Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Well, the final installment of Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of The Hobbit is in theaters. And I just saw it. The film was set up to not only conclude The Hobbit, but also lead into The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

As has been seen with the past two installments of this series, Jackson's take on the story has been highly expanded, based on materials from the appendices of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. With these two books being the only Tolkien stories available for Jackson to adapt, it's the last chance he has to bring Middle-Earth to life on the big screen.

Whereas just about every previous Middle-Earth film directed by Jackson has opened with a flashback, The Battle of the Five Armies picks up directly where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with Smaug attacking Lake Town. Anyone who's read the book knows what happens next. Anyone who hasn't and doesn't want a spoiler should probably not be reading this...

Smaug is pretty shortly dealt with, and I couldn't help but feel that the attack and Lake Town and death of Smaug should have closed The Desolation of Smaug, simply because knocking off the big bad guy of the second movie in the opening of the third one seems a bit off. Also, Bilbo seems to get around really quickly. At the end of Desolation, he's on an outcropping a good distance from the mountain. When we first see him in Battle, he's on a ledge on the Lonely Mountain with the dwarves, watching the destruction of Lake Town.

The survivors from Lake Town go to claim promised treasure from Thorin to rebuild their homes, but Thorin refuses. Meanwhile, in Dol Guldur, the White Council (Galadriel, Saruman, Elrond, and Radagast) rescue Gandalf and drive Sauron into Mordor. Gandalf goes off to the Lonely Mountain to warn Thorin of the approaching orc army led by Azog.

Bilbo, who has been concealing the Arkenstone from Thorin, is concerned over Thorin's obsessing over the treasure. (Some of his behavior reminds Bilbo of Smaug.) Hoping it will help, Bilbo turns the Arkenstone over to Bard and Thranduil, hoping it can broker peace, but it is at this time that Thorin's cousin Dain arrives, which is lucky as Azog's army begins to attack. The Dwarves, Elves and surviving men of Lake Town join together to fight the orcs. Thorin finally joins the battle, and winds up targeting Bolg and Azog with the help of Legolas and Tauriel. Not everyone makes it out alive... Bilbo of course returns home, but how will he be?

Overall, I'm glad of Jackson's adaptation, but I felt there were a few mangled points in this final film. I'm not going to complain that "It wasn't as good as Return of the King" because of course it isn't. It's a different story, and now, this is part of a saga that Return of the King will end. The Hobbit was never going to reach the same heights as The Lord of the Rings, which is likely one of the reasons why Peter Jackson wanted another director to do it at first. That said, what we're left with is pretty good. Except these points. (SPOILERS.)
  • ALFRID - The former assistant of the Master of Lake Town gets several scenes in this film, but they ultimately lead to nothing. Not a reformation, not a satisfying death by orc, nothing. They might as well have had him die with the Master.
  • LEGOLAS AND TAURIEL - These two elf characters go off to Gundabad to see... another swarm of orcs and were-bats fly off? They don't try to do a pre-emptive strike or anything. They just watch this new force leave. By the time they get to the battle, the forces have beaten them there, so it's not as if they warned anybody of anything.
  • THORIN - Thorin too quickly is affected by the "dragon sickness" and literally looks sick with little lead-in for it. He went from trying to not have this problem at the end of Desolation and suddenly has it.
  • PREQUELITIS - This pops up early on with Saruman's final line being "Leave Sauron to me," hinting at what will come in The Lord of the Rings. (Galadriel was scary awesome in the Dol Guldur scenes, by the way.) Even worse is near the end when Legolas says he can't go back home with Thranduil, who tells him to go find the Dunedain, particularly a ranger called Strider. This whole scene was a little painful to see unfold.
  • BILBO AT HOME - I rather wish Gandalf had accompanied Bilbo back to Bag End and that there had been a softer transition between the younger Bilbo played by Martin Freeman and the older Bilbo played by Ian Holm.
  • AZOG - People have been complaining about Jackson bringing a character that Tolkien had said had died by the time of The Hobbit since An Unexpected Journey. I'll turn a blind eye to source material fidelity and say this... I don't see why they needed Azog specifically. The Lord of the Rings brought us a number of invented leader orcs who did and did not have names mentioned onscreen, and it feels like Azog could have been just about any orc who took a lead of other orcs.
  • BATTLE'S END - The final moments of the battle very much wind up as duels between Thorin and Azog and Legolas and Bolg, while we see the eagles arrive and begin to scoop away orcs and drop off Beorn, we don't get any shots that establish the orcs were defeated.
I'm really looking forward to the extended cut and hoping there's a longer farewell at the end. I was disappointed that none of the songs from the book were used in this film, including the iconic "The Road Goes Ever On And On." Hopefully they'll be included somehow.

Overall, definitely go see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies while it's still in the theaters as these movies were made to be seen on the big screen with an audience. But the extended home video version will likely be what you'll be watching for years to come.

Friday, December 19, 2014

It's A Wonderful Life

In our final installment, we'll take a look at the quintessential holiday film, It's A Wonderful Life. The film began life as "The Greatest Gift," a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern that he printed as a Christmas card in 1943, which got to Hollywood, and was soon being developed into a film by RKO and then Legend Films by Frank Capra. It was released in 1946, and 68 years later, still stands out as one of the ultimate holiday classics.

It's Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls, and one George Bailey (James Stewart) desperately needs help. To help him, the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) is briefed on George's life: how he saved his baby brother Harry from drowning, how he stopped a distracted druggist from poisoning a child, how he met his future wife Mary (Donna Reed) and had to stay in Bedford Falls rather than going on a major vacation when his father unexpectedly died.

Clarence is told about how time and time again, George has had to give up his dreams of going to college and becoming a man of the world to keep his father's building and loan business in honest hands to help out the people of Bedford Falls. Even when he finally marries Mary, they are forced to sacrifice their honeymoon fund to keep the Building & Loan out of the hands of the greedy Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George's hopes of getting out of Bedford Falls grow even dimmer as he and Mary move into an old house and have children.

Then comes World War II, and Harry (Todd Karns) is able to enlist and manages to shoot down several enemy planes and save an entire transport, while everyone back home helps out with the war effort as they can. As they expect Harry back home for Christmas, George's uncle Billy misplaces $8,000 to be deposited for the Building & Loan, which will cause the firm to go bankrupt. (Mr. Potter accidentally got hold of it and kept it, sabotaging George.) As a bank examiner was inspecting the place, George is about to be arrested. Getting stressed out and depressed, George snaps at his family, has a drink, then contemplates jumping into a river to commit suicide.

Enter Clarence, who falls into the river, forcing George to save him. After recovering from the cold, George admits to Clarence that he wishes he'd never been born. Clarence decides to grant George's wish, and George goes to explore the town, which has suddenly become the corrupt Pottersville. George is able to see every life he touched in his life suddenly ruined, or made hard and cruel due to him never being able to interfere, from Mary being an old maid to the druggist now being homeless and in disgrace to the town being overrun with nightclubs and pawn shops to Harry never being able to do the service he provided in the war because he drowned. Realizing that this world contains nothing he loved, George wishes for his life back.

Suddenly, George finds himself back in Bedford Falls, appreciating that even though he's going to jail, he's back in a world that he loved and contains people who love him. Just when the bank examiner is about to arrest George in his home, townspeople arrive to donate money to save George in the nick of time. The donated funds far exceed George's loss, so he's off the hook. George gets a little gift from Clarence (his copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which he was seen reading earlier) as his daughter hears a bell ring, and remarks, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings." George smiles and adds, "Attaboy, Clarence," and joins in singing a round of "Auld Lang Syne."

The film's message is obvious: self-sacrifice can be rewarded, and friendship is worth much more than money. Altogether, though, everyone does wonder what becomes of Mr. Potter, who absconded with the $8,000. When would he get a comeuppance? Would the bank examiner inspect him next and discover that he suddenly has an extra sum that curiously matches the one George lost? Would Mr. Potter confess and return the money? Or perhaps he never gets caught and dies a miser?

The film has had a few remakes and adaptations, including several radio and stage versions. The television film It Happened One Christmas retold the story, but with a female lead instead. The movies Mr. Destiny and The Family Man also riff off the same theme, while the Adam Sandler comedy Click shows some similarities to the classic as well. There was a TV movie that gave Clarence another adventure and there was word that there would be a sequel about George's evil grandson, but it was announced that the production team lacked the necessary rights to make the film. (And anyway, it'd make the story's similarity to A Christmas Carol all the more noticeable.)

So, break out this one once again this Christmas. Even if you can quote the film by heart, enjoy a very well-done film.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

White Christmas

Irving Berlin worked on a series of films featuring new songs he'd written. 1944 brought the film Holiday Inn, which introduced the world to a new Christmas song, as crooned by the man himself, Bing Crosby. This song, "White Christmas," would later inspire and become the title song for a 1954 film, White Christmas, also featuring Crosby.

Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye, and yes, dad, we know...) meet in the army while serving in World War II and soon become big Broadway stars. They check out a sister act, consisting of Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen). The two ex-army men become smitten with them and after romancing them, they help them escape an irate landlord to their next stop in a little hotel in Vermont, Bob and Phil forgoing a previous engagement to tag along.

The group is surprised to find a Vermont without snow, and the inn they arrive at is doing poorly because of it. Bob and Phil are surprised to find that their beloved old General Tom Waverley (Dean Jagger) is the owner. Bob calls in a favor to get word to all their old army buddies, which is misunderstood by Betty as an attempt to embarrass the General. Thinking Betty wants to go after a relationship with Bob, Phil and Judy announce a phony engagement, which causes Betty to leave. Following her to New York, Bob tries to convince her to come back and then makes his television pitch to get all the General's men to arrive at the lodge for a surprise. Betty realizes her mistake and returns.

In the musical finale, snow finally falls at the lodge, drawing visitors. Phil, Bob, Betty and Judy lead the appreciation show for the General, and then finish in a big finale of "White Christmas."

The film doesn't have a lot to do with Christmas, to be sure, but it certainly has a good bit of goodwill in it. It's a fun, musical comedy with a slight bit of romance in there. While definitely a big classic, this one isn't quite for everyone. Still worth watching at least once.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Christmas Story

There once was a guy named Jean Shepherd who would tell stories based on his past. Based on. He told them on the radio and wrote them in books. And some of them were the basis of the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, which he narrated!

Set during the weeks leading up to Christmas in the late 1930s or early 1940s, young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) has his eyes set on one prize that he wants under his Christmas tree: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock. However, his attempts to tell his parents, his teacher and even Santa are all met with the same response: "You'll shoot your eye out!"

Meantime, the Parker family has a rather eventful time until Christmas. Mr. Parker (Darren McGavin) wins an award in the form of a lamp shaped like a woman's leg, clad in fishnet stockings. Mrs. Parker (Melinda Dillon) is not so crazy about it and it mysteriously shatters one evening. During recess at school, Ralphie dares one of his friends to put his tongue to a cold metal pole, which freezes on, leaving him stuck. Even worse, on their way home, Ralphie and his little brother Randy (Ian Petrella) are occasionally terrorized by bully Skut Farkus (Zack Ward).

When Christmas morning hits, there are still surprises for the Parkers in store. A few good ones, and some not so good.

This isn't really a thematic Christmas movie. It's mainly a family comedy about a family celebrating the holidays. Even though Ralphie's way of life isn't so common anymore, the way it's expressed is very in line with how a child thinks and sees the world. There's many, memorable misadventures ("Oh... Fudge!" "But I didn't say 'fudge...'") and moments all through the movie, far too many to fully summarize.

Even though it might not have quite everything every other Christmas classic has, this one has earned its spot admirably.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Home Alone

For a child born in the 80s or 90s, Home Alone is a true Christmas classic. It is one of the several films John Hughes wrote and produced (which also included Christmas Vacation). It was based around wealthy families going on vacations for Christmas, with the idea, what if one of their kids was accidentally left home alone? The 1990 film took on that question.

Meet the McAllisters, father Peter (John Heard), mother Kate (Catherine O'Hara), brothers Buzz (Devin Ratray) and Jeff (Mike Maronna), sisters Megan (Hillary Wolf) and Linnie (Angela Goethals), and youngest child Kevin (Macaulay Culkin). Also, meet their aunt, uncle, cousins (which included Macaulay's little brother Kieran as Fuller). They all meet at Peter's house one December day before leaving for a vacation to Paris the next day, but a fallen power line delays them, and thanks to a neighborhood kid, Kevin winds up sleeping through their hasty departure.

Kevin—who had felt ignored the previous night and wished his family would disappear—attempts to live on his own before finally realizing he wants to have his family around. However, while he attempts to take care of himself, he becomes aware of two robbers who have their eye on his home. Sure enough, "Wet Bandits" Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) make their move, but Kevin sets up several traps to trip them up. Finally, he manages to lure them to a neighbor's house, and thanks to an elderly neighbor (Roberts Blossom) who Kevin was initially afraid of until he tried to get to know him, the Wet Bandits are caught by the police and sent to jail.

Meanwhile, Kate sensed something was wrong and discovered Kevin had been left during their flight. She tries immediately to go back home, though it takes several days for her to do so. She finally arrives back home Christmas morning, where she and Kevin have an emotional reunion before the rest of the family arrives.

The film struck a chord, because sometimes kids do feel ignored and just want to be left alone. As a result, it became very popular in the theaters, and reached new audiences on home video and television. And it was followed by a sequel.

1992 had the cast reunite for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Basically, it was the same setup as the first movie, with one major twist: instead of being left at home, Kevin would get on the wrong flight and wind up in New York, where he'd use his dad's credit card to check into a fancy hotel while the rest of the family went to Florida.

Harry and Marv are out of jail and head to New York, only to see Kevin, who gets scared by a homeless bird woman (Brenda Fricker) in the park. She later helps him out of a jam and they become friends. However, Kevin raises the suspicion of the concierge of the hotel (Tim Curry) and has to leave before his family (who discover he's not there when they arrive) can get to New York (they were able to trace credit card transactions).

Kevin winds up foiling Harry and Marv's attempts to rob a toy store by luring them to an uncle's abandoned and renovation-in-progress townhouse, where they are subjected to several traps, before they finally catch him and nearly kill him in Central Park, before the bird woman arrives and rescues him. Kevin and his mother reunite in front of the Rockerfeller Center Christmas Tree.

Christmas morning, Kevin's family are given Christmas presents by the owner of the toy store that Kevin stopped the robbery of, and he exchanges turtledove ornaments with the bird woman. The film ends with Kevin running, hearing his father yell that Kevin has nearly spent $1000 on room service.

The film, while not very different from its predecessor in terms of theme and basic plot, is still a lot of fun, so if you wanted to watch Home Alone twice in the holiday season, you can watch the sequel instead and have some variance.

A movie called Home Alone 3 came out in 1997, but while John Hughes wrote it, it featured a completely different cast of characters and a different situation (instead of being left at home, the kid is out of school sick). Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House was a TV movie in 2002, that tried to offer a new take on the McAllisters, offering a new cast, but was overall dissatisfying. Finally, 2012 brought Home Alone: The Holiday Heist, once again with a new cast of characters, as a direct to DVD movie. I have not seen this one, but to me, Macaulay Culkin's Kevin was what made the first two Home Alone movies, so any film without him just isn't Home Alone to me.

Monday, December 15, 2014

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

The Vacation series is part of a wide range of comedy films based on stories featured in the now-defunct National Lampoon magazine. The main criteria of the Vacation film series is that it features Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold and Bevery D'Angelo as his wife, Ellen. Apparently, there will be a reboot that will follow Clark's son Rusty, but for now, we're looking at the third entry in the series, Christmas Vacation, released in 1989. The story was based on the December, 1980 issue of the National Lampoon magazine.

The film opens quite charmingly with a nice song as an animated Santa tries to get into the Griswold's house to deliver presents. But then it moves into the actual story as the Griswolds go to cut down their own Christmas tree, which they had to pull out of the ground and is just too big for their room when they can trim it down. But no matter, because Clark Griswold is determined to give his family the best Christmas he can. The entire family is invited over, he lights up the house, and promises a pool, but everything goes wrong in the worst kind of way, often making the neighbors (Christopher Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) the victims of their attempts to celebrating.

Dinner gets ruined, the bright lights on the house are far too bright (when they're plugged in right), and Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his family pop up, and Clark's Christmas bonus comes in a very unexpected and unfortunate form. But in the end, somehow, with just the right amount of chaos, the perfect Christmas comes together.

The movie has quickly become a classic, and feels quite relatable for families who like to make big celebrations. And it plays into the theme of how sometimes you try too hard to make the perfect Christmas and almost forget to enjoy the holiday for how it should be celebrated.

Friday, December 12, 2014


You gotta give credit where credit's due. The story of Santa Claus has left room wide open for a number of spin offs and reinterpretation of lore about him. There are few rules in Santa lore, so you could come up with just about anything. L. Frank Baum created a radically different story around Santa Claus in 1902, but the more famous version features the basic concept of Santa making all his toys at the North Pole, assisted by elves, giving presents to good children all over the world on Christmas Eve, drawn by night on his airborne sleigh, drawn by eight (or nine with Rudolph) reindeer.

2003 offered a new spin on Santa Lore with Elf, a comedy starring Will Ferrell. Buddy was a baby in an orphanage who happened to crawl into Santa's (Ed Asner) sack on Christmas Eve. Being adopted by an elf (Bobby Newhart), Buddy grows up believing that he is also an elf, until he overhears that he's human (at age 30). Santa, however, has found Buddy's father Walter Hobbs (James Caan), but he's on the naughty list.

Buddy goes to New York City to reunite with his father, who doesn't believe that Buddy is his son, and Buddy briefly does a stint at Gimbels (which had been closed, so this movie dips a bit into a fairy tale of its own), where he meets an employee who is dressed as an elf for the season named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). The two eventually date, though she doesn't believe in his story about being one of Santa's elves. Buddy also discovers that she loves to sing, but doesn't like to do it in public.

Walter eventually discovers that Buddy is indeed his son, and tries to take him. Buddy at least wins the affection of Walter's wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and bonds with his son Michael (Daniel Tay), but Walter's attempts to get Buddy a job in his publishing company prove disastrous, with Walter losing the company a major client. Feeling sorry, Buddy runs away on Christmas Eve.

In Central Park, Buddy finds that Santa's sleigh has fallen. The engine broke, and everyone's Christmas spirit (which keeps the sleigh flying) is at an all time low. Buddy starts repairs as Michael and Jovie stir up Christmas spirit by reading Santa's gift list and leading a crowd in singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Thanks to their efforts, Santa is able to get flying again.

The film ends by revealing that Buddy became a writer of children's books for Walter's new publishing company, and that Buddy and Jovie eventually marry and still visit Buddy's adopted father in the North Pole.

This is one of those fun Christmas movies that just revels in the joy of the holiday. Is it deep? No. It still does the job of encouraging goodwill, but the biggest things its inspired is airings on television, a Broadway musical, and an upcoming animated special.

I haven't watched a lot of recent Christmas movies, but looking at my stock of them on home video, this is the most recent film in my collection.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ernest Saves Christmas

I fear that Jim Varney's Ernest P. Worrell will probably not be embraced by future generations. I mean, they plan to do a reboot with Ernest's son, and hopefully, that will make his work available again, but I'm not sure his weird, wacky humor will be embraced by all.

Ernest is a simple-minded everyman, dressed in a baseball cap and denim vest. He had a series of adventures in film and television, generally free of any worry of continuity. 1988 brought a Christmas-themed film, Ernest Saves Christmas. It's part Miracle on 34th Street, part The Santa Clause (although that movie was still years away), and totally Ernest.

Ernest is a taxi driver in Orlando, Florida at the start of the movie, and winds up giving a lift to an old man (Douglas Seale, who my generation would later know as the Sultan in Aladdin) and picking up a girl who calls herself Harmony Starr (Noelle Parker). When the man, who says he's Santa Claus, can't pay, Ernest gets fired from his job. But Santa left his sack on his way to see his replacement, former children's television host Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark).

Joe is kept from hearing Santa out by his agent Marty, who has him lined for a movie called Christmas Slay. Marty has Santa put in jail, where he leads the inmates in singing Christmas Carols. Ernest discovers the sack is magical, and with Harmony on board, breaks Santa out of jail. Ernest tries to help Santa meet with Joe and get his sack back, which isn't helped when Harmony steals the sack and runs away.

Ernest winds up picking up Santa's sleigh, reindeer, and two helper elves from the airport, flying it to the Children's Library, where Santa is waiting. Seeing Ernest flying causes Joe to accept the offer at last and become the new Santa Claus. Harmony (who both Santas know is really named Pamela Trenton, and that she ran away from an unhappy home) reconsiders running away and gives the sack to Santa. The movie ends as Ernest helps the new Santa fly the sleigh for the first time. (An additional scene suggests another holiday icon might need Ernest's help soon as an a crate belonging to "E. Bunny" arrives at the airport.)

The film is a favorite in my family, and is true missed Christmas classic. Ernest's kind nature makes him a perfect companion for Santa Claus, and Santa is a kindly (if absent-minded) old man who wants everyone to be their best. And finally, Pamela's plight makes her never really a villain (she is seen dining and dashing early on), but a very understandable character.

Who knows, though? Perhaps it may yet establish itself as a classic

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Lemon Drop Kid

Perhaps this is an oddball Christmas movie because it's not very Christmas-sy. However, it is the movie where a little song called "Silver Bells" made its debut. The movie definitely takes place in the winter at Christmas time—there are too many outdoor scenes with snow and bell-ringers dressed as Santa to deny that—but it's really just an out and out comedy.

The story was based on a story by Damon Runyon, and it had been made into a film before in 1934, and a radio adaptation in 1949. However, this film deviates quite a bit from the original. Ruyon's setting of horse races and the gambling around them only opens the film as the Lemon Drop Kid  (Bob Hope) convinces people to bet on each horse, each promising him some of their winnings.

After gangster Moose Moran's girlfriend loses a $2,000 bet that would have won five times the amount thanks to the Kid's phony tip, Moose gives the Kid until Christmas Eve to pay him $10,000. The Kid heads to freezing New York, to rejoin his girlfriend Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell). During some misadventures trying to raise the money, the Kid meets his old friend Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell) who is about to be evicted as she waits for her imprisoned husband to be released.

Finally, the Kid gets an idea. He opens a retirement home for women like Nellie, in Moose Moran's old casino, clumsily titled "The Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls." The Kid has his old gangster friends dress up like Santas to raise funds for the home. However, Brainy's old boss Oxford Charlie hears about the scheme and tries to pull it away from the Kid by taking the women to a new home. He also steals the Kid's money and exposes his plot to his friends.

The Kid manages to break into the home by dressing up as an old lady, stealing the money back. After getting help from Nellie once again, the Kid manages to get away from Moose and Charlie by setting a trap for them, ending with them getting arrested. The Nellie Thursday Home is open again, ready to welcome Neillie's husband home as the Kid proposes to Brainy, deciding to settle down at last, though his methods might still not be quite so honest.

Overall, the movie is still really fun and very humorous, and perhaps it rightfully doesn't maintain its position as a holiday classic with its lack of a real Christmas theme, though the fact that the Kid sets up a home for homeless old women is very kind indeed. Still, it has the debut of "Silver Bells."

By the way, recognize Gloomy there?
That's William Frawley, famous as Frank in I Love Lucy, and yes, this makes him the first one to sing "Silver Bells" in the movie. (The Kid hums it earlier.)
 And recognize Nellie?
Jane Darwell would later come out of retirement to play the Bird Woman in Disney's Mary Poppins.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Miracle on 34th Street

Perhaps now most people know of this classic film in which Santa Claus visits New York and inspires some goodwill before being put on trial. But when the film was originally released in May, 1947, the Christmas element was surprisingly obscured in the marketing.

The movie was based on a short story by Valentine Davies. This original version joins stories such as The Greatest Gift in the collection of stories that inspired great Christmas films that no one reads.

After replacing an inebriated Santa Claus in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is quickly hired as the Macy's store Santa Claus. Much to the surprise of everyone at Macy's, Kris begins to tell customers where to find the exact products they want at other stores. While everyone thinks advertising for other stores is business suicide, it creates a better image for Macy's, which earns them more regular customers and higher profits. Other companies soon adopt similar models, creating a little less competitiveness and more goodwill between the stores.

Meantime, Kris has befriended Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). Doris is divorced from Susan's father, and teaches her daughter to see things for what they are. No nonsense, no imagination. Their neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne) is surprised that Susan has never even heard a fairy tale before. But thanks to Kris, Susan quickly learns to embrace her childhood.

Troubling some of the staff at Macy's is Kris' insistence that he is Santa Claus, even though he passes a psychological exam. When Kris eventually confronts Mr. Sawyer over a unfounded diagnosis of a helpful young employee, he is sent to a hospital and then taken to court, where he is believed to be insane because of who he says he is. However, Mr. Gailey says he will take the case and prove that Kris actually is Santa Claus. After embarrassing some members of the court, the judge has to consider the downside of ruling that there is no Santa Claus. The trial is given a recess until the next day.

Susan decides to write her first letter to Santa, which prompts workers in the post office to clear all letters to Santa from the dead letter office by sending them to the courthouse. Since the post office—a federal institution—recognizes Kris as Santa Claus, the judge decides not to dispute it.

The film wraps with Susan being disappointed that her wish wasn't granted, but Doris—now convinced that she should believe in "lovely intangibles"—tells her to hang onto her beliefs. While out driving, Susan spots a house that matches the description she gave to Kris when he visited once. Doris and Fred see it's for sale and begin to consider buying it, when they notice Kris' cane by the fireplace.

I love the film for reminding us that anything is possible, even what we believe to be fantasy. In one scene, Doris chides Fred for giving into an idealistic binge of a bunch of lovely intangibles. He tells her that she shouldn't be so quick to brush them aside, because one day, that might be all she has. Imagination and goodwill is every bit as important to adults as it is to children.

The film has been novelized (by Valentine Davies no less), and had three television and one film remake, at least two stage adaptations, and four adaptations for radio. The remakes generally keep to the same plot, most of the TV versions running at a faster pace. The 1994 film version does a generally good job of updating the story, though not everyone has been a fan of how it uses "In God We Trust" on money instead of letters to Santa being delivered by a fluke to get Kris off the hook.

Basically, why go with another version when you can have the original? And I'm not talking about a colorized version.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Garfield Christmas

"Garfield" is pretty well known now. The orange, Monday-hating, lasagna-loving, fat cat is nearly as famous as Snoopy and Charlie Brown. Living with his owner, Jon Arbuckle, Garfield is well-known for his appetite and his mixed love and contempt for his fellow pet Odie the dog.

In the 1980s, Garfield began his own series of animated television specials before finally leading the way to his own animated TV show Garfield and Friends in 1988. 1987 finally brought the animated Garfield Christmas special.

Unlike Peanuts, Garfield has never been presented with a religious affiliation. The strip is about a cat and his owner and their misadventures, nothing more. Thus, this special is a secular take on Christmas.

The special opens with a dream sequence where Jon gives Garfield a mechanical Santa that gives you whatever gift you can think of. However, Garfield's greedy dream is cut short when Jon wakes him up, informing him that they'll be heading to his parents' farm for Christmas.

Arriving at the farm, we are introduced to Jon's grumpy father, his sweet mother, his irritable brother Doc Boy, and his super-cool and tough Grandma. The family goes through their traditions: dinner, decorating the tree, singing carols, and reading stories. However, Grandma sits separate from them. Garfield curls up with her, and she reveals that Christmas makes her remember and miss her late husband.

That night, Odie sneaks out to the barn to make a funny device and Garfield follows him, finding a bundle of letters to Grandma from her husband. After presents are opened Christmas morning, Garfield turns the letters over to her, and she enjoys reading one. Odie then unveils his gift to Garfield: the device he'd made. It scratches Garfield's back when he rubs against it. The family celebrates in a song.

While Garfield is not known for depth, there is one point here. Often, people are shown needing to move on from their grief, but in this case, allowing Grandma to remember her husband even more warmly is encouraged and depicted positively. And even though Jon and Doc Boy are depicted as adults, at Christmas, they act like children, getting excited over the things kids do, demanding their father read their Christmas story the right way, and even wanting to open presents at 1:30AM. And again, this is not depicted negatively. This is not a perfect family, but there's no problem with that.

So, go ahead and enjoy A Garfield Christmas with its simple message that Christmas is to be enjoyed and that eccentric people are not damaged, and grief can be good.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Charlie Brown Christmas

In the last half of the 20th Century, Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts took America by storm on the comics page. The misadventures of Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy, his sister Sally, and their friends Lucy and Linus Van Pelt, Violet. Schroeder, Shermy, Frieda, and Pig Pen grabbed the the attention of readers.

The funny thing about Peanuts is that it offered an unapologetic harsh look at childhood. While Snoopy had his quirky adventures, Charlie Brown is often marginalized by the other characters, often believing himself to be a failure. The truth is that they love him, but he doesn't always feel it through all the picking on him that happens. Linus has a security blanket and sucks his thumb, and his sister Lucy is cruel to both him and Charlie Brown. Even Snoopy could be a little mean, throwing his typewriter at his naysayers. The result was a stylized and endearing comic strip that ran for 50 years and is still re-run through papers today. Despite its nastiness, it reminds us that even in bad times, friendship is all you need.

In 1965, Peanuts was animated for its first solo feature: a television Christmas special. Using simple animation based closely on the original comic strip and actual children voicing the characters, the Peanuts characters came fully to life for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

In the special, Charlie Brown feels unhappy about Christmas. To help him get in the Christmas spirit, Lucy suggests he direct the school's Christmas play. However, few people seem to pay attention to him, and Charlie Brown eventually goes to get a Christmas tree for the play. He and Linus pick up a tiny tree that can barely support a single ornament, which makes him the laughingstock of the other characters. Frustrated, Charlie Brown says that he doesn't know what Christmas is all about, prompting Linus to recite the story of the angels telling the shepherds of the birth of Jesus. Charlie Brown then decides to take his tree home. The other kids follow him home and decorate the tree, making it magically come to life and grow into a modest tree. Charlie Brown joins them in singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!"

Looking at the plot critically, it's loose and hardly hangs together well, but I suspect the point was more to bring the Peanuts characters to animated life than to tell an amazing story. It has a pro-Christian, anti-commercialization stance, summed up as Christmas without love and feeling is pretty empty. This is summed up in a scene where Lucy asks Schroeder to play "Jingle Bells," and he plays a couple nicely orchestrated versions which she rejects. After asking him to add "Santa Claus, ho ho ho, mistletoe, and presents for pretty girls," he taps out the tune on a single key. She then yells approvingly, "THAT'S IT!"

Growing older, I kind of appreciate it more as you can forget to enjoy Christmas as you begin to focus more on clearing off your shopping list than enjoying the holiday.

There have been three animated follow-ups to A Charlie Brown Christmas. It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown and Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales adapt strips and plotlines from the strip into animation. Schulz wrote the former, but the latter was assembled after his death and hangs a bit more loosely. They do include popular characters who debuted after the first special, though, such as Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Franklin, and Linus and Lucy's little brother Rerun.

I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown is a little more substantial. While it follows the pattern of the last two Christmas specials, there's a central plot with Rerun wanting a dog like Snoopy to play with.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

One of the fastest adopted pieces of Santa lore in the 20th century was the reindeer Rudolph. Immortalized in song, Rudolph was born with a shiny red nose that caused him to be shunned by his peers. However, on a foggy Christmas Eve, Santa realizes Rudolph's nose could help his sleigh get through. After helping Santa complete his annual run, Rudolph is now loved by the other reindeer.

While the story seems quaint, in the 21st century, we begin to pick up on some problems. Rudolph is discriminated against for something he can't control. As he was born this way, comparing his plight to differing ethnicity or sexual orientation is almost obvious. It gets problematic in that Rudolph is appreciated for his differences only when they're useful to others. If Rudolph had been picked on for a red nose that didn't glow, he'd have no relief.

Rudolph's story first appeared as a book by Robert L. May in 1939 for Montgomery Ward. It was adapted five years later for animation by Max Fleischer. (It was later reissued with the song added to it.) A major difference from later versions is that it is not Santa's deer that belittle Rudolph. Rudolph lives in a town of reindeer that is completely separate from Santa's home.

The famous song adaptation would follow ten years later, made famous by Gene Autry. The song quickly became the famous version and many adaptations of the story since go off of that, leading in new directions.

One of the more famous and even more problematic versions is by Rankin-Bass, who have Rudolph as the son of Donner. Where it gets troublesome is that not only is Rudolph rejected by his peers, but also Santa Claus himself, who is especially grouchy in this incarnation. This causes Donner to force Rudolph to hide his nose so he can have self-respect. For LGBT people who might identify with Rudolph, this can really hit close to home.

Rudolph eventually runs away from the North Pole, joined by an elf who wants to be a dentist, an out of luck prospector, and an island of "misfit" toys. Rudolph and his friends manage to save his mother and his love interest Clarice, while managing to tame a snow monster before a blizzard hits, forcing Santa to use Rudolph's nose to guide the sleigh.

The problem is that while Rudolph's peers eventually realize that they shouldn't have been unkind, it takes Rudolph accomplishing feats to do this. Santa winds up being the worst because he doesn't appreciate Rudolph until the very end when he needs his help. Reindeer or people shouldn't be shunned for their differences regardless of whether or not these differences are useful, but this lesson is never pointed out.

To wrap it up, here's a fun cover of the song featuring Judy Garland and Bing Crosby.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

One of the more popular additions to Christmas canon in the 20th century was Dr. Seuss' the Grinch. The fellow first appeared in Seuss' 1957 book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The book was adapted into an animated special by Chuck Jones in 1966, where the Grinch took on his classic green shade and the story was accompanied by the now classic songs "Welcome Christmas" and "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch."

The Grinch was based on Theodor Geisel's own post-Christmas foulness as his own attempt to redeem how he viewed the holiday. He even had a license plate reading "GRINCH" on his car.

Seuss' simple story was adapted faithfully for the special: the town of Whoville joyfully celebrates Christmas, while up on his mountain, the Grinch despises them and their holiday. He then has the idea to make them as miserable as himself by dressing as Santa Claus and stealing all their presents. With his dog Max pulling the sleigh, the Grinch sets out to steal every last vestige of Christmas from the Whos.

During his heist, the Grinch is interrupted by little Cindy Lou Who, who wonders why Santa is stealing the tree. The Grinch makes up an excuse and sends her to bed. Heading back out, the Grinch waits to hear the people of Whoville bemoaning their missing Christmas presents, feasts, and decorations. However, instead of doing this, the people head out to sing again, leaving the Grinch to realize that "Christmas doesn't come from a store, Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more." Overcome by goodwill, the Grinch returns everything he stole and is welcomed to celebrate with the Whos.

Audiences have enjoyed the story, and Seuss wisely didn't make the story overtly religious, but Christian groups can read a Christian theme into the Grinch's epiphany if they wish, while non-religious people can appreciate that goodwill doesn't require material goods.

Dr. Seuss did not feature the Grinch in future books, however, in Horton Hears a Who! the titular Horton finds a speck of dust that has the microscopic town of Whoville on it somehow. Whether it is the same Whoville or not is anyone's guess.

The Grinch would reappear in animation, in Halloween is Grinch Night and The Grinch Grinches The Cat In The Hat.

The original Grinch story would be adapted into a live action feature film featuring Jim Carrey as the Grinch. The film expanded on the story and characters, making the Whos a little more three dimensional and giving the Grinch a reason for hating them and Christmas. Also added is the song "Where Are You, Christmas," joining the animated special's songs.

However, the film also adds a lot of risque humor and in my own opinion is a "Thanks, but no thanks" version. I'll stick with the original book and cartoon.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Snowman

I have an aunt who lives in England and she would send us classic books for Christmas. I'm not sure if she was the one who sent me The Snowman by Raymond Briggs, but that book deserves its place as a classic.

Wordlessly told with lovely illustrations, the book tells the story of a little boy who goes outside to make a snowman one winter's day. At night—in a dream or reality, the reader decides—the Snowman comes to life and after playing in the house, he and the boy go flying through the air. Returning home as dawn is approaching, the little boy goes back to bed. Waking up, he goes outside and discovers that the Snowman has collapsed.

I knew The Snowman only from the book, which vanished quickly over the years, but when my younger siblings grew older, they found it and the animated film adaptation at the library.

The animated film successfully captures the look of the illustrations, but the plot deviates from the book when the Snowman comes to life. A number of the escapades in the house are cut, and there's a ride on a motorcycle added. When the Snowman and the boy (who gets the name James here) fly away, the beautiful song "Walking in the Air" sung by Peter Auty plays over the scene, making for a hauntingly beautiful sequence.

The Snowman and James join other Snowmen as they gather around at a celebration with Father Christmas, who lets James meet his reindeer and gives him a scarf. James still has this scarf when he wakes up in the morning, suggesting the experience was not a dream.

In 2012, a sequel to The Snowman film was released, titled The Snowman and the Snowdog. A new little boy named Billy, having recently lost his dog, finds a photo of the original Snowman and his remains. When it snows, he recreates the Snowman and makes a dog out of snow as well with sock ears. When the pair come to life, they fly in an airplane to another celebration, where they meet a more traditional Santa Claus who gives Billy a collar that turns the Snowdog into a real dog when he returns home. After finding the new dog when he wakes up, Billy and his dog discover that the Snowman has once again collapsed.

I was rather disappointed with The Snowman and the Snowdog. While it holds up well visually, the plot is too obvious a retread of the original story, now with a dog added. Perhaps magic can happen only once.

Recently, The Snowman was released on Blu-Ray in the UK and reissued on DVD in the US. I do have to express my disappointment that the original 4:3 image was cropped to a widescreen version in both releases.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Santa Claus (1898)

 Released in 1898, Santa Claus is believed to be the first movie with a Christmas theme. If it is not, it appears to be the earliest extant Christmas movie. It is also the first film to depict Santa Claus. Running under two minutes, it simply depicts two children going to bed, Santa coming down their chimney, leaving them presents in their stockings, then leaving, and the children finding their surprise.

Filmed in England, this was one of the most sophisticated films made at that time. One thing to realize is that electric lights weren't strong enough to light the set: the bedroom is a set that was actually outside. To simulate darkness, a curtain is drawn over the bedroom background (you can see a jump cut). The image of Santa going down the chimney appears to be a clever double exposure work.

Because that runs at two minutes, here's a couple longer silents.

First is The Night Before Christmas from 1905. Produced by the Edison Company, the classic poem is re-enacted with a little expansion.

And from 1914, here's The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus. Octavius, Amateur Detective (who had starred in a series of silent comedies, of which this was the last) visits his friend in costume as Santa Claus, only to be knocked out by a thief also dressed as Santa who robs the family. Octavius must catch the thief!