Real name: Carl Padgham
Review Star Average: 2.25/4
Keyframe's Managing Editor, animation critic and researcher (and former videogame critic). I'm stingy with my stars, so don’t expect a lot of high scores from me, a profile has to really work to earn its balls of fire facsimiles.
Presently, I review animation based on how they bear up to the peers in their respective categories - features-to-features, DTVs-to-DTVs, etc - rather than try to unfairly compare a high budget feature film with a low budget direct-to-video. Call it a category concession if you will.
I hope to never let nostalgia affect my reviews, but then nobody’s perfect. My favourite animated cartoons tend to fall between the original "Golden Era" and the late 80s to early 90s. My interest in animation goes back years. I enjoy playing video games but tend to find their animated adaptations range from awful to okay - I could say a similar thing to game adaptations of many animation licences.
While I may prefer traditional animation to CGI, I can watch almost anything and think that the story and characters are more important to a film, etc, than the medium of animation used in it.
For what it's worth, I have Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high functioning autism.
My Star to 10 scale ratio:
4.0 stars = 9-10 - Superb: One of the best films you could hope to see in your lifetime - insofar as I'm concerned, a rare gem in animation achievement.
3.5 stars = 8-9 - Great: That film that entertains all the way through, and never truly flounders, but is still missing the spark that seperates the great from the epic.
3.0 stars = 7-8 - Good: A film, etc, that is good, but not great, something you'd watch again, but might not go hunting down the Blu-ray or DVD - at full price - for.
2.5 stars = 5-6 - Mediocre: Straight down the middle, while it's watchable, you won't call it actually good per sé. On the flip side, neither is it actually bad.
2.0 stars = 3-4 - Poor: Not so bad as you cannot get through it, but you might not care to watch it again anytime soon, or remember anything about it immediately after it finishes.
1.5 stars = 2-3 - Terrible: Maybe there some redeeming factors, but they are few and far in a overwise horrid production.
1.0 stars = 1-2 - Abysmal: Practically unwatchable sludge. or as close to it as makes no odds.
Animation, Drawing, writing, reading (animal novels, fantasy, sci-fi, animation history), videogames, and radio comedies. Not necessarily in that exact order.
Animation that I love:
Theatrical Shorts, Animaniacs, Astro Boy (all versions), Count Duckula, Lilo & Stitch, WALL•E...
It’s winter and the Snow Queen, up in her Mountain is putting the final stages of her freeze the world plan into operation with the help of her three incompetent, and rather chatty trolls, lead by David Jason. The three trolls bungling cause the mirror to smash and thus fall into the eyes and heart of Tom (apparently the original Kai not good enough), a boy whose talent for jigsaws is about all we ever know of him through the entire cartoon due to the fact that throughout the majority of the special he robotically fixes the broken mirror like its some kind of elaborate puzzle.
Tom and Ellie -this version’s Gerda - hitch up on the Snow Queen’s sleigh, who promptly cut Ellie off, who gives chase after being told what on Earth happened by a passing sparrow voiced by Hugh Laurie. They meet various characters who just about approximate characters in the original story, all the while singing and enduring some terrible songs.
The Dreamstone series featured often great animation for a TV series and at least always a good imagery along with it inventive premise, even the relatively decent animation in Bimble’s Bucket was better than this poor effort. It seems that the studio had a great deal to thank FilmFair for other the years. In The Snow Queen character models are not always consistent, jerks and sudden movements are prevalent, animation has a tendency toward movement for its own sake at times and there’s just a rushed feel to proceedings.
On the plus side, the voice work is largely composed of some great actors and actresses who do the best with what they given – and that isn’t much. Weak dialogue is the order of the day and an enthusiastic performance by Laurie, McKenzie and Mayall isn’t going to change the fact that what they’re saying is completely pointless and arbitrary.
The songs are terrible but not actually poorly sung (with the exception of the backing vocals). The lacking nature of the songs is the deal breaker more than anything, what can be forgiven when say Rik Mayall fairly comic character plays it up for the ludicrousness, doesn’t work when we’re suppose to take things more seriously.
The journey is clumsily handled and at the end of things there’s little pay-off and none in the way of character development, it straightforward to a fault. On the flip side, the film is completely inoffensive and banal that it fails to much make a negative impression either, leaving this viewer with a not hugely unfamiliar indifference, which in this writer’s view is an even worse thing to happen.
This isn’t a film I would recommend, either as a good “special”, or indeed as an example of Martin Gates body of work, it shallow and pointless in the grand scheme of things that only really recommends itself as a fairly easy way to waste one-and-a-half hours of your time.
And there’s so much better things that you can waste that sort of time with.
Firstly, the title is misleading in the extreme because this special has nothing to little to do with the holiday of Halloween whatsoever outside of a passing semblance. The story, which is laboriously explained to us in a telling rather than showing way, is that when the sour-sweet wind blows it sets off two creatures who in turn irritate the Grinch into coming up of his mountain down to Whoville to spread terror and make the place his own until the wind dies down again.
It is worth noting that subsequent re-releases have generally had the sense to throw the “Halloween is” part of the title away, probably realising just how little this special has outside of theme to All Hallows’ Eve.
It’s not made clear where or if this fits in with the timeline or universe of Christmas, or has nothing to do with it. Is this the same Grinch from the more known special? a different one? Is it a retcon, or set prior? Though this really isn’t the special’s real issue in the whole scheme of things.
The animation in How the Grinch Stole Christmas may have been nothing special on a purely technical level, which is the case of many Specials, but Chuck Jones managed to bring the best out of the limited animation available to impressive form. The animation in Night only rises to the level of merely adequate, no higher and even then it’s always evident that much less money went into this special’s creation.
The writing is surprisingly long-winded and extraordinarily talky, with the narrator butting in to inform you that “Eukariah said” several times, a practise that isn’t needed when all the character have easily identifiably, distinct voices. Mostly the text just doesn’t feel up to par with expectations considering that Dr. Seuss is supposable the writer.
The songs – and musical score – are provided by Joe Raposo, who is most famous for writing the music for Sesame Street - with lyrics contributed by Seuss I’d wager, they are as basic, shallow and forgettable as the ones in Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Musical Adventure with Max’s song being far too sappy for its own good. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine that any of the songs here were written by the same man who wrote “Being Green”.
When we get to the events in the Paraphernalia Wagon, it brought to my mind two things: The Pink Elephants on Parade sequence from Dumbo and the inhabitants of Wackyland in the theatrical cartoon Porky in Wackyland, but with the imagination or execution of neither.
As a child the Pink Elephants failed to make an impact on me in any shape or form, except to intrigue my imagination; ditto with the transformation sequence in Pinocchio or any really supposed scary scene from any number of films. After reading some traditional folk tales, the Grinch’s wagon is a mere collection of parlour tricks in comparison.
I’ve no idea how this won an Emmy, probably due to a lack of competition at the time, but while it isn't absolutely terrible it is a shallow retreat by TV special standards and not worthy of the green-furred grouch.
If you want to watch the Grinch, then stick to Christmas, if you wish to watch another Seuss story in animated form, then I would suggest either The Cat in the Hat, or Horton Hears a Who (the original specials preferably).
While the idea of seeing a multitude of characters from various studios together is nothing new, Roger Rabbit did it prior remember, it is still one of the stranger things you can have actually produced by studios, not least because of the legalities that must be involved.
Somehow though, almost all these companies – minus Paws Inc., who owns Garfield – where talked into making this special, or at least contributing a character or two. If you thought the cameo match-ups in Roger Rabbit where implausible then this cartoon is likely to really give you a migraine (it will probably do so anyway, but that’s beside the point).
I’ll give it this, Cartoon-All-Stars does has quite a few different characters in it at least, and you’re liable to find one or more characters here that you know. Alvin and the Chipmunks are probably a given, even though their inclusion leads to one of the more bizarre lines in the special, I know Simon’s the smart one of the group, but really, should he really know that much about marijuana. Though the fact that he goes of on an, frankly artificially delivered speech thereafter about how it is an illegal substance that’s use to get high is more a tad more grating; it sounds completely out of character.
Alf is an interesting inclusion, though to those who don’t know, yes he did actually have a cartoon series, which centred around his life when he was on his homeworld of Melmac.
I’m expecting that most people here though, will know who all these characters are, so I won’t go on with this line-up further…
The story involves Michael, who steals his sister Corey’s piggy bank to pay for marijuana; Corey has a plenitude of merchandise about her room who spring to live and start to investigate. This includes the aforementioned Alf, who pairs up with Garfield, which given his tendency to try and eat the house cat in his original show possibly makes this the most unlikely pair-up to happen anywhere in animation.*
Where the whole thing falls down is in the actual story, which is wholly centric in its nature, concentrating beyond a fault to and pandering to its anti-drug message. This may have been the eighties, the most prolific time for morals in cartoons being rammed down viewers throats, but this one in particular makes most of the other cartoons at the time almost conservative and quaint by comparison.
The cartoon is very disjointed, wafer thin and simple as a result; we get the same basic formula or characters taking Michael for a ride, in some case literally, lecturing him on the dangers of drug misuse, it’s fairly monotonous by the second run-through. While the majority of characters are engaged with Michael, his sister Corey is progressively getting closer to the root of his problems and you can more or less figure out where the plot is going with this.
The animation is decent enough, though at the low-end of TV specials, which mean that it’s better than some of these characters normally appeared in. Think along the lines of a Disney afternoon cartoon’s standard, then take a step back. For some characters this means that this is the best animation that they’ve ever been in; although for two – Bugs and Daffy – it a large step back from where they’ve come from.
The voices of the guest characters are provided by the official portrayers of the time, so it will mostly depend on your opinion of the characters as they stood in their original shows, if you felt like Alvin and the chipmunks were grating with their high pitched voices, this special isn’t going to change your mind. The dialogue generally comes of as artificial, as it hard to take these characters talking about this subject matter seriously, especially characters like Michelangelo from the turtles. The voices of the other, non-famous characters are little better and don’t offer a sense of nostalgia that many of the other characters would benefit from if they had better material to work with.
There’s also a, frankly, mind numbing, make-your-ears bleed musical number here.
The special is introduced by George Bush Sr., which can summed up with one word, redundant, kids at the time would have hardly have cared and in the here and now its even less easy to care that an ex-president is introducing this by talking about drugs. Still it sets the tone of the special, this is indeed one long lecture disguised as entertainment.
In the end the cause is noble, but the execution is numbingly flawed.
* Even moreso when you realise/remember that Alf called a balloon of the feline “Garfield the delicious” when he was a co-host on the televised Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1989.
Fred has been cast (some might say typecast) as Ebenezer Scrooge and as per usual, the potential fame that this could lead to is getting to his head. This of course means that he’s given the role his complete attention, ignoring his everyday obligations to work and family; which is not really much of a change from what you’d come to expect from Bedrock’s finest.
Most of the short plays out like a regular Flintstones cartoon, as the other characters get positively fed up with Fred and his narcissistic ways and the resulting problems this brings: like not concentrating at work or forgetting to pick up Pebbles from nursery; the later of which being a major and justifiable cause of conflict between Fred and Wilma. Most of the story is, of course another version of a Christmas Carol, in which the ‘real’ live issues of the cast get involved in the story, especially when Wilma has to take over various parts - Ghost of Christmas Past and Bell - because of the dreaded Bedrock Bug that is going around. The rendition of the Christmas Carol otherwise goes much the same as you’d expect such a thing to go. With most of the conflict coming out of forgotten Christmas presents and Fred neglectful behaviour coming back to haunt him.
The animation is a step up from the old TV series, though it lacks its somewhat rustic charms; likewise the voice artists do comparable work. However, all this means is that you are left feeling that it's just a Flintstones cartoon with nothing more than better animation, yet since this was the mid-nineties that’s to be expected. In the end, while this is a competent cartoon for the holidays, there are others out there better fitted for one’s enjoyment.
The first thing that grabbed me is the ever warm and inviting narrative by Kelsey ‘Frasier’ Grammer, which gives the film an endearing connective from the outset and pretty much sets the tone for the whole thing: Gentle and serene for the most part (if such a word could be used for anything with Goofy in it). Underneath a Christmas tree, we see three little presents laid down, each represented one of the three segments of the film.
How what about those segments? Essentially they are part of a whole, yet I have different opinions of them as separate entities. For the purposes of this review I will look at them separately before I look at them as a whole.
Stuck on Christmas
The first segment does works, even though the whole concept has become somewhat old hat. It is the weakness of the three segments in terms of originally. The Bill Murray vehicle Groundhog Day is likely to be the first thing to come to mind, although that film was also not the first to use this plot type (just the most recent).
In the animated format though this sort of scenario is more likely to generate suspicions of laziness on the animators part (or more possibly the writers) rather than joy. Indeed animation does have a unhealthy habit of recycling too much in today's industry, but in this case it is the nature of the story type.
With a segment like this, it’s dependent on the writers ability to make the recurring days both similar but significantly different from each other so that the viewer doesn’t feel cheated. To be fair the creative team does a lot with this limited story type, even if the ending is the standard “do what must be done, not what you want to do” morality tale that this type of story almost inevitably suffers with.
Ultimately, I can’t help but think that the characters are little more than window dressing in a plot that has been used much better elsewhere in Hollywood. Basically it holds little to no surprises, yet is ultimately enjoyable despite itself.
A Very Goofy Christmas
After such a near mediocre start, the film really needs to step up its act, less it become wasted time on the part of the viewer. Luckily the second act has Goofy as its star, a better story and is quite enjoyable. To me it is undeniable that he and son Max save the whole film, with the best written and most emotional (in a more personal way) of the three shorts.
The relationship between Disney’s most predominate father and son, I feel, never seems that much forced or cloy. It also is helped by the fact Max is one of the few cartoon characters who can (and has) appear in whatever part of childhood that the story demands he be in. Here Max’s a bit younger than his Goof Troop incarnation; he’s on that point of life where one might stop believing in fantasy figures. He is that rarest of things: an intelligent kid, with a little bit of naïve innocent; one who still finds his father’s antics more endearing than embarrassing.
The story centres around Max’s belief in Santa Claus being questioned after neighbour Pete tells Max that the whole concept of a single man able to fly on a reindeer-pulled sled, across the whole world in a single night is practically impossible. Although Goofy is initially able to get Max to accept that Santa is real, those seeds of doubt have entered his mind and Max begins to suspect that Mr. Pete is right and that there is no Santa.
When Max and Goofy go to their neighbour’s, Goofy dresses as Santa to give their (the neighbours) children some gifts, but inadvertently pulls his fake beard off, shattering what belief Max had left. Leaving Goofy to prove to Max that Santa exists, even if he has to stay up all night watching the skies with a camera to do so. Of course things don’t go to plan and eventually even the generally optimistic Goofy admits defeat.
The trouble with having an optimistic outlook on things, is that I think you might be prone to a much higher degree of depression than that of someone with a generally melancholy or pessimistic point-of-view. After Goofy admits defeat it is Max’s turn to cheer up his father, following much the same routines that his father did. It is this reversal of roles that is the most potent part of the segment, the sheer length of what both these characters would put themselves through to make the other happy.
I have no problems with children forsaking or questioning their own beliefs and that: that’s in the normal process of things. I do take a little bit of issue with Pete shattering Max’s beliefs for him, which I look at as being a rather sordid thing to do. Of course in a cartoon any evidence usually ends up pointing to the contrary of what the mean bad guy says.
I’ve actually watched this as a standalone at times, which talks of the strength of it. It’s restraint enough so that it doesn’t become overly coy or schmaltzy, and has the old humour based on character rather than plot. Much more a mood piece, rather than the plot-led superstructure of its predecessor; it is all the better for it.
The Gift of the Magi
Mickey is a character that can either work well or fail terribly, he’s a very hard character to get the balance right, it hardly a coincidence that he had the least amount of theatrical shorts made of the majors after Donald, Goofy and Pluto first got star crediting and that most of ‘his’ shorts also happened to star his cohorts in tow. Another problem is coming up after Goofy's class piece, it’s a hard act to follow the Goof, so how does Mickey fare up?
To be honest, pretty well. Okay his story is not as deep as Goofy’s, but it does have some elements to recommend it; although aspects of the story and it's outcome can be seen coming a mile away.
SOME MINOR SPOILERS...
Both Mickey and Minnie cannot afford the cost of the respective presents that they would like to get the other, in Mickey’s case a golden chain for Minnie’s watch heirloom. His hopes of using the bonuses he gets working at Pete’s tree lot (the same lot that he sells cars in on Goof Troop, or at least a reasonable facsimile) go up in smoke (along with Pete’s 9ft trees) and Mickey is left with few other options.
We don’t get to see much of Minnie’s side of the story, mostly because Mickey’s side essentially has more to it. What we do see is Minnie actually being given the Christmas bonus she’s been working for; unfortunately, the bonus is a fruitcake that could double as an anchor for a small boat.
Much of this short consists of a musical-for-charity fair that Mickey ends up in after his harmonica playing attracts the attention of the fire brigade Christmas carity music event organisers. It’s kind of the highlight of the piece, which is kind of the problem. This segment meanders a lot and is kind of disjointed, a typical Mickey short in some ways, the mouse has little personality to work with. Truth be told, the filmmakers do want they can with him, it just that it follows two segments that have at the least better plots.
So three different pieces of various quality and qualities, yet are part of a whole. So is the whole worth the watch, somewhat yes, although some of the film is a little bit weak, it has enough strengths. Part of this may have to do with the lower standards that I’ve come to look for in Disney’s DTV library, yet alone the throwaway commodity that the corporation tends to do with it holiday DTVs.
Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas is, at the very least, enjoyable.