Won't Somebody Please Think of the Children?
As our inner Helen Lovejoy knows full well, Christmas Is For Thee Children. So what on earth can we pick up for our kids from Wal-Mart that'll fit into an SUV laden with goodies from the Pottery Barn and beyond? Well, DVDs. Obv. And why not start with the Christmas Classics?
Children's DVDS - Christmas 2006
Having negotiated Hurricane Season without so much as a head cold, here on the Third Coast we're all gearing up for the next Big One, the equally dangerous and costly Holiday Season. We've already broken out our sweaters, our lawn ornaments, and enough lights by which to land a space shuttle. We've synchronised our social calendars. We've ordered our deep-fried turducken. And we're making plans for our annual trip to Williams-Sonoma. But, as our inner Helen Lovejoy knows full well, Christmas Is For Thee Children. So what on earth can we pick up for our kids from Wal-Mart that'll fit into an SUV laden with goodies from the Pottery Barn and beyond?
Well, DVDs. Obv.
And why not start with the Christmas Classics?
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (50th Birthday Deluxe Remastered Edition)
(Warner Home Video)
Ice Age - The Meltdown
(20th Century Fox)
(Walt Disney Video)
Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties
(20th Century Fox)
The Fox and the Hound (25th Anniversary Edition)
(Walt Disney Video)
Adventures of the Gummi Bears, Volume One - Seasons 1-3
(Walt Disney Video)
DuckTales - Volume Two
(Walt Disney Video)
Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers - Volume 2
(Walt Disney Video)
The Best Of The Electric Company - Volume 2
The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! Volume 2
Power Rangers Mystic Force - Dark Wish
(Walt Disney Video)
Hannah Montana, Vol. 1 - Livin' the Rock Star Life
(Walt Disney Video)
The Very Best Of Sabrina - The Animated Series
Mickey's Clubhouse - Mickey Saves Santa
(Buena Vista Home Entertainment/Disney)
Bob the Builder - Built to be Wild
Angelina Ballerina - All Dancers on Deck
Barney - Let's Make Music
Baby Einstein - Baby's First Moves
(Walt Disney Video)
In America, the premier animated classic is Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, re-issued in a special 50th Birthday Deluxe Remastered Edition, even though it's only 40 years old. The book was published in 1956, the television production first aired in 1966. Directed by Chuck Jones, who'd worked with Theodore Geisel/Dr. Seuss during WW2 to create educational cartoons for the Army, the Grinch is compelling, edgy and sentimental in roughly equal parts. It also stars Boris Karloff, and sticks exactly to the original text. Both novelties today.
The 50th Birthday Deluxe Remastered Edition adds value to the 22-minute original with a further Seuss/Jones collaboration, Horton Hears a Who, and a selection of additional features. Less entertaining and seasonal than The Grinch, the tale of the elephant with particularly keen hearing still has plenty of appeal. The best of the extras is a documentary from 1994, hosted by Phil Hartman and featuring features Mrs. Seuss, Chuck Jones, and big name fans such as Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. "Songs in the Key of Grinch" and "From Who-ville to Hollywood" are also "worth watching," more than you can say for most "bonus material".
Parents who grew up with the Grinch may be surprised to discover that over in Europe, the Dr. Seuss standard was pretty much unknown until Jim Carrey came along (see also: Mike Myers and a certain feline). The British Christmas Classic, for example, is The Snowman.
The wryly subversive Raymond Briggs first published The Snowman in 1978. Four years later, just as his celebrated nuclear war parable When the Wind Blows was arriving in the bookshops, the UK television network Channel 4 turned The Snowman into a short animated movie. An immediate success, it won the BAFTA for the Best Children's Programme of the year and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Short. The massed intellects of the Academy, as you will of course recall, instead gave their prize to a Polish short by a man better known for making music videos. Yay Hollywood!
Like The Grinch but different, The Snowman stays absolutely true to the text. The difference is that both book and movie have no words at all, save for song "Walking in the Air". That's right. No words. The Snowman tells its gentle and captivatingly simple tale through images and music alone. Backed by Howard Blake's perfectly conceived score, a small boy called James builds a snowman. The snowman comes to life overnight, explores the everyday existence of his creator, and then flies him away on a magical adventure to the North Pole. Despite a certain matter-of-fact bittersweetitude, The Snowman remains an absolute joy. It's comforting, quiet, and dreamlike where The Grinch is loud and abrasive. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about the characters of the nations in question.
What do we know about Father Christmas? He's old and fat and has a working-class sort of job a bit like my dad, who was a milkman. Because he's been doing it all his life and he gets cold, dirty and tired, it's perfectly logical that he would be fed up with it and so he is going to be grumpy.
Although a cynic might suggest this year's release of The Snowman is Sony's attempt to shift a few more stock units before next year's inevitable 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, there's every reason to applaud the re-release of Briggs' other Christmas offering, Father Christmas. Where previous U.S. editions of this equally splendid animated movie had replaced the original British voices with ill-fitting American accents and removed a number of scenes deemed harmful to Santa's reputation, this new release is the British version presented, as far as I can tell, in its entirety. This isn't the original British version, though; to cash in on the massive success of The Snowman, Team Briggs decided to add a few frames of James and his snowpal to Father Christmas and then place them prominently on the cover. Don't be fooled, Parents of the Youth of America, Father Christmas is not Snowman: The Meltdown. It's a completely different story that pre-dates the better known work.
If Briggs' Father Christmas has good reason to complain about the cold, the characters in Ice Age - The Meltdown are taking it entirely for granted until Manfred, Sid, and Diego confirm the armadillo Fast Tony's profit-based scare-mongering. The sky may not be falling, but the mercury is most definitely rising.
In almost every way, this is an exceptional movie. First, after the original had contrived to make both Ray Romano and Denis Leary acceptable in polite company, Meltdown achieves the previously impossible by rendering comedy-void Jay Leno (Fast Tony) both amusing and likeable for the first time in recorded history, while the sound editors even manage to fix his car-crash comic timing.
Second, this is free-form hilarity at its finest. Having realized the valley they live in will soon be a great alpine lake, our oddball pack of animal adventurers should be charging towards that incongruous Ark at the far end of their valley like their very lives depend on it. Which they do. But no, at best this is a dawdle for survival. The squirrel likes nuts, we're all going to die, Romano can't get a girlfriend, Leary's a pussy, someone's been stealing the swimming sharp-tooths (sharp-teeth?) from The Land Before Time, and... that's about it. Still, Meltdown's a movie parents and children can enjoy together time and time again.
Sid: Manny, who do you like better, me or Diego?
Manfred: Diego. No contest.
Ellie: Manny, you can't pick favorites with your kids.
Manfred: He's not my kid. He's not even my dog. If my dog had a kid, and that kid had a pet, that would be Sid.
Sid: Manny, can I have a dog?
Sid: Ellie, can I have a dog?
Ellie: Sure, sweetie.
Manfred: Ellie, we have to be consistent with them.
Almost as good, in its own way, as Shrek 2, The Meltdown delivers the sabre-toothed sequel goods.
On the other hand: though Cars duplicated the box office success of its Pixar predecessors, the company's first production since its $7 billion acquisition by Disney is a decidedly inferior movie. A Matchbox-inspired animated reworking of the flimsy Doc Hollywood, Cars isn't actually bad as such, but it is pale and disappointing and it certainly fails my new Jay Leno (Jay Limo) acid test. Halfway through Cars, every male adult in the room will be crying out for a naked Julie Warner to take their minds off... well... Cars. While Larry the Cable Guy did his career no harm by taking on the role of (Tow) Mater, the best joke in this movie is that way it teams up grizzled veteran Paul Newman with a headstrong young hotshot named McQueen. And yet, if you asked me why this is funny, I'd be hard-pushed to explain. Just as I can't really explain why I found Cars such an enormous letdown, other than to say it was the fifth best animated movie this year, behind The Meltdown, Open Season, Hoodwinked, and Flushed Away. And that, my friends, is one heck of a comedown for the mighty Pixar.
As my editor pointed out with an almost indecent sense of glee, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties promises "Non-Stop Fun For The Whole Family". Where I come from, that's called over-promising and under-delivering. But credit where it's due, borrowing both from the obvious Dickens source and (more so) from Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, this is a better and more welcoming movie than anyone who saw Garfield would ever expect. Partially, it's the almost complete absence of the incredible shrinking Jennifer Loves Huge-Tits; but mostly it's the impressive additional vocal talent, including Tim Curry, Jane Horrocks, Richard E. Grant, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, and even Vinnie Jones.
While no one's going to call any Garfield movie a classic, Disney's The Fox and the Hound is certainly there or thereabouts. Disney buffs of my acquaintance are fond of stressing its importance in The Canon. One of the many special features on this Christmas' Special 25th Anniversary Edition is a seven-minute feature entitled "Passing the Baton" that supports their argument most convincingly. Your children, of course, won't care that The Fox and the Hound saw the old school Disney animators conceptualise the movie but then pass it on to a new breed to actualise, but it's worth knowing nonetheless. More importantly, The Fox and the Hound is one of those likeably easy-going Disney movies, a down-home allegory rather than a brash blockbuster with a Happy Meal on the side. An entertaining tearjerker with a strong message about friendship, stereotyping, and prejudice, it's a movie gift-givers can buy for other people's children with a completely clear conscience.
It's sometimes utterly daunting to consider just how much material the 800lb Mouse has horded in those mammoth cryogenic vaults beneath Orlando. This Christmas sees three new box sets of Saturday Morning Cartoon series joining The Fox and the Hound on the shelves of every store in every town. A big part of the sales strategy must be to appeal to nostalgic parents of a certain age. However, I wasn't familiar with any of these shows until they dropped into my overstuffed mailbox, and I still find myself enjoying them more than I would have expected. Especially when you consider that the first one is all about walking, talking candy. For Allan's sake.
The Adventures of the Gummi Bears, Vol. 1 - Seasons 1-3 dates from 1985, and was something of a standard bearer for Disney, marking the company's first successful venture into television animation and, according to those buffs again, setting new standards in TV animation production values. The set-up for The Gummi Bears is much like the aftermath of The Lord of the Rings, only chewier and far tastier. A thriving civilisation with mad magic skillz and advanced technologies, the Gummi Bears fled the increasingly aggressive humankind, sailed off across the oceans, and left only a small residual colony behind. Generations later, this colony encounters a boy with a magical Gummi Bear medallion and... dot... dot... dot...
The Gummi Bears actually tied for the distinction of being the first half-hour TV series Disney produced. It first appeared on NBC on the same day that The Wuzzles debuted on CBS. But one of the key voices involved in The Wuzzles died and so Disney cancelled the show after just 13 episodes. Contrastingly, The Gummi Bears ran for six straight seasons. Again, your kids won't care about all this ancient history, but they will enjoy the show. Medieval in look and feel, rich with personality and humour, and offering an early version of the now obligatory pop culture references, The Gummi Bears recalls contemporary shows such as Avatar and will fit nicely on your game room shelves next to the excellent Tailspin, another Disney TV classic released earlier this year.
Also released in box set form, DuckTales - Volume Two and Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers - Volume Two were both beneficiaries of the success of The Gummi Bears. I've never cared for Huey, Dewey or Louie, so Chip 'n' Dale would get my money by default, but I'll understand if you vote the other ticket. Either way, both these second volume box sets include the respective five episode pilot shows that were "somehow" omitted from the first volume in each series. Fans will already be queueing at the Disney Store. TM.
Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers was launched in 1989 as the successor to DuckTales, itself launched two years earlier to build on the achievements of those loveable, edible humanoid bears. The series began with a two-hour movie, the somewhat tautological Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers to the Rescue, included here as five distinct episodes, and transformed the previously annoying chipmunks into classic adventure heroes destined to outwit crooked cats and evil geniuses alike, through a happy blend of slapstick and unlikely contraptions, courtesy of Gadget Hackwrench, their spunky and beautiful mouse inventor sidekick.
Like these shows, The Best of the Electric Company - Volume Two seems made by people who cared. Dating from 1971, it's Sesame Street for older, cooler kids, a fast-moving, educational show that boasted cast members like Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, and Rita Moreno and voice talent contributions from stars such as Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, and Zero Mostel. And if it all seems a little unsophisticated 35 years on, well those were simpler times and The Electric Company still stands head, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles above the atrocity that is The Super Mario Brothers Super Show! Volume Two.
When the supremely popular console game migrated to the small screen in 1989, it was guaranteed immediate commercial success. No doubt that's why someone decided to give the show a budget of no more than $5 per episode and Captain Lou Albano, who provided both the live action linkage between the game-themed cartoon segments and the voice of the barely animated Mario. Unfortunately, my captive audience of three-year-old boys enjoyed every last minute of the two dozen episodes that constitute this box set. And demanded encores. So I'm absolutely qualified to tell parents that if a (not) distant (enough) relative should supply these DVDs to your children, then the only bright moments you can look forward to are guest star Roddy Piper and a certain modern day TV heartthrob who appears, completely unrecognisable, in the guise of The Plant. Let's just call him McShrubbery.
While we're plumbing the depths of human iniquity, Disney has also released Power Rangers Mystic Force - Dark Wish, "a full-length blockbuster DVD", just in time for Christmas. I guess I could tell you what it's all about, but then I'd have to kill myself. So let's just say, no. Compared to the Power Rangers, Hannah Montana -- Livin' the Rock Star Life is pretty much Hamlet. If Shakespeare was given to writing second-rate, tweenploitation, pop-crossover TV that is.
Saved from the DVD dumpster by a star (Miley Ray Cyrus), who's likeably down-to-earth and ordinary, Livin' the Rock Star Life is the first Collect Them All package in the Hannah Montana product range, and parents with young daughters may as well get used to her. This Halloween saw no fewer than three Hannah dress-alikes come knocking on the PopTowers' drawbridge. So there's no point getting in front of this train when you have to fight off the insidious evil of the Power Rangers.
The Very Best of Sabrina - The Animated Series portrays Archie Comics and Melissa Joan Hart's popular teenage witch in her own pre-teen years. While Emmjay produces and voices both aunts and younger sister Emily takes on the title role, the only positive thing is that Salem the Cat doesn't look quite so ridiculous in animation. But that's no reason to buy. The Animated Series was short-lived given its pedigree, and if this really is the very best it had to offer, it's easy to see why.
For younger children, Mickey's Clubhouse - Mickey Saves Santa offers one new seasonal episode and two other miscellaneous efforts that have long been fixtures on the Disney Channel. It's hardly value for money, but it is harmless and engaging. Better are Bob the Builder: Built to be Wild and Angelina Ballerina: All Dancers on Deck, two "movie"-length favourites perfect for all the little builders and ballerinas in your life. In Built, Bob and the crew leave Bobsville for a musical adventure in the Mild, Mild West, while All Dancers sees the dancing mice set sail for ballet teacher Miss Lily's (Judi Dench) homeland, Dachovia. But wait, what's that in the distance? Could it be an iceberg?
There's nothing that can be said about Barney - Let's Make Music that hasn't been said before. You either hate Barney or you hate Barney and tolerate him because your kids enjoy his shtick. I hate Barney. Sometimes I hate him because he lives in a world where all individuality is suppressed and children are taught that negative emotions should be repressed, and not that they're normal and have to be worked through. Mostly though, I just hate Barney because he sucks.
Finally, for the youngest of children, Baby Einstein - Baby's First Moves reinforces the continuing decline in this once powerhouse brand. Aimed at the parents of six-month-olds, Baby's First Moves looks at rolling, reaching, clapping, crawling, and walking. As is typical, children, toys, and animals bust their best moves in time to Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, while the increasingly tiresome Baby Einstein puppets provide linkage. It's all just incredibly meh, and suggests strongly that this brand has run out of ideas. Perhaps conscious of the weakness of their material, the Einstein crew has added bonus features that include a lesson for parents about exercise routines they can perform with their children, but to no avail.
If you're a fan of "developmental" entertainment for young children, I strongly recommend tracking down Baby Einstein - Baby Santa's Music Box instead. This early Baby Einstein production is highly entertaining, nonverbal, and just about perfect for kids up to 18 months of age. And, of course, it's, like, totally festive.