Nintendo Switch or Nintendo More of the Same?

636198636477072652-nintendo-switchSwitch. If you took a shot each time someone said that word during Nintendo’s press conference unveiling the latest device in console/mobile gaming you’re probably hung over right now. It’s obviously not just a name for the console/handheld hybrid, but also a marketing strategy. Nintendo is changing with the times, switching it up if you will, and making a commitment to something new and exciting. If that’s the main take-away from the Switch’s coming out party last night, then why did I feel like this was the Wii all over again?

Nintendo first gave the public a glimpse at its newest device back in October. Since then, the company has been virtually silent on the subject until last night’s big unveiling. Most of the pressing questions were answered either during the conference or shortly there-after. We know when the Switch is arriving at retail (March 3rd), we know how much it will cost ($299), and we know what games will be available (Zelda!) and have some idea of what we’ll be playing by the end of 2017 (Mario! Skyrim!). A lot of the other lingering questions from the Switch’s first public display were answered like that the system does indeed boast a touch screen, the joy con controllers do feature shoulder buttons, and Nintendo is going with a pay-t0-play online service in the fall.

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Hey, yo! Get a load of my colors.

The Switch’s initial unveiling had me cautiously excited. I expressed my interest in a true portable home gaming device and I was receptive to a lot of the software teased in that video. Last night’s conference, however, muted that excitement. I should get it out of the way, I still placed a pre-order on the device (actually two, with the first being an online one just in case I couldn’t land a pre-order at a brick and mortar) so obviously I wasn’t dissuaded from purchasing the Switch, but it was with significantly less enthusiasm.

Let’s get right to the price. Numbers had been thrown around leading up to the announcement last night with the consensus seeming to be for a $250 price point. On IGN’s pre-show, $199 was even floated as the “sweet spot” by one host which I thought was a pipe-dream. From the start, I had assumed $299 would be the price, but I still hoped for $250. I wasn’t really dismayed by the actual announcement on that front, but the price tags for the accessories is rather shocking. After the conference, Nintendo unveiled the price-point for many of these on its website. If you want a second set of joy con controllers, that will set you back $80! That’s the steepest investment of any standard controller I think I’ve ever seen. If for some reason you only desire a left or right joy con, that’s $50, but I can’t see much reason in doing that unless it’s to replace a broken unit. The two that come bundled with the system include wrist straps that have a plastic piece that thickens the controller itself and appears to make it more ergonomic. That’s not included with the stand-alone controllers so there’s another $20. If you prefer a traditional controller (what Nintendo refers to as its pro controllers) that will cost you $70. For comparison, a Dual Shock 4 costs $60, and Amazon routinely sells them for $50.

Extra docking stations, controller “shells,” and other such peripherals all carry pretty steep asking prices. Thankfully, the console supports standard memory cards since the included flash drive can only hold 32GB (purchasing the new Zelda title digitally will reportedly consume half of that), so I guess that’s one positive. All told though, you’re talking about having an entry price-point for the Switch at more than what it costs to get a PS4 or Xbox One, and those consoles both boast more robust software libraries and more raw processing power as well.

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Arms. Apparently we’re going back to the days of the NES when Nintendo titles were as bland as white bread. Can’t wait for Legs!

Nintendo unveiled two new IPs early in the conference: 1-2-Switch and Arms. Nintendo apparently felt the term “video” in “video games” was too burdensome so 1-2-Switch is a game designed to function without video input being a necessity. You basically waggle the joy con controllers amongst two-players in a Wii Sports sort of environment, just without the TV. They demonstrated two cowboys having a quick duel and I also saw people playing table tennis. The joy con controllers feature advanced rumble feedback and motion controls, and Nintendo is banking on those features being so intuitive that it can drive the fun factor for a game. 1-2-Switch sounds like a decent tech demo kind of game, like the previously referenced Wii Sports, but unlike its predecessor it’s not a pack-in title and is a full $60 MSRP game. I have zero interest in the game at that price point. Arms is essentially the next evolution of Wii Boxing, with more emphasis placed on being able to move the characters around with a more visually pleasing game. Each character has extendable, Inspector Gadget-like arms for punching. The input mechanics actually remind me more of Wii Bowling, with the twisting of the wrist to curve the punch being a central component, only now you’re striking an opponent instead of pins. Again though, this game would have made for an interesting pack-in game, but at full retail price it looks ludicrous. It’s also not available at launch and expected to arrive in April.

Nintendo also spent a considerable portion of the show bringing representatives from third party developers onto the stage to voice their support for the Switch. Unfortunately,  virtually none of them had anything interesting to say or even games to show. Bethesda was one of the few to actually show some gameplay, in this case for Skyrim. I’m excited to have a portable version of Skyrim, but an almost six year old game arriving in the fall isn’t going to move consoles or convince the consumer that third parties are all-in on the Switch. Right now, it very much resembled recent Nintendo launches where third parties are only willing to offer ports of previously released games, or in the case of EA, port an annual title to the Switch. And the sad part is, if these ports don’t sell then third party developers will use that as an excuse to continue the narrative that Nintendo consumers are only interested in Nintendo products, when really it could be that they just don’t want to re-buy games they already own!

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Sir, it’s not polite to stare.

Nintendo, for its part, showed some of its own games to a mostly positive reaction. We now have a title for the new Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey, and we know it’s coming at the end of the year. It’s a true 3D Mario adventure with some levels set in real-world settings. It also features a Minish Cap sort of gimmick where Mario’s hat is apparently sentient. Some of the visuals, like Mario interacting with reality-proportioned humans, were bizarre, but I have faith that Nintendo will deliver a special game with their mascot. Zelda: Breath of the Wild was also confirmed as a launch game and follows in the foot steps of Twilight Princess before it, being a game developed for the old hardware that is now debuting on the new hardware. It looks pretty great, and it’s the only title I reserved with my pre-order of the Switch.

The other games Nintendo unveiled either during the show or after were less impressive. I already mentioned 1-2-Switch and Arms, but Nintendo also unveiled Splatoon 2, which looked exactly like the first game. It’s coming in June. The Mario Kart game we saw in that first teaser back in October was confirmed to just be an enhanced version of Mario Kart 8. I suppose that’s great for those who skipped out on the Wii U, but not so great for those who already have it. Missing was the true knock-out punch from Nintendo, something to really wow gamers with either a new IP or an old classic. Outside of Mario, there isn’t much to look forward to after launch and I fear there will be a pretty long software drought just like there was for the Wii and Wii U.

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This pretty much sums up the third-party support issue quite nicely.

Truth be told, the Nintendo brand and the presence of Zelda are going to be enough for the Switch to have a successful launch, but let’s not forget that the Wii U did all right when it launched too. The holiday season will be a real barometer for what the public thinks of the Switch. The fact that the Wii U ended up fairing so poorly may help sell the Switch since a lot of people will want to play Zelda, and won’t already have a Wii U to play it on (it’s being released on both consoles). I think the mobile aspect of the console won’t be a big factor for most gamers, even if it’s something that I am really interested in. People already have their smart phones and most won’t want to haul the Switch around in a backpack, especially if the battery life comes in at the low end of Nintendo’s prediction of 2 1/2 to 6 hours (a pretty generous range, Nintendo). I think Nintendo will also find its online service to be a hard sell when gamers may already have an Xbox Live or PS Plus membership. As part of the Nintendo package, gamers will get access to free, classic games each month (I’m actually not sure on the plural aspect, it might be something like one NES game and one SNES game), which is smart of them because it leverages one of their strengths. I think they’re making a mistake though by making the free titles only playable for a month, after that it requires a purchase. They should follow their competitors leads and just make the games free for subscribers for as long as their membership is active. It also would have been nice to hear they’re making all of those Virtual Console purchases gamers made on the Wii U and other platforms will be carried over to the Switch. At least in the case of Wii U owners, it would have been a nice “thank you” to those fans who stuck with the company during its darkest period.

Last night’s conference ended up leaving me more concerned than before about the Switch’s prospects. That cautious optimism has mostly been replaced with cynicism and an expectation that the Switch will follow a similar path as the Wii U. The conference, more than anything, re-affirmed for me what Nintendo is which is becoming more of a niche product. I think it’s very possible that the Switch is Nintendo’s last console, or that it’s marking the start of an era where Nintendo only creates portable systems that can also plug into a television set. I hope I’m wrong, but at least I know I’m getting some Zelda and Mario action in the interim, because at the end of the day, that’s still Nintendo’s biggest asset for selling consoles. The Switch will answer whether or not that’s Nintendo’s only asset.


NECA Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Donatello

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“Ohhh pizza! I need it!”

2016 did something I never expected (well, it did many things I never expected); it brought me back to the action figure. And in particular, it brought me back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. First, it was Bandai with its line based on the animated series from the 1980s, then NECA finally released its own take on The Shredder from the original comic (I never reviewed it here because I decided to keep it in box). Now, NECA has done it again with its 1/4th scale Donatello based on the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

And my reaction to this figure could be summed up in two words:  Holy shit!

I’ve been collection action figures off and on since I was a kid, going on probably 25 years. It started with toys I would play with that most kids my age had, and then became more for a hobby with toys that would just sit on a shelf, desk, or other surface. In that time, I’ve acquired some pretty awesome toys. I’ve got a Hot Toys Batman based on The Dark Knight film that is incredible to behold, and was also incredibly expensive. In its short existence, Irwin Toys made some premium scale Dragon Ball Z figures that look excellent, and Toy Biz did the same with the Marvel properties in its Legends and Icons line. Nothing I’ve acquired though has nailed a likeness as well as Neca has with its movie-inspired Donatello.

For starters, this is a quarter-scale figure so he’s big, and the size means he should be highly detailed. I don’t typically dig figures of this size, especially now with my house becoming cluttered with the toys of small children, but I made an exception for this figure. The source material, as mentioned previously, is the original 1990 film which is by far the best film based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It might actually be the best thing based on the franchise excluding the original comic. This is actually pretty unique as no action figures before have really strived to capture the look of that first film. That’s partly due to the sequel, The Secret of the Ooze, being fast-tracked to theaters to strike before the fad died out. The sequel was probably more popular due to its lighter tone and more playful nature, making it more reminiscent of the cartoon. It’s possible Playmates, the toy company basically created for TMNT, just didn’t have time to get a line out for both films so they just went with the sequel for its movie line of figures (which were pretty awesome for the time). Even the newer lines done by Playmates based on the films are clearly more influenced by the sequel than the original, so right off the bat, Neca has done something no other toy company has done before.

For a first figure (naturally, the other turtles are on the way) in the line, Donatello is a great choice because he, more than the others, had a distinct look in the first film not captured by the second. His face is a little scrunched, his beak kind of pointy, and the ends of his mouth curl in a way the other turtles don’t. He’d sport a more rounded look in the sequel, and was noticeably taller too. This version of Donatello was always my favorite though. And a really unsung aspect of that original film is how all four turtles had a unique look. If viewed in black and white, it was still easy to point out which turtle was which because they each had their own face and proportions, like people.

This Donatello though, is so spot-on it continues to amaze me every time I look at him. The head sculpt is dead-on and his eyes are expressive and life-like. The shape of his bandana is perfect, and the ends of which are fabric and have enough weight that they hang just as they do in the film. The skin texture is also perfect and captures the look of the film so wonderfully. For me as a kid, that was the biggest difference in going from cartoon to live action as the cartoon never caused me to wonder how the turtles would really look in the real world. The faux leather of the belt and various pads looks superb, and the wash on his shell and chest captures the griminess of the film. This is, after all, a character who resides in a sewer. I had some minor concerns about the look of the figure when looking at the promotional images, but in person it looks great. Part of the disconnect, I think, is due to the characters almost always being in darkness in the film and rarely in a warmly lit location. When I walk into the room I keep this figure in at dusk and I see him it’s like he’s just jumping right out of one of those scenes.

Even though Donatello is huge (roughly 16″), he still sports basically the same articulation as Neca’s smaller figures. There’s still the issue of a bulky shell to work around, so there’s going to be some limitations inherent in a TMNT figure, but you still get double-elbows, ball joints everywhere, and ankle swivels. There is an ab crunch hidden behind that shell which allows for some upper body movement, and the bulky elbow pads do hinder articulation some, but for the most part the figure is pretty solid in that regard. Neca used ratchet joints in places to help the figure support its own weight. This does mean he’s a little hard to pose right out of the box, requiring some play, but it also means he can stand on one foot if you so desire.

Neca also saw fit to include some accessories with our dear friend Donnie. Mostly, these take the form of extra hands, seven total. He’s got hands for holding his bo staff, an open hand for Cowabunga, and twin thumbs-up. He’s got another slightly open hand for holding his other accessories: a slice of pizza and a canister of ooze. The pizza looks good enough to eat, and even resembles the pizza Mikey orders early in the movie. The ooze canister has a small crack, as opposed to being broken in two, making it very specific to the first film (in the second, it’s in two pieces and reads TGRI instead of TCRI, as it does here). Of course, Donatello comes with his signature bo staff which he can hold pretty effortlessly and also has holsters for on his belt. Really, the only thing missing is an extra head with his open smile from the cover of the VHS box. With that, he’d be able to properly do his “Excellent!” pose from the beginning. It’s understandable that Neca only did one head for each turtle given it would probably add considerable cost, but it would have been awesome if they found a way.

In short, if it isn’t already apparent, I love this toy. It might be my new favorite (until the Leonardo one comes out anyways) as it’s just so perfect. I do wish Neca could have achieved the same in a smaller scale, but apparently that’s impossible due to how their license is constructed. Maybe that won’t be true always, but I’d be really hesitant about holding out for a smaller scale and risk missing out on these figures. The price is steep ($100 MSRP) compared to other Neca products, though far less than Hot Toys and other premium action figures despite being of basically the same quality. I am definitely all-in on this series and can’t wait to complete the quartet.


12 Films of Christmas #1: A Christmas Story

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A Christmas Story (1983)

A lot of people have attempted to define Christmas over the years, but if you ask a child it’s all about Santa Claus and presents. We can tell our kids it’s about more than that. It’s about the giving, not the receiving, but they’ll never buy it. They may pay us lip-service thinking that by saying the right thing Santa will bring them more presents, but we know how they truly feel. And really, it’s no big deal because as they get older they’ll find new ways to look at Christmas and come around to the family and giving aspects of the holiday. While they’re kids though, lets let them be kids.

Everyone probably can recall that one Christmas gift they really wanted above all others. Hopefully, many did eventually get that, though I have a feeling most of those girls asking Santa for a pony went wanting on Christmas Day (I’d ask for a dog and never get it, but by then I was kind of wise to the whole Santa thing; I did get a turtle though). I have one, and for me it was a Super Nintendo. The SNES was released in 1991 and some of my cousins and friends received one from Santa that year. I did not, so come Christmas ’92 I was really itching for one and felt Santa was my only hope. When Christmas came, I snuck up early in the morning to scope out the loot. I was actually pretty happy with the toys I received, but there was no SNES. I returned to bed partially defeated, but truly looking on the bright side. When it was finally an acceptable hour to get up, I returned to the tree and tore into my gifts with my sister. When my parents got up, my dad made a remark about how he was surprised I wasn’t playing with a certain gift. Then he started looking around, and gestured towards the kitchen table which was probably six feet away from where the tree was setup. Tucked between the table leg and wall was my Super Nintendo, and I was overjoyed.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s practically the same experience Ralphie enjoys at the end of A Christmas Story when he finds his coveted Red Ryder BB Gun tucked behind a desk after thinking Santa had forgot the one gift he wanted most. It’s a charming tale about want, which sounds shallow on the surface, but after spending some 80 minutes with Ralphie throughout the picture we come to feel he deserves it and we’re all rooting for him to get that air rifle, even if it means he might shoot his eye out.

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The Parker Family

Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is like most kids. He has the same problems as anyone like school work, bullies, and looking after his kid-brother Randy (Ian Petrella). The film is narrated by Jean Shepherd as adult Ralphie, and was written by him as well, and the whole story is essentially one long flashback. Ralphie’s mother (Melinda Dillon) is his main obstacle towards getting what he wants as she deems a BB gun as too dangerous, uttering the film’s famous line “You’ll shoot your eye out,” upon hearing of her son’s desire. Ralphie’s dad, often referred to as the Old Man and played by Darren McGavin, seems indifferent to the plights of the family, unless the kids are acting up. He’s more consumed with his paper, fighting a never ending battle with the furnace, and his hick neighbors pack of hound dogs that seem only interested in harassing him, and no one else.

A lot of subplots carry the picture as we move towards Christmas. There’s the famous scene at the flagpole where Ralphie’s friends settle a debate over whether or not a tongue can stick to metal in the cold. There’s the Old Man’s “major award” that starts a cold war of sorts in the Parker household. A mall Santa steals a scene, and Ralphie’s potty mouth takes center stage for a memorable scene as well and we all learn about which soap tastes the best. Ralphie is often on the receiving end of some minor misfortune in many of these scenes, which only helps to make him feel more sympathetic. The film never strays too far towards this masochistic persona by making the viewer feel almost depressed for the poor kid, it mostly just reminds us of what it was like growing up.

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Not all gifts are winners.

The film is loaded with humor. Some of it is subtle and worked into the dialogue, some of it is ironic, and some of it is gag reliant. Ralphie’s daydreams are appropriately corny since they’re coming from the mind of a child and provide for the most obvious scenes of comedy in the film. The previously mentioned major award, a novelty lamp resembling a woman’s leg in a cocktail dress, is so well-known these days that you can walk into a store and buy one. McGavin is especially funny in his role as the Old Man, often having big reactions when he’s angered and perfectly capturing what it means to be a parent around the holidays. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head. Dillon is equally as effective as Mrs. Parker. She so captures that classic image of a mother without feeling too cliche. When she screams “Ralphie” it really sounds like she’s been shouting it his whole life at her own son.

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It’s hard to pick a favorite scene in this one, and when Ralphie tries his luck with Santa is certainly in the running for best scene in the picture.

The film does a great job of giving Ralphie small victories along the way, making the payoff at the end feel especially effective and joyous. It’s a film that succeeds because it so understands how it felt to be a child around Christmas. It’s relatable for children watching it today, and gives adults a chance to look back on those years when we were a little like Ralphie. You only get a few years to really be a kid invested in the whole Santa Claus concept, since most have the fable spoiled before they leave elementary school. It’s nice to get a little taste of that each time I view A Christmas Story. It’s why I consider it my favorite Christmas film of all time.

If you’re looking to catch A Christmas Story this year then I have good news, as it will be airing on television when this post goes live on Christmas Day. Hopefully you enjoyed reading this feature, though I admit I hope most are reading this final entry after Christmas, though I suppose it could be bathroom material on Christmas Day just fine. I hope everyone is spending Christmas Day with friends and family and Merry Christmas from The Nostalgia Spot!

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12 Films of Christmas #2: Elf

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Elf (2003)

It’s pretty hard to come into an established industry with something new and find success.  And when it comes to holiday films and television specials, it seems like it’s especially hard. Sure, sometimes you get a Prep & Landing that really surprises, but mostly you get Shrek the Halls…

Jon Favreau is mostly known these days for directing the Iron Man films. In 2003, people may have mostly known him for his short-stint on the sitcom Friends when he played the boyfriend of Courtney Cox who wanted to be an ultimate fighting champion. He certainly wasn’t known for holiday films, but who knew he was about to preside over one of the best?

Elf, in some ways, follows one of my favorite Christmas formulas by adding to the legend of Santa Claus. It doesn’t add much, but gives us another look at how Santa goes about his business. It definitely gives us a peek at elf life. We learn their dietary habits, toy output, and that they actually make those toys that show up in department stores themselves (though I don’t know if we’re supposed to assume that all Etch-A-Sketch toys are made by elves). Mostly though, it tells the story of one elf:  Buddy. The twist is that Buddy is not actually an elf, but a human adopted by elves after he snuck into Santa’s sack one Christmas while Santa was visiting an orphanage.

Before getting to the meat of the story, I must say I definitely approve of the decision to model the elves and the North Pole after the look both have in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Even the decor is that pale violet color that everything seemed to be cast in for that famous Christmas special. As a kid, it always annoyed me there was so little continuity between Christmas specials, even ones produced by Rankin/Bass. If I had seen this film as a six-year old I would have been even more delighted than I am as an adult.

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Ferrell is at his best when Favreau just lets him go nuts in a scene.

Now Buddy (Will Ferrell), is oblivious to the fact that he’s an elf even though he’s a lot bigger than his peers and can’t keep up with them in the toy-making field. It bums him out, and when he overhears the head elf (A Christmas Story’s Peter Billingsly) speaking with another about how Buddy will probably never realizes he’s human, he goes running to Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) to find out if it’s true. Upon doing so, he decides to set out to find his real father, who impregnated his biological mother unknowingly and has since passed away. All of the elves, including Santa (Ed Asner) wish him well, but Santa also has a revelation to reveal: Buddy’s dad is on the naughty list!

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I’m digging the Rudolph inspired look of the film.

If you have not guessed by now, Elf is a pretty silly movie. After Buddy leaves the North Pole, it becomes a fish-out-of-water tale as he journeys to New York City to find his dad. Turns out his dad is the head of a children’s book publishing firm, and right away we see how he values profits above doing the right thing when he approves a book with no ending for publishing. Walter Hobbs (James Caan) is naturally shocked to find out he has a son he never knew about, and wants nothing to do with an adult who thinks he’s a Christmas elf. He also has a wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and a young son, Michael (Daniel Tay), who are equally dubious. Emily is the most receptive of Buddy, though Michael is more in-line with his dad in thinking the guy is nuts. Buddy also winds up in a department store where he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), and mistakes her for someone into elf culture since she has to dress-up as one for work.

Buddy has a hard time adjusting to life in New York and makes things difficult for those around him. He gradually gets people to come around to him, starting with Michael, then Jovie, and eventually even his old man. There’s of course a big blow-up scene between him and his father that has to be resolved before Buddy can then help Santa save Christmas. It’s all rather conventional, but the film always straddles the line between cheese and just plain good fun, and one gets the impression it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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Given her get-up, it’s not hard to see why Buddy gets a little excited when he sees Jovie.

Will Ferrell is very charismatic as Buddy. He’s annoying, as most characters played by Ferrell are, but still charming due to his child-like and honest persona. I know many people who dislike Ferrell but are charmed by his Buddy character. Maybe it’s the Christmas factor, I’m not sure, but Buddy seems to be his most-liked role. Asner’s gruff take on Santa Claus works really well in the film’s climax. He feels authentic, even when spouting nonsense about needing more Christmas spirit to get his sleigh off the ground. He’s so matter-of-fact about it that it helps the audience to buy-into what the film is selling. Caan is prickly as Hobbs, but understandably so given what his character has to deal with. He possesses some Scrooge-like qualities in the sense that he’s a workaholic who clearly doesn’t spend enough time with his family (as illustrated by Michael’s lack of respect for him). He has to come around to Buddy, and see the importance of family. He does so in semi-believable way, but considering this film exists mostly for laughs, he doesn’t need to go through a Scrooge-like transformation that unfolds over entire acts.

Elf works so exceptionally well because it’s just a joyful film. There’s plenty of humor, and enough heart to give it purpose and provide that emotional pay-off most expect of a Christmas movie. It’s a movie that I return to every year, and every time I watch it I wonder to myself if this is my favorite Christmas movie. So few are able to handle comedy and sentimentality as deftly as Elf does. The Santa Clause has some laughs, but becomes cloyingly sweet at the end. Bad Santa is plenty hilarious, but doesn’t have really much of an emotional payoff. The Miracle on 34th Street has some chuckle-worthy moments, but is hardly a comedy. Elf is able to be both, which makes it the rare modern Christmas movie that is contention for being one of the best.


12 Films of Christmas #3: Miracle on 34th Street

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

When it comes to the eternal struggle over Christmas, as depicted on South Park, between Jesus and Santa Claus, I always side with Claus. Christmas may have originated with the Pagans before being appropriated by the Christians, but it’s Santa Claus that has made it the most popular holiday in the USA, if not the world. I’m on record as being one who appreciates a good Santa movie, one that adds to the character’s lore and mystique. The Santa Clause, featured towards the back-end of this list, is a modern film that does a pretty good job of making Santa more fleshed out and believable. It owes a lot to Miracle on 34th Street.

Miracle on 34th Street is the original “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” movie and is perfect for those children who are just starting to question the existence of the jolly old elf. It’s also heart-warming and delightful for adults as the film never fails to make me want to believe in Santa Claus once again.

Miracle on 34th Street was released in 1947 during the very festive month of June. Despite the odd timing, the film was warmly received by critics and movie-goers and Miracle on 34th Street is one of the most celebrated Christmas films of all time. Set in New York City, the film follows Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood), two people with little time for sentimentality or flights of fancy. Doris is a divorcee, very straight-laced and career oriented and serves as an event director with Macy’s. Her daughter is her spitting image and the two are really a couple of humbugs around the holidays. Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) comes into their lives when he notices the man set to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is intoxicated, and insists he be replaced. Since he fits the image of Santa, Doris appoints Kris. He does such a marvelous job that Macy’s hires him as their official Santa to meet children in their 34th Street department store which brings him into frequent contact with Susan. He finds her to be a kind child, but kind of sad and joyless and makes it his mission to convince her that he is, in fact, the real Santa Claus.

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Gwenn and Wood possess natural on screen chemistry.

Throughout the film we’re treated to scenes between Gwenn and Wood where Wood begins to question all she knows, and all her mother has told her. And as an audience, we’re kept in the dark for the most part as to whether or not Kris really is Santa Claus. Doris is not really interested in hearing about Kris’s exploits, but her suitor Fred (John Payne) becomes one of Kris’s biggest supporters and seems willing to believe that he’s Santa, because he has no reason not to and sees no harm in it.

Kris ends up being a revelation for Macy’s. Even as he tells customers to shop at rival Gimbel’s if Macy’s doesn’t have what they’re looking for or is charging too much. The store manager appears ready to terminate him over the flap, but customers respond with increased loyalty towards Macy’s as a result prompting the store to keep Kris on staff. Meanwhile, Kris is given a task by young Susan to prove he’s the real Santa. He needs to bring her for Christmas a family and a new life by giving her a house. Kris is reluctant to promise her this, as even if he truly is Santa Claus, such a task is impossible, but he reluctantly agrees. Kris and Fred end up forming a duo, in which each will work on the mother and daughter to make them more open to the Christmas spirit.

Concerned by Kris’s proclamations of being Santa, Doris has him psychologically examined and the examination upsets Kris. The psychiatrist finds him to be harmless, but begins spreading his opinion that Kris is mentally ill around the store, which enrages Kris further. Kris foolishly gives the shrink, Sawyer (Porter Hall), a bop on the head with his cane which Sawyer exaggerates into a full-blown assault, getting Kris arrested as a result and faced with being institutionalized over his claims that he’s Santa Claus.

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The courtroom scenes contain some of the best writing and most humor in the picture.

The climactic scenes for the film occur in a courthouse, where Fred represents Kris and is forced to prove that he’s Santa Claus, or force the court to prove that he is not. There’s a lot of fun scenes that take place during the trial, and there’s a warmth added to the picture when the store director for Macy’s voices his belief in Kringle on the stand. Through a sort of trick, Fred is able to convince the judge that the federal government recognizes the existence of Santa Claus by virtue of the fact that the post office accepts letters to Santa, which is enough to get Kris off.

The film concludes in typical Christmas fashion, with everything working out for the best and we’re left to wonder if Kris really is Santa Claus. It’s a satisfying wonder though, which captures the essence of the Santa Claus character and whether or not he is believed in.

The film was famously remade in 1994, with Sir Richard Attenborough in the lead role and support from Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, and Mara Wilson as Susan. The film changes things up be inserting some villainous characters out to topple Kris, bringing back the character he got fired from playing Santa at the film’s beginning in a scheme to get Kris arrested. It’s a bit cartoonish when compared to the original, but I do like that Kris is given more motivation to strike a man (he accuses Kris of being a pedophile) than what was present in the original. The film ups the difficulty factor for Kris by having Susan request not only a house, but a dad and a baby brother as well. The final scene also opts to use the “In God We Trust” statement on US currency as a way to prove the federal government can acknowledge the existence of a being that no one can prove exists.

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The 1994 remake has its good and bad points, but this scene maybe my favorite scene across both films.

The re-make is often derided by those who love the original, as remakes almost always are. I think it works as a modern adaptation. There’s some things I like about it and some I don’t. There’s a little more character development given to smaller roles, and we get a better sense of what the judge has to wrestle with when presented with this case. There’s also a nice communal spirit that’s driven home about the picture, which is present in the original, but to a lesser degree. One change I do like is to one of the best scenes in the original film when Susan witnesses Kris speak Dutch to a young girl. In the remake, the girl is deaf instead and Susan watches Kris sign with her. The scene is just set-up so well, and Attenborough and the young actress playing the deaf child are so expressive and warm that it’s a real heart-melter of a scene.

Whether you watch the original or the 1994 remake, you’re bound to find one of the most sentimental and warm-hearted Christmas films made. Both Gwenn and Attenborough bring amazing authenticity to the character of Kris Kringle, so much so that I don’t know who did it better. I wish Gwenn had the benefit of color for his version as this is a film that is so warm it begs to be scene in color. Miracle on 34th Street, no matter the version, stands as the best Santa Claus movie made, and its use of mystery and cleverness is likely not to be topped by another.

 


12 Films of Christmas #4: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how Home Alone director Chris Columbus was booted off of another Christmas flick due to conflicts with the star and that landing on Home Alone was a pretty good Christmas rebound. Unfortunately, the film he was dismissed from was one of the few this blog thinks is a superior Christmas movie:  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Now to be fair, it’s said that Columbus left this film due to disagreements with lead actor Chevy Chase. We all know that’s lingo for fired, basically, as the studio wasn’t going to side with a director of his stature over Clark W. Griswold. Even if, rumor has it, that Chase was a pain in the ass to work with going back to his days on Saturday Night Live.

Chase is very much the star here as most of the scenes revolve around him. When he’s not around the house, we very rarely get a look at what the rest of the Griswold family is up to. Essentially, we experience virtually everything through Clark, which isn’t unlike the previous Vacation films that came before it. It’s one reason why producer and writer John Hughes didn’t have any interest in directing the film as he viewed it as an outlet for Chase and little else.

Which is kind of a shame because, whatever your thoughts on Chevy Chase happen to be, the film works because Chase is so convincing as Clark Griswold. Unlike the previous Vacation movies, this one keeps the Griswolds at home as Clark is hell-bent on having the perfect family Christmas. He invites his parents and in-laws to stay on holiday at their home and carefully orchestrates everything from the tree to the decorations and probably even the menu. Of course, this being a Vacation film, nothing goes the way Clark plans. He forgets a saw when they set out for a tree, he can’t get his elaborate lights display to work properly, he spends a day locked in the attic, his cousin-in-law Eddie shows up, and worst of all, he doesn’t get a Christmas bonus thanks to his cheap boss, Frank Shirley (Brian Doyle Murray).

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Clark and Ellen are back for this third installment in the Vacation series.

Everything that goes wrong for Clark does so for a reason; to make the audience laugh. Some of the gags are painfully awkward, like when Clark gets caught flirting with a lingerie clerk by son Rusty (Johnny Galecki) or when engaging in a dangerous game of road rage in the opening scene. Others are spectacles of physical comedy with Clark taking a pretty good beating at times by falling off the roof or crashing his sleigh into Wal-Mart. Most of the gags hit home, and the film does a good job of raising the laugh factor as the film goes on. The best is definitely reserved for Christmas Eve, when basically everything blows up in Clark’s face. Some of the bits are a little less interesting, like the sledding sequence which feels like a time filler, or Clark’s day-dreaming of a swimming pool.

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The film opens with a pretty neat little animation of Santa having a hard time making a delivery to the Griswold family.

As was the case with the first film, Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) is a scene stealer as Clark’s hick cousin-in-law. Eddie has little comprehension of how he’s perceived by others and is devoid of shame. He has no problem emptying his chemical toilet in the middle of the street while swigging a beer in his bathrobe. He’s also pretty selfish, though not maliciously so, which makes him hard to resent. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why Clark wants nothing to do with him even if he is well-meaning, as he is at the film’s climax.

And that climax really is a work of Christmas comedy gold. Everyone has Christmas horror stories, but hopefully not like this. And when Clark finds out he’s been enrolled in the Jelly of the Month Club (“It’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year ’round”) and goes on his rant he creates one of the most quotable moments of any Christmas film. It’s almost a shame that there’s some filler between that scene and Eddie’s “gift” as the momentum the film built up to that point is stellar. The film ends some-what abruptly, but I suppose that’s a good thing as we don’t need to see the family open burnt presents and try to pick up the pieces following the trashing of the house on Christmas Eve.

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“Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!”

There’s a lot of fine role-players in this film. Both Rusty and wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) play the patient, straight-role to Chase while daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis) is more combative with her father, but not in an over-the-top sense that steals any scenes or derails the film. Doris Roberts and E.G. Marshall are excellent as Ellen’s parents who always point out what Clark gets wrong and not what he gets right. Nicholas Guest and Julia-Louise Dreyfus are scene-stealers as Clark’s neighbors, who put up with his crap for most of the film until the damn runneth over. They’re portrayed as snotty yuppy types and we’re supposed to root against them, even though they never do anything wrong or even mean. In that, the film is sort of mean-spirited in how it treats them, but I laugh at their misfortune anyways.

Christmas Vacation is, simply put, the perfect Christmas comedy. It spreads the laughs around throughout the brisk 97 minute runtime and does a good job of relying on each supporting actor in equal measures, while putting a rather large load onto the shoulders of Chevy Chase. And at this point, Chase has the Clark Griswold character nailed and it’s hard to separate the actor from the character as a result. This one is definitely worthy of annual viewing, just make sure to catch it on a premium network or home media format as the edited one that airs on Freeform is a disaster.


12 Films of Christmas #5: Home Alone

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Home Alone (1990)

Yesterday we looked at a film that shone a spotlight on how one man can make a difference in the many lives he comes in contact with. Today, we’re looking at a film where an eight-year old boy comes to realize he doesn’t need anyone to make it in this world. Of course we’re talking about Home Alone: the family comedy without the family. Home Alone was released in 1990 to much success. While hardly a critical darling, it raked in the money as kids everywhere lined up to see Kevin McCallister take on two bumbling bandits and show that kids do indeed rule. The film also made a household name out of Macaulay Culken who would have a short reign in the public spotlight before puberty uncomfortably ruined all of that.

Home Alone is a Chris Columbus directed picture that feels like a John Hughes directed one. That’s because Hughes produced it. And it’s probably thanks to Hughes that John Freaking Williams was brought on to score the picture. That’s a factoid that always marvels me, this little picture aimed at children had a Williams score. Even though Home Alone manages to elevate itself out of similar, but lesser films, like Problem Child it probably didn’t pitch any better, so for Williams to sign-on to do it just boggles my mind. And to make it even more incredible, Williams wasn’t even the first choice!

Home Alone was also Columbus’s second attempt at directing a major Christmas production. He was originally supposed to direct National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but he apparently didn’t get along with Chevy Chase. Home Alone feels like a decent consolation prize for dealing with Chevy. The film is very much a comedy, relying heavily on physical comedy and the uncomfortable situations Kevin puts the adults around him into.

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I don’t know if there’s a studio in America that would even try to get away with a scene like this in 2016.

The premise of the film is pretty ridiculous. Kevin’s family, including several members of his extended family, are all going to Paris for Christmas and he, being the black sheep of the clan, gets left behind. I don’t think we ever find out what Kevin’s parents do for work, but the fact that it’s his dad paying for everyone to go to Paris makes it seem pretty laughable that he seems upset with Kevin for using his new fish hooks to make Christmas ornaments. I don’t think a package of three cost as much as a dollar in 1990. Anyway, a power outage and a mad dash to the airport, plus a nosey neighbor, all contribute to Kevin being left home alone. The local police, and Kevin’s own youthful imagination, even make it impossible for anyone to confirm that he’s all right when his mom calls from Paris. This is definitely one of those films that would partially break with cell phones introduced.

Meanwhile, Kevin basically thinks he made his family disappear. He goes on with life, pretty happy at first doing what probably most kids would do. He eats ice cream for dinner, watches R rated films (Angels with Filthy Souls), and goes through his older brother’s room. Eventually, he starts trying to be more responsible as he realizes he actually has to do things now, they don’t just happen. When some burglars start nosing around (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as Harry and Marv) is when Kevin starts to get scared, and actually miss his family. He even seeks out a local Santa about getting his family back, in a scene that is sort of touching, especially if you try to put yourself in the Santa character’s shoes.

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Oh yeah, that’s the one.

The proverbial money shot is obviously the climax in which the Wet Bandits storm Kevin’s house full off booby traps. As far as physical comedy goes, the entire sequence is actually pretty spectacular. It’s easy to forget how hilarious it all was upon the first viewing since this is a film most people reading this have probably viewed a hundred times by now. In particular, the blow torch scene is genius. Some may scoff at an actor like Pesci reducing himself to such a role, but his facial expressions are gold. Stern is arguably just as good as the more aloof of the two bandits.

The film also takes time to highlight the Christmas holiday, and Christmas naturally has a way of making things all better in the end. Home Alone is a terrific ride, even if it’s a bit formulaic and gag-reliant. It was a magic that really couldn’t be duplicated. While several sequels have been made (only one featuring the main cast of the original), none have come close to harnessing whatever it is that made the original feel so refreshing. It’s the type of film that can’t be duplicated, which means a remake is coming to theaters in 2021.