Hey y’all, I’m back on one of my favorite podcasts, Escape From Vault Disney! Every March the episodes are themed to a viewers’ choice poll and this year the winner was Not On Disney Plus, meaning Tony and friends are covering Disney and Disney-owned media not on the streaming service for various reasons. In this case, we got to watch Down With Love, a 20th Century Fox comedy directed by Peyton Reed that we had A LOT of good things to say about (this movie’s joining The Shelf for sure). Come listen to us laugh and sing the praises of the movie on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Libsyn, Audible and Listen Notes. Down With Love is now Up On The Shelf! Cheers!
Following up from the previous post, here I am back on the Channel KRT podcast to discuss the little-known Frosty sequel “Frosty Returns”! What happens when a studio that isn’t Rankin-Bass tries to build their own snowman with blackjack and hookers John Goodman, Elisabeth Moss, and the Flying Dutchman? You get an odd, not-quite Christmas special with environmental overtones that furthers the divide between snow lovers and snow haters. Come listen to us discuss the inexplicable reappearance of everyone’s favorite snow golem on Apple Podcasts, Podcasts Online, and now on YouTube!
“Cold be hot and friends be kind when love unites the heart and mind.” – The Snow Queen’s moral wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a slide puzzle
I might as well get this out of the way, my feelings toward Frozen are…mixed. Granted, I understand why the story was altered to the point of barely resembling its literary counterpart. Hans Christian Andersen painted the original fairy tale with a ton of heavy Christian overtones that can be preachy at times. Said original is also very episodic like most of Andersen’s works, which means changes for the screen aren’t just inevitable but encouraged.
I stand by what I’ve said before about alterations in adapting fairy tales, they need to be done for modern audiences. The problem lies in the story completely shifting so the filmmakers can soapbox in as ham-fisted a manner as possible about past Disney romances being unrealistic, and then said story balloons in popularity to such a degree that Disney can’t go five minutes without pushing it in your face at the cost of other excellent films, and…well, that’s when one tends to grow more critical over it over time.
But what of the narrative that inspired Frozen in the first place? The Snow Queen is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most popular tales, as well as his longest. The story is divided into seven chapters and is almost novel length. As this is a fairytale from Andersen, The Snow Queen is wholly authentic; it’s been speculated, however, that he based the cold-hearted character on one of his unrequited loves.
You know how some people write to cope and provide happy endings where real life couldn’t? Andersen wrote like a teenager using fanfiction to vent.
Andersen included a different origin story for The Snow Queen in his biography: his sick father on his deathbed drew a figure not unlike a woman with outstretched arms on the icy window, and joked to his young son “She comes to fetch me.” He died soon after, and Andersen’s mother told him “The Ice Maiden has fetched him.” This “Ice Maiden” has her own story separate from the Snow Queen, but the idea of coldness connected with death, specifically in form of an elegant but dangerous woman, is a reoccurring motif in many of Andersen’s fables.
Another symbol that can be found here as well as other Andersen stories is that of the wise beloved grandmother, a nod to Andersen’s own grandmother from whom he learned many Danish fairy tales. Bible imagery is also included in The Snow Queen as previously stated, from various Christian verses worked into the text, to the main conflict being kicked off by a school of demons trying to reach God with their evil mirror and getting struck down like the Tower of Babel. The Snow Queen is rife with the themes of growing up, devotion, bravery and love conquering all – but unlike Frozen, the love between our main characters is supposed to be read as platonic, not romantic.
I promise that this will not be a review bashing Frozen, but the differences between it and the source material are like night and day. Revisiting The Snow Queen I was reminded of how many missed opportunities there were to tell a very different story about love, adventure and maturity in a compelling way. No one work of fiction should be held as the definitive version as nearly all stories deserve to be retold. So for the sake of this review and for all the angry Frozen fans that are going to come after me, can we just…
One of my favorite books from my childhood was Stories From The Sea, a collection of folktales from around the world revolving around one thing:
These stories answered such questions as why the sea is salty, where do storms come from, who Sinbad the Sailor was, and why Disney had the right idea when they altered the ending to The Little Mermaid. More to the point, they introduced me to the wondrous mythical creatures known as selkies. What are selkies, you may ask? STORY TIME!
On a cliff by a shore lived a lonely fisherman. Day in and day out he pulled his nets and sold his fish, but had no wife and children to come home to. Early one morning, the fisherman heard the sounds of singing and laughter coming from the beach. He followed it until he found a group of beautiful women with flowing hair and large brown eyes, naked as the day they were born, dancing on the sand. He saw a pile of discarded seal skins nearby and instantly knew who they were – selkies, the souls of people drowned at sea who could turn themselves into seals.
“And what if I should take one of those wee skins for meself, I wonder?” the fisherman murmured. He snatched up the nearest skin, but one of the selkies saw him and cried out. The others panicked, grabbed their skins and fled into the sea, yelping like seal cubs at dawn as they changed back and swam away. Only the woman whom the fisherman had stole from remained; “Please sir, give me back my skin, I cannot return home without it!” she cried. But the fisherman refused, and told her he would return it to her seven years to the day if she agreed to be his wife. Left with no other choice, the selkie capitulated to him.
They were married and in time she gave him a beautiful son, one who brought light and laughter to her days. But as the years wore on, the selkie grew thin, pale and sickly. Her heart longed for the sea. If she continued on this way, she likely wouldn’t live to see next summer. When the seven years ended, the selkie demanded that her husband return what he promised her, but once again he refused; he was afraid that she would leave him if he gave back her seal skin.
As it so happened, their son wandered into the barn the following morning and found a beautiful, soft coat of silky fur hidden on one of the beams. Inhaling the sweet familiar scent, he knew at once that it belonged to his mother. The selkie was overjoyed when he brought it to her and flew to the shore, wrapping herself in her skin and becoming whole again. The son chased after her, begging her to take him with her. Alas, he was mortal and she was not, so the only thing she could do was give him a small glimpse of her world beneath the waves before returning him home to his father.
The lad grew up into a beloved storyteller with a voice that could make even the most hardened soul weep. On early mornings, one could see him out at sea whispering to a seal in the waves. Some say it was his mother, the selkie, passing on her songs and tales to him; why else would he have the same beautiful brown eyes as she?
I actually bring this tale up because many selkie stories, including today’s movie, follow the same pattern as the aforementioned one. Critics praised Song of the Sea as an original masterpiece, but if you were already familiar with this one story going in, then it’s incredibly easy to spot where things are going. And I’m gonna be honest here…maybe it’s because I know the story so well that I’m not as in love with this movie as most animation aficionados are.
Surprise, we had a tie in the shorts category! As my way of making up for the lack of reviews this year, here’s a little Christmas bonus for you all.
Last year we said goodbye to a giant in the field of animation, the one and only Richard Williams. In honor of his memory, I added some of his work to the Shelf, including this, a retelling of A Christmas Carol produced by fellow legend Chuck Jones with animation by Abe Levitow, Ken Harris, Grim Natwick and Richard Purdum among others. Adding to this auspicious company is Allistair Sim and Michael Hordern returning to voice Scrooge and Marley twenty years after playing them in the iconic 1951 film adaptation; it’s not Christmas in my household until I watch it with my father, the tree glowing in the corner as we huddle together in the dark in front of the TV, so hearing these voices again is a special treat.
Of course, since this is a Richard Williams’ production, there was no shortage of drama behind the scenes. Williams was a man who expected nothing less than perfection from his employees, and his stringent standards nearly proved to be his downfall (not for the last time either, if you know what happened to The Thief and the Cobbler). Work fell so behind schedule that the animators were forced to pull 7-day 14-hour workweeks with unpaid overtime, and the final product still wasn’t ready until one hour before the deadline! The results, however, speak for themselves. This is a beautifully crafted feature. Though Williams and crew had to resort to some rotoscoping to finish the job, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where they did.
This short was originally made for television, but the high praise it received emboldened ABC to distribute it theatrically. It would go on to be nominated for and win the Oscar for Best Animated Short the following year. This also gives it the distinct honor of being the only version of A Christmas Carol to win an Academy Award. Imagine, 200+ versions of the same story made over a period of nearly a hundred years yet only one gets that kind of recognition! Members of the Academy chafed at the idea that a short first shown on television took home the gold, and would quickly change the rules so that any future works that premiered on TV would not qualify for a nomination.
Despite its accolades and the high-profile names attached, Richard Williams’ Christmas Carol is surprisingly hard to find on home video. The version I watched for this review came from Youtube via TheThiefArchive, where you can find all things related to Williams uploaded for posterity.
So, classic story, some of the greatest animators of the twentieth century, all brought together by a man whom I consider the definitive Mad Genius of animation. What’s the worst that could happen?
30 years ago today (well, yesterday when I was originally writing this and was meant to go up but couldn’t finish it in time due to carpal tunnel), television history was made…well, for my generation, at least.
You probably already know Cartoon All-Stars To The Rescue from its reputation more than anything else. There’s plenty of online critics who have picked apart this bizarre little PSA before me, and more will with every generation that discovers it. This was an unusual attempt on behalf of the White House, the Ronald McDonald House charity, The Walt Disney Corporation, several powerful television stations, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to get kids to say no to drugs. Did they succeed? Probably not. But in order to understand why, we have to go back to the beginning:
In the 1980s, America was gripped by a crippling epidemic of drug users, urban monsters enticing children off the playgrounds into increasingly dangerous and deadly vices such as smoking and drinking – or so they believed. Ronald Reagan and his First Lady Nancy made headlines by declaring drugs to be the number one problem in the country and signed bills and acts into action that cracked down hard on even the most minute offenders. I don’t know, I could have sworn there was a real worldwide health crisis going on at the time that could have used more attention and early action, but maybe that was just my imagination. It wasn’t like this whole drug narrative was a desperate attempt by Ronald to create his own boogeyman that would distract the American public from a disease that predominantly affected an unfairly maligned group that he and Nancy liked to pretend didn’t exist, someone’s gotta think of the children dammit! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!
Never forget them. Never EVER forget them.
As nostalgic as it is to look back on the colorful anti-drug PSAs that plagued the airwaves in my day, learning more about why and how they were made as a result of Reagan’s manipulation leaves a bitter aftertaste. They also present blatantly unrealistic scenarios; never in my life has a shady-looking fellow come up to me and my friends in the schoolyard and offered us marijuana or crack. I didn’t even know these drugs existed until my school got a visit from D.A.R.E. In fact, the whole War On Drugs is downright hypocritical if you know anything about the Contra affair. This self-fabricated war mainly targeted African-American and Latino communities, which only served to inflate Reagan’s ego and fuel his open prejudices against minorities when not steering the country towards bankruptcy and the threat of nuclear war through a combination of greed, bloodlust, and encroaching senility. It makes you wonder, what kind of campaign did this old bastard run that got himself elected in the first place?
“…Either I’m on drugs right now or we’re all trapped in a time loop, and I don’t know which one is worse.”
The War On Drugs continued into the Bush administration with George Bush himself pushing this special as a huge step forward into saving children from drugs. He and Barbara Bush even filmed an awkward introduction for the VHS release. Cartoon All-Stars was a shockingly big deal at the time, not just for what it was trying to promote but for the fact that so many characters from a number of different studios were coming together all at once for the first and most likely only time. Roy E. Disney, in particular, played an enormous part in getting the special made. He stepped into the role of Executive Producer, ensured characters from some of Disney’s big Saturday morning cartoons like DuckTales and The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh appeared and had the special distributed through Buena Vista Home Video. Disney’s big name drew in more parties, and the use of other characters like Garfield and the Chipmunks got the personal approval from their creators.
Written and animated in the short time of eight weeks (startlingly quick turnaround time for animation), Cartoon All-Stars was part after-school special, part Who Framed Roger Rabbit/Avengers-style crossover, part commercial. The special was simulcast on four different major TV stations, and also freely distributed in video stores, schools, and libraries. I wasn’t born until after Cartoon All-Stars aired, but I spent my early childhood watching the tape fairly frequently. I enjoyed seeing all these cartoon characters I knew together, and admittedly the anti-drug message hit home pretty hard due to my grandfather passing away from lung cancer around that time. That part stuck with me longer than I care to admit. When you’re a four-year-old kid scolding an adult for smoking, it’s cute. When you’re fourteen? Eh, not so much.
I expected this movie to have a few votes from those who remembered it as kids. I never expected it to win by a landslide. Lesson learned: never underestimate a nostalgic kids’ movie from the ’90s.
Once upon a time, David Kirschner, producer of An American Tail among other things, took his daughters to the New York Public Library. This visit inspired him to write a story about a fantastical adventure that would get kids excited about reading. The result was The Pagemaster, a 1994 box-office bomb that would go on to develop a cult following among children like me who grew up watching it. Animation historians tend to lump The Pagemaster in with the likes of Thumbelina or Quest For Camelot: 90s features that tried to coast off the success of Disney’s Renaissance films yet failed to match their caliber. But actually, trailers for The Pagemaster played in theaters and on home video a good four years before the movie was released…it was still in production for most of that time so the amount of influence Disney had on it is up for debate, but the point remains. I’m willing to bet what played a major part in its delay was the myriad of problems that cropped up during the filmmaking, from David Kirschner suing the Writers Guild of America for not receiving the sole story credit he felt was owed, to the plot being rewritten in the middle of the animation process, which is never a good thing. I’ve also heard stories about Macaulay Culkin being a diva on set, but knowing what we know now about his abusive father explains a lot so I’m not holding that against him.
And here’s another fun fact I dug up while doing my research: apparently Stephen King of all people wrote the treatment for The Pagemaster, which certainly explains the film’s more horrific elements. Does this means this movie is technically part of the King multiverse? I can see Richard hanging out with The Losers Club on weekends and trying to avoid killer clowns and langoliers in his spare time.
Though it was released under the 20th Century Fox banner, The Pagemaster was the first of only two animated films created by Turner Feature Animation, an off-shoot of Hanna-Barbera founded by media mogul Ted Turner. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that Turner had a hand in this children’s flick with an educational message. Let’s not forget the last animated project he invested himself in was all about teaching kids environmentalism in the cheesiest way possible.
But unlike Captain Planet, does The Pagemaster hold up after all these years? Will it get kids sucked into the magic of reading? And how long can I go without forcing in a Home Alone reference? Read on and find out.
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?
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? Deny thy special and refuse thy Writer’s Guild card. Or if not, throw thyself into the roaring cauldron of the sea and let the sirens peck at thy swollen flesh…sexist pig.
Well, this preamble has gone on long enough. Grab your insect repellent, folks, let’s look at Cricket On The Hearth.
When I first wrote this review, it opened with Cynicism saying “Bad news, Shelf. Since you shat on Rudolph last week, Patreon’s taking money AWAY from you. If you don’t say more nice things about this week’s special, we’re going to have to file for bankruptcy.” Just a fun little way of letting you know today’s post is going to be a bit less harsh than the previous one.
But then I checked my Patreon hours after the Rudolph review went up, and the numbers had shrunk substantially.
It actually happened.
A silly one-off joke I wrote to ease you, the reader, into the review, accidentally came true.
It’s like the universe itself is punishing me for daring to not like Rudolph.
Okay, the truth of the matter is a bit more complicated than that, but nobody actually quit being a patron based on my feelings towards Rudolph, for which I am relieved and grateful for. It’s already been sorted out and I certainly don’t hold this mishap against anyone because of events beyond their control.
Anyway, enough of my rambling. If you can’t already tell, today’s holiday outing is Frosty The Snowman.
Frosty, Frosty, Frosty…yeah, not a big fan of this one either.
“YOU HATE FROSTY TOO, YOU MONSTER?!”
“I didn’t say THAT!”
Frosty, like Rudolph, was another Rankin-Bass special I lost my taste for due to forced overexposure. It’s light on story and character, the animation is nothing to write home over, and we trade a bunch of subpar songs for one song dragged across the entire affair. But I’ll give it this over Rudolph:
It’s shorter. Slashed right down the middle of Rudolph’s runtime, Frosty’s only twenty-five minutes of schmaltzy bland holiday fare instead of nearly an hour.
The only jerk in the special is the clear-cut villain, who’s the most fun character in this thing.
The cheap stop-motion has been replaced by cheap traditional animation. Not much of an exchange, I’ll take any crumbs of hand-drawn goodness I can get these days.
If I may elaborate on the latter, the designs for the characters and backgrounds are kind of interesting. The man behind them is Paul Coker Jr., who also created comics for MAD Magazine, hence why the characters have a bit of a unique geometric aesthetic but are still kind of…weird-looking. Alfred E. Neuman wouldn’t feel out of place among this cast.
Hi! If this is your first time here, I highly recommend checking out my other movie/tv/holiday special reviewsbefore this one, just to get a more positive idea of what to expect from my writing. Usually, I’m not this…well, you clicked on this review, didn’t you?
I suppose I should begin this month with a little bit of Rankin-Bass’ history. It was founded in 1960 by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass under the name Videocraft International. They began by producing animated television series for children, alternating between stop-motion and traditional cel animation before combining both with a process they called “Animagic” (which sounds more like a fireworks show at Disney World than an actual animation technique if you ask me). All the animation for these shows and the holiday specials and films that they would later branch out into were outsourced to Japan. Throughout the studio’s existence, work rotated between five different Japanese animation houses: MOM Production, Toei Animation, TCJ (Television Corporation of Japan), Mushi Production, and Topcraft. Chances are if you’re into anime, then these names ring a few bells. These studios have produced hit after hit on the big and small screen, with some of them continuing to do so today, and many of Topcraft’s animators went on to bigger and better things at Studio Ghibli.
Most of Rankin-Bass’ Christmas specials, particularly the ones I’ll be looking at, follow a simple formula – take a well-known holiday song and build a story around it. It’s not a bad concept if a bit overutilized. Their first outing, and most beloved in the eyes of many, is Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, based on the tune of the same name written by Johnny Marks (who would also write the other songs in the special) and popularized by Gene Autry in 1949. The song itself was taken from a children’s book created a decade prior to promote the Montgomery Ward department store, and the special was sponsored by General Electric, who, by a stunning coincidence, were selling Christmas lights that holiday season which happened to resemble Rudolph’s nose.
In short, this special originated as a commercial, and always was one through and through.
In spite of its original intent, Rudolph has become a holiday staple and icon as big as Santa Claus himself. And if you are one of the millions of people on this planet who loves this special, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from doing so, and you are not wrong for enjoying it. After all, this is just one person expressing their opinion. If this person’s opinion differs from yours, that doesn’t invalidate how you feel nor should you feel as if you absolutely must agree with them –
“Hey…you’re making it sound like you’re about to say something bad about Rudolph!”
“Nobody dislikes Rudolph! Everyone in the entire world loves it! It’s a classic! The perfect Christmas special! You like Rudolph too, right? RIGHT?!”