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.
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.
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.
(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.)
“I’m bad, and that’s good.
I will never be good, and that’s not bad.
There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”
– Bad Guys Anonymous affirmation
So, funny story about my boyfriend and Wreck It Ralph –
I love my boyfriend. I do. You’ll never find a nicer, funnier, knower-of-all-things-relating-to-films-and-pop-culture-in-general-er kind of guy. He got me to ride Splash Mountain for the first time. He opened my eyes to the magic and wonder that is the horror genre of film, as well as some others that apparently exist beyond Disney, fantasy, and musical (boy have I been missing out!). He’s been there for me at times when nobody else in the world has, and inspired me to pursue paths and dreams I once never even considered. I in turn have shared my love of animation and theater and other things with him, and we have both grown and changed because of each other in all the right ways.
Going back to that last overly long bit of description though, he is a massive nerd when it comes to some cultural touchstones, and I mean this in the nicest way possible. Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, video games, cartoons and most movies in general, he loves them all, and during our 5+ years together, he’s managed to indoctrinate me into quite a lot of these factions (When he found out I had the original unaltered Star Wars trilogy on VHS, we spent our first summer together watching them and I rediscovered just how great those films are. Needless to say we’re both hyped for “The Force Awakens”). One of our favorite pastimes when we’re not anticipating the next Marvel movie or planning our next trip to Comic Con is playing videogames, both new and nostalgic.
So when Disney announced that it was making a movie about video games…
And has some name actors playing the parts…
And features some of the most iconic and beloved video game characters of all time…
And it takes place in different video game worlds in a single arcade…
You can bet he was first in line to see it. I, on the other hand, could go either way. Sure, Princess and the Frog and Tangled both proved Disney could do fairy tales right again, but could Disney handle something so steeped in pop culture and do it well without turning it into something like High School Musical or Pixels? I went in with some trepidation but in the end I came out smiling. It’s definitely in my Top 20 favorite Disney films, and one of my favorites of this recent Disney Animation revival period. My boyfriend on the other hand…
…well, we both enjoyed the Paperman short that came before it. That’s what counts, right?
To clarify, he doesn’t hate the movie, he just happens to fall into one of two camps that I’ve noticed exist concerning one character that either makes or breaks the film for some people. He enjoys much of the first act, but when that one character comes in, he’s out the door. I’ll go into more detail when we get to this person, but now, the review.
We open with an 8-bit version of the Steamboat Willie logo for Disney Animation, which is very promising. The animators have really done their homework on this one. They nail the 8-bit style animation seen throughout the film in cutscenes and how the players view the game, and even in how some of the older characters move normally within their games compared to the more recent ones. Originally this film was going to be traditionally animated (and if you look hard online you’ll see some really good pencil tests of the characters done by Eric Goldberg and Nik Ranieri) but for a film like this the animation should be done in CGI. All video games are computer games by default, and having it switch from CG to traditional animation would feel jarring. Sad to say it’d be hard to have a video game world that’s hand-drawn and make it believable.
Not you, though, Dragon’s Lair. You’re cool.
Our protagonist, the titular Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), narrates his life story – he’s the villain in a popular Donkey Kong/Super Mario-esque arcade game, Fix-It Felix Jr., and his job is to make trouble for the game’s good guy, Felix, while he tries to repair the damage Ralph does to the Niceland apartment building he’s protecting. To be fair, Ralph has every reason to wreck up the place. In the game’s opening animation, we see him being kicked off his land without so much as a by-your-leave and the apartments are built right in front of him.
If this happened in the real world, he’d have no less than eight petitions, three Gofundme campaigns and a barrage of hashtag spams to back him up. #DontMoveRalphsStump
Everyday it’s the same routine – Ralph wrecks the building, Felix fixes it, and Ralph is thrown from the rooftop by the angry tenants before they reward Felix with a medal, pies, and their eternal adoration. Felix enjoys the penthouse suite, Ralph goes to sleep in a dump with nothing but mountains of bricks from the damage he’s caused. It’s enough to make any person depressed, but try doing it for thirty years, which is exactly how long the game has been plugged in the arcade. Ralph finishes his story, and it’s revealed that he’s been telling it to a group of other video game bad guys, some well-known, some obscure.
This is Bad Guys Anonymous, or Bad-Anon for short, where the villains of the arcade come together to share their stories and support each other. Since this is Fix-It Felix’s 30th anniversary, Ralph was finally driven to come to the group and confesses that he doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore, which causes quite a stir (I love how it even makes Clyde go into that blue mode when Pac-Man eats the super-charged pellet). On being asked by M.Bison if he’s going turbo, Ralph denies it. When I first saw this, I thought it was just a shout-out to something M.Bison does because, major confession time, I’ve never played Street Fighter before. But pay attention, this “going turbo” thing will come up again later, right Bison?