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.
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?!”
“If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together.”
Can you believe it’s been nearly four years since I reviewed the first Hobbit movie? *Sigh*, how time flies. My tastes may have matured and expanded, and I like to think my writing has improved too, but my thoughts on The Hobbit trilogy haven’t changed. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is superior, obviously, but I’m quite fond of this slightly smaller yet no less exciting adventure. I went into great detail why in the previous review, but if I had to sum it up I like how it expands upon Middle Earth lore hinted at in Lord of the Rings while decently tying it back to the events of those movies, and it fixes some major character and plot issues I had that kept me from fully enjoying the book it was based on.
While The Hobbit films do suffer from some the same issues as another prequel trilogy that people love to harp on – mainly an over-reliance on CGI and some contrived plotting – I’m relieved to say that poor performances and production value are not among them. The fact that they were able to bring together some great newcomers to the franchise as well as get as many cast members and locations from Lord of the Rings to return and make it all not feel like fanservice is a testament to the writing, craftmanship and direction that went into making these films, even more so since they were under double the studio pressure than they were the first time around. And if I may be shallow for a moment, it also looks really nice. Sometimes I like nothing more than to get lost in an inviting woodland fantasy atmosphere and this scratches my itch every time.
Now we have the much-anticipated Part 2, The Desolation of Smaug. This incarnation of The Hobbit was originally supposed to end here. But at the last minute it was decided that the Battle of the Five Armies, which happens during the last fifty pages of the book, was too important to relegate to the last act of a film that could potentially overreach The Return of the King’s runtime so they made it its own separate movie. I should mention that the copy of Desolation of Smaug I’m reviewing is the theatrical version since I received it as a gift. I saw the extended edition when it came out on blu-ray and the comparison between the two is an…interesting one. The extended cut fixes some of the inconsistent pacing and adds a few welcome character moments both original and from the book, but the rest I could do without. Some scenes stop the movie, sidetrack the main plot for something else to happen and take you out of the moment as a result, or simply add way more than necessary. One of these days I might get around to editing my own cut combining the best of the two, but for now I’d say you’re better off sticking with the theatrical cut in this case. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’ll give special mention to those parts when they’re supposed to come up. So let’s find out if it was it a wise decision to split these movies up or if those naysayers who edited the entire trilogy into one forty-five minute feature were 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.
(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?