Monday, December 13, 2010

Five Holiday Films You've Probably Never Seen

I thought that for today's post, I'd have a little fun and examine one of the things you have to love about this time of year: Christmas/holiday specials and movies. Some of my favorite December memories from my misspent youth involve gathering around the television with my sisters to watch our favorite annuals -- A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and all the other traditional shows.

As I've gotten older and have developed a longer attention span, I've found that I also enjoy full-length holiday-themed movies. Some of my personal favorites include The Nightmare Before Christmas, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and -- of course -- It's a Wonderful Life. But you know, there are a lot of Christmas/holiday movies out there that languish in relative obscurity. So for today's post, I thought I'd bring a few of them into the light. Might be something on this list you'd enjoy.

I did briefly consider including The Star Wars Holiday Special, but I didn't want to do that to you. Consider it a Life Day gift. ;)

1. Mrs. Santa Claus

I discovered this film, which was apparently made for television, in a bargain bin of VHS tapes about ten years ago, and bought it to watch with my grandparents. It's a little goofy, but overall, really quite charming, and takes place in the early years of the 20th century. Mrs. Claus, played by the always-wonderful Angela Lansbury, is doing her best to keep the North Pole running smoothly during the last few frantic weeks before Christmas. She's even thought up a new sleigh route for her beloved husband Nick (that is, Santa) to take on his run. But Nick (Charles Durning) is so preoccupied with his work that he doesn't hear a word she's saying, which is of course a complete fabrication and never happens in real marriages. She's a stubborn old girl, though, so she decides to take the sleigh and go on a practice run using the new route.

Unfortunately, unforeseen circumstances leave her stranded in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Until she can figure out how to get back home, she adopts the moniker "Mrs. North" and rents a room for herself, befriending the immigrants who live in the same building. She takes a job at Tavish Toys, which brings her in direct contact with owner Augustus Tavish -- a mean-spirited man with a long-standing grudge against children, toys, and Santa Claus.

As Christmas draws near, Mrs. Claus works her own particular brand of magic for her new friends, helping them to grow closer to one another and feel at home in their new country, and solves the riddle of Tavish's grudge. Back in the North Pole, Santa finally notices her absence and is absolutely heartsick. It all ends pretty much exactly the way you'd expect, but the route it takes to the finale is adorable. The film is also notable for being one of the earliest appearances of Lynsey Bartilson (probably best known for playing daughter Lily on Grounded for Life), who is extremely memorable as the Irish girl Nora.

2. Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Special

I have only vague memories of seeing this once, many years ago, and I include it here at the request of my best friend. Will Vinton is the guy who gave us a number of '80s claymation characters, of which the best known are probably the California Raisins. They appear in this special, along with a pair of inquisitive dinosaurs who investigate the origins behind a number of Christmas carols. Rex and Herb, the dinosaurs in question, have an ongoing battle because Herb's primary focus seems to be on his stomach. There are a lot of puns, a spoof of Siskel and Ebert, and a running disagreement on the meaning of wassail (as in "Here we come a-wassailing"). It is wassail, of course, not waffle, as Herb wants to think. Unfortunately, my limited recollection won't allow me to tell you too much else about it; however, if my best friend likes it, then it's worth tracking down.

3. He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special

If you're under a certain age, you almost certainly have no idea what I'm talking about here. But if you were a child in the '80s like I was, then there's a good chance you remember the muscle-bound He-Man and his twin sister She-Ra. This was a big crossover event for the two franchises, and since She-Ra was my favorite show when I was nine, I have some fond memories.

Prince Adam and Princess Adora (the title characters' secret identities) live apart most of the time, Adam on the planet Eternia and Adora on the sister world Etheria. Their parents, King Randor and Queen Marlena, decide to have Adora bring all of her friends -- and we're talking about a good fifteen characters or more -- to Eternia for a big celebration of the twins' birthday. As it happens, this birthday takes place several days before Christmas, but since this is another planet, they don't celebrate the holiday; the only person who even knows of its existence is Queen Marlena, who was born on Earth.

Anyway, through a somewhat bizarre set of circumstances, Orko the magician ends up on Earth for a brief time, and when brought back to Eternia, he inadvertently brings along a pair of tagalong kids named Alicia and Manuel. The kids are really upset about the possibility of missing Christmas (and, you know, never seeing their parents again, but mostly about missing Christmas), but the Queen assures them that they'll be home in time for the holiday. Meanwhile, she decides to somewhat hijack her own children's birthday party and turn it into a pseudo-Christmas celebration so these kids she's never seen before have a good time. Priorities: everyone in this show has them.

Of course, it just wouldn't be a He-Man or She-Ra show if the resident bad guys didn't show up to cause problems, seeing as how that's what they do. Hordak and Skeletor team up to kidnap the kids, in order to provide us with a plot, and poor Skeletor ends up more or less babysitting them for most of the movie. The kids grow weirdly fond of him, and infect him with the Christmas spirit, which freaks him out considerably because it makes him feel good and "I don't like to feel good! I like to feel evil!" All told, this is possibly one of the stranger and more contrived holiday specials out there, but if I came across it, I would watch it again.

4. The Ghosts of Christmas Eve

My husband is the one who infected me with a love for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and we have this on DVD. Considering that our local PBS station airs it at least once a year, in whole or in part, I'm not sure how obscure it really is. But even some of those who are fans of TSO seem to be unaware of their concert movie, so here you are.

The plot is partly original to the special, and partly based on their first Christmas album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. A teenaged girl (Allie Sheridan), having had a terrible fight with her parents and particularly her father, has run away from home. Alone, broke, and cold, she sneaks into a run-down old theater, where a kindly caretaker (Ossie Davis) performs some holiday wizardry and treats her to performances that by all accounts should not actually be happening. In addition to the members of TSO, there are stunning cameos by Jewel and Michael Crawford, performing as themselves. The story is implied to take place in New York City (which is where the runaway finds herself in the story on the CD), but the theater used is actually the historic Loew's Jersey Theatre in Jersey City.

As part of the story, of course, the girl comes to realize that she really does want to go home -- she misses her parents, and the audience is able to see that they miss her terribly. But she has no way to get there. Toward the end, though, she happens to doze off and awakens in the dark theater, alone once again. There's no hint that any of what she saw really took place, and it seems like it was all just a dream...until she opens the book in her lap to find a couple hundred-dollar bills. She uses these to buy a ticket home, where she has a joyful reunion with her parents. (I don't generally give spoilers like that, but really, it was kind of a foregone conclusion. It's a Christmas movie, after all.)

I don't really think there's much else to be said for this one. The music is magnificent, it's visually stunning, and well, there's a reason I've seen these guys in concert four times and am dying to go again. If you've never seen this DVD, you don't know what you're missing.

5. A Muppet Family Christmas

Like the above example, this is one that I watch every year because I have, in this case, the VHS tape. (Good luck finding that anywhere.) It's hard to imagine anything featuring the Muppets as being considered "obscure," but the truth is that a lot of people -- especially those born after this was released in 1987 -- have never seen this special. It's never shown on television, it's never been released to DVD, and the tapes can be very difficult to find. The reason for this is that since Jim Henson's unfortunate death, the licenses for his various creations have been split up among different entities. Disney owns the video rights to all the Muppet Show characters, but the rights to distribute Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock are owned by other companies.

Anyway, this is the big crossover event of the entire Henson franchise. Fozzie comes up with the brilliant idea to invite all his friends (and I do mean all his friends) to his mother's house for Christmas. He has the considerably less brilliant idea to do this without telling his mother, insisting that she loves surprises. Mom, meanwhile, is planning to spend Christmas lying on the beach in Malibu, and has even gone so far as to rent the house to Doc, the lovably crotchety old guy from Fraggle Rock, so that he can enjoy a nice quiet Christmas in the country. When her son and the rest of the Muppet Show cast (minus Miss Piggy) show up unannounced, Mom is forced to change her plans. Doc's not too happy, but he gradually warms up to "the weirdos." The cast of Sesame Street arrives shortly thereafter, stuffing the old farmhouse to the gills. Kermit and his nephew Robin discover a tunnel to Fraggle Rock in the basement of the house and venture down to wish a Merry Christmas to the Fraggles, who don't know what Christmas is but are celebrating their own holiday at the same time anyway so it's all good. There's even a hint of Muppet Babies when Scooter drags out an old home movie of the very first Christmas they all spent together as babies.

It gets progressively weirder as time goes on. The Swedish Chef wants to cook Big Bird for Christmas dinner. Gonzo has a rival for the affections of his beloved chicken Camilla in the form of a slick-talking turkey. The Sesame Street gang puts on a performance of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," the cutest part of which is a mouse-eared Grover holding a bowl with a spoon. ("So you can see that I am not stirring! Note how the hand never touches the spoon!") Fozzie builds a snowman which comes to life and starts doing comedy routines with him. Sam the Eagle shows up and wonders why he's there. And meanwhile, the excessively large party finds themselves snowed in by a massive blizzard...in which Miss Piggy is presumed lost and must be rescued. This being a Muppet production, there are the usual required musical numbers throughout, except that said musical numbers take on the form of traditional holiday songs.

If you like the Muppets, do what you can to track down a copy of this special and enjoy. Far and away the best part is at the very end, when Jim Henson himself peeks in from the kitchen and watches them all having a good time. It's sweet but also very sad, knowing that he was taken from us less than three years later.

Excuse me. I have something in my eye.

So what are your favorite holiday movies, obscure or otherwise?

Special thanks to my best friend Jessica, for her suggestion, and thanks and apologies to my friend Ben for being unable to use his.

5 comments:

  1. I love SCROOGED. Carol Kane (her name is no pun!) plays a sadistic Ghost of Christmas Present, who is the embodiment of the way I've felt about the Christmas season for years. LOL

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  2. "Tokyo Godfathers" is a Christmas tradition in our house now. It's an animated movie about three homeless people in Tokyo who find an abandoned baby on Christmas night. I laugh, cheer, and get a lump in my throat every time I watch. :D

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  3. Jessica (yes, that one)December 13, 2010 at 5:27 PM

    The highlight of the Claymation special for us was always the walrus skating to Angels We Have Heard on High, and the mishaps of the penguins therein. I have memories of shrieking with laughter with my family. It is a precious one. I remember the He Man/SheRa one.. oh dear.

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  4. Nice list. Two of these I have seen back in the day and I still have today, and those are Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Special and A Muppet Family Christmas (you can find both of these on YouTube with decent quality). Oh, and you're wrong about Muppet Family Christmas not being released on DVD. It did see a Region 1 (US and Canada) DVD release back in 2001, but the problem with that was the DVD release was heavily butchered! Five songs and scenes were removed from the DVD release (which were Fozzie and the Snowman's Sleigh Ride, the Muppet Babies singing Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Miss Piggy singing Home for the Holidays and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with Kermit, and Statler and Waldorf singing I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day), and they were removed for, get this...music copyright laws! Oh, but the overseas European PAL releases got to keep the good parts since they our (stupid) music copyright laws don't apply to the European countries. So to sum this up, you are more than likely not going to find this DVD in stores because plain and simple, no one wants it because of the butcherings. But like I said, you can still find the original 1987 broadcast version on YouTube and the video quality is actually pretty decent.

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  5. @foxx278 -- I did not know about the DVD release! I did know that the video itself got butchered a bit, because I read TV Tropes and they refer to a few scenes that aren't on my tape. Thanks for that info, and for visiting!

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