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The Secret of NIMH (1982)

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.

Bluth wanted to prove to Disney that others were capable of outperforming them and The Secret of NIMH certainly packs the visuals.

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.

Mrs. Brisby is out to save little Timmy. I feel like it’s always a “little Timmy.”

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.

Jeremy is the character we’re supposed to laugh at, but I didn’t hear much laughing in my home.

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 film’s decision to shoehorn some magical elements into it doesn’t really satisfy from a plot perspective, but it’s at least visually interesting.

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.


Dec. 5 – The Captain’s Christmas

The Captain’s Christmas premiered December 17, 1938

Did you ever wonder where those speech balloons in comic books came from? Maybe you just assumed they were always there, but they actually originate from a comic strip titled The Katzenjammer Kids. The strip was created by cartoonist Rudolph Dirks and it debuted in newspapers in December of 1897. It was incredibly popular for its time, and after Dirks jumped ship from the Hearst Organization, he was forced to continue the strip under a different name: The Captain and the Kids.

The Captain and the Kids ran in newspapers all the way until 1979 while Hearst actually continued The Katzenjammer Kids into the new millennium. Neither series has a ton of name recognition these days since print cartoon strips are all but dead, but for its time period The Captain and the Kids was quite popular. Popular enough that when MGM was looking to get into the cartoon making business, it turned to the franchise and some now familiar names served as directors: William Hanna, Bob Allen, and Friz Freleng. Despite the strip’s popularity, the cartoon series was viewed as a flop. After roughly a year and 15 cartoons, MGM put an end to The Captain and the Kids and turned its attention to other projects.

During its brief run, The Captain and the Kids did manage to bestow upon us one Christmas short: The Captain’s Christmas. The Captain (voiced by Billy Bletcher, best known as the voice of Pete from the Mickey Mouse shorts) is the star of the shorts and as his name (title?) implies he’s a sailor, only he’s shipwrecked and has taken to a role of surrogate father for the local kids. His rival is the pirate John Silver (Mel Blanc) who causes trouble for the Captain. The twins Hans and Fritz, basically the real stars of the strips, are present but take a back seat to the Captain. Their mama, who is just referred to as Mama (Martha Wentworth), is another supporting character. Thirteen of the fifteen cartoons were presented in black and white, with The Captain’s Christmas being the first done in Technicolor.

The cartoon, directed by Freleng, opens with a shot that appears to be from the vantage point of someone looking through a telescope. A stereotypical pirate voice narrates the scene of a snow covered town and children hanging stockings in their warm house. The Captain then comes into the picture dressed as Santa Claus with a cow dressed-up as a reindeer pulling his sleigh. We then see our narrator is John Silver, and if I didn’t know Mel Blanc was performing his voice I wouldn’t have guessed it. He thinks he’d be a better Santa than the Captain, and the three sailor stooges around him agree, and we have a plot!

The poor guy is just trying to do something nice and he winds up with three guns drawn on him on Christmas Eve.

The Captain rigs up a pulley system to hoist his “reindeer” and sleigh onto the roof feeling this is required to complete the stunt. The little pirate henchmen then show up behind him and hold him up. This allows Silver to jump in and strip the Captain of his Santa disguise and commandeer it for his own good. Silver Claus grabs the rope the Captain was holding and as the cow falls from the roof, he goes up. The others are left to panic momentarily before the cow lands on them.

This Santa is a god damn maniac!

On the roof, Silver has some trouble getting his barings. He has a peg leg after all, which can’t make navigating a snow-covered roof easy. He slips and goes tumbling into the chimeny, which breaks apart and then messily re-assembles itself as he falls in. In the house, Mama and her boys are forced to scramble as “Santa” comes tumbling in. The boys are pretty pumped to see Santa in their house, though Silver is a bit out of sorts at first. He soon remembers what’s going on and then whips out his pistol and starts blasting in celebration of his arrival. He even blasts open the sack full of toys and they all come spilling out looking no worse for ware. And upon first inspection, none appear to be racist – it’s a 1930’s cartoon Christmas miracle!

Damnit…

Silver continues his jaunty celebration and then turns his attention to the blond boy (I don’t know which is Hans and which is Fritz) who is playing with a dancing, marionette, toy. Unfortunately, the toy is horribly racist so there goes our Christmas miracle. And then to rub salt in our eye wounds, Silver starts shooting at the toy’s feet to make it dance more violently which is in incredibly poor taste (what little I know of this comic strip though makes it apparent there’s a lot of problematic elements that wouldn’t fly today). The other pirates watch from the window as Silver continues to get out of control even swiping a tricycle from one of the kids declaring it’s his turn to play with it.

Look at this asshole! It’s not enough to steal the kid’s bike, he’s gotta hang him from the tree too.

Silver rides around the room on the bike, and while he does he gets a reprimanding look from a jack-in-the-box which is rather clever. He ends up crashing into a bunch of toys though and winding up on some horse toy. The pirates outside make a reference to The Lone Ranger as Silver continues to smash through the house leaving carnage in his wake. He eventually comes to rest atop a pile of broken toys and the remnants of the family’s Christmas tree. As he has a good laugh, he looks around and realizes he’s the only one laughing.

I hope you’re proud of yourself, Impostor Claus!

The kids, devastated that Santa showed up only to destroy everything, are weeping and Mama looks distressed as well. Silver immediately starts to feel bad as he’s soon accosted by his inner child who appears beside his head similar to the old devil/angel gag. As the child berates him, he soon begins to sob as he realizes he’s ruined Christmas for these lads. The child asks him how he plans to fix this mess and then whispers a suggestion into his ear. Silver immediately perks up and heads out.

I’ve heard of worse ideas, I suppose.

In the snowy town, Silver is pulled down the streets by the cow from earlier. He comes to rest in the center of town, and pulling out a little tuning fork, tells the other pirates he intends to secure those kids a big, barrel, of money. They then go into song, “Hang Up the Holly in the Window,” but the town does not reciprocate with money. John reasons they need to do it better, so they restart the song only this time at a faster tempo and an overall more cheerful vibe.

I think this is what got the crowd on their side.

The townsfolk do not respond in kind to this livelier version and soon start tossing all manner of junk from their homes in a bid to silence the troupe. For some reason, everyone is dressed as Santa Claus too. Eventualy they start throwing larger objects like a piano, freezer, and even a bathtub which the boys have some fun with. As the song moves along, they start getting pelted with toys as they row the bathtub down the street. Soon, they have enough toys to fill the sleigh, and John Silver instructs his would-be reindeer to head back to the house he massacred earlier.

Incoming!

Inside the home, the Captain has joined Mama and the boys as they rush to the fireplace because they hear a commotion. Soon a barrage toys comes rushing in like a tidal wave burying the home in goodies. The kids are happy, and even the adults don’t seem to mind the incredible amount of toys they’ll be stepping on for months.

Well, at least there do not appear to be any racist toys this time.

Outside, John Silver looks through the window and seems quite proud of himself. His inner child from earlier shows up again to congratulate him, and even plants a little kiss on his head. John Silver laughs and appears to be genuinely happy with himself as the short comes to an end.

John Silver gets to be happy with himself in the end, so happy that he imagines a child version of himself giving him a kiss.

The Captain’s Christmas is a simple little short that manages to tell a unique Christmas story. Even though it’s titled The Captain’s Christmas, it’s really John Silver’s Christmas as the trickster and glory hog commandeers the Captain’s surprise and gets to present himself as Santa Claus. He comes across as a jerk, but apparently a well-meaning one as when he realizes he did a bad thing he sets out to make it right. And conveniently, he’s able to and ends up giving the kids an even better Christmas than they would have had, if we’re simply going by the volume of toys they received. It’s fine as a tale, though John Silver is the only worthwhile character as he dominates everything.

They probably should have called this series The Misadventures of John Silver.

The Captain and the Kids may have failed as a cartoon series, but it doesn’t appear as if budget had anything to do with that. It’s quite competently animated by MGM, though the actual short basically forgoes any credits. If IMDB can be trusted, this short was animated by George Gordon, Emery Hawkins, Irven Spence, and Jack Zander, all of whom enjoyed lengthy careers as animators. Future household name Joseph Barbera wrote this one, and as mentioned earlier, Freleng was in the director’s chair. The coloring on the short looks great even today, and I’m assuming no one bothered to remaster this one. I don’t think I’d call any of the visual gags truly memorably, but few stuck out as cliche for 1938 so it at least has an original feel to it.

This cartoon looks good enough, and there’s some solid Christmas imagery as well.

Ultimately, The Captain and the Kids was a failure of a cartoon series and I suppose it’s because it wasn’t truly memorable or stand-out. Everything that is here, be it the music, voice acting, animation, is all fine, but it feels like this was MGM figuring out the medium before going onto bigger and better things. It’s nice though to have a Christmas short that isn’t just two parties battling around a tree or one that’s just a visit from Santa in which nothing exciting happens. There’s some conflict here, a little slapstick, and someone is even moved by the holiday into doing something good. It checks all the boxes, just without any exclamation points.

In short: it’s fine.

It probably will not surprise anyone when I say The Captain’s Christmas is very easy to come by should you wish to watch it this year. Warner Bros. owns the copyright now, but isn’t very protective of it. There’s also no comprehensive release of The Captain and the Kids on DVD, but you can find this cartoon on The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 6 as a special feature on disc two as part of a Friz Freleng spotlight. Since that comes with three other discs of classic Looney Tunes shorts, it obviously comes with my recommendation. If for some reason you don’t want to own Looney Tunes shorts, you can also stream this one for free with minimal effort. Seriously, just type it into YouTube.


Dec. 15 – The Night Before Christmas with Tom and Jerry

tom and jerry xmas

Originally released December 6, 1941

As someone who loves the cartoon shorts produced by Warner and Disney, I sometimes am guilty of overlooking the contributions of MGM from that same era. MGM was a big player back then, and their flagship creation was Tom and Jerry. The cat and mouse pair first debuted in 1940 and were the creation of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, two folks most associated with television creations through their company Hanna-Barbera. Because the quality of those television productions is largely poor, Hanna-Barbera is more of a punch-line in the world of animation which is why I always try to keep things in scope. Their creation of Tom and Jerry is their crowning achievement and their greatest contribution to the world of animation. They were also responsible for bringing animation to television, which is something we can likely all agree was a good thing, even if we turn our noses up at the likes of Jabber Jaw and Grape Ape.

Tom and Jerry’s third cartoon was the 1941 classic The Night Before Christmas. It was nominated, but did not win, an Academy Award and it was once a Christmas staple on Cartoon Network, but is now relegated to home video and streaming services. It was written and directed by the duo of Hanna and Barbera and even features voice work by Clarence Nash, as Tom, who is most famous for being the voice of Donald Duck. He went uncredited in this short, perhaps because of his association with Disney or perhaps just because a lot of folks initially went uncredited who work in animation.

jerry trap

Jerry’s too smart to fall for that.

The short opens with a narrator (Frank Graham) reciting the opening to A Visit from Saint Nicholas, more commonly referred to simply as Twas the Night Before Christmas. The camera pans through a cozy home all decorated for Christmas and rests on a mouse nook in the wall with a mousetrap outside it. The trap contains a wedge of cheese with a festive red ribbon placed around. Given the cheese is in a trap, I’m thinking this isn’t the work of one Santa Claus. The narrator ends his narration after the conclusion of the mouse line from the poem, which is Jerry’s cue to emerge from his home.

one happy mouse

Jerry is so stinkin’ adorable throughout this cartoon.

Jerry is a happy little rodent who seems delighted by the festive decor. He pays the cheese no mind as he happily skips over to the Christmas tree which is loaded with gifts and treats. He finds a candy cane and licks the stripe off of it and also manages to get his head stuck in the mouth of a stuffed lion. He soon discovers that same lion has a squeaky toy in its belly, and he delights in bouncing up and down on it to make it squeak. The force of his bounce causes him to bounce off of the lion and come to rest on a soft, furry, gray surface. Mistaking this for another toy, he bounces up and down trying to make it squeak, only to come to find he’s actually bouncing on the rump of one Tom the cat.

jerry attacked

I bet I know how this encounter ends…

Upon being woken up by the careless mouse, Tom takes a swipe at him only for Jerry to avoid him and slap a Do Not Open Until Christmas sticker over his mouth. It’s a frequent gag in old cartoons, even in ones not taking place at Christmas (Daffy Duck Hunt). Tom chases Jerry around the Christmas tree and through the various toys where the characters pause for comic hijinks. Jerry uses the various toys to his advantage, and even demonstrates how cartoon science works. Upon noticing a missing bulb in a string of Christmas lights on the tree, Jerry jumps into the exposed socket and immediately glows like an angel atop a tree. When Tom grabs Jerry he’s immediately electrocuted though Jerry is unharmed.

xmas gag

…nailed it!

Jerry is able to escape through more toys and comes to rest atop a model train. Tom is forced to stop when the crossing bar for the train is lowered and Jerry goes on by. He’s a bit careless though as he’s knocked from the train when he fails to duck for a tunnel giving Tom an opening. Jerry hides in a boxing glove and is able to jab at Tom who grabs the matching glove. He gives chase once more and Jerry takes shelter in a box, which turns out to be a jack-in-the-box which belts Tom in the face.

lighted jerry

I’ve seen enough cartoons to know it won’t end well for you, Tom, if you touch that mouse.

After recovering from the blow of the toy, Tom gives chase once more and Jerry arms himself with a piece of mistletoe he plucked from a wrapped gift. He stands there holding it over his head while making kissing faces towards Tom. Tom pauses in his pursuit to fold his arms across his chest and feign indifference to Jerry’s advances. He soon softens and appears to be flattered at Jerry’s proposal, eventually giving in and kissing the little mouse. While Tom is basking in the the afterglow of the smooch, Jerry slips behind him and kicks him in the butt.

tom and jerry mistletoe

Mistletoe:  the only aphrodisiac that works on sight.

Tom, now wounded both physically and emotionally, chases Jerry once more who jumps through the mail slot in the door and escapes outside. From there he’s able to pelt Tom with a well-aimed snowball through the mail slot, but it’s his final act of mischief as Tom simply piles household objects in front of the door to prevent Jerry from getting back in.

concerned tom

Tom soon begins to worry about that adorable little mouse.

Satisfied he’s dealt with the mouse, Tom grabs a fluffy pillow and prepares to lay down beside a roaring fire. As he does so the mournful tunes of “Silent Night” begin to play, and Tom looks over at the blocked mail slot with some concern. Jerry is shown pacing back and forth in the snow outside. The camera jumps between the two as the volume of the music increases. Tom tries to distract himself, but it’s clear he’s experiencing some guilt over trapping the mouse out in the cold. Jerry continues to pace as the snow accumulates around him eventually overtaking him. When Tom can’t stand it any longer, he races over to the door and removes the blockage. He then hides behind a corner and waits for Jerry to come back in. When he doesn’t, Tom opens the door and sees a snow-covered object sticking up from out of the snow. He grabs it and it at first resembles a popsicle. He shakes it to reveal a frozen Jerry and he races back inside.

frozen jerry

A mousicle.

By the fire, Tom thaws Jerry out by the tail and places him on his pillow. As Jerry comes to, he’s at first scared to see Tom but is soon gifted a candy cane from the now softened cat. He happily licks it while Tom goes over to a bowl of milk to indulge himself. Jerry then races over to stop Tom from drinking the milk. He plunges the candy cane into the milk splashing Tom in the process, but also triggering a mouse trap he had apparently hidden in the milk for his adversary. Tom smiles and returns to his milk while Jerry heads for his nook. He pauses outside it and takes note of the wrapped cheese wedge on the mouse trap. Using the hooked end of his candy cane, he safely removes the cheese only for the trap to snap-back and reveal it wasn’t a trap at all, but a music box which plays “Jingle Bells.” As the song plays, Jerry looks to the camera with glee as the short ends.

jerry rescue

Jerry repays the favor, because Christmas.

The Night Before Christmas is a delightful little short starring Tom and Jerry. It contains the chase scenes the duo is known for while also putting a Christmas spin on everything. The layout of the home and the various Christmas decorations creates a very festive setting. It’s a home I want to visit for Christmas. The sweet conclusion of the short is also the right note to strike for a Christmas themed cartoon. It’s interesting that MGM was willing to show Tom and Jerry in such a light after only a few shorts, but it’s still sweet nonetheless and for most people who actually view it today I doubt it feels too soon. There’s plenty of festive music as well, and I’m glad the short didn’t include the entire poem it borrows its title from. This is also the only post this year that is duplicative of acartoonchristmas.com, but it’s so wonderful I think there’s plenty of room for many posts like this.

jerrys happy xmas

Just look at that happy little guy!

Visually the short is near breathtaking. Jerry is so plump and happy and his expressions feel authentic and genuine. I love how happy he is just checking out all of the Christmas toys under the tree and his expression to close short is perfection. Tom has a nice scruff to his appearance, considering he is a tom cat after all, but he too is capable of all manner of expressions. I really enjoyed the back and forth between he and Jerry during the mistletoe scene, and Tom’s anguish over Jerry being locked out in the cold was played well. The characters do not speak, so it falls on the animators to make sure we understand what they’re experiencing in the moment. A particular triumph is when Tom removes the obstruction from the door in hopes that Jerry will return. He hides behind the wall likely because he’s not entirely sure he’s comfortable with Jerry knowing he extended such a courtesy to him, but all the while the look of fear is etched on his face that the little mouse is no more.

Tom and Jerry cartoons may not air on television much anymore, but they’re still easy to come by. This particular short has been released several times on home video including the Christmas themed Tom and Jerry: Santa’s Little Helpers and the Blu-ray release Tom and Jerry Golden Collection Volume One. If you just want to see this short and aren’t interested in purchasing a DVD or Blu-ray, you probably won’t have much trouble finding it online for free to stream. And I totally recommend it as this is right up there with my favorite Christmas shorts from Disney.


Dec. 1 – George & Junior’s Christmas Spectacular

GeorgeAndJuniorsXmasSpectacular

George and Junior’s Christmas Spectacular (1995)

Welcome to the inaugural post in this year’s edition of The Christmas Spot! We’re giving you a write-up each day in December as we march towards Christmas that will hopefully help give you a sense of that wonderful Christmas feeling. This year’s countdown is starting things off with a mostly forgotten short from 1995’s What A Cartoon Show! which aired on Cartoon Network and was basically a proving ground for new animation. Viewers would watch a block of new shorts and could phone in at the end of the episode to vote on their favorite. The most popular shorts would go on to become full-fledged shows in their own right. This was the birth place for many of Cartoon Network’s mid to late 90s original programming including Dexter’s Laboratory, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Johnny Bravo, The Powerpuff Girls, and others.

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G&J as they appeared in 1946 for their debut short.

Patrick A. Ventura directed six of these shorts and had the distinction of being one of those directors whose works never went to become a series. And as we’ll see with this post, it was mostly with good reason. Ventura has credits all throughout the 80s and 90s as a character designer, writer, director, and so on for lots of popular properties and some not so popular ones. For a pair of shorts he did for Cartoon Network he dug through the archives and resurrected two Tex Avery characters the public had largely ignored, the bear duo of George and Junior.

George and Junior are two bears that probably felt pretty familiar when they first showed up in 1946. George is the short and bossy character who fancies himself the brains of the duo, and he is, but only because the other half of the duo is so incompetent. Junior is a large, rotund, man-bear-child with very limited intelligence. He often begins every sentence with an “Uhhh” or a “Duhhh” before asking George what he should do. Avery was apparently fond with such pairings as you can find basically the same thing in other shorts where the characters may be cats or dogs. They also had the bit of when Junior would mess up George would command him to bend over so he could kick him in the ass as punishment.

Ventura resurrected the characters for two shorts in 1995, “Look Out Below” and “George and Junior’s Christmas Spectacular,” and the latter is naturally what this post is most concerned with. The duo are largely the same as they were in the 40s, only with a new look that Ventura used on basically all of his shorts from this era such as Yuckie Duck and Sledgehammer O’Possum. This style made the characters look a lot uglier and the animation was often minimal. The characters are usually stationary except for over-exaggerated mouth flaps and flailing noodle arms.

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Characters typically get even uglier when speaking as is the case for Steve in this shot.

The short opens with George and Junior delivering mail to Santa’s Workshop in The North Pole. Just as they arrive though Santa departs. Steve the head elf (voiced by T.K. Carter), his status as such displayed via onscreen text, admonishes the duo for arriving so late with the last letter for Santa before telling them they’ll have to deliver it themselves so that some poor sap’s Christmas isn’t ruined. George (John Rubinow) tells him off but the other elves show up to grab the pair and they’re placed in Santa outfits and dropped into a ragged looking sleigh that’s apparently the rusted out frame of an old car. They get the back-up reindeer as well, which is headed by Randalf blue-nosed mule.

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George preparing to deliver the present, note the noodle arm syndrome.

The deer/mule team leads the duo to the only house on their list, and promptly dumps them off the roof because they’re positioned in single file and can’t physically fit everything on top of the house. They dust themselves off and proceed inside, where we get our first “bend over, Junior” after Junior (Tony Pope) crushes George after following him down the chimney. George kicks him so hard the fur flys off of his ass and the commotion awakens Greta. Greta is an ugly little dog who was enjoying a nice snooze beside her dish filled with chicken and booze. A yellowish liquid surrounds her bed which may be drool or it may be urine – this cartoon is pretty gross in style so either is plausible. Greta assumes the two are bandits and gives chase. Repeating backgrounds are the name of the game with the chase and the production values are not looking too high. George and Junior find themselves dumped outside after Greta uses a wreath to lasso them and toss them through a window.

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They love the eye bug-out gag almost as much as the noodle arms.

George, apparently really determined to deliver this gift, gets the bright idea to tunnel into the house. The sequence is actually done without dialogue opting only for visuals as the two dig their way into the house only to emerge in the toilet where Greta is in the midst of dropping a deuce. She flushes them, and presumably goes back to her dirty, sinful business. George them decides to have Junior just try and see if the door is unlocked, it wasn’t, but Junior’s freakish strength makes it moot when he pulls the door off its hinges. The two sneak in and George decides he’s going to creep over to the tree and leave the present. Before he goes he hands Junior an oversized candy cane and tells him to bop the dog if it chases him out. Greta naturally chases him, and Junior also naturally bashes George instead – repeatedly. This leads to the second bend over gag and this time George kicks Junior’s ass write off of his body which lands on George and crushes him.

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That’s some kick.

Greta resumes the chase, and when George and Junior scream their heads resemble real bears in what may be the best visual gag of the episode (though the previous slab of ass was kind of funny too). They run up the Christmas tree, so the dog chops it down. When George and Junior land in a Jack-in-the-box Greta need only turn the crank to send them flying out of the house once more. Fed up with everything, George instructs Junior to saw a hole in the roof and they’ll just dump the gift, but Junior cuts a hole around the two and they both fall in on top of Greta. Greta then sees the gift, which is for her – a shiny new fire hydrant to defecate on! She’s overjoyed and immediately heads into the bathroom with it and even remembers to grab a book. Santa arrives (also voiced by T.K. Carter and sounding like a stoned jazz man) and thanks them somewhat awkwardly by giving them a gift before he floats back up the chimney. They open the present to find an adorable little white cat, that of course once acknowledged goes nuts and scratches the hell out of them thus bringing this cartoon to a much needed conclusion.

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George’s last resort. By this point we all know giving Junior a saw is a terrible idea.

When this short first aired in 1995 I liked it. I thought it was gross, stupid, and funny and I probably hoped that George and Junior would get their own show. Now when I watch it I see it as a lazy, unfunny, short that tries to invoke memories of classic Tex Avery but without any nuance, charm, or purpose. The audio contains mostly public domain Christmas music with little dialogue, which is fine and expected. The sound effects though make frequent use of squishy, fart noises that I may have found funny when I was 11, but they do nothing for me now. A random fart noise is not a joke. Visually, the characters are all ugly which is fine since they’re also not really supposed to be likable. Even Santa Claus comes across as having a “Who cares?” attitude with his brief cameo. What’s less acceptable is just how little animation is present. Maybe Cartoon Network wouldn’t give Ventura much money to make this thing, but it’s also present in his other shorts. Characters just don’t move much, and when they do, there’s almost no transition animation making all of the characters very jumpy. Instead of having them actually move to do something, it just takes the lazy route of having their arms stretch to complete tasks which is neither funny nor interesting to look at.

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Santa does make a brief cameo at the end to thank the boys.

Christmas-wise, this short at least does pass the test of having recognizable Christmas decor. George and Junior are both dressed as Santa and there’s a Christmas tree, wreath, and snow man, plus all of the different Christmas tunes. It’s not lazily adopting another Christmas story as parody, though the “Character fills in for Santa” routine has been done a lot as well, even by Hannah Barbera. I also do appreciate the attempt to revive a forgotten cartoon duo for another chance at stardom, even if it’s not done particularly well by this or by the other ’95 short. “George and Junior’s Christmas Spectacular” is neither spectacular nor is it likely to put you in the Christmas spirit, but it is a cartoon centered around the holiday so it’s at least deserving of coverage on a small WordPress.com blog. Now lets never speak of it again.


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