In Defense of New Christmas Specials

specialsheadUnfortunately for us all, not all Christmas specials can be Rankin/Bass. But rather than follow Hermey’s attempt to become a dentithst for the 800th time, I challenged myself to try the new specials. Perhaps I could find charming, bananas-level holiday absurdity without the aid of 1960’s stop motion.

All I found… were these three. They should all be ashamed.

Luckily, I have a blog where I attempt to defend the very worst of pop culture. And if this terrible trio is any indication, New Christmas Specials could certainly use someone in their corner. So without further ado…

TOY STORY THAT TIME FORGOT

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In this half-hour special, Woody and the Gang (good name for a country band) go on a play date with their owner, Bonnie. Trixie the Triceratops wants to act as a dinosaur, instead of whatever Bonnie’s youth-addled mind dictates (old lady at a lunch counter, baby reindeer, etc.). She finally gets the chance to stop playing pretend when she meets some dino action figures. However, the Battlesaurs take things a bit more realistically, which only puts the rest of the gang in prehistoric peril. Can the power of Christmas save the toys from Tyrannotyranny (good name for any band)?

Surprisingly, no. No it can’t.

By which I mean, Christmas doesn’t do jack squat in this movie. Stupid lazy holiday…

See the little cat with the soulless eyes? That’s Kittysaurus, a.k.a. the only thing in the movie relating to the holiday season. It essentially twinkles around, carols on a trumpet when facing doom, and occasionally spouts Hallmark Christmas card jargon. It has about as much personality as one should expect from an ornament, being stuffed in a box for 11 months a year. You’d be bland too, if your only companions were tinsel and a bunch of spheres.

HELL-O. YOU WILL BE MY SLAV-FRIEND. I MEANT FRIEND.

HELL-O.

I thought the themes might be Christmas-related, but… nah. It’s about the toys surrendering to the whims of their owners, about finding joy in giving up your identity for the sake of others. Which, you know… is really weird.

You also get toys not knowing they’re toys (yawn), controlling underlings via maintained ignorance (yawn) and a vague admonishment of video games (angry yawn). It’s not really bad, per se. It’s just soulless and boring, like a certain kitty cat ornament.

Despite all those themes, this is 15 minutes of material stretched into a Holiday Half-hour. And as a Christmas special, it fails tremendously. I suspect it was an unrelated short, until they shoehorned in a holiday. But it’s inventive and colorful and well-animated, so it’s hard to be angry. Being insubstantial is better than being offensive (note for later). Plus, it’s hard to make Toy Story truly bad.

A sell-out, sure, but not bad. Probably. Hopefully.

A sell-out, sure, but not bad. Probably. Hopefully.

Speaking of offensive and bad…

HOW MURRAY SAVED CHRISTMAS

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In this 40-minute special, Murray Weiner runs a diner in the town of Stinky Cigars (don’t give me that look, I didn’t write it), where all the holiday figures live and play and sing and, most painfully, rap. But it’s Christmas Eve, so Santa Claus is running his slave labor camp to get toys ready. I’m not exaggerating. There’s a song about it:

“Oh, we work work work work work work work;
we really bust our hineys,
They hire us for this work work work;
‘Cause we’re cheaper than the Chinese.”

But when Santa is knocked out, someone else must take the literal reins. And who better than the best delivery man in town, a grouchy old curmudgeon by the name of Murray?

Seen here with a leprechaun, a mass murderer, a rabbit and Lincoln's forehead.

Seen here with a leprechaun, a mass murderer, a rabbit and Lincoln’s forehead.

How Murray Saved Christmas was written and directed by Mark Reiss, a long-time writer for The Simpsons. This should explain some of the off-kilter humor, and there are chuckle-worthy moments here. But oddly, Murray aims to be a family affair. Cracks at working without health insurance makes the proceedings a little awkward. But maybe that’s just a weird moment of bad humor and poor taste? Nah.

  • A quack doctor claims he got his degree from Colombia. BOGOTA COLUMBIA! BUH DUM CHA!!!!
  • An 8-armed Indian convenience store owner, when threatened, says he’s “Vishnu… Vish’n you wouldn’t shoot me!” BUH DUM CHA!!!!!!!!!!!
  • There’s a song near the end about how gay the main character feels, how super gay he is and how this day made him gay. Followed by uncomfortable glances from the townsfolk. Um… Buh dum cha?

Are these moments offensive? Perhaps. But poor taste can be overshadowed by humor, if done well. Unfortunately… also not funny. So we have a conundrum.

How Murray Saved Christmas - Season 2014

“Sir, exit the sleigh. Slowly.”

But actually, Murray is saved by what Toy Story lacked.

Mr. Weiner delivers all the toys in record time, so he decides to give gifts to the bad kids as well. He’s going above and beyond the call of duty, because that’s what Santa should be about. Not toys. Not baubles. Not farting dolls (an actual “joke,” written with clear malice).

Christmas, Murray says, is not about behavior, it’s about giving and forgiving. After 40 minutes of tired ethnic quips and fart humor, I was shocked to have a genuine idea in the mix. But there it was.

Granted, that’s 10 minutes stretched to 40, but overall I’d say it’s a success. Murray has no idea what audience to pursue, which really hobbles it from the get-go. It’s too stupid for adults, too adult for kids. It’s offensive and weird and confounding, but it’s also brightly cheerful with a certain acerbic charm. There’s heart here, so it’s hardly worthy of outright disdain.

The art of the source material, though...

The source material art, though, is unforgivable.

Speaking of “worthy of outright disdain”…

GRUMPY CAT’S WORST CHRISTMAS EVER

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This one made me cry. But I’ll get to that.

This 80-minute Lifetime special follows Tardar Sauce (sic), a.k.a. the internet-eponymous Grumpy Cat. Grumpy lives in a mall pet store which is about to go under, unless the owner sells a rare dog within 2 days. BUT the mall manager wants the dog to disappear so he can replace the pet store with a Jamba Juice. ALSO, some rock star dognappers and a crooked cop attempt to steal the dog. BUT, they’re found out by a lonely 12-year-old named Chrystal, who can talk to Grumpy for unknown reasons. Chrystal’s lonely because her mom is dating a mall elf so she feels left out. Grumpy’s lonely because she’s been returned to the mall twice, and doesn’t believe she can find another home. Can they thwart the bandits and find a friend in time for Christmas?

grumpy1

If the scattered plot didn’t deter you, it’s also brimming with meta humor. Grumpy Cat (narrated by Aubrey Plaza) constantly utters lines about how stupid the movie is, as if agreeing with the audience is endearing. Commercial lead-ins ask why we’re still watching, to which I could only scream in fury. And Grumpy Cat, in turn, would quip “I know, right? But we needed advertising money, so here we are. Can’t get all our dough from the merch.”

Did I not mention the merch?

There’s at least 3 instances of purposefully inelegant Grumpy Cat product placement, preceded by lines like “hey, isn’t product placement awful?” It’s like the producers are in on the joke, but hate the joke and are desperate for cash.

These qualities, combined with the Home Alone meets Beverly Hills Chihuahua stupidity, make “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever” very very well titled. Somehow, it’s 0 minutes stretched to 80. It’s mathematically impossible.

And caught in the middle is a cat who clearly doesn’t want to be jostled around to carols (a fact they mention, because meta is so meta). Poor Tardar Sauce wants nothing to do this, in agreement with everyone. Including Aubrey Plaza.

That’s a real scene from the movie. Aubrey Plaza actually appears, and mentions she has top billing. I KNOW.

Like Toy Story That Time Forgot, it’s bland and hollow and boring. Like How Murray Saved Christmas, it’s offensive and weirdly dark and not appropriate for kids. In particular, there’s a scene where Grumpy imagines her life if the pet store closes…

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 6.29.25 PM

Thrown out

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Life on the street

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 6.25.49 PM

Put on death row

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 6.26.11 PM

Euthanized WHAT THE FUCK?

But I mentioned this hallow, greedy, cash-grabbing, nonsensical, stupid movie made me cry. And in retrospect, I think it affected me more than both my other entries.

I know.

Even Tardar doesn't approve.

Even Tardar doesn’t approve.

See, I cried for obvious reasons. Pain, fear, loathing. But also because the movie starred two lonely characters finding companionship. As a plus, one was a cute widdle kitty cat. And at the end, when all Chrystal wanted for Christmas was to adopt her best friend Grumpy, and her parents reveal her gift… I found it predictable and enraging, but also oddly moving. Shut up.

But Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas, more than many other specials I’ve seen, shows how the worst qualities of the season (commercialism, cynicism, greediness) can actually give way to even the slightest hint of purity. Even as it’s plagued by all manner of foul sentiments and lack of emotion, it can still inspire both sentimentalism and emotion.

If we shoehorn in and sell out Christmas, it still works. If we corrupt Christmas, it still works. If we actively try to ruin everything it stands for, it still works. It’s kinda remarkable.

This week, I hit Christmas special rock bottom. But even down in the very deepest depths, light can still come through. It’s a pretty faint glimmer, but dammit, I’m glad it’s there.

But let’s end with something good. Good ole’ Rankin/Bass. God I love them.

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