November’s just getting started but you know what that means – the floor is once again open to voting for Christmas-themed reviews! Visit the Christmas Shelf to see what shorts, specials and movies you can vote for. Pick one of each and let me know in the comments or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org before November 25th. The winners with the most votes will be reviewed all throughout December (never fear, the next Faerie Tale Theatre review will still be up on December 6th).
See that face smack dab in the middle of the poster there? That’s the face I made when I found out I’d be reviewing one of my favorite Christmas movies (and also when I realized I wouldn’t be publishing it on time; Happy Valentines Day!) Because, honestly, what can I say about Home Alone that hundreds before me already have?
There’s an argument to be made that Home Alone shouldn’t count as a Christmas movie because it’s a story that can be done on any given day of the year – except that Christmas is tied into this film’s very identity. Kevin’s house is full of reds, greens and whites, the soundtrack is stuffed with Christmas tunes, even beloved classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street are playing whenever a TV is turned on. Add themes of family and togetherness and a magical score by John Williams, and you’ve got a movie with Christmas in its DNA.
While Home Alone didn’t impress critics upon release, it made enough bank that it held the title of highest-grossing comedy of all time until 2011. It’s entered the pop culture lexicon not just here in the states but abroad. The film’s release in most former Soviet-occupied countries aligned with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is so tied to that feeling of holiday cheer and nostalgia for a monumental positive change that it’s broadcast with the same heartfelt frequency as It’s A Wonderful Life in America. “It’s not Christmas without Kevin” has become something of a popular slogan for most stations that air it. But why does this simple story retain so much of its appeal 30 years later?
I don’t think it’s a big secret that Gravity Falls is my favorite series from Disney. Not just animated series, I mean out of everything the channel ever churned out. It was mysterious, funny and occasionally frightening, with deep themes of family and growing up and some of the most well-written television characters to come from the 2010s. When it bowed out after two near-perfect seasons, it left some enormous shoes to fill. What show could possibly live up to the standards it set?
Well, it turns out the answer was one no one asked for, but we’re sure as hell thankful we got anyway.
Hot take for y’all, especially from someone who grew up in the 90’s and enjoyed the hell out of the original DuckTales: the 2017 reboot blows its predecessor out of the water. It takes the fun, creative adventures from the first series, adds a much-needed measure of character arcs and development (Huey, Dewey and Louie have actual distinct personalities now!) and amps it up with a huge dose of heart and enough lore borrowed from the Carl Barks and Don Rosa comics to win over even the most jaded fans. Also, as opposed to his unceremonious draft into the navy in the first series, Donald Duck finally has a part to play in the new adventures! (Well, in 13 out of the 65 of them anyway…way to get my hopes up, Disney.) By the time I was halfway through the first season I thought to myself, “Yes, this is it. This is the successor to Gravity Falls,” (though The Owl House definitely ties with that sentiment as well, and Amphibia isn’t too far behind).
I’m woefully behind on Season 3, but am well aware that they’re bringing in more characters and plots from the other classic Disney Afternoon series that were hinted at since the very start, and I can’t wait to see how they’re re-interpreted. On a similar note, since this episode deals with some major revelations from the tail end of Season One that have ramifications for the rest of the series, I must warn you that this review will have spoilers.
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?
When I made my list of favorite Mickey Mouse shorts, I had a hell of a time combing through his filmography for what I considered “real” Mickey cartoons. This is because a good many films in the mouse’s oeuvre have the supporting characters like Donald Duck and Goofy quickly steal the spotlight from him. And that’s not the only thing they took: as more characters were ingrained into the Disney canon and Mickey was reduced to being a bit player in his own features, the scrappy traits that once endeared him to the public were siphoned away to his costars. And what was left for him once the childlike curiosity, playfulness, brash temper, big heart and fierce determination were gone? What kind of personality could Mickey cultivate for himself into when there was no personality left?
By the late 40s and early 50s, everything that made Mickey enjoyable was scrubbed away into a bland, neighborly squeaky-clean corporate-friendly icon. He was good for selling merch, but his cartoons suffered severely for it. Mickey was paired up with his faithful dog Pluto to keep things more interesting, though that resulted in him getting far more to do than his master. I always thought Pluto worked better as a supporting role rather than the main star, so I’ve never been crazy about the Pluto shorts or these in particular because…well, let’s look at a comedic dog and master duo done right:
Wallace, for all his mechanical ingenuity and good nature, is more than a bit of an idiot. Gromit is vastly smarter and is capable of expressing a variety of relatable emotions despite never uttering a word (though that has less to do with him being a dog and more due to the fact that he has no mouth). Whenever there’s trouble (usually of Wallace’s own making), Gromit steps up to the plate and the two always manage to work past their shortcomings together to save the day. They may not always be on the same level as each other, but their camaraderie and the situations they get into certainly make for an entertaining time.
As for Mickey, he may have been a lot of things in his prime, but he certainly wasn’t stupid. So seeing the resilient rodent who sailed steamships, conducted his way through storms, battled giants, saved kingdoms, slayed dragons and controlled the very cosmos have his IQ substantially lowered just so he could play second fiddle to his pet…well, it feels downright insulting. Pluto’s Christmas Tree was the second-to-last short made before Mickey’s thirty year-long retirement, and it’s a prime showcase for all the problems that come with his extreme flanderization, right down to the fact that his name isn’t even the one that’s in the title.
Some stories are so timeless, so resonant, and so iconic that they deserve to be retold for every generation.
And then there’s Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, which according to IMDB has nearly 200 adaptations. If you decide to watch one a day, it’s almost enough to see you through to next Christmas! And do I need to recap the story of A Christmas Carol? It’s so ubiquitous that the only people who don’t know it must have grown up under a rock. That’s the only explanation I’ll accept.
I wouldn’t call this over abundance of A Christmas Carol a bad thing, however, as each version manages to bring something unique and memorable to the original tale. Like with Peter Pan, there’s one for every generation – well okay, more like five, but you get the idea. It’s great to see people discussing which one they believe is best because there’s no shortage of fascinating takes out there (As for me, I find the best straight adaptation is the 1951 version with Alistair Sim, the best take with a twist is the Muppets one, and the best modern day/parody one is Scrooged). But of course we’re here today to talk about one particular adaptation many have grown up with. For some, it was even their very first exposure to A Christmas Carol. I should know. It was for me.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol actually began as a read-along record album produced in the 70’s and narrated by Scrooge McDuck himself. There’s little differentiating it from its eventual animated counterpart, though the cast of holiday haunts is slightly altered – jolly old wizard Merlin from The Sword in the Stone is the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Snow White’s Wicked Witch takes an even more frightening turn as the Ghost of Christmas Future. In an attempt to revive Mickey Mouse’s waning popularity, it was decided that the story would be perfect fodder for a brand new short. It was originally supposed to premiere on television as a regular holiday special in 1982, but after an animators’ strike delayed production, the short was given a theatrical release one year later alongside a re-issue of The Rescuers. So yes, Mickey’s Christmas Carol was technically the Olaf’s Shoehorned Holiday Adventure of its time. I’m happy to say it earned a much more deserved positive reception, however, even gaining a Best Animated Short Oscar nomination.