101 Dalmatians: A Christmas Cruella

TitleDebuted in 1997

23 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Cruella DeVil fires Anita on Christmas Eve and is then the victim of an accident, when a Christmas tree falls on her. When she wakes up, she is visited by three spirits who show her scenes from her past, present and future. Realizing she can be a better person, she gives Anita her job back and spends holidays with their family and all the puppies.

Fun Fact: This is the only episode of the TV series to be released on DVD.

My thoughts: I am a professed Disney fan, but my enthusiasm is geared more towards the movies and theme parks and less toward their television offerings. This is the only episode of the show that I have ever seen, but it doesn’t leave me wanting to watch more. The glimpse that we get into Cruella DeVil’s past here shows that she grew up with parents who were absent most of the time, leaving her in the care of nannies. We see that the one gift she always wanted and never got was a Dalmatian puppy, which is meant to give some meaning to her cruel nature where the puppies are concerned. Overall, though, it feels like a mighty big stretch. The problem with doing a Christmas Carol themed episode of a regular show is that, unless you’re drastically changing the show, the ‘Scrooge’ character has to go back to being bad after the episode is over. So the change for that one episode doesn’t mean much. There were a couple of funny moments in this one, though, including the fact that Cruella can’t find an open store to buy presents for everyone when she goes to spend Christmas with them, so she brings home office supplies from her office and hands them out instead. Overall, though, this one’s probably only for those who are already fans of the show.

Crazy Cruella

No person should have this many angles.

Angel

This is the ‘angel’ on the top of Cruella’s tree.  Seems about right.

Scary ghost

What the hell is going on here?

Unscary ghost

Least scary Ghost of Christmas Future ever.

Individual Superlative: When All Else Fails, End on a Pee Joke – At the end of the special, Cruella picks up a puppy to hug, only to be told she’s chosen Whizzer, who promptly pees on her. I have to think that Roger and Anita doomed him to this behavior by giving him the name Whizzer.

Want to Watch it? 101 Dalmatians: A Christmas Cruella is available on VHS, DVD and YouTube.

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A Christmas Carol

TitleDebuted in 1971

25 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge has no use for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, he’s visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who show him the error of his ways. Changed by the experience, he embraces the season and those around him.

Fun Fact: Even though this was made for television, this special won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, prompting the Academy to change the qualification guidelines.

My thoughts: For my money, the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge has always been Alistair Sim, from the 1951 movie version. So I was super intrigued to see that he had performed the character again, 20 years later, for an animated version. Michael Hordern, who was Jacob Marley in the 1951 version, also reprises his role here. Although this version is animated, I think it’s pretty clear that it was never intended to be a children’s cartoon. This version concentrates on the grittier parts of the story, painting Scrooge’s London as dark and poverty-ridden, echoing his miserly nature. They condense the story down and hit all the important highlights, but interestingly keep a scene from the book that very few adaptations keep, in which the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to some remote places (such as a lighthouse, a ship and a place where miners live) to show him people celebrating Christmas. There is very little music of any kind in this special and all these things combine to make Scrooge’s transformation even more compelling at the end. It’s a really good version, especially if you’re looking for one that captures the spirit of the original story.

Thoughts

Young Ebenezer Scrooge can think about lots of things at once.

Marley

I can’t unsee this Jacob Marley!

Old Joe

Old Joe and the cleaning women sort through Scrooge’s things and are drawn roughly, making them even creepier.

Happy Scrooge

Scrooge looks ready for a big dance number! Break it down, Ebenezer!

 

Individual Superlative: Actual Creepiest Jacob Marley – Okay, I know I said that Jacob Marley’s ghost in the 1969 animated version was the creepiest, but that’s because I hadn’t see this one yet. They leave in the part from the book where he unties the ribbon around his head and his jaw drops to his chest.  Holy cats!

Want to Watch it? A Christmas Carol is available on VHS, DVD and YouTube.

Sanford and Son: Ebenezer Sanford

TitleDebuted in 1975

20 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: After insulting his friends and family, taking advantage of a local kid who is looking to earn a little extra Christmas money and being too lazy to celebrate the holiday, Fred falls asleep in his chair. In his dream, his son Lamont appears as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future and shows him the error of his ways. When he wakes up, Fred sets out to make things right and joins his friends for a Christmas party.

Fun Fact: Redd Foxx’s real name was John Elroy Sanford and his character was named for his brother, Fred.

My thoughts: Sanford and Son was an American-ized version of the 1960’s British sitcom, Steptoe and Son. I grew up watching this show and it was much later that I learned that Redd Foxx was notoriously filthy in his standup act. It didn’t really surprise me. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this character, though. Like many 70’s sitcoms, the show had a lot of recurring bits that you waited for in every episode. You know Fred is going to insult Aunt Esther and he does so hilariously here, responding to her declaration of having the spirit of Christmas by telling her she also has the face of Halloween. You know he’s going to have a fake heart attack and claim he’s soon to join his wife, Elizabeth. But you also know that there’s a good heart inside this guy and this episode plays that up bigtime. He owns up to his behavior, which is something you rarely see him do and he unselfishly gives away his own gifts to make things right for the kid who helps him out. And the show closes with him singing ‘The Christmas Song’ amongst the rest of the cast and it’s surprisingly sweet.

Aunt Esther

Aunt Esther, smiling in the face of the insults she had to have been expecting.

Fredsie and Mom

Fred’s mother calls him ‘Fredsie’ which so doesn’t fit his adult persona.

Christmas Future

The ghost of Christmas Future is Lamont in a space suit. Perfect.

Party

Fred may be crotchety, but he’s a well loved guy.

Individual Superlative: The Actor of Sanford Future – Eric Laneuville appears in this episode as Ronnie Small, the neighborhood kid earning money to buy gifts for his parents. He plays a different recurring character in the final season as Aunt Esther’s adopted son.

Want to Watch it? Sanford and Son: Ebenezer Sanford is available on YouTube.

Back to the Future: A Dickens of a Christmas

TitleDebuted in 1991

23 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: On a hot summer day, Doc Brown, his family and Marty McFly go back in time to Christmas in London in 1845 to cool off and enjoy the holiday. The Brown family has a run-in with Ebiffnezer Tannen, with Clara thrown in debtor’s prison and Jules and Verne forced to join a pickpocket gang. Marty pretends to be the spirit of Christmas to show Ebiffnezer the error of his ways and everyone is reunited before returning to the present time.

Fun Fact: This series marks the television debut of Bill Nye on a nationally broadcast show.

My thoughts: The animated series picks up where the popular Back to the Future movie trilogy leaves off, focusing more on the Brown family than on Marty McFly (although Marty is a regular character). The series ran for two seasons and was not picked up for a third, due to low ratings. I had never seen any episodes before watching this one and honestly, I’m astounded to hear it even got a second season. Everything about this special was bad and it was really disappointing to see that original movie cast members Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen and Thomas Wilson agreed to be involved in it. Christopher Lloyd provided short live action bumpers at the beginning and end of the show, but didn’t voice his own animated character, leaving that to voice actor extraordinaire, Dan Castellaneta. At the end of the episode, Doc Brown shares a little science fact and Bill Nye demonstrates it. I imagine this was supposed to give the show a little educational credibility. But the animation is low quality, the writing is terrible, the jokes are painfully unfunny and the plot was ridiculous so I can’t say that a minute or so of science education really helped.  Can I borrow the DeLorean to go back in time 24 minutes to before I watched this?

Family

Doc and his wife have such long necks! How do they hold their heads up?

Singers

This group of singers serves as a sort of Greek chorus.

Ghost of Christmas Future

Marty as the ghost of Christmas Future is actually from the future, so this checks out.

Bill Nye

Run, Bill Nye!  Don’t just stand there grinning, RUN!

Individual Superlative: Blimey, Guv’nor! – The ‘British’ accents in this thing are grossly over-exaggerated, to the point where I became pretty sure there was a competition amongst the voice actors to see who could be the most over the top. I hope the winner got some bangers and mash.

Want to Watch it? Back to the Future: Dickens of a Christmas is available on DVD.

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol

titleDebuted in 1988

44 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Ebenezer Blackadder is the kindest man in England and although he’s only planned a modest Christmas for himself and his employee, Baldrick, he ends up giving away all their money, food and presents. The Spirit of Christmas visits him during the night to congratulate him on his goodness and mentions that his ancestors were not as good, showing him the sly craftiness of two of them. When Ebenezer Blackadder sees what the future hold if he stays good versus what happens if he becomes devious and greedy like the others, he sees that ‘bad guys have all the fun’ and changes his ways.

Fun Fact: Robbie Coltrane’s appearance as the Spirit of Christmas is very similar to his appearance as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies and, since J.K. Rowling started writing the first book two years after this special, some believe was inspired by this when writing the character.

My thoughts: It’s always great to see a take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that is truly innovative and this one absolutely turns it on its head. Here, the Scrooge character starts out good and becomes bad because of what the ghost shows him and it’s very funny, particularly if you’re already familiar with the characters from the Blackadder BBC series.  The show ran for four seasons, each set in a different time period and centered around Edmund Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson), a scheming man whose motivations lean toward acquiring more power, money or status for himself. This special aired between Seasons 2 and 3 and showed new scenes from Season 2 (which took place in Medieval England) and Season 3 (which was set during the Elizabethan Era). The future scenes showed Blackadder’s descendant becoming a galactic High Commander and marrying a queen if he goes bad versus becoming a slave to Baldrick’s descendants if he stays good. The show is full of laugh out loud moments and silly characters, and there’s a great moral punch line where Ebenezer discovers that his new bad behavior has directly prevented him from receiving a special reward from Queen Victoria, showing how ultimately, you reap what you sow. It’s a fun and enjoyable take on the classic tale.

spirit-of-christmas

The Spirit of Christmas looks like he could use a good conditioner.

queen-elizabeth

I like to think Queen Elizabeth looked and acted exactly like this.

piglet-features

It’s too late to cover her ears now, Albert. She already heard Blackadder call her ‘Queen Piglet Features.’

future

It takes a courageous man to wear that skimpy costume.

Individual Superlative: Most Bizarrely Hilarious Rewritten Christmas Song – The very large orphans serenade Mr. Blackadder with a version of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in which they replace almost all the words with repetitions of ‘piggy wiggy woo’ and that ridiculous version has become a holiday staple in our house.

Want to Watch it? Blackadder’s Christmas Carol  is available on DVD and iTunes.

Scrooge Loose

TitleDebuted in 1957

6 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Gumby & Pokey (posing as Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson) see Scrooge escaping from his storybook and pursue him. Scrooge disappears into a Santa Claus story, steals a bag of presents and replaces all the toys with rocks. Gumby ties up Scrooge and puts him in the bag, then Santa mistakenly takes him on his sleigh ride.

Fun Fact: Gumby gets his name from the clay used to make him, which creator Art Clokey got from his grandparents farm. They called it ‘gumbo’ so he named his new character Gumby.

My thoughts: The Gumby cartoons have always struck me as weird. The character voices are strange and sound like they were recorded inside a tin can and then played back at a faster speed. Gumby and Pokey were cool looking characters, but whenever they tried to animate human faces, they just looked so freaky. You see that here in both Scrooge and Santa Claus, who are both just really unsettling. It’s not all bad, though. There are some cool elements in this short, including characters jumping into books and moving around inside of book worlds, which helped make Gumby a spokesperson for the Library of Congress and its reading campaign in the 90’s. It’s also pretty funny when Scrooge pushes all the toys off the side of the table onto the floor, where both Gumby and Pokey splat into puddles of clay. And the ending is so abrupt and weird (see Individual Superlative below) that I was certain my copy had been cut short. But no, that’s the ending. Huh.

Scrooge

Gumby seems to have misgivings.

Tractor

For a Dickensian literary character, Scrooge has mad skills at driving tractors.

Scrooge is terrifying

Whoa…Scrooge is a really creepy character.

Terrifying Santa

Yikes! I think Santa is even creepier.

Individual Superlative: Most Apathetic Ending – When Gumby realizes that Santa has taken off with a bag full of Scrooge instead of toys, he just makes a joke and grins, watching the sleigh fly away.

Want to Watch it? Scrooge Loose is available on YouTube.

Rich Little’s Christmas Carol

Title

Debuted in 1978

55 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge has no use for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, he’s visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who show him the error of his ways. Changed by the experience, he embraces the season and those around him.

Fun Fact: Rich Little used to incorporate a Christmas Carol bit in his stand-up routine, but Scrooge was Jack Benny instead of W.C. Fields.

My thoughts: When I was young, this special was an annual staple on HBO, along with Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t. We were big fans of Rich Little’s celebrity impressions at my house and I remember watching The Kopycats, which was a TV variety series based entirely around impressionists. In this version of Dickens’ story, Little plays every character as a different celebrity (or famous character) and some of them work really well (such as Humphrey Bogart as the Ghost of Christmas Past) and some of them really don’t (such as Inspector Clouseau as the Ghost of Christmas Future – it’s a terrible idea to get silly with the most serious part of the story). The show was videotaped and features a laugh track that is overused to the point of distraction. The writing throughout is peppered with one-liners and cheesy jokes and there are a few musical numbers thrown in for good measure. I remember enjoying this when I first saw it, but it is tremendously dated at this point and because of that, it just doesn’t hold up all that well.

Nixon as Marley

As Jacob Marley, Richard Nixon is wrapped up in tape instead of chains.

Groucho

Groucho is Mr. Fezziwig.  Now you KNOW those parties would be legendary.

Tiny Tim

This is just wrong.

Three Men

In case you ever said to yourself, “I wish John Wayne, James Mason and George Burns had done a movie together.”

Individual Superlative: RIP Everyone – It seems that every time this special gets mentioned, someone jokes about how all the impersonated celebrities are dead and many of them were probably dead when it was made. Actually, only six of them were already dead when this premiered in 1978 and three of them actually made it into the 21st century. But they’re all gone now, since Jean Stapleton passed in 2013.

Want to Watch it? Rich Little’s Christmas Carol is available on DVD and in segments on YouTube.