While I remember the hype for the FOX Christmas special Olive The Other Reindeer back in 1999 –
…Excuse me, I was suddenly struck by the realization that I’m old.
Anyway, while I remember the promotions for it before it premiered, I’m ashamed to say I never got around to watching it until several years ago. Shame, really, because it’s been among my personal favorites since. Olive The Other Reindeer is loosely based on a children’s book by Vivian Walsh and award-winning artist J. Otto Seibold, the main conceit being “Hey, doesn’t that one line from the Rudolph song sound like they’re saying Olive The Other Reindeer instead of ‘all of the other reindeer’? Wouldn’t it be funny if someone named Olive got confused over it and tried to become a reindeer?” The book is fairly straightforward with little-to-no stakes, though it has some wonderfully stylized and colorful artwork. Naturally the leap from page to screen meant the story had to be significantly fleshed out, but who could possibly step up to the task?
Eh, how about the guy behind the biggest animated adult show of all time?
To this day I have no idea why Matt Groening took the job but I sure as hell am grateful for it. He, along with Futurama co-creator David X. Cohen, took what could have been another simple Christmas special and injected it with the sly modern wit and cheeky sense of humor they’re known for (the fact that Olive premiered on the same night Futurama did couldn’t have been a coincidence either). They spice up the proceedings with wonderful touches exclusive to this adaptation: the other characters with mondegreen names; the snappy dialogue; the background sight gags that you have to watch multiple times to catch; the running joke with the cordless drill; the self-depreciating jabs at Fox, and more. The smart writing in addition to the unique animation gives this outing a strong sense of identity without losing the heart and charm that’s inherent to the story. It also marks Olive as the only “family-friendly” thing Groening’s made to date; an interesting designation to have, but not a bad one at all.
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?!”
Rocko’s Modern Life was one of my favorite Nicktoons growing up, though I had shockingly little memories of watching the holiday episode. I remembered the first minute, but not what happened afterwards, maybe because I was unable to finish watching it for whatever reason. When I got the complete series a few years back I was thrilled to finally watch it in its entirety and has since become one of my must-see annual Christmas episodes of any tv series. Sometimes I even watch it when it isn’t Christmas because it’s just too fun to have to wait for it.
For anyone who’s not familiar with Rocko’s Modern Life, it’s one of those cartoons that sounds really weird when trying to explain the premise yet works almost flawlessly in practice. Created during the first big wave of Nicktoons in the early 90’s Rocko’s Modern Life is a slice-of-life series about a down-to-earth wallaby, the titular Rocko, who moves from Australia to O-Town, U.S.A. and his miscellaneous adventures with his buddies as he adjusts to life in America. This being an early Nicktoon, it’s got wacky animation and a ton of adult humor that went over my head as a kid but I freaking loved it. It’s certainly not without some heart, either. Joe Murray, the creator, incorporated some of his own life experiences into certain episodes like “I Have No Son” and the famous “Wacky Delli” and you can tell it comes from a genuine emotional place. It’s a show shockingly very relatable now that I’m older. So how does it dish out its own brand of yuletide spirit? Let’s find out.
I’d like to apologize for the early post. I accidentally scheduled it to go up before it was completed. On the bright side it gives me better segue into the review instead of jumping right into it.
So how does Futurama fare on its second Christmas outing? Let’s continue.
It’s Christmas Eve once again, and the head of Walter Cronkite appears on the news to warn the world of Santa’s impending jolly rampage. Prof. Farnsworth has Planet Express HQ barricaded to the extreme so no one can get in or out. Unfortunately he has one last mission for Leela, Bender and Fry – delivering children’s letters to Santa.
On their way to his fortress on Neptune, Fry and Leela read some of the letters. Each one is a plea Santa not to visit and inflict pain and terror as he does every year. Once again Fry wishes for the good old days when Xmas was about bringing the family together and not blowing them apart. After landing on Neptune and seeing the squalor the Neptunians, the aliens who used to act as his elves, are living in after Santa shuttered the toy factory, the three come up with a plan to stop his evil deeds forever.
The elves usher the sack of letters into the fortress with the gang inside. Santa, now voiced by John DiMaggio, is busy watching people around the world and marking them down as naughty regardless of what they do. I have to admit, as great a voice actor as DiMaggio is, it’s jarring to hear the voice of Santa switch from John Goodman to someone trying to sound like him. Was Goodman too expensive to have return? Was it just easier for DiMaggio to just do an impression? I like consistency in my voice acting, and this is a change I’m not completely fond of.
Anyway, just to get an idea of how Santa judges, he sees the robot mafia beating up a shopkeeper for protection money and judges them as naughty. He also judges the shopkeeper to be naughty, however, because he’s not paying them. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say he’d come to the same conclusion even if he did, meaning Santa really needs to be taken down a notch.
Everyone pops out of the bag but Leela slams Santa with a head-exploding paradox before he can kill them: his job is to give presents to the nice and destroy the naughty, however most of those he punishes are in fact nice, meaning HE must be naughty and destroyed as well. Sure enough, this causes Santa’s head to explode. Before they can celebrate, however, a new head pops out of his body because he was built with paradox-absorbing backups or something like that. He gives chase and while holding back the Planet Express ship, the engines melt the ice beneath him. He sinks and gets frozen up to his head. Everyone is overjoyed that Santa’s reign of terror is over and Fry decides to take on the role of gift giver. Bender points out that only a robot would be able to deliver billions of gifts in one night and begrudgingly decides to become Santa himself. What follows is one of my favorite musical Futurama moments where everyone works last minute to prepare for Bender’s flight. It’s catchy, the lyrics are funny, and Katey Segal has some nice pipes.
Bender arrives at the first home to find that the family there is afraid for their lives. They believe his promise of gifts are nothing but a trick and unleash whatever firearms they have on him. Bender is met with generally the same attitude at every house he visits, even at Planet Express. This is the biggest problem I have with this episode. After hundreds of years of having Santa be viewed as a literal killing machine, did nobody think to spread the news that there’s a new kinder non-violent Santa out to spread holiday cheer? It’s not like the internet doesn’t exist in this universe; it does, though it’s a bit like Tron where you get zapped inside virtual reality to do things. All it takes is one message or video sent out to the public and boom, no more worrying about Santa. This massive oversight has even harsher consequences for Bender as the police catch him on a street corner nursing his wounded pride with some liquor and also mistake him for the actual violent Santa. They arrest him, and after a kangaroo courtroom scene, he is sentenced to death for his crimes against humanity.
Knowing the only way to clear Bender’s name is to show the real Santa, Leela and Fry fly back to Neptune to take his frozen body back to Earth. Unfortunately they find the planet under the effects of extreme global warming due to pollution from the toy factory and Santa is freed from his icy tomb. After escaping his holly jolly wrath, Fry and Leela flee to think up another way to save Bender. Both are unaware that Santa has stowed away on the ship.
Mayor Poopenmeyer prepares to execute Bender by pulling him apart with electromagnets (because it’s the only humane way that isn’t boring) but Hermes, Fry and Amy appear in Santa garb pulling an “I’m Spartacus!” in a last ditch effort to make everyone believe they have the wrong Santa Claus.
And Zoidberg shows up as Jesus, just in case someone watching the execution complains about not having enough Christ in Christmas.
The Mayor isn’t convinced though, and begins the process of tearing Bender slowly in two. It’s horrible, but at least it’s not boring. The real Santa barges in, shoots up the place and frees him. Bender thanks him while also pleading for his life, but Santa’s not here for revenge. Time is running short, and Santa needs all the help he can get in order to “save” Christmas, so he recruits Bender to join his slaying. As they wreak havoc throughout the world together, everyone at Planet Express huddles together for safety and Fry comes to a realization – this Xmas HAS brought them together, not with love but with fear, and that counts for something.
As the night ends, Santa gives Bender a small present as his way of saying thank you. Bender’s disappointed that it’s an empty box, but Santa explains: “It might appear empty, but the message is clear – play Santa again and I’ll kill you next year!” Then he kicks him out of the sleigh in midair.
Personally I prefer the first Futurama Xmas episode over this one, but “A Tale of Two Santas” isn’t without its merits. I like the song in this one more, the moments in the courtroom and leading up to Bender’s execution are funny, and the characters are very much in character with Bender only becoming Santa under protest but also with the hope that he’ll be showered with praise and rewards for doing so. They even have some fun with the fact that he’s possibly, with the exception of the Robot Devil and Richard Nixon’s head, the most evil character on the show, as shown in this moment where Santa is asking Bender to join him after breaking him out.
Fry: Don’t do it! He’s evil!
Santa: I know he is, but that’s beside the point.
Other than that, the voice acting inconsistency rubs me the wrong way, especially since they keep DiMaggio as Santa for the rest of the series, the plothole with them not telling anyone before sending Bender out to deliver presents bugs me, and while the moments of mean-spirited comedy were handled well in the previous episode, they’re not here. If it were me I would have had the last scene with Bender and Santa happen before Fry and the Planet Express crew huddle together and have Bender come crashing in and joining them, making the ending both darkly humorous and heartwarming. All this still doesn’t stop me from watching it at least a few parts from it though, if not the full episode.
There is one other Futurama holiday-themed episode made during the series’ second run, but I won’t be looking into it because fans like myself agree it’s one of the worst episodes of the show. They go for a Treehouse of Horror/Anthology of Interest approach with three different tales relating to the big three December holidays – Christmas, Hanukkah (or in this case Robonukkah for Bender) and Kwanzaa, but the comedy is awful, the songs are forced and forgettable, and it ends with every single one of the characters dying in horrible ways. If I had to choose between that and “A Tale of Two Santas”, I’d pick the latter in a heartbeat.
(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material.)
“Twas a long time ago,
Longer now than it seems
In a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams
For the story that you are about to be told
Took place in the holiday worlds of old.
Now you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from.
If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you’d begun…”
– Opening narration
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a movie that I’ve always had a personal connection to. It was released when I was just a child, but I can still remember seeing ads and toys for it in certain places and being oddly fascinated by it, despite the fact that it had ghosts and skeletons and monsters and other such things that would usually scare the bejeezus out of me at that age. I can still remember my first time ever seeing the movie – not in theaters, but at my cousin’s third birthday party. He was a year younger than me, and on his birthday that year, all us kids gathered in the basement of his house and watched this movie in the dark. Whether there were any adults there to supervise us I can’t say, but I can say that I was enraptured by every second of it. I can vaguely remember some of the other children being a little afraid, but I wasn’t (well, maybe for two parts, but those were rather quick moments that didn’t traumatize me as much as you might think). Up until then I had never seen anything like The Nightmare Before Christmas; it was dark but not gruesome, lighthearted without being sappy, humorous, heartwarming, and the visuals and the music stayed in my head long afterwards.
I remember really enjoying it, but a long time passed between that one viewing and the next time I would see it again. For whatever reason, maybe they thought I would be too scared by it, my parents never bought the movie for me. It wasn’t until I was about thirteen or fourteen that I caught it on HBO one day, and all those memories of watching it through the eyes of a child came flooding back. I became obsessed with The Nightmare Before Christmas big time, watching it and listening to the soundtrack even when it wasn’t Halloween or Christmas, learning all I could about the movie via books and dvd bonus features, and yes, making fanart of the characters. It was my gateway to the dark and quirky world of Tim Burton, and seeing as how I was also going through an angry, rebellious, anti-Rankin-Bass phase as a teenager, I embraced this movie with open arms while my family looked on with something that wasn’t quite disgust and wasn’t quite confusion.
And for the record, this was BEFORE this chain got their sticky fingerless gloves all over it and slapped the characters’ faces on everything they could sell, freakin’ posers.
So you may be wondering what the story behind this odd little film is. Well, back in the 80’s Tim Burton worked for Disney as an animator. Yes, the Man of Merry Macabre once worked for the bright and squeaky-clean House of Mouse. I still have a hard time believing it (What Alice in Wonderland movie? Disney only made one Wonderland film and it was animated, silly!) Burton’s time at Disney wasn’t a happy one as most of his ideas were shot down for being too dark and different and he wasn’t too keen on drawing only cutesy animals for a living.
One day, while walking down a street, he came across a window display in a store having its Halloween decorations switched out with Christmas ones and inspiration struck. He wrote a poem based on the classic holiday tome “The Night Before Christmas” showing what happened when two holidays collided. Initially he pitched it as a half-hour stop-motion special, ironically in the style of Rankin-Bass, and he wanted it to be narrated by his idol, Vincent Price. Disney, however, wasn’t interested, and Burton would eventually leave the studio. It wasn’t until after he achieved popularity with “Beetlejuice” and “Batman” that Disney approached him with the idea of turning The Nightmare Before Christmas into a movie. Burton was all for it, but couldn’t direct it himself due to his commitment to filming “Batman Returns”. Instead, he got stop-motion artist Henry Selick to direct it.
Now I’d like to clarify something right away – this is a Tim Burton movie through and through; his name and signature style may be all over this film (heck, the title of the film is preceded by Burton’s name just to remind you whose brainchild it was), but I cannot give enough credit to Henry Selick. The man is a genius of stop-motion; his name is up there with Ray Harryhausen and Nick Park as the best in the business. People often assume that because it’s a Burton film with his name in the title that Tim Burton directed it, but it’s not. Selick did an amazing job with this movie and I’m happy to say it’s led to a very fruitful career for him, directing other stop-motion greats such as James and the Giant Peach and Coraline. Even though there have been innovations in animation since then, this film looks just as great today as it did twenty years ago. So while the story and characters are pure Tim Burton, this movie is just as much Henry Selick’s as it is Tim’s. You’ll see why when I finally get around to reviewing it…
…which is now.
We open in the middle of a forest, where, in a clearing, there is a circle of trees, each one with a door representing a different holiday – an egg for Easter, a heart for Valentine’s Day, a clover for St. Patrick’s Day, a Christmas tree for Christmas, a turkey for Thanksgiving, a jack-o-lantern for Halloween, and one which for years I was unsure was either a firecracker for 4th of July or a dreidel for Hanukkah. We can only imagine how this film would have turned out if it was “The Nightmare Before Hanukkah” instead of Christmas.
Anyway, as the opening narration wraps up, we enter the jack-o-lantern door and we get our first musical number “This is Halloween.”
Oh, and did I forget to mention that longtime Tim Burton collaborator and former Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman did the music for this movie? How foolish of me. How could it have possibly slipped my mind when this music is OHMYGOSHUNBELIVABLYAWESOMEANDBEAUTIFULANDBLAAAAAAGHHHH –
Uh, can I pay you to pretend that didn’t just happen?