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Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

This past December, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turned 80. On December 21, 1937 the world was introduced to feature-length animation. Well, maybe not the world since that date was just the premiere. It wasn’t until February 4, 1938 that the rest of the United States was introduced to the picture. The film was behest by production delays and budgeting concerns and the mood was that this would be Disney’s greatest failure before it arrived. That wasn’t the case, and it’s a good thing because had Snow White failed we likely would not have the many subsequent pictures, or maybe even a Disney. This post should have ran in December, but since I was elbow-deep in Christmas I sat on it until now, timing it with the picture’s wide release. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a remarkable achievement and a film worth celebrating any day, but especially so when it turns 80.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had to be a special film in order to justify the need for an extended running time. Prior to its release, cartoons were relegated to the pre-show, if you will. Theaters would run a Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop or some other toon before a picture along with news reels and other pieces of film. Since there was less competition from other past times, a trip to the movie theater was practically an all day affair as opposed to modern times when movie-goers are left griping that a cartoon short is too long. In order to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs stand out, Disney naturally injected a huge amount of cash into the production. Live footage was recorded to animate over, numerous backgrounds were painted in lovingly detail, and a new camera technique even had to be invented. The Multiplane camera is a massive structure that basically separates three backgrounds at three different distances from the camera. This creates a literal foreground, middle-ground, and background for a given scene and the camera can zoom or pan on the image creating an illusion of depth. It’s on display right at the beginning of the film and it’s a fun little trick that would be utilized for basically all of Disney’s animated films to come.

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The Queen approaches her magic mirror.

Originally, Walt Disney thought he could produce the film for around $250,000. That’s a tiny sum by today’s standards, but in the 1930’s a typical Silly Symphony cartoon cost about $25,000 to produce. Disney must have assumed the feature would be ten times as long and cost ten times as much money as a result. If that was his reasoning, he failed to account for all of improvements he wanted to make to the process as the picture ended up costing around 1.5 million dollars. That was a rather colossal sum at the time, especially for a cartoon few thought would be a success, including brother Roy and wife Lillian. Disney had to mortgage his own home and most likely put up every piece of collateral he could to get the picture made. It was a gamble, but it paid off since what makes the film so special is the production values which help to cover a fairly pedestrian story.

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Young Snow White will spend quite a bit of time socializing with the various animals of the forest.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
basically establishes the template for the Disney “Princess Movie.” A kind and good-natured young woman is made the target of a ruthless villainess through no fault of her own. This young woman, either a princess or soon to be, then just sort of lets everything happen around her hoping against hope that a prince will come to her rescue and take her away to live happily ever after. It’s a common setup for fairy tales and it’s a pattern that will be reused in both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty years down the road. Of the three, Snow White is the one that follows it most closely. When the film begins, we find out that Snow White has lost her parents and is left with only her cruel step-mother, the Queen Grimhilde (Lucille La Verne). Despite being a princess, she’s forced to tend to the castle like a commoner while her jealous step-mother looks on concerned that Snow White’s beauty will soon surpass her own. When her magic mirror on the wall confirms this, the Queen responds with violence and commands her huntsman to lead Snow White into the forest where he is to kill her and return to his queen with the maiden’s heart in a box.

Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) is a happy and contented young woman despite her station in life. I suppose being a servant in a castle is probably better than a peasant, but we are introduced to her washing the castle steps in a tattered dress while she sings a happy song (“I’m Wishing”) to the birds that swarm around her. A dashing prince (Harry Stockwell) hears her song from outside the castle walls, scales them, and surprises her by sneaking up alongside her and joining in her song. Frightened, Snow White retreats into the castle proper disappointing the prince, but a little peak his way lets us know she’s more than a little curious.

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The box intended to hold Snow White’s heart.

Love will have to wait, as the Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) leads Snow White off to pick wild flowers where he is to do as his queen commands and end her life. When first confronted by the Queen, he is alarmed at the request and once the moment is upon him he finds he is unable to go through with it. Sobbing, he begs Snow White to flee from the evil woman sending her into a panic. She runs through the forest which takes on a supernatural quality. Trees reach out to her with thorny fingers and hideous visages as she screams and runs this way and that. Her dress gets caught multiple times, she stumbles into a bog, and bats and owls frighten her further. When the animals of the forest come to her aid she reacts with fear once more causing them to flee. Seeing their fear seems to snap her back into reality, and Snow White is soon apologetic and gradually calms down.

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The cautious dwarfs return home to find an intruder in their house.

She walks through the forest which leads her to a little cottage. Inside she finds the place a mess with dust everywhere and dishes piled high in a wash basin. She notices the tiny furniture and the many beds upstairs adorned with silly names like Sneezy and Bashful and deduces this must be the home of some children. She happily cleans and prepares a meal while the many critters assist her. Of course, this home does not belong to children but to the seven dwarfs who are hard at work in a nearby mine harvesting various wonderful gems. They sing their little song as they work, which leads into perhaps the film’s most famous tune, “Heigh-Ho,” as their work day concludes and they set off for home.

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Snow White meets the seven dwarfs.

Upon arrival, they find the house is occupied and they immediately suspect the worst. Doc, the dwarf with glasses, is apparently the leader of the troop but Grumpy is the one with the loudest opinions. Little, beardless Dopey, is apparently the one lacking in wits and he’s encouraged to venture upstairs and see who is sleeping in their beds. He sees Snow White and mistakes her for some kind of monster and the other six dwarfs need little convincing that he did not as they all scamper away in fright. Eventually, they return to the second level and see that the individual resting in their beds is not a monster, but a beautiful young maiden. She awakes to her own surprise that the inhabitants of the castle are not children, but seven dwarfs. The ice is broken almost immediately, and the new friends set in for a night of feasting, laughter, and dance.

Meanwhile, the evil queen knows her huntsman has betrayed her, and utilizing her magic mirror once more, she finds where Snow White is hiding. Turning to her book of spells, she concocts a potion that will disguise her as a hideous old hag and another that will coat an apple in poison. Any who consume a portion of the apple will fall into an eternal slumber. Only love’s first kiss can break the spell, and the Queen dismisses the possibility as soon as she reads it.

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Lots of singing, lots of dancing. This particular sequence will be re-animated numerous times in other productions, most notably in Sleeping Beauty when Aurora dances with the owl.

The rest of the story is likely not foreign to anyone reading this. The dwarfs head off to work the next morning while the Queen finds the cottage and is able to trick Snow White into taking a bite of the poisoned apple. The dwarfs, alerted by the forest critters wise to the Queen’s plan, are too late, but they do successfully chase off the Queen indirectly causing her to meet an untimely end. Unable to bring themselves to bury Snow White, they instead incase her in a glass coffin and stand vigil for many months until her prince eventually finds her and wakens her with a kiss. What convinced a prince to kiss a long-dead maiden is beyond me, but I suppose you can’t argue with results.

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The story is capable of charm especially when the dwarfs all line up for a goodbye kiss before work.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an achievement not because of its story, but because of its production. The plot is well-paced leading up to and including the introduction of the dwarfs to Snow White. The whole sequence of a frightened group of men tip-toeing through their cottage is a delight and genuinely amusing. Their warming period to Snow White is needed to make their reactions to her eventual “death” convincing, though it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a significant amount of padding at this point of the picture. Not accustomed to creating features, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs falls victim to long stretches of time where nothing really happens. Just seeing characters dance and be merry might have been enough entertainment for a crowd in 1937, but to a modern audience it starts to feel long. Watching the film with young ones at home and this becomes even more obvious as their attention wanders. And yet, the film ends in a some-what rushed fashion reducing the emotional payoff of the moment when Snow White awakens. Despite that though, the dwarfs feel genuine in their remorse when they find Snow White apparently dead. From an emotional standpoint, it’s the film’s highest point as the little men, especially Grumpy, are reduced to tears at the horrible sight.

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The Queen in her witch guise will probably put a little chill in the hearts of viewers even today.

Even 80 years after the fact, the animation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still remarkable to behold. Because live-action actors were utilized to map out the movement of the characters, everything has an elegant flow to it. It’s eerily realistic and the Queen looks especially splendid with her large flowing robes and dramatic movements. As an old hag she creeps along convincingly. If not for her cartoonish nose you’d think it was live footage and not animation. The only limitation of this approach, essentially tracing live footage onto animation cels, is in the facial animations. The small details and realistic proportions for Snow White are difficult to translate to a drawing (hence why so many animated characters have over-sized eyes and mouths) so her mouth kind of “floats” on her face and her eyes sometimes lack any semblance of life to them. The dwarfs, by comparison, have a more cartoonish appearance so they don’t have the same limitations. They mostly have large, bulbous noses and simple, but expressive, eyes. Live footage was tracked for them as well so their movements are not out of place when compared with the more human characters. All of this adds up to create one spectacularly animated film.

The backgrounds in the film are also lovingly crafted. Disney would perhaps learn eventually that not so much detail was required, but considering this was the first feature it’s not surprising they went a little overboard here. Every dusty little nook and cranny of the cottage is created. Wood grain appears on every wooden object and you can even see little hinges and bolts where appropriate. There’s also a nice water effect early in the film from the perspective of the wishing well that Snow White looks into. Such an animation trick is hard to pull off and I can only imagine how breath-taking it was in 1937. The scary forest and the Queen’s laboratory are also exquisitely drawn. In the case of the lab, it’s convincing to believe the Queen has been inhabiting this place for a long time. Her transformation into the old hag is perhaps not as ambitiously animated as it would be if done today, but is still effective and even a bit frightening. I also really enjoyed the little touches, such as a pair of buzzards stalking the old woman seemingly foretelling of her demise. And when she actually convinces Snow White to taste the poisoned apple we experience it through her eyes as she eagerly rubs her hands together and looks upon the girl with hungry eyes. When Snow White collapses, we just see her hand hit the ground by the witch’s feet as the apple rolls away. I don’t know if this was an artistic call or a bit of self-censorship on their part not wanting to show Snow White’s death onscreen, but it’s effective nonetheless.

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The most iconic scene and song from the picture probably belongs to the “Heigh-Ho” sequence.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is as much remembered for it’s stellar look as it is for its music. Music and Disney are intertwined and many of the studio’s animated productions are synonymous with their musical numbers. That is certainly the case for Snow White as many tracks have gone on to become celebrated and often associated with the Disney brand:  “Heigh-Ho,” “I’m Wishing,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” These songs are all often referenced and sung today by children and adults alike. Though societal attitudes have somewhat tarnished “Someday My Prince Will Come” as this is an easy point of reference when deriding the trope of a young woman simply waiting for a man to come and better her life. A song that has aged just fine though has got to be “Heigh-Ho,” as who hasn’t left work on occasion singing that one to themselves?

Certainly the notion that a “Princess Movie” should seek to empower young women is perhaps the biggest obstacle for an old picture like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be enjoyed by a modern audience. As an amateur animation historian, I enjoy this picture for the story behind the scenes, the real-world struggle to get it made and the fantastic artistic results. As for the actual story within the film, I do recognize the short-comings of the Snow White character. While it’s not a bad message to encourage unfailing optimism, like a character hoping against hope that their life will improve if they stay the course and be a good person, it is a bit unfortunate to see a young woman simply rely on a prince to carry them off to the happily ever after. I suppose it would have been nice to see more resolve from the title character. Instead of running off like a frightened child she could have shown some determination or maybe even fought off her attacker. The short run time necessitates a hastening of the romance in basically all of these films, so that part I can forgive. As a “Princess Move” though, Snow White is guilty of many of that genre’s sins. When compared with Disney’s other films, I’d probably slide the character ahead of the rather boring Aurora, but behind Cinderella who is at least more sympathetic given her relationship with her step-mother is explored in greater depth than what we have here.

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Given the film’s historical significance, it hardly comes as a surprise that the characters can still be found at the various Disney parks around the world.

Given that there are numerous “Princess Movies” to show your sons and daughters, I don’t think the message contained within Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is particularly damaging or anything. Today’s kids can find better role models in modern pictures, but I also personally doubt many would seek to truly emulate the characters here because they’re fairly shallow. The dwarfs are the real stars are they’re consistently funny and charming and the Queen is memorable for being scary and cruel sure to leave a mark on a young child. Snow White, by comparison, is a bit boring and her look and even singing are some-what dated and not likely as captivating as modern characters. If your child prefers her to Elsa then consider me surprised. Because the film is a bit slow for children, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs feels more like a picture that will entertain adults more than children, especially if the audience is just looking to drink-in the glorious animation. As the first feature-length animated production in the US, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is definitely worthy. Even with a pedestrian story, it looks fantastic and stands the test of time as a result. I imagine that when production began way back in 1934, that’s exactly what Walt Disney hoped to accomplish. Well done, Mr. Disney.

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Dec. 11 – Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas

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November 1997

So this one is a little different. Basically all of the entries up until now have been for television specials and cartoon shorts. Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas is a feature-length direct-to-video Christmas special based on Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast. It’s sort of confusing to describe, because I guess you would call it a midquel (assuming that’s a real word), but it’s also a sequel since the events of the film are told via a flashback. See how that can get confusing? Anyways, I’ve mostly been running through the plots of these specials scene by scene, but doing so for a feature would take quite awhile, even though it’s admittedly a pretty short sequel since it only runs about 71 minutes, so I’ll try to be brief here, but probably won’t succeed.

The Enchanted Christmas was released in November of 1997 and is yet another direct-to-video film based on a popular animated one. Disney was churning these things out left and right during the 90s until John Lasseter was hired to oversee all of Disney’s animation and basically put an end to them. They’re mostly terrible and do nothing to enhance the value of the original films that spawned them. They’re basically cash grabs meant to capitalize on the popularity of those films without sinking in the capital required to make a legitimate sequel. They did more harm than good to both the Disney brand and the original films, and I honestly haven’t seen one that I consider good, though I admittedly haven’t seen many of them because of their subpar reputation.

As you may have guessed, The Enchanted Christmas is no exception. I did enter into this thing expecting the worst, and I can at least say my expectations were not met. This film isn’t terrible. On its own, its a serviceable piece of entertainment. It would probably be more fondly remembered if it had just been a television Christmas special rather than something you actually had to spend money on to either purchase or rent (and these videos usually weren’t any cheaper than the released to theaters features) in order to view.

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Belle and The Beast get to enjoy a nice moment early in this one, but some meddlesome instruments mess it all up.

The Enchanted Christmas opens with the characters from the film preparing for Christmas. They’re human, so we know this is occurring after the events of the movie. They start talking about the previous Christmas, which is what sets up Mrs. Potts to tell us about the Christmas that almost wasn’t. Now we’re back in time and everyone is enchanted as household objects. Belle is imprisoned in the castle following her escape attempt and The Beast is somewhere licking his wounds. The main chunk of the movie is going to take place in this window, or essentially the montage from the original film in which Belle grows accustomed to The Beast and they have a snowball fight and it all leads to the ballroom sequence. The main plot of this story is Christmas is coming and Belle is a bit excited about it. The servants of the castle also view her enthusiasm for the holiday and the general good vibes it typically brings about as an opportunity to perhaps bring Belle and Beast closer. The problem is that the curse they’re all under was apparently inflicted upon The Beast and his subjects during the Christmas season, so Beast has a hatred for the holiday as a result. It’s a convoluted setup for a film, but in the end it’s a pretty conventional setup for a Christmas special.

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This is Forte and he looks pretty terrible, but with Tim Curry’s voice at least he sounds good.

Surprisingly, basically everyone from the film has returned to voice their character for this. I’m not sure if they were contractually obligated to, but at least Disney was willing to spend money to make the characters sound the way they’re supposed to. There are some newcomers, of course, and one of them is unveiled early. Tim Curry is the voice of Forte, a large organ in the bowels of the castle. He apparently is a trusted advisor for The Beast and someone he confides in alone, making it at least somewhat believable that he could have existed during the events of the original film without our knowing. Forte is actually quite content as an organ since he’s essentially immortal. He doesn’t need to eat, or sleep, and is free to compose his music for as long as he pleases. Since he likes being this way, he has a vested interest in keeping The Beast from falling in love with Belle. He also has an assistant named Fife, a piccolo voiced by Paul Reubens. We’ll also be introduced to Angelique, the former castle decorator who was turned into a Christmas angel decoration and Axe, who works in the boiler room.

The gist of the movie is Belle trying to bring Christmas to the castle, and something preventing that from happening. Fife works for Forte because Forte promised him a solo in an opera he’s written. It seems like a pretty silly incentive, but I guess when you’re a literal musical instrument something like that sounds promising. He’s so eager that he interrupts Belle and Beast when they’re having a little moment while ice skating. He basically serves as Forte’s eyes and ears since Forte is immobile in his present form. Meanwhile, Belle sets out to decorate the castle, only for The Beast to intercede and forbid it.

Belle’s machinations lead her to finding Angelique among the castle’s Christmas decorations. Angelique is convinced that The Beast’s foul mood and general pessimism towards Christmas won’t end well and does not wish to participate. She’s also a bit glum, since being a Christmas decoration, she’s not really free to roam the castle either because she’s out of season or because The Beast hates Christmas – I’m not sure which is the reason. Belle uses her gift of song to raise Angelique’s spirits and gets her to come around to the whole Christmas idea allowing this feature to at least pretend that it’s a typical Disney movie.

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Angelique, who as a Christmas decoration is apparently banished from sight until December, or at least until after Halloween.

Fife lets Forte know what Belle is planning, and he basically uses that info to further drive a wedge between she and The Beast. He tells Beast that Belle doesn’t care how Christmas makes him feel, only how it will make her feel and trys to play it off as Belle being selfish. It works too as we find out Beast is pretty easily swayed. This sets up a nasty confrontation between Belle and The Beast when she tries to secure a Yule log from Axe. She explains to Beast that everyone is to place their hand on the log and make a Christmas wish, to which The Beast mocks her by asking what her wish was last year, because it certainly could not have come true for her to be where she is now.

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The little guy next to Chip is Fife, who is voiced by Paul Reubens.

Like most Christmas stories, a heartfelt gift is a way to thaw a frozen heart. Belle creates a book for Beast, and even though he’s put a wrench in her plans, she still gives it to him. When Beast is alone with Lumiere he ponders opening it, but the candlestick man says he can’t open it until Christmas, but does remind him that people typically make gifts for others they care about. This gets through to Beast, and he returns to Forte to command him to write a song for Belle as a gift. Forte is not surprisingly pretty irritated at this request, but he goes along with it and starts playing an enchanting melody. It gets the attention of Belle who comes into the room to check it out. Prior to this, she was talking about getting a Christmas tree, and Forte preys on that by telling her where to go for a tree:  The Black Forrest. Now, Belle is apparently none too bright because that sounds like a pretty ominous place to venture. Of course, Forte is setting her up, and Belle plays right into it.

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I bet you can’t guess which one is Axe.

To my surprise though, The Black Forrest isn’t so bad. All Forte wants is for Belle to break her promise to never leave the castle. Following that whole wolf attack in the first film, it sounds like a sensible idea anyways. Once Belle sets off with Chip and Axe, Forte brings her absence to the attention of The Beast which just sets him off. He destroys the Christmas decorations in the main hall and races off to bring her back. Before he gets there, Belle and her horse Philippe fall through some ice after Fife startles the horse. The Beast arrives in time to save her, but that doesn’t spare her from the dungeon.

Angelique visits Belle during her incarceration in the dungeon. She admits that she was wrong to deny Christmas and gives us our first lesson of the holiday:  Christmas isn’t about fancy decorations and gifts, it’s about being with those you love. They resolve to have the best Christmas they can, given the circumstances. Beast, after being told to destroy the rose by Forte and give up on being human again, finds himself alone with the enchanted rose and watches as another petal falls and lands on his gift from Belle. Opening it, his heart grows three sizes that day and the true meaning of Christmas enters his soul and The Beast gains the strength of ten Beasts – plus two! Maybe not exactly, but pretty much, and he goes and apologizes to Belle and lets her out.

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Forte, before the enchantment took hold. How did Beast not know this guy was a villain?!

Forte is pretty pissed at this point and decides it’s time to just reduce the castle to rubble. He begins playing as loudly as possible, and since his pipes run through the castle wall he’s capable of really getting the place shaking. Fife finally figures out a solo in some opera for no one probably isn’t a good enough reason to allow a bunch of people to die, and he gets The Beast. When The Beast enters the room he’s not really sure what to do, but Fife instructs him to destroy the keyboard on Forte. In doing so, Forte is unable to continue playing and he gets destroyed. The Beast mourns him a bit, but who’s going to let such a thing stop them from having a good Christmas? Certainly not The Beast! We jump back to the present and everyone seems happy to have relived those events through story and Belle receives a single rose from The Prince as a gift. She seems happy to have it, though I personally think he could do better.

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Beast’s showdown with Forte is very…green.

Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas is okay. I’ve seen worse. It kind of retreads a lot of tropes from Christmas specials that came before it. As a midquel, it does okay at fitting the story into the events of the movie. We can kind of believe that the story could have taken place without some of these extra characters showing up. It would have been nice if instead of creating new characters like Fife and Angelique if they could have just given a voice to a background character from the film, but I can’t say it really bothers me much. The animation is obviously not on par with the original film, and Forte is animated using some rather crude CGi. This is that era of film making where CGi was new and exciting and being shoe-horned into traditional animation even though it looks way out of place. Forte isn’t the worst instance of this sort of thing, but he doesn’t look good. Tim Curry gives a nice performance though, and I actually enjoyed the concept of Forte more than I expected. He works as a villain, just not as a visual. Had he been animated in the same style as the others he would have been all the better for it. The new songs are not memorable though, and it’s a major drop from the original film.

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And a merry Christmas was had by all! The end.

If you want to see this film you’re best bet is to just go out and get it. It went out of print for a little while, but I started seeing it show up at retail last year probably to capitalize on the excitement over the forthcoming live action film. My guess is that Disney probably prints off a few this year as well to sell at Christmas and that’s that. Whether or not you encounter a copy “in the wild” might be a matter of luck, but online retailers are likely to have some stock and it’s available digitally too. For a little while, it was a bit pricey on the second hand market, but that seems to have come down. I’ve never seen this film shown on television, and since most of these sequels, prequels, and midquels are kind of regarded as Disney’s dirty little secrets it’s probable that the studio likes to distance itself from them and not air them on television. Or they actually sell well enough on their own at retail and they don’t want to diminish that return (and this one has made a ton of money for Disney, reportedly almost $200 million). If you choose not to watch it though this holiday season you probably won’t be missing much. This basically exists for those who really adore the original film to the point that they don’t care about the quality of the story here, they just want a chance to spend some time with these characters once again.


Dec. 3 – Duck the Halls: A Mickey Mouse Christmas Special

Duck_the_Halls_-_TitleBy the time 2016 drew to a close I got the sense that people were ready to say goodbye to the year. It may have brought some bad times, but lets at least remember it for one of the good things it contributed to society:  a brand new Mickey Mouse Christmas special! Not since 2004’s Mickey’s Twice Upon A Christmas had television been blessed with a new holiday special starring Disney’s world renowned mascot, and best of all, it was a Donald Duck special!

“Duck the Halls:  A Mickey Mouse Christmas Special” is a roughly 21 minute Mickey Mouse cartoon set in the new Mickey Mouse cartoon universe which launched in 2013. Most of those cartoons are around 4 minutes in length making “Duck the Halls” by far the longest of the bunch. The series has a distinctive look that’s well animated using modern techniques and features the voice cast you know and love. And for basically the first time ever, Mickey himself is actually very funny and the series is reliant on visual gags more so than jokes to induce laughter. It feels like an animator’s show which naturally draws comparisons to 90’s animated shows like Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Animaniacs.

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Donald is looking forward to celebrating his first Christmas with his friends.

The cartoon opens with an intentionally classic Christmas vibe. There’s shots of the various characters welcoming Christmas set to song which is being sung in a crooner style meant to invoke memories of Bing Crosby. We see Goofy sloppily wrapping gifts, Pluto pulling Donald around in a make-shift sleigh, and Minnie baking fruit cake. The sequence ends on Mickey trimming the tree with the reveal that he’s the one singing with his voice suddenly shifting from the Crosby-esq voice to a more traditionally high-pitched Mickey. Daisy then shows up to spoil all of the fun as she reminds Donald they need to get the hell out of there and migrate, despite Donald’s protesting to stay and enjoy Christmas just once.

Mickey and the gang are borderline cruel in talking up Christmas as Donald struggles with his reality. Mickey recounts the Christmases of his youth when he strangely spoke with an old english accent. We get to see images of Mickey’s family, which I don’t recall any other short ever doing before. It’s probably not considered canon, but it is pretty neat. Goofy chimes in to talk-up Christmas too and his toes even turn into “missile-toes” and explode. None of this stops Daisy from dragging Donald out of there, but not before Mickey can give Donald his Christmas present:  a snowglobe that says “Wish You Were Here.”

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Mickey wants Donald to experience everything Christmas has to offer.

Donald has a crisis of conscious as they head down the highway, the present from Mickey and a billboard proclaiming X-Mas is Awesome!! being the last straw to cause him to jump out of Daisy’s SUV and send him running back to Mickey’s house. The gang is delighted to have Donald for the holidays, while down south Uncle Scrooge, Professor Ludwig, and the nephews are all bummed that Donald isn’t there for them to pull pranks on, experiment on, and do other activities Donald likely won’t miss. Back north, we get a montage set to song sung by Mickey all about his enthusiasm for sharing Christmas with Donald. Throughout the song they’re doing “Christmasy” things while Donald gets progressively sicker and sicker, due to the cold, culminating in his beak falling off while singing carols.

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The southern gang, all wondering when Donald is going to give up on Christmas and show up.

Following the musical number, Donald is in rough shape. His feathers are falling off and he had to tape his beak back on. Goofy makes the obvious observation that he looks like death, before giving him some hot coco that is much too hot. Meanwhile, Daisy and the gang miss their duck and all have begun to worry about Donald’s well-being. They had expected him to give up on Christmas by now. Mickey is worried about Donald too as he’s getting really bad, and when Daisy calls it’s decided that Donald needs to get south pronto, the only problem is Donald is so close to Christmas morning at this point that he’s not giving up. He snaps, and runs out of Mickey’s house featherless wearing a tree skirt as a cape and other trimmings as an outfit. They chase after him and Donald eventually crashes through a barn and ends up in a manger in a scene that might border on sacrilege for some, but not me as Donald is bigger than Jesus.

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Donald’s finally lost it.

They get Donald back to Mickey’s house where things look dire. Mickey makes a Christmas wish to save his friend’s life, and on cue, Santa arrives. He promptly gets stuck in the chimney, so Mickey and the gang steal his sleigh resolved to get Donald south. It’s at this point that “Duck the Halls” passes my personal reindeer test as the sleigh has all eight reindeer, plus Pluto for good measure (so many specials are too lazy to animate all eight reindeer, nine if you include the one with the shiny nose). They get south, and it includes a pretty good “warp speed” gag that I appreciate (since a warp speed button as exhibited in other specials makes no sense, even for flying reindeer), just as Daisy and the others were getting ready to head north to rescue Donald. They crash into the resort and it appears for a minute that Donald is dead, but he rises from a hot tub reborn! Santa even shows up to help use some Christmas magic to clean up the mess and even turn Pluto into an actual reindeer. He explains to Donald that Christmas doesn’t have to be celebrated exclusively in cold climates, Christmas is in your heart and is to be shared with the people you love! After these wise words, everyone has a wonderful Christmas celebration.

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Pluto living his dream.

“Duck the Halls” is a lot of fun. It’s got laughs, music, Santa, a wholesome Christmas message, and the production values to wrap it all up in a nice package. Tony Anselmo shines bright in his familiar role as Donald Duck as he’s able to capture Donald’s enthusiasm and joy for the holiday as well as his deteriorating physical condition throughout the show.  John Kassir debuts as Scrooge, and is notable as this was basically the first performance of Scrooge by someone not named Alan Young, who was one of 2016’s many victims. Interestingly, they could have given the role to David Tennant who is now voicing Scrooge in the DuckTales reboot, but perhaps they wanted to save his debut for that show’s premiere. Also, Young had voiced Scrooge previously in some shorts for this series and they may have wanted to cast someone who sounded like Young’s Scrooge as opposed to Tennant who is basically doing his own thing. Russi Taylor also gets to voice Donald’s nephews again, as they were also recast for the new DuckTales. They don’t really say or do much in this special, but it’s cool to hear Taylor’s version of the nephews once more. I also really like the look of Santa Claus in this one, as he basically looks like the old Santa from the MGM short that’s now in the public domain, red nose and all.

Duck_the_Halls_Mickey_Mouse_final_shotBeing a relatively new addition to the Christmas television landscape, “Duck the Halls” is likely airing multiple times this year on television, which is why I wanted to feature it early in this year’s countdown so you had a chance to find it on TV for yourself if you missed it in 2016. It’s also available on DVD as part of a collection that includes a Halloween special and some other shorts from the Mickey Mouse series. The set was released in August in limited numbers before receiving a wide release in September. I assume it will be well-stocked throughout the holidays should you desire to add this one to your collection. And why wouldn’t you? Mickey Mouse and Christmas go together like egg nog and bourbon. Actually, even better, because you can never have too much Mickey around the holidays where as too much egg nog can go south real fast. As for where it ranks among other Mickey/Donald Christmas cartoons? That’s hard to say as the old shorts are among my all-time favorites and I also adore Mickey’s Christmas Carol. This one is so decidedly different in its brand of humor that it really stands on its own, making comparisons difficult. Just the fact that it stands among those without feeling inferior is a good enough endorsement.


DuckTales Premiere “Woo-oo”

ducktales_2017_by_xeternalflamebryx-db1zb8bWhen Disney set out to reintroduce DuckTales to a new generation of youngsters they clearly decided the most enduring legacy of the late 1980s cartoon series was its catchy theme song. Penned by Mark Mueller and covered in exhausting detail in a new Vanity Fair piece, the DuckTales theme has remained a unifying force of nostalgia for those who heard and watched cartoons during its run. It’s upbeat, poppy, and entrancingly catchy qualities are essentially the one aspect of the old cartoon preserved almost exactly for this new edition of DuckTales. Sure, it’s now sung by Felicia Barton and that final verse is altered ever so slightly, but it’s relatively unchanged from its origins and it still rocks.

The theme has been a central part to the advertising blitz laid out by Disney which seems to know it has something in DuckTales. So confident is the sense coming from the company that it’s a wonder this wasn’t attempted sooner. Is there something magical about waiting for the 30th anniversary of the original program as opposed to the 10th or 20th? Or have we just arrived at a moment in time technologically speaking where this show can be done at a reasonable cost without resorting to the 3D computer-generated imagery of many of Disney’s modern cartoons? Whatever the reason, the song appeared in a quick teaser for the show last year along with the unmistakable “Yeah!” of Donald Duck. The new cast was introduced via a YouTube video where they all sing the song with great exuberance and some pretty impressive timing. And why not? The song is perhaps the best cartoon theme ever concocted and should be leaned upon heavily to bring this franchise back.

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The money bin is still a thing, and looks to be harder to penetrate this time around.

And DuckTales is indeed back. Saturday August 12th marked the debut for the new series, and much like its predecessor, it debuted with an hour long special. Disney XD was the chosen landing spot and the entire day’s programming has been dedicated to airing the new episode of DuckTales, titled “Woo-oo”, for the entire duration of the day. It’s a bold way to announce a new show and it will also be streaming on Disney’s websites and apps presumably until the show’s re-debut in September.

Resurrecting a beloved franchise isn’t easy and often thankless. Fanbases seem to become increasingly protective of that which they love as time marches forward and the slightest change can cause the biggest disruptions. Perhaps that’s why the show has felt so secretive with Disney waiting what felt like an eternity before showing off even a still image from the show. In general, it seems most took the show’s new look with enthusiasm. Scrooge now sports his traditional red coat from the comics from which he first made his name. The show is presented in 2D as opposed to 3D, and all of the familiar faces are still there. The children have received a makeover, as expected, but they don’t feel as forced as the ones the nephews got for the short-lived Quack Pack program in which Disney seemed to be forcing teenaged culture into the show in a mostly unauthentic fashion. The show also promised to send its cast on more timeless adventures, seeking treasure and uncovering all manners fantastic all while maintaining not just the spirit of the original toon, but those Carl Barks stories as well.

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Expect to see some old foes pop-up eventually.

Naturally, some voices had to change as well and Disney kept its casting decisions under wraps for some time. Alan Young was basically the only Scrooge my generation knew, but Father Time made sure it wouldn’t be possible for him to continue the role for the new series (RIP). David Tennant has brought his Scottish charm to the new series. His Scrooge is a lot more youthful sounding, but comes across as authentic and dashing and I think it’s a voice that will suit him. Terry McGovern, who voiced Launchpad McQuack in the original series as well as in Darkwing Duck, lobbied hard for the role here but was passed over in favor of Beck Bennet. Bennett is fine, and I understand the feeling in the building that this should be a new show for a new generation, but Bennett basically sounds like he’s doing his best McGovern impression which makes me wonder what’s the point in re-casting him? The nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie have unique voice actors for really the first time in their existence in Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, and Bobby Moynihan. I’ll miss the adorable duck voice of Russi Taylor, but I can’t argue against the decision to make the nephews feel like distinguishable characters from one another. It used to be that only the color of their shirt differentiated one from the other, but in this series all three have their own unique personality. It seems like Huey will be the boy scout, Dewey the crafty trouble-maker, and Louie more of a laid back sort. Kate Micucci is Webby, who too seems like she’ll have a more pronounced character other than girl duck. Mrs. Beakly has perhaps received the most pronounced makeover as she’s gone from grandma-like in appearance to a hulking behemoth. She’s voiced by Toks Olagundoye and I’m curious to see what kind of backstory has been crafted for her to explain this brawny physique. Last, but certainly not least, is Donald Duck voiced by the irreplaceable Tony Anselmo. Donald was reduced to a cameo role for the original DuckTales due in part to Disney being sensitive about using its classic characters for TV and over concerns of his sometimes unintelligible speech pattern. Thankfully Donald has been restored to full-time cast member as he was in the comics and DuckTales 2017 already has a huge leg-up over the original.

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Donald and his nephews have a very hum-drum sort of existence when the show opens.

The premiere opens with Donald and his nephews aboard a houseboat that they apparently live on. It’s seen better days, and Donald is preparing for a job interview. When he realizes he can’t leave his nephews home alone, he decides to ask his estranged uncle for a favor. We find Scrooge in a state of depression as his life has become rather mundane and unexciting. He’s still fabulously wealthy, but doesn’t appear to be living a truly rich life. He and Donald had an unexplained falling out and their first encounter in many years is hardly warm and fuzzy. Still, Scrooge agrees to help out his nephew by watching his grand-nephews, who before today had no idea they were related to the famous Scrooge McDuck. They think they’re meeting a great adventurer, but are pretty disappointed in what is presented to them. They soon meet Webby, the grand daughter of Mrs. Beakly who lives with Scrooge and takes care of the household. Webby is starved for adventure and her sheltered life in the mansion appears to be driving her a little crazy. The boys and Webby make some fun discoveries while poking around the mansion, which helps to bring out Scrooge’s adventurous side. Meanwhile, Donald gets his job, but his new employer is going to cause some problems for his uncle. Everyone ends up on a collision course for Atlantis, the adventure is appropriately grand.

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Scrooge will have no shortage of enemies and challengers to his title of World’s Wealthiest Duck.

Right off the bat I find myself in love with the visual style of DuckTales. There’s a very Barksian quality to the look of the show with some of the images appearing very influenced by Barks’ later works of art. The animation is undoubtedly done on a computer, whether it’s done South Park style by creating 2D models that are animated or if they’re hand-drawn onto computer tablets I do not know, but it does work. It’s not stiff and it’s not lazy and it doesn’t really look like anything else on television right now. Scrooge warms up to his adventuring lifestyle pretty fast, but it’s fun so I’m not going to quibble with a fast-moving plot. The adolescents are convincing and there is room for exploration with all of them. Mostly, of course, I really am fascinated by this Donald Duck. He possesses his trademarked short temper, but it also appears he’ll be the voice of reason in the group who at least tries to keep everyone in check. It’s a role Donald has really never served on film and it will be a lot of fun exploring this rarely seen side of an 80 year old character. The easter eggs and callbacks are also handled as well as fan-service can be with only one line spoken by a reporter sounding forced, but I won’t pretend like I didn’t enjoy it. And I really loved the reveal at the very end of the episode, which I won’t spoil here, as it seems to suggest this version of DuckTales will have something very new to explore.

If you can’t tell, I’m pretty high on this new version of DuckTales. I may have done things a little differently if given the chance, but I can’t deny the finished product looks and feels great. This show has a lot of potential and something about the way it’s being marketed just exudes an infectious amount of confidence in the material that’s very reassuring. It sounds like there’s a lot of fun stuff to look forward to on the horizon, with other Disney Afternoon properties even rumored to resurface. Whether you loved the original series or never watched it, I encourage you to check out DuckTales as this looks like it’s going to be a really fun ride.


12 Films of Christmas #8: The Nightmare Before Christmas

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Is it a Christmas movie? Is it a Halloween movie? Can a film be both? That seems to be the big question surrounding Tim Burton’s multi-holiday classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. Released on Disney’s Touchstone label (because the company was too scared to be directly associated with the film at first) around Halloween 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas has been content to be accepted by both holidays, but lets not kid ourselves, it’s a Christmas movie.

It’s right there in the title! The Nightmare Before Christmas! The tale about how the fictional residents of Halloweentown usurped the Christmas holiday from Santa Claus for their very own. It’s a Christmas movie that looks like a halloween one, and it’s been charming audiences for decades now through its unique visual style and stop-motion animation. And that animation, even that screams “Christmas” thanks to holiday classics synonymous with the genre like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The Henry Selick directed picture (which can’t be said enough since so many still mistakenly attribute the film’s direction to Tim Burton) leans heavy on its visual and theatrical elements so much that I can’t help but wonder if it was traditionally animated if it would have the same impact.

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The one and only, Jack the Pumpkin King!

The stop-motion style proves ideal in crafting a character such as Jack Skellington, the spindly skeleton suffering a severe case of seasonal depression, or midlife crisis if that’s possible for someone undead. His movements aren’t always fluid, but still seem appropriate given how we can practically see his various joints. Some creative liberties were taken with his head-sculpt which is soft, and round as opposed to resembling an actual skull. Some of the denizens of Halloweentown are rather unremarkable to behold, but all fit into the film’s visual style.

The film is a unique and visual treat, and the very Burton voice cast (featuring frequent collaborators like Paul Reubens, Catherine O’Hara, and Danny Elfman) is more than up for the challenge of bringing these characters to like. The film’s score, provided by Elfman, is fantastic and manages to capture the feeling of both Halloween and Christmas all in one. The broadway styled bits are where the film falters slightly, and what holds it back from being ranked alongside some of the Disney films from the same decade. Still, The Nightmare Before Christmas has its share of memorable tunes and can easily be sung along to.

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Everyone’s favorite trick or treaters. Or least favorite since they are little punks.

I did a full review of this film a few years ago, which is why this entry has chosen to focus on what makes the film unique among other Christmas films. Don’t fret too much over which holiday the film best aligns itself with, just use that as an excuse to watch the film around both holidays. It’s always worked in my household.


12 Films of Christmas #11: The Santa Clause

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The Santa Clause (1994)

A successful formula for any would-be Christmas film to adopt is that of shining a new light on the character of Santa Claus. Anytime a film can make Santa more believable to the viewer is usually something worthy of exploration. A lot of films, books, and other media have attempted to add to the Santa mythos which mostly originated in the classic poem Twas the Night Before Christmas, and the ones that have done it the best are the most memorable.

The Santa Clause is just such a picture which set out to answer many of the questions children have about the character. For the life of many a youngster, Santa is someone believed in without question at first. After all, who wants to have doubts about a nice guy who leaves you presents for just being a good boy or girl (with the “good” part being highly subjective and a very low bar to clear)? As adolescents get older, they naturally become more inquisitive and thats when the questions about Santa Claus start to show up. How do reindeer fly? How can one man visit every kid on earth in a single night? How does he fit all of those toys in his sleigh?

The Santa Clause actually has one answer for just about every question a kid could have about Santa:  magic. It’s a rather easy explanation, but given the unbelievable nature of the character it’s often the best we have. The Santa Clause, in typical 90’s fashion, relies upon visual effects to make these answers entertaining beyond the whole “it’s magic, stupid!” Like many films from that era, the effects have not aged as well as maybe was expected.

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Charlie and Scott take Santa’s sleigh for a spin after accidentally killing him. Not many Christmas movies begin by killing Santa.

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a toy developer with a son who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Charlie, played by Eric Lloyd, has been lead to believe by his mother Laura (Wendy Crewson) and step-father Neil (Judge Reinhold) that Santa is not real, which naturally irritates Scott. Scott is a bit of an absentee father, partly because of the divorce, and because he works a lot. Charlie doesn’t have much faith in his father, and he clearly dreads spending Christmas Eve with his old man. Not much goes right, but Scott does succeed in restoring his son’s faith in Santa, and himself, when the real Santa falls off his roof to his own demise and Scott, unwittingly, picks up the mantle for himself.

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Scott unwillingly morphing into Santa. I’d probably freak out if my kid tried to sit on that guy’s lap.

Scott’s first adventure as Santa is when we get to see the magic at work. Scott and the audience share in the experience as neither knows how any of this stuff is supposed to work – Santa can’t really be real, can he? When Scott picks up an empty sack, presents appear inside. It hovers and directs him to a chimney to slide down. When no chimney exists, a septic exhaust is used and a fireplace magically appears inside the house. I remember these effects delighting my family and I when the film first came out, but viewed at now they do leave something to be desired. The illusion isn’t destroyed, but parents showing this one to their modern kids may be disappointed in their reaction.

The rest of the film mostly takes place after Christmas as we lead-up to the next one. No one believes Charlie’s account of what happened, which causes his mother and step-father to think Scott is brainwashing the kid and to seek sole custody. Meanwhile, Scott is physically transforming into Santa whether he likes it or not (he read the Santa Clause after the first one died, and apparently he would need a really good attorney to get out of it) which only strengthens his ex-wife’s argument for sole custody. This makes Laura (Charlie’s mom) and Neil the villains of the film, even if they’re only looking out for Charlie. It’s a Christmas movie, so everything comes together at the end, but this is one of those plots where the viewer knows what really happened and has to be frustrated by the actions of those who aren’t in the know.

Tim Allen is essentially allowed to be himself in his role as Scott Calvin/Santa Claus. He’s basically no different than Tim Taylor from Home Improvement, and even does his trademarked grunt at one point in the film. How much you like the film will probably hinge on your affection for Allen. I think I mostly liked him when I was younger, but the years haven’t been kind to Allen’s style of humor. I find him irritating in many scenes now, and his punchlines are often punch-less. As an adult, I find myself identifying more with the stiffs around him than the Scott character. He’s not all bad, but I hesitate to call his performance a strength.

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By the film’s conclusion Scott is all-in on this Santa thing.

The other aspect of this film that annoys me is the end, and to some degree, the Charlie character. The end of the film just goes on way too long and we’re kind of done with the Christmas cheer before Charlie starts shaking his snow globe. The Charlie character also can’t help but be annoying throughout the picture. Some of his actions are defensible, because he’s a kid, others are not and seem to betray the intelligence we see out of Charlie in other parts. By and large, Lloyd is a pretty good actor, but the director asks him to get sad and cry at one point which he clearly wasn’t up to the task for.

The Santa Clause is still recent enough to be considered modern, and it can probably be described as a modern classic. It brings enough to the table as far as a Santa story goes (even if parts of the plot mirror the Flintstone’s Christmas Special) to be memorable. If you’re easier on the effects and overall 90’s look and style of the picture (I for one, find the techno-junk look of Santa’s sleigh off-putting) then you probably like this film a lot more than I do. And if you’re a fan of Tim Allen, then it might even be your favorite Christmas movie.


The 12 Films of Christmas #12: The Muppet Christmas Carol

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The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The bare minimum a Christmas television special or film can do to inject some Christmas cheer is to do an adaptation, or parody, of a popular public domain Christmas treasure like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In general, these are lazy and trite and form the foundation of the worst holiday dreck imaginable. Just tune into the Hallmark Channel at this time of year to find several variations on familiar stories, all of which bring nothing to the table other than sentimentality. So it is with some trepidation that I include one such work in this 12 Films of Christmas featurette, but hear me out.

The Muppet Christmas Carol starring Michael Caine and those wonderful puppets manages to be a worthwhile endeavor not because it does anything to shake up a familiar story, but because it tells that story with the charm and wit of The Muppets. When it comes to these types of Christmas stories, we likely all have our preferred vehicle of delivery. For me personally, it’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol which is one of my favorite holiday shorts. If I’m going to go feature-length though, I’m likely to turn to The Muppets if I want to hear about old Scrooge.

Caine stars as main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, and his supporting cast is made up of mostly Muppets. Kermit is his foil as the poor, but kind-hearted, Bob Cratchit and Robin stands in for Tiny Tim. That makes Miss Piggy Emily Cratchit, naturally. Stadler and Waldorf play the Marley brothers and are predictably hilarious in their role. Gonzo and Rizzo the rat are used as narrators and exist outside the story, despite occupying a physical presence on screen. They’re the main source of the physical comedy and the film made a star out of Rizzo, a mostly bit part in Muppet films and television specials prior to this. Fozzy, Animal, Beaker, and all of the other familiar gang show-up for spot roles throughout. The Muppets are all playing the role of someone from the original work, but still possess their own personality and character traits. In other words, Fozzy is still Fozzy even if his character is referred to by another name.

 

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Michael Caine is a natural at playing alongside the Muppets.

Caine is relied upon to carry the picture and act convincingly beside his non-human cast mates. For roles that correlate directly to Scrooge, a human actor is cast so it’s not as unbelievable as it could have been. For instance, Isabelle is played by Meredith Braun and Scrooge’s nephew Fred by Steven Mackintosh. Only Caine is really asked to do any heavy lifting and he’s surprisingly emotive and effective as a Scrooge. There may have been some expectations that a Muppet version of A Christmas Carol would just be a straight comedy, but the film doesn’t shy away from the dramatic moments. In fact, it probably does so to its detriment as the film sometimes spreads the laughs out too far apart. Some plodding occurs during Scrooge’s journey that likely will turn off younger viewers, and even some older ones. The redemptive portion of the film also feels rushed and the audience is denied in savoring Scrooge’s turn at the end. Perhaps this was done to keep the film under a 90 minute runtime, but if that was the goal, then other parts of the film should have been trimmed instead to allow more time for the fun at the end.

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Rizzo and Gonzo are the true show-stealers in this picture as the duo is easily responsible for the most laughs.

From a production standpoint, the film is a true star as the sets, puppets, and costumes all look fantastic. It’s obviously no surprise that a Muppets work would come out looking so well. The production department did a great job in giving the film a true big screen feel when compared with the various TV properties of the Muppets and their made for TV films. The film is in part a musical, like most Muppet productions, and the songs are actually on the light side. I personally consider that a positive, but others may not feel the same way.

In the end, The Muppet Christmas Carol succeeds because it brings its own heart and spunk to a dated work. Other films, like Disney’s A Christmas Carol, just try to retell the same story and possess no charm, and ultimately have no real reason to exist. At least with The Muppets you’re getting that Muppet brand of humor to add a dash of color to A Christmas Carol, ultimately making it worth your time each holiday season.