As someone who loves Christmas time, the concept of Christmas in July should sound appealing. Instead, I’ve always kind of thumbed my nose at it. Part of what makes Christmas so special is the fact that it only comes once a year. Even though the actual holiday season is pretty lengthy, it still never overstays its welcome, for me anyways. And when it’s over, it’s over. I always put out my Christmas stuff on the day after Thanksgiving and I’m quick to put it away. Sometimes I leave stuff out until New Year’s Day, but if there is some unseasonable warmth between the 25th and the first then I’ll take advantage of that when it comes to the outdoor decorations.
Christmas in July is something that exists because it’s halfway until Christmas, and probably because Christmas is such a strong performer at retail. I’m assuming most of the Christmas in July mindset is driven by corporations looking to make an extra buck during the summer months and for companies like Hallmark, it’s become the time of year to unveil the latest in holiday décor. As a kid, I can recall Cartoon Network also using it as an excuse to tap into the trove of Christmas cartoons and fill some programming blocks during leaner times. Their Christmas in July programming was never appointment viewing or anything for me, but it wasn’t something I was offended by either. Even though in my household growing up we had a Christmas Tape; a VHS of Christmas specials recorded off of TV. That tape was completely off limits between New Year’s and Thanksgiving and it wasn’t as if it was under lock and key, it was just understood that to indulge in such when it wasn’t Christmas was borderline offensive. That tape, by the way, still exists to this day.
As an adult, I’ve softened a bit on the whole Christmas in July thing. The past couple of years I’ve caught Christmas episodes of popular shows on television during this time of year. Just last weekend Disney aired the excellent Duck the Halls, and getting in an early viewing was actually somewhat pleasurable. In 2020, it was positively delightful to take in some Christmas programming during a long year of lockdowns and isolation and catching a show set in the winter time is a bit therapeutic during a heatwave. No, I’m not getting out the decorations and breaking out the Christmas Tape, but a little holiday cheer in July isn’t so bad.
One thing that’s good for Christmas lovers during the summer months is it’s a good time to do some shopping. Around the holidays, anything Christmas related is sold at its peak value, but during the rest of the year you can score some deals. I’m always on the look-out for stuff I like that I don’t have, and I’ll share some of my more recent scores shortly. Things that aren’t cheap or on-sale though are Hallmark ornaments. Like a lot of people who enjoy Christmas, I have probably more ornaments than can reasonably fit on an average-sized tree. And with the kids reaching school age, I’m probably due for a lot more homemade ones too that I’ll have to find room for. As a result, I tend to be rather picky these days with what ornaments I invest in, but one I couldn’t turn down was the new Super Nintendo ornament from Hallmark.
Last year, I grabbed the Nintendo Entertainment System ornament from Hallmark and was quite enchanted by it. The sculpt is fantastic and it plays the theme from Super Mario Bros. when you press the power button. Naturally, I had to pair the SNES one with it when I was made aware of it. The SNES one is modeled after the US SNES and it features two controllers and has a copy of Super Mario World in the game slot. When you press the power button, it plays the main theme from the game complete with sound effects as-if you were watching the demo screen. The Super Mario World theme isn’t as beloved as the Super Mario Bros. one, but it’s still an ear worm all its own and an appropriate choice for the ornament considering it was a pack-in game originally (and I originally received my copy and a SNES on Christmas, as I imagine many kids did who had one). It might have been cool to see a different Nintendo franchise get to shine a little, but it’s also hard to fault Hallmark for just sticking with Mario. The ornament was created by artist Jake Angell and retails for a pretty reasonable sum of $20. It comes with the batteries needed to work the music, though Hallmark continues to cheap out on us by not including an ornament hook or ribbon to actually hang the thing from the tree.
The ornament itself though looks terrific. It’s pretty tiny, measuring approximately 2 and 7/16″ wide by nearly 3″ long. The power, reset, and eject buttons are sculpted and detailed, though only the power button functions. It also presses down instead of slides. Both the Player 1 and Player 2 controllers are sculpted separately and attached to the ornament; one on the left side and one on the top-rear. The attention to detail is, again, superb as the shape of the face buttons are even accurately represented in addition to the colors. The L button on the Player 1 controller kind of words on my ornament as well, though it doesn’t actually do anything and I’m not certain it’s supposed to have this much play. I am left wishing the controllers weren’t glued to the unit though. If the wires had been done to be bendy that would have been pretty near. Especially because the Player 1 chord wraps under the console so it doesn’t sit perfectly flush on a surface should you choose to utilize this as a desk adornment instead of a tree one. The rear of the unit is also accurately represented with really the only thing missing being the 1-800 Nintendo repair sticker.
It should also be noted, the song is loud! I was pretty surprised when I hit the button for the first time that such a small device can generate such a big noise. As stated though, you get the regular theme from Super Mario World with some sound effects of Mario jumping around and finding Yoshi. It then breaks into the victory theme to close it out which is a nice touch. All in all, if you’re a Nintendo fan then you’re probably getting this thing or someone who loves you is planning on gifting it to you in December. It will probably be a big seller if it’s anything like last year’s ornament so it’s actually a good thing that it’s out now so you get several months to try to score one. They’ll be stocked regularly from now until the end of the year and you can pre-order it from some stores right now so anyone who wants it should be able to get it for retail. It might get harder though the closer we get to the actual holiday.
New ornaments are fun and all, but what people really love are novelty, singing, dancing, figurines which is why I invested in a Santa Dancing Homer. This guy comes courtesy of eBay as he’s no longer in production. He features a 2002 copywrite which makes sense as this was when Simpsons merch was still pretty robust. It would fall off not long after and resurface for the 25th anniversary, though surprisingly little seemed to come out for the 30th. Are we as a culture just officially sick of The Simpsons? Maybe, though I’m not. I hope it never ends! There’s just something comforting about there always being new episodes of a show that’s been on since I was a kid and it’s not some dumb news program or pro wrestling. And yeah, I know, it past its peak in 1999 or so, but so what?!
Homer is festively attired in a Santa suit which has a soft, though somewhat rigid, texture. Not including the base he’s attached to, Homer is about 12″ tall with the base adding roughly 1 1/4″ to that height so he doesn’t require a lot of room for display. The portions of his body that are visible are cast in yellow plastic and the added details, like his eyes and trademark stubble, are painted effects. I suppose it should be noted this Santa suit is a bit nicer looking than the one he wore in the series premiere, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” though it’s pretty similar to the much later Christmas episode “Grift of the Magi.” The main difference between the two is the original costume came with a scruffy beard.
Homer runs on double A batteries and is not, by himself, posable. When you have fresh batteries in him, you can either activate him via the yellow button or by a switch on the bottom of the base. The yellow button will make him wiggle and utter one of his many phrases or sing a song. The button on the bottom of the base is for activating the motion-sensing function so you can scare people who walk by him. When he does animate, his lower jaw moves and his hips sway. Sometimes he’ll turn his head too. If he goes into song, his arms will move up and down a bit along with the hip swaying and mouth-flapping. The songs are pretty amusing as Homer doesn’t know all of the words. When he sings “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” he mostly just says the song’s title over and over and ad-libs a bit all while adhering to the song’s melody. The speaker is a little fuzzy, but Homer can be understood clearly and obviously the lines were recorded by Dan Castellaneta. It’s a novelty Christmas item, so how much you enjoy it probably depends on how much you like Homer Simpson. I love Homer, so this decoration is an easy win. It also wasn’t hard to come by, nor was it super expensive. I think I basically ended up paying retail for it, though he’s used. Another neat feature is that you can use a 6V wall plug to power him if you would rather not use batteries. It’s not a bad idea since batteries being left in a Christmas decoration like this one throughout the year can often lead to leakage and a ruined toy.
The last holiday item we’re going to look at is a simple one: this plush Santa Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was in reading the book Rad Plastic earlier this year that I was reminded about the plush line of TMNT toys from the early 90s and it was the first time I can recall being made aware of this Christmas variant. It pains me that the original Fred Wolf cartoon never did do a Christmas episode, but this plush kind of makes up for that. Well, not really, but hey, it’s Christmas!
There’s not much to say about this guy though: what you see is what you get. The tags on him reflect a 1990 release for this guy and that agrees with the book. It’s basically the same as the regular plush turtles that were available, only this one has Santa pants and boots stitched onto it. He’s about 17″ long from the top of the head to the tip of his toe as his feet are kind of outstretched as there’s no stitching to orient his feet in a standing position. The coat can probably be removed, as I don’t see any stitching holding it to the body, but it has white elbow pads stitched to it that are pretty tight and I don’t want to risk messing this up. The white elbow pads are actually a nice touch and the white cuffs on the boots basically line-up with where Raph’s kneepads normally would end up. It even appears he has his red elbow pads on underneath the jacket, though it’s impossible to say if the same is true for the knees. He also comes with a removable hat that mostly just rests on his head. I wish it was a bit bigger, but it’s all right.
As you can probably imagine, this was another eBay purchase and yet another inexpensive one. For a 30 year old plush, Raph is in pretty good shape. The whites are still white, and the only sign of ware really is on the eyes which are a bit scratched. This style of plush is definitely assembled on the cheap, so there are exposed seems and I don’t really like the material used for the mask as it’s thin and prone to wrinkling. On the plus side, he has no odor which is always the risk when buying an old, used, plush and he’s still quite soft to the touch. It’s probably helped that he’s a Christmas decoration and whoever owned him before me may have had him put away 11 months out of the year lessening the annual ware and tare. He’s kind of dumb, but what can I say, I like him!
Well, that’s about all of the holiday cheer I have in me at the moment. Maybe I’ve inspired you to hit a Hallmark store or check popular resell locations for some Christmas stuff while the getting is good. It’s a good time to be on the hunt right now, but things tend to change quickly. If you need more Christmas in July though, you could always head on over to The Christmas Spot and check out several year’s worth of Christmas goodness. I’m already at work on the 2021 version and I’ve got some slight changes in store for this year, but don’t worry, you’re still getting 25 posts in 25 days about a Christmas special of some kind. Unfortunately, there will not be anything TMNT related this year, but it’s a safe assumption we’ll be heading back to Springfield, at least. And you know what? Mario may make an appearance this year too. Be sure to check back in December! Merry July, everybody!
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+.
Director Brad Bird has become quite a name in the world of film. He is most commonly associated with Pixar where he directed much celebrated films like Ratatouille and both entries in The Incredibles. Prior to that, he was mostly known for his work as an animator and director on The Simpsons. His directorial debut with the long-running franchise was the Season One highlight “Krusty Gets Busted” and he also contributed to the much loved “22 Short Films About Springfield.” It was his work as an animator with Klasky Csupo that got him his gig with both The Simpsons and The Tracey Ullman Show, where The Simpsons originated. And he probably ended up there largely because of his work with Disney where he was a promising young animator in the 80s seemingly destined for great things with the company.
That did not happen, and perhaps it’s for the better considering all of the quality television and films we received as a result. And while those works are much celebrated, there are still many who feel Brad Bird’s finest contribution to the world of cinema is the 1999 box-office flop The Iron Giant.
The Iron Giant is the film directorial debut for Brad Bird.
The Iron Giant originated in a short story by poet Ted Hughes, who unfortunately passed away before the film was completed. It was a tale that captivated many who encountered it and even attracted the attention of famed musician Pete Townshend who crafted an entire concept album about the character. As a result, the story was ticketed for a musical release much in the style of many animated 90s projects, but when Brad Bird was hired to oversee it things changed. It was Bird who reimagined the story as one about a gun with a soul that decides it doesn’t actually want to be an instrument of death. This was partly the result of Bird’s sister Susan tragically being murdered during the film’s production. Warner Bros. also brought in Tim McCanlies to co-author the screenplay and the musical components were eventually dropped, though Townshend still received an executive producer credit.
The Iron Giant is a traditionally animated film which also features some CG elements, most notably the giant itself. The film is about a young boy named Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) who lives alone with his mother in a small coastal town in the state of Maine during the 1950s. Cold War paranoia is sweeping the country and is the framing device for the film. When a mysterious, 100-foot tall, robot crash lands nearby, it’s Hogarth who first finds him and befriends him. Through Hogarth, this massive robot (Vin Diesel) learns empathy and also receives a primer on life and death. The somewhat lonely Hogarth views the giant like an ultimate toy, but also comes to view the behemoth as a friend as well.
It’s the tale of a boy and his big ass robot.
Now, 100-foot tall robots naturally attract attention. When the giant first arrives on Earth, it inadvertently causes a ship to crash and the captain of that ship alerts the FBI. The government dispatches agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) to investigate and he is able to follow a series of clues, as well as some coincidence, to the home of the Hughes. It’s there Kent realizes Hogarth knows something, and he rents a room from Hogarth’s mother (Jennifer Aniston) to keep an eye on the lad while also hoping to earn his trust and in turn uncover the truth about this giant being that’s eating the community’s metal. In turn, Hogarth has to try and keep the secret of the giant hidden and he turns to a local beatnik artist named Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) for help since he happens to run the local scrap metal yard.
Mansley is so obsessed with his job that it allows him to be more of a comedic element early on in the film, but he eventually turns quite sinister.
The film contains plenty of elements of comedy and drama as the tale unfolds. Hogarth and the giant have to learn how to communicate with each other since the giant doesn’t understand English initially. There’s also a lot of physical comedy bits between Hogarth and Kent as Hogarth tries to keep his friend hidden and finds creative ways to get Kent off his back. Probably the best piece of comedy occurs when the giant’s hand, having been separated from the robot via a collision with a train, stumbles into Hogarth’s home during dinner in search of the rest of his body. Hogarth is then forced to go to great lengths to keep the mechanical monstrosity from his mother, and eventually Kent, before rejoining it with the rest of the giant.
The latter part of the film loses the comedy in favor of more dramatic story-telling. The central theme of the film is you are what you choose to be, and it’s an important thing for the giant to learn as the robot is equipped with some serious firepower. This is discovered when Hogarth accidentally trips an automated defense mechanism in the robot, and it’s further exacerbated when the army eventually learns about the robot’s existence (because it has to). It’s a rather simple message, but one that easily resonates with an audience which is partly why the film is so beloved. The pairing of a kid with a being not of this world will naturally draw comparisons to E.T. and it’s an apt comparison. The only thing really separating the character of E.T. from the giant is that E.T. largely remains a passivist during his story while the giant most certainly does not.
It’s a real joy to watch the film play with scale. Here, the giant has to literally squat down to fit in the same frame as Hogarth.
What the film chooses to leave out is the giant’s backstory. We don’t know why he’s here, or where he came from. Both are questions viewers are likely to ponder, but in the grand scheme they mean little just as it didn’t matter why E.T. was on Earth. We also don’t know much about Hogarth and how his life was before the events of the film, save for the fact that he appears to be a good student and a latchkey kid with few friends. And like the giant, it doesn’t matter and Bird was wise to ignore these details because it keeps the film at a quite tidy 87 minutes. Perhaps my biggest criticism of The Incredibles and its sequel is that they’re both just too damn long, so it’s nice to watch a Brad Bird feature that’s under 90 minutes.
The film is set in 1950s Maine partly to invoke images of Norman Rockwell. The choice is an excellent one as the town of Rockwell presented here is quite idyllic and cozy. The woodland scenery is especially gorgeous and lush and the human characters have a style to them that is not derivative of past Warner films or Disney. The giant is animated in CG largely because it was an easy way to keep his steel frame natural and consistent. He has a simple design to him and the texture work is kept fairly simple as well which helps to blend the giant with the hand-drawn visuals that surround it. He doesn’t stand out in an unnatural way, at least he doesn’t as much as a 100-foot tall robot can, and the choice to render the being this way appears to be a sound one as a result.
The film’s central message is you are what you choose to be. For the giant, that’s Superman.
Michael Kamen is responsible for the film’s score and it’s scope is quite grand and appropriate. When the giant takes to the sky for the first time it’s exuberant and triumphant, and when it needs to be a bit melancholy it strikes the right tone. The film completely discarded its musical origins, save for an in-universe PSA about the duck and cover advice you’ve probably heard about that existed back in the 50s. The voice cast is tremendous and Eli Marienthal as Hogarth is especially deserving of praise given his young age at the time of recording. Aniston and Connick Jr. are perfectly capable in their roles, while McDonald toes the line of obsessive detective and parody rather adeptly in his portrayal of Kent Mansley. Diesel isn’t asked to do much as the giant, similar to his eventual role as Groot for Guardians of the Galaxy, but he does a good job when the scenes later in the film ask more of him. If your eyes don’t well up a bit when you hear him say “Superman” during the film’s climax then you have no soul.
The film finally received a Blu Ray release in 2016 which also included two minutes of new footage. It was dubbed The Signature Edition.
The Iron Giant is a heartwarming tale about an outcast finding its purpose in life all on its own, even if that purpose strays from what others had earmarked it for. It’s also a tale of friendship and empathy, of right and wrong, and one about being mindful and trusting where appropriate. It’s easy to react to a creature such as the giant with fear, but maybe it’s best to give others a chance first and allow them to give one a reason to fear them beyond simply appearance. It’s also a gorgeously animated film and one of the last of its kind as it wasn’t long after the release of The Iron Giant that the majority of animated features switched over entirely to 3D, CG, animated stories. Most acknowledge now that the reason this film failed at the box office was due to Warner Bros. not marketing it well. Even though it seems many agree with that assessment, it didn’t stop studios like Warner from using commercial failures like The Iron Giant as justification for moving away from traditionally animated films. It’s unfortunate as I fear we as a society will soon lose the ability to create such wonders simply because Hollywood isn’t providing a reason for those to learn these skills. If that’s the case, at least we’ll always have wonders like The Iron Giant to look back on.
It’s a bit funny to me what we get excited for in our modern era. If you had told me when I was a kid that people would be geeking out over new phones, subscriptions, and chicken sandwiches I probably would have wanted time to slow down even more than I already did. That’s where we are though and on November 12, 2019 the world paused for Disney+, the first dedicated streaming service from the massively popular (and just plain massive) Walt Disney Corporation.
We’re now well into the streaming era for entertainment consumption. The old days of Netflix sending a DVD in the mail feels like the stone age by comparison. Netflix helped push us into this new frontier, with an assist from rapidly rising cable costs and a government-sanctioned monopoly, and the concept of chord-cutting is no longer a radical one as more and more streaming platforms keep coming. Netflix was initially just a means to an end as it licensed content people wanted and then delivered it to them. It’s no surprise that the content producers were taking notice and weighing the pros and cons of licensing out its media to a third party versus just creating the infrastructure to deliver it themselves. Netflix was quick to notice as it got into the content producing business and now has a whole bunch of shows and movies under its umbrella as it battles with other providers for non-Netflix content. Meanwhile, the biggest media creators are striking out on their own.
Disney is no stranger to production and delivery. Gamers will recall when Disney decided to stop licensing its characters for video games instead taking things in-house to create its own product. Eventually, game production grew too costly and Disney shuttered its studios to go back to licensing. With a streaming platform, costs are more fixed and Disney can charge whatever it wants to consumers. Some might question why Disney decided to create Disney+ since it already had a controlling stake in Hulu, but it’s all about branding. Disney+ is now the home for all things Disney. Those 20th Century Fox productions not named Star Wars can go to Hulu. Oh, and don’t forget they also own ESPN which has its own streaming platform as well. Yeah, there really are a lot of options out there now.
Since this is hardly uncharted territory, consumers have expectations of what a streaming platform should look like and how it should function. Disney was able to basically just do what Netflix did before it and give it a new coat of paint. Disney+ is a very boring interface, though hardly ugly, as it just lays everything in front of the user in a familiar form. Users can browse by genre, media type, character, brand, and so on. Everything is accompanied by a thumbnail image and a larger splash image meant to attract eyes. There are trailers for some films and new series and a summary of the program as well.
Disney+ means access to classic movies and new shows, but it also means some older shows that never got the DVD treatment are finally viewable in their entirety.
Even though this is all well-trod territory, Disney+ still has a few odd quirks or missing features. For one, it’s not obvious what the runtime is for anything you’re looking at or considering. It’s not a big deal for old television shows which are fairly standard, but I had no idea how long any of the new programs were or some films. I had to start them and then pause them to see the counter displayed on the screen. The app also doesn’t remember where you left off with a given series. This is a standard feature on other platforms and it’s puzzling to see it not present here. Basically, it’s on you to remember how many episodes of a show you just watched and where to go next. You’re probably thinking that’s not a particularly difficult thing to remember, but it’s a lot trickier to remember where you kids left off watching a show you don’t care about. And they typically have no idea until the episode starts forcing you to embark on a series of trial and error until you get it right.
Those are small quirks that I expect will be remedied fairly soon. Others may take longer. By far, the biggest issue consumers encountered on launch day was performance-related issues. Slow buffering, shows disappearing, or the app completely crashing were frequently cited problems across social media. That was to be expected given that Disney didn’t allow users to preload the app before launch and is also giving curious consumers the option to partake in a free trial. Demand was going to be high, though that doesn’t absolve Disney as the company should have been prepared for this and able to address it quickly. Shows disappearing may have been part of that corrective action just to shrink the library temporarily. I saw quite a few complaints from users that Gargoyles wasn’t available for a period of time, though I didn’t encounter this. I did view the new documentary Imagineering and then found it unavailable after viewing when I went to go back and add it to my watch list. Aside from that though, I was actually rather fortunate to not encounter many issues. When I first logged in and got going around 6:30 AM EST I found the app slow to navigate. By 7:30, it was taking so long I gave up, but I was also heading out to work. My wife dropped our kid off at school shortly after and then resumed streaming with no issues. It was on basically all day with no further issues in my household.
I did a little research on social media and asked folks what they went to first upon signing up yesterday and got a variety of responses. A lot of folks were eager to view shows from their childhood, mainly those from the beloved Disney Afternoon. Some were also excited to check out the old Marvel cartoons like X-Men and Spider-Man. Many were eager to check out the Disney+ original The Mandalorian, a live-action series set in the Star Wars universe. There was certainly a lot of enthusiasm for the app, and most respondents had a list of things they wanted to check-out on day one.
Perhaps not surprising, the most frequent response I received was for The Simpsons. Disney made a pretty big deal about having 30 seasons worth of The Simpsons on Disney+ on day one. Unfortunately, the biggest complaint outside of technical problems from users was directed at The Simpsons. You may recall, when FXX started airing “Every Simpsons Ever” a few years ago they made the controversial call to crop the image on the seasons shot in 4:3 and adapt them for 16:9. The accompanying app did the same much to the annoyance of longtime fans. Eventually, the app was corrected and both versions were able to stream and they even added commentary tracks. As a result, fans expected the same on Disney+ and there were reports that the early seasons would be presented in the correct aspect ratio. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Not having the commentary is not a surprise, but the 16:9 presentation is horrid. If this were the first time those old seasons were being made available it would be temporarily excusable, as it was with FXX, but in 2019 it most certainly is not. I think Disney will correct this, but it’s something the company needs to get out in front of.
As for me, I have had a pretty good 24 hours at this point with Disney+. My first view was for The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. As it was 6:30 in the morning and my kids were up, it felt like a good way to start the day. My kids watched a lot of Disney Afternoon content during the day as well as some movies they’re more than familiar with. In the evening, I checked in on some of my own personal favorite cartoons and also was able to check out The Legend of the Three Caballeros, the previously UK only show starring Donald Duck (and it was great). When the kids went to bed, my wife and I checked out The Mandalorian as it easily is the most hyped original program on the platform right now. The production values are high, and while the story and character so far seem conventional and even cliché, it was entertaining enough that I’ll continue to check it out as episodes are added. We also watched the first episode of the Imagineering docuseries which focuses on the creation of Disneyland and goes up to the death of Walt and early concepts for Disney World. It was very familiar territory for me, but still enjoyable. I’m probably looking forward to episode two of that series more than I am for The Mandalorian.
We had to wait over a year, but now US audiences can finally (legally) view Legend of the Three Caballeros.
There is some other original content I intend to check out, in time. Lady and the Tramp is one of my favorite films from Disney so I feel obligated to at least give the live-action version a chance. I have low expectations, as it’s not something that needs to exist, but it’s there. There is also a collection of classic Mickey Mouse shorts which have been upconverted to HD that I’d like to see. I’m pretty sure they’re the same as what was present on the Blu Ray compilation released last year for Mickey’s 90th, but I passed on that set (since I have all of the DVDs) and I’d like to see how the conversion came out. I hope more classic shorts will be added, though I doubt that’s a priority for Disney right now. Hopefully we at least get the Christmas ones next month.
Disney+ launched with a few stumbles, but the framework is there for a successful existence. More importantly, Disney is rich in content and should have no issues getting people hooked at least in the short term. Right now, the service is cheap compared to Netflix and if you’re part of a Disney family like I am then you’re probably locked in for the next three years. Disney has been systematically pulling content from cable and streaming providers so my children’s addiction to Disney content will definitely keep Disney+ in my house for awhile. What will spur growth for Disney will be how the original content turns out. The platform is off to a good start, but it might take more to convince people adverse to multiple streaming subscriptions to drop Netflix in favor of Disney+. Disney will also have to make the difficult choice over what it releases on its cable channel versus what it reserves for Disney+. And how will competitors, and cable, respond? Disney+ is undercutting Netflix by quite a lot and I’m curious if Netflix will respond. I suspect it will wait it out at least a year to see if and when Disney ups the monthly rate, but if it starts losing subscribers it may have to do something about it. This is our new reality though and it feels like, if anything, the biggest casualty of all of this may be cable itself.
Even though they made their debut together, Minnie Mouse has rarely been celebrated as much as Mickey. Last year marked Mickey’s 90th birthday, a tremendous achievement, but seldom was it mentioned that his beloved Minnie was also celebrating a birthday too. Such has been the case with Minnie as she started off as a fixture of Mickey Mouse shorts, but slowly saw her star fade. When Mickey and the gang made their big return to the world of cinema with Mickey’s Christmas Carol in 1983, Minnie was there as always at his side. Unfortunately, she was the only one of the classic characters who appeared in that film to not have a single line or word of dialogue. She was practically invisible.
That changed in 1986 with the hire of Russi Taylor as the voice of Minnie Mouse. Taylor was already known to the world of Disney as the voices of Huey, Duey, Louie, and Webby on DuckTales. Taylor likely voiced Minnie for theme park segments and attractions initially, as the world would be properly introduced to her version of Minnie via Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988 as well as the NBC television special Totally Minnie that same year. Taylor’s high-voiced, but sweet tempered, version of Minnie was an instant success, a perfect fit for the venerable mouse. And she held onto that role for the rest of her days, voicing Minnie on the small and big screen in hundreds of features.
Totally Minnie was essentially a reboot for the character.
Because of her contribution to the company and her role as the voice of Minnie Mouse, Russi Taylor was recognized as a Disney Legend in 2008. Also receiving that same honor that day was her husband, the late Wayne Allwine who had been the official voice of Mickey Mouse for decades. It was a tale too perfectly sweet for this world as the voices of Mickey and Minnie found happiness and love in each other’s arms.
I had never met Russi Taylor or had an interaction with her, but based on what I’ve seen in interviews over the years I get the impression she was a very humble woman. She would insist that Minnie is the star and she was just there to give her a voice. I must respectfully disagree for Minnie would not be the character she is today without Miss Taylor’s contribution. Her Minnie is wonderfully versatile. She can be the sweet-natured mentor to children everywhere via The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse as well as a songstress. She demonstrated more recently her knack for comedic timing with her more manic and bubbly version of the character for the present line of Mickey Mouse shorts. In those cartoons, Minnie has finally become her own character capable of being funny and entertaining without playing off another character. Her star rivals that of her famous partner and others – she’s that good! If you’ve been sleeping on those wonderful cartoons then you owe it to yourself to check them out.
The role of Martin Prince may be retired following Taylor’s passing which has been the custom for The Simpsons.
Beyond Minnie Mouse, Taylor had many contributions to the world of voice acting. She was in-demand if you needed someone who could pull-off a convincing child or needed to provide words to a kind-hearted woman. Her most famous non-Disney role (well, until recently) is likely that of Martin Prince on The Simpsons. Martin was often called on during the show’s golden years to provide a laugh, often at the character’s suspense, and Taylor always delivered. She was also the voice of twins Sherri and Terri on the same show, a smaller role, but one still often proving to be very funny.
People my age have grown up with these individuals serving as the voices for the iconic Disney characters. Left to right: Tony Anselmo (Donald Duck), Wayne Allwine (Mickey), Bill Farmer (Goofy), and Russi Taylor (Minnie).
Russi Taylor has been a presence in the media I consume for basically my whole life. I’ve never really known another Minnie Mouse, and the same is obviously true of my kids. I have a daughter who will be turning 3 in the fall and Minnie Mouse is her world. She often requests, no demands, to wear a Minnie dress daily. When we took her and my son to Disney World for the first time this past winter, she was playfully shy with all of the characters she met, basically sticking close to mom or dad and waving from a distance. All except Minnie, of course. She ran to Minnie and gave her a big hug. I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to get her out of there. It was a heart-warming moment, and I have to believe part of my daughter’s love for Minnie can be credited to the performance of Russi Taylor.
My own little princess would be devastated if she knew that Minnie Mouse had passed away.
Russi Taylor passed away this past Friday at the age of 75. I don’t know how the news was received by those who knew her in life, but for fans it came as a shock. Images of this happy, smiling, woman flooded my mind when I heard the news, then came the images of all of the voices she provided. Her legacy is incredible, and my condolences go out to her friends, family, and colleagues who must all be hurting right now. Many of them have expressed some wonderful sentiments all across social media and through entertainment channels. I encourage you to seek them out. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Russi Taylor was the best Minnie Mouse yet. I mean that as no disrespect to the women (and man, as Walt himself once voiced her) who came before her. Someone out there is about to land the role of a lifetime, and they’ll have some big shoes to fill.
There are likely more cartoons to come featuring Taylor, as well as episodes of The Simpsons. A new attraction will be opening at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios soon, a ride featuring Mickey and Minnie which is something that is long overdue. Her voice will be featured there likely for many years to come. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the ride ends up being dedicated to her and will hopefully serve as one of many enduring tributes. The last Mickey cartoon released before her passing, Carried Away, also strikes me as a fitting farewell. It features Russi Taylor’s singing as Minnie, something the writers of these shorts seem quite fond of because she does it so well. It contains a great twist of an ending that encapsulates the modern spirit of Minnie Mouse so see if you can watch it without having a tear come to your eye. I know I can’t.
It was only a matter of time until big companies got into streaming. Netflix was allowed to practically monopolize the market for years before facing any sort of real challenge. Now we have Hulu, Prime Video, as well as numerous niche offerings like WWE Network and Crunchyroll which cater to a specific type of fan. Premium channels like HBO can now be subscribed to without a cable subscription as more consumers look to change how they watch television. With Warner Media announcing in November of 2018 that it intended to offer a streaming service, it only made sense that Disney would follow suit. Not only did Disney possess its own vast library of works, it had recently entered into an agreement to acquire 20th Century Fox adding even more volume. And given how much money Disney had paid to acquire Fox’s portfolio, it only makes sense that the media giant would want to find a way to monetize that investment sooner rather than later.
We’ve known for months that Disney+ was coming. We’ve also known it was going to feature the entirety of Disney’s film library. This was notable when announced because it likely means the long-vaulted film Song of the South will be readily available for the first time in decades. Song of the South is a live-action animated hybrid first released in 1946. At best, it’s content was deemed racially insensitive and at worst flat-out racist as it sought to portray a setting of happy plantation workers in a post Civil War setting. Most historians seem to agree that Walt Disney’s heart was in the right place when the movie was made, but also acknowledge it’s very problematic. Today, most fans will just recognize the animated characters from the popular Disney World and Disneyland attraction Splash Mountain. Disney has long sought to distance itself from this film and never released it on VHS or DVD in the west. It has been released in some parts of the world where the issue of American slavery is less thorny. It’s likely appearance on Disney+ will be the first time many Americans are exposed to the film outside of a bootleg.
Disney+ will likely be how a lot of folks will first experience the controversial Song of the South.
A 70-year-old film that’s not very good wasn’t going to drive the success of Disney+ though. Song of the South will probably have high stream counts when the service launches and gradually fade away. The rest of the Disney film library will do a lot of the heavy-lifting, but how much was that going to be worth to consumers? Disney, more so than any other studio, has a pretty loyal following of fans that still buy its movies on physical media. While it’s certainly convenient to have films readily available on a streaming platform, what’s the value to Disney fans that already have most of these movies?
UPDATE: Apparently “entire film library” does not apply to the controversial ones as it is now being reported that Song of the South will indeed be excluded from Disney+ when it launches this fall. In addition to that, Dumbo will see the infamous Jim Crow scene annexed from its film. Song of the South is not a good film so it’s not much of a loss to not have it on the streaming service. In the spirit of not hiding from one’s past, I would have liked to have seen it included with a disclaimer or even an introduction added on, but I’m also not surprised. Removing an entire scene, a rather pivotal one at that, from Dumbo is more concerning. If they’re going to start chopping up their films to remove questionable content (and there’s more than just Dumbo) then I’d prefer they just not include them on the platform.
Disney was going to have to make Disney+ special, and on April 11th the company at long last laid out what it envisioned for the service. The most important detail, as always, is cost. The service will launch in November 2019 at a cost of $6.99 per month in the US, or $70 per year. Other regions will follow as the company likely looks to stagger the release to get a read on how much their servers will have to work. Presumably, the cost will be the same or roughly the same in other parts of the world. It’s an aggressive price point, not in that it’s too high, but in that Disney clearly looks like it’s trying to undercut Netflix, which just raised its prices. Disney owns a 60% stake in Hulu so it likely doesn’t want to undercut that too much. And with the confirmation that it will be ad-free, Disney+ already looks like one of the better bargains in the streaming world.
A concept of what fans can expect to see when they login to the service.
Disney+ will also include not just Disney films, but Star Wars and Marvel as well. This isn’t much of a surprise, but there probably were some wondering if one, or both, of those big brands would be sent to Hulu instead. It was also touted that the launch of the service will feature the newly released Captain Marvel, currently airing in theaters at the time of this writing. It’s interesting that Captain Marvel was highlighted, but not Toy Story 4 which is set for release this June. At the time Disney+ launches, Toy Story 4 will likely be heading to home media and digital for the holidays. That film might be the first litmus test for what fans can expect between home video and streaming release. It would be understandable if Disney wants a gap between the two so as not to harm home media sales, but it also needs to make its streaming service attractive in regards to new releases.
Disney knows it will need some original content to compete with the likes of Netflix, and it announced a few new shows destined for its streaming service. The Mandalorian is a Star Wars themed show about a bounty hunter that looks like Boba Fett because that character is inexplicably popular. There will also be an animated show based on Marvel’s What If? line of comics and a live-action show called WandaVision focusing on Scarlet Witch and Vision. Some what of a surprise was the announcement that the “live-action” Lady and the Tramp is going to be a direct-to-streaming film on the service as opposed to a theatrically released film. I suppose Lady and the Tramp isn’t as popular as the likes of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, but given how much money these live-action remakes have been making it’s still a bit of a surprise to see it bypass the theater.
The Simpsons “welcome” their new corporate overlords.
Perhaps the biggest surprise though was reserved for a non-Disney property: The Simpsons. America’s favorite animated family is coming to Disney+ and all thirty seasons will be available on day one. I think most assumed that The Simpsons was destined for Hulu, but apparently Disney feels the brand is too valuable for that platform. It’s probably right, though this likely spells the end for The Simpsons World, the streaming portion of the FX Now app which currently is home to the entire series for anyone with a cable subscription. That app was limited, though it was still useful to have every episode on demand, with optional commentary no less. I assume the show will still air on FXX, assuming Disney keeps the channel around, but the on demand options to cable subscribers are probably about to decrease substantially.
What wasn’t touched on in as much detail as I would have liked is what is to come of the television properties Disney owns? Specifically, can we expect to see the entire Disney Afternoon collection of shows on this service? The announcement did make mention of Disney Channel programming so it’s expected all or most of the current programs will be there, but it wasn’t elaborated on. I also want to know if the classic theatrical shorts will show up, and if so, will they be remastered in HD? Some packages of shorts are currently available on Netflix, so it wouldn’t surprise me if those make it to Disney+ early on, but I’m really hoping all of the classic animation is included.
Disney+ could be a place where television shows like The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, one that has been ignored by Disney since it ceased airing, could finally find a new home.
Given the amount of content and the low introductory price, I think it’s safe to say that Disney+ will have a pretty successful launch. My household will likely be a day one subscriber as my kids probably average one Disney movie per day and this will save ware and tear on my Blu Ray collection. I suspect the price-point to change much faster than Netflix changed its pricing. The most popular Netflix subscription just increased to $13 per month, nearly twice what Disney+ will cost in November. There’s no way Disney, a company that really loves money, will stay at the low-end for long. It’ll be interesting to see how aggressively the company raises that number, with it likely staying put for a year or so. Disney will probably try to incentivize consumers to subscribe to the service in a package with Hulu and ESPN.
What we’re also likely to discover in the coming years as well is just how large an appetite the consumer has for streaming content. Cutting the chord used to be a radical concept, but now is starting to become pretty normal. It was once a way to drastically reduce the cost of television in the average household, but with more streaming options showing up spreading things around it’s no longer the value it once was. My guess is that consumers will become less loyal to any one brand and will be constantly switching between services on a monthly basis. That is, until the content providers start forcing or aggressively incentivizing consumers to subscribe to deals that last for months, or even years. It’s even possible they’ll be forced to turn to contracts, and then we’ll basically be right back to where we were with cable companies. The cycle will repeat.
HBO’s new documentary has the world re-examining Michael Jackson nearly 10 years after his death.
I’ve been sitting on a Michael Jackson post for years. And lately, this blog has become a Batman blog. That’s partly because I suffered a recent injury to my right hand that necessitated surgery and it being immobilized. As you can probably guess, typing blog entries one-handed is a time-consuming and tedious process so it’s taken all of my time just to keep up with the weekly Batman entry. I also haven’t had much to say about other nostalgic topics, but now feels like a good time to finally make this entry.
Something I’ll never be able to explain to my kids is just how popular Michael Jackson was in the 1980s and into the early 90s. There’s been no comparison since and I don’t know if our current media landscape will even allow such a thing to happen again. When I was a kid, MTV sometimes felt like the Michael Jackson channel. Sometimes it literally way when the network would devote a weekend to just coverage of Jackson and playing his videos as well as videos by Janet Jackson and other Jackson-related artists. And it was all entertaining. His videos were usually great, the songs were catchy, and even people who claimed to not like him could often be seen tapping their feet or bobbing their head to his music.
And it wasn’t just MTV. Jackson was in commercials or featured in the news, often tabloids, and had a pretty big presence in the world at large. I remember seeing videos of people at concerts or that were just in his presence and sobbing. I couldn’t wrap my head around it and my mom would explain it as some people just get so excited they cry. Some would pass out, most would just scream, but it was so surreal to my adolescent brain.
I wanted to win one of these so bad as a kid, little did I know…
Things changed when Jackson purchased Neverland Ranch. Or at least, they seemed to. MTV would broadcast from there at times and you could see the carnival rides in the background and footage of Jackson walking around with a troupe of children getting cotton candy, going on rides, and heading to an on-premises movie theater. As a kid, I was so intensely jealous of the children I was seeing on television that got to hang out with Michael Jackson. I wanted to be one of those kids, but as an east coast dweller I had not a shot of ever going there so I could only watch and dream.
Michael Jackson came across like a big kid. He just wanted to hang out with other children because he apparently identified with them. He was the living embodiment of the famous Toys R Us jingle. To a fellow child, that was 100% understandable. To adults, it probably should have at least put them on guard. When the first allegations against Jackson surfaced in 1993, I watched the live broadcast of him describing in humiliating detail the ordeal he had to go through. He denied any wrong-doing, and his demeanor felt authentic to me. He came across like a kid accused of something he didn’t do. It’s something that happens to probably everybody at some point and it is an awful feeling. It’s when you learn as a child that sometimes the world isn’t a just place. Had I been an adult I don’t know if I would have felt different.
Jackson’s performance at Super Bowl XXVII was his last big showing before the allegations started to surface.
The backlash was surprisingly minimal. Jackson was so convincing that it seemed like most believed him. He was controlling the message though, and it was his face that was the sole public face related to the allegations. It was quite a brilliant strategy considering the victim was a child and would likely never make a public statement. The public was successfully swayed as the most common reaction seemed to be one of cynicism: the accuser is trying to extort a famous artist. How could the man who organized “We Are the World” be a child predator? It seemed insane at the time, but hindsight probably doesn’t accurately portray that.
Those allegations were swept away. Jackson settled with the accusers, and once that happened they stopped cooperating with the investigation and no indictment took place. Jackson would then try and rehabilitate his image by marrying Lisa Marie Presley in 1994. To her credit, Presley has always maintained the relationship was real and pretty conventional, even claiming it was on and off for years after they divorced. From a modern lens it feels like a stunt including the famous kiss at the MTV Video Music Awards and the music video for “You Are Not Alone” (written by R. Kelly, another popular name for all the wrong reasons these days) which featured the couple nude.
Jackson’s star power diminished in the mid-90s. The music industry moved on without him and the wave of new pop artists made it hard for him to stand-out. His appearance had also changed so drastically by this point that he was nearly unrecognizable as the man who made “Thriller.” He had made millions upon millions, and it almost seemed like he just didn’t want to be a celebrity anymore, so he settled into a more private life in which he surrounded himself with children while also becoming a father for the first time.
By that point, I had grown out of any Michael Jackson obsession I had. My opinion of him had not really changed much, it was just over for me. And it had been for awhile. I would say my Jackson fandom spanned from 88-93 for the most part. I was there when “Scream” premiered on network television in 1995, but by then it was mostly out of curiosity. Somehow while just sitting in my dorm room on a rather boring night, I happened onto the television special Living with Michael Jackson. I watched as Jackson asked interviewer Martin Bashir what could be more beautiful than sharing your bed with someone you love? The answer was a response to if Jackson let children sleep with him. It was uncomfortable, even for someone who felt he had been wrongfully accused as I had, and yet I still wasn’t convinced.
Neverland Ranch has taken on a sinister profile since Jackson’s death which is probably part of the reason why it’s still on the market.
More allegations followed almost immediately afterward. Jackson was arrested and this time charged with seven counts of child molestation. The really sick part was the accused was a cancer survivor and it was his disease that basically put him in contact with Jackson. The backlash this time since it went to trial was especially brutal, and not towards Jackson. The general public seemed convinced this was another money-grab. It wasn’t as one-sided as the 93 allegations, but it was a reminder that even absent the spotlight, Jackson was still a tremendous star. And he beat the charges. The acquittal came in June of 2005 after a lengthy process. Some blamed the testimony of the victim’s mother as the deciding factor, but had she been a perfect witness I’m still not convinced things would have turned out differently.
Following that trial Jackson basically went away, fleeing to Bahrain. For me, I was more open to the idea that something wasn’t right with what happened, but I found it easier to believe we were dealing with an extreme case of arrested development. Michael Jackson seemed like a 10-year-old at heart. He wanted to have fun and hang out with like-minded individuals. To him, another 10-year-old was more like a peer than a fellow 40-year-old. It would be easy to take advantage of that and exploit it for riches, or so I wanted to believe. In that, the portrayal of him on the television show South Park felt pretty much dead-on. Jackson was a kid at heart and therefore an irresponsible adult and maybe even a bad father.
The rest of the story is that Michael Jackson’s expensive lifestyle caught up with him. He hadn’t made a new album in years and no longer toured. He was broke, so in order to satisfy various creditors he announced a comeback tour titled This Is It. It would be both a comeback and a farewell, and during the lead-up to it he would pass away. Jackson was still a big enough star in 2009 that when I was walking through Boston Common with a friend I got a text message from my best friend that Jackson was dead. I stopped walking to read it. To my knowledge, my best friend and I had never had a meaningful conversation about Michael Jackson, but like me he lived through his height. We all loved him as kids, and his death felt like a big deal. I went home and watched coverage of his death all night. I picked up magazines and newspapers that featured it and watched a bunch of music videos I hadn’t seen in years. I even purchased some music. It was surreal. I watched his memorial service on television, and when his daughter Paris bid him goodbye it affected me.
Of course I bought this.
Ever since Michael Jackson died I wondered if more allegations would surface. I even wondered if some of the accusers would recant. It was mostly quiet, but his estate was sued in 2013 over more allegations, but it didn’t receive a ton of press. The accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, had previously helped Jackson beat those 2003 charges and earn an acquittal back in 2005. For them to claim otherwise seemed odd, but in actuality it’s really not odd for abuse victims to remain loyal. Especially when that abuse occurs to a child.
You may have heard about a documentary called Leaving Neverland by now. It just aired this past weekend on HBO and was the target of Jackson’s estate which is suing HBO for airing it. It tells the story of Robson and Safechuck, whose suit is still under appeal, and the abuse they suffered at the hands of Michael Jackson. In a post MeToo world, these victims seem to finally be getting a fair shake. As a society, we’ve been encouraged over the past few years to believe victims. Some are liars, but the vast majority are not. They deserve to be heard. Robson and Safechuck were not compensated for Leaving Neverland nor were they for the follow-up media. Sure, they may eventually profit if their suit prevails or they strike a book deal, but for now these are two people trying to make peace with what happened nearly 30 years ago. Leaving Neverland is a painful, uncomforable, watch, whether you’re prepared to believe them or not. Fellow abuse survivors should probably not watch it, because it’s raw, and there’s a lot of hurt to go around that may be triggering.
In the wake of the documentary some radio stations have decided to stop playing Michael Jackson’s music. As of right now, the various streaming services out there seem to be holding serve, but it would not be a surprise to see things change very quickly. The biggest move so far has been by The Simpsons. Creators Matt Groening and James L. Brooks along with current showrunner Al Jean issued a statement saying the season 3 premiere “Stark Raving Dad,” which features guest work by Jackson, will no longer be shown. It will be removed from the FXX channel rotation and the streaming service Simpsons World. They even took the extra step of saying it won’t be on any future physical media release. As of right now, I don’t think there are any plans to re-issue the season 3 DVD, but it will be interesting if the series ever gets some massive collected works release down the road when it wraps up (which may never happen anyways).
Together with director Dan Reed, Wade Robson and James Safechuck are shedding light on the uncomfortable truth about Michael Jackson.
As for me, I can no longer ignore or dismiss what Michael Jackson has been accused of. Too many allegations have surfaced. Even after his death, more details about the 93 case were unveiled that are pretty damning. I now believe this man’s sickness went beyond just thinking he was a child, far beyond. He may have been a brilliant artist, but he was also a terrible monster and that can’t be ignored or forgiven. Because he was such a huge star, he still has plenty of defenders, but I’m not one of them. I couldn’t put it any better than Wesley Morris did for The New York Times who wrote a painfully honest reaction to Leaving Neverland and what it means for the fan in him. I don’t know what this means for my relationship with his music. A part of me think it’s timeless and nothing can take away from its magic completely, but I do know that right now it’s not something I’m interested in exploring. I’ll figure that out some day. For now, I’m content to live a Jackson-free life.
“Grift of the Magi” originally aired December 19, 1999
Talk to any fans of The Simpsons and they’ll likely have an opinion on when the show ceased to be great. For most, that occurs sometime after Season 8 of the now 30 season show. Some will argue that, while it may have been past its prime, it was still watchable, reliable, programming for a few seasons following that. Almost no one would consider Season 11, which today’s episode is from, as part of the show’s prime. Season 11 is when the show had moved on from being a character-driven show with occasional wacky antics to a more absurd show with frequent wacky or illogical actions. Such a recipe is fine for humor, but thin on substance. Nonetheless, there are a few gems or moments from Season 11 worth remembering, is “Grift of the Magi” one of them though?
Last year we covered the Season 7 episode “Marge Be Not Proud” for our Christmas countdown, and like that episode, “Grift of the Magi” is not really an obvious Christmas episode from the start. It begins rather innocuously when Bart and Milhouse, trapped in the house thanks to a hole in the ozone layer, decide to raid the closet of Homer and Marge to find something fun to do. They settle on dressing up in Marge’s clothes, complete with wigs that must have been remnants of old Halloween costumes or something, and bouncing up and down on her and Homer’s bed. Homer comes barging in demanding a non-gay explanation for what is going on having seemingly learned nothing from the events of “Homer’s Phobia” and receives a satisfactory explanation from Milhouse that the boys are drunk. In the commotion, Bart fell of the bed and landed on a bowling ball doing enough damage that he needed to be taken to the hospital.
Am embarrassing injury, to be sure.
Once there, Dr. Hibbert informs Bart that he’s fractured his coccyx and we all have a good laugh at the silly word. Unfortunately for Bart though this means he has to spend the next several weeks confined to a wheelchair while his butt-bone heals. Upon arriving at Springfield Elementary the next morning, he finds the school is not equipped to handle a wheelchair. Lisa confronts Principal Skinner about this federally mandated requirement and Skinner is forced to find a cheap solution to his problem so he does what any rational person would do – he goes to the mob!
That’s some ramp.
Fat Tony is happy to provide the services of his construction company in order to construct a ramp to make the school handicap accessible. The company doesn’t stop at one ramp though, and rather turns the school into something pulled from the board game Shoots and Ladders. Nonetheless, Skinner is proud to unveil the new ramps several weeks later, but is dismayed to see Bart’s coccyx has healed at this point and he no longer needs the use of a wheelchair (how he attended school in the interim is not explained, the type of detail this era of the show could not care less about). Still, Skinner is at least upbeat about the fact that the school is now up to code, until the ramps all crack and crumble into dust. The mob and Fat Tony aren’t exactly known for honoring their work, and Skinner is forced to pay 200 grand for the construction anyways, bankrupting the school. It would seem the school would have had to pay that no matter what had come of the ramps, but again, it’s a detail the show cares little for.
The PTA assembles for an emergency meeting on how to fund the school in what looks like the home of the Flanders’. Moe is there for some reason and proposes funding the school via alcohol sales, but Skinner takes note of his Wonderbread bags for shoes and decides that’s probably not a good idea. Other ideas are proposed, and Marge declares them all terrible. It’s suggested to seek the aid of Springfield’s wealthiest resident, Mr. Burns, but Homer of all people rightly points out that Burns will release the hounds on anyone, especially charity. Skinner decides Burns is their only shot and devizes a scheme to present their proposal via a school play in hopes of warming the billionaire’s frozen heart.
Yeah, good luck with that.
Skinner and a handful of Springfield Elementary’s most recognizable faces show up at Burns’ mansion to perform their play. A very game and naive Burns seems to enjoy the play even though it’s rather obvious and direct about its intentions. A bunch of moronic kids with no schooling cause the death of a Burns dummy, with Ralph ripping off Stimpy to show up as Dr. Stupid to decapitate the Burns dummy while trying to save him following a car wreck. Burns is depicted as rather dim throughout and reacts surprised when Skinner confesses this was all a ruse to get Burns to save their school. A humorous trap door gag closes out the scene with Burns refusing to help.
Bart with his new teacher, Jim Hope.
Bart and Lisa, with school still closed, are at home watching the dregs of daytime television when a news report breaks in to declare Springfield Elementary has been saved. A company called Kid First has taken over the school and their president, Jim Hope (Tim Robbins), is interviewed by Kent Brockman as part of the report. He’s a happy and enthusiastic person who fires all of the old teachers and replaces them with Kid First employees. The kids return to school and find Hope and the new direction of the school encouraging, but they seem only interested in finding out what the children like and Hope even assigns Bart’s class to bring in their favorite toy. Lisa’s class is tasked with coming up with fun names for toys and Lisa proposes Funzo when forced to come up with something. She’s also reprimanded for doing math equations and forced to stay after school.
Run, Lisa! Run!
Bart drops in on his sister who’s being punished with Bart’s usual – the chalkboard gag. He enjoys the “ironing” of him getting A’s while Lisa fails and makes further demonstrations of his lack of proficiency with grammar. When he leaves he turns off the light on Lisa causing her to notice another source of light coming from behind the chalkboard. She creeps into the hall and finds a janitor’s closet next to the classroom. Inside she finds what looks like a viewing area for a focus group who have been spying on Lisa’s class via one-way glass. A weird, little robot emerges from some clutter and causes Lisa to flee in terror. That night, she returns with her parents and Chief Wiggum to show them her discovery, but when Wiggum opens the same closet he just finds janitor supplies.
The writers of the show don’t seem to think much of Gary Coleman’s talents as a security guard.
Back at home, Bart and Lisa are once again watching television (this feels like an older episode for the show, where the TV would often advance the plot) and see an ad for a Furby-like toy called Funzo. Lisa had proposed that same name in class prompting her and Bart to head over to Kid First’s headquarters to complain to Hope. There they encounter security guard Gary Coleman, played by himself. He’s a few prawns short of a galaxy, and as he complains on the phone to no one (Lisa points out it isn’t plugged in) Bart and Lisa are able to sneak by and into Hope’s office. There they encounter Hope and resident sycophant Lindsey Nagle and register their complaints about the company’s practices. Hope attempts to bribe away their concerns by offering them a free Funzo, and Bart is happy to accept while Lisa is left frustrated. Nagle confronts the ineffective Coleman to tell him he’s fired, but when he responds with a variation of his signature catchphrase from Diff’rent Strokes (“What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Lindsey Nagle?”) she laughs and re-hires him. Coleman is then seen very proud of himself as he confesses he knew exactly what she was talking about.
Funzo’s true nature revealed. Notice the lack of snow out the window? This seems to happen a lot on this show.
Once again back at home, Bart is happily adding numerous Funzo accessories to his Christmas list while the doll makes suggestions along the way. Lisa confesses the furry little doll is rather cute, but remarks it could never take the place of her beloved Malibu Stacy. At the sight of the doll, Funzo grabs it and rips the head off tossing Stacy’s body into the nearby fireplace. It then targets Bart’s Krusty doll and the Simpson kids deduce the toy is programmed to destroy other toys and eliminate all competition. They decide it needs to be stopped and to do so they enlist the help of Homer.
Homer doing his best Grinch impersonation with surprising success.
The kids and their dad set out on Christmas Eve to steal all of the Funzo dolls, which Springfield has been sent into a frenzy over, from under the many Christmas trees in town. Homer dresses up as Santa and sneaks into the houses while Bart and Lisa distract the residents with Christmas carols. As Homer causes a commotion at the residence of the Hibbert family, Lisa and Bart are forced to sing ever louder to cover-up the noise. Even though Homer doesn’t seem like a particularly good Grinch, the trio are able to round-up a writhing sack of Funzos and head over to the Springield Tire Fire to dispose of them. As the toys are consumed by the flames, Coleman arrives in a Hummer to put a stop to this toy destruction. Lisa is forced to engage him in a philosophical discussion about the commercialism of Christmas, and even Bart and Homer are surprisingly equipped to do the same. Narrator Clarence Clemons pops in to let us know they talked all through the night and arrived at a compromise the following morning that seemed to satisfy all parties. When the remnants of a Funzo doll emerges from the flames like a Terminator, Coleman springs in with a karate kick to dispatch it, a callback to Coleman practicing his martial arts at Kid First earlier in the episode.
And they talked long into the night.
With the Funzo crisis apparently solved, Lisa takes note of a sullen Coleman as she and her family prepare to head home for Christmas. This prompts Homer to clumsily and sweetly invite Gary to dinner, only for him to shoot back he’s having dinner with George Clooney. Lisa says his name in an accusing tone, implying she doesn’t believe him, and he relents. Clemons returns as narrator to let us know Gary and The Simpsons had a wonderful Christmas dinner. Mr. Burns was also visited by three ghosts the night before which convinced him to fund the school with some money he found in his tuxedo. Moe is shown pulling his head out his oven after seeing what the world would be like without him and finds the will to live. He shows up at the Simpsons’ residence with a Christmas goose, and also to tell them he banged up Gary’s car in the driveway. This gives Coleman one last chance to use his catchphrase, before turning to the camera and repeating it happily to conclude the episode.
“Grift of the Magi” is a fast-paced episode of The Simpsons that really zips through its story with no time for a B plot. It doesn’t even become a Christmas episode until midway through, the only sign of the coming holiday being a throw-away line from Skinner during their presentation to Burns and a Christmas tree decoration in Bart’s classroom. The Try-N-Save also has a brief cameo which is notable because the store seems to only show up during Christmas episodes. The use of guest stars is done well and doesn’t really overshadow the episode, though Coleman’s presence is kind of sad in retrospect. During this time of the actor’s life, he ran into some legal trouble while working as an actual security guard. He had a lot of financial trouble and I wonder if he only agreed to make fun of himself here because he really needed the money.
The third act is where the Christmas stuff really comes in and it’s not exactly an original take. The episode focuses on the frequent toy crazes that come about every year placing the focus on the ugly side of Christmas commercialism, without resorting to being preachy. The episode doesn’t even really have much to say about it aside from acknowledging it happens since it glosses over whatever lesson the Simpsons learned. It works as a source of humor, though I wouldn’t call it clever. I did enjoy how the episode sneaks in quick parodies of the most frequently adapted Christmas stories at the end in Burns’ Scrooge-like turn and Moe’s It’s a Wonderful Life realization. It closes the only lasting plot-point of getting Springfield Elementary back up and running. The closing minutes are also intentionally corny for comedic sake, but the use of Coleman’s catchphrase still feels lame and lands with a dud. As a result, “Grift of the Magi” is not my favorite of The Simpsons Christmas episodes, but it’s not without its moments. It’s good enough.
The whole tone of this one is very of the era it’s from. It’s quite absurd, and even when you think it’s taking itself seriously it’s really not. Characters are constantly wavering between intelligent and dumb depending on what the scene is asking of them. It’s almost like they know they’re in a Christmas episode and are just going through the motions. It’s mostly funny, but also shallow, giving it a (dare I say?) Family Guy vibe.
If you’re looking to watch “Grift of the Magi” this holiday season then you have several options. It’s available on DVD with the rest of Season 11 and can probably be found for under 20 dollars. It was also released on the DVD Christmas With the Simpsons which is now long out of print, but not hard to come by. There’s also digital purchases available. If you prefer to pay as little as possible, you can watch the episode at any time with a cable package that includes the FX channel lineup. The app FXNow includes Simpsons World which is an on-demand streaming option for every episode of the show. If you don’t have cable, you can even get a free trial that’s plenty long enough to watch one episode. And lastly, the channel FXX is likely to air this episode more than once this month, so check their listings and setup your DVR to record it if you wish. I’ll try and return to this if I come across any air dates.
It’s been a few years since Lego released its Simpsons products. Somewhat tied in with the show’s 25th anniversary, Lego released two waves of mini figures and two sets over the course of a little over a year. I was a pretty big fan of the stuff Lego did with the license and scooped it all up. The Simpsons ended up being a part of the short-lived Lego Dimensions brand, an offshoot of Skylanders and Disney Infinity in which toys interact with a video game. Aside from that though, the Lego flirtation with The Simpsons ended there. I’m not sure what the reason was for it to come to an end. It’s probably a simple one in that Lego only licensed it for two sets and two waves of figures. Lego has maintained a fairly wholesome image for the life of the company so it’s also possible there was some minor discomfort with the brand and ending it sooner than later was for the best. It seemed to me like the figures and sets sold rather well, so I doubt Lego lost money, but they only put out so many waves of mini figures per year and devoting a third to a niche product like The Simpsons may have felt unnecessary.
Whatever the reason, I’ve been a little bummed at the line’s discontinuation. It’s true I had a hard time foreseeing it continue for the simple fact that there aren’t many iconic locales from the show that could be done as a $200 set. Springfield Elementary and The Nuclear Power Plant would probably require a bigger investment, and Lego isn’t going near a Moe’s Tavern or Duff Brewery. The Flanders residence is probably too niche, as is the Springfield Retirement Castle. The only one that felt like it had a shot of getting made was The Android’s Dungeon. Lego may have had to do it smaller than the Kwik-E-Mart which would have necessitated a lower MSRP and maybe the license made that difficult. They could have tried to make it as large as the famous convenience store, but that might have been too silly. I think they could have done it though, but evidently it wasn’t meant to be.
And that’s a shame, because what’s really missing is not so much more sets, but more figures. Without a third set it seemed unlikely we would see more figures, and the figures are probably a little on the costly side since Lego makes unique head sculpts for each one. Just look at the characters Lego did not touch (I’m not bothering to list ones tied in with alcohol, religion, or organized crime for obvious reasons): Skinner, Superintendent Chalmers, Sideshow Bob, Lenny, Carl, Otto, Lionel Hutz, Troy McClure, Frank Grimes, Sideshow Mel, Kent Brockman, Radioactive Man, Bumblebee Man, Roger Myers Jr, Agnes Skinner, Poochie. I could keep going, but the one that really bugs me is Principal Skinner since we have a Mrs. Krabappel and it’s kind of sad we have Ned Flanders, but not the rest of his family. Chief Wiggum doesn’t have his boys, Homer doesn’t have any co-workers – like I said, I could go on and on.
Wanting to do something with Lego, while also adding to my Simpsons collection, I picked up a set of Lego Creator. Set 31052, to be specific, which is a 3 – in – 1 set dubbed Vacation Getaways that can be constructed as an RV with boat, a camp with Jeep-like vehicle, or a massive boat. I eyed it for the RV construction which appears to be its main function. Why? Because it bares a strong resemblance to the RV Flanders has in “Call of the Simpsons” and “Lemon of Troy.” Since Ned doesn’t have a house, I figured I could give him some wheels. And as a bonus, it comes with a bear that Maggie can befriend as she did in “Call of the Simpsons.”
What we’re going for.
Construction of the RV is pretty simple and straight-forward. It’s a little on the narrow side, but a lot is packed into it (kind of like a real RV). The roof is removable in two places and intended to act as a place to store fold-up chairs and tables. There’s a portable grill as well that can be placed on top. The interior features a breakfast nook, sleeping area, kitchenette, and latrine with a two-seat cockpit upfront. One section can slide out where the bed is to make it a little roomier, and there’s lots of little built-in pieces that add to the livable nature of the set. The rear also opens up for better access. It comes with two mini figures of its own: an adult woman and an adolescent boy. A little speedboat and trailer can be built and attached (also a plus since Ned has a boat in “Homer Loves Flanders”) and it works really well. There’s also the bear and two trees that can be built as well.
Some other accessories featured are a side-mounted canopy that can be rolled out. It works much better than I thought it would. There’s a skateboard, camera, some periodicals, and a suitcase as well. The RV itself is white with a red and black stripe that, wouldn’t you know, is actually pretty damn close to what Ned’s RV looked like in the show right down to the number of windows. The likeness is so close that if Lego had done a Flanders RV set it probably wouldn’t deviate much from what’s here. The only things missing are the pink curtains and a giant lemon tree to strap to the top.
The only real downside to this set is it probably wouldn’t be a ton of fun to play with. The interior is so narrow there isn’t a lot of room for the figures. The cockpit is especially tricky to seat figures in because it’s not easily accessible, even with the roof off. Still, that’s rather minor for what I need it to do since it’s basically going to sit on a shelf with the other Simpsons Lego sets and figures. It was a fun build, and it scratched an itch I had to construct a Lego set. I just wish we had all of the characters from “Lemon of Troy” to pile into the RV to really recreate something special. This set has been retired, but it can still be easily found new on various websites for around MSRP. That might not be true for much longer, so if you’re like me and looking to expand for Simpsons Lego presence in your home you may want to act fast.