheapest, most unpleasant animation I’ve set my eyes on. It’s heavily recycled, the character designs are unappealing, and it cheats numerous times by just showing long periods of still images with nothing happening. I also had to be careful grabbing screenshots because the far-right side of the video flickered and was several frames off for some reason. And it wasn’t a corrupted file issue either, this is straight from the dvd. They aired this special on national television, how could they not be bothered to fix that?
And those are just the issues I have with the visuals.
The characters are one-dimensional tools, the songs are at best forgettable and at worst unbearable, and the story manages to be both devastatingly bleak and disgustingly saccharine while also insulting to its audience. Now, Charles Dickens was a talented writer knew how to properly mix those elements to tell a compelling and resonant story. In his Christmas tales, the sentimentality and darkness complement each other and ring true.
But guess who did such a bang-up job encumbering a song about ableist reindeer with a meandering hour-long plot that he was given free rein over the story?
Well, this preamble has gone on long enough. Grab your insect repellent, folks, let’s look at Cricket On The Hearth.
Oh, wait, first we’ve got to make room for Danny Thomas.
Danny Thomas was kind of a big deal back in the day, though I wasn’t familiar with him before watching this special. Comedian, singer, television star, this guy had his hand in a lot of entertainment venues for most of his life. Cricket On The Hearth originally aired on one of his shows, The Danny Thomas Hour, and it’s bookended by live-action segments hosted by Thomas himself. Thomas has this affable bland nice guy persona that I’d normally be suspicious of (I’m watching you, Burl Ives), except Thomas talked the talk AND walked the walk:
You ever hear of Saint Jude’s Hospital? You know, the hospital that treats hundreds of kids with cancer each year without leaning on their families for payment? Might have seen a lot of ads for it on YouTube lately?
Danny Thomas FOUNDED St. Jude’s Hospital.
Though I can’t condone the actions of the character Thomas plays in this special, Thomas himself will receive no harsh words from me. How could I hate a man who’s saved countless young lives without even a thought of benefitting himself from it? Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal, you’re off the hook.
And God bless you, you wonderful, wonderful human being.
Our special really begins on some carolers barely moving their lips while they sing about how good luck traditions like four-leaf clovers can go to hell because nothing’s luckier than finding a bug infestation by your fireplace. Considering what unfolds in this special once that cricket hops on to that hearth, the matter of it bringing good luck is debatable. We then meet our narrator and titular insect Cricket Crockett, played by Roddy McDowell, who AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!
Rankin-Bass, your stop-motion is already horrifying enough. YOU DO NOT NEED TO RAVAGE THE ART OF HAND-DRAWN ANIMATION TOO.
My nightmare for the next month tells us that he was the one who saved Christmas and proceeds to divulge his dark secrets. In the past, a non-wrinkly Cricket Crockett goes along his merry way looking for some young puppet to mentor. Too bad there’s not a toy shop for miles in the English countryside.
This old gent is the owner of the toy store, Caleb Plummer, played by Danny Thomas. Caleb nearly ends the special prematurely by almost stepping on Cricket Crockett.
Caleb, recognizing this bug is capable of speech and wearing his own little clothes, atones for almost committing involuntary manslaughter (cricket-slaughter?) by asking him to live in his shop with him. He’s shockingly eager to have Cricket move in, buttering up him up by saying he knows how lucky crickets are even as he paints his own home as a humble shack. Listen to yourself, Caleb. You are building yourself up to a BUG. You need to get out more, man.
I feel I should point out that the cricket in the original book wasn’t anthropomorphized and the family he “adopts”, the Peerybingles, barely knows he’s even there. He kept quiet vigil over the household and relayed everything through his eyes, but never interacted with the family himself. But I suppose that would make for a less interesting story so they turned him into a British Jiminy Cricket knockoff and integrated him with the main cast.
After a moment’s consideration, Crockett agrees to stay with the Plummers. But no sooner does he make himself at home than he hears someone sobbing. And he continues smiling as he listens.
That crying is coming from Caleb’s daughter Bertha (Marlo Thomas, Danny’s daughter). She’s upset because her fiance Edward (Ed Ames) must embark on a long navy voyage before they can marry.
So, Caleb left his house on this scene of his daughter having to say goodbye to her navy boyfriend. Is that why he was so eager to have Cricket Crockett come live with them, so Bertha could have a new friend/pet to keep her mind of the aching loneliness? Did he figure “Why spend money on a puppy or a kitten when I can get a bug for free? Girls like bugs, right?”
By the way, for a movie that takes place in England, roughly eighty percent of the cast doesn’t even attempt a British accent. I let some animated features that do this slide like Beauty and the Beast because even though Lumiere is the only character with a notable accent, enough French phrases and names are sprinkled throughout the dialogue to let you buy that these characters are French. This is Dickens-era England, for crying out loud. Let’s hear some cockney colloquialisms from someone other than the bloody Cricket.
Before Edward leaves, he sings his love for Bertha and hopes that she’ll remain faithful to him. It’s long and dull, but meh, I’ve heard worse love songs. Then again, those bad songs don’t include the lyrics “I’ve kissed your smiles away” which…nope. Not gonna dwell on the implications. Moving on!
Christmas creeps closer and Bertha keeps herself busy making toys with her father and Cricket Crockett. Crockett also works on his ventriloquism in his scene – his mouth doesn’t move as he repeats Bertha’s orders! Bertha’s still missing Edward but she sings a twee little song about how smiles go with tears and it’s okay to be happy and sad at once. Mr. Rogers, she is not. Oh, and remember the trippy animation of “My World is Beginning Today” from Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town? Well, I hope you enjoyed that because there are A LOT of filler musical numbers in this special that use psychedelic animation to try to trick you into thinking something interesting is happening. This is only one of them. Here, a bunch of toys come to life and hook up with each other while crying.
Also, Bertha works on painting a bride doll because irony. She paints the lips first but doesn’t get around to the eyes before the song starts. It pops up suddenly during the number, resulting in some of the most unintentionally terrifying images you’ll ever see.
The song finally comes to an end and the Plummers receive an unexpected visitor.
If you want to know why Mr. Green here is the way he is, don’t hold your breath. It’s not like the show Doug where all the characters have Technicolor skin to symbolize diversity, either. He’s the only character in this special who isn’t Cricket Crockett to have this kind of hue. Also, I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that if a moldy green guy shows up on your doorstep to deliver some news, don’t expect it to be good news. Sure enough, this walking meatloaf tells the Plummers that Edward’s ship was lost at sea and he’s in no uncertain terms as dead as he is. Bertha is traumatized to the point where…
Look, my suspension of disbelief has been stretched to its limits with every passing special, but this…this…I’m just going to let Cricket Crockett tell you what happened.
The shock of that awful message delivered the way it was turned poor Bertha…BLIND!
There is such a thing as “hysterical blindness”, but that’s not how it works at all. It’s a psychological condition based on stress or trauma where the blindness is only temporary. No one has ever lost their sight permanently just from shock, and Bertha’s not that obsessed over her fiance to pull an Oedipus and blind herself on hearing bad news about him. What’s more, in the original story, Bertha was born blind. I’m sure they could have done that from the start but no, we’ve got to have that superfluous drama because all females are hysterical and emotional and drive themselves batty, dur dur dur!
Oh, and she never got to paint the bride doll’s eyes because say it with me now:
And that, children, is why you always, ALWAYS paint or draw the eyes on something first. You never know when you might get some bad news delivered to you that could utterly rob you of whatever organs you didn’t include on your creation.
Caleb devotes more and more time to Bertha’s needs than is healthy for him. He hires doctor after doctor, none of whom can find a solution to her blindness. He becomes so depressed that he totally neglects his work during the holidays, the busiest and most profitable time of the year for him. Look, Caleb, I get where you’re coming from. I do. Depression is a helluva bitch to cope with. There are days where I feel too down for whatever reason to even think of picking up a pencil, and having the blues at Christmastime is completely normal. But when you and your family’s livelihood is on the line, seek some counseling, take some time for yourself, find a way to make your job work for you instead of the other way around, and if all else fails, take some Zoloft.
Alas, Caleb falls into the common financial trap of taking out too many loans which he can’t hope to repay on the obviously evil bank’s time, resulting in him falling into debt, not being able to meet the rent, having to close shop and live out on the streets.
In case you’re already thinking it, don’t bother, I’ll say it for you – has anyone else noticed how awful things have gone for the Plummers since Cricket Crockett, the supposedly good luck charm, appeared? In the book, the coming of the Cricket marked an upturn in the Peerybingles’ pathetic lives where things began to get better. Once Cricket Crockett showed up on the Plummers’ doorstep, however, everything went from so-so to WORSE. Bertha’s fiance left her then died, she lost her sight from “hysterical blindness”, and now she and her father are broke and homeless. What a “lucky” cricket!
The Plummers and Crockett reach London. Caleb is about to give up all hope of escaping the poorhouse when Crockett points him to a toy factory in need of a new employee. The owner of the factory is called Gruff Tackleton, which tells you everything you need to know about the man right there.
Oh, and Tackleton’s voiced by Hans Conreid, aka Captain Hook. Conreid’s lent his talents to several other Rankin-Bass productions after this one; he even played Thorin Oakenshield in their version of The Hobbit. The problem is his voice is so recognizable that I never hear whatever character he’s supposed to be, I hear Captain Freaking Hook. I keep expecting him to start ranting about Peter Pan and crocodiles.
Caleb does his best to sell himself to his potential new employer using the same guile and loquaciousness as he did when inviting Cricket Crockett to live with him:
I’m a very good worker, sir, and I have my own tools, and…and…I’m…very good, sir.
Tackleton says Caleb can make toys for him but he won’t pay him anything. Ah, so he’s got him working for “exposure”. He’s definitely the bad guy then. Caleb asks to meet the other workers, to which Tackleton busts a gut over. Tackleton’s too stingy to hire more help so he’s suckered Caleb into doing quintuple the workload by himself. It looks like he’s predicted the management strategies of most corporations. But if that’s the case, then how did Tackleton stay in business up to this point? Unions weren’t a thing back in Dickens’ time. Did the other workers just get fed up with Tackleton’s business practices and they all walked out simultaneously?
Caleb moves his family into the workshop. Bertha wishes she could see everything, and he promises her in song form that she will see the world through his eyes. Personally, I recommend a much better tune on the same subject.
Caleb’s tune is boring, cloying, and not very well drawn (his hat noticeably vanishes from beside him in one long shot) but halfway through we get…THIS.
NO. Just…NO. Please allow me to explain as an artist and animation fan why this image is such an assault on your senses. There’s only so much detail you can put into your animation without taking a nose dive into the uncanny valley. CGI gets it bad enough when the designs are too realistic or when you throw lots of motion-capture into the mix (hi, Robert Zemeckis/Dreamworks). But when you have your traditionally animated characters suddenly zoom in and you can see every little feature barring their pores, it’s not pretty, it’s unsettling. Shows like SpongeBob or Chowder use this technique intentionally to throw off the viewers and convey disturbing moments to great effect. Hell, GAME GRUMPS ANIMATORS know how to do this better than you, Cricket On The Hearth!
The number finally ends with Bertha and Edward dressed in fairytale costumes gazing lovingly at each other transitioning into…Caleb in Edward’s place gazing at Bertha in the same way.
Once that atrocious display is done with, Caleb…(sigh), Caleb goes around the workroom badly pretending to be the other factory workers to give Bertha the illusion that they won’t be doing all the work alone.
Dude, blindness doesn’t equal stupidity. There’s trying to make the best of a bad situation and then there’s poorly lying to your kid’s face. One day that ruse is going to collapse and you’ll have no one to blame for your terrible parenting but yourself and your dumb cricket.
And you want to know the worst part? Bertha completely buys it.
Cricket tells us that he and Caleb lived in two worlds, the real world and the imaginary utopia they cooked up for Bertha. And this is why I really can’t stand Cricket Crockett as a character. He’s so condescending and full of himself, and he does barely anything to really turn the Plummers’ situation around, yet he and the other characters continue to tout him as the best thing since sliced panettone. Even if you don’t buy that his brand of “good” luck caused Caleb and Bertha’s downward spiral, it’s still his fault they’re in this bad situation since he’s the one who noticed Tackleton was looking for a new drone to enslave. He enables Caleb’s stupidity and does nothing to give Bertha any agency. Quite the opposite in fact; he intentionally helps keep her in the dark and undermines her acceptance of a suitor’s proposal without consulting her feelings toward it at all. He even keeps referring to her as “Blind Bertha” throughout the story. Way to saddle the poor disabled woman and only female character in the special with a derogatory nickname, Cricket, you’re such a likable hero.
But Cricket Crockett can’t always be a happy-go-lucky fellow. Once Bertha and Caleb are sleeping, he vents about the terrible frozen hearth he’s stuck sleeping on:
Oooh, of all the blinkety blooming hearths in all the blinkety blooming world, this hearth is the BLINKETIEST and the BLOOMINGEST –
That evening, Tackleton’s raven Uriah creeps into the workshop in the mood for a little bug hunt. Looks like Cricket Crockett isn’t the only intelligent animal as he can think and talk as well. And before you ask, yes, Uriah is voiced by Paul Frees, and no, I will not list every single character he plays again. Just know that there’s a lot. Too many, in fact. Cricket Crockett antagonizes Uriah for a bit, then we get a poorly edited chase around the room.
Uriah’s got Cricket Crockett in his clutches when Tackleton enters and forces him back into his cage. So he can’t just tell his boss/owner/sugar daddy that he’s ridding his house of insects? Or are crickets the only animals capable of talking to humans in this world? Oh, who cares? The Plummers adjust to their work but Tackleton barges in to shout some orders one day and AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!
For those of you who still believe Matt Groening characters look horrifying facing forward, you have clearly not been subjected to Rankin-Bass characters facing forward. And I envy you for it.
Anyways, Tackleton, being the cheapskate that he is, commands Caleb to lighten up on the paint for the toys. He’s fine letting shoddy, barren blocks of wood sit on his shelf, they’re the hottest item this season. Again, how has he held on to this toy shop for as long as he has? But late at night, Cricket Crockett and Caleb sneak into the shop and give the toys the proper touch-ups they need. And what’s stopping Tackleton from noticing these changes when he’s selling them and firing Caleb’s ass for disobeying his orders? Oh wait, Caleb’s the only one desperate and stupid enough to keep working for him. Never mind.
Time passes and soon it’s nearly Christmas again. Caleb is running errands when he bumps into…
Caleb insists that the-old-man-who-is-clearly-not-Edward come stay with him and Bertha for a while because he’s sure his boss won’t mind him bringing strangers off the street into his private workplace. Tackleton’s proven himself to be such a magnanimous guy already. Bertha meets the-old-man-who-is-clearly-not-Edward-no-seriously-those-trustworthy-Facebook-ads-said-so and is shocked that he somehow knows her name.
Caleb insists that strangers or not, they’re all a big happy family and they can share Christmas together. Bertha excitedly asks if they can put up the fancy decorations like they used to even if she can’t see them, and Caleb says of course. But then Cricket Crockett tells us that Caleb just didn’t have the heart to lie to his daughter about Christmas. You’d think this would be the moment where Caleb breaks everything to her, but no. Instead, we get a so-so if schmaltzy song sung over more of those disgustingly detailed paintings about how their Christmas is like the first Christmas in that it had none of the accouterments we associate with the season but means it more in our hearts than any amount of blah blah blah. I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s a song that’s clearly written by white guys in the 60’s with no understanding of cultures and history outside their own:
Jerusalem homes back in the early ADs were built differently, but they did have fireplaces that were devoted solely to cooking.
It’s because Jesus was born in the Middle East, and in June no less.
“No mistletoe, decorations or tree”?
The former two have pagan origins and were folded into Christmas celebrations after Christianity conquered most of Europe, and the latter didn’t become a thing until Martin Luther crashed Kris Kringle’s wedding, several centuries AFTER the first Christmas. You’d think with the traditional Nativity motifs as well as all the overblown pomp and grandeur of the orchestra and choir (and I MEAN overblown, the audio peaks in Premiere were off the chart) that this song would be the finale, or at least the eleven o’clock number. Alas, we are only at the halfway mark of this special.
Finally, it’s Christmas Eve. Tackleton stops by the workshop to give Caleb an unexpected Christmas bonus of a few shillings. Ah, but the real reason for his visit is two-fold. It seems Tackleton is looking for a wife and he’s decided on…THAT Girl!
Bertha, who’s severely lacking a metaphorical spine in addition to her real one, assumes that there are no better options for a blind old maid like her and is ready to accept Tackleton. Her father forbids it at first, not because he’s trying to save her from a loveless marriage to a cruel and probably abusive old git, but because he still sees her as his little girl. Where was all this fatherly overprotectiveness when she was engaged to Edward? Bertha tells him he’s got to accept she’s grown up now and does so in another drawn-out cheesy song with even more random trip-out imagery.
Also, if Bertha’s so serious about moving on and marrying Tackleton, why does baby Edward keep appearing in her psychedelic fantasies?
The-old-man-who-is-clearly-not-Edward-and-I-will-take-you-to-court-over-it pops in ready to tell Bertha something very important about himself. But Bertha butts in with news about her impending marriage first. Heartbroken, he can’t bring himself to say another word and leaves. Everyone shrugs and goes back to talking about Bertha’s engagement. Caleb won’t tell her the truth about Tackleton because that would mean revealing that their life is a lie and he’s to blame. Father of the Year, folks. At least in the novel, Caleb finally worked up the guts to reveal the sham he concocted and what Bertha was truly in for if she married Tackleton. She even forgave him for it because she recognized how much her father sacrificed his own happiness for her and asserted herself as a strong independent woman who could take the reins of her life with the knowledge of what the world was really like. Here, Caleb keeps Bertha in the dark for his own asinine, selfish reasons…not unlike someone else in this special, the more I think about it.
But why doesn’t Cricket Crockett say anything? She already knows he can talk and is (in her opinion) trustworthy, so why doesn’t he just tell her the “kind, generous, handsome” man who wants to marry her is a fugly asshole whose treatment of her and her father legally counts as slave labor? Or maybe she’d reconsider if she “saw” what Tackleton really looked like.
Cricket Crockett gets a bunch of animal friends we’ve never seen before and will never see again to sabotage Bertha’s acceptance of Tackleton’s proposal. It’s like that scene in Nanny McPhee where the kids try to stop their dad from proposing to the mean lady but much less funny and more…stupid. Tackleton comes away from it humiliated…and knows that Cricket Crockett, whom he has never seen before and was unaware of before this moment, was entirely responsible.
And that’s not the half of it. He tells Uriah to kill that cricket and seek professional help in doing so.
Wait, so Tackleton KNOWS about Cricket Crockett AND that animals, including his own pet, are sentient beings in this world?? What is going on here?! When did this happen?! You could have cut out fifty songs and scenes of Caleb and Bertha being spineless idiots and used the time to fill in that gap! Also, you don’t need to hire a hitman to get rid of a single insect. Shell out for some Raid, you penny-pinching butter-faced troglodyte. Or, if you absolutely must get someone to assassinate Cricket Crockett for you, there are people out there who kill bugs professionally and legally. They’re called exterminators.
Uriah flies down to the seaport, truly the shadiest of spots in all of Victorian England where only the shadiest of characters mingle. Then he…goes into a pub filled with anthropomorphized animals in full clothing…and a cat dressed as a lounge singer gets on stage and starts singing and dancing around sexily.
Are…are we in the same special anymore?? Can anyone tell me what on earth this is and why is it here?? What is the point of this number? Is this an early version of the Cats movie? Does this whole story take place in the same universe as The Great Mouse Detective? If so, then this had better end with all the characters falling off of Big Ben. That is the only finale I will accept. Is this even real? Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?
When that big-lipped feline moment is finally done, Uriah meets with his fellow conspirators, a monkey named Slink, and a bulldog named…Spengler?
No, it’s Strangler, actually. Uriah’s voice is that unintelligible. Also, a monkey named Slink I can get behind since they can easily prowl around unnoticed. But naming a dog Strangler? Are bulldogs known for their powerful strangulation?
Slink tells them that they can make their fortune off the cricket instead of killing him: there’s a sea captain at the port who pays well for crickets. So they capture Cricket Crockett and haul him to the captain. The captain bears such an uncanny resemblance to Tackleton that it’s easy to think Rankin-Bass just went “Fuck it” and reused his character model. But no, he’s a completely different guy played by Paul Frees using the same pirate voice as he did in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.
With the job done, the animals ask for their pay. The captain glowers and says “I got your payoff right here.”
And he pulls out a gun.
No. Nuh-uh. Callin’ it now, there’s no way these animals are going to die. Romeo Muller didn’t have the balls to kill off Yukon Cornelius and the Bumble, why would he suddenly start picking off characters left and right? Come on, special, show us what really happens.
Yes…he really killed them. He well and truly shot them all dead. We don’t see any bodies, but we cut to the gunshots ringing out with Uriah screaming and then they’re gone for the rest of the special. That’s…amazingly dark, especially for so late in the story and one that didn’t have any pointless deaths in the first place. I mean, thank you for injecting some darkness in this drippy special, Captain Not-Tackleton (and by that I mean darkness that isn’t depression-inducing for a change), but still…DARK.
The captain boasts about how he intends to sell Cricket Crockett in China where crickets are considered highly lucky. Apparently he got word that the last one sold there helped destroy the Hun invasion with an avalanche and he decided to cash in on the good luck bug craze. Yet, eager to return home and keep cursing his family, Cricket Crockett plays dead. The Captain falls for it and throws him overboard as a warning to all the other crickets that he plans on selling for their luck.
Cricket Crockett tells the viewers that they won’t believe how he returned to land.
Cricket’s ushered to shore by an endless parade of conveniently timed sea creatures. The way it plays out along with the music I half-expected it to give way to a song, something in the vein of “Some Say” from Once On This Island. But I’m happy to say no, there’s not another musical number that drags out the proceedings any further than they already are, just Cricket Crockett hopping along taking his luck from those poor unfortunate souls. No doubt they all got harpooned or caught in a net offscreen.
Cricket makes it back to the toy shop by midnight. And then, to his great surprise, the toys all suddenly come to life. Sure, let’s throw in magical talking toys in there because why the hell not?! This special was already off the rails with that sexy cat number! I’m sure when Dickens was first writing this story he said “You know what this down-to-earth Christmas tale exposing poverty and workplace abuse needs? Toys coming to life to help out our heroes! But nobody would ever buy that. I just hope someday someone rewrites this story to play in a small box and gives it the justice it deserves!”
An elephant who’s trying way too hard to imitate Goofy tells Crockett that all playthings come alive at midnight on Christmas Eve for one hour as long as there are no people present. They make a point of saying that crickets don’t count as people. Good to know the toys have confirmed my deep newly-found prejudice so I’d feel no guilt whatsoever in squashing Cricket Crockett into a green goo beneath my dad’s golf cleats. The toys want to help Caleb and Bertha for all they’ve done for them. They escort Cricket Crockett to the-old-man-who-I’m-telling-you-for-the-last-time-is-not-Edward-and-I-swear-I’ll-turn-this-car-around-if-you-keep-saying-that sleeping beneath Bertha’s window and remove his fake whiskers.
Now, I want to warn you all in advance that this big twist is a shocking one. Anyone with weak constitutions might want to sit down for this.
You see, the old man who said he wasn’t Edward…was really Edward the whole time!
The elephant, who seems to speak for all the toys, exposits that Edward survived the shipwreck and lived on an uncharted island until a whaler brought him back to England.
…May I ask how exactly you know all this, Mr. Deus Ex Pachyderm? Did you just happen to hear Edward say all this while he threw himself a pity party beneath the windowsill? Does the underground toy network deal in these kinds of rumors? Or do toys share Santa’s all-seeing all-knowing powers on this night of the year?
Edward wakes up and Cricket Crockett confronts him on his deception. Edward explains that he ran straight to Bertha when he came home, but felt responsible when he learned about her onset of blindness and didn’t want to burden her further, despite the fact that what happened was completely out of his control. He did feel brave enough to let Bertha keep thinking the only man she ever loved was dead, however, and hung around in his cheap disguise just to be close to her. It’s almost like the opposite of catfishing. But then, just as Edward finally found the nerve to tell the truth, Bertha shut him down by saying she was going to marry the most wonderful man in the world. Cricket responds to this as gently, maturely, and thoughtfully as possible.
You see this shit right here?
This shit was put into a widely televised Christmas special.
Meant for children.
The fact that it aired in the ’60s is no excuse. It’s this kind of dialogue and way of thinking that still makes it almost impossible for women to be taken seriously today. I hope that Romeo Muller, wherever he is, is getting beaten to a pulp by the strongest, most righteously infuriated members of the #MeToo movement.
Boo on you, Romeo. Boo. On. YOU.
Anyway, to make a long story short –
– Cricket convinces Edward to wake up Bertha and say “Surprise honey, I’ve been faking my death these past X years” and they’re married that evening in an impromptu ceremony.
They also have some random people in the church standing off to each side of the bride and groom. I’m guessing Caleb grabbed them off the street to serve as witnesses and also have them pretend to be the workers they supposedly cohabit the toyshop with because Bertha felt terrible leaving them out of the wedding party. The scene is also underscored by a reprise of that “Through My Eyes” song. That’s, what, the eighteenth musical number so far? I get the feeling that if you cut out all the songs this special would be only ten minutes.
And if you think this Christmas miracle of Edward returning to Bertha is building up to her being magically cured of her fiancé-fake-death-induced blindness, well too bad. She’s still as blind as Mr. Magoo wearing a blindfold and sunglasses in a basement during a solar eclipse at a conservative rally. I’d applaud Cricket On The Hearth for not going the route of unrealistically fixing a handicap that millions of people are born with, but when has this special even begun to conform to some level of rational reality?
As the family celebrates on Christmas Day, Tackleton interrupts demanding to know why he was left waiting at the altar. Real smooth, Bertha. You go and get married to someone else and you don’t have the guts to tell your other fiance to his face that you’re breaking things off? Looks like you and Edward really are meant for each other. When Tackleton discovers Bertha’s already taken, he starts crying that nobody loves him and rants to her “This just isn’t fair! After all I’ve done for you?!”
But Bertha tells Tackleton that she still cares about him (as a friend) and thinks he’s a dynamite guy.
And this, THIS, is what gets Tackleton to suddenly start being nice.
I am well aware that Tackleton’s abrupt heel-face turn was part of the original story. But it didn’t work there, and it certainly doesn’t work here. Dickens and Muller tried to make Tackleton into another Ebeneezer Scrooge, an old miser who changes his ways in time to enjoy the holidays, but Scrooge was a fleshed-out character in his own right. We learned why he became a money-grubbing old lout in the first place, shared his joy and pain as he relived his tragic backstory and grew to appreciate Christmas, and learned the same important lessons he did about respecting humankind not just on the 25th but all throughout the year. Tackleton, on the other hand, was a flat jerk, slave driver, and attempted cricket murderer who only started being good when he received some false consolation and Cricket reminds him that it’s Christmas too. There was no arc for him to properly change or learn anything, just the bug he wanted to kill less than 24 hours ago telling him “Cheer up dude, it’s Christmas!” It’s a poor, poor last-minute retread of A Christmas Carol, and I should know, I’ve seen A LOT of Christmas Carol adaptations.
And call me a hypocrite, but this might be the one instance I’d be okay with Cricket Crockett’s disgusting sexism if they shoved it in here:
So Tackleton is a perfectly giddy old fart now who’s changed his ways (as far as we know) and everybody’s hunky-dory.
And the special ends with a sing-along of the main theme and Caleb telling Cricket “You’re the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to anyone!”
As if this needs repeating, Cricket RUINED the Plummers’ lives and their situation is only slightly better in the end because Edward finally realized he should do the obvious thing. They’re still wallowing in poverty working for an asshole (come on, who really buys that Tackleton’s change lasts more than a few days?), Bertha is still blind and unaware of how much her father lied to her, and Caleb is firmly in denial about everything. This whole story is one downward spiral with a small lift at the end. I’m not saying Christmas stories can’t be dark, all the best ones have a bit of darkness to them. What I’m saying is they can’t be bleak as this while masquerading as a heartwarming triumph. The only thing Cricket On The Hearth has going for it over The Christmas Shoes is that nobody dies –
Scratch that, nobody’s death is played for mawkish yuletide sentiment. That still doesn’t excuse how poorly written the story is, how uninspired and plodding the music is, and how feeble and disgusting the characters are. I can see why even Rankin-Bass fans try to pretend this special never happened. At least Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town had a surprisingly timely plot and a few catchy tunes. At least Frosty had some half-decent designs and was relatively quick. At least Rudolph had a main character that didn’t fuck up shit for everyone he met.
Cricket On The Hearth embodies everything I hate about Rankin-Bass. I’ve talked quite a bit about how nostalgia plays a big part in revisiting older works. But it can only take you so far. Take away that nostalgia and there’s nothing to these specials. They’re just a bunch of cute, seemingly harmless sugar bags trotted out every year that the masses get addicted to in their youth, and the cycle continues in perpetuity. But stuffing myself with these expired empty-calories all month leaves me yearning for something more substantial before I vomit. I don’t know how the fuck everyone else around me does it without blowing chunks, and I’m not sure I want to anymore.
The same goes for the vitriol I’ve been spewing this month. Writing about my dislike for Rankin-Bass was cathartic and even a bit fun at first, but cranking out three out of four negative reviews in a row left me feeling just as empty and tired for different reasons. I’m through with Rankin-Bass’ fluffy gushing in the guise of holiday value and I’ll never love it like everyone else does, but I’m sick of being so negative and hateful, especially during this, the happiest time of the year. People turn to Rankin-Bass to find joy and meaning in the holiday, but in the end, none of these specials even know what Christmas is all about.
Thank you for reading! If you’re able to this holiday season, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon supporters receive great perks such as extra votes for movie reviews, requests, early sneak-peeks and more! If I can hit my goal of making $100 a month, I can go back to weekly tv series reviews. As of now, I’m only $20 away! Special thanks to Amelia Jones, Gordhan Rajani and Sam Minden for their contributions! See you on Christmas Eve when I review the final special of Rankin-Bass Month.
Artwork by Charles Moss.