It was nearly 6 months ago that NECA unveiled one of its newest licenses for 2021: Gargoyles! I was incredibly pumped at the time to see that NECA had acquired Gargoyles because the license had so much potential. The show was basically a cult hit in the 90s often characterized as Disney’s answer to Batman: The Animated Series, but Gargoyles truly was its own thing. Rooted in Shakespearian lore with a fantastic backstory, the time-displaced clan of mythical creatures found themselves the protectors of New York City from enemies both current and from the past. And if you’re going to start a line of action figures based on Gargoyles, well, who else are you going to start with other than Goliath?
When NECA unveiled the license acquisition they showed off Goliath with it. The midnight post on Twitter showcased the fearsome creature and the direction the line would head. He was available to preorder the next day with a July release date attached, which slipped to August, to September. That’s 2021 for you, but after a really not so long wait all things considered, I’ve finally managed to secure a Goliath action figure from my local Target.
Goliath is a big boy and he comes in a big box. The Ultimates styled packaging from NECA is bigger than even the Chrome Dome box. It has less to do with the figure’s height and everything to do with those wings. The front of the box features some artwork of Goliath which I believe is stock as it looks rather familiar while product shots can be found on the back and interior. The back also has a bio of the series that surprisingly is not the same as the narration from Keith David that was attached to the second season’s intro, though it’s in the same vein.
The packaging is fine, but what I’m after is that figure inside. Freeing Goliath from his confines is rather painless as there is not an abundance of ties on him. Once out he’ll need to have his tail and wings attached. Figuring out how tall he is isn’t straight-forward since gargoyles have unique lower, leg, anatomy. With his knees bent in his natural standing posture he’s about seven and a half inches tall. His anatomy is sculpted in a more realistic manner than the cartoon. His flesh features veins and thick muscles. It’s cast in a very light shade of purple, almost gray, with a darker purple paint wash over it to really bring out the musculature. The wash is used more liberally on the face to darken around the eyes and lips. His default expression is a stern one with visible pupils that definitely reads as “Goliath.” The belt and loincloth he wears are cast in a soft plastic so they’re quite flexible. The only place the wash isn’t visible is on the tail which is done in a rubber material so that it can bend. It looks rather plain in comparison to the rest of the figure, but it’s always going to be behind him so it’s not something I take issue with. The finer painted details, like the eyes and claws, are all clean. Overall, this is a striking figure in-hand.
Let’s talk about those wings though, for a second. They’re huge! They measure 20.5″ from tip to tip when spread out so this guy will need a big shelf. They’re made of a very rigid plastic, likely ABS, and painted purple and black. The membrane inside the wings is well-sculpted and the detail shows in natural light. Even though the plastic is a bit lighter than some others, they still add considerable weight to the figure and, combine that with their size, will just be a constant battle when posing the figure. In terms of making wings that look good, I’m not sure NECA could have done much better. Bendy wings would have probably too resembled one of those Halloween store rubber bats, and fabric wings would have clashed with the looks of the rest of the figure. What people will miss with these though, is just an alternative. They’re great for dramatic posing, but not for casual or even hand-to-hand combat poses. Goliath could use some partially folded wings, though what I see most requested are the folded, “cape,” styled wings the character would often sport with the two claws at the peak of the wings crossed under his chin and clasped together. NECA likely knows this, but didn’t want to jack up the cost too high on a new IP. Hopefully, something like that follows in the future, and when it does, may I suggest they use the same material that they used for the cape on Shadow Master Super Shredder?
Okay, wing talk is complete, for now, so let’s talk articulation. Goliath’s head sits on a ball-peg. It’s not a particularly large ball though, and he doesn’t have articulation at the base of the neck. Combine that with his long, sculpted, hair and wings and you end up with a head that can’t do much. He can look forward and straight down okay and there’s a little tilt too. Rotation is a challenge due to the hair which will interfere with the wings, but if you work at it you can get him to look to either side. It just may require removing a wing, turning the head, and reinserting it. At the shoulder we have ball-hinges and he can almost raise his arms to a horizontal position. The shape, and slope, of his shoulders prevents him from raising his arms out to the side any higher, but he can rotate forward and back just fine. Past that is the biceps swivel and double-jointed elbows which all work fine. The hands peg in and feature hinges, though the right hand on my figure is very loose. The hand hasn’t fallen out, but it takes minimal effort to do so. In the diaphragm is a ball-joint that gives the figure some tilt and rotation. He can even crunch forward a decent amount. There’s a waist twist below that and the new styled double-ball leg joints sit below that.
In the legs, things get interesting. Goliath has the usual thigh twist, but below that is a single-hinged knee. It can bend back to about 90 degrees, but it can also swivel. It looks to just peg in to the thigh, and I like how the knee cap is sculpted over it. At the ankle, we get the usual hinge and rocker and then beyond that is a toe hinge. Gargoyles have interesting anatomy in that they basically stand on their toes. There’s some slight twist, or rocker, action to the toes, but I can’t tell if that’s intentional or just some play in the joint. They need to be tight though, and they pretty much are, though nothing was overtight on my figure. At the tail, there’s a peg and a hinge so you can move that thing all over the place. It can kind of help with getting the figure to stand, though it’s not really strong enough to help out as much as I’d like. The wings peg into the figure’s back and they’re actually hidden a bit by the hair, which is nice. They can rotate and also feature a hinge that’s ratcheted. It makes an awfully scary noise when positioning it, but they seem fine. Because they’re wide open, there isn’t a whole lot of versatility to them, but at least you have some options, particularly if you go with a flying pose.
Achieving such a pose though has proven to be a challenge. Standing Goliath is not easy. There’s just enough looseness to his thighs and knees that the weight of his wings pulls him back and the tail doesn’t help out much. I did have some success using two NECA disc stands as each foot has a peg hole. What I hoped to use though was a flight stand. I only have tried two, a SHF stand and a NECA one, and neither worked. The SHF stand features a crotch piece which just doesn’t fit Goliath while the NECA one was rather frustrating because there’s very little range in the actual “grabber” piece. I at least got him into that one, but he looked stupid. What I didn’t try was the stand that came with the video game Baxter, but since Goliath can’t look straight ahead for a true flying pose (technically, gliding, as Goliath would remind me) I didn’t bother. I have a MAFEX stand and a Bring Arts one, but I feel both won’t be able to handle the weight. I’ll have to look elsewhere for something that works, or hang the figure from the ceiling with fishing line or something.
Goliath, likely owing to his size and NECA’s desire to keep the price down as much as possible, comes with just a handful of accessories. He comes packaged with two, open, style-posed hands that he can swap for fists. There’s also another left hand that’s more of a gripping hand which works well for his included book. There’s no title on the book, but it appears to match the one he read on werewolves from the series. He also has a jalapeno pepper, which is basically an in-joke for fans. Lastly, there’s a second head. When I first saw this figure unveiled, I figured NECA would go with a faceplate system to change expressions, but he actually has a whole, new, head. The hair is the same, but the face is a more fearsome, yelling, expression with blank eyes. I think, given the limited wing options, I’ll display Goliath with this face instead of the calm one, but both look great. The alternate head is well-painted and well-sculpted with each individual tooth brought out.
The accessory count is low, but Goliath isn’t really a character screaming for a lot of accessories. The optional left hand works just fine with the included book and pepper and he can be positioned with it in a fairly convincing manner, should you wish. He’s a bit limited in terms of more fearsome posing. Take the picture on the front of the box, that crouched pose isn’t really one he can do. He also can’t do the on-all-fours pose the gargoyles sometimes assume in the show. At the very least, he would need some neck articulation to pull that off. This isn’t terribly surprising though as NECA always prioritizes the aesthetics of their figures over posing. And I’m largely in agreement with that approach, though I do think they can do better here. I would like to see them figure out how to get a true gliding pose as well. They could possibly do so with neck articulation, or with different hair-shapes or even a hinge in the hair.
Goliath is a good first effort from NECA for Gargoyles. I don’t think he’s quite the homerun that I had hoped he would be, but I think some of that will be addressed in time. The limited wings makes him feel like he’s not really an “Ultimate” edition of the character, but if I’m right and that’s a product of NECA keeping costs down, then maybe that will change in the future. NECA indicated the response to Goliath was beyond their expectations so the fanbase is there and I’m willing to bet its willing to spend a bit more to get more. The only real issue is, with costs soaring across the industry, will NECA be comfortable charging $40 or $50 for a figure in this line? That remains to be seen. For now, we’ve only seen the next two releases: Demona and Thailog. Both appear to have one set of wings so it may be awhile before we see something else. Finding a home for this line is going to be a challenge, but it’s a challenge I’m ready to welcome. I’m all-in on Gargoyles, so NECA, keep ’em coming!
What is it with the X-Men film franchise and its aversion to simple titles? We couldn’t just have X-Men 2, we had to have X2. The third film was billed as X-Men: The Last Stand in some places, but the theatrical poster seemed to imply it was X3: The Last Stand. At least the reboot films seemed to rectify this with X-Men: First Class followed by X-Men: Days of Future Past, but now we have just Dark Phoenix. Not X-Men: Dark Phoenix, but Dark Phoenix. Just in case you were confused though, at least the theatrical poster circled the “X” in Phoenix, but why not just keep things nice and simple?
Dark Phoenix is the 2019 film that marks the end of the X-Men film franchise as we know it. It’s been an interesting, confusing, frustrating, and sometimes thrilling ride. The franchise took off in 2000 with X-Men, and arguably peaked with the sequel. The third film was a let down, and then we had some solo Wolverine outings with one being terrible and the other acceptable, plus a sort of prequel, reboot, in 2011. X-Men: First Class turned me off initially, but once I finally gave it a chance I was forced to concede it was at least a fun film. I just didn’t really like how it tried to be both a reboot and a prequel to the original film and felt it would have been better to just commit to one. Apparently, the studio saw this as an issue too so Days of Future Past in 2014 basically served as the sequel to First Class and as the true reboot for the franchise as the time-traveling original heroes changed history and likely inadvertently erased basically everything that happened in the original trilogy. Confused? I suppose you should be, but at the end of the day, it just meant we were truly were dealing with two distinct sets of films that just both happened to be about the X-Men.
The sequels/reboots ended up being a lot of fun, but things took a turn in the third film, X-Men: Apocalypse. That one was a mess and was a textbook example of what not to do when telling an X-Men story. The villain was just an all-powerful being with no subtext. I likened Apocalypse to a natural disaster in my review of that film and I stand by that. He was a foe that just was; there was no getting away from him or around him or reasoning with him, he just had to be endured. The cast basically exploded which meant we had a bunch of new faces and not enough time to get to know any of them. It was almost as if the film depended on people knowing who these characters were and establishing a connection based off of that and not by what was presented onscreen. Given that, the obvious next step was to tell a story entirely dependent upon the audience caring about these new characters – what could go wrong?
Apocalypse made enough money that a fourth film was commissioned: Dark Phoenix. The Dark Phoenix Saga is perhaps the most famous X-Men story ever told. Crafted by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, The Dark Phoenix Saga unfolded in the pages of Uncanny X-Men spanning 8 issues in 1980. Some would argue the story began earlier with Uncanny X-Men #101 which began the story of Phoenix way back in 1976. In essence, this was a story that unfolded over parts of 5 years, so is it any wonder that other versions of the X-Men have struggled to match the original story?
Probably the best adaptation of The Phoenix Saga and Dark Phoenix Saga is in the animated series X-Men. That show devoted basically 10 episodes to the event and had given us multiple seasons before that to develop a connection to the characters in the show. When the X-Men originally went to film, we had at least had two films to connect with characters Jean Grey and Cyclops, only Cyclops was basically written out of the sequel and quickly killed off at the beginning of the third. Oops! At least The Last Stand had the Wolverine/Jean dynamic and the Xavier/Jean relationship to fall back on, but it was sloppy with the Phoenix character taking a backseat to Magneto for large stretches of the film.
In the waning moments of Apocalypse, the film started dropping hints that Phoenix was next so I was not surprised to find out that Dark Phoenix was in development, but I immediately expected failure. Once again, a film was jumping over The Phoenix Saga and going straight to Dark Phoenix, only this time, the title character was one no on cared about. The film had a lengthy development cycle due in the part to director/screenwriter Bryan Singer getting fired for being a sexual predator and the studio having enough issues with first-time director Simon Kinberg’s final act that they sent the whole crew back for reshoots. The release date got kicked around as the film would basically become akin to a lame duck president since rumors were flying, and would later come to fruition, that Disney was purchasing 20th Century Fox which would bring an end to the X-Men film franchise. The film was finally released in June 2019 and it bombed. If Wikipedia can be believed, it would eventually make more than its budget, but that probably doesn’t factor in marketing costs so it’s possible the studio lost money, though it’s certainly likely that it did not realize a substantial profit.
The poor reception to the film is why my review has taken more than two years to arrive. I’ve simply been unwilling to spend money to watch it, so I waited for it to finally show up on a streaming platform I was already subscribed to. I will come right out and say it: this movie is not good. I was hoping that maybe for a longtime fan of the X-Men, it would work on a basic level for me and I could have some fun with it despite its flaws. Instead, I found little to enjoy.
For starters, the script and screenplay are poor. Characters are given lines riddled with clichés. One can practically predict every word about to come out of a character’s mouth in a given situation and it just feels like amateur hour. Despite the poor script, some actors are able to rise to the occasion. Sophie Turner, who plays the title character, received poor marks for her performance in Apocalypse, but here she redeems herself. Yes, the movie does her few favors, but she performs as well as could be expected. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to be pleasant as Professor Xavier and Magneto, respectively, though the latter’s appearance felt especially shoe-horned this time around. Just like with Apocalypse, Magneto is basically just to hear to clearly demonstrate that another being is more powerful than him. Nicholas Hoult is fine as Beast/Hank McCoy, but that’s basically it. Jennifer Lawrence continues to underwhelm as Raven/Mystique which is partly due to the character being underserved by the role while Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler) and Alexandra Shipp (Storm) are treated more like tools than characters. Jessica Chastain, who reportedly turned down numerous offers to appear in a “superhero” film before, plays the villain Vuk and it’s truly puzzling that this is the role she finally accepted. She must have owed someone a favor or just really likes Kinberg because the role is terrible.
The plot of the film basically tries to adapt portions of both The Phoenix Saga and Dark Phoenix Saga. When the film begins, Xavier is basically a celebrity with direct access to the President of the United States and things are going well for mutants. It’s supposed to be set in the early 90s, but the period is not utilized in the least. When the X-Men are called upon to save a stranded space shuttle in the outer rim of Earth’s orbit, Jean Grey is exposed to a supernatural force and is forever changed. This causes a rift between Raven and Xavier, with Beast caught in the middle, over Xavier’s willingness to place his student’s in harm’s way to further his agenda while Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) is left to worry about his girlfriend, Jean, who is acting different. Things take a turn as Jean essentially becomes the Dark Phoenix character as we know her leading to tragedy and her fleeing the team. In the process, it’s discovered that Charles had used his own powers to hide traumatic memories of Jean’s when he took her in, and now those barriers are failing causing others on the team to question Xavier’s judgement and Jean to basically go out of control.
Complicating things further are the D’Bari, a race of shape-shifting beings made extinct by The Phoenix Force before it ever encountered Jean. Their leader, Vuk, wants to take control of the Phoenix which now rests in Jean, and in order to do so needs to become her ally. Along the way Magneto will be pulled in and Xavier will be forced to reassess what the X-Men stand for. It’s a mess of a plot that both asks us to care about characters we barely know and is also afraid to actually put a lot on the shoulders of these characters. A lot of what happens, particularly with Magneto, feels like the film just padding out its length. Once again, Magneto is presented as being in a state of peace, but then immediately goes back to being a tool of vengeance. It’s ridiculous what the past two films have tried to do with the character and the only silver lining is that Michael Fassbender continues to be terrific in the role. The presence of the D’Bari is essentially taking the place of the Hellfire Club from the comic, and not the Shi’ar, as Vuk tries to coerce Jean into being an ally in order to take control of the Phoenix Force. The film isn’t really interested in explaining this cosmic entity; does it just function like a power amplifier or is it in control? It’s basically just there to give Vuk a motivation and a reason to exist, albeit a flimsy one. The film would have functioned in the same fashion if Vuk just wanted to use Jean like a weapon, as Magneto had done in The Last Stand, and the Phoenix entity was just something that existed inside her character.
Dragging the film further down into the mire are the special effects and action pieces. The effects are not bad, just not interesting. It’s a lot of characters just putting their hands up and CG taking over to add in some flames or lightning. The only interesting moment involves a subway car crashing up through a street, but it’s also a head-scratching moment as the character responsible didn’t really need to do that and it just looks like the film trying to show off. There’s no moment that made me say “Wow” and there’s no signature fight scene either. The final battle is one of the film’s most underwhelming moments. The costumes at least look okay. Beast still looks kind of dumb, but a lot of that has to do with the character’s design and not the makeup effects being utilized. This one, like the previous film, does draw attention to how the franchise loves blue characters as we have the blue Beast, Nightcrawler, and Mystique making up half of the X-Men. The franchise is finally confident to give the team a comic-inspired uniform, but still not willing to give other characters a cool, fun, look. Jean, as Dark Phoenix, just wears street clothes throughout this one and Magneto apparently lost his threads between films.
Dark Phoenix is not a good film and a whimper for the franchise. Technically, the final X-Men adjacent film is last year’s The New Mutants, another film fraught with delays and reshoots that ultimately did not pan out. It’s a shame that a cartoon in the early 90s is still the best depiction of a classic comic story like The Dark Phoenix Saga and I wonder if the repeated failures will cause Disney to bypass it when X-Men finally enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a shame, because it’s really not a hard story to adapt, it’s just one that needs time. It’s not a one-movie deal, it has to be cultivated across films and, most importantly, they need to be films that actually respect the characters. Marvel has proven it can create a team and have the audience care about it, and I don’t mean The Avengers. That was obviously a different animal where most of the characters got stand-alone films first, but Guardians of the Galaxy did not go that route and found a way to make us love the characters on that team. I do suspect that when it comes time to onboard the X-Men that we’ll meet someone like Xavier in a different film before being properly introduced to the full team. And it’s possible we’ll meet other characters prior to that as well. It wouldn’t be hard to slip Storm into whatever comes next for the Black Panther and Wolverine can fit in almost anywhere. That’s a whole other subject though. For now, the X-Men film franchise that began in 2000 is over. It had its ups and downs, but it’s also a big reason why we have the superhero genre today. It was immensely important and I’m glad it exists even if it has many flaws. It’s unfortunate it didn’t get a better send-off, but I think of Days of Future Past as the true bookend and that film is great. And if not, well Logan is possibly the best superhero movie ever and also would be a fine end. Dark Phoenix just happened to be the movie that came last.
The 1970s was a transition period for the world of feature length animation. Walt Disney’s death had left a leadership void at Disney which was exacerbated by the passing of Roy Disney in 1971. With the Disney brothers no longer at the head of operations, the company turned to Donn Tatum, the first non-Disney family member to head the company. It was during this era that the animators on staff started to feel like the company no longer prioritized the art of animation the way it had under the Disney brothers. It probably didn’t help that the decade began with the release of The Aristocats, one of the least celebrated Disney animated features to date. Because of a sense of stifled creativity, a group of animators staged a walk out lead by Don Bluth. He along with animators Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy, and several others left the company during production on The Fox and the Hound and Don Bluth Productions was born. Seeking to emulate the classic style of early Disney works, Bluth and his associates set out to making features as quickly as possible. They found a partner in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and a story in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. They knew what they wanted to do, but the hard part would be making it all happen.
The tale of Mrs. Frisby had been brought to Bluth’s attention by fellow animator Ken Anderson while working at Disney. Try as he might though, he just couldn’t get Disney to bite on it. And there was some solid reasoning behind that as animation director Wolfgang Reitherman cited the recent release of The Rescuers as being too similar to the tale of Mrs. Frisby and her fantastic rat friends. When Bluth left Disney, the story went with him and it was the book he turned to first when it came time to prove that feature length animation could flourish outside the House of Mouse. Working outside of Disney though meant a lower budget and a shorter schedule which necessitated Bluth and staff to work ungodly hours on the feature. And a certain company that popularized a flying disc necessitated a name change of the titular character of Mrs. Frisby to Mrs. Brisby.
I was in the fifth grade when the story of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was introduced to me. I was a kid who liked to take shortcuts when it came to academics. I was fortunate that most subjects came easily to me, but it did stifle my intellectual curiosity as a result. When it came to independent reading, I just recycled junk I had been reading for years that my new teachers wouldn’t necessarily be aware of. Eventually, my teacher, Mrs. Roy (who remains my favorite teacher ever), wrote a note in my report card that I needed to read more challenging books. I really had no desire to honor the request, but also had little choice in the matter so I simply asked one of my friends if he got the same edict. When he confirmed he did not, I asked what he had been reading that she seemed to approve of and he directed me to the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I read it and thought it was good enough to read the sequel when I was finished. Better yet, my teacher left me alone when it came to my independent reading assignments. At the time I read it, it was the early 90s and I had no idea a film had been made out of the story a decade earlier. I think I just happened upon it one night at the local video rental store and asked my mom if we could rent it, so we did!
Ever since seeing The Secret of NIMH I have thought of it very little. I think I liked it, but it clearly didn’t leave a mark. The book really didn’t leave a lasting impression either, though I can say it did stick in my head far better than the sequel of which I remember nothing but the title. In my house though, Saturday is movie night and we alternate who picks the movie each week among the members of my family and when the choice falls to me I like to find things that my kids haven’t seen and will hopefully enjoy. That’s how this film popped up on my radar recently, so out I went (safely) to a nearby media store and found a used DVD release of the film for a mere five dollars. It’s certainly not a great DVD release as it only has a full screen option, but it was an opportunity to see this film again and show it to my kids for the first time and I’m still not willing to digitally rent things. I’m just weird like that.
The Secret of NIMH tells the tale of the widow Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), a field mouse, and her quest to save her ailing son Timothy (Ian Fried) from a bout of pneumonia. The illness itself isn’t necessarily the threat, it’s the fact that the harvest season has arrived and Mrs. Brisby and her family need to vacate their current home for the farmer’s tractor will soon level it. Unfortunately, Timothy is too sick to be moved so Mrs. Brisby is forced to turn to the Rats of NIMH for help. The rats are a colony that lives in a nearby rose bush and they possess intelligence seemingly beyond that of man. It’s all the result of once being lab rats. Throughout the film viewers are introduced to a small portion of their various members and their wonderous home while also learning about their past and their relationship with Brisby’s deceased husband. Internal strife also exists within the ranks of the rats which will pose a problem for Mrs. Brisby and her family.
The story is quite brisk and uncomplex as it moves along during its 82 minute runtime. Mrs. Brisby basically has a problem and receives advice from one source to go to another, who then sends her to another, and so on. It’s easy for a child to follow and Brisby is a likeable and empathetic lead. She is joined, at times, by the crow Jeremy (Dom Deluise) who provides comic relief, while the seemingly ancient leader of the rats, Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), adds a little wonder to her supporting cast. The danger of the situation is illustrated clearly, and other dangers arise throughout the film. Since we’re largely dealing with a cast of mice and rats, expect a cat to play a role.
The story is cohesive, but what isn’t is the world created by O’Brien and added to by Bluth. The rats are said to possess human level intelligence, and perhaps more as their home is quite elaborate for something that exists in a bush. However, seemingly all of the animals (except the cat) possess incredible intelligence anyway making the rats seem less remarkable. Mrs. Brisby and her children all wear clothes and live in a home full of human comforts. They even use utensils and boil water for tea and such. A Bluth addition is the inclusion of magic. Bluth seems to think animated tales should contain elements of the fantastic like magic, so Nicodemus is now a wizard of some kind. He’s the first character we meet as he views Brisby through a magic looking glass and remarks how he has a talisman for her. No explanation is provided by the film for this magic or how Nicodemus and the Rats of NIMH came to possess it, but the talisman does at least serve a practical purpose of putting the power to save her family in Mrs. Brisby’s hands, quite literally. Movies don’t have to explain everything, of course. People seem willing to happily accept that Cinderella can communicate with animals and such in her Disney film, but this is also the type of film that does try to provide explanations for everything else, and hand-waving the concept of magic feels off as a result. It also forces a lot into the final five to ten minutes of the film. Animation is expensive and hard, so it’s no surprise to see this one clock in under 90 minutes, but it’s a film that would have benefited from more time. We barely get to know the rats and their inner conflict so the climax that conflict leads to doesn’t land like it should. Everything just sort of happens and as a viewer I was left feeling, “That was it? Huh.” My kids, on the other hand, fell asleep.
The Secret of NIMH isn’t as captivating or as enchanting as it probably would like to be, but what can’t be denied is the visual fidelity. The Secret of NIMH looked terrific in 1982, and by any standard it still does. I wish I had tracked down a Blu Ray version, but beggars can’t be choosers. Bluth and his fellow animators set out to emulate the early Disney style and they absolutely nailed it. Show this to someone who is just a casual animation viewer and they’ll probably mistake it as a forgotten Disney feature. The designs of the mice and rats are very reminiscent of The Rescuers and Cinderella, but absent those tell-tale Xerox lines from the Disney films of the 1970s. It’s gorgeous, and the more fantastic elements are captured with simple, effective, animation techniques. I may not have been fully engaged with the film’s plot, but the visuals definitely held my attention for the duration of the film.
Less celebrated is the soundtrack of Jerry Goldsmith. It is certainly capable, but not quite memorable. The same can be said for most of the Disney features from that era, so in that respect this one feels quite similar to what Bluth’s old place of work was outputting. The voice cast is plenty capable though and I very much enjoyed the late Elizabeth Hartman in her role as Mrs. Brisby. She brings a gentle confidence to the character and I imagine it’s quite similar to the voice I heard in my head when reading the book back in fifth grade. Dom DeLuise is good in his role as Jeremy, though I think the film thinks he’s funnier than he really is making him more of a distraction than true comic foil. The Rats of NIMH are all given rather regal and distinguished voices while Nicodemus is treated as an elderly wizard, a departure from the source material. It’s a cast that doesn’t contain many big names from the era, but it’s a professional cast more than capable of bringing these characters to life.
The Secret of NIMH is a triumph of animation with a somewhat forgettable story. That adds up to a solid viewing experience that provided movie-goers in 1982 with a glimpse of where Don Bluth was heading. He and his team of animators would go on to make better films, and worse ones, leaving The Secret of NIMH to serve as the appetizer of the Don Bluth feast. The film did eventually receive a sequel, but without any contribution from Bluth, which makes it similar to the book sequel which was not written by Robert O’Brien. I have never seen it, but it received a near universal negative reception upon release in 1998 as a direct-to-video feature. Which is fine, as this isn’t a film that cries out for a sequel. It’s quick, fairly tidy, and mostly beautiful and a perfect way to kill an hour and a half on a Saturday night.
I have coveted the Donald Duck figure from Hero Cross for a few years now. If you’re not familiar with the company, Hero Cross is a toy manufacturer based in Hong Kong that specializes in hybrid figures that utilize both plastic and metal. Their main line is called the Hybrid Metal Figuration series, or HMF for short. They have managed to accumulate a few different licenses for this line of figure, and one of those licenses happens to be Disney. For Disney, Hero Cross has mostly stuck with classic characters, but has also branched out to include Pixar. My main interest though lies in the ducks, and in particular, Donald.
Donald Duck, for as prolific a cartoon character as he is, doesn’t have a ton of action figures to turn to. The best ones are based on his appearance in Kingdom Hearts, but that’s not a franchise I have a ton of affection for. It’s fine, but my Donald is not a wizard. Phat Mojo did a Donald in its line of DuckTales action figures based on the relaunch of that series, but it was a short-lived line of figures and the company never got a chance to improve upon its initial offering. There is one in that Disney Infinity relic of a toyline that the Disney Store sells, but it’s not great. There was also a Donald action figures based on his appearance in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, but that was quite a long time ago now and that thing is lone gone. If you want a collector grade Donald Duck action figure right now, it’s basically Hero Cross or bust.
Hero Cross first released a Donald Duck action figure in either 2016 or 2017. Being that it’s a Hong Kong import, a licensed product, and it includes metal components, it wasn’t cheap. I kind of found out about it late when my options were sketchy eBay listings or ordering direct from Hero Cross, but shipping was going to make the figure cost well over $100 at the time. I reluctantly passed, and that didn’t help matters as the figure was eventually retired from production and it only grew more expensive. Then last summer I was sitting on my couch watching TV late at night when a Twitter post from the podcast DuckTalks alerted me to the fact that Hero Cross was taking pre-orders for a new version of its Donald figure. Dubbed a V2.0, this Donald Duck was going to largely be the same as the one previously released, only now it was going to come with three unique heads and rather than sculpt his hat onto them, the hat would be removable and attach via a magnet. I kind of didn’t care about the changes, I was just psyched to have another chance at this figure and I pounced on it. The cost was around $60 for the figure, plus around $30 to ship it from Hong Kong, so it wasn’t much cheaper than what I had passed on previously, but this time I had buyer’s remorse. I had to pay upfront, and then wait.
My Donald finally arrived in January of this year. The production cycle was a long one, but the shipping ended up being lightning quick since it was via FedEx Air. It left Hong Kong on a Thursday and was at my house in Massachusetts on the following Monday which is pretty incredible. Donald comes packaged in a simple, but effective, window box. It’s a royal blue with a Donald Duck logo done in orange. On the side of the packaging are product shots, one of which showcases Donald’s fancy new hat, and some licensing artwork on the back. It’s a no frills, but striking, box though it’s so small relative to the figure’s size that I don’t know how well it would display for a mint-in-box collector, but like most packaging these days, it’s pretty easy to reseal.
Donald Duck stands a little over 5 1/2″ tall. I was pretty surprised by how big he is. I kind of new how tall he was, but I also had avoided reviews and such because this line was completely new to me and I wanted the whole experience to reflect that. Not only is he a bit taller than I thought, he’s also just more substantial. I expected weight due to the metal, but he’s a thick duck. The metal parts appear to consist of the arms and legs. The head, hands, body, and feet are vinyl. It mixes pretty well, though the legs are definitely a lot shinier than the plastic feet. And with the metal there’s always a concern that paint will scratch or flake off and there is a tiny scratch in the knee joint on my figure’s left leg, but largely the paint looks pretty nice. Donald has a very round, smooth, head which is the biggest different from his initial release which featured an angry head that had some ruffled feathers. I obviously don’t have that figure, but based on images I’ve seen, that angry head is probably better than the rest so I kind of wish I had it, but it’s fine. This Donald does have an angry head too, but it’s smooth like the other two heads.
I think this Donald looks pretty nice, all things considered. I’m a little surprised with the sculpt of his shirt as the flap on the back of it is molded to the main part of the shirt. I would have expected it to be an actual flap and I think it would have looked better. Instead, it kind of reminds me of a Donald bath toy my kids used to have which was solid vinyl. He is depicted in the current licensing art colors, which as an old school Donald fan, is not my preference. That means he’s got a blue shirt and hat with gold buttons and trim and a red bowtie. I would have preferred a black bowtie, as that is what he usually wore in the classic shorts. I also would not have minded him in his comic black shirt. It’s not a big deal as this is definitely Donald Duck. The metal legs also do not hide the joints at all, so it is something you just have to get used to. It’s hard to argue with the end result though which is that this figure has a really strong base and he is not going to fall off of your shelf. The metal also gives him a high quality feel, which is necessary for a figure that retails for $60.
Being that Donald is a collector grade action figure, he features several points of articulation. Hero Cross totals it at 20 points, and it’s pretty substantial for a character with a unique body shape. Donald’s head sits on a simple ball pegs and it can move around quite well. He can look up, down, tilt, you name it. At least the default head (we’ll get to that). There is a joint at the base of the neck that provides a little more tilt, but it’s negligible. The shoulders are ball-jointed. He can raise his arms out to the side and rotate all around, but be aware of rub with the vinyl body. There’s a biceps swivel and a single hinge at the elbow allowing him to bend his arm 90 degrees. The hands are on pegs affixed to ball joints. There’s a hinge in there and they can rotate all around and tilt a bit in every direction. There’s a waist joint that appears to be a ball joint. It’s under the shirt and pretty generous, but again, I worry a little about the blue shirt rubbing the white vinyl lower body and leaving some smudges behind if manipulated a lot. The legs are a bit odd, since he is a duck, as they’re affixed via ball-joints, but they basically just swivel and tilt a little where the legs meet the body. There are single hinges and the feet are on ball-pegs so they can roll around all over the place. The metal gives him such a strong base that he can easily stand on one foot or simulate a walking pose as long as one foot is flat on a surface. He’s not terribly dynamic in his posing options, but that is more a limitation of the character’s shape than what Hero Cross did.
Donald comes with extra parts, but no real accessories aside form his hat. He has three heads: an open mouthed happy expression (default), a frowning expression, and a slight frown with his eyes looking left expression. Of the three, I definitely like the angry one the most as I think of Donald as just a grumpy, angry, character. Sadly, that head is the one that is the hardest to work with as the other two pop on and off with no issue, but the angry is super tight. Once on, it doesn’t really want to move much, but for a figure destined for a shelf it’s not a big deal. As for hands, Donald comes with a relaxed, open, left hand and a stiff, open, right hand (basically a hand wave). In the box are a pair of fists, a relaxed, open, right hand, and a pointing right hand. Missing is any kind of gripping hand, but in order to get those you had to get the box set release of Donald’s nephews. It’s a decent assortment that leaves room for improvement. A company like Bandai has taken to making the eyes swappable on its figures and that would be pretty neat with Donald. A more modular approach that allows eyes, bills, and such to swap is intriguing, but at least he doesn’t have any unsightly seams in his head. And Hero Cross is definitely going for as seamless an aesthetic as possible. The swappable hands make for some decent variety in the available poses, but there is a problem there that detracts from the figure.
And that’s they’re a pain to remove. And they’re such a pain, that mine broke not long after I opened it. I tried to remove the waving right hand he comes packaged with in favor of one of the others and it felt pretty snug. The head was easy to remove, and being that this just sits on a peg, I really wasn’t too concerned with breaking it. I applied consistent force, and tried wiggling it a little and the peg just came right off behind the ball joint of the wrist. The actual peg is really small as it’s basically a half-circle instead of a full one. My guess is they do it this way to make sure it doesn’t interfere with the the ball-joint in the wrist, but it’s pretty odd. Mostly though, I was super bummed, frustrated, angry, you name it, to finally get this figure only to have it break within a half hour. It feels like such a high quality item that it lulls you into a feeling like it couldn’t possibly break with normal interaction. Falling off a shelf is one thing, but trying to take advantage of a basic function? That surprised me. I honestly felt a little sick when it happened because I know how far this had to travel to get to me and how expensive it was just to ship it here, so I wasn’t expecting any help to come from Hero Cross. And if any did, I expected it to come at a cost.
Upon breaking, I reached out to Hero Cross via email and via a form on their website. No where could I find any information on quality control issues or refunds, so I wasn’t feeling too great about it. I reached out on Twitter and DuckTalks, the same podcast that brought this release to my attention, suggested messaging them on Facebook as that appears to be a place where they interact with their customers the most. Hero Cross did not respond to my initial email, but it did to the form I filled out online. After sending photos the correspondent told me they would check with the factory about a replacement arm. I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks and reached out again, and they basically said the same thing as before. Then a day later I got an email saying they had good news: there were spare parts available in the factory and they would send me a new arm! They confirmed which arm I needed, my address, and sent along instructions for swapping it out.
About two weeks after that, my new arm arrived in the mail via USPS. The arm is connected to the figure at the shoulder and held in place by a screw. It’s an interesting setup, but an easy one to work with without fear of breaking anything. Upon removing the screw, the shoulder comes apart as it’s two pieces of molded, painted, plastic. Once apart, the bicep can pop out and I swapped in the new arm that Hero Cross provided, replaced the plastic piece, and screwed it back together. Hero Cross sent an extra upper arm piece, but it was for a left arm. Maybe they anticipate people scratching or ruining that bit of plastic during the removal process, but I had no issues reusing the same one. They did not send a new hand, so I had to take the old hand and get the peg removed somehow. I basically just grabbed the ball it sits on with some pliers and tugged away. It was in there pretty snug and it was a pain, but I got it off. It helped that I didn’t have to worry about damaging the ball any longer. With Donald reassembled, he basically looks as he’s supposed to. After the reattachment though I’m left with a pretty loose biceps swivel. The screw feels snug so I don’t want to risk stripping it, but it could just be a case of the factory getting that in better than I can. It kind of sucks, but better than a broken hand.
With the peg finally extricated from the hand I finally got a look at the thing. It’s long and sits way up inside the hand. It’s honestly a surprise to me that these breaking isn’t a common occurrence, but then again, I don’t know anyone who owns this particular figure so maybe it does break a lot? Even putting another hand on this new peg is a struggle, and you can probably tell in my post surgery photos of the figure that it’s not quite seated all the way. I’m basically afraid that once I get the hand on it won’t come off without breaking again.
Given all of that, I have had no appetite to test the left hand. Hero Cross was kind enough to replace one defective piece, I don’t really want to test my luck with a second. And it is a credit to them that they stand by their product and are willing to send replacement parts across the Pacific at no cost to the consumer. I was heart-broken when my figure broke, so I’m happy to have that remedied. It doesn’t necessarily fix my confidence in the figure though. If a figure is designed to have a certain feature, that feature should function without a risk of breaking the figure. After my experience with the product out of the box and seeing how this hand joint is constructed, I can’t say I have any confidence in the feature working properly. I am at least happy that the swappable heads work all right, as that is more important to me than the hands. It also helps that this figure does not need to hold anything so the hands do not serve a function other than to change the pose. And while I definitely would like to have the freedom to do so, I can at least accept what I have here.
What my experience with this figure did do for me is make me less likely to purchase more figures in the line. When I ordered this one, I was toying with the idea of adding the nephews and taking advantage of the gripping hand they come with, but now I’m less interested. And playing a role in that are new offerings on the way from other toy companies. Since placing an order for this figure, Super7 has launched a Disney Ultimates! line of figures. Only the first wave has been shown and it includes Mickey Mouse, Prince John, and Pinocchio. Their interest is in underserved characters (as far as collector grade action figures go) from the company’s animated films, so Donald Duck may not be a high priority for them right now, but he’s also insanely popular and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we get a Three Caballeros Donald or something. Beast Kingdom has also unveiled a Donald Duck figure in its Dynamic 8action Heroes line that looks rather promising. It features cloth goods instead of sculpted clothes and is something that is definitely on my radar. It doesn’t have a release date or a price, but the company is taking orders for a Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey and the MSRP is about $70, with a deluxe version at $100. Collecting Donald Duck figures isn’t going to get any cheaper any time soon, but it’s nice to have options.
Ultimately, I do not regret my purchase of the Hero Cross Donald Duck. The likeness is good and he certainly looks nice on a shelf. This figure probably won’t scale with any other lines, so that’s kind of a bummer, but also not a standard I think is fair to hold it to. I’m sure it scales fine with other Hero Cross HMF releases like Scrooge McDuck and the nephews. And there may come a day when I decide I do need to place him with some friends on a shelf, or maybe he’ll just be a featured piece in a more robust Donald Duck display (because, lets face it, I’m probably getting the Beast Kingdom figure and would definitely grab a Super7 one). This figure isn’t the ultimate Donald Duck figure that I wanted it to be, but it’s still worth having for a Donald Duck enthusiast like myself.
When Pixar set out to create competing, fictional, toys in its debut film Toy Story it settled on cowboys and space rangers. The thought being that once upon a time cowboys were the most popular fantasy toy among boys, but were soon replaced by fantastic space voyagers once real-life space travel became possible. In order to really set the mood for the film, Pixar created Buzz Lightyear. He had a fictional back story that felt like it came right off of the back of an action figure blister card in 1990. He had a fictional TV show in the film, though we saw little of it. He had a nemesis, and the lore of the Buzz character was added to for the sequel, Toy Story 2.
Both films were a huge success for Pixar and Disney. And since the films were popular with kids, it meant licensing was super easy. After all, every character in the film was a toy! Toys were created and sold and even more money was earned. Pixar didn’t stop there though. Kids liked Buzz and they had interest in the fictional lore of the character that the films only touched upon, so why not turn that into a real world cartoon series? That’s how the world ended up with Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. This is the story of the fictional Buzz created and sold to kids like Andy of Toy Story. He’s supposed to be a cartoon in that universe, so in our real world he too is a cartoon (and because animating the show like a Pixar film would probably be way too expensive). The only thing the show couldn’t do was preserve his voice, since star Tim Allen was either too expensive (probably) and also probably didn’t want to be tied down to an animated series.
Enter Patrick Warburton, who has a better voice for the character than Allen himself. He’s a natural fit for the regal, yet brash, space ranger that is Buzz Lightyear. The show was, like many Disney Afternoon shows that came before it, a direct-to-syndication order. And like DuckTales and Gargoyles, it premiered in an extended format as a mini film of sorts which spanned multiple episodes when aired on television and could be sold at retail and marketed as a movie. The show was part of the One Saturday Morning block and also aired on week day afternoons (though not as part of the famed Disney Afternoon) from 2000-2001 and likely in reruns there after across various Disney platforms. For a long time, it was the only Pixar television series, though Disney+ is expanding that. It also has the distinction of being one of the few hand-drawn, 2D, animated offerings from Pixar.
As a syndicated program, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command totaled 65 episodes with the 62nd being a Christmas one. We’re going to find out how the denizens of space celebrate the holiday. And if you thought the Santa who lived on earth had it bad, the one we’re about to meet has to deliver toys to an entire galaxy! And since this is a cartoon series with Buzz in the starring role, we’re going to have to meet some unfamiliar supporting characters along the way. The big, baddie is obviously Zurg, but he figures to have some minions or something, I would assume. I’m going into this show pretty cold as it’s a blind spot for me, but it at least has a solid pedigree to start.
Each episode begins with a cute little piece of animation where the characters of Toy Story are rushing to get to a television set to watch the show. The episode begins on what I assume is the home planet of Buzz, or at least the home planet where the Space Rangers are headquartered. There’s a Santa ringing a bell in the center of town and this Santa is not the real deal, but is actually Buzz. He strikes a nice pose, though he’s lacking in the whole bowl full of jelly department. Fellow space ranger Mira (Nicole Sullivan) is educating her colleague XR (Neil Flynn) about the holiday season. Mira is pretty basic looking as she’s just a blue human, though XR is some sort of robot. He looks kind of like Earthworm Jim to me. He thinks all of this holiday stuff is pretty dumb as he buys a gift for a friend and they do the same (he’s pretty cheap since he cites the gift as being ten bucks) and doesn’t see the point. Mira stresses it’s the giving that matters, and we’re probably setting up for a holiday lesson that will pay off in the end. Some kid then goes running by and mistakes XR for a toy snatching him up and thus proving his point for him. I also can’t help but notice that the characters have yet to say “Christmas” and instead use the generic term “holiday.” It’s sort of weird to have a holiday just named “The Holiday,” but apparently there was no Space Christ for a Christmas to arise from.
They soon turn their attention to Santa Buzz who’s working the crowd. A large man in a red suit soon approaches needing Buzz’s help and it’s plainly obvious that this guy is going to turn out to be Santa (Earl Boen). And sure enough, he claims to be Santa! Buzz thinks he’s crazy and isn’t eager to help him out with whatever problem he currently has. Fellow ranger, Booster (Stephen Furst), then calls for backup and Buzz bails. As Santa calls out to him practically begging for help he refers him to Mira to provide a statement.
Buzz then happens upon Booster who too was playing Santa in a different part of town to collect donations. The kids have turned on him though as they recognized the big, red, alien is not Santa. He’s hiding in terror behind his collection bucket as the locals pelt him with snowballs. When Buzz arrives, they stop momentarily to regard him and soon claim he isn’t Santa either. When Buzz insists that he is they ask him to explain how he can possibly get toys to every kid in the galaxy in a single night, and Buzz confesses that he can’t. They ready their arms, and Buzz distracts them with promises of destruction by offering to show off his wrist laser. Problem solved!
Mira is still taking “Santa’s” statement back in town. He had something stolen, but can’t say what. While Buzz is regaling the children with tales of his exploits until Star Command sends out a signal for him to return to base. They all return to an orbiting space station where Commander Nebula (Adam Corolla) hands over a list of crimes Zurg apparently intends to commit. It’s the usual sort of stuff, but ends with Buzz’s newspaper being stolen on the list which really seems to piss him off.
The first item was to sabotage the fleet, so Buzz and team head to where they think Zurg is going to strike only to find nothing. Buzz thinks he was scared off, and then a flash of white light and snowflakes appear for a second. When it fades all of the space ships are in disarray. Buzz is in disbelief over what he just witnessed, but has no time to ponder how Zurg did it because next on the list was busting out everyone in a space prison. The fleet is scrambled and Buzz and team are shown surrounding the jail. Once again, a flash of light and snowflakes occurs and when it fades Buzz and his subordinates are surrounded by escaping criminals! And then to top it off, the next morning Buzz emerges from his home in his robe to find his paper waiting for him. He’s comforted by its presence, but as he reaches for it a flash of light and snowflakes once again occurs, and Zurg (Wayne Knight) appears with newspaper in hand. He offers a quick pleasantry and then vanishes!
Back in town, Buzz is overseeing the lighting of a giant, holographic, Christmas tree. It lacks the charm of an evergreen, but at least it’s environmentally friendly. Soon the man claiming to be Santa reappears to once again request Buzz’s aide. Buzz is in a grumpy mood on account of the Zurg stuff and is in no mood to even entertain this guy’s request. The rest of the team bails too since they think this Santa guy is literally insane. Santa pushes back though and is pretty insistent on who he is. He does allow himself to get frustrated though as he wonders aloud why no one believes him. Clearly, no one realizes they’re in a Christmas special. Buzz then explains he stopped believing when he was 9 because he didn’t get the laser he wanted. Santa knows, and he knows why he didn’t get what he wanted. For one, he wasn’t going to gift a 9-year-old a weapon for Christmas, and two, Buzz was actually on the naughty list for shooting the fur off of his cat’s tail.
Buzz is pretty shocked that Santa knows this as blasting Fluffy was something only he knew about. Now that he finally believes this guy is Santa, it’s the perfect opportunity for Zurg to strike again. He’s going full Grinch this time as he steals the giant, hologram of a tree with the same flashing lights and snowflakes as before. And it’s not just the tree, as Buzz receives a transmission from Star Command that Zurg has hit all of the other planets in the galaxy and stolen everything related to the holiday! They keep teasing the line too that Zurg stole Christmas, but no one actually goes so far as to say it as they still insist on not saying Christmas. They had me on the edge of my seat just waiting for it!
Santa then has Buzz hop into his Christmas tree-shaped spaceship to take him to his work shop on North Polaris. It looks like a snowglobe of a planet, which is pretty near. There Buzz meets the elves, which are actually “LGMs” or Little Green Men (the squishy aliens from Toy Story). They are decked-out in elf attire (and also voiced by Warburton, but with his voice sped up) and apparently serve Santa. They finally spill the beans on what Zurg stole from Santa. Apparently, if you haven’t figured it out yet, Santa uses a device that stops time to deliver presents. He used to use some impossibly fast jetpack contraption, but apparently he’s too old for it. The elves are working on a replacement, but it’s still a week away from completion and Christmas is just two days away. Buzz takes one look at the old hyper-speed accelerator and requests it be strapped to his back.
Buzz radios ahead to his teammates and instructs them to meet him on Trade World. Their the group rendezvous with Buzz and Santa, only the rest of the team still wants to discuss the whole Santa thing. There’s no time though, and Santa demands they help decorate the place for the holiday. As they do, they broadcast out a message designed to infuriate Zurg and basically challenge him to come wreck their holiday again. Zurg sees the broadcast and acts accordingly, while Buzz shows off his new toy. Santa’s hyper-speed whatever thing has been strapped to Buzz’s back and looks ridiculous. It’s a giant snowflake, but the side is what is strapped to Buzz so it extends off of his back twice his height. The other rangers aren’t sure of this plan, but Buzz tells them they just need to go at Zurg when he shows up to make him think they don’t have any real plan for dealing with him.
Zurg then arrives on Trade World flying around in this Dr. Robotnik-like ship. He’s predictably pompous, and I have to say I love the choice of Wayne Knight for his voice. Santa informs Buzz he has to activate the hyper-speed accelerator at the exact moment Zurg uses his stolen device to stop time. Zurg readies his item as the other rangers surround him and engages it. Everyone appears to freeze in place, including Buzz! Oh woe, Christmas is ruined! As Zurg starts wrecking up the place and celebrating his victory, the frozen Buzz comes to life!
Buzz breaks out the one-liners (“I’d say the yuletide has turned!”) and the rock music kicks in. It’s battle time! Zurg chases after Buzz and opens fire with his laser blaster. Buzz does some Matrix moves to avoid it demonstrating his impressive speed. As the two zoom around the city, Zurg blasts a bunch of holiday decorations that Buzz apparently feels compelled to save. Zurg laughs at him and tells Buzz his devotion to his holiday has made him weak. Oh, that’s where you’re wrong Zurg, it’s made him more powerful! They do the Dragon Ball Z thing of zooming around as lights and eventually come to blows.
When the dust settles, Buzz’s hyperspeed accelerator is destroyed and Zurg has lost his grip on the time stopping device, which frees everyone else. Buzz and Zurg meet in a standoff in front of a billboard lit up red as the snow begins to fall. It’s quite an impressive visual. Zurg then finds out he’s out of ammo, and as Buzz declares victory, he summons his little buggy thing which knocks Buzz over. Zurg jumps into it ready to escape, but Buzz tells him he lost since he doesn’t possess the ability to stop time any longer. Zurg points out that the device is broken so Santa can’t either. He’s ruined everyone’s holiday! XR even admits that Zurg has won.
Zurg escapes and the rangers return to Santa’s work shop. They’re all pretty down as without the ability to stop time Santa can’t bring everyone their gifts. XR then asks what Santa did before he had all of this fancy tech, and he shows them. A bright, red, sleigh is summoned and Buzz is pretty taken by it right away. He jumps in and ponders what it uses for fuel, and Santa predictably confirms it runs on belief. The belief in Santa.
Everyone starts to proclaim they believe, and apparently it takes very little to fill the tank. With Buzz, Mira, and Booster all professing their belief it’s nearly full, but they need one more person. Santa confronts XR about his lack of belief and basically tells him he knows that he believes in him more than anyone, even though he’s rather insistent that he does not. When he asks how Santa knows that, he replies simply that he’s Santa! It’s kind of cheap as the sleigh then fills with power without XR actually declaring his belief. With it at full power, some lights extend off of the front of it. It kind of looks like an old TV antenna that used to adorn every house, but it’s in the shape of a Christmas tree. There are lights where the reindeer would be, though only six. A seventh, red, light is at the tip.
With the sleigh powered-up, Santa just needs some helpers. Buzz and the gang dawn space helmets and they take off for other planets. Buzz even gets to drive the sleigh! We see a montage of the gang sneaking into houses to leave presents, the best of which is a reverse of a scene from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A bunch of fish aliens are sharing a bed in a manner similar to Cindy Lou Who and her siblings. Mira slides a candy cane under the hands of one of the fish kids, rather than stealing a candy cane out from under her.
The gang ends up back at the work shop where Santa toasts hot chocolate to a job well done. The only thing is one person is missing: XR. Apparently he had a special task to attend to and we cut to a little boy’s room where XR is the actual present. It would seem he gifted himself to the little kid from the beginning of the episode which is…weird. We don’t get to see how he untangles himself from that situation to return to work as the episode ends on a shot of the family’s tree with a Space Rangers logo where a star would normally be. That’s actually kind of weird and is like placing a police badge or something at the top of one’s tree. If you do that at your house well more power to you, I guess. I stick with a star.
Buzz Lightyear of Star Command is a show I wish had existed when I was younger. It has a nice pace to it and the dialogue is rather witty. I love Warburton as Buzz and his supporting cast is solid as well. Knight is fantastic as Zurg and I wouldn’t mind seeing more episodes where he has an even bigger presence. The animation is also way beyond what I expected. Perhaps Pixar had something to prove because everything looks great. The lighting especially is dynamic and I had a great time just taking this one in. The action scene with Zurg and Buzz was set to techno music and gave off some serious Samurai Jack vibes, even though this show actually predates that one.
As a Christmas story, this one is both fun and odd. The characters never actually say Christmas during the episode. It’s just referred to as a holiday and obviously shares a lot of the same imagery and even an icon. The animators kind of screw up though as the word “Noel” is present during the city fight between Buzz and Zurg. If they were avoiding the term Christmas because it references Christ, then they should have avoided noel as well since it translates to “to be born,” and is a reference to Christ as well. The lack of reindeer is almost bizarre, but I get that they wanted to do their own space thing with it. Santa does have decorative reindeer antlers on his seat in his spaceship, so maybe he had them once upon a time and now they’re dead. I definitely like that the show went for a Grinch plot with Zurg, made all the more obvious by the visual gesture during the montage near the end. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the best Christmas special ever, why more shows don’t borrow from it confuses me. We have a million different versions of A Christmas Carol, and hardly any Grinch plots. It’s 50 years old at this point, it’s fair game!
This special could have been pretty manipulative since it telegraphs everything that’s coming our way. We know XR is going to come around on the holiday, we know Santa is telling the truth about who he is before he ever opens his mouth, and we also know that the heroes will prevail. The episode does a good job though of not really staying with anything too long. It does come close with the Santa/XR confrontation, and that bit is probably the weakest part, but at least it doesn’t get too sappy. They also made room for humor during the exchange, such as Buzz declaring you can’t force someone to believe in anything followed by him ordering XR to believe in Santa. The montage was a good move, and making the kid get XR as a present is more funny than heart-warming so it works and doesn’t betray the spirit of the show.
Bizarrely, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command is pretty hard to come by. Disney never released it on DVD or Blu Ray, and has yet to add it to Disney+. It doesn’t make much sense to leave it off, but for now the company is not being protective with it. That means you can find it online rather easily, though everything is going to be a rip from a TV broadcast. I assume it’s only a matter of time until Disney brings it to their streaming platform, but for now it’s basically YouTube or bust. If you like Toy Story then give it a look. It’s pretty fun and visually it’s definitely worthwhile. I think I even like it more than Toy Story That Time Forgot and if Disney were smart it would start airing that special alongside this one during the holidays. Of course, I’m the type of person that thinks Disney should be running a ton of its holiday themed episodes and specials on ABC this time of year so maybe I’m biased.
Five years ago The Christmas Spot did its first advent calendar countdown to Christmas and the theme was “The 25 Greatest Christmas TV Specials.” With that list, my approach wasn’t entirely forthright. I really had a list of 20 specials that I deemed worthy of such an honor and I devoted the back five to specials I felt were worth spotlighting that might otherwise have been overlooked. What I also should have added at the time was that the list is fluid. It’s going to change as we as a society of holiday consumers reevaluate the old and welcome the new. Seeing as it’s been five years, it felt right to look back on that list, re-arrange a few entries, add some more, and kick out some that have grown stale. I should stress, this is all one man’s opinion on television specials and as someone who loves Christmas I do tend to watch a lot of these specials too much and there’s definitely a fatigue factor. The list of holiday fare I indulge in year in and year out goes deeper than 25, so if your favorite isn’t here don’t sweat it. I probably think it’s fine.
For this exercise, I think it makes sense to just go down the list comparing the original to the revised edition. I’ll list the number and the entry with the previous ranking (if applicable) in parenthesis after and the 2015 entry after that, like so:
I like A Flintstone Christmas a lot, but I’ve also seen it a lot and I think it just doesn’t affect me in the same way now as it did years ago. As for Moral Orel, it’s a fine, dark, Christmas special and not something I need to watch every year.
American Dad! has become one of the titans of Christmas as it has a new special almost every year. “For Whom the Sleigh Bell Tolls” is bloody and insane, which is what makes it the most memorable for me, but there are a lot of contenders from this show. Winnie the Pooh’s foray into Christmas is plenty sweet, but also not very remarkable.
Rudolph is a classic, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s mostly included on all of these lists because of its classic status. It’s kind of ugly, and I think most of us watch it out of habit as opposed to pure enjoyment. Still, there’s no replicating that warm, nostalgic, feel it’s still capable of conjuring up. As for Robot Chicken, I very much enjoy the marathon sessions Adult Swim will air during December, but it’s designed to be disposable and the jokes are very hit or miss.
Olaf’s special wasn’t around in 2015, but it looks like it’s going to be an annual tradition for awhile. It’s funny, warm, and even features songs I don’t hate. He’s quickly become the most charismatic snowman around. Invader Zim is fine, but if you want an absurd Christmas story then I think there’s better out there (like American Dad!).
In 2020, offbeat and silly superhero stuff is really appealing given how superheroes rule the box office (or would in a normal year). That makes The Tick a series I can appreciate even more now than I did back in 94. And watching The Tick bumble his way through a Christmas story is a great deal of fun. It knocks off the only live-action special from 2015 to be featured on this list. Married…with Children is sort of like the sitcom version of American Dad! because it has a lot of Christmas specials, and most are pretty subversive. It’s still worth watching, but it was always at risk of being dropped for the simple fact that I favor cartoons.
Bob’s Burgers and American Dad! are battling it out to be the current king of Christmas since both are prepared seemingly year in and year out. I give the edge to the Belcher family, and while it’s hard to pick a favorite from this crew, I think “Christmas in the Car” is still the reigning champ though I seem to warm more and more to “Father of the Bob” every time I view it. The Snowman is the victim I feel the worst about. It’s not moving up the ranks, but out. I know a lot of folks adore it, but I’ve just never been able to feel the same way about it. Sorry!
Like Rudolph, Frosty is skating by on reputation at this point. Unlike Rudolph though, I still feel charmed by this one whenever I watch it. The characters are goofy, some of the plot points make no sense, and that damn song will forever remain catchy. As for SpongeBob, worry not for him, for he will appear later on this list in a more prominent position.
Hey! One that didn’t change! Spoiler alert, but this one is just the first to not move a spot. This one is wonderfully stupid and subversive. Many confuse Beavis and Butt-Head for just stupid, but there’s a lot of satire to be found with the duo. It’s not for everyone, but it sure is funny.
Futurama hangs on slipping just five spots. It wasn’t in any real danger to fall off as I love the show and I love it’s take on Christmas. The Muppets, on the other hand, were mostly on the old version for the novelty of their special and nostalgia. Admittedly though, the special isn’t great and has maybe 2 or 3 good laughs during its hour-long runtime. Plus that ending goes on and on…
Hoo-boy was I coward in 2015! Charlie Brown is a classic, but it’s also quite dull. It’s quotable, has great music, and the good-bad voice acting is somehow really charming. It’s near the top of many lists because it’s been around so long and boomers love it while younger generations were forced to enjoy it. Top 16 is still good, but we all need to be more honest when it comes to Charlie Brown. Yes, Virginia is super sweet and I love the ending, it’s getting there that’s tough. The special is pretty slow and the CG is downright ugly. This one would have been a lot better as a short, but maybe someone will return to it and do just that. And if you hadn’t heard, A Charlie Brown Christmas is airing tonight on PBS at 7:30 PM local time (6:30 CT) which is big news since It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was frozen out of a broadcast airing in 2020 for the first time ever.
This one was just an oversight on my part back in 2015. I had not seen it in years, but when I re-watched it for The Christmas Spot in 2017 I was reminded of how wonderful a viewing it is. That ending gets me every time.
Another one I forgot about and overlooked, Tom and Jerry’s battle under the Christmas tree is full of the usual gags the duo is known for. The animation is gorgeous, especially the backgrounds, and it tops it all off with a really sweet ending. Family Guy was generously ranked in this spot in 2015 and actually was a tough omission this time around. I do still like that special, easily the best Family Guy Christmas episode I’ve seen, but I basically gave it the boot in favor of the superior show, American Dad!
It’s Donald Duck and it’s Christmas – it was practically made for me! Duck the Halls is hilarious and the animation is great. Sure, it isn’t ink and paint like the old days, but I find it plenty pleasing. Tony Anselmo gives maybe his best performance ever as Donald, and if anything I’m penalizing this one because we have more Donald to come.
I love Rocko, but in 2015 I had all but forgotten about his Christmas special. Well, not this time as I’m putting him just outside the Top 10. The story is fairly simple, but Rocko is so likable and sympathetic that it makes this one instantly charming. And let’s not forget the great gags like the constipated cloud and the living (until it’s not) Christmas tree.
SpongeBob is moving up in the world and actually is the biggest mover, in a positive direction, this time around. My affection for this stop-motion Christmas special seems to grow and grow each year. In 2015 it was still pretty new so a recency bias worked against it, but five years later I’m more than ready to declare this a modern Christmas classic. And the same can be said for the special that once occupied this spot.
Mr. Hanky just barely hangs onto a top 10 spot this time out. Is his spot in danger? Yes, considering my love of SpongeBob and Donald Duck. For now though, let’s just reflect on how crazy this special was when it first showed up in 1997 and how South Park used to have a new Christmas special every year. My, how the times have changed.
I’m surprised I held Prep & Landing out of the Top 10 last time around, but like SpongeBob, I guess I just wasn’t quite ready to let someone new into the club. The CG still looks great on this one and the story is unique, fun, and even heart-warming. New Christmas specials arrive every year, but rarely does one actually add to the whole Santa Claus lore in a meaningful way, but that’s what Prep & Landing has done. These elves aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The fat cat who loves lasagna gets to move up a couple spots, largely benefiting from folks like Fred Flintstone and Charlie Brown getting kicked further down the line. This 1987 special is still a treat to take in that blends humor with a surprising amount of sentiment. It’s a shame it lost the network timeslot it held for many years.
DuckTales has made a comeback since 2015 and included among the new episodes is the show’s first ever Christmas special, and it’s wonderful! It turns the story of A Christmas Carol on its head, in a way, with a time travel tale all its own and features the first mother-son pairing of Della and Duey Duck. Plus it has a fantastic cameo from the late, great, Russi Taylor. If you have yet to see it, fix that this year. Especially since word has come out recently the show isn’t being renewed for a fourth season. 2020 just refuses to stop sucking!
6. Toy Tinkers (#7) (Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire)
The Donald Duck/Chip and Dale vehicle moves up one spot this year. It matters little as this is a cartoon all animation lovers and Christmas enthusiasts should make a point to watch every year. The only negative is that the gunplay contained within this one means Disney+ will likely continue to shun it making it a tad harder to come by.
Alvin and the gang spin a fine Christmas tale. I thought highly enough of it to rank it in the top 3 last time, but I’m bumping it down just a couple of spots this year as I basically rearrange some things. This one is becoming a little harder to come by each year as you can’t guarantee a network showing, but DVDs are cheap so grab one if you need it!
The premiere episode of The Simpsons is still my favorite Christmas special the show has done. Sure, it’s a bit rough to look at these days, but the story is great, classic, Simpsons. I just wish it and the other 80s Christmas specials on this list were celebrated as much as the stuff from the 60s that hasn’t aged so well. Well, most of that stuff has aged horribly, but there’s one notable omission we’ll get to shortly.
Alvin and Pluto essentially switched places largely because I just love this little short. It’s just perfect. The scenery inside the Christmas tree featuring Chip and Dale is just the best. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it every time I watch this short – I want to live in that tree. The physical comedy is fantastic, and I just absolutely adore this short. Unlike Toy Tinkers, you can find this one on Disney+ 365 days out of the year. I’ll probably watch it at least a dozen times between now and Christmas.
Mickey and our number one didn’t move, and that’s with good reason. This is my preferred version of A Christmas Carol, and frankly, we don’t need any more. It’s the only one on this list other than the parody featured in Beavis and Butt-Head (I don’t really consider “Last Christmas!” an adaptation) which is kind of surprising to me, but it also feels right. This one is beautiful and features some phenomenal voice acting. I’ll never not tear-up at the sight of a crying Mickey when he visits Tiny Tim’s grave, ditto for when Scrooge informs him he’s getting promoted at the end. I’m getting misty eyed right now just thinking about it.
It was number one in 2015, and it will likely remain number one for as long as I’m alive. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is just a perfect Christmas special. It features a story full of heart, humor, redemption, and joy. It’s gorgeously animated with a style unique to both Dr. Seuss and animator Chuck Jones. The music is equally as memorable and the narration from Boris Karloff is the only voice people hear in their heads now-a-days when reading the source material. There’s nothing I’d change about this special, and if I had to pick just one Christmas special to watch annually it would be this one.
It’s not often I get to look at a Christmas special from the same year I’m doing The Christmas Spot, but it also helps when that Christmas special premieres in May of the same of year. May?! Yeah, it’s weird, but for the 31st season finale of The Simpsons the show rolled out a Christmas episode. It’s not quite a full-fledged Christmas episode because the holiday merely exists in this episode and is not a focal point of the plot, but it’s also not just here and then gone.
If you’re a longtime fan of The Simpsons then you’re probably aware that the series premiered with a Christmas episode. That episode was never intended to be the premiere, but when a new animated sitcom is being launched it’s not uncommon for delays to arise. Especially when virtually everyone associated with the production of the show is completely new to animation. The true premiere wasn’t ready, and actually would be delayed and reworked so much that it would turn into the season finale. The Christmas episode was ready to go though, so Fox elected to premiere that in December of 1989 a bit like a sneak peek with the series getting up and running for good in January of 1990. That inaugural episode not only introduced audiences to the family, but also the family’s dog: Santa’s Little Helper.
Santa’s Little Helper was a racing grey hound, and not a very good one. When Homer risks what little money he has on the dog it doesn’t go well. As he and Bart are leaving the track, the dog’s owner tosses him out and into the arms of Homer. One look at the dog and he’s in love and the rest is history. Or not really history since the show is still improbably ongoing and currently in the midst of its 32nd season. Over the years, the show has had a few episodes focused on the family dog, but “Way of the Dog” is the first to really look at life for Santa’s Little Helper prior to that fateful night at the races.
That’s all well and good, and who doesn’t want to know more about Santa’s Little Helper? Why not wait for December though? I don’t think there really is an answer for that. It’s been floated for years by folks like showrunner Al Jean that a nice way to end the series might be to tie it into that premiere and have it end where that episode starts. Since there’s no real concept of time on the show, it would be a fun way to both bring things full circle and create a fun little joke. Maybe that idea is out though with this episode rehashing that one so much as a season finale. If I hadn’t known that the show was renewed for both a 31st and 32nd season at the same time, I would have hypothesized that this was written to serve as a series finale in the event that the show wasn’t renewed. The writer of the episode, Carolyn Omine, tried to get it moved to December 2020, but the folks in charge declined. She had been tasked with exploring the dog’s past, not to write a Christmas episode, but how could the episode not be set at Christmas given its focus on a character literally named Santa’s Little Helper? She made the right choice and I guess we lovers of Christmas television should just be glad we got a little dose of the holiday in the spring, especially when we needed it most. So what if there were still 222 days until the actual holiday?
The episode begins without a customary chalkboard gag, but we do get a fun little animation of dead Simpsons pets as they fly by over the show’s logo. We’re then shown Santa’s Little Helper who’s in the midst of a dream. For some reason he’s dreaming of Ralph Wiggum (Nancy Cartwright), possibly because he’s an easy target, who has dropped a bucket of popcorn on account of the fact that he’s terrified of a butterfly. Santa’s Little Helper helps himself (no pun intended) to the spilled goods before awaking to the smell of actual popcorn.
Marge (Julie Kavner) enters the living room in a festive Christmas apron and two heaping bowls of the good stuff. Bart (Cartwright) and Lisa (Yeardley Smith) are excited when they see the two bowls of popcorn, but Marge plays the role of killjoy in announcing the popcorn is for stringing on the Christmas tree. The two kids grumpily commence the stringing as Marge turns her attention to a new ornament Bart made in Sunday school. The sticky monstrosity is destined for the back of the tree where we see some other amusing “not for the front of the tree” ornaments, including a very annoying Krusty one and one from Dr. Nick.
Marge then stumbles upon a small Santa hat while going through some Christmas stuff. Immediately she decides the hat would look best on Santa’s Little Helper. Despite him clearly wanting nothing to do with the hat, Marge insists that dogs enjoy people clothes and has Lisa take pictures of her as she wrestles to get the hat on the dog. During the skirmish we get another doggy point of view shot in which the words of the humans sound like gibberish (a nice nod to the season two episode “Bart’s Dog Gets an “F””) and we even get a quick Grandpa (Dan Castellaneta) cameo with the gag being he speaks in gibberish in general.
Marge is dismayed by the photos Lisa took as she looks through Lisa’s phone. And as she looks, it’s obvious Santa’s Little Helper is pretty traumatized by the hat, more than a dog normally would be. Lisa seems concerned, but Marge is dismissive of the dog’s trauma and announces her displeasure to the dog by saying he’s out of the Christmas card. She then whispers to the kids he’s still in, though Bart expresses a willingness to not be included himself. We then cut to last year’s Christmas card which is basically a full Springfield cast as the kids recommend to Marge they should probably think about some cuts in general.
Sometime later, the Simpson family is shown driving back from a store. Homer (Castellaneta) is happily singing his own version of “Jingle Bell Rock” which is more cute than funny. As the Simpsons unload the car of wrapped gifts, one tagged for Marge is clearly a vacuum. When the family enters the house, a vase is knocked over and Homer resorts to his customary, “D’oh!” to express himself before turning on the vacuum with the wrapping paper still on it. He sucks up the broken porcelain, then the wrapping gets sucked off, then Bart’s shorts get sucked up! When Bart points out that the vacuum ate his shorts he realizes how sad the loss of his shorts makes him calling into question the wisdom of ever encouraging others to eat his shorts. I find it hard to believe the show has been on for over 30 years and hasn’t made that joke already. Marge then tells Homer they need to have a talk about the difference between gifts and household tools. Homer then looks despondent as the camera pans to an obviously wrapped mop and bucket.
When the family enters the TV room they find their beloved brown couch (the one in the TV room, not the living room. Yes, the Simpsons have two brown couches) is in ruins! Homer declares the dog’s going to pay for this one and Bart rather sweetly tries to take the blame for this destruction and encourages Homer to wail away at his exposed rear with a newspaper (“You know I get my news online!”). The family then finds Santa’s Little Helper staring at a smudge on a cabinet with the Santa hat nearby. The smudge resembles the teats of his mother which we had seen quickly flash across the screen when Marge initially shoved the hat on him. The family ponders what they should do with the dog, while Lisa argues that he needs to see a dog psychiatrist. Homer imagines a dog in a suit acting as a clinical psychiatrist for other dogs and has a chuckle while Lisa assures him that whatever he’s thinking is wrong.
Lisa points out that there’s a free lecture they can attend that’s being delivered by a dog expert named Dr. Elaine Wolff. Homer doesn’t want to go because of a UFC fight, and when Marge questions why that would matter Bart narcs on him by revealing to Marge he paid 60 bucks for the pay-per-view. Homer corrects him by saying it was $70 as he paid for the HD version. Marge is even more annoyed since she points out they don’t even have a high definition television (that flatscreen in the TV room is clearly an HD set, so this is an odd joke). Homer sheepishly replies that he wanted to feel like a big shot in front of the cable person.
That night, Homer is in bed with his tablet and expresses his fondness for Candy Crush. He then uses the tablet to smash a pile of candy on his nightstand into dust. It seems weird to be doing a Candy Crush joke in 2020, but maybe this is going somewhere. Lisa then enters and informs her dad that she understands he won’t listen to a feminine voice like hers, so she has Bart come in and read something written by her. It’s an argument for why the family needs to seek help for Santa’s Little Helper via the seminar Lisa raised earlier. After hearing the argument, Homer agrees and bestows upon Lisa the highest honor he can: a hearty Homer hug. He then invites them to party with him as he rolls up a piece of paper and begins snorting the candy dust. When Lisa asks why he would consume candy in such a manner, Homer replies “Because I already brushed my teeth,” so I guess that Candy Crush reference paid off.
The family heads to the seminar which is jam-packed with lots of familiar faces from around town, and their pets. Most notable is Comic Book Guy in attendance with his own dog who is wearing a Krypto the Super Dog cape. Dr. Wolff (Cate Blanchett) begins her lecture by informing the crowd she loves dogs and hates people. The audience reacts with shock as she lays into them, especially former heavyweight champion Drederick Tatum (Hank Azaria doing his Mike Tyson voice) who expresses regret about attending. The lecture is then broken up when Wolff receives a phone call from an older, British, fellow named Clayton (Michael York). He is calling to inform Wolff that he’s finally left his wife and they can resume a romance that apparently began in adolescence. Wolff is flattered, but she needs to return to her lecture. Clayton is not dismayed and it’s implied he’ll be seeing her soon. Honestly, this is a really odd subplot and I get the feeling it’s a reference to something that is going over my head.
When the lecture resumes, Wolff is back to her human-hating ways. She tells them that humans are unworthy of a dog’s affection and an outburst from Homer where he’s encouraging a fighter to break the other’s neck (he’s watching the fight on his phone) only seems to reaffirm Wolff’s position. She even swats a few members of the audience with a rolled up newspaper as she dispenses with the insults.
The Simpsons are forced to track Wolff down in the parking lot after the lecture. Lisa tries using tears as she pleads with Wolff to help their dog, but human sorrow has no effect on her so she then turns to physical threats. Wolff is ready to take off, but one look at Santa’s Little Helper turns her into mush. She gets down on her knees and consoles the dog as she’s sensing some trauma in the dog’s past. When Lisa implores her to teach them to see through a dog’s eyes the way she can, Wolff corrects her by telling her dogs see with their nose, not their eyes.
Wolff then frees Santa’s Little Helper from his leash to demonstrate. As Santa’s Little Helper sniffs a nearby lamppost visions of the past swirl around it. We see Otto posting a flier, a drunken Barney picking a fight with it, and old Gill, the subject of perhaps the show’s worst Christmas episode, is shown trying to leach power from the device. Even though Wolff knows something is wrong with the dog, she’s still not compelled to hang around (she has a lot of poop to scoop as-is) and gets into her car. As she drives away, her eyes lock onto her rearview mirror as Santa’s Little Helper chases after her before eventually relenting.
Back home, everyone looks sad and miserable including Santa’s Little Helper who is laying on the old Santa hat. Marge decides the hat is the problem, but when she tries to take it from him the dog responds with a bite. He takes the hat and leaves and the family seems even more concerned, except Homer who is more angry with the dog than anything. Lisa is then instructed to get the first aid kit, but when she reminds her dad they don’t have one, he encourages her to check under the tree. There a clearly wrapped first aid kit waits, and it’s intended recipient is conveniently Marge.
Homer chains up Santa’s Little Helper outside informing the dog he’s going to sleep there until further notice. Bart insists that if Santa’s Little Helper is to remain outside, then so shall he. Homer reminds Bart that he’s not the boss, which brings in Mr. Burns (Harry Shearer) to remind Homer that he is. Apparently Bart paid him off to tell Homer he’s sleeping outside with the dog and Homer obeys his master.
We cut to later that night and Bart is adorably snuggled up with Santa’s Little Helper. Marge looks on with concern and asks Homer what they’re going to do. He’s not too worried though as he’s already “oogling” for the cheapest dog doctor around. Homer sure gets a lot of mileage out of that tablet in modern episodes. It’s weird for someone like me who is mostly familiar with the show’s first 10 seasons or so.
The next day, the Simpsons take Santa’s Little Helper to apparently the cheapest doctor Homer could find. The whole family is in the examining room when Dr. Callas enters. He has a jovial disposition, which makes it funny when he recommends euthanizing the dog. The family is horrified, but he insists once a biter always a biter. Homer, disgusted, informs the doctor they’re leaving and since he can’t bring himself to even look at the doctor he puts on a medical cone to walk out in while remarking he feels like the Pixar logo.
At home, the Simpsons are back to square one when someone arrives at the door. It’s Chief Wiggum (Azaria) and he’s come to inform them that the vet relayed to the police about their dog and Animal Control is on the way to destroy the sad creature. Bart and Lisa are obviously horrified, but Wiggum insists this is the way it’s got to be. Plus Animal Control is almost there according to some app Wiggum has. Another knock at the door brings more terror, but it turns out it’s just Dr. Wolff.
Wolff enters the house and tells them she could not stop thinking about the dog and fears he’s about to do something terrible. When Marge tells her he already bit her, she first reacts smugly in an almost delighted manner because that proves she was right. She then corrects herself and tries to display some empathy for Marge’s injury, but it’s a bit too late for that. The family quickly decides that she needs to take Santa’s Little Helper to save him from the folks at Animal Control and because she’s the only one who can help him. Lisa sweetly says good bye to the pooch which is nice to see as so often it’s Bart who is shown to have a connection with the dog. He says bye too, though it’s Homer who tops everyone by giving the dog an open-mouth kiss. Santa’s Little Helper seems charmed so I know whose leg will be getting humped first when he returns home.
Wolff takes Santa’s Little Helper to her home: The Dognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute. She gets Santa’s Little Helper some snausage-flavored water and puts on a video about the resort for him to watch while she gives him an examination. She then fixes his bed and to help ease him on his first night informs him that she’ll be sleeping by his side. She rather adorably crawls in circles before laying down beside the dog, who soon slides his head under her arm. Practically swooning, Wolff then rolls over and suggests they do a little reading before bed as she pulls out a Daily Growl squeak toy that she apparently intends to read.
Wolff then observes Santa’s Little Helper as he sleeps. She takes notes while we witness more of the dog’s dreams as various images flash before our eyes. We learn he was a very supportive pup who looked out for his siblings and seemed really attached to his mother. The feeling is mutual as the mother dog smiles at her pup because this is a cartoon and dogs can smile in cartoons. A wicked looking man then comes into frame and violently pulls the dog away from his mother. We’re getting closer!
At the home of the Simpsons, Bart is in bed looking rather upset. Homer tries to cheer him up by doing something he rarely does: praying. As the two Simpson men pray for their dog’s safe return, the rest of the family enters to join in. Homer remarks how this has never happened before, but lets it slip it’s possible they may never see their dog again which just makes Bart even more upset. He then quickly gets the family back on track, though the scene ends before they get fully into the prayer further. This fulfills the Jesus quota requirement for a Christmas episode, even though Homer was technically praying to a St. Bernard, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean an actual saint.
The next morning, Dr. Wolff does more work with the dog. She clearly needs to know if Marge is a trigger for the dog, so she produces Marge’s Christmas apron which she had taken before departing The Simpson home. Santa’s Little Helper gives it a sniff, then happily lays on it. Dr. Wolff rules out Marge being the issue as she identifies her as a source of comfort for the dog. We’re shown a flashback from Santa’s Little Helper’s point of view of the dog being scared by a thunderstorm. He approaches Marge who is unloading the dryer, and upon seeing the scared pup, wraps him in a blanket she had just removed from the dryer. We see all of this via a reflection in the dryer and it’s a supremely sweet and clever image.
Dr. Wolff’s boyfriend, Clayton, then returns. He goes on and on about getting married and how he wanted to give her his mother’s ring, but she was buried with it, so he had to dig her up, and so on. He gets down on one knee and proposes to the doctor, but she tells him she can’t run off to Tuscany right now because she has to help Santa’s Little Helper, even though she wants to. He grumbles and rises to his feet. Declaring he can’t compete with a wagging tail, he stuffs the ring into a pouch full of jewelry labeled “Rings of the Dead.” He insists he’s over her already and leaves thus bringing this odd B plot of sorts to an end.
The next day, Dr. Wolff introduces Santa’s Little Helper to the other dogs. One is sleeping on a bootleg SpongeBob doll while another has clearly chewed away most of the fur on its body due to some form of anxiety. Santa’s Little Helper seems eager to mingle, but when one dog approaches his bed he growls in anger. Dr. Wolff decides to inspect the bed further and finds the Santa hat has been stashed inside it. Santa’s Little Helper immediately gets flustered and Dr. Wolff concludes that something to do with this hat is the problem.
Dr. Wolff heads for 742 Evergreen Terrace and Homer answers the door in his Sunday best. Homer at first asks if she brought back their dog or a dog that looks just like him to fool the kids, but she soon confronts him with the hat. Homer has no idea what’s up with the hat, but Bart sticks his head through the door and points out that’s the hat he was wearing at the racetrack the night they got Santa’s Little Helper. We’re treated to a flashback of that evening and it’s done by using a clip from the actual episode which I love even though the show looks completely different now.
Dr. Wolff is a bit irritated that the family neglected to mention he’s a former racing hound and declares that the dog has PTSD. She insists they help Santa’s Little Helper confront his past trauma this instant, at which point it’s revealed the Simpsons were hosting a Christmas brunch. Marge realizes this will further anger Wolff so she deftly adds they’re willing to skip the brunch to help the dog. After the family leaves, Dr. Hibbert (Shearer) then suggests to the rest of the party-goers they go see if the family has HBO Now so he can finally watch Euphoria as he wasn’t willing to taint his own viewing history with the salacious program.
The family then heads to the kennel from which Santa’s Little Helper came from. Les Moore (Azaria) answers the door looking very Season Oneish, and is promptly slapped in the face by Wolff. When he asks if she’d like a drink to toss in his face, she tells him that she indeed would. We then cut to Moore getting a martini thrown in his face followed by a slap. He grumbles about why a noted dog abuser like himself should be treated this way, but still regales the family with a tale of how Santa’s Little Helper came to be (after first making an observation how lazy it was for the family to retain the name Santa’s Little Helper). Basically, the dog loved his momma, and when he displayed his speed while running towards her, Moore scooped him up and declared he’d be a racing dog necessitating a separation from his family. He then gets slapped again to take us out of the flashback, only this time it was Lisa who did the slapping. Bart then gets a turn while Santa’s Little Helper gets a bite in, followed by slaps from Marge, Homer, and even Maggie.
Santa’s Little Helper is shown trying to get outside. Lisa opens the door for the dog who starts running. When Marge asks what the dog is running to, Moore gets a little teary-eyed and confirms that he’s running to his mother, She Biscuit. He then gets slapped again.
Santa’s Little Helper runs through the dirty snow to find his mother outside. The two dogs react with glee to finally be reunited and it actually is pretty sweet and touching. Dr. Wolff essentially declares her work is done and that Santa’s Little Helper should be fine. The Simpsons are grateful and express a willingness to help her in return. When she mentions she needs to get home and walk about 20 dogs they all look away, aggravating her.
At home, the Simpsons are a family again and She Biscuit has apparently joined the clan. Marge declares she’s happy that everyone has sorted out their issues. The camera then pans to the cat, Snowball II (actually they might be up to IV at this point), who is eye-balling the goldfish. The cat makes a slashing motion across its throat and the episode ends on a surprisingly sinister note.
“The Way of the Dog” is a perfectly cromulent Christmas episode of The Simpsons that focuses on the family canine. Actually, it’s better than cromulent as I really enjoyed it. There were a couple of odd jokes that didn’t quite land, and the B-plot with Clayton was weird, but all of the material surrounding Santa’s Little Helper was enjoyable and sweet. This is a big improvement over a previous episode, the Season 14 “Old Yeller-Belly,” which was the first to bring the dog’s past back into the fold in a fairly forgettable episode (so forgettable this episode essentially ignores it). This one had a tremendous dose of heart, and it even surprised me a little as I thought we were being setup for a sadder ending with She Biscuit being dead. It helps that time apparently holds no influence in the world of The Simpsons so even if 30 years separate the first episode and this one it makes perfect sense that She Biscuit would still be alive. Though the plot did make me think of a Family Guy episode (“The Road to Rhode Island”) where a depressed Brian journeys to the farm he was born on only to find his mom, named Biscuit, had been stuffed. I get that She Biscuit is a pun on Sea Biscuit, but it might have done the show well to avoid a similar name as rival (and lesser program) Family Guy. Granted, that episode is 20 years old itself.
As a Christmas episode, there’s actually more here than I would have anticipated for something airing in May. I thought the Christmas décor might get dropped after that opening scene, but it’s here to stay for the entire duration. I love seeing the home of The Simpsons decked out for the holiday (and it’s looking nicer than usual) and as a lover of nostalgia I of course was tickled by the callbacks to the debut episode of the series. I am so glad they chose not to reanimate the flashback to that episode and what’s even better is they didn’t crop the image either. Director Matthew Faughnan did a tremendous job with the pacing and composition of many of the shots which were able to capture a ton of subtle emotion. Be it the reflection in the dryer, the distressed look in Dr. Wolff’s eyes as she drives away from Santa’s Little Helper, or the happy reunion at the end – it’s all on point. It’s also an extremely dense episode as evidenced by the lack of opening credits and this nearly 5,000 word entry. Anyone wishing for this show to come to an end should just watch a few episodes. Sure, it’s not the same show from 1990, but it still has plenty to offer.
When this episode was originally broadcast on May 17th of this year, writer Carolyn Omine did a live-tweet with the west coast broadcast. If you like this episode, or just enjoy getting a little extra insight into a show like The Simpsons, I encourage you to find her on Twitter at @CarolynOmine. If you wish to watch this one, chances are good it will be shown again on Fox this month as well as on FXX and Freeform. Since it’s from Season 31, it may even still be OnDemand with your cable provider and is available to stream on Disney+.
Toy Story That Time Forgot first premiered December 2, 2014.
When the credits started to roll in 2010 signaling the end of Toy Story 3 I think most who were watching it assumed this was “good bye.” The toys which had captured the hearts of movie-goers going on two decades were saying good bye to their former owner and playmate, Andy, and so too were we to these characters. It was a somber close to a particularly wonderful film that closed out an improbable trilogy. It took a lot of risk on the part of Pixar and Disney to bring the original Toy Story to theaters in 1995, but it proved to be a colossal success that forever changed the animated film space, for better or worse. Toy Story 2 wasn’t even supposed to happen, and when that film ended, Toy Story 3 wasn’t exactly a foregone conclusion, but it turns out there was still one more story to tell and the film absolutely nailed it. The franchise ended up being the rare one that may have gotten better with each installment in its trilogy.
Of course, Toy Story 3 wasn’t the end for these beloved toys for more was on the way. What seemed like a compromise to keep these characters alive and to line the pockets of Disney and Pixar, the company turned to an old standby – the holiday special, before a new film was eventually released in 2019. First up was Toy Story of Terror!, a Halloween themed special of sorts which premiered on October 16, 2013. Announced at the same time was a Christmas special, but fans would have to wait over a year for that one. Toy Story That Time Forgot premiered on December 2, 2014 and like Toy Story of Terror!, it was not content to be a straight-up holiday special. Toy Story of Terror! may have obviously been timed with Halloween, but the special makes no mention of the holiday. Instead it’s just a thriller with some light horror elements, but it was also rather compelling and entertaining. Toy Story That Time Forgot does at least make mention of Christmas, but it’s in passing as the special actually takes place two days after the holiday. Perhaps that is done because, as we saw in the first film in the series, Christmas is a pretty stressful time to be a toy. While the special avoids recounting that plot, it does go back to that first film for another major piece of the story.
It’s Santa Woody!
Toy Story That Time Forgot is written and directed by Steve Purcell. This seems especially noteworthy as just a year ago we talked about a Christmas special from the property Purcell is best known for: Sam & Max. Purcell got started in comics before moving onto Lucas Arts and Industrial Light & Magic where he honed his animation chops. He’s been with Pixar since 2000 and has made contributions to films like Cars, Ratatouille, and Brave, where he served as co-director. Toy Story That Time Forgot is his first solo director credit. The short took roughly two years to write and plan with another year in actual production to finish it out. This short also marks the last time Don Rickles was alive for production on a Toy Story project before his passing in 2017. His character of Mr. Potato Head does appear in Toy Story 4, but in a far smaller role than we’re accustomed to seeing.
This special is going to center on Trixie and how she’s unhappy with the roles Bonnie chooses for her. Around the holidays, that includes being a baby reindeer.
The special begins at the home of Bonnie (Emily Hahn) as she plays with her toys following another successful Christmas holiday. Surprisingly, Bonnie appears to have received few new toys as the only addition to the cast is Angel Kitty (Emma Hudak), which could be a new toy or could just be a holiday decoration that spends 11 months of the year in an attic or something. Trixie (Kristen Schaal), Bonnie’s toy triceratops, is frustrated that she’s being forced by Bonnie to roleplay as a reindeer, amongst other things, when she just wants to be a dinosaur. She is even momentarily teased when Bonnie declares she needs to find her dinosaur, only to decide that Angel Kitty is to be the dinosaur today. The other toys try to cheer Trixie up while reminding her she’s lucky to be the toy of such an imaginative child, but it does little to please Trixie. Soon the toys are bagged up because Bonnie has a playdate with a boy named Mason (R.C. Cope) over at his house. This is where we say “bye” to most of the toys as only Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Angel Kitty, and Trixie are brought along.
Angel Kitty, more of a decoration than toy, is a new addition to the gang.
When the crew arrives at Mason’s house, Bonnie finds the boy enthralled by a new video game he must have received for Christmas. She tosses her backpack of toys into Mason’s playroom and goes to join him at the television. The toys emerge from the backpack to find Mason’s room absolutely covered with boxes and boxes of new toys. They’re all from a new line of action figures called Battlesaurs, a sort of anthropomorphic dinosaur brand that would have been right at home on store shelves in the 90s. They are soon greeted by a warrior of this brand, Reptillus Maximus (Kevin McKidd), and it becomes clear things are a bit screwy in Dinosaur Land. Reptillus is very serious about his culture and refers to the other toys as being of the “Bonnie Tribe” when they mention their kid. Trixie, seeing what she deems is a more idealized dinosaur, is taken by Reptillus almost immediately and wants to know more about their “race.” Meanwhile, another toy has taken interest in the Bonnie Tribe by the name of The Cleric (Purcell). He’s a robed, Emperor Palpatine-like character that also happens to be a pterodactyl. He’s the unquestioned leader of the Battlesaurs and does not appear to be welcoming to outsiders. As Trixie is lead away by Reptillus, the others grab Woody and Buzz from behind while The Cleric mugs for the camera because that’s what villains do.
Mason apparently enjoying his new Optimum X gaming console.
As Trixie is taken around the room we see loads of other action figures. This kid Mason is quite the spoiled little kid as not only does he appear to have every figure and playset in this line, he even has loads of multiples (in the toy-collecting community, we refer to these figures as army builders). He’s like every kid in a toy commercial who improbably had an entire army of Foot Soldiers to battle against his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Trixie is soon outfitted with special armor to make her feel as if she is apart of this tribe. Rex also gets to play along and receives some mechanical arms and leg attachments. As she is lead around by Reptillus, he shares details of his world which even includes a righteous theme song. It’s clear he and the others are not aware of their existence as toys, and whenever Trixie makes mention of their reality it’s met with confusion by Reptillus, and anger by The Cleric who continues to lurk in the shadows.
Trixie first encounters Reptillus Maximus.
A battle is organized and Trixie has it sold to her that this is a major part of the culture of Battlesaurs. They thrive in combat, and a gladiator-styled ring is erected for the toys to engage in combat. Trixie joins Reptillus, but soon she realizes that this activity is rather barbaric. Toys she used to play with at Mason’s house are brought into the ring against their will and are systematically dismantled by Reptillus. She does not like this ferocious side of Reptillus, and she likes it even less when her friends are brought in to fight. Woody and Buzz are forced to face the duo in combat, and it’s Woody who reveals to Trixie that these toys have never been played with. The two put up a good fight against Reptillus, but he eventually gains the upper-hand. As he prepares to finish the duo, Trixie makes the save and smashes into Reptillus declaring him a bully. Frustrated, The Cleric summons a new dinosaur; a giant, Rancor-like beast. Woody and Buzz are soon swallowed by soon swallowed by it much to Trixie’s horror.
Trixie and Rex really take to this new dinosaur culture they’ve stumbled upon.
Trixie makes an attempt to free her friends recognizing the button on the beast that works its jaw. She is unable to do so though, and when knocked over the other toys see her mark. The “Bonnie” written on her foot is declared the mark of obedience, something which the Battlesaurs have been conditioned to shun. Trixie tries to play it off as no big deal, since it truly is not to her, but The Cleric orders her seized. He’s brought a controller and it’s revealed that it controls the arms and leg attachments that have been placed on Rex. He forces Rex to go after Trixie, and she in turn is forced to run with Reptillus ordered to give chase. As Trixie runs through the maze of boxes and playsets, Reptillus is close behind. He eventually comes face to face with his own packaging. Seeing himself, he has a crisis of faith, but is still unwilling to admit to himself he is in fact a toy.
Woody and Buzz not having a good time.
Woody and Buzz are taken to The Cleric’s apparent lair. There The Cleric has Rex remove the pair from the bowels of the other toy, and Angel Kitty is also regurgitated. Woody and Buzz then learn that The Cleric is able to spy on Mason using a periscope-like feature on one of the playsets. He wants Mason to remain occupied by his new gaming console so that he may rule the play room with the other Battlesaurs ignorant of their station (one onlooker even remarks “What’s ignorant mean?). This is his master plan, and he intends to dispose of the nuisance toys.
Reptillus comes face to face with his packaging.
Trixie makes a break for the TV room where Bonnie and Mason are still playing. She’s able to get under the television and as she treks through the tangle of wires all of her new armor is dislodged. She eventually reaches her destination: the surge protector. Waiting for her is Reptillus, but she shoves past him. She tries reasoning with him, explaining that part of the joy of being a toy is being played with by an imaginative child. And as she attempts to convince Reptillus of this, it’s clear she’s also convincing herself. Reptillus doesn’t know what to believe, but Trixie presses further. Reptillus acknowledges what she speaks of as “surrender,” but the look in his eyes suggests that maybe he’s ready to surrender. He then takes up his default pose, and it’s Reptillus that turns off the surge protector. With the game turned off, Mason reaches under the television and finds Reptillus. He gives the figure a look, before Bonnie runs over and declares it’s cool. She starts playing with Reptillus as Mason turns his game back on, but as he goes to sit down he gives Bonnie a look. She’s already crafting a backstory for Reptillus and Mason is intrigued. He puts down his controller and goes over to Bonnie to learn more.
Things aren’t looking so good in the playroom.
In the playroom, Rex has been forced to carry Woody and Buzz towards a heating vent where a whirling fan awaits. Angel Kitty plays a mournful tune on his/her horn as the toy is being carried hanging from an axe. Another Battlesaur grabs the horn and tosses it into the fan where it breaks into pieces. As Woody and Buzz dangle precariously over the opening, Mason and Bonnie rush in. The two come in like a whirlwind and start grabbing all of the toys in sight. Bonnie is happy to see her “baby reindeer” with Trixie having returned the little pipe cleaner attachments to her horns (quite the achievement for a toy with no hands) to play the role Bonnie seems to prefer for her. Even The Cleric gets scooped up into the action as the kids decide to have a dance party.
At last, the toys get to play.
Mason and Bonnie are shown enjoying the vast amount of toys in the playroom via montage, and the frozen, plastic, faces of Reptillus and Trixie somehow convey a sense of contentment. Eventually, all play dates must come to an end and Bonnie heads home. Trixie and the others fill in the toys left behind when they get home on what happened while Trixie declares she’s found a new appreciation for Bonnie and how she’s utilized in play. Angel Kitty appears to reaffirm the message of the special, and then vanishes confusing the onlooking toys. We then see Mason, once again, only now he’s fast asleep clutching his Reptillus Maximus. The toy wriggles free from Mason’s grasp and we see he’s been “branded” on his hand. The Cleric is also shown apparently happy to be utilized like a nightlight as he possesses illuminated wings on his back. Reptillus goes to the window and forlornly looks out with anticipation of seeing Trixie of the Bonnie Tribe once again – Tuesday around 3:30.
There’s a real “post sex” vibe to this scene between Trixie and Reptillus following an exhausting playdate.
Toy Story That Time Forgot is a Christmas special that is exceptionally light on the holiday. The opening scene contains a Christmas tree and some décor, but following that our only holiday expression is essentially Angel Kitty, a surprisingly secular choice. Anyone who has ever seen a home occupied by a child after Christmas is certainly familiar with the boxes and general chaos the holiday leaves behind. Though in the case of Mason, that is taken to another level. Even on my best holiday, I probably didn’t come close to getting half the stuff Mason apparently received. I suppose it’s possible he didn’t get all of those toys for Christmas, but considering pretty much every toy in the room also has a corresponding box it sure makes it seem like this all just arrived.
The Cleric is written and played in such a silly manner by Steve Purcell that it’s actually hard not to like him.
The general plot for this one relies heavily on the familiar topic of a toy not realizing it’s a toy. We saw this with Buzz in the first film and this special can’t shake that familiar feeling. It makes Toy Story That Time Forgot feel like a truncated version of that story only with the focus being on Trixie and Reptillus instead of Woody and Buzz. It also turns it on its head a bit with Trixie being captivated by Reptillus, rather than annoyed and jealous. There’s also the nefarious motivations of The Cleric who’s actually utilizing the ignorance of his tribe to further his own goals where as Buzz wasn’t really hurting anyone with his delusions. It may be a bit of retread, but it’s at least tidy and there’s plenty of humor and charm to go around. We all know where the story is going basically from the moment the plot is established and we know it’s all just a means for Trixie to have a better appreciation for her lot in life, but predictable doesn’t automatically mean bad.
The Battlesaurs are pretty damn cool and I kind of wish they existed in the real world.
What keeps this special interesting and entertaining is the design of the Battlesaurs. It’s obvious a lot of thought when into the creation of this fictitious toyline. I get a real Masters of the Universe vibe from some of the playsets we see, and I love how the animators kept everything grounded. It’s obvious these are toys and they move and function like toys, so while it’s a bit horrifying to see Woody and Buzz devoured by a dinosaur, we also know it’s a plastic toy that is supposed to “eat” other toys with no actual harm coming to the ingested toy. The remote-controlled dinosaur arms are a bit weird and convenient for the plot of this one, but I suppose for a toyline consisting entirely of dinosaurs it wouldn’t be out of the question for something like that to actually exist for the T-Rex characters. The Battlesaurs are so convincing as an actual toy property that I wish Disney had gone ahead and had a bunch of these things made. Maybe if the special had done some crazy viewership numbers Disney would have, but alas these beings exist only in this fantasy world.
Even though it’s made for TV, this special still looks about as awesome as you would expect a Pixar feature to look.
Toy Story That Time Forgot is a fine piece of entertainment. No, it doesn’t come close to matching the heart of the films, and I do enjoy Toy Story of Terror! more, but it’s still worth an annual viewing. It’s not going to bring the Christmas cheer though, so I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t feel like this is required Christmas viewing. It’s at least extremely accessible as ABC and Freeform will air this special this year. ABC usually devotes Thursday nights to Christmas programming, and in particular, Disney specials and often pairs this one with the Frozen special. Freeform will show it multiple times as the month goes along so if you miss the network broadcast, you have cable to fallback on. And the special is also available to stream on Disney+, and if you really enjoy it, you can purchase it on physical media as well.
Tomorrow is December 1st, and it’s that time of year when this blog goes Christmas! Yes, 2020 has been a horrendously shitty year so Christmas can’t come soon enough. Of course, it’s a Christmas tinged with disease this year as we’re almost certainly going to be asked to quarantine for another holiday as the world waits for a vaccine for Covid-19. I suppose that makes it a Christmas guaranteed to be memorable, though for mostly bad reasons.
Well, if we’re going to be stuck inside for much of December then we’re really going to need to dust off some Christmas specials. As in years past, each day of December leading up to and including Christmas will be met with a blog post about a Christmas special. Some are obscure, while some should be fairly popular, but all are definitely Christmas-related. And if one special per day just isn’t enough, there’s years worth of content to go through! Just refer to the official Christmas Spot index page to find the specials of holidays past.
The good news about 2020 is that there are a ton of streaming options available to the average consumer and thus a plethora of Christmas specials are just a click away! Between Netflix, YouTube, Prime, Hulu, HBO, and Disney+ you should have little trouble finding some holiday specials. Though I did want to take this moment to a pick a few bones with these networks, because some specials are still hard to come by that really shouldn’t be.
Now, I really don’t have too many bones to pick with Netflix or YouTube, since they’re pretty new to content creation. And I can’t say anything about HBO since I don’t currently subscribe. With Hulu though, I got a problem! The entire series of The Venture Bros. (RIP) is available to stream on Hulu, with one exception – The Christmas Special! Why oh why is that not included? It’s a mere 15 minutes and the only episode of the show that’s a short. Hulu even has the pilot episode of the show, but not this Christmas special. And with HBO looking to get all of the Adult Swim content under its umbrella, it’s unlikely Hulu can go back and get more content without paying big bucks so if you want to watch it, get the DVD, I guess.
The only platform I take issue with is Disney+. The service has been around for a little over a year now and it’s been an okay debut. Some positives (The Mandalorian) mix with some negatives (stability is still an issue), but for the most part I would call Disney+ a success considering there is a lot of content and it’s one of the cheapest platforms around. However, I cannot overlook some glaring omissions in the area of Christmas.
First off, the entire series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command is missing. A lot of Disney Afternoon and Disney Afternoon adjacent shows are still missing, but this one stings a little because it’s the only series based on a Pixar property and it features a Christmas episode! And speaking of Pixar, Disney has yet to add Toy Story that Time Forgot, the sort-of Christmas special that gets aired annually on ABC, but this may be temporary. This year, Toy Story of Terror was added to Disney+ during the month of October so this one may yet surface in December.
A bigger omission and one that seems unlikely to be rectified, is the missing Mickey Mouse special Duck the Halls. Based on the new Mickey cartoons, this one is excellent though Disney has failed to give it a network timeslot because Disney doesn’t love its legacy characters as much as it should. And since the Halloween special from the same universe is still M.I.A., I have little faith in this one being added. Perhaps the bigger omission though, is the classic short Toy Tinkers starring Donald Duck and the duo Chip and Dale. I see no reason why Duck the Halls shouldn’t be added, but I’m guessing this one isn’t there because there’s some gunplay in the cartoon and in particular, Donald pointing a revolver right in the face of the chipmunks. I think every classic short needs to be added, so obviously I don’t think the presence of a gun should keep Toy Tinkers off of the streaming service. Just slap a disclaimer on it and move on! Also missing is the Silly Symphony short The Night Before Christmas and that’s due to a blackface gag. That one isn’t nearly as good as Toy Tinkers so it’s not a huge omission, but I felt like I should point it out.
Lastly, the one that puzzles me the most, is the missing Have Yourself a Goofy Little Christmas. This was essentially the series finale to Goof Troop. It was given a network timeslot in prime time for its initial airing and I guess it’s because of that airing that Disney doesn’t consider it part of Goof Troop? I don’t know, but I expected to find it with Goof Troop last year, but it wasn’t there and it’s still not there!
Anyway, don’t let these shortcomings with our streaming options get you down. There’s still a lot of Christmas content to consume out there, and as the days go by, I’ll do my best to point you towards the best place to view the specials. So get cozy, grab a festive beverage, and enjoy the ride! I’ll have more posts about toys and junk after Christmas has come and gone.
2020 is probably going to be remembered for a lot of things, as most years are, but it’s hard to imagine it being more remembered for anything other than Covid-19, aka coronavirus. The global pandemic has shuttered businesses, cost people their jobs (and lives), while turning us all into hermits. Social distancing is a phrase we’ve all learned and are unlikely to forget. And as we move beyond this era which will hopefully end in a return to normalcy, there will be things forever associated with this period in time and one of those items forever linked to Covid-19 is the Pixar animated feature Onward.
Onward was wide-released on March 6, 2020. Roughly two weeks later, the film industry came to a screeching halt. Even when the film opened, some were already staying away from crowded places before many states in the US started forcing closures of non-essential businesses. As a result, Onward became Pixar’s lowest grossing movie through no fault of its own. As of this writing, it’s estimated to have earned a little over 100 million dollars. With no end in sight to the current climate, Disney saw no reason to keep it in theaters. Disney decided to make the best of the current situation and quickly pivoted Onward to digital using it as a lure to get more subscribers to its relatively new streaming service Disney+. Patrons could pay to rent the film digitally on March 20, or wait for it to arrive on Disney+ on April 4, less than a month after its theatrical release. Because it’s so new and people are forced to stay at home, it’s possible more eyeballs will be trained on this film than some other recent Pixar fare because it’s quite a novelty to have a brand new Pixar feature so readily available.
Brothers and Ian and Barely are going on a quest to resurrect their father and maybe learn a thing or two about each other.
Onward is a buddy comedy starring two brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), who embark on a “quest” to restore their late father to life for one day. The hook of the feature is that it’s set in a modern-day fantasy world. The premise is essentially what would a classic fantasy world have evolved into once things like electricity were discovered? The answer seems to be that magic was largely abandoned in favor of modern technology which advanced largely in step with our world. The main difference is that elves and orcs live side-by-side and some never found better housing than hollowed out giant mushrooms. The film was conceived by director Dan Scanlon who shares a similar backstory to the central characters here in that he and his brother lost their dad at a young age. Jason Headley and Keith Bunin were brought on to refine the screenplay and the story centers on the brother protagonists and explores their relationship with each other.
Ian is the more central figure of the story. He’s about to turn 16 and is a shy individual with few friends. Barley, his older brother, is more boisterous and in-love with the world’s fantastical history. He’s also a bit of an activist, as he sometimes clashes with their mother’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) police officer boyfriend (a centaur voiced by Mel Rodriguez) when he stands in the way of demolition crews looking to tare down old world relics. When their mother was pregnant with Ian, and Barely was quite young, their father passed away after suffering an illness. With Ian coming to age though, their mother presents them with a gift their father left for them and it turns out to be a magic staff with instructions how to bring their father back for one day. Ian sees this as a way to finally meet the man he only knows through pictures and an audio recording. When the spell goes wrong though, the boys are forced to seek out a new source of magic which takes them on a road trip. Barley, being a history buff, is excited to embark on what he considers a quest while Ian just wants to get it done and over with as quickly as possible so they have the maximum amount of time available to them to spend with their dad.
An early, quiet, moment where Ian listens to a recording of his dad he’s probably played a thousand times.
The film is largely a comedy with some fantastic set pieces and visual moments. The humor is derived from both physical comedy and conventional gags. The film mostly puts the visual gags of introducing fantasy creatures into suburbia upfront freeing it to be more creative as the film rolls along. It’s genuinely funny, though like the best Pixar features it relies more on heart and characters. Barley, being the excitable one, is often impulsive which clashes with Ian’s cautious approach. Barley would rather follow his gut while Ian wants to stick to a map the two find early on. The two need each other though, for it turns out Ian has an aptitude for magic and is able to make use of their father’s staff and the spells in Barley’s possession normally relegated to a Dungeons & Dragons type of game. And Ian needs Barley’s help because he can do practical things like drive. There are natural moments of conflict that can arise from this situation, and it’s easy to see these moments coming as Ian largely keeps quiet and defers to Barley, but you know he’s simmering on the inside at times. The film is a bit of a disguised film about what it means to be brothers. It seems to want viewers to think of it as a father-son pic at the onset, before pivoting to this brotherhood theme.
As someone who grew up reading lots of fantasy books, I welcome this setting and premise of Onward. Ian’s magical staff starts off rather neat, but it does threaten to become a crutch in order to advance the plot. The boys often run into an obstacle with the answer to such being a new spell for Ian to try out that Barley suggests. The film does at least utilize this arrangement to force the characters to learn how to work together. Initially, Barely’s suggestions on spells will be met with doubt from Ian with the miscasts even affecting Barley in a negative fashion. Ian will have to learn to trust his brother’s knowledge of the arcane, as well as his own abilities, in order to actually wield it effectively. It still ends up functioning as a deus ex machina, for the most part, but at least there’s the added goal of bringing the two characters closer.
Barley’s enthusiasm for history, which for this world is basically Dungeons & Dragons, is a source of embarrassment for brother Ian.
Because the film does deal with death in some way, it naturally lends itself to comparisons to Coco (and I suspect the upcoming film Soul will as well). It’s a bit unfortunate as Coco is quite possibly the best film Pixar has ever produced, it’s certainly my favorite. And it’s a wonderful film that Onward really can’t match. The plot beats here are pretty easy to see coming and it’s basically accepted at the outset that this is a film that will try to make you cry come the end. It’s at least more sincere and focused than a similar Pixar flick The Good Dinosaur. Where that film felt manipulative at times, this one does a better job of being sincere and earning its watery moments. Some viewers might feel conflicted about the ending, but it’s at least the one moment where the film does wander off the formula a touch. It’s accepted that things won’t go perfectly for Ian and Barley in their quest to be reunited with their father, but that also won’t stop viewers from yearning for that outcome.
Corey and Laurel could have been an interesting pair for the film’s B-plot, but it doesn’t really find anything unique for them to do.
Ian and Barley’s adventure is the main focus of the film, and it’s smart to do so. There are some solid side characters, but they have a hard time taking our focus away from Ian and Barley. The main side plot involves their mother , Laurel, who pairs up with a manticore named Corey (Octavia Spencer), who happens to know where the brothers are heading and, more importantly, knows they’re about to unleash a curse upon the world. The two are in a race to stop them, but we mostly know how that will play out based on similar stories. The brothers also have a couple of brushes with the law, but that’s mostly resolved fairly quickly before the film can get all Smokey and the Bandit on us. Mostly when the film was away from the brothers I just wanted to get back to them. I understand it needs to show us what’s happening elsewhere so the eventual meet-up between all of the characters is earned, but it wasn’t as fun as it could have been. Which is a shame, because the characters of Laurel and Corey have chemistry together and I think there was room for them in the film, but they just weren’t able to find it.
Mychael and Jeff Danna handled the film’s score and it’s not afraid to lean into that fantasy setting vibe. There’s also an original song over the ending credits performed by Brandi Carlile. The score is mostly fine, though I was disappointed with it in some areas. It doesn’t take many chances to meld the fantasy with modern sounds. When it goes for a gag in which Barley selects some questing music it also falls flat. Maybe they originally intended to license something, but instead it’s just bland synth-rock when I was looking for something bombastic akin to Rhapsody of Fire.
There’s magic to be found in this world, but the film doesn’t rely on it for visual spectacles too much.
Onward is a film rescued by its heart. It has a solid premise for a story and finds a way to arrive at a clever conclusion, even if the plot beats to get there feel very familiar. I think it could have done more with its setting. The idea is there, and some of the gags are well-played, but the whole thing feels surprisingly underplayed both visually and in the score. The actual technical abilities of the film also are not wow-inducing. Pixar is somewhat harmed by its own legacy in that respect since we’re so used to the studio raising the bar, but instead Onward is just comfortably fine. It does save its best piece of technical art for the end, which is a logical move, but it’s also not the type of visual you’ll walk away from saying “You have got to see this!” The relationship of brothers Ian and Barely though is what makes the film, and it’s not afraid to lean on the two. Pratt and Holland are both charismatic and believable in their roles and the characters are handled with grace. It’s hard for the audience to side with one over the other. They’re both right in some places, and weak in others. It’s easy to relate to both and thus hard to even pick a favorite.
It should also go without saying that the focus of the film on loss is easy to relate to. We either are that someone or know someone who has lost their father. Many can even relate to Ian as someone who never knew a parent due to tragedy. It’s a very compelling plot device to ask an audience what they would do in order to have one more day with someone they love. As a result, it’s almost impossible to separate this film from real world examples. If the film dwelled on that too much it would have felt manipulative, but instead it presents the premise and then lets it mostly simmer on the back burner. Because that sense of loss is such a personal thing, I suspect this movie will appeal more to people willing to allow themselves to “go there” and be vulnerable for 100 minutes or so. I would say Onward will be among the most polarizing for Pixar, but I think that’s too strong a word. There will be some who cite this as their new favorite from the studio, but few will number it among the worst. I think the divide will largely fall on the line of those who consider it great, and those who found it entertaining.
I lean more towards the latter, as I think the film offers a totally worthwhile and enjoyable experience, but it won’t be threatening to dethrone the likes of Coco and Finding Nemo for me. And in many ways I don’t think my opinion matters. Onward feels like a movie made by Dan Scanlon (and other talented people) for Dan Scanlon to process and deal with the tragedy in his past. He wasn’t able to wield a magical staff, but hopefully he and his brother were able to arrive at a similar place to Ian and Barley. And ultimately, I hope Onward ended up being the movie he wanted to make.