Category Archives: Film

Dragon Quest: Your Story

dq your storyIn the 1980s, game designer Yuji Horii set out to create a role-playing experience similar to a pen and paper RPG for a video game console. The goal was to blend elements of those experiences with statistical and complex Western PC games like Wizardry and Ultima as the back bone. In order to make it appeal to a Japanese audience, he wanted to infuse it with what he had learned working with manga and add character and story to the equation. The end result of that was Dragon Quest, known for a time as Dragon Warrior in the West. In creating Dragon Quest, Horii gave birth to the genre we know and love as the Japanese Role-Playing Game, or JRPG for short.

Dragon Quest was a cultural phenomenon in Japan when it arrived for the Famicom game system in 1986. Three sequels would follow and all would be brought to the Nintendo Entertainment System in the West. The series never caught on outside of Japan, and the series skipped the Super Nintendo all-together and didn’t return to a global release until Dragon Quest VII on the PlayStation. The series was the flagship title for game developer Enix, who would eventually be acquired by Squaresoft who had found great success with its Dragon Quest clone:  Final Fantasy. Those two franchises have come to define the JRPG genre and are still to this day looked to as being the trend-setter for the genre, which has admittedly sailed past its hey-day.

No matter, for Dragon Quest still has a dedicated and loyal following. And while the somewhat recently released Dragon Quest XI has taken it in a more modern direction, it still seems that the favorite game of the series amongst the fanbase is Dragon Quest V, also known as Dragon Quest V:  Hand of the Heavenly Bride.

dqv

Dragon Quest: Your Story is based on Dragon Quest V which is easily the most beloved entry in the long-running series.

Dragon Quest V, released in 1992 and eventually in North America in 2009, was the first game in the series released on the Super Famicom and also the first to skip North America initially. Like basically every game in the series, the player controls a silent protagonist that they’re allowed to bestow a name upon. They journey with that player on a lengthy quest partaking in turn-based battles that result from random encounters on both a world map or a dungeon sequence. Where Dragon Quest V seems to really distinguish itself though is in the scope of the journey and subversion of expectations. During the course of the game, the player will be faced with a choice of whom to take as a bride and that marriage will result in the birth of twins who eventually join your party as playable characters. There’s also a monster collecting element at play that undoubtedly influenced the Pokémon series in which after defeating a monster some will randomly request to join your party becoming playable as well. The game ends up following the hero from child to adult and players seemed to really enjoy that aspect of the experience as it breads attachment. It’s actually surprising more games haven’t attempted the same.

To celebrate the franchise, Dragon Quest:  Your Story was conceived and released in Japan in 2019. It has just now become available on Netflix outside of Japan. The film adapts Dragon Quest V for the big screen with a CG adventure that takes the viewer through the events of the game basically from start to finish. The film is written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki with additional directing credits going to Ryuichi Yagi and Makoto Hanafusa. Shirogumi Inc was chosen to handle the animation with additional effects done by Robot Communications.

luca sabrecat

The film opted to go with CG in place of two-dimensional, hand-drawn, animation.

Fans of Dragon Quest V seemed elated at the thought of the game becoming a feature-length film. Animation is definitely the way to go, though I wonder if many were disappointed to find out it would be a CG animated feature and not a more traditional two-dimensional anime. By including the tagline “Your Story,” it seems the film is also aiming to replicate the RPG experience each player goes through, even if it means this time around the hero needs a name.

Like the video game it is based on, Dragon Quest:  Your Story tells the tale of a hero named Luca (Yuri Lowenthal) who at a young age loses his mother to monsters. Together with his father Pankraz (Parker Simmons), Luca embarks on a mission to retrieve the fabled Zenithian Blade in the hopes that it will help them free their beloved. The blade can only be wielded by the Heavenly Hero, whom Pankraz believes to be his son. Along the way, Pankraz will meet his end forcing Luca to go it alone. Only, he’s not alone and will soon be joined by a sabre cat cub and a curious slime. He has allies in the young prince Harry (Zeno Robinson), scrappy Bianca (Stephanie Sheh) and magical Nera (Xanthe Huynh).

dq slime

Yes, we have a slime in this one.

Adapting a roughly 25 hour game to a 103 minute film is certainly a daunting task. Much of those hours in the game are spent grinding away through dungeons and such, but even stripping those away still leaves a lot of ground to cover. As a result, the film can’t really attempt at introducing everything the game throws at the player and basically boils it all down to a few key bullet points. There’s also a liberal dose of montage at work making this film really only accessible for those who played the game. To those who did not it will feel more like an animated summary with no room to breath or to form actual attachments to the characters presented here. This format might actually make it more accessible for younger kids with short attention spans, but older viewers with no familiarity with the brand will probably tune out.

The visuals for the film hold up quite well throughout. Series artist Akira Toriyama was not on-hand for the development of this film, but it’s clear his original art was referenced for the film’s visuals. The sabre cat in particular has a very Toriyama-like appearance as do others. Where the visuals suffer is in the dubbing. Either a direct translation was insisted upon for the English dub or there just wasn’t much attention paid to it because the mouth flaps of the characters rarely sync up naturally. It’s distracting, but this is a film that isn’t exactly dialogue heavy so it’s not as killer as it could have been. There are subtitled options available, and if you’re not averse to reading them it might be the better way to go. Much of the film’s music and sounds were lifted directly from the game, but updated with an actual orchestra where appropriate. It makes the film feel incredibly authentic in its presentation.

Where the film has garnered controversy though lies in its aim. Much of the film up until the climactic battle with the monstrous Bishop Ladja feels like a love letter to Dragon Quest V, but that’s ultimately not the film’s intention. Dragon Quest:  Your Story is aiming a bit higher. It wants to be a celebration of Dragon Quest itself and not just a particular game. Dragon Quest V is merely the chosen vehicle for that delivery. The end contains a twist that is rather high concept. I don’t wish to spoil it, but even if the idea sounded great on paper the execution is a bit awkward. It definitely torpedoes the excitement of the climax adding a layer of complexity onto a story that, up until that point, was anything but.

bianca

Bianca was probably my favorite aspect of the film, though given the rapid-pace of the film she ends up not being featured all that much.

As someone who does not have any particular attachment to Dragon Quest or Dragon Quest V, I can say that the ending did not anger me, though I certainly wasn’t satisfied either. I have played Dragon Quest V, so I was familiar with the story going into this and could follow the film. The ending to the game is possibly the least interesting aspect of it, so changing things up doesn’t bother me on the surface. The execution here is just clumsy, and some of the elements of the ending might have served the film better had they been introduced from the start. This isn’t the type of story that needs or wants a big twist. It doesn’t have enough depth to pull the viewer in and then reap the reward of dumping them on their head. For those unfamiliar with the game, it just feels like a noisy, dumb, fantasy picture that commands little attention. For those who love the source material, they just want to see it to its conclusion likely enjoying the ride well enough while knowing it’s incomplete and only scratches the surface. The film basically spends 90 minutes making fans of the game happy, then the last ten angry.

dragon-quest-your-story-smoke

Dragon Quest fan groups reacting to the ending.

As a result, Dragon Quest:  Your Story is a film that doesn’t really please anybody. Newcomers will likely find it dry, while longtime fans will be angry with the ending. I suppose Dragon Quest fans that aren’t that enamored with Dragon Quest V might be able to better appreciate what the film was striving for, but I have yet to meet a fan that fits that definition. For me, a casual player of Dragon Quest, I got very little out of this one. The visuals and music are mostly nice, even if I would have preferred a more traditional anime look. The action pieces are dull and the pace of the film is far too quick for any of the emotional beats to land with much impact. I found Luca charming and Bianca especially was charismatic, though she is in maybe 10 minutes of the film as a functioning character, when all is said and done. Dragon Quest:  Your Story is a flawed and ultimately disposable piece of entertainment. It’s ending will give fans something to talk about, which unfortunately is likely to become the film’s legacy rather than as a celebration of a beloved franchise.


Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

sonic 2020It was an interesting journey for the world’s most famous hedgehog to go from the small screen to the big screen, but the journey was finally completed Valentine’s Day 2020. Originally set to debut last Thanksgiving, Sonic the Hedgehog famously was delayed when fans reacted unfavorably to the title character’s design. Like Detective Pikachu before it, Sonic the Hedgehog was attempting to bring a CG version of the titular character into a real world setting. Fans were justified in their reaction to the debut of the character as he was only vaguely a representation of a character that’s been around for 30 years. The extra time, money, and effort to redesign Sonic has apparently paid off as the film raced out to an impressive debut weekend topping the weekend box office.

From the start, Sonic was always engineered to be pleasing to the eye. He was famously designed as a mash-up of two iconic characters:  Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat. The fact that someone tied to this film decided to deviate from such a simple and effective premise feels like an ego-driven maneuver, but it’s likely it was just a result of over-thinking. Sonic the character doesn’t fit into the “real world.” He basically has one giant eye with two pupils in it, he’s a  blue hedgehog, but he doesn’t really have visible fur. And his head is bigger than his body in his classic iteration, though he’s since been elongated and given a more sleek figure over the years. The original stab at the character included fur (or quills), which was to be expected. What was odd was the attempt at shaping the face to something more rodent-like, I suppose. The end result was more of a combination of late 90s Michael Jackson and the transformed monkey kid from the original Jumanji. He had an oddly pointed nose and more natural shaped eyes to go along with a toothy smile that seemed to make viewers quite uncomfortable. His body was lean and slightly muscular – a runner’s body. Instead of white gloves he had white fur and was just all-together unpleasant to look at. The redesign basically took things back to the character’s roots. Physically, he’s more Sonic Adventure than Sonic from the Genesis. He still has textured fur as director Jeff Fowler felt that was important for a mostly live-action film, and he has two distinct eyes. He got to put his gloves back on though and his overall facial design is much more true to what fans expected. All in all, he looks nice.

bad sonic

This is not the Sonic fans wanted…

Which is certainly a start. An unappealing lead is hardly a death-knell for a movie, but it doesn’t help when the character is supposed to be visually appealing. It’s not something that can rescue a bad movie though, and I would guess most assumed Sonic the Hedgehog would be a bad movie. It’s not like video game to film adaptations have a good track record. I liked Mortal Kombat as a kid, but I’d hesitate to call it a good film. I did take the family to Detective Pikachu last year and felt it was fine for what it was. I know there are some fans out there that enjoy some of the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider films, but I do not number myself among them. Expectations for a video game movie are low, and will remain low until a Marvel-like run of success so expecting anything out of Sonic felt foolish.

good sonic

Much better!

And perhaps it’s that mindset that contributed the most to my enjoyment of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s certainly easier to be pleasantly surprised by a film when expectations are low, but Sonic the Hedgehog managed to mostly achieve the same level of success as Detective Pikachu. And a lot of that can be attributed to the success of the main character. Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz who has quickly established himself as the best Sonic, sorry Jaleel) is charismatic. He has a manic personality as a result of living life faster than anyone while possessing a sense of honor and responsibility which are traits that lend well to heroism. He’s playful, chatty, inquisitive, and also a touch sympathetic. He’s essentially an orphan who was targeted by some bad dudes (who bare a strong resemblance to another Sonic frenemy) for his speediness and forced to flee his home world with the help of his magic rings. The rings in the film are magical devices capable of opening up portals to other worlds, which is how Sonic arrives on Earth as a kid and is forced to live in hiding. He badly just wants to make friends, and he’s taken a liking to a local cop he refers to as Donut Lord (James Marsden) mainly via peeping on his daily life. One night, in a fit of sadness, Sonic goes a bit too fast and produces something akin to an EMP pulse that knocks out power in the community which gets the attention of the US Government.

jim carrey robotnik

Carrey gets to bring his own personality to Robotnik, but he’s also kept in check and turns in a very fun performance.

The film wisely doesn’t focus much on the government stuff and instead uses a very loose scene to have those in charge select one Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to investigate the cause of the phenomena. Carrey’s Robotnik bares little resemblance to the video game character (more commonly referred to as Eggman these days), but he possesses a quirky personality. Unlike a lot of iterations of Robotnik, he’s also a capable bad guy at times undone by his hubris. Carrey injects some of his usual comedic antics into the role, but nothing that becomes too over-the-top. He’s entertaining, and the only character other than Sonic capable of stealing a scene.

Robotnik quickly ends up on Sonic’s trail and from there the film turns into a road trip buddy comedy with Sonic forced to come out of hiding and seek the help of Donut Lord, aka Tom. The film does a good enough job of balancing the comedy with action. Tom and Sonic mostly get along from the start so it doesn’t play up tension too much between the leads. Not all of the comedy lands as this is a PG film primarily looking to entertain children. There’s a confrontation at a bar that’s a bit groan-inducing, as well as some jokes that amount to product placement, but the film doesn’t linger on anything long enough for it to grow boring or stale. The main plot beats are simple and easy enough to follow even for younger viewers making this one more about the ride than the final destination.

sonic ring

Sonic’s rings play an integral role in the film acting as portals between worlds for Sonic to escape into.

Visually, the film’s special effects hold up just fine. No, I don’t suppose I ever really bought into the concept of Sonic actually existing in this world like I may have at times with Pikachu, but I didn’t feel that harmed my enjoyment of the movie. The film makes liberal use of the slow-motion sequences popularized by the X-Men franchise when illustrating just how fast Sonic can move. Like Quicksilver, Sonic will appear to move at normal speed while the world around him is nearly frozen in time allowing him to correct a situation or just make mischief. It’s not exactly original, but it’s also not something that needed improving on. The film’s score and sound effects also make use of sounds fans of the game have grown up with. Honestly, the film could have used more of the original music as what is adapted for this film is basically the only music that stands out.

sonic friends

Sonic’s human allies, played by James Marsden and Tika Sumpter, don’t offer much, but they also don’t need to.

Beyond those sounds, there’s actually not a ton of fan-service in this one. There are some easter eggs, mainly the attackers early in the film, but the film mostly keeps everything in check. What’s here is enjoyable and most of it is easy to spot. Perhaps even too easy as I was hoping to come home and find out I missed a bunch of stuff that I could look for on another viewing, but I basically caught it all. I was a little disappointed that the film wasn’t able to make use of past voice actors, most notably Jaleel White, but maybe the studio tried and it just didn’t happen. The same can be said of past songs like the theme for the Saturday morning cartoon or the Sega CD “Sonic Boom” track. There is a post credits cameo that’s worth waiting for that all but guarantees a sequel as well, so if you like this then I guess that’s good news.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a competent take on the character that successfully adapts him for the big screen. It’s not a great film, but it is a short one coming it around 99 minutes and that’s all the time it needed. It’s a film worth seeing if you’re a big fan of the character, or if you’re like me and you’re just looking for a movie to take the kids to that won’t bore or annoy you. If you liked Detective Pikachu then I think that’s a pretty good comparison and a solid indicator on if you’ll like this one. Sonic moves at a faster pace and has fewer lulls, but it also doesn’t have as much heart. Its human characters are bland and uninteresting, but they thankfully are not tasked with carrying many scenes by themselves. This is a film that knows what its audience wants, and that’s Sonic. He’s front and center and quite enjoyable to spend time with. If you ever wanted to see a Sonic movie, it’s hard to imagine one turning out better than this.


The NECA TMNT Wish List

shredder vs raphThe early months of the calendar year are generally among my least favorite. They’re cold, dark, and dull where I reside. About the only good thing on the calendar is the annual New York Toy Fair in which vendors roll out previews of the toys to come for the next fiscal year and sometimes beyond. These last few years have been particularly exciting for fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as easing of the master toy license by Nickelodeon and Playmates has allowed other companies to enter the mix. The company that has most taken advantage of this new frontier is NECA which currently has three toy lines based on the property hitting shelves. It’s a crazy fun time to be a Turtle toy collector as a result as NECA has taken a nostalgic approach to its figures which is something Playmates rarely does. And this year figures (pun intended) to be an exciting one as lots of figures are set for reveal.

If you haven’t been involved with the lines up to now, here’s a refresher. NECA is currently hard at work packing Target with two-packs based on the 1987 cartoon. Figures released so far include all four turtles in both toon accurate colors and licensing material (i.e. bright green) colors, Shredder, Krang in his bubble walker, Bebop, Rocksteady, and the always serviceable Foot Soldier. Already unveiled and set for release this spring are figures of April O’Neil, Casey Jones, Leatherhead, Slash (in his cartoon outfit), and battle damaged Foot Soldiers. In addition to them, we’ve already seen previews for a Foot Alpha, Metalhead, Triceraton, Traag, Granitor, and Krang’s android body. That’s a lot to take in with much more likely in the can.

turtlesII

It’s a safe assumption we’ll soon be getting updated turtles to match their appearance in the famed sequel, as well as a few other choice figures.

At Gamestop, NECA is currently sending figures based on the 1990 film. They have thus far released the four turtles, Shredder, Foot, and Splinter. A special Loot Crate edition of Splinter is in production depicting him as a spirit from the camping sequence and with 2020 being the 30th anniversary of that film you know NECA has more on the way. We also know they intend to move onto The Secret of the Ooze so the movie line still has some legs.

At online and specialty shops, NECA is set to roll-out figures based on the popular arcade/SNES game Turtles in Time. The first of the four should be hitting retail soon and features Leonardo and Donatello complete with their weapons and surfboards from the Sewer Surfing level. There’s also a purple Foot Soldier who too packs a surfboard and Slash in his game-specific attire (which happens to match his comic look which the old Playmates toy was based on). All of the figures in this line feature a pixel-deco paintjob. Just revealed is wave two which includes Raph and Mikey as well as Shredder (the non Super version from the arcade) and Leatherhead. Considering a lot of the same players from the show were featured in that game, it stands to reason the cartoon and video game assortments will likely feature similar characters.

That’s a lot, and there’s already probably a lot more ready to be unveiled in a few weeks, but now feels like a good time to compile a wish list. I have collected all or parts of all three lines so far, but my main focus now is on the toon line. The 1990 film is my favorite anything related to TMNT, but there’s just not a lot left from that film NECA needs to touch. I have less fondness for the sequel, but wouldn’t mind some figures from it. The video game line is certainly cool, but not a huge priority right now. It may become one though if the Target two-packs continue to be extremely difficult to track down. Since the game figures are sold online and can even be pre-ordered, it makes acquiring them a lot easier. Plus they’re sold separately so there’s no danger of having to pay for a second, unwanted, figure in a two-pack (which so far hasn’t been an issue).

To sort of collect my thoughts in one place, I’ve decided to put together a little list of my most wanted from NECA. I suspect several of these will be unveiled at Toy Fair, but it would be a stretch to expect all of them. The cartoon actually featured far fewer characters than the old toyline, but many did make it into the show. NECA is thus far only doing characters that were in the cartoon, and if you’re nostalgia is just for the old Playmates line then maybe check out what Super7 is doing with its TMNT figures. Here is my list though, and I think number one is probably the same for many such lists:

  1. splinter teaSplinter (Cartoon) – We have the turtles, we have the main villains, and soon we’ll even have April and Casey, but what we don’t have yet is the beloved sensei to the turtles:  Master Splinter. Playmates never did do a proper toon version of the character, but it can be assumed that NECA will and it will be spectacular. He’ll assuredly come with his walking stick, and hopefully some fun accessories like a mug of tea or maybe some sushi. Afterall, he never was all that fond of pizza.
  2. stinky rat king

    There’s no way this guy smells pleasant. 

    The Rat King (Cartoon) – Possibly my favorite villain from the old show, speaking purely from a design standpoint. The turtles may have dwelled in the sewers, but the Rat King was really the only denizen that actually looked the part. If a cartoon character could have an odor, surely Rat King would have qualified. He would need to come with a few rats, though I’m blanking on additional accessories needed. It’s a long shot, but it would be rad if NECA could include a removable hat and duster to cover the redesign that came later in the toon’s life, but my guess is they’d rather hang onto that as a variant down the road.

  3. baxterfly

    I have an unexplainable fondness for this little guy.

    Baxter Stockman/Baxter the Fly (Cartoon, Game) – I’m cheating a little by including both at number three, but my dream is for Baxter to come in a two-pack with his mutated fly persona. Toss in some mousers, and that’s quite a set! Baxter the Fly is also a figure I’m prepared to double-dip on should he get a video game release as well (and you know he will) because it will likely come with that outrageous gun he wields. And in case you’re not familiar with the game, I speak of the gun that could shoot fists and hand slaps.

  4. killer pizzas

    Raph is probably about to make a joke about them being right behind him.

    Pizza/Sewer Monster (Cartoon) – The Xenomorph inspired Pizza Monsters seem like a solid option for NECA’s Ultimate figures based on the cartoon. The Ultimates are for deluxe figures that will be sold individually as opposed to in two-packs. We don’t know where they’ll be sold, but we do know the Foot Alpha, Metalhead, and Krang’s android body are ticketed for such a release. The Pizza Monster makes for a nice fit because it could feature a fully grown version as well as smaller ones representing the larval forms and such. It’s a classic and well-remembered episode, so much so that NECA even did a Sewer Alien based on the film franchise Alien as a convention exclusive designed to mimic the TMNT version.

  5. groundchuck and dirtbag

    Groundchuck (right) was pretty cool. Dirt Bag (left) I could take or leave.

    Groundchuck (Cartoon) – Groundchuck was one of my favorites of the Playmates toys. The bright red fur with blue attire and steel leg just looked cool to me at the time and I think it would look great as a NECA figure today. In the cartoon, he was paired with Dirt Bag whom I’m less enamored with, but it would certainly make sense to package the two together. He did not appear in Turtles in Time though so he might be a low priority figure since he doesn’t easily fit into that line (he did, however, appear in other games).

  6. tokkamomma

    I know some people are still mad we got these two instead of Bebop and Rocksteady, but it’s hard to deny they’d make awesome figures.

    Tokka and Rahzar (Film, Cartoon) – I’m not super into The Secret of the Ooze, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think its featured dim-witted duo wouldn’t look great in plastic. Tokka especially would likely look awesome, while Rahzar would be a bit tricky given all of the fur. My guess is NECA would sculpt the fur in plastic as it did with Splinter, but who know? If they continued in their quarter-scale line maybe fur would be a feature there. Regardless, I think they would look awesome and I would also be interested in cartoon versions of the characters. It remains to be seen if NECA could create a sculpt that works for both mediums though as the cartoon versions basically looked like the Playmates figures. The two also appeared in the game so NECA could have possibly triple-dip here, though it might be safer for them to just make the film and cartoon/game versions separate.

  7. mondogecko

    Mondo Gecko was a character we were supposed to think is cool, and we all did.

    Mondo Gecko (Cartoon)- Seemingly everyone’s favorite non-turtle character was Mondo Gecko. He had a skateboard, bright colors, and was named Mondo – what’s there not to like? He’s likely a high priority figure as a result for NECA and it would surprise me a little if we don’t see him in a couple weeks. NECA will likely try to make him screen accurate which is a bit unfortunate because the figure was so much cooler. I still think he’ll turn out fine though.

  8. mightyhognrhinoman

    The heroes we truly need.

    Rhino Man and Mighty Hog (Cartoon) – Yeah, I’m cheating again with another two character entry, but what are ya gonna do? I’m mostly avoiding variants of already released figures for this list, but I do love Bebop and Rocksteady and those figures NECA did are so damn awesome that I want to see more of them from the company. While the robots Super Bebop and Mighty Rocksteady are quite tempting, I think I’d actually prefer the super hero versions of the characters:  Rhino Man and Mighty Hog. Even though this is the preferred variant for me, my guess is we actually get SNES versions of the two in pirate attire before anything else.

  9. super shredder

    It helps that NECA won’t need to make a licensing deal with Kevin Nash thanks to the giant helmet.

    Super Shredder (Film, Game) – Now you can’t have figures based on The Secret of the Ooze without including the big baddie from the end:  Super Shredder. Given how quickly he was dispatched, Super Shredder was certainly more bark than bite, but man was he intense looking. NECA would have some fun sculpting all of those spikes. This bad boy would have to be big too, unlike the puny version Playmates gave us many years ago. And unlike Tokka and Rahzar, it wouldn’t be too difficult to turn that film-based figure into a video game one as he basically looked the same. He’d just need to have cool fireball effects and maybe a little screaming turtle.

  10. darkturtle

    Cooler than Batman. There, I said it.

    Dark Turtle (Cartoon) – For my last entry, how about a deep cut? We’ll undoubtedly see figures of the Punk Frogs, Mukman, and maybe even Bug Man before we see a Dark Turtle, but he’s worth remembering. Dark Turtle, in case you forgot, was a one-episode appearance and is the alter-ego of Donatello. He basically looks like Batman, and what’s not to like about a turtle dressed as Batman? I’m not super interested in variants of the turtles, as I think I’m still fatigued by the many Playmates flooded the market with 30 years ago, but this one I’d go for.


Dec. 24 – Silly Symphony – “The Night Before Christmas”

night before poster

Originally released December 9, 1933.

We have reached a day of great, holiday, release – Christmas Eve. And what better way to mark the occasion than with a holiday short titled The Night Before Christmas. A lot of cartoons have made use of this title, but today’s subject is the Silly Symphony short that falls under that heading. It felt right to tackle this one in the wake of the Merrie Melodies short we looked at a few days ago. Those two brands are forever linked by their similar titles and the competition that existed at the time between the Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Studios, a competition that still exists today.

The Silly Symphony collection was essentially Walt Disney Production’s play area. The Mickey Mouse shorts the studio was famous for were more straight-forward, while the Silly Symphony shorts could be just as narratively tight or could be more experimental in nature. In some respects, the shorts were a testing ground for techniques the studio would employ for its feature-length theatrical productions, like the multi-plane camera used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Technicolor debuted here as well before making the jump to Mickey Mouse and even the studio’s greatest creation, Donald Duck, debuted in a Silly Symphony short (I may be a touch biased there). The shorts could be funny, whimsical, scary, whatever they needed to be. And sure, a bunch of them did just end up being characters largely dancing to some music, but there was also some great stuff in there.

night before title card

Note the top, in case you forgot who the real star is.

This short, The Night Before Christmas, is the 1933 sequel to the 1932 short Santa’s Workshop. In that cartoon, we watched Santa and his elves prepare for Christmas at the North Pole and it ends with the big guy saying “goodbye” to his loyal workers and heading off to deliver the presents. Well, this one is going to show us Santa on his journey that night through at least one house. This one was directed by Wilfred Jackson with Dick Huemer getting the credit for the animation. And as you would expect, it’s an adaptation of the famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore. And since this is a 1933 short, it’s in Technicolor unlike the Merrie Melodies short we looked at earlier.

img_0636

The cozy confines for today’s short.

Like so many cartoons, this one also begins with a rendition of “Silent Night” as the title card is shown. Lest we forget who the real star is, this is credited as Mickey Mouse presents…, in case you had no idea what Walt Disney Productions was famous for. After the title card is removed the cartoon begins. A narrator is singing the poem from which this short takes its name. Leigh Harline is credited with the music on this short, but I do not know who the vocalist is that’s singing the song. The visuals show us a cozy home covered with snow. Everything is quiet, as the poem demands, and the home’s children are snug in a rather large bed – all 8 of them.

img_0637

That was a close one, boys.

The vocals end with the sound of sleigh bells as we see Santa flying high overhead with his team of eight not-so-tiny reindeer out in front single-file. They barely fit onto the roof of the house, which is maybe why Santa’s reindeer are often in a two-across formation, but the lead reindeer is able to keep from sliding off and Santa seems ignorant to the near miss. He climbs out of the sleigh and makes his way down the chimney. He’s a fairly large Santa and certainly a round one. He has a permanent smile affixed to his face and he is prone to frequent bouts of laughter. He’s not exactly the quiet kind of Santa.

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Fire just loves Santa’s ass.

When he emerges from the chimney he’s all covered in soot, but doesn’t seem to mind. Somewhat surprising for a 1930’s short, his sootiness isn’t in the form of a blackface gag which is nice to see. He shakes the soot off and seems to notice the hot coals in the fireplace, a near miss for Santa’s rump. When he turns his back on the hot coals they grow into tall flames which reach out and caress Santa on the bum. He jumps and spins around waving a finger at the fire. He then laughs and the flames go out making me wonder if he has this sort of playful relationship with all of the fireplaces he’ll visit this evening.

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There’s something familiar about that toy in front, and something odd about that sheep one.

Santa then gets to work. He first pulls out a modest tree from his sack which isn’t quite as tall as he is. He opens it like an umbrella and places it on the floor. He then pulls out a toy bugle and uses it to summon the toys to work. A marching band comprised of toy clowns emerge first from the sack as they lead the rest of the toys which soon includes dolls and even a toy Mickey Mouse riding on a scooter. The animation with Mickey repeats several times almost as if they wanted to make sure everyone noticed the rather hard to miss cameo. One toy squeezing a sheep is a bit curious looking. I don’t want to say it’s definitely blackface, but it’s close.

The toys then begin decorating the tree which includes some lit candles (there must have been countless Christmas tree related fires over the years). My favorite gag, if you can call it that, would be the team of toy soldiers firing ornaments out of a toy canon at the tree. A plane flies around leaving a trail of garland on the tree while toy firemen coat the tree with artificial snow.

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Santa pretty much thinks anything he does is hilarious.

While the toys take care of what is apparently their job, Santa starts filling stockings. Some are a bit shabby looking, but all have a little note in them detailing what the kid wants for Christmas. One stocking is actually a diaper, which Santa puts a doll in. Another appears to be three socks stitched together which is the perfect size for a baseball bat, which forces a laugh out of Santa. When he comes to one with a hole in the toe, he improvises by first sticking an umbrella in it upside down and then dumps a bunch of toys into it laughing all the while.

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That’s a mighty fine tree there, toys.

Horns sound to apparently announce that the tree has been decorated. All that is left is for a toy zeppelin to fly to the top with the star-shaped tree topper. Once it’s placed where it belongs a small cheer goes up and the clown band starts playing “Jingle Bells.” The other toys dance merrily while Santa gets in on the act via a toy piano. If you’re thinking this must be noisy as hell, then you would be right. Soon, the kids perk up due to all of the commotion, and a patch on the comforter even flips open to reveal a ninth kid had been sleeping underneath it. The kids race to the top of the stairs for a look, with our ninth kid apparently the focal point as he’s the straggler and the seat of his pajamas is unbuttoned revealing his naked bottom. As the kids look on, it’s this little guy who tries to hold back a sneeze, and fails, alerting Santa down below.

Santa hastily orders the toys back to their places. They all head for their spot under the tree with some toys returning to their packaging. As the kids descend the stairs, Santa squeezes himself into the fireplace with his empty sack, places a finger beside his nose, and vanishes up the chimney.

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And we almost made it to the end…

The kids then attack the tree as they all reach for the toys that stand out most to them. Our little straggler, who is apparently named Junior, is the only one who apparently noticed a disturbance by the fire place and he heads for that first. Looking up the chimney, a blast of soot falls on his face and there we have it – a blackface gag (sigh). Our attention is soon directed to an unopened present under the tree addressed to Junior and he heads over and opens it. Inside is a little, black, Scottish Terrier which licks the soot off of his face. All of the kids then run to the window when they hear the sound of sleigh bells and they watch as Santa and his team of reindeer fly off into the creepiest looking moon I’ve ever seen. It has an unpleasant grin, and this is basically the same shot that ended the previous short, Santa’s Workshop. The vocalist from earlier returns as well to sing the final stanza of the poem with the short ending on the now famous line “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

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Having an adorable puppy erase the blackface is probably the best outcome we could have asked for.

The Night Before Christmas is a fairly tame piece of animation, that one instance of blackface excluded. It has a simple premise and follows the Silly Symphony formula of showing a bunch of characters acting out a mundane process, but with a touch of fantasy. There’s no spoken dialogue in this one, aside from the narration of the poem, as Santa just laughs a bunch and never actually says a word to the reindeer or the toys. He doesn’t even get to belt out that closing line. The kids also don’t really say anything, they just cheer or make a noise of surprise or delight. I like that they never actually see Santa until they get to the window, as even from atop the stairs they couldn’t see anything since the room Santa was in is blocked by a door.

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I expected an ending in which Santa flies in front of the moon. What I did not expect was for that moon to wear a maniacal grin.

What this short does have some fun with is merely the process Santa goes through at each house. It’s a bit surprising to see so many toys bestowed upon these children since this was released during The Great Depression. I suppose we get some sense of that via the shabby stockings and the fact that all of the kids share a single bed. Santa bringing the tree and decorating seems to be a relic of the old days. I know my dad’s family never decorated their tree, that was Santa’s job, though I think they at least put it up first. I think some families did decorate it together on Christmas Eve before going to bed, as I’m sure some probably do that now. I think for many homes though the customary thing to do now is to get a tree and then decorate it as soon as possible. The only matter up for debate is how soon is too soon. I like getting as much visual enjoyment as possible from a tree so I’m more of the sooner the better camp. However, I have my limits. My neighbors literally put their tree (an artificial one) up the weekend after Halloween which is something I thought only happened in Bob’s Burgers. If you want my advice, even though it’s pretty useless advice coming on Christmas Eve, I say cut down your own tree if you can that way you can put it up in early December and it will still be relatively fresh come the end of the month. Those lot trees are often cut in October which is why they often don’t last very long. And if you do have a tree, don’t put lit candles on it or leave it plugged in when you’re not home or asleep. Lets avoid those Christmas tree fires, everyone.

If you want to check out this short this year then it would be rather helpful to have the collection of Silly Symphony shorts, More Silly Symphonies, which was released in 2006 as part of the Walt Disney Treasures line. It’s since gone out of print, and as of this writing it wasn’t on Disney+ and if you’re reading that then it wasn’t added before this went up, which is a shame, but that blackface gag could be to blame. There’s still hope though as Disney is not very protective of these shorts so if you just punch it into your preferred search engine you’ll probably find it no problem. And if you can’t, maybe that too is a bit of a good thing as it likely means Disney is prepping this for a future release on Disney+ or via some other method. We’re still waiting on an HD release of all of the classic shorts, so come on Disney, what are you waiting for? Needless to say, have a Merry Christmas Eve and hopefully you can find some time to check back tomorrow for the final entry in this year’s edition of The Christmas Spot.


Dec. 19 – The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives

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Original release date January 7, 1933

Every year I do this I am reminded at how surprising it is that so few Christmas themed Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts exist. Disney put out several memorable ones over the years featuring their characters, but Warner Bros. mostly stayed away. Bugs Bunny would eventually get a Christmas television special in the 70s, but that was well past the age of the cartoon short.

That’s not to say Warner didn’t produce any Christmas cartoons under their two most popular banners, just that most didn’t feature the company’s most recognizable faces. The first of which, The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives, contained no recognizable faces even though this was during the heyday for Bosko. The Rudolf Ising directed short was the first Merrie Melodies cartoon released in 1933, missing the Christmas holiday by a couple of weeks. Even though the Merrie Melodies line of shorts is often distinguished from Looney Tunes due to the presence of color (that wouldn’t come until 1934), this is a black and white film that’s fallen into the public domain.

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Possibly the nicest piece of animation in the short.

The short is a Depression-era cartoon, hence the name The Shanty Where Santy Claus lives. It’s not a particularly well known short as it wasn’t shown on television much given that it’s associated with a holiday and thus confined to a short window for release. Since it’s from 1933, it also doesn’t look particularly great compared with the more popular Warner cartoons and, as I already mentioned, it’s devoid of the characters the studio is known for. Despite that though, it did receive some play on Cartoon Network during the 1990s, but sometimes with alterations. I honestly can’t recall if I ever saw this one on the channel. I used to love falling asleep to the Christmas Eve programming on Cartoon Network which ran all night and mostly consisted of winter or Christmas themed cartoons. I could usually bank on seeing Peace on Earth at that time and only that time. This cartoon was probably shown as well, but I don’t remember it specifically. When viewing it now, it has an air of familiarity to it, but that could just be my imagination.

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Our downtrodden protagonist.

The cartoon begins with bells ringing and they are gorgeously animated. It then heads for ground level where the animation is less gorgeous and is accompanied by “Silent Night,” something that will become a trope in Christmas specials to come. A disheveled looking kid is drearily stomping through the snow with a floppy hat and his hands stuffed into his pockets. His exaggerated feet practically look like snowshoes. He hears singing coming from a church, but declines to enter. He perks up momentarily when he hears another commotion. Racing over to a window he looks in on a bunch of kids dancing around a Christmas tree. He then turns to the camera with a sad face as the wind howls.

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Listen kids, normally it’s not okay to run off with an old guy promising toys.

The boy gets caught in the gust which tosses him into the side of his shanty. The snow falls off the roof and buries him momentarily. He pulls himself up and heads inside. It’s a one-room shack with hardly anything inside, including parents. He’s rather down, even weeping, until he hears something outside. Sleigh bells herald the arrival of Santa Claus who comes bursting in singing the short’s signature song. Santa offers to take the boy with him to his shanty where toys and wonderful things await. The kid is more than eager to take old Saint Nick up on his offer and the two head outside. Santa puts the boy on the back of his sleigh before climbing in himself. He orders the reindeer to “giddy-up” and as they take off the boy tumbles from the back of the sleigh. Malnutrition has apparently not affected the boy’s speed or conditioning as he races after the sleigh and essentially outruns the reindeer to get back into Santa’s arms. This time the old man is smart enough to put the kid in the sleigh proper and the two take off into the sky.

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You are correct if you assumed Santa flew past that moon before landing in front of his shop. Maybe the first ever animated shot of Santa in front of a moon?

Santa and his team of two reindeer (the Depression even impacted Santa) make it to Santa’s shanty. And it’s hardly a shanty. The two head inside and the kid’s eyes widen to see all of the toys waiting to be delivered to new homes. Some of them are a bit…iffy looking, but we pan back to the kid pretty quickly who’s looking quite happy. He heads in further and starts playing with a kangaroo toy. When he squeezes a ball on the end of a tube it makes the little joey pop out of the pouch. Cute.

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Well, this just went wrong very fast.

The boy then turns his attention to a musical toy and….oh no, here’s our reminder this is a cartoon from the 1930s. A toy of jazz musicians is displayed and they basically all look like they’re pulled from a minstrel show. We then see a baby doll crying out for it’s Mama before tumbling off the shelf into a box of soot. It then emerges, in blackface, crying for its “Mammy” who then shows up to retrieve the toy. And we’re not done! A rag doll starts dancing as the short’s song returns with two other dolls that also look like blackface dolls. She then ditches the pair to watch on the side cheering them on with some maracas.

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Oh my god, it just got worse!

More toys are spotlighted including a doll that tries to blow up a balloon. She sucks in the air and turns into a woman of generous proportions who begins to sing “Shine on Harvest Moon” in what is undoubtedly a caricature of singer Kate Smith. There’s also a toy soldier on a baby bank. When the register pops open it’s, get this, full of babies. A teddy bear is shown playing a trombone and a jack-in-the-box beside it pops out and it’s thankfully not racist. The trombone keeps hitting it into a drum which is mildly amusing.

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Make it stop!

We then end up at the Christmas tree which has a lit candle on it. One of the toys knocks it over and soon the tree catches on fire (and you thought those giant bulbs from the 40s and 50s were a fire hazard) forcing the fire brigade into action. The toy fire brigade, that is. A fire engine races over and tries to put out the flames, but it is just a toy. We then see the boy again, the supposed main character who has apparently just been watching this whole thing and is possibly willing to let the racist toys burn, who decides he should take some action. A hose is conveniently at his feet and hooked up to a sink. He inserts the other end into some bagpipes which are just laying on the floor and runs over to the tree. He squeezes the bagpipes spraying water out of the various pipes which douse the flames. The toys cheer triumphantly and the short comes to an abrupt end.

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Kid, maybe you should just let this place burn.

I suppose when I saw this cartoon was in the public domain I should have expected some racism. Cartoonists, for whatever reason, loved these blackface gags in the 20s and 30s and really seemed to like the black figures seen here. Maybe it’s a benign reason, since these cartoons are in black and white it was an easy gag to get over, but it is what it is. When Cartoon Network aired this one it eventually edited out those parts, though I think at one point in time they were left in. Considering the short is a little over 7 minutes with that stuff intact, it must have been incredibly short without it. If you watch a lot of old cartoons, there’s nothing in here you haven’t seen before. I don’t think those images would keep this from being released as part of a collection of Warner cartoons, but it sure would earn it a disclaimer.

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Well, the fire’s out and…it’s over? Okay then.

Visually, this is an old cartoon and it shows. The backgrounds aren’t very detailed and certainly pale in comparison to what Disney was doing at the time. The characters have noodle-like limbs and their mouth movements are a bit odd. There are some twin characters that were probably just doubles of the film cells or possibly traces from one image to another as they move in perfect unison. The kid main character also doesn’t look particularly good, but a lot of effort was put into Santa who has a nice, jolly, demeanor.

As a Christmas toon, this is essentially a piece of wish fulfillment. A poor kid is not going to get to enjoy Christmas like the more well-off children will, so Santa shows up to whisk him away. It probably wasn’t something a poor kid needed to see as it would have felt patronizing. Santa is also barely in it as he just shows up to take the kid and then basically disappears once we get to his work shop. I kept waiting for him to come in and put out the fire (or destroy those racist toys), but he must have left to go find some other poor kid. There’s a lot of public domain Christmas music at play though, and the one original song works well enough.

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He’s certainly not as charismatic as Porky.

The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives is a public domain cartoon that is quite easy to come by. Just typing the name into a search engine should produce plenty of results, or you can even just go straight to YouTube. There are various public domain Christmas VHS and DVDs that include it, and Warner even featured it on a laser disc release of shorts back in the day, but I doubt you want to go that route. Because it’s free, the quality can vary. Some claim to be upscaled to HD, but they get a blurry, smear, effect as a result. Some are very gray in appearance and there’s even some that are practically yellow. Still, you don’t have to look too hard to find one with nice enough contrast levels. I don’t really recommend it, but it is only 7 minutes so it’s not exactly much of a time commitment. It’s a shame the few gags present are mostly racist humor. The only memorable non racist gag was the baby bank, which wasn’t particularly funny either. As the first Christmas-themed Merrie Melodies short, it at least has some historical significance. Just beware of the racist stuff.


Dec. 13 – How to Grinch

the grinch teaserChristmas has a number of characters that instantly come to mind at the mere mention of the holiday. The big man, good old S. Claus, is likely number one. Whether you know him as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, or something else, Santa Claus has dominated the holiday for decades now. Other characters commonly associated with the holiday include Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf, Macaulay Culkin, and some guy named Jesus. Another big one has to be the greenest, and I don’t mean Shrek. The Grinch has been a holiday mainstay for over 50 years. He originate in the world of print and came from the mind of one Theodor Geisel, better known to the world as Dr. Seuss. Nearly a decade after the success of the original 1957 book came the television special in 1966 which was hugely successful. It made the Grinch a household name and a sought after network special each year.

As is often the case, when something finds success in print or on television Hollywood takes notice. We now have two feature films based on the story of a thieving Christmas villain:  the 2000 Jim Carrey vehicle and the 2018 animated film known simply as The Grinch. The character of the Grinch was also popular enough to show up in other books by Seuss and there was even an attempt to make him an icon of Halloween. With all of this Grinch going around it’s hard to know what’s worthwhile and what’s not. And with the holiday season now essentially halfway complete, there’s not a lot of time to get your Grinch fix in 2019.

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Just hook it to my veins!

A few years ago, I declared How the Grinch Stole Christmas as the best Christmas television special ever. In reviewing that 25 day countdown I see a lot of room for omissions and admissions, but I’ve never wavered on number one. The Grinch is the be all, end all, Christmas special. It looks terrific, features great performances, and also has a memorable song. It’s recommended viewing for this Christmas and every Christmas to come. If you have yet to view it in 2019 then get on that! I watch it multiple times every year and wouldn’t have it any other way.

That television special is the best, but what of the other Grinch media? Should you bother with any of it? The book requires little investment in both time and money, but the films are a different beast all together. With each minute of Christmas time precious, and the films made readily, and tantalizingly, available either on cable or via streaming it can be hard to figure out. Well, I’m here to help set you straight and let you know if these things are worth your time or not. Because I value my own personal time so little, I’ve recently taken in all of these things and am prepared to render a verdict.

Let’s start with that 1957 book. The Grinch was a unique character when he arrived. Dr. Seuss had never made an adult the main character of one of his stories, and certainly had never centered one on a villain. Titled How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, it was written and illustrated by Seuss and while it spans 69 pages (nice) it hardly requires much time to read through as pages often consist of just a few sentences and many just artwork. It’s presented in black, white, and red which is interesting considering how the character of the Grinch is now often associated with the color green. I wish I had encountered the book before the television special just so I could have been shocked to see him surface in green. Would I have assumed he was a different color, and what color would that have been? Those are questions I can’t even ask let alone answer.

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This scene seems dull compared with the animated version.

The story is largely the same as the animated special, just less. There’s obviously no music, and some lines you may recall fondly from the special aren’t present. It’s fun to read though because of the way Seuss rhymes. His books always have a playful rhythm and I rarely tire of reading them to my own children. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is no exception, and if you enjoy the television special then you should own a copy of the book as well, especially if you have kids. In my house, it can be hard to get them to request something other than this book before bed when the Christmas season comes to an end. I don’t really mind, but my wife sure does.

The book is an easy recommend, but the films present a much more difficult challenge. Let’s start with that 2000 film directed by Ron Howard, shall we? It was an interesting time as Dr. Seuss stories had never been adapted for live-action before. That’s because Dr. Seuss had refused all of Hollywood’s temptations. By 1998 though the Dr. himself was long gone, but his widow Audrey was around and willing to listen as long as the price was right. She supposedly handpicked Howard to direct the picture after he delivered a pitch for a film he had no intention of directing and wouldn’t agree to any other director. The studio settled on Carrey for the titular role with some influence of Geisel, while the role of Cindy Lou went to the young Taylor Momsen. The cast also featured a few other names of the era such as Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, and Molly Shannon. Audrey Geisel had a lot of demands of the film, and the acquisition of the film rights lead to a bidding war in which studios basically had to line-up famous individuals to deliver the pitch to Geisel personally. It’s hard not to conjure up images of Geisel seated on a Seuss-ian throne high above network executives feigning disinterest as they frantically try to pitch her on an idea for a movie.

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The man who came up with all of the funny words was not much interested in Hollywood’s overtures.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas was tasked with adapting the book and television special authentically, while also stretching it out to a feature length. The TV special was able to adapt the book by filling it with musical bits, but that only filled about 25 minutes. It already felt stretched as far as it could go, so in order for the film to do the same it needed to focus on elements the prior versions ignored. Namely, it needed to explore the main character and why he hates Christmas. Howard also wanted to expand upon the character of Cindy Lou Who and the denizens of Whoville and in order to do so he felt the character needed to be aged-up from 2 to 6. In order to make the Grinch hate Christmas, Howard settled on making him bullied as a child. He looks nothing like the other Whos, so he was an easy target for bullies. He tries to win the affections of a classmate at Christmas time who seems to also have feelings for him, but when he cuts himself trying to shave off his green beard the other kids mock him mercilessly. It corresponds with him wanting to present his crush with a Christmas gift, but when the other kids make fun of him he decides to instead smash the gift and direct his ire at the holiday itself.

Cindy Lou Who learns of this origin story for the Grinch and decides to make things better for him. She nominates him for an ambassador-like position at Christmas. The Grinch does not have any interest, but his old crush and rivals will be present and that’s enough to get him involved. The other Whos are not really keen on the idea. When he shows up for the festival, the mayor mocks him by gifting him an electric shaver and the resulting humiliation is what spurs the Grinch on to carry out his plan to steal Christmas.

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Dr. Seuss may not have been interested in Hollywood, but Audrey wasn’t above taking the money and she was a shrewd negotiator to boot.

When this film premiered, I attended with my family even though I had long since aged-out of the tradition of heading to the movies with my parents. It was probably the last film we saw as a family until one of the Lord of the Rings films when I was home from college. For some reason, my dad was really geared-up to see this one even though I can’t recall him ever displaying any affection towards the television special. He would watch it with us, but I just assumed he was being nice. At any rate, we saw it and I think we kind of liked it? I’m not real sure, but I know it never became an annual holiday tradition in my household in the years that followed. The changes made to the plot are mostly okay. They’re there out of necessity, even if they’re not all that interesting. Does the Grinch need sympathy? Howard seemed to think so and it’s certainly an easier path to take, but part of the original story was we didn’t know why he hated Christmas and it didn’t matter. “Whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes…” goes the famous line, and it’s not even confirmed his heart was the issue as it’s basically just how the account from Whoville has carried on through the years.

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The live-action film hinges on the relationship between Grinch and Cindy Lou Who. I mentioned that I thought the Grinch looked fine, but he definitely has a Robbie from Dinosaurs thing going on with his hair here.

At any rate, Jim Carrey approaches the character like he did all of his screwball characters from the 90s. He’s loud, obnoxious, and speaks with a goofy voice. The move to live-action is actually not terrible. Yeah, he has these weird, hairy, Grinch-boobs, but he largely looks the part. He’s way less horrifying than Mike Myers’ Cat in the Hat, anyway. Whoville though looks terrible. It’s like a scene from a mall Santa experience. It’s fake, and lacks the Seuss charm. The Whos look like a race of people descended from the transformed kid in Jumanji with these weird, anime, noses. By the time the film gets to the stealing part I’ve grown tired of Carrey’s Grinch. It’s just too much, and it doesn’t help that the soundtrack sucks. By the time the film concludes with Grinch’s redemption (he even gets the girl!) I am way past checked-out and just happy to see the credits role, even if they’re accompanied by an awful Faith Hill song.

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The adult Whos are just plain weird looking. It’s like an entire town of people decided Michael Jackson’s 2000 look was something to emulate.

If you can’t tell, I’m not digging on the Carrey Grinch. That’s a film worth passing on. The more intriguing one is the more recently released The Grinch. It was originally slated for 2017, but delays pushed it to November 2018. Christmas movies being what they are, any small delay in production results in basically a year long delay in the release cycle so it’s hard to say just how much re-tooling the film needed without being a part of the production staff. Even knowing that, it’s always alarming when a film gets bumped so severely and rarely does it seem the end result pays off. Recently, X-Men:  Dark Phoenix saw a delay and the end-result was pretty lackluster. Given the quality of the previous film, Apocalypse, I’m not sure if that one really had a chance. One of the latest examples, and still an open item, is Sonic the Hedgehog which got bumped out of a 2019 release and into 2020 when the Internet collectively sneered at Sonic’s appearance in the initial trailer.

The Grinch is an Illumination’s production following 2012’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Animation feels like the proper vehicle for Seuss adaptations, and this being 2018, CG is going to be the medium. Benedict Cumberbatch stars this time around with support from Keenan Thompson, Rashida Jones, Angela Lansbury, Pharrell Williams, and Cameron Seely as Cindy Lou Who, once again a kid instead of a toddler. Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney co-directed this one and they were tasked with once again bringing a pretty brief story to a feature length. Like the 2000 film, this one provides a backstory for why the Grinch hates Christmas and also seeks to make Cindy Lou Who a bigger part of the film. This time around she just wants to make sure her mom, who is a single mother raising three kids, gets what she deserves for Christmas and to do that she enlists the help of the neighborhood kids to capture Santa on Christmas Eve. This naturally sets up a confrontation with a thieving Grinch who grew to hate Christmas because, as an orphan, he grew to resent the holiday when kids with families had a good time but he did not.

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Grinch in the midst of some delicious stress eating in bed.

Cumberbatch uses an American accent when voicing the Grinch and his version of the character is in-line with the Boris Karloff and Jim Carrey versions in that they speak in almost a thin growl. There’s also a nasally quality to the performance, and if I didn’t read the credits I would have sworn that Grinch was being voiced by Bill Hader. This Grinch is not nearly as pompous as Carrey’s, and he’s just a curmudgeon who feels worn down by Christmas. Quite possibly the film’s funniest moment is when Grinch discovers that he’s out of food and a little montage plays showing him stress-eating due to the oncoming holiday. The Grinch does a better job of providing a real personality for the main character without shoe-horning in too much melodrama. I certainly like this character more than I do his other iterations since the film gives me a reason to. Max is along for the ride as well and appropriately adorable.

Whoville is much more enjoyable to look at as well. It’s basically one giant hill that seems to be perpetually covered in snow. Everyone gets around via sled and it looks like a fun place to visit, though totally impractical to reside in. Cindy Lou Who is likeable enough as well, though I found her plight too conventional for a Christmas story to the point that it’s boring. When Grinch isn’t on the screen the picture really struggles to hold my attention.

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As a kid, it bothered me that the Grinch didn’t include a beard with his costume, but now that he has one I hate it.

Which wouldn’t be a huge problem if Grinch could carry his own film. He’s close, and I mentioned he’s likable, but I’m not sure he’s funny. To pad the film we’re shown his plans for stealing Christmas which occur over a few days and include the enlisting of a rather large reindeer named Fred. Fred provides some comedic relief alongside Max especially as he tries to work the gadgets in Grinch’s supervillain-like lair, but he’s not around for very long since Max is destined to pull the Grinch’s sleigh so when he leaves it almost feels like the film just wasted our time.

There’s also the Illumination feel projected onto this story. I don’t detest Illumination or anything, but their films all seem to possess things I do not like. There seems to be a drive by either the production company or parent company to make these films feel modern by using licensed music. This often leads to parody as well which I rarely find funny and only serves to date the films down the road. It’s also how you end up with a hip-hop rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” that just doesn’t work. Grinch’s home also feels too similar to that of Gru from Despicable Me as it’s filled with gadgets and gizmos befitting a mad scientist, though Grinch doesn’t display much aptitude for invention. On the plus side, Danny Elfman handled the film’s score and his style actually works well with a non-creepy Christmas movie. I almost didn’t know it was him until one point in the movie that is unmistakably Elfman.

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In addition to that stress eating gag, the early parts of the film featuring the Grinch just being a jerk to everyone in town is pretty great.

When it comes to The Grinch, I’m a bit conflicted. It looks fine, and the story is okay, but it didn’t leave me feeling much of anything. I didn’t yearn for the film to end like I did the 2000 film, nor was I hoping it would go on. I also can’t say I have much of a desire to revisit it making me doubt I’ll be adding this to my Christmas rotation. Not that it’s my decision, as my kids seems to enjoy it so I may be stuck with it as long as it’s on Netflix. As long as they don’t refuse to watch the ’67 special, I suppose I can live with it.

Which basically leads us back to where we were for so many years. Growing up, I was content to have my Grinch in book form and cartoon form and I think I’m fine with leaving the character there. I think both films made an honest effort to adapt the venerable story for movie theaters and the steps both took to lengthen the story were logical, just not always entertaining. And now that we have both a live-action film and an animated one, I don’t foresee anyone else attempting to bring the Grinch to the big screen anytime soon. The Grinch ended up making half a billion dollars at the box office so maybe we’re not done with the character and they’ll bring him back in another story, but probably not in a conventional sequel. For now, if you’re looking to welcome the Grinch into your home this holiday season, just stick with the book and Chuck Jones special.


Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman

mystery of the batwomanOriginal Release Date:  October 21, 2003

Directed by:  Curt Geda, Jennifer Graves (Sequences), Tim Maltby (Sequences)

Written by: Alan Burnett, Michael Reaves, Paul Dini (Chase Me)

Animation:  DR Movie Ltd., Warner Bros. Animation (Chase Me)

Running Time:  75 minutes

The final episode of The New Batman Adventures aired on January 16, 1999. “Mad Love” was the chosen finale and it came more than two months after the preceding episode (Beware the Creeper). It was a bit of an inauspicious end to Batman: The Animated Series, not because the episode wasn’t great (it most certainly was), but that it was never written to be the finale. The staff for the show assumed another episode order was bound to happen, but it never did. Instead, Warner Bros. wanted to try something different. Seeing rival comic company Marvel having success with its younger characters and perhaps fearing Batman’s aura was damaged by the flop Batman & Robin, Warner had the braintrust on the series come up with a new, younger, Batman. That became Batman Beyond which premiered the same month The New Batman Adventures came to an end.

Batman Beyond would produce 52 episodes and a single film coming to a close in 2001. That obviously wasn’t the end for DC Animated productions as team-focused shows would follow. For some reason, Warner decided to revisit Batman: The Animated Series in 2003 with the direct-to-video Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman. From an artistic perspective, there’s never a bad reason to do a Batman film, especially one set in this much beloved universe. From a business end, it’s a bit unclear why this film exists. Following the show’s conclusion, there were a few video games produced including one in 2003, Rise of Sin Tzu, but I can’t see Warner commissioning a new film to promote a video game. My best guess is this was just a little something to keep Batman in the minds of fans as the company was preparing to bring the Caped Crusader back to theaters in 2005 with Batman Begins. It also allowed those who worked on the show to explore a period in time not touched on previously, namely the gap in time between the end of The New Batman Adventures and the death of Joker as explored in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.

batwoman wave

Batwoman is the latest vigilante to wind-up in Gotham

Whatever the reason may be, it’s certainly not a bad thing to have more Batman set in this universe. Mystery of the Batwoman, as the title implies, is a mystery tale with the subject being a new vigilante in Gotham, Batwoman. If that sounds too similar to Mask of the Phantasm well then let me point out right away that Batwoman is not a homicidal vigilante getting Batman in trouble. The plots are different enough and the mystery is sound. It’s also preceded on most releases with an animated short titled Chase Me. It’s pretty interesting to see a short subject set in this universe as one had never been done before, even though it would have made a lot of sense to pair the theatrically released Mask of the Phantasm with one. It’s a cute little piece of animation though done in-house at Warner in which Batman chases Catwoman through Gotham. It contains no voice acting and is mostly just a visual treat. It’s been included on basically every release of this film and is worth checking out.

Chase Me runs about five minutes long and its title says it all. When Bruce is shown out of his element at a ball being held at Wayne Enterprises, he slips away from his many suitors and retreats to his office only to find Catwoman robbing him. He gives chase as Batman as the two traverse the city of Gotham winding up at a zoo. Along the way there’s a cameo from Bullock and Batman does battle with some big cats. It ends with Catwoman cornered and she makes her usual play of appealing to Batman in only a way she can. At first he rebuffs her, but then moves in for a long, lingering, kiss as the police arrive. He then gives her a smile and leaves with the sack of money she swiped. She thinks he’s letting her go, but she soon realizes he handcuffed her to a gate. It then returns to the shot it began on with Bruce staring forlornly at the city from the ball implying it was all a fantasy as a blond woman taps him on the shoulder to lead him back to the party.

chase me end

Chase Me is brief, but fun.

Chase Me contains no dialogue and is set to an original piece of music. It’s uncharacteristic in nature for the series as it contains elements of jazz and has an obvious Latin flavor to it. It works for the romantic and seductive parts, but not so much for the action bits. The designs for the characters are taken from The New Batman Adventures, which is a bit of a shame as I don’t care for this take on Catwoman. Otherwise though it’s pretty entertaining and provides a little window into Bruce’s mind and what really gets him going.

The actual film, Mystery of the Batwoman, is a procedural mystery. It quickly tasks Batman (Kevin Conroy) with uncovering who Batwoman (Kyra Sedgwick) is, even by having her simply tell him to figure it out when the two first meet. It’s a mostly Batman affair, with a dash of Robin who is slightly older (and now voiced by Eli Marienthal) from when we last saw him. Barbara pops in only briefly to phone Bruce about this new person in Gotham stealing her gimmick and Nightwing is never mentioned.

batman robin batwoman

Batman and Robin will cross paths with Batwoman, but if you were hoping to hear from Batgirl and Nightwing then you’ll be disappointed.

Batwoman is targeting a weapons ring organized by The Penguin (David Ogden Stiers) and Rupert Thorne (John Vernon, making his first appearance since Season Two of BTAS). They’ve hired Carlton Duquesne (Kevin Michael Richardson) to provide security for their operation and when Batwoman proves to be too much for him they bring on Bane (Hector Elizondo). Batman, for his part, is mostly concerned with Batwoman and what her motives are.

kathy duquesne

Kathy Duquesne is suspect number 1. She’ll also have a bit of a romantic fling with Bruce Wayne.

These sort of mysteries are often undone because the list of suspects is often small and limited to whoever is new. Mystery of the Batwoman is prepared for that by introducing three candidates for the role of Batwoman. And to make it harder, they all have different voice actresses including Batwoman herself. The first introduced is the daughter of Carlton, Kathy Duquesne (Kimberly Brooks) who carries a grudge against her father and his choice of work as it was his profession that got her mother killed years before the events of the film. She also has the added wrinkle of being named Kathy Duquesne, with her last name pronounced as “Do Kane,” making her name very similar to Kathy Kane, the name of Batwoman in the comics.

rocky and tim

Rocky works for Bruce, but seems to form more of a connection with Tim than her boss.

The second suspect is an employee of Wayne Tech by the name of Rocky Ballantine (Kelly Ripa). She’s invented a metal that can be programmed to take whatever shape she wants it to, which is pitched to the board of Wayne Enterprises and then utilized by Batwoman in an attack on The Penguin later. She also has the added motivation of wanting get back at Penguin for he framed her fiancé sending him to jail for 9 years.

bullock sonia

Bullock has a new partner in Sonia leaving Montoya out in the cold.

The third is Bullock’s new assistance, Sonia Alcana (Elisa Gabrielli), who is a dead-ringer for Elektra from the Cowboy Bebop movie. She may be a cop now, but she lost her home and her parents’ business to a fire started by Rupert Thorne. Batman saved her, but she and her family lost everything and to make it worse, Thorne escaped prosecution.

All three women will cross paths with either Bruce Wayne or Batman, with Kathy serving as a romantic interest as well. It’s engaging to watch Batman search for clues and even run into apparent dead ends as he focuses on one girl, then is forced to consider another. The film actually reveals who Batwoman is by the end of the second act leaving the third to contain mostly action as Batman is forced to basically save the villains from Batwoman while also facing off with Bane. There’s a bit of a twist to the mystery, but it works and I mostly enjoyed what the film gave me.

rupert thorne tnba

Rupert Thorne makes his first appearance since the second season of the show. He has some new card gimmick for some reason in which he’s always fidgeting with playing cards.

Continuity wise, this film tries to address some of the things opened up by Batman Beyond, but commits to very little. When Barbara calls Bruce from college, it’s clear she harbors a romantic interest in him that he is uncomfortable dealing with. Such was implied by Barbara in Batman Beyond, and it’s odd to see Bruce basically ghosting before the term was invented. I would have liked to see more of this subplot, but it basically amounts to a tease. The end of the film provides a plausible explanation for what happened to Penguin and Thorne, though there’s little there that’s definitive. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but the ending for Bane makes it appear as if he perished, which is somewhat odd considering he’s one of the few villains from this era to show up in Batman Beyond. I suppose it’s possible this is meant to be his final encounter with Batman.

The animation for this feature was handled by DR Movie Co., LTD. in what is its first opportunity to work on this series. The company did do work for The Zeta Project and would go on to do work for Justice League Unlimited. It adheres to the visual look of The New Batman Adventures with little embellishment. One welcomed return is the use of the Dark Deco look for certain exterior shots of Gotham which hadn’t been seen since the first two seasons of BTAS. The level of violence in the show is possibly less than what was present at times in The New Batman Adventures and there doesn’t appear to be any increase in budget for the feature over a traditional episode. The animation itself is good in places, and poor in others. When Kathy is introduced, for example, she’s supposed to have a sexy sway to her as she walks, but the character looks bendy instead. There’s also spots where the camera zooms in on an image that really isn’t detailed enough for the look. And since this was released in 2003, it’s formatted for a 4:3 picture as HD television sets had yet to really take over even though it was created in 1.78:1.

batwomans gilider

Batwoman gets to have fun zooming around on a glider like she’s some Spider-Man villain.

The character designs are basically all the same as what we saw in The New Batman Adventures. The only new character is Batwoman and her costume looks like a silver version of the Batman Beyond costume, but with a cape and different colored boots and gloves. She rides around on a giant glider that looks like the oversized glider Hobgoblin utilized in the Spider-Man animated series, only Batwoman chooses to kneel on it rather than stand. It’s also reminiscent of the glider utilized by Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and it would not surprise me if that was an inspiration for the device.

batwoman penguin

A lot of people have an issue with Penguin in this one, including me as I don’t like his new voice.

Andrea Romano is back to handle the voice casting duties and she was able to return most of the voices we’re familiar with. In addition to Kevin Conroy as Batman, Bob Hastings returns to voice Commissioner Gordon and Robert Costanzo is at his side as Detective Bullock. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. is also back to give voice to Bruce’s trusty butler, Alfred and he gets to be as cheeky as always. Eli Marienthal takes over as Robin and this is the only time he voices the character while Hector Elizondo takes over for Henry Silva as Bane. I’m not sure why Silva did not reprise the role of Bane, but Elizondo does fine. In what is a bit of a controversial move, Paul Williams was replaced by David Ogden Stiers as the voice of The Penguin. I do not mean this as an insult to the memory of Mr. Stiers, but my reaction to his Penguin is not favorable. Stiers uses his Cogsworth voice from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and I do not understand the motivation behind the change. Bruce Timm has stated that writer/producer Alan Burnett felt the character needed more of a “mob boss” type of voice, but I don’t understand how this voice is superior to Williams’ performance given that direction. Timm has been too polite to say what most fans probably felt, but I think he agrees with the sentiment that Williams should have returned.

cherie

The musician Cherie gets to have a cameo in the Iceberg Lounge.

Lolita Ritmanis handled the score for the film. It makes use of Shirley Walker’s Batman theme while also going off and doing it’s own thing. There’s liberal use of a saxophone in the opening segment almost giving this film a Lupin feel at times. Once it gets going, the score largely blends in with the rest of the BTAS feel, though it’s certainly distinctive on its own. The only exception being the use of the licensed track “Betcha Neva” by Cherie, which was taken from her debut album. The song is played during a part that takes place inside Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge with Cherie essentially voicing the performer who is singing the song, even though it’s just her track that’s played. The sequence feels a bit odd for the film, but it does feature some of the best animation in the film in a brief shot of patrons dancing. The song is returned for the closing credits. It gives the film more of a feature feel to it, but in that inauthentic sort of way a lot of features are guilty of when bringing something from television to the big screen.

Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman is ultimately an entertaining ride. The 75 minutes runtime is appropriate for the story, and while it could have held onto the mystery a touch longer, it handles that aspect of the plot well. There’s some solid action pieces, but the presentation is very much in line with what the show produced making it a little disappointing in that regard. And while it seemed to promise a willingness to address some of the things left unexplained in between The New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond, it ultimately revealed very little making the whole thing feel very inconsequential. It’s less a grand finale for the show as it apparently just wanted to give fans a chance to live in this world one final time. And if that is all it was going for then it turned out fine. It’s not at all comparable to Mask of the Phantasm, but it’s comparable in quality to SubZero.

bane carlton

This film may or not may not depict Batman’s final confrontation with Bane.

Unfortunately, Mystery of the Batwoman was basically the lone holdout when Batman: The Animated Series was released as a Blu Ray set in 2018. The entire television series plus the other two films were included, but this one was strangely left out. It’s even odder because the film was already available on Blu Ray so it’s not as if it needed a new transfer. Perhaps there were licensing issues due to the Cherie song as it’s odd to leave this, and Chase Me, out of that set. Nonetheless, if you wish to view it yourself you have options. The film was released on both DVD and Blu Ray and it’s also available for paid streaming. The DVD, which I have, is old enough that it came in a snapback case and contains satisfactory visuals. There are some odd scanlines on parts of the image and I’m curious if that is corrected on the HD release. Neither is particularly expensive, so if you wish to own it (and if you already own the entire series you might as well) I’d say go for the Blu Ray as it’s likely a little better to look at and is probably presented in the proper aspect ratio.

This essentially wraps up our look at the complete Batman: The Animated Series. This blog is about to switch over to The Christmas Spot so it’s also the last Batman content for a little while. I will be back in the new year to share my thoughts on the series as a whole before moving onto one of my favorite exercises – ranking! Yes, after viewing all 109 episodes we need to decide which is the best the series produced. And following that, I’m not sure where this blog will take me. Batman Beyond is out there and certainly in play, but after 112 weeks of Batman coverage I may need to take a little break from the guy for a bit.

 


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