Friday, December 19, 2008

Making Spirits Bright

In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d tally my favorite Christmas movies and television of all time. For me, specials are an integral part of the holidays, particularly Halloween and Christmas. (Though I’m grooving on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving more and more these days.) Memories of watching these in years past make me feel like a kid again, and help recapture the magic that’s so easily lost in adult life. (Trust me, after the week I’ve had, I know what I’m talking about!) Here, then, are my most indispensable Christmas treasures…
A Charlie Brown Christmas: Once someone made the mistake of disparaging this special in my presence. I immediately counted off all the reasons that it rocks: it uses real children’s voices; it has a classy jazz score; and it dares to talk about the *religious* aspects of the season. I could also add that it’s unbelievably funny (Snoopy’s animal impressions kill me every time) and heart-warmingly sweet. “It’s not such a bad little tree. All it needs is a little love.” Thanks, Linus.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas: For a beloved children’s book author, Dr. Seuss sure has been crapped on a lot. Don’t even get me started on the garish, irritating big screen version of this story (not to mention the Mike Myers desecration of The Cat & the Hat). But this half hour animated special is pure perfection. Chuck Jones’ legendary visuals and Boris Karloff’s signature voice combine to create an indelible character who’s as believably nasty (“the noise, noise, noise!”) as he is affecting once he makes the decision to save Christmas rather than massacre it. Like Charlie Brown, Grinch is bold enough to attack the rampant consumerism that turns Christmas into little more than a greed fest. Plus, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is one of the best (unconventional) Christmas songs ever written.
Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer: Call this special corny if you will (and you’re pretty much right), but it still works on many levels. The crude but delightful stop motion animation, inspired songs, and vivid characters add up to a classic of children’s entertainment. Rudolph is an endearingly dorky hero, a “Misfit” who finds a way to put his would-be handicap (i.e. the glowing schnoz) to good use. Really, everything that’s bizarre, cheesy, or flawed about this special is part of what makes it so memorable. For example: what the heck is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys? (Nothing as far as I can tell.) How gay is Hermie the elf? (Gotta love the swoop of blond hair.) And, for lack of a better word, why does Santa act like such a… dick in the beginning? Besides being riotously entertaining, Rudolph also boasts as many if not more quotable lines than A Charlie Brown Christmas. “She thinks I’m cuuuuute!” “Herbie doesn’t like to make toys!” And perhaps the most poignant line in the history of anything ever made: “I haven’t any dreams left to dream!” But don’t worry, Dolly: as Clarice the cute doe says, there’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol: I can still remember the first time I saw this. I was at daycare, and I dug it so much that as soon as my dad picked me up, I asked if we could go to the video store so I could rent it and see it again! I’ve never been a big fan of Mickey and the gang per se, but they’re all put to good use here, with a story that works as both kids’ entertainment and a surprisingly thoughtful rendering of the novel. Plus, Goofy as the ghost of Marley is pretty flippin’ funny.
The OC: Josh Schwartz’s much loved soap contributed to the cultural zeitgeist when it popularized Chrismukkah, the interfaith celebration Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) used to bridge his parents’ backgrounds. (It’s the reason this Jewish Christian has held a Chrismukkah party for the past six years.) One of the best annual episodes is “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t,” which uses the celebration as a backdrop for some earth-shattering Cohen family revelations… but more importantly introduces the “yarmalclaus.” (How much do I love this Santa cap/yarmalca hybrid? I bought one online.) But my all time favorite Chrismukkah episode is the last season’s “The Chrismukk-huh?,” which takes its cue from It’s a Wonderful Life. Ryan (Ben McKenzie) and girlfriend Taylor (Autumn Reeser) fall off a ladder and get knocked out… then imagine themselves in a Ryan-less Orange County. (Unsurprisingly, everything’s different… and bad.) Ryan not only learns how much better he’s made everyone’s lives, but not to blame himself for Marissa’s death and move on—while also reaffirming his newfound affection for Taylor. It’s as fun and fanciful as it is heartwarming.
The Muppet Christmas Carol: Though I enjoy watching all of the entries on this list year after year, there are two I can’t let a Christmas pass without: this 1993 movie and the next film. I’ve always loved the story of A Christmas Carol (naturally—a spooky kid like me prefers *ghosts* in his Christmas fare), and for my money, this is the best and most sumptuous adaptation ever made. Michael Caine makes a terrific Scrooge, with a performance that is fully realized and adult—never mind that his costars happen to be puppets. The songs, by Paul Williams, are nothing short of exceptional (I spent considerable time and effort tracking down the soundtrack last Christmas). The production design and costumes bring Charles Dickens’ world to incredible life. (the Ghost of Christmas Future? Genuinely scary.) And of course the Muppets themselves bring their signature blend of wit and warmth to the proceedings; Gonzo as “Charles Dickens” is a particularly inspired touch.
The Nightmare Before Christmas: Also released in 1993, this Tim Burton classic (directed by animation vet Henry Selick) plays like it was designed with me in mind. After all, what would make a Christmas movie better, in my opinion? A healthy dose of Halloween. Nightmare tells the story of Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King” of Halloweentown, who decides to try his bony hand at Christmas… with disastrous results. This macabre musical pays homage to famous forebears like Grinch and Rudolph to render a fantastical world believable. It’s such a joyously weird movie, and yet it works—as cutting edge entertainment and as a very sweet Christmas tale.

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