Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Fantasia

I did my laundry today instead of trying to fit it in tomorrow before work. I've seen the full-length Dora the Explorer episode that ran today before, but it's a cute one. Dora must become a "true princess" in order to break the spell a mean witch (guest star voice Chita Rivera) cast over her monkey buddy Boots. Some folks online had reservations about the giant-and-the-puppy game, but other than that, Dora's second hour special and her second excursion in to fairy tales is a great deal of fun. I'm particularly fond of that catchy "Calliente" song that turns the winter into spring, and of helping Dora, Isa, Benny, and Tico catch the Explorer Stars!

Steve and Blue introduced the concept of maps on Blue's Clues today while Blue maps Steve's way to the place she wants to go for their afternoon outing. This was one of the tougher clues - I didn't get it until the third one.

I also began my holiday baking today. I make five kinds of cookies:

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip
Italian Biscotti
Cherry Coconut Bars
Peanut Butter
Merry Christmas Molasses Roll-Outs

And three kinds of breads:

Cranberry Bread
Pumpkin Oat Bread
Cinnamon Strusal Bread

Today, we did the Oatmeal Chocolate Chip and Cranberry Bread. The Oatmeal came out fine, if a bit sticky. I'm experimenting with using less butter and shortening (and lighter butter when I can), and with using part sugar/part sugar substitute (the Acme had a bag on clearance for $4.40, cheap for sugar/Splenda blends). I'm not the only one trying to lose weight, and I know several people who are diabetic. Unfortuantly, I forgot to chop the cranberries for the bread. The batter ran over, but thankfully, it didn't make too much of a mess.

I enjoyed the original Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer this morning during a wheat pancake breakfast. I actually didn't see this until a few years ago, when I broke down and bought the video in my last year of college. It's a little dated ("We have to get the women back to Christmas Town"), but cute and touching, with great characters and songs so good, three of them are now holiday standards. My favorite character is Yukon Cornelius. In a place where even reindeer are obsessed with conformity, Yukon is truly one of a kind. (Not to mention he and Hermie get some of the best lines. "Didn't I tell you about Bumbles? Bumbles bounce!" "I got me a peppermint mine!" "Fog's as thick as peanut butter." "You mean pea soup." "You eat what you eat, and I eat what I eat!")

Speaking of one-of-a-kind, I ran two true Christmas programming oddities while working on the cookies and bread. Here Comes Santa Claus is a French musical fantasy from 1986. A little boy named Simon is so determined that Santa Claus should bring him his missing parents back from Africa for Christmas, he and his friend Melody visit Santa himself in Lapland, taking a plane there after separating themselves from their class on a visit to an airport. In Lapland, they encounter a beautiful fairy who helps Santa Claus with his work, the usual elves...and an evil ogre who eats children, dogs, and fairies! While the kids try to escape the clutches of the ogre, Santa and Mary Ellen the fairy rescue Simon's parents from an all-too-realistic Senegal.

First of all, this is dubbed into English. While the lip syncing is often off and the dubbing is obvious, the dialog itself is pretty good (except for some stiff pep talk towards the end). The music is 80s synthesizer pop; catchy and pretty if you like 80s music. I enjoyed Mary Ellen's ballad "Land Of the Midnight Sun" when she's out looking for the kids, and the kids' teacher's (the same actress who plays Mary Ellen)
number "'Cause There's a Father Christmas."

Second, this gets weird. How often do you see Santa Claus in a very real Africa, being chased by crocodiles and arrested by African military groups? According to the end credits and the Internet Movie Database, this was actually filmed on location in Finland and Senegal, an odd choice for a musical fantasy. Those are real African natives working the salt mines and helping Santa and Mary Ellen.

For all the authenticity, this is also a fantasy. Mary Ellen and Santa have a cute episode with a family of monkeys that has nothing to do with anything. The kids somehow manage to get the stewardesses on the plane to believe they belong there with no questions, and their teacher never notices they're gone. The ogre's alter-ego, the nasty school janitor, locks children who break his windows in a broom closet, and actually throws something at Simon at one point. There's also the whole idea of a fairy helping Santa in the first place, instead of the American Mrs. Claus. Even with the plot holes, the movie has real charm, the kids are good, and the sight of Mary Ellen and Santa bickering in Africa is just classic.

One thing I do like about Here Comes Santa Claus is learning about modern French Santa traditions. Kids leave their letters to Santa with their teachers. They leave their shoes out instead of stockings. The kids and the teacher gather in the community church to sing a carol on Christmas Eve. When the kids and Santa deliver presents, they aren't wrapped; Santa covers them with tinsel garland instead.

1986 was not a good year for holiday musical fantasy. NBC's big Christmas production for that year was Babes In Toyland, featuring the music of Anthony Newley and an 11-year-old Drew Barrymore as a rather adult young lady who finds herself traveling to the title fantasy land to help Jack Be Nimble wed Mary Quite Contrary and defeat the evil Barnaby.

While not QUITE as horrible as most people have made it out to be, it's not even near the level of cute bizarreness that Here Comes Santa Claus achieves. There are three big problems here. A) I don't know what got into Newley, but his music for this is just awful. B) Despite some colorful sets and costumes, the special effects are sub-par even for TV and definitely compromise the fantasy effect. C) The only cast member who can actually sing, Eileen Brennan, doesn't.

Brennan and Richard Mulligan do have some nice moments as dithery Old Mother Hubbard and nasty Barnaby, and Drew Barrymore does as well as she can under the circumstances. There are some nice touches and gags; Mother Hubbard carries a list around to remember every single thing she says or does, Barnaby lives in a bowling ball, and everyone drives around in cute little multi-color cars like something out of an amusement park. For the most part, though, the cast is as stiff as much of the script. Lord only knows what Keanu Reeves is doing here - he looks like he'd be happier in The Matrix, or at least Bill and Ted.

Really, I don't recommend either of these unless you're 80s fans or into cheesy movies or fans of Barrymore, Brennan, or Reeves. Neither are available on DVD, though the videos should be on and eBay. (I got Here Comes Santa Claus from the North Cape May Acme in 2005; Babes In Toyland came from a mom and pop video store in Collingswood that was going out of business last year.)

I'd heard of the special Annabelle's Wish when I was in college, but I never had the chance to see it until tonight. It covers one of my favorite Christmas myths - that farm animals are given the ability to speak on midnight at Christmas Eve. Annabelle is a sweet calf born on Christmas Eve who is given to Billy, a mute boy who lives with his grandfather. Grandfather and grandson live with the horrifying death of Billy's parents in tragic barn fire that also cost Billy his voice. Neither are having an easy time of it. Grandfather is being hounded by a snooty aunt who thinks Billy could regain his voice under her care in the city; Billy is tormented by two bullies and their father, who's suffered a holiday tragedy of his own.

After meeting Santa, Annabelle has only one wish. She wants to fly with Santa and his reindeer. She wants to so badly, she ties branches around her head for "horns," and dreams of flying in a lovely sequence. She is given to Billy, and the two become fast friends. But the bullies and snotty aunt continue to plague them...until Annabelle makes the ultimate sacrifice on Christmas Eve to give Billy his one wish.

A gentle, moving tale of simple people dealing with trauma during the holidays, of friendship, and of sacrifice. Country fans will be most interested; Randy Travis narrates and sings at least one song, and there's a few other famous country stars on the soundtrack as well.

Here's more at the Internet Movie Database about these productions.

Here Comes Santa Claus
Babes In Toyland (1986)
Annabelle's Wish

Oh, and I started a small office/storage room in WebKinz World. I want a place to put the Christmas stuff after the holidays and clear out my dock.

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