Monday, December 25, 2006

A Holiday of Specials and Movies

Some people might find it odd, but I have always enjoyed spending Christmas Eve watching my favourite holiday specials and movies. Indeed, specials and movies have traditionally played an important role in our observation of the holidays. Yesterday, partly through planning and partly through sheer serendipity, I was able to watch some of my favourite Yuletide specials and movies.

Yesterday morning I just happened to come upon How the Grinch Stole Christmas on the Cartoon Network through sheer luck. And I feel very lucky to have found it. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is one of my favourite Christmas specials and my favourite holiday special created using cel animation. Of course, the special is based on upon the classic Dr. Seuss book of the same name. It was produced by Dr. Seuss and his old friend Chuck Jones, who also directed. It first aired in 1966 and has been a holiday staple ever since. And there is little wonder. It bears the unmistakable style of Dr. Seuss' illustrations, while at the same time featuring Chuck Jones' unmistakable animation style. And while the special expands upon the story, it is also very faithful to the book. As an added treat, the special was narrated by Boris Karloff and the vocalist for the songs was Thurl Ravenscroft (best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger). I don't think there has ever been a cel animation TV special ever so good, not A Charlie Brown Christmas, not Frosty the Snowman.

Watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer yesterday was hardly an accident, as I have it on DVD. It remains my favourite holiday special of all time. Today, after 42 years on the air, we tend to take the special for granted. In fact, I rather suspect that some probably think of it as sweet natured and sentimental. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Eschewing a more traditional holiday message, like the song upon which it is based, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer emphasises the right of one not to conform to other's expectations. Rudolph leaves Christmas Town rather hide his rather unique nose. Hermey the Elf quits to pursue his dream of a dentist rather than remain and make toys. And even after repeated viewings (I have at least seen it every year since I was four or five, maybe earlier), I still find Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer quite funny. Indeed, I have no doubt some of the humour goes above most kids' heads.

Seeing Miracle on 34th Street was a bit more serendipity. Until I checked the TV schedule, I didn't realise that AMC was showing a marathon of both the original black and white version and the colourised version as well. I made sure to catch the black and white original (I will spare you a tirade against colourisaton for now...). Save for It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street is widely considered the greatest holiday movie of all time. And there is little wonder why it is. Miracle on 34th Street is actually a very complex movie. In telling the tale of an old man who believes he is Santa Claus (and may just be the genuine article), Miracle on 34th Street addresses such issues as the commercialisation of Christmas, the importance of faith, the importance of being oneself, and the importance of pursuing one's dream. Miracle on 34th Street is also very, very funny--I think many forget that it is essentially a comedy. Regardless, it has been remade at least four times (three times on television, and once in that dreadful 1994 version), although none of the remakes ever captured the magic of the original (especially the horrible 1994 remake).

Of course, I knew that NBC would show It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, as they have ever since they got exclusive rights to it. There can be no doubt that It's a Wonderful Life is considered a classic--in fact, it is widely thought to be the greatest Christmas movie of all time and even counted among the greatest movies of all time. Watching again for the umpteenth time, I can say that counting it as one of the greatest movies of all time is not mere hyperbole. Not only is the movie technically well made, but it also features one of the most moving stories of any movie ever made. And it does this without being overly sentimental or preachy (an accomplishment for director Frank Capra, who could at times be guilty of both). The movie is not only a tribute to the human spirit, but also the importance of friends and family and, especially, the significance of the individual (as Clarence says, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"). I don't think there has ever been any holiday movie that has ever been quite powerful or so moving.

I must also that watching A Christmas Story last night was also part of my plan--I knew that TBS always shows a marathon of the film on Christmas Eve each year. Aside from It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story is perhaps my favourite holiday movie of all time. Quite simply A Christmas Story is one of the funniest Yuletide movies of all time. Who can't help but laugh as Ralphie, wanting an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle so much he can taste it, is repeatedly told by nearly every adult in the film (I think his father is the exception), "You'll shoot your eye out." Indeed, this movie has some of the funniest set pieces in film history. And what makes it funny is that nearly every American born in the mid to late 20th century has been there before. All of us have wanted things for Christmas that we were almost certain we would never get. All of us have uttered the forbidden word and found ourselves punished for it. All of us have gotten into fights at one time or another. While I suspect that most people think that A Christmas Story lacks an "important" message such as those that Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life possess, I must disagree. In showing a typical boy growing up in the mid-Twentieth century (from various clues, the movie would seem to be set in December 1940), who is part of a typical American family, the movie underscores the importance of the family in our society. The Parkers may not be perfect, but ultimately they do love each other. In telling how Ralphie pursued his dream of getting a Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas, it also underscores the importance of pursuing one's dreams, no matter how impossible.

It is perhaps significant that all of the specials and movies I watched yesterday are, well, old. It's a Wonderful Life was the oldest, released in 1946. A Christmas Story is the youngest, released in 1983. I must say that when it comes to holiday movies, the old adage that "They don't make 'em like they used to" holds true. To be honest, since A Christmas Story I can think of only one holiday movie released recently that might achieve classic status. For me The Polar Express captures the spirit of Christmas, particularly as it was in the mid Twentieth Century, perfectly, while being a technical marvel. I can think of no holiday movie made recently that matches it in quality. In fact, most of the ones released lately have been pretty dreadful. In fact, some have simply been mean spirited. It seems to me that lately Hollywood's idea of a good Christmas movie is one in which people are downright cruel to each (Deck the Halls was the latest in this rather depressing trend). I rather suspect that the major studios long ago forgot the meaning of Christmas. For that reason I think that they probably needed to watch the holiday specials and movies that I saw yesterday more than I did. It seems to me that they could certainly use a dose of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life.

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