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.
Ah, back to stop-motion animation. After dealing with Frosty’s nonsense I’m unsure as to whether or not I missed it.
Like most iconic fictional characters, Santa’s been the subject of many origin stories. My personal favorite is The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn, which combines his saintly origins with interesting tidbits about his modern portrayal and a ton of fun historical fiction (he’s helped shape events like Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and instead of elves he has a boatload of historical figures gain immortality to help him including Leonardo Da Vinci, Theodore Roosevelt and Attila The freaking Hun! It had me at hello!) Of course, Rankin-Bass had to do their own spin on the Santa mythos (not for the last time either as one of their final specials was based on L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus) and they did it by combining it with their tried-and-true method of basing it off a holiday standard.
In my last episode I talked about Rugrats and how big a part of my childhood it was. While nothing will ever change that, there’s one other Nicktoon that came out a few years later which certainly rose in my estimation as I got older.
Originally a character created by Craig Bartlett as a series of claymation shorts for Sesame Street, Hey Arnold was a show that brought us a colorful cast of characters and taught some surprisingly deep life lessons when not making us crack up. It centers around the titular Arnold, your seemingly average nice guy kid who’s the voice of reason among his group of eclectic friends and the kooky boardinghouse he calls home (and if it were up to me the complete series DVD set would come in a box shaped like that boardinghouse and have the stampede of animals from the into pop out when you open it, but we can still dream). Boasting a jazzy soundtrack, unique character designs, great voicework done by actual kids instead of adults posing as them, and some unforgettable moments of humor and heartbreak, it’s become a cult classic that 90’s kids like myself consider one of the very best of the original Nicktoons. And of course this past November, after fifteen agonizing years of wondering and waiting, we finally got the long-awaited Jungle Movie where the mystery of what the heck happened to Arnold’s parents was solved, so this is my one chance to hit on one of the standout entries to this classic series while the iron’s still hot. Let’s take a look at “Arnold’s Christmas”.
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” holds a very special place in my heart in terms of Simpsons episodes. It’s not only the first episode of the series, but also the very first one I ever watched at the impressionable age of two or three. This was before The Simpsons got its reputation for not being a particularly family-friendly show, but early enough that it was the only episode I saw in full for years due to parental interference. Then they released the seasons annually on DVD and my cousin got me into it after he started collecting them. I love the show as much as anyone else does (the first ten or so seasons were great, then it’s a long slow trip downhill). The Simpsons have done quite a lot of Christmas episodes in their nearly 30 season run, but how does their first one hold up? Let’s look.
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.
Futurama is one of my favorite television series. The brainchild of Matt Goening, creator of The Simpsons, it enjoyed a brief run on Fox before regaining popularity on Adult Swim reruns, which was how I was introduced to it. After some successful direct-to-video movies, it was revived on Fox for a few more seasons. It has a hard-earned place in the heart of nerd culture for its sense of humor, beloved characters, and crazy world of New-New York, 3000 AD. Early on in its second season, the first Christmas episode, “Xmas Story”, premiered in time for the holidays, and I’ll be looking at it today.
But first, a brief breakdown of the series up to that point: Our main character, Philip J. Fry, is a 30 year old pizza delivery boy from the year 1999. On New Year’s Eve, he was accidentally cryogenically frozen and awoken in the year 3000. He becomes a delivery boy for Planet Express, a delivery company run by his extremely great-nephew, Prof. Farnsworth and works alongside a cyclops alien captain named Leela and amoral beer-guzzling robot Bender as he tries to adjust to this strange new world.
The Planet Express crew – Fry (Billy West), Leela (Katey Segal), Bender (John DiMaggio) and Farnsworth (also West) as well as intern Amy Wong (Lauren Tom), bureaucrat Hermes Conrad (Phil LaMarr) and Dr. Zoidberg (West) – spend a day up at the Catskills enjoying the comedic stylings of Conan O’Brien’s head (celebrities and presidents from years gone by are preserved as living heads in jars). After Bender and Conan heckle each other, everyone goes skiing and plenty of slapstick ensues.
While relaxing at the lodge Fry remarks that it’s moments like this that puts you in the Christmas mood. The others are confused over this “Christmas” until Fry spells it as “Xmas”. It turns out in the future people just call it the abbreviated version of the holiday. Fry is a little sad that this will be his first Xmas without his family, but the gang tries to cheer him up by going to the woods and chopping down an old-fashioned tree. This only exacerbates Fry’s homesickness as he learns that pine trees have been extinct for centuries and palm trees are now the go-to Xmas tree substitute.
They fly back to Planet Express HQ and decorate, but Fry is too caught up in his memories of Xmas past to join in the fun. Hermes delivers cards from family members to everyone in the crew but Leela. Leela takes a moment for herself to look at some old pictures from her childhood. All of them are of her without family or friends. She returns in time for Fry to loudly demand some sympathy and she runs off crying. Fry wonders what that was about and Amy reminds him that Leela was an orphan, and the only known cyclops species in the universe. Fry may feel alone this Xmas, but Leela’s spent her whole life alone.
Bender catches a touching story on the news about homeless robots getting the alcohol they need to function from soup kitchens and decides to go to one himself – not to volunteer of course, but to help himself to free booze.
Fry, meanwhile, is feeling awful for being insensitive towards Leela and vows to find her the perfect Xmas present to cheer her up. It’s getting dark though, and the crew warns him that Santa will be out soon. In one last stark bit of contrast to our Christmas, they reveal Santa is a robot (voiced by John Goodman) originally built to judge who’s been naughty or nice and deliver presents, but his standards have been set to beyond Jesus-levels of niceness and he automatically judges everyone to be naughty. Rather than distribute coal, he punishes everyone in extremely violent ways. This doesn’t put Fry off, however, and he searches all of New-New York to find a good last-minute gift.
At the homeless shelter, Bender is able to pass himself off as a homeless robot and he guzzles as much alcohol as he can get his hands on. He softens for a moment on seeing a crippled orphan robot Tinny Tim approach bowl in hand like Oliver Twist but is denied after the kitchen runs out. He doesn’t give him his alcohol, but he does let him hang out with him for the rest of the episode which counts for something I guess.
Fry tracks down a pet store two minutes before closing and is torn between buying a $500 parrot or 500 lizards that cost a dollar each.
Never mind that Leela already has a pet that poops out free fuel and has the voice of Frank Welker.
Fry decides on the parrot but it quickly proves to be a nuisance and it escapes. Fry climbs on to a clock tower ledge to retrieve it and ends up clinging for his life Harold Lloyd-style. Leela appears to rescue him after the crew told her where he went. As they both walk home, they realize that though they’re both alone, they can be alone together. Everything is wrapped up nicely…
“I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE VINE! I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE VINE!!”
Santa appears and is ready to stuff their stockings until they burst for not considering each others’ or their coworkers’ feelings. Leela and Fry find themselves cornered say their goodbyes. Fry notices that they’re standing under mistletoe, making their farewell a bittersweet one…until they’re interrupted by Santa’s TOW missile heading for them. They’re saved at the last minute by the parrot conveniently flying in its path.
They run into Bender and Tinny Tim, who have been out robbing old ladies together under the guise of friendly carolers. Santa calls out Bender for being especially naughty. Bender tries to pin his long roster of crimes on Tinny Tim, and when Santa stops to add the act of framing an orphan to his list they all make a break for Planet Express. They manage to get inside but so do Santa and his reindeer before the chimney can be blocked.
Santa declares everyone to be naughty and worthy of his punishment – except for Zoidberg. He gets a pogo stick. With Santa’s belly shaking a bowlful of nitro glycerin and Rudolph’s glowing nose as the timer, it seems like everyone is doomed. Zoidberg uses his present to reach the Christmas lights and cut them, electrocuting Santa. They succeed in kicking him and the reindeer into the fireplace and covering it before Santa is blown sky high.
Everyone can relax now that the danger is over and Bender makes Xmas dinner out of a very familiar-looking dead bird. Now I’m not one for mean-spiritedness in comedy, but the following exchange is one of my favorite moments in all of Futurama. Bender serves some of the parrot to little Tinny Tim, but Leela’s pet Nibbler gobbles up the entire meal, including Tim’s portion. Fry stands up to make an important announcement:
Fry: Look, the food isn’t what’s important.
Tim: I’m so hungry.
Maybe it’s the delivery, maybe it’s how they play up Tim’s sad little orphan act as much as possible throughout that it transcends tragedy and enters comedy, but it cracks me up every time.
Fry concludes that even though he’s surrounded by aliens and robots and Jamaicans, he feels perfectly at home this Xmas. The evening concludes with everyone cheering and singing that classic song “Santa Claus is Gunning You Down”.
“Xmas Story” is one of my go-to episodes of Futurama, and a perennial holiday favorite. It does a fun job showing what an alternate sci-fi version of Christmas would be like, all played for laughs of course. I didn’t even touch on half the funny lines or scenes in this episode. They go all out on the jokes, even ripping on some beloved stories like A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Gift Of The Magi, but they don’t hold back on the heartwarming moments either. If you’re not familiar with Futurama, the world and the characters that inhabit it might be a lot to take in, but I hope this gives you more incentive to give the series a chance.
But this isn’t the only time Fry Bender and Leela go toe-to-toe with Santa. Join me in the next review to find out who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.