Rudolph is actually QUITE problematic. Here’s why.

Last week at Medium, I had a post about the kind-of-sort-of controversy around Rankin Bass’s Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Really, no one probably cares all that much about the non-issue, but it’s a fun way to look busy during December. Still, as silly as it is to call the 1960s children’s cartoon racist or bigoted, there were some things that are deeply bothersome about this special:

  1. At the end, Hermey the Elf schedules his first appointment for the week after Christmas. The week before Christmas, he was practicing on dolls, and the week after he’s authorized to poke around someone’s gums?
  2. Staying with Hermey, during the climactic scene he de-fangs the abominable snowman – or “The Bumble,” as Yukon Cornelius calls him – just before Rudolph, Clarice, and his family are about to be killed and consumed. The Bumble, as near we can tell, subsists on venison and other meats, probably requiring a protein-heavy diet to carry himself around. So what i he supposed to do without teeth?
  3. Rudolph’s nose is bright enough to cut through dense cloud cover that would have otherwise cancelled Santa’s yearly flight. This level of fog is implied to be unprecedented, yet Rudolph’s light cuts through it. All of the other reindeer laugh and call him names, but did no one think to contact a doctor? At the very least, as a public health measure they should have quarantined him for testing.
  4. Following from point number three, Donner’s attempt to cover Rudolph’s nose is not only poor parenting but wreckless endangerment of public safety.
  5. Also, in the picture where Hermey the Elf is playfully touching Rudolph’s nose – shouldn’t his finger be a singed and possibly tumor-ridden mess?
  6. And by the way, Santa knew about this so he’s complicit. Between this and letting people practice unlicensed dentistry, there’s a potentially massive class action liability here.
  7. Didn’t the Island of Misfit Toys seem a little odd? The winged lion, King Moonracer, insists on Rudolph, Hermey, and Yukon leaving the island pretty quickly, refusing their requests for asylum. On the other hand, he happily brings so-called “misfit” toys to the island. Note the toys on the island they aren’t simply unwanted toys that children have outgrown or grown bored with; the misfit toys he brings back are either obviously defective (such as the cowboy who rides an ostrich) or made to feel defective (such as the Charlie-in-the-Box who functions appropriately, but simply has a different name). It all suggests that King Moonracer is seeking out damaged toys (or toys who can be convinced they’re damaged). He clearly wants Santa to distribute these toys after they’ve been on the island for a while. This seems wrong. Moonracer is up to something.
  8. What’s Yukon Cornelius’s story, anyway? I get that he’s looking for silver and gold, but does anyone already have mineral mining rights on the land he’s dropping his pickaxe on? And if so, what’s his plan – try to buy them out by affecting the appearance of a bumbling prospector? This seems the most realistic business plan he’s following.
  9. Wow, Sam the Snowman seems to know a lot, doesn’t he?
  10. Most problematic of all: People spend way too much time thinking about this stuff. Present company included.

Two Forgotten Christmas Classics Turn 30

A Garfield Christmas Special / christmastvhistory.com

According to IMDB, A Garfield Christmas Special and A Claymation Christmas Celebration both premiered on December 21, 1987, on CBS. They both turned 30 this week.

You can be forgiven for forgetting: Neither seems to have aired on a major network this year… or in the past several years, for that matter. But both used to be seasonal staples for CBS.

Christmas specials tend to fall into one of two broad categories: Either a grumpy killjoy learns the “true meaning of Christmas” (the myriad re-tellings of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” fall into this bucket) or a hero must “save Christmas” by making sure Santa Claus can make his rounds. (One might argue the existence of a third category about finding love for the holidays. I highly recommend the We Just Saw a Movie podcast, which has explored this odd genre in great detail over the past two Yuletides.)

A Garfield Christmas

A Garfield Christmas Special falls into the first category, inviting us to the Arbuckle family farm for a “good old-fashioned Christmas.” There are no human children characters, but thirty-something brothers Jon and Doc-Boy Arbuckle prefigure criticisms of today’s millennials by immediately reverting to childlike behaviors. (Also, we learn that Mr. Arbuckle paid for nearly a quarter century of piano lessons for Doc-boy. That’s… odd.) Garfield, for his part, plays the closest thing the episode has to a Scrooge; while not openly hostile toward the holiday, he welcomes Christmas with a shrug and a trademark, “big fat hairy deal.” He has a heart-to-heart with Grandma Arbuckle (a stereotypical 80’s “sassy old lady” in the mold of Sophia from the Golden Girls) about her late husband, then both gives and receives thoughtful gifts to inspire a change of heart.

As a media franchise, Garfield doesn’t get a lot of credit for its subtle, Letterman-esque sarcasm. There’s passive-aggressive friction between Grandma Arbuckle and her daughter-in-law. There’s Mr. Arbuckle, wondering aloud why he has to entertain his grown offspring with children’s stories, while his wife enables their sons. The family gawks at the Christmas tree that probably looks like every Christmas tree they have put up for decades. Doc-boy spends Christmas morning wearing a bunny rabbit onesie; Jon receives a horrible oversized sweater but seems fairly appreciative nonetheless.

The Arbuckle Family Christmas is at various time silly, ridiculous, tedious, immature… and ultimately perfect because it belongs to them. Garfield himself summarizes the message: “It’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving.”

A Claymation Christmas Celebration

Remember when the GEICO cavemen got their own sitcom? Decades before that debacle, the stop-motion animated California Raisins went from selling dried fruit to multi-media stardom.

The signing raisins were the grand finale of A Claymation Christmas Celebration. Claymation is the rare children’s Christmas program which doesn’t fit into the categories mentioned above; it has more in common with variety specials by the likes of Michael Bublé. Six short, unconnected, musical vignettes fit around the banter between Rex and Herb, a couple of dinosaurs trying to find the definition of the word “wassail.” (They eventually learn from a  band of leprechauns or elves who appear to be driving with open containers.)

Each song is a unique take on a classic. The Magi Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar sing the traditional verses of “We Three Kings,” while their camels provide jazzy, upbeat improvisational choruses. Walruses ice dance to “Angels We Have Heard on High” while inadvertently tormenting a waddle of penguins. The Carol of the Bells is played by an orchestra of anthropomorphic bells who whack themselves with mallets (including one who has apparently taken a few too many hits). And the California Raisins improvise after missing a bus by crafting their own magic sleigh to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

There’s no story to be had here, but each vignette is funny in its own way.  And the music is fun. (There is also something to be said for true, stop-motion claymation. Imagine the painstaking process of sculpting the characters and bringing them to life.)

Why We Don’t See Them Anymore

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Garfield and Claymation were holiday television staples. They aren’t anymore. That’s probably fine.

Cynically, one might blame it all on merchandising. Suction cup Garfields don’t adorn every third car anymore, and dancing clay figures aren’t selling dried grapes. Why devote prime airtime to specials that advertise yesterday’s product when Olaf’s Frozen Adventure could start building excitement for the upcoming-but-still-far-away Frozen 2?

On the other hand, yesterday’s Christmases are yesterday’s Christmases. Today’s Christmases are the wholly owned domain of today’s kids.

Garfield hugging Odie might inspire misty-eyed memories for me, but I can buy Garfield on DVD or watch him on YouTube if I need a nostalgia fix.

Other people (like me) grew up watching this stuff, but my kids don’t know Garfield. They know Olaf the snowman. We watched his special this year, and we all liked it. It was an imaginative story which doesn’t fit into either the “grump finds Christmas Spirit” nor the “save Santa/save Christmas” categories, and that’s a bit refreshing. The music was catchy, and the messages about Christmas traditions and being with loving family were there.

The characters might be different, but the best Christmas stories run a little deeper than that. Maybe, 29 years from now, my kids will look at the calendar and think, “Wow, that Frozen special is 30? That reminds me of when I was a kid…”

 

 

Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?” is the worst kind of bad song

Christmas music doesn’t have to be good to be enjoyable. It’s fun to hear the mixed bag of it all. Pointless, upbeat ditties like “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” share the radio dial with the reverent “O Holy Night” and the wistful “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

Which brings us to the song I’m picking on: Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?” It’s a swing-and-a-miss of a Christmas song.

You’ve heard the song – in fact, you’ve probably heard it a few times just this year. It was, of course, the signature song for Ron Howard’s 2000 adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

The tune isn’t bad. The lyrics ruin what could be a great song.

The first stanza:

Where are you Christmas?
Why can’t I find you?
Why have you gone away?
Where is the laughter
You used to bring me?
Why can’t I hear music play?

Hill goes on to sing about how time has changed her as a person, and wonders if Christmas will ever bring the same enjoyment she enjoyed in her youth.

So far, so good. There could be a very resonant story in here. Hill is singing about something many people go through. As we grow up, Christmas means different things to us. It’s not a bad setup, and has the potential to be a very relevant and affirming song.

After two stanzas of that, we hear this bridge:

Christmas is here
Everywhere, oh
Christmas is here
If you care, oh

If there is love in your heart and your mind
You will feel like Christmas all the time

Okay, I guess? Surely there must be more to this journey. But no, there’s just the last stanza.

Oh, I feel you Christmas
I know I’ve found you
You never fade away…

And that’s pretty much it. To paraphrase the song’s main narrative points:

  • I don’t feel the Christmas spirit this year.
  • It’s Christmas.
  • Okay, I feel the Christmas spirit this year.

This is a Lucy Van Pelt level of holiday psychiatry.

It works a little bit better viewed a companion piece to the Grinch movie, in which the Whos down in Whoville are wrapped up in the material trappings of Christmas at the expense of the Christmas spirit.

Still, this touches a nerve. It could be a really good and unique song. Many people have a soft spot for the Christmasses they celebrated as a kid, when the magic just seemed to happen all around them. Growing to adulthood (which is to say Christmas, as in Yule…) brings the assorted stress points of the holiday season. (Sidebar: This topic was covered in another carol, “The 12 Pains of Christmas.”)

The payoff for being an adult at Christmas is getting to be the magician who makes the Christmas season wonderful for others. Being a musical soliloquy, the song doesn’t tackle that. At the beginning and end of the song , Hill sings about feelings the audience can identify with, but she skips the viable transition.

There’s a story in there, one that audiences would hear and identify with. The songwriters should have had Hill sing about watching her kids at Christmas, or about bringing joy to others. They could have created something with depth that spoke to contemporary audiences. The potential was there to create a true modern classic in the tradition of The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” or Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Auld Lang Syne.

Instead, they skipped the depth and crapped out a shallow, schmaltzy song to promote a mediocre movie. Like a half-assed Christmas gift, it leaves you wishing they just wouldn’t have bothered in the first place.