Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bah Humblog: Stave the Fourth - Kelsey Grammer

(A poster like that kind of gives a lot away...)

In 1994, some folk decided that a good way to make some quick cash in the holiday season would be a big spectacular version of a story everyone knows with fancy special effects and music by a well-liked composer with a lot of recognizable shows. And since Phantom of the Opera was already going, they decided to grab Alan Menken and have him do A Christmas Carol.

Now, Alan Menken is a marvelous composer, but he really needs a good lyricist. It’s all well and good to sell your show as from the composer of Beauty and The Beast, Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin, but we liked those songs for their catchy melodies AND for their clever lyrics. And those lyrics were by Howard Ashman, who had died in 1991. If he hadn’t, I might be writing a more pleasant review, because we wouldn’t be listening to the work of the lyricist of Anastasia, Seussical, and the musical version of My Favorite Year. Regardless, the show was a big hit, and 10 years later, a film version made its way to yonder television, starring a bunch of people who must have owed somebody at NBC a favor.. Seriously. Scrooge, Past, Present, and Marley are/were all stars of shows on NBC, which also aired this. They must have had them for cheap. If only Brian Williams had played Bob Cratchit and Don Johnson been Future, we could have had a clean sweep of the major cast. Anyway, enough background, on with the story!

(Yeah, that's about how I felt after finishing this, too.)

We open on a lovely shot of CGI London. How on earth did they do sweeping opening shots of cities before CGI? I guess they had to work for a living. Sadly, unlike the ridiculously sweeping intro to the 2009 movie, they haven’t the budget to sweep through all of CGI London, so we just sweep down into CGI London’s magnificent Soundstage district and I don’t have to use the word sweeping anymore. As we bustle around the 2 blocks or so worth of Soundstage London, the camera tries desperately to make it look bigger than it is, and we listen to our overture and look at extras Victorianing all over the place and wonder when the hell the show’s going to start. There was some amusing diversion when a lad in a top hat picks the pocket of a rich man, and gives the wallet to a surly gentleman leaning on a wall. These are, of course, Dodger and Fagin from Oliver Twist. So delighted was I by this, I started looking for other Dickens cameos, but was disappointed. Eventually, I decided the guy with a rag over his face for no clear reason that kept showing up was Martin Chuzzlewit, a book about which I know only that Dickens thought it his best, and everyone else hated it.

Eventually, the camera gets dizzy from spinning around the set, and we go into the Royal Exchange, where everyone sings a jolly little song as they conduct their generic business. I seriously have no idea what these guys do. They’re clearly conducting business of some sort, signing papers and wearing top hats over their suspiciously modern haircuts, but I don’t know what it is. This interests me, as the exact nature of Scrooge’s business changes from adaptation to adaptation. So far we’ve seen him as a moneylender, a landlord, and a corn guy. This time they just decided to ignore it. Also present at the Exchange is a Beadle of some sort, and holy crap, this guy’s like my favorite character so far. He only gets like three lines in the whole movie, and he bellows them madly with eyes akimbo, apparently figuring that if he’s going to be a pointless minor character, then by gum, he’s gonna be an interesting one.

So everyone goes on singing about how nice Christmas is, while a man named Mr. Smythe runs about with his daughter looking for Ebenezer Scrooge. The general response he gets is, “Oh, you poor, dumb fucker.” Then they go back to singing, because hey, why not? Now listen up, ‘cause I’ll only say it once, the filming and staging of this number sucks. There’s no real choreography or even cohesion of movement, and the camera is rarely pointing at a sensible location when a lot of people are singing. This carries on through the whole movie, so unless I state otherwise, assume all musical numbers to be ineptly filmed.

(Hee hee. Beadle.)

Anyway, after what seems like forever, Scrooge comes in and we can finally get on with our plot. Scrooge is played by Kelsey Grammer, (NBC’s Frasier) who was only 49 when the movie was made. And I seriously can’t tell if Scrooge is supposed to be a younger man than usual here. He sure walks old, though. It’s so freaking weird when actors play Scrooge with an old man walk. Not that that’s an incredibly odd choice to make, but they always drop it like a [period-appropriate heavy thing I’m to lazy to think of right now] as soon as they become good. And Grammer’s is particularly silly. He leans heavily on his cane while hobbling about all bowlegged, which only adds to the larger issue of me having no idea how old he’s supposed to be. His hair is quite long, past his shoulders, and while mostly gray, retains a distracting touch of blond. Also his sideburns look like they have a mustache ready to pounce, but never follow through. I’m being too negative, let’s get back to the plot. Actually, let me say something good first. Scrooge wears brown. That’s a really neat touch. Scrooge almost always wears black in these, but at the time, brown would be notably cheaper, and it makes him look uglier. So stylistically and character-wise, it works. Now, on we prance…

Scrooge comes in with Cratchit fumbling along behind him, carrying a portable desk, inkwell, pen, papers, and a lot of other stuff. As Scrooge bustles ahead, informing people that “The price is too high”, and other things that sound nice and businesslike. The top hat squad sends Smythe over to Scrooge, where he begs an extension on his (Loan payment/Mortgage/Corn bill)since his wife has died, and it’s Christmas eve, and he has kids. Guess what Scrooge says? If you guessed “Take the time you need, Mr. Smythe. I’m sorry for your loss,” then I hate you. I quite like this addition. It’s one thing to see Scrooge crabbing at Bob, Fred, and the Chariteers, but seeing him dick someone over like this is all the better. But then the movie has to blow my goodwill by having Scrooge join the song.

I’m not saying Grammer can’t sing. We all know that’s not true, whether from the end credits of Frasier or the Simpsons episode where Sideshow Bob sings HMS Pinafore to Bart. I guess we’ll have to say he just doesn’t sing. He talks his way through most of his lyrics, and more often than not his voice strains and wobbles when he actually tries out a tune. His accent stays in the usual Frasier Crane mid-Atlantic mold, but he occasionally attempts to Brit it up, resulting in some really weird pronunciation. (“It’s a wonder you don’t go into Pahr-lee-yuh-mant!”) If only we could have had Scrooge played by an actual Brit with musical theater experience and a great skill at playing crabby characters. Tim Curry would be nice, and he played Scrooge on stage. Fortunately, Grammer only gets a bit out before being accosted by the usual squad of well-wishers.

The charity guys seem made for singing, and it’s kind of too bad they mishandled them so much here. For one thing, there’s three of them. Isn’t four the traditional number for close-harmony groups? So if you’re going to add to Dickens’ two, why stop at just one more? I wouldn’t mind if there was a point to the third, but one has a bag for donations, one has a book for names, and one holds nothing and has no lines to himself. POINTLESS. Scrooge dismisses them in song, or maybe poem, ignoring Bob, who is asking if he might run home early, as his son is sick. Scrooge finally listens, giving in a bit too quickly, and starts off home, meeting his nephew in the street.

Fred was made for musicals, wasn‘t he? The guy’s so cheery when not busy being Roger Rees, and hearing him invite Scrooge to dinner in song just seems so right. He should sing in non-musical versions. As I mentioned, they meet out on the street of Soundstage London, rather than the office. (“I was just on my way to see you, Uncle!” exclaimed Fred. “Don’t beth-har,” pronounced Kelsey Grammer.) Too bad this is one of those ineptly filmed numbers, and we don’t see Fred’s face clearly until he’s halfway through his first verse. Sadly, I was already pretty much used to it. Scrooge bahs and humbugs him off with some truly silly lyrics - does rice have anything to do with Christmas, or did they just need a rhyme for twice? - and Fred just sort of wanders away. Nice guy, but when a character makes his appearance in such a short scene, he or she needs to be played by an actor with a little something extra to really stick in the audience’s mind. Someone like a young Tim Curry.

(Oh, look. It's Almost-As-Tall-As-His-Dad Tim)

As he continues galumphing his way through Soundstage London, he comes across a lamplighter, played by Jane Krakowski (NBC’s 30 Rock) who falls from her ladder and asks Scrooge to help her reach the light, saying that her husband’s sick, and he’ll lose his job if she doesn’t do it. And boy did I just explain it a lot more eloquently than the awkward lyric replacement they used to make the character a woman. Scrooge does not care. He then passes a barker (Jesse L. Martin, NBC’s Law and Order) selling tickets for a charity music hall show. Scrooge has no time for this. Then a black-clad blind beggar accosts him for change. Scrooge tells her to go forth, be fruitful, and multiply, though not in so many words. (If you don’t like that joke, I defend myself by pointing out I stole it from Woody Allen.) They all tell him in turn, that he will regret not helping them, and since they’re played by celebrities and their way of telling him vaguely relates to the past, present, and future, you get no points for guessing what comes next.

Scrooge continues on his lumber home, and passes Mrs. Smythe’s funeral procession, whereupon the Smythe daughter turns to him and songs him a little “God Bless Us Everyone” song. Wait - they’re just having the funeral now? Close to dark on Christmas Eve? And less than 15 minutes after meeting with their (Banker/Corn dealer/Gendarme)? That just seems weird.

What’s more, he seems to wobble back and forth between caring and contrite and bitter and hard-hearted at the drop of a hat, even before he sees any ghosts. When the funeral passes him, he tips his hat and looks all remorseful while the Little Smythe Girl sings at him. And by the way, thanks for stealing Tim’s catchphrase.

Speaking of Weirdly-Tall Tim, they add him in earlier here, showing him accompanying Bob on the way home. They stop to buy a chicken from the poulterer, who will be the same guy Scrooge gets the turkey from at the end. Nice touch, that. Sets up his knowing who Bob is, and adds a personal level to his bringing him the bird later. Then Bob and Tim head home, with Tim up on the shoulders and all. They really look great together, and this is the first Cratchit we’ve seen who looks really Cratchitty. Short, thin, poorly dressed, and balding, with a stubbly little beard and a lower-class accent. He also sniffles and sneezes throughout the film as a sort of running gag, but it contributes a lot to his looking pathetic, so I don’t mind. By the way: Do you suppose Peter and Belinda and Martha and the other two ever get jealous of Tiny Tim getting all this special attention from their father? Maybe they want to go to church, too! Oh, who am I kidding, No kid wants to go to church.

Anyway, Scrooge harrumphs his way to his apartment, wobbling like a mime with CP and choking out a reprise of his earlier musical Christmas hate. He finally gets home, and it’s aboot dang time. I’m ready for some ghosty action here. True to form, Marley’s face appears on the knocker. I’m gonna be honest now, and admit that I’ve almost never liked this scene in movies. The book describes the knocker as becoming Marley’s face without “undergoing any intermediate process of change”. And that looks stupid in a movie. You need like a morph effect or something. But almost every live action movie has the face just appear superimposed on the door, and it never looks even kind of good. In this particular case the absurdity is heightened by the fact that it’s broad daylight out rather than the usual foggy darkness, and the fact that Scrooge doesn’t react with fear or awe, just some sort of constipated puzzlement. It’s kind of like the same face he makes for the rest of the movie, but with a PA pulling on his neck to stretch it back a little.

Scrooge has a brief exchange with his housekeeper, berating her, naturally. Well, she’s gonna steal your shit when you die and sell it to a scabby hobbit, so just you wait. I guess she’s not grave-robbing level fed up with him yet, since she just rolls her eyes and wanders home. She probably thinks he’s tired from a busy day of (Banking/data entry/pimpin’). Once inside, he locks the doors, gets his gruel, and proceeds to shuffle around in his bathrobe and mutter crabby things to no one in particular. Like Fred Sanford. But before long, the wind’s a-blowin’, the doors are a-slammin’, and the bells are a-’ringin’, and who should walk in but… George Costanza in Kabuki drag.

(You can stuff your sorries in a sack, mister!)

Okay, that was unfair. Jason Alexander (NBC’s Seinfeld) doesn’t really look or sound much like George Costanza, and he’s a highly experienced and talented musical actor. I also don’t have a problem with a short, round Marley. I’m all for different body types in these things. Nonetheless, he still doesn’t work for me. While Alexander’s good at nice guys and jerks, scary is something he can’t quite handle. He also doesn’t use an accent, and when he tries to do a pained scream… Well, danged if he doesn’t sound just like George Costanza. Ah, if only the Marley role had gone to another actor. Actually British, maybe, with a similar rotund physique, but a more scary edge. Maybe Tim Curry.

Anyway, his song is all about how miserable he is and how torturous his afterlife has become. He’s joined by a squad of ghosts whose maladies are all lame puns. They wander forward in between verses and say things like “I was bad to the bone!”, “I never had a heart!”, and “I wouldn’t lend a hand!” And I’m not describing them to you, because you’ve already guessed. You probably think I’m going to mock this, but I seriously love lame puns. I have three seasons of Rocky and Bullwinkle on DVD. And a season back then was like 400 episodes.

After Marley is gone, it’s time for The Ghost of Christmas Past, and her introduction starts out pretty cool, with her appearing in the smoke of Scrooge’s candle. She then manifests, and sure enough, she’s a clean and sassy-haired version of the lamplighter. After fully forming, she… um… does a sexy pole dance on Scrooge’s bed. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sexy pole dances by Jane Krakowski, but there’s a time and place. Frankly, Krakowski is just weird in this role, and unlike all my high-minded protestations of being able to see past a sitcom past to the actor within, I don’t think that applies to the Actor of Sitcoms Present, as I keep feeling like I was watching Jenna Maroney in a role typically unsuited for her. The role was originally played onstage by diminutive Irishman (read: possible leprechaun) Ken Jennings, who played the role with bright and cheery energy, and was male, as opposed to this film, where the role is played slow and seductive and in a terrible fake accent, with lines awkwardly changed due to gender. What we need is another short man with a legit accent and high energy. Tim Curry?

(Man, the Jackie Jormp-Jomp movie got weird.)

So she shows Scrooge a great big book of his life, and suddenly they’re flying through the air, which is odd, since every so often they flash back to them looking through the book in the bedroom. Are they flying around inside the book? Who knows. The first place she takes him is a new one. In a typically spooky Victorian courtroom, we see Scrooge’s father being sent to a debtor’s prison, thus providing a motivation for his son’s future miserliness and greed. At first I didn’t mind this addition. After all, so much of Dickens’ writing was based on his own miserable childhood, when this very thing happened to his father. But then I realized that if this was the defining moment for young Scrooge, he wouldn’t be all in favor of hurling everyone else into prison for being poor. So never mind. Scrooge’s mom comforts the kids, and… wait… I though she died giving birth to Fan! Oh, whatever. I’m too lazy to analyze that now, so let’s pretend none of this has happened. We find Scrooge typically miserable in school, until his sister comes to get him and he is whisked off to Fezziwig’s to be an apprentice (banker/solicitor/rubber chicken manufacturer), and we find ourselves in the most obvious setup for a musical number ever, “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball”. It’s a fun number, though the dancing is horribly filmed, as usual. Mr. and Mrs. F skip about telling everyone to enjoy themselves and talk about how awesome their parties are. It’s actually a lot of fun. Mr. F is played by Brian Bedford, making him the first Robin Hood to make an appearance in this blog. He’s full of energy, eminently likeable, and has a lot of heart that really shies through. This is not to say that Tim Curry wouldn’t have done a fine job.

Young Scrooge is also poking around, naturally. The final straw in this change in format thing came about because I was considering the addition of a Young Scrooge category to avoid making the main Scrooge section too long, but I didn’t like the way it flowed. Wasn’t that fascinating? Along the lines of the Muppet’s Y.S. not sounding a damn thing like Michael Caine, this guy takes it a step farther and doesn’t look even slightly like Kelsey Grammer. He actually looks like Neil Patrick Harris filtered through Marc Warren. And boy do I wish one of them was in this movie, because this guy is hella boring. Well, someone’s got to make his fiancee look like she has the faintest glimmer of charisma. And she needs all the help she can get, being played by Jennifer Love Hewitt. Scrooge sees her dancing at the party and is instantly seized with an urge to brush her mane and feed her some oats. I’m mightily disappointed in the lady of the film, named Emily here instead of Belle, for reasons unclear. Well, the name only comes up once in the book, maybe they didn’t notice. She sings an awkward little song with him as they dance, and I get weirded out. Everyone’s dancing, so there’s music playing for reals, so are they dancing to her song, or is she singing to the music that’s playing, or are they in their own little thing here? Damn, musicals should just try to avoid this sort of thing. They should also try to avoid casting Jennifer Love Hewitt. She’s not terrible, certainly good enough for an okay supporting role in a high school play, if the town was small and not too big on art education. I just think they could do better.

(No silly hat to make fun of. Just payois and TP shreds. And that mocks itself.)

We now go to the opening of Scrooge and Marley’s, and to the movie’s credit, young Marley is a creditable young Jason Alexander in both looks and voice. This kicks off a sort of montage where we see Scrooge and Marley’s strengthening bond, their mutually growing greed and ruthlessness, and old Scrooge’s regret. There’s one fabulous moment where Fezziwig himself comes asking for a loan and Scrooge turns him down, ignoring his good advice and appeal to his humanity. Damn, this is good stuff. This movie better crap up soon, or I’m not going to - Oh, good, it’s Jennifer Loves Chachi.

She trots in wearing some kind of a burlap shawl with her hair all undid, looking quite sloppy. This is really inexplicable. She wasn’t portrayed as poor in the prior scene, and she’s engaged to a prospering young businessman. So why does she have no proper dress, or ridiculous hat? Maybe she was too bummed to put it on, since she’s dumping him. And dump she does, walking away. There’s some good acting here as Grammer pleads with his past self to follow her, and the way the young guy’s considering it, you see him just on the verge - until he tosses her ring in a cashbox with the rest of the assets. Following this is the return of Alexander and Grammer in shorter wigs giving us the Death of Marley. This is an okay scene, but the romantic part is the high point, and this scene doesn’t really tell us anything except that Marley’s dead, which I think we already got. I’m probably being a little harsh, but that’s because before Horseyface walked in, the ghost said that she had one more thing to show Scrooge. This is two things. Your time is up, Past. Let’s make with the Present. He’s played by the only likeable character in Rent, so I‘d like to see how he handles this piece of crud.

As Marley’s death rattle fades, we cut to Scrooge lying in bed as if waking up from a dream. The ghost flickers in his candle’s smoke, nagging at him until she is unceremoniously extinguished, and that’s the end of (OBSCURE JOKE ALERT) the Blonde Phantom. Scrooge is immediately awakened by a mysterious light and goes to his sitting room to discover it is emanating from… um… Jesse L. Martin’s crotch.

(In lieu of a photo of his crotch, here's a photo of his staff. Wocka wocka.)

Seriously, when Scrooge enters, the ghost is surrounded by an unearthly glow that seems to center itself, for some reason, just below his waist. “Boo,” he says, because he is a ghost. So far my favorite actor in the movie is off to a rough start. Fortunately, he gets right to the singing, wandering around Scrooge’s apartment and making fun of him, including a fun moment where he tosses an apple to Scrooge, who just stares at it as it hits his chest and thumps to the floor. But that’s hardly the biggest move the ghost has, as Scrooge finds himself magically transported to a theater where the ghost puts on a vaudeville/music-hall/pantomime show about how great charity is and how Scrooge is missing out. You know, I always thought this story needed more dancing girls in it. At one point they throw toys into the audience, and Scrooge catches one and sticks it in his pocket, looking around all paranoid. Yeah, those kids are really about to try to jack your crappy free prize. The Little Smythe Girl is in the audience too, and looks at him all gloomy. Man, don’t bring him down, he’s trying to enjoy the show!

Actually, there’s little chance of that happening, as the actors bring Scrooge up onstage, which he reacts to about as well as (OBSCURE JOKE ALERT) Wayne Jarvis. I can’t really tell you what happened next, because at this point, I found myself distracted by the clarinet player’s sideburns and his enthusiasm for clarinetting, both of which are prodigious. The next time I look at the screen, the ghost is walking down the stage holding his robe open as the girls walk out of it. I imagine this is meant to give a clown-car effect, but since his back’s to the audience, and he’s right at the edge of the screen, it’s obvious he’s just walking down the line. Seriously, you’re a movie, you could do some editing here. At the end of the show, Scrooge tosses the Little Smythe Girl his toy. Hooray! He’s redeemed! Can we end the movie now?

No, because now it’s time for a stroll around Soundstage London, where a boy is leaning out a window and shouting “Happy Christmas!” at everyone. I’m glad the ghost told me this was Tiny Tim, because I don’t think I would have remembered otherwise. Kid’s bland. Also, I think part of his disability is that he has spastic arms. His waving out of the window is more like he’s got an invisible cocktail shaker in each hand, and as we go into his room and he begins singing, his arms awkwardly jut about like he’s the inflatable tube guy that’s outside the Arby’s on the way to my school every Wednesday. (I know that‘s a very inside reference, but you know the kind I mean.) At one point, he literally makes the Strong Bad heavy metal gesture. So so awkward. And his hairstyle is so modern, I thought I was watching Robin Hood for a second. Anyway, soon Bob comes in and takes over the bulk of the song, which is just better for everyone. The Cratchit family dinner is usually a bit of a morose affair in these adaptations, so it’s nice that in this one, they really do seem just insanely happy to be with each other. And their happiness is shared as the song spills out into Soundstage London with its wonderful scenic views of Matte Painting London.

(The Ghost of Pimpin' Present)

I know I said I wasn’t going to make a big deal out this, but holy god, this number is filmed so badly. In our previous group numbers, everyone was singing, and the camera was just positioned awkwardly. In this one, small groups sing in turns, and if the camera’s pointing at the wrong ones, it’s really weird. Like when two or three women are singing about helping the poor and “saving the sinners from sin”, and the visual is a young couple dancing with each other. Or maybe that was the sin, I don’t know. Other notables in this scene include a guy in a brown top hat and purple coat, a.k.a. Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka; the Victorian versions of the sailors from On the Town (“New York is thataway, man!” “Thanks, Kid!”), some alcoholic bums, and some dancing urchins being chased by dancing bobbies. They, too are darn happy it’s Christmas. And speaking of happy it’s Christmas, let’s check in on London’s blandest cheermeister, Fred Holliwell! (Spellcheck update: Cheermeister corrects automatically to choirmaster. Also, the credits inform me that Fred‘s last name here was Anderson, for no reason. It‘s not even mentioned.) Fred and his friends are less harsh on Scrooge than usual, good-naturedly pitying him. Harshest is Fred’s son, whooooo…. Son? What the hell? That kid’s like thirteen! Fred’s like… I don’t know, twenty-five. Anyway, the kid’s an ass, and sings that he hopes Scrooge’s dinner gets cold. Yeah, shut up, kid.

In the big finale, we see the Smythes at their sad yet optimistic dinner, and we cut between the Smythes, the Freds, the Cratchits, and one chunk of outside where everyone has joined. Two thoughts spring to mind. One: If they’re going to be jump cutting between the locations, why limit themselves to just those spots? Let’s movie it around a little bit! Go all over England, the world even! Oh, right. They have no money. Second, for every Beadle, there is an equal and opposite Fred’s Fat Friend. This guy looks so bored through all of the song, leaning against the fireplace as if the effort of being an actor paid to be in a musical film is sooooooooo draining. Sorry if I’m inconveniencing you by watching this, you ass. Gods know it’s inconveniencing me.

Once we’re done, we go through the usual rigmarole where Scrooge cares about Tim, and the ghost gets pissed at him, what with the prisons and the workhouses and half of his friends have AIDS and Benny just lost his cat. He then opens his robe which reminds me: I never thought to look carefully at what the Ghost wears under his robe but he’s usually shirtless. In the Scott version, the only other one where he specifically opens his robe, his legs are hidden. So… is he naked? No wonder Ignorance and Want are so messed up. Anyway, in this version, he’s fully dressed in brown slacks and a white shirt, and Iggy and Want are teenagers, so none of that nonsense. They are not only teenagers, but also two of the ugliest human beings I have ever seen in my life. I want to credit the makeup guys for a fantastic job. And if that’s not makeup… I hope the actors don’t read my blog.

(The website didn't have any shots of the hideous children, so here's a hideous wig.)

As usual, Scrooge is left wandering alone in the streets of London. I can tell he is repenting because his limp is better. Then… there’s a knock on his door. No clever way of getting him back to bed, nor a creepy Ghost of Christmas Future appearing in the streets. She just knocks on his door. And unlike the last two, who Scrooge just vaguely recognized as the lamplighter and hawker, she just shows up as the crazy blind lady. Scrooge tells her to lead they way and show what she must show and… and… Shit. Gets. Nuts.

As she prepares to lead Scrooge away, the Ghost sheds her cloak, revealing herself dressed in shimmering white cloth, her face fully visible. She takes Scrooge straight to the graveyard, where an enormous crowd is singing about dancing on his grave. The song is appropriately moody and spooky, as is the crowd of gravediggers, undertakers, and hooded priests singing the song. They all move in an exaggerated, theatrical dance that’s probably unchanged from the original stage choreography, but it really works here.

As they sing, all the usual future scenes float mistily through the graveyard as short songs set to reprises of earlier numbers. First we see Scrooge’s old colleagues, who here not only didn’t go to his funeral, but don’t remember his name. More importantly, we see THE BEADLE HOLY FUCK YEAH, HE’S BACK!!! Their song is to the tune of the opening, only they changed the opening number from the original stage version and never fixed this part, so they wind up singing a reprisal of a song that’s not actually in the movie. Whoops. Next, we see Mrs. Dilber and the undertakers stealing Scrooge’s sheets and curtains and even the nightshirt from right off his body. His dead, extremely hairy body. They sell them to Old Joe, and then Mrs. Dilber gets beaten up by the men, who steal her cut. You just can’t trust some people. Finally, we see Tim’s family praying over his pathetic wooden grave marker, Bob singing a slow version of a song he sang to Tim earlier, with the exact same lyrics.

(Sarcastic hand gestures help no one, The Ghost of Christmas Future.)

The ghost then shows Scrooge his own gravestone, and he reads it aloud. It begins “Here lies Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser. Died scorned and unmourned…” and gets worse from there. I love this way of doing things. It calls to mind the crazy nightmare future of Richard Donner’s parody Scrooged. And it only makes sense. This is supposed to be Scrooge’s worst nightmare, so let’s go nuts. After the reading, the Ghost vanishes and Scrooge, alone in the graveyard, sings a song of repentance, and not too badly, either. Maybe they filmed this scene first and he blew his voice out. Once everyone knows that he’s good and sorry, the cemetery gates swing open, and who should walk in but the Little Smythe Girl. What, again? Jeepers. Hold on - is she responsible for all of this? Did she lay a hoodoo curse on him? Well, she sings the same God Bless Us Everyone song from before, and a choir of children comes in to join her, symbolizing Scrooge’s forgiveness or something and OH MY CRAP, I AM SO TIRED OF THIS MOVIE.

After the kids sing their song for a few verses, Mama Scrooge and Fan come and join them. Why? Are they ghosts? Did they do all of this? Why does Fan look 8 if she died when she was in her twenties? Why is Dodger in the crowd? DID HE DO THIS? Anyway, Scrooge is very moved, which doesn’t seem to work out for him, as the ground beneath him cracks, nearly sending him tumbling to his grave. Then the Ghost comes swooping down on him from out of the sky grinning like a (INCREDIBLY OBSCURE JOKE/BAD PUN ALERT) Gwynnplane, whereupon Scrooge wakes up in bed.

Delighted, he runs downstairs and accosts a boy singing a carol outside his home. Hey, it’s Dodger again! Maybe it was his doing. Unlike the usual shouting from the window, Scrooge bodily drags the kid inside and slams the door. You’d think this would concern people, but this was before the invention of Chris Hansen. As per usual, he sends for the turkey, and offers a tip. Unlike usual, he seems absolutely giggly over it. “Keep… heeheehee… KEEP THE CHANGE!” he says. Jeez, I hope the novelty doesn’t wear off. After the kid leaves, Mrs. Dilber comes by, and Scrooge bodily lifts her off the ground and kisses her, presumably hoping to seduce her away from grave robbing him. He also mentions her name, which is not Mrs. Dilber, but something else that I‘m not going to bother with remembering. This scene marks not only the third pointless name change of the film, but also the first and only time it takes advantage of the fact that Kelsey Grammer is a giant gorilla of a man. Such are the pitfalls of playing an enfeebled Scrooge.

(Dignity, always dignity...)

Speaking of which, as Scrooge walks out of his home it becomes clear that, as predicted, he has dropped the limp like I dropped that Tim Curry joke. He prances about all over the place, handing out checks and charity and cheer and cheesecake, all the while coming off as smug and self-satisfied about the whole thing. He helps out Smythe (Who, in another lovely little moment, looks about ready to punch Scrooge in the face as he approaches), he helps out the charity guys, and he buys a load of tickets off the barker for all the kids. The barker, the lamplighter, and the blind hag all sing about how wow, Scrooge is nice, and maybe the spirit of Christmas got to him. Then they all skip away together. at this point, I still have no idea if they were really ghosts or not. And not in a way like the movie left it up to me to decide. More like the movie decided, then changed its mind, then again like fourteen times. Okay, almost done - Tim jumps up on Scrooge’s shoulders, everyone from Mrs. Not-Dilber to Martin Chuzzlewit dances down the street near a really fake-looking snowman, and we end on a freeze frame. Seriously. Like a damn Family Ties episode.

So that's that. All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable, fluffy version, albeit with some real ridiculous stuff thrown in. By the end, I was pretty desperate for it to be over, but I can see myself enjoying it with friends, or showing it to my students. To that end, I tried to show it to my students, but the other 5th grade teacher wanted to show them the Scott version. Yes, it's one of the best ones out there, but it's not going to hold the attention of a bunch of ten year olds. Well, I'd like to close with something really witty, but my final note just says "evryone singin' gnoin'." So... yeah, whatever that means. Thanks for spending some of your February reading 206 pages about Christmas.

(Everyone singing and... Gnoing?)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bah Humblog: Stave the Third - George C. Scott.


(Scott gets one hour of playtime per day. It's in his contract.)

THE GOOD - There’s a lot of little details here and there thrown in from the original novella. Nothing earth-shattering, just some little moments that don’t usually make it into adaptations that give the movie a more fleshed-out feeling. A good example would be Fred offering Peter Cratchit a job, and Scrooge thinking the offer was only made to spite him. Actually, it’s nice to see someone do anything with any of the other Cratchit kids. There’s also some lines and details that weren’t in the old story that similarly expand and improve the story. I’d cite specific examples, but I forgot to write any. Another thing I like about this version is that the ghosts are kind of assholes. Past laughs at Scrooge when he gets upset, and Present directly admonishes him. More detail on those later, but I like that they have more in-depth personalities.

("Spirit, whose grave is... Wait... I.P. Freely?")

THE BAD - Having little details in the movie, and fleshing out scenes and characters is one thing, but there’s some scenes that were just added in entirely that tend to be unnecessary and terrible. Showing the Cratchit family’s reaction to receiving the prize turkey seems like a good idea, but once the writers get out of the framework of Dickens, they have no idea what to do, and the scene is just awkward.

("It costs how much to take off the feathers? Blimey, this charity business is trickier than I thought.")

THE OTHERWISE WORTHY OF MENTION - Some of the little details I mentioned are really… inexplicable. For example, the back of Scrooge’s fireplace has “The Last Supper“ painted on it. I certainly hope they weren’t implying some sort of symbolism there. Also, this first place Present takes Scrooge is a marketplace. I guess the idea was to show that commerce can be friendly and positive, but did we need to start with the lingering closeup of dead fish? Then show those fish being cleaned? Then move on to closeups of a guy butchering a pig? Weird stuff.

("And I'll tell you where you can shove your Oscar, too.")

SCROOGE - A odd tactic is taken here by making Scrooge the only one who has any fun. When Cratchit goes to put another piece of coal on the fire, Scrooge doesn’t just ream him out, he gives him an impromptu lecture on the function of clothes. “Once purchased, they can be used indefinitely for their intended purpose.” This adds an excellent dimension to him, as statements like “Boiled in his own pudding,” and “decrease the surplus population” are delivered with a laugh that makes it clear that in the mind of Scrooge, these are hilarious jokes. And the fact that no one else is laughing just means something is wrong with them. In the mind of Scott’s Scrooge, he is so right and everyone else is so stupid, it’s hilarious. Fantastic way to play Scrooge. Scrooge’s extremely generic profession is gone into more detail here. Rather than a banker or a lender, he appears to be a corn merchant, going to the Exchange to sell to the middlemen. I have to say, this lessens his impact a bit. Threatening to foreclose on a widow is what we want to see in our evil misers, not threatening to jack up grain prices for wholesalers. I also want to mention that this is the first Scrooge we’ve seen fully clothed, wearing a smoking jacket over his shirt, pants, and vest, rather than the traditional nightshirt. Apparently, Scott didn‘t want to film in England in the dead of winter with no pants on. Good for him. It’s a nice look, anyway. My final note for Scrooge reads “Not paying attention. Opens the door.” I forget what I meant when I wrote that.

(An added scene in which Marley walks in on Scrooge changing into his pajamas.)

MARLEY - I think it’s great that in most productions of the story, Marley is kind of vague and mopey and Scrooge acts terrified, but when we actually get a scary-as-hell Marley, he has to go up against George C. Scott. He gets the best of him, though, and well he should. His chains and safes seem to honestly be weighing him down, and he lurches forward with wide, unblinking eyes, his jaw flapping slack when freed from his bandage, screaming with a throaty roar that seems to come from the VERY BOWELS OF HELL ITSELF. I like him, is my point. And no special effects to speak of, too.

(This is Major Ghost of Christmas Past to ground control...)

PAST - Played by some weird androgynous clone of young Judi Dench and David Bowie. Rather than the sweeping flight across time we saw in the past two versions, she… he… it shows Scrooge visions as reflections in her shiny cap. At first all we saw was what they were seeing, with voice over from them watching it, and I was terrified that that would be all it was, with Scrooge narrating over his wonder years like so much Daniel Stern. Thankfully, they soon plant their feet in the past, and go around watching everything like usual. Scott takes a different approach in the past scenes, needless to say. I always hated how regretful and contrite and nostalgic Scrooge seems to get right away in the past, and here, his nostalgia is the same as everything else to him. He’s right, and everyone else is wrong. I never much liked the scene where Lil’ Ebby is reading inside, and the ghost tries to make him look all lonely and wretched, whilst Scrooge dithers nostalgically over all his old books. In this version, Scrooge just says “Screw you, ghosty, my books are awesome.“ Nice. It’s this kind of no-nonsense attitude that leads to the first-in-this-blog appearance of one of my favorite book bits, the murder of Past with its own hat. In this Scrooge crams the hat viciously on its head and all the background instantly vanishes as it screams, “THE PAST LIVES” or some such. Scrooge? Him balls nasty.

("No, that's just what my legs look like. Thanks for bringing it up, asshole.")

PRESENT - For our first full-blown live-action Present, I’m glad they were able to get a real tall guy. He seems at first to be a bit skinny and short-bearded to qualify, but the height helps. And frankly, it all goes a long way to making him look less like Santa. He basically sort of wanders casually through Christmas, enjoying himself, wearing a big ol‘ curtain. Casual, not hugely jovial and all up in Scrooge‘s grill. Rather than simply reminding Scrooge that no one can hear him, we get this delightful admonition: “Don’t talk to them. It’s pointless… and rather tactless.” He does, however, get REALLY pissed at Scrooge, and flat out says that he would murder Scrooge a million times over to save one person like Tiny Tim. See, Past? If you talked that sort of game, you wouldn’t be jammed into your own hat right now.

(I almost typed 'It only hurts when I do this', but then I remembered I used that joke in the Muppet one. I need better writers.)

FUTURE - I’m actually really impressed with the amount of variety directors can get out of a weirdly tall guy in a black robe with no face who never talks. This one, for example, moves a lot, communicating not with a nod, but a full-body droop. His pointing is similarly more elaborate gestures, and he flickers about instead of staying in one place. He tends to be revealed in flashes of lightning, rarely staying in one place for long. His future realm is also wonderfully atmospheric, with stark lighting, deep shadows, and random whispering in the background. There’s also a great moment in the scene where Scrooge sees his things being sold to the bone man. Rather than play him like he’s in denial or legitimately thinks he‘s looking at some random guy‘s death, Scrooge knows damn well he’s dead, he just doesn’t want to see it. This is confirmed when his maid hands Pawny MacFacescab Scrooge’s distinctively-chiming pocket watch. Chilling. If you like your futures bleak and creepy, this is the one for you. Oh, and at the end, instead of being taken to the graveyard after demanding that the spirit show him where he is, he gets taken there after screaming “That‘s enough! Take me home!”. Creeeeeepyyyy.

(Pure badass.)

CRATCHIT - Played by David Warner. I can’t tell you how much I love David Warner. I want to be him. For the unaware, he was the MCP in Tron, Ra’s al Ghul on Batman the Animated Series, Professor Perry in Ninja Turtles 2, Dr. Downey in Hogfather, Gul Madred on the Star Trek episode where Picard gets tortured, and Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek 6. DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW AWESOME THIS MAN IS?

(Significantly less badass.)

You may have noticed something about… well, every role up there except Gorkon. As Warner’s Wikipedia article begins, the man “is known for playing sinister or villainous characters.” So how does he do as clinically nice guy Cratchit? Ehh. He’s fine, but there’s nothing really unique going on here, and his bearing is still a bit too powerful. I’d rather see him play Marley or Scrooge, or something similar he can really ham it up in. When you have the gift of hamming without looking stupid, I say use it!

(If Mr. Smlown was a human, he'd look like this.)

TINY TIM - Aah! Sorry. I just looked at a hideous beast. I thought Tiny Tim was going to show up, but I guess AAH! There it is again! Seriously, we’re supposed to feel sorry for the merry little cripple, and that’s really hard when he’s a hideous beast. The actor has grown into a film executive, with a hand in producing some recent major hits, such as Twilight and Tropic Thunder. I am in favor of this, as it keeps him behind the camera. Still, the kid is a decent actor, and I can’t blame him for what the makeup artists did when told to make him look sickly. Character-wise, he’s not just optimistic and loving, but downright chipper in the face of horrible disease, which is an interesting way to play it. Dickens wrote Tim as a suffering saint who knew he was terribly ill and likely to die soon. This kid seems like nobody wanted to tell him. He does, of course, say “God bwess us, evewy one,” but I much prefer his earlier line “Huwwah for Chwistmas!”

(“Then I shall keep my good humor…” If you say so, man.)

FRED - Fred is played by Roger Rees, who we’ve recently seen as the Sheriff in Robin Hood: Men In Tights, making him the first crossover performer between my two long-form blogs. Good for him. What with being classy and talented, he pulls double-duty as the films narrator, but there’s not much narration there. Frankly, I can’t stand movies that just start and end with narration. Narrators are annoying anyway, and if they aren’t going to be sticking around, just give us some damn supertitles. Anyway, Fred! He kind of sucks.

("Get a haircut, hippie.")

The whole point of Fred, it seems to me, is that his relentlessly cheerful Christmas spirit contrasts with his uncle’s cold dismissal of the whole concept. In this movie, I suppose since they made Scrooge a cheerier person, Fred is grim. Rather than an invitation to Christmas dinner, it seems like he’s running an intervention. In addition to his weird direction, Rees has a weird face, well suited to villains, or at least mustaches. His pinched expression of discomfort combined with his weird Ronald McDonald bouffant hairdo make this Fred fail on about every level. The scene where Scrooge spies on his party has one great moment, where everyone says “Bah, humbug” in unison, and one reeeeeealllly long section where Scrooge watches them play party games that wind up mocking him. The word game is one thing, but there’s no need to labor it with charades, musical chairs, and Apples to Apples.

(Winner of the 1837 Christmas Sideburns contest.)

CHARITY CASE - Holy crap, it’s Alfred! Oh, wait, it’s Mr… Poole? And his friend is Mr. Harking. They have names! Good for them.. Anyway, the now-named charity saps in this version are slightly more polite, approaching Scrooge not in his office while he’s working, but in a major public location when everyone’s closed up. This makes them less obnoxious, but also Scrooge’s dismissal more warranted. Well, I guess when you blow off charity panhandlers in Times Square, you’re supposed to do it by just walking by, not by stopping to tell them how much they suck and how you hope everyone they’re trying to help winds up in prison. Yeah, Scrooge is still a jerk.

("Yes my dear! What a delightful dirty limerick!")

FEZZIWIG - The F-wig is described in the book as being a serious tough boss, who still knew the value of fun, and Scrooge learned all the wrong lessons from him. In this movie, we see a very little bit of him at work before the party, and he is a muttering, giggling, funny little hobbit of a man. I like this implication, as well, that Scrooge really started off on the right path with the right mentor, and he strayed on his own. He also directly plays matchmaker with Scrooge and…

("I cannot marry you Ebenezer. You just... You fart so damn much.")

BELLE - Now, unless I miss my guess, the implication is made that she is Miss Belle Fezziwig, daughter of the old boss. It adds a nice extra dimension to what I am increasingly beginning to think is a role that amounts to nothing more than a broken heart, a sharp tongue, and a silly hat. One of the oddest parts of the movie is when she leaves Scrooge, and the soundtrack, which had been very understated though most of the film, suddenly bursts forth in a cacophony of strings and horns. When Belle ends it, she hires an orchestra to let you KNOW it. They actually go on to show the rarely-adapted scene where Scrooge sees Belle, her husband, and their six children, happy and loving at Christmas, the parents reminiscing vaguely about poor old Ebenezer. This, of course, is motivation to provoke the aforementioned grisly spectrecide. Oh, Belle, you still got it.

("Scrooge? You ever think about... You know... Stuff?")

OTHERS Not much in the way of interesting new characters here. There is a bit where a ghost hearse with a ghost driver rides past Scrooge, with Marley’s voice moaning out from inside it. I like that Scrooge is having a weird night before the door knocker. I wish they’d done more with that. Nothing else really to speak of, except that Papa Scrooge seems to have a glass eye or something. That’s about it.

(Oh, it's related. Don't you worry.)


Are you ready for the awe-inspiring fury of the finest lyrics ever committed to the human throat? PREPARE YOURSELF!

We wish you the merriest, the merriest, the merriest, the merriest to you
We wish you the merriest, the merriest, the merriest, yes the merriest,
We wish you the merriest, the merriest, the merriest Yule cheer,


We wish you the happiest, the happiest, the happiest, yes the happiest,
We wish you the happiest, the happiest, the happiest new year.


May your tree be filled with happiness, happiness and friendliness for all
May your heart be filled with cheerfulness,
With happiness and cheerfulness and friendliness for all.


We wish you the happiest, the happiest, the happiest, yes the happiest,
We wish you the merriest, the merriest, the merriest Yule cheer,
And the happiest new year.
The happiest and the friendliest, and the merriest, the cheerfullest,
And the happiest new year.

So, yeah. The most remarkable thing about “We Wish you the Merriest” is that it took three massively famous people to make it. The music and chorus were conducted by radio/TV personality/bandleader/singer Fred Waring. Not really known today, Waring was a huge star back in his time. He actually was the financial backer and namesake of the first ever electric blender, the Waring Blendor. This brings up two important points. First, Fred Waring was the original George Foreman; and second, Blendor would be a kickass He-Man villain. Waring was best known, however, for his TV program, where a bunch of guys would sing songs. Yeah, it took a lot less to impress back in those days. As long as you were on the Tv, you could do pretty much anything, and people would be rapt. I’ve never seen the show, but I’ve heard the singers, and these guys are so white they make “Sing Along With Mitch” look like “Soul Train”.

The other two singers highlighting the track have been slightly better remembered by history. That is because they are Frank Fucking Sinatra and Bing Bloody Crosby. Now, my shock at their appearance in this horrifyingly bad song is entirely based on their legendary fame, not their talent. Frankly, I think both of them are boring and unpleasant to listen to, with smirks and smarm dripping from every word, Crosby far more so than Sinatra. Frankie could put out the occasional song that’s bearable, but frankly, he had a style he would not deviate from. Crosby had the same thing, and since his style was “Smug, immovable-faced douche”, I have less to make me like him. Besides, Sinatra was in The Manchurian Candidate and Crosby beat his kids. So after the extra credit points are tallied, the divide is even more pronounced.

“But Brian,” you say, “Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby are amazingly talented national treasures!” Well, first of all, thanks for reading my blog, college roommate Sean Murphy. And may I point out that the main subject of this little note is “We Wish You the Merriest”. And have you seen those lyrics? I had to harp on the creative team. There’s nothing I could say about the song itself, because it is so self-evidently shitty I can honestly not think of any way to mock it other than just writing the words down. It’s the blog-snarker’s nightmare. It’s so clearly bad it resists all attempts at mockery. When I heard it on Christmas Radio, I just sat in the car, dumbfounded that such a product could exist. And the people singing it! Despite their droning and unpleasant voices, they had made their entire careers out of being groovy, swinging hep cats, and they were just intoning the same words over and over with no thought to rhythm or style… Cheerfullest isn’t even a word! So I give you “We Wish You the Merriest”. A song that begets no scorn, no derision… Just bafflement and wonder.

COMING UP NEXT: A Hallmark movie, you say? Starring a bunch of sitcom and cop show stars that NBC happened to have lying around, you say? A musical, you say? Ah, how could I refuse. Tune in shortly to witness Stave the Fourth - Kelsey Grammer!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bah Humblog: Stave the Second - The Muppet Christmas Carol


(Good Movie Poster)

THE GOOD - The original puppets look good, the classic puppets look good, and what puppeteers as remain alive do a marvelous job. Also, they have Gonzo following everyone around, acting as a narrator, which is a good idea for two reasons. One, it gives them some funny visual bits in the draggy parts; and two, it gives them an easy excuse to use Dickens’ narration as he wrote it, instead of awkwardly working it into dialogue like so many other productions.

(Horrifying DVD Cover. I love how Michael Caine is just sort of hovering in the back.)

THE BAD - Jim Henson and Richard Hunt died before this movie went into production. You may think it unfair to put this in ‘The Bad’, since it’s not really the movie’s fault, but if you don’t like the way I run things, you can write your own blog. You could probably update more often, too, you lazy bastard. Anyway, I have to put the blame on these deaths for the fact that the movie never really comes together. They had Jerry Juhl writing, Paul Williams songwriting, Brian Henson directing… that should be Muppet gold. But instead, it’s more like a collection of concepts. It works, it doesn’t, it never really comes together as a whole work. Oh, and the “Streets of London” set is pretty tiny. They’re obviously stretching to make it look expansive at some points, when it’s obvious they’re just walking like 30 feet.

("Hey, Bean!" "Yeah?")

THE OTHERWISE WORTHY OF MENTION - Quite surprisingly, this is not a comedic parody of A Christmas Carol, or even a funny version of the story, like Mickey’s. This is a straight-up honest adaptation that happens to feature funny puppets in some supporting roles. And while I can’t fault them for… Oh, wait, yes I can. FAULT The Muppets take supporting roles in their own movie. FAULT There are long stretches where nothing funny or interesting happens on account of there’s no Muppets around. FAULT FAULT FAULT. Anyhow, it’s still a good movie, and a good version of the story, but apparently the original intent was to have Scooter, Piggy, and Gonzo be the ghosts, and it would be much more of a comedy. Wow, Muppets and jokes. We wouldn’t want that in our Muppet movie.


SCROOGE - Played by Michael Caine. I like Michael Caine. I like Michael Caine’s voice. I like it when he putts an upper-class edge on it, as here. It sort of makes you feel like Scrooge was a dirty London boy who made good. It sort of makes you wish the actors playing young Scrooge had got the memo. I mean, everyone knows what Michael Caine sounds like, you’d think they’d try it. (Oh, and I like when he does an American accent, because it’s HILARIOUS.) Anyway, Caine plays an effective, if low-key Scrooge. Whereas McDuck’s was sort of avuncularly evil, with a clear sense of humor, Caine’s comes off as a very bitter sort of mean, and his scraggly haircut and overbite make him the second ugliest Scrooge I’ve ever seen, after Alistair Sim. Frankly, I’m less than impressed.

("We left the key in one of these...")

MARLEY - Marleys, actually. If you need Muppets to play elderly men who delight in cruelty, you’re obviously going for Statler and Waldorf. And so Jacob Marley gets a brother, Robert. (Get it? GET IT?) They sing a good song, put in some of their trademark zingers. It’s a good time for all. The one thing that bugs me is that when they do the face in the door knocker bit, only Statler is there. You’d think they could have put Waldorf’s face on the doorknob or something. They float in the air, which kind of makes the chains seem like not such a big deal, but the chains multiply and lengthen during their extremely groovy song, and that’s such a neat touch I’ll let it slide. Also to note: Statler and Waldorf were originally played by Richard Hunt and Jim Henson. Now their characters are ghosts. SPOOOOOOOKY. Of course, Kermit and Beaker turned out fine, so they’re 50/50.


PAST - I’ve never seen The Dark Crystal. This is partly because the opportunity has never really presented itself*, and partly because the Gelflings really freak me out. And so does the Gelfy Ghost of Christmas Past. It just sort of floats around amorphously, twitching its horrid mouth and scaring the fuck out of me. It looks like a fetus.

*This is a lie. My girlfriend did suggest we watch it once, but I decided I’d rather see Labyrinth again. If I’m going to watch something Henson/Froudy, I’d rather it have David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, and David Bowie’s huge unit in it. And I’m not fixating on it, but seriously, that bulge deserves third billing. It practically had backstory and motivations. It probably has fan fiction about it. Probably? Who am I kidding? Hey, this footnote is longer than the main bit!

(You ever notice how no one ever bumps into them?)

PRESENT - Present is my favorite, and a huge part of that is that while still modeled after the Dickens description, he looks Muppety and is voiced by Jerry Nelson, one of the classic Muppeteers. He gets a musical montage. Christmas present is made for a musical montage. There are five musical adaptations I am aware of, and I’ll bet there’s a musical montage in the Present scene of at least four of them. Ignorance and Want (Who, by the way, are the second freakiest things Dickens ever wrote up, after Miss Havisham.) do not appear, which is too bad, since they could have been great in spooky Muppety form. Or they could have been Lew Zealand and the Swedish Chef, which would be even better.

("It only hurts when I do this.")

FUTURE - To everyone’s surprise, it’s a tall guy with a big black hooded robe. WOW. It’s a cool one, though. The robe looks more like a shroud, and his neck and arms are crazy long, and his legs are tiny. If he has legs. He sort of glides. Actually, he looks like a really skinny 14-foot-tall guy who’s had his legs amputated and now moves about by means of personal hovercraft, hiding his shame in a big cloak. And since they never say he’s not, I plan on assuming he is. It alleviates the bleakness of a ten-minute stretch of film without any jokes.

(Kermit is the most well-dressed Cratchit ever. I guess being naked since 1955 helped him save up.)

CRATCHIT - Continuing our tradition of the nice guy corporate icon playing Bob, here we have Kermit the Frog. He does well, but Cratchit relies too much on nice-guy Kermit. The reason I love Mr. The Frog is because of his short temper and razor wit. In the old Muppet Show episodes, he can be downright mean to Piggy, Fozzie, and Gonzo, not that they notice. By the time the movies started, he had calmed down a lot, but still cracked jokes at a rapid pace and could get all fired up when the need arose. Since about the third movie, and especially since Jim died, he’s been more and more mellow and more and more the straight man. And playing a role like Bob Cratchit makes him all meek and submissive. Kermit ain’t no wimp! Kermit’s the boss! Emily Cratchit is played by Miss Piggy, which fits because Dickens wrote Mrs. C. as kind of a crabby firecracker, and because she‘s the only major female Muppet, and as such, is required to be Kermit‘s love interest in every movie. They have four kids, of which the boys are frogs and the girls are pigs. That is not how biology works! I would have liked to have seen some baby figs, along the line of Kermit and Fozzie’s dad from the Great Muppet Caper. But then we wouldn’t have…

(When they say Tiny in this movie, they mean it.)

TINY TIM - Played by Kermit’s nephew, Robin. I’m actually not as bothered by Kermit having a nephew as I am with the Disney guys. I think it’s because Kermit is more like a real person. We know what his job is, for instance. He’s MC and stage manager of a variety show. What does Mickey do? Who the hell knows? So it’s easy to imagine Kermit has a brother or a sister. Anyway, Robin, like Kermit, loses his edge playing a Cratchit. He was always a cute little guy, but with a sort of resentment at being the cute little guy. As Tim Cratchit, he plays the cute card to the max, and does it well. Jerry Nelson’s cute little guy voice is marvelous, and his gimpy puppeteering is excellently pathetic. What pisses me off is that Scrooge steals his classic line. At the end, he says “God bless us,” and Scrooge says “Yes! God bless us, every one!” Fuck you, Scrooge. I thought you’d learned your lesson. You wanna go back in the ghost-hole? I WILL THROW YOU RIGHT IN!

(Hey, dig it, it's the Acoustic Mayhem.)

FEZZIWIG - That’s Fozziwig, because if you can make an easy joke like that, why not? Fozzie is a natural fit for Fezziwig, because his one scene consists of him throwing a party, and he gets the opportunity to tell some stupid jokes. Mrs. Fezziwig is portrayed as Fezzy’s mother in this, because they probably hadn’t used the Fozzie’s mom puppet in 15 years or so. Oh, who am I kidding, it’s just Fozzie with a wig. Fezziwig’s profession is given in this version as rubber chicken manufacturer, which is a great place to imagine Ebenezer Scrooge getting his start, and I’d like to see that in a more serious adaptation.

(What is that, a scarf, or a curtain?)

FRED - Rather disappointingly played by a human. I was rather hoping for Scooter or something. I mean, the guy does a good job, but what with the ghosts being custom jobs, we need all the real Muppets we can get. But I guess there’s no human/Muppet crossbreeding allowed. The kid’s decent enough, in a British David Cassidy sort of clean-cut way.

("We're collecting for the mute and the possibly blind...")

CHARITY CASE - Played by Bunsen and Beaker, because there’s two of them, so hey, why not? There’s actually a wonderful moment with them at the end. After Scrooge gives them his donation, Beaker takes off his scarf and gives it to Scrooge as a gesture of gratitude. The look on Caine’s face is wonderful. This is the first Christmas gift Scrooge has received in a very long time, and it came from the heart. I love it when the wacky comedy versions of a story can do something better than the legit versions. Of course, if they’re going to do something that well, there’s tradeoff, and it comes from Bunsen leaning on Scrooge’s desk with his hand on cheek and swirling his finger on his other hand around in a manner that can only be described as flirty. It’s creepy, and wrong, and it makes me picture Michael Caine having sex with a chartreuse volleyball. Actually, it doesn't, but now you're seeing it. Ha ha.

(I started typing the same hat joke as last time, then remembered I'd already used that, and you know, I now have nothing to say about her.)

BELLE - There’s a video online called “How a Muppet Christmas Carol is meant to be watched” or something to that effect. It plays the scene with young Scrooge and Belle right up to where she starts singing, and then fast forwards past the rest. And that’s about the size of it. She absolutely grinds the film to a halt. There’s no Muppets in her big scenes. There’s not even any Michael Caine. And her song sucks. Would have been much better if she was a Muppet. I don’t know who, though. Probably Janice. Or Camilla. Now that would be hilarious. For the record, I didn’t have to watch the song. It was cut out of the theatrical version for pacing reasons, and put back in the home video release because Paul Williams’ mom really liked it. Or something, I don’t know. But my DVD gives me the option of watching the theatrical cut in widescreen, or the VHS edit in fullscreen. Since I have some taste and class, I chose widescreen and was rewarded with not having to watch this shitty song.

(When I get my teacher certification, I'm totally wearing that hat everywhere.)

OTHERS - Bean Bunny plays the young lad who tells Scrooge what day it is. In a nice bit of consolidation, they combine the part with the young caroler Scrooge refuses to give a coin to, and add pathos by showing him shivering in an alley shortly thereafter. The sight of Bean Bunny homeless and freezing is very funny in a very guilty way. Sam the Eagle cameos as Scrooge’s old teacher, and manages to be a patriotic American in 1800-ish England. The background supplies some classic Muppets, the best of which is Bobby Benson and his Baby Band as carolers. The major addition, though is Gonzo as the Narrator. Officially, he’s identified as Charles Dickens, but there’s no real reason for that. He shows up in a lot of odd jobs depending on the scene, so he’s sort of like D*ck van D*ke in Mary Poppins, except with a better English accent. Which is to say, no attempt at an English accent. He’s paired with Rizzo for the first time ever, for no real reason. Rizzo was barely more than a glorified extra before this, and I think they just needed someone for Gonzo to talk to, and wanted to get Steve Whitmire another big part. But hey, it’s worked out.

(Hey, don't blame me. That's the first Google result for the song title.)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL - Continuing our theme of sexual innapropriacy, let’s take a look at “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. This charming little ode to date rape is a duet sung by a male, trying to get a woman to stay in his sleazy bachelor pad, and said woman, frantically making excuses to leave. The male and female voices are identified in the original sheet music as “The Wolf” and “The Mouse”, which I guess would make sense if wolves ate mice. Or fucked them, I suppose. The lyrics are… well, here’s a sample…

I really can't stay - But baby it's cold outside
I've got to go away - But baby it's cold outside

Okay, so far, not too creepy, but then…

My mother will start to worry - Beautiful, what's your hurry
My father will be pacing the floor - Listen to the fireplace roar

Oh, so she still lives with her parents. Nothing odd about that, but she also has a curfew… Well, that was probably more common in 1949, and there’s no reason to believe she’s 16.

I ought to say no, no, no, sir - Mind if I move closer?
At least I'm gonna say that I tried - What's the sense in hurting my pride?

AAAAHHHHH!!! Not cool, The Wolf! That might have worked in the back seat of your dad’s Austin 7 when you were in high school, but now… Well at least she’s only admitting this is maybe a bad idea, she’s not BLATANTLY saying no…

I simply must go - But baby, it's cold outside
The answer is no - But baby, it's cold outside

Damn it.

My sister will be suspicious - Gosh, your lips look delicious
My brother will be there at the door - Waves upon a tropical shore

I’m becoming convinced at this point that the reason her whole family is there is because they’ve reported her missing and are waiting to hear from the police. And The Wolf’s lyrics are quickly becoming nonsensical.

My maiden aunt's mind is vicious

Hee hee. Old virgins are mean and gossipy! This song won an Oscar, by the way.

You've really been grand - I thrill when you touch my hand
But don't you see - How can you do this thing to me?

Oh, yeah. It’s her fault. Everything this guy says is like an example from one of those pamphlets on keeping your virginity. Oh, and just when you think he can’t get anymore manipulative…

There's bound to be talk tomorrow - Think of my life long sorrow
At least there will be plenty implied - If you caught pneumonia and died

Of course, there is a reason she’s so susceptible to his greasy advances…

The neighbors might think - Baby, it's bad out there
Say, what's in this drink? - No cabs to be had out there

Flunitrazepam. Maybe GHB.

And so, with Wolfie’s final line (“Get over it”) we end it. And in case you’re wondering if there’s any circumstance where I’ll like this song, there is. If an effeminate Scotsman sings it to an elderly alcoholic and they throw in little one liners and trade parts halfway through. And that’s why I treasure my recording by Alan Cumming and Liza Minelli.

COMING UP NEXT : We'll see George C. Scott hating Christmas, and liking yelling! Also, I understand he played Scrooge at one point.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bah Humblog: Stave the First - Mickey's Christmas Carol


(Seriously, though, The Rescuers is pretty awesome.)

Ah, the first version of the classic story I ever saw. What better way to kick off the blog? With a version that's not talking funny animals, you say? Well, shut up.

(My favorite Scotsman who movied to America at the age of 13 and grew up to become a captain of industry. Although after him and Andrew Carnegie, I'm not sure where else to go.)

THE GOOD - The decision was wisely made to tell a straight-up adaptation of A Christmas Carol, changing the names of all the characters, keeping it in 1880s England, etc. So it was able to avoid being like one of those Christmas Carol episodes of “Family Ties”, or whatever. Also, it was a theatrical movie, originally the pre-show to a re-release of “The Rescuers”, so the animation is top-notch.

(You know, when you threaten the guy with hell, it makes his repentance seem less sincere.)

THE BAD - Jeepers, this thing is short. At 25 minutes or so, there’s basically no time for any of the ghosts to show him anything more than one or two little scenes. Kind of implies Scrooge didn’t need much in the way of convincing. He was probably all ready to change, but just couldn’t find the time.

(Hey, Cratchit, Charlie Brown called, he wants his tree back.)

THE OTHERWISE WORTHY OF MENTION - They re-released The Rescuers? Huh. No characters from The Rescuers appear, which is too bad, because most movies could do with a little more Eva Gabor. Also, not that it’s specific to this movie, and not that it’s something hacky stand-ups haven’t covered well, but why all the nephews? Donald is Scrooge’s nephew, Huey, Dewey, and Louie are Donald’s nephews, etcetera. The only one who has a natural child is freakin’ Goofy. And not even Disney knows where these kids come from. I have a copy of the McDuck family tree. Scrooge’s sister Hortense marries Quackmore Duck, they have two kids, Donald and Della. Della marries… and there’s just a blank circle, covered by a branch. Are Huey, Dewey, and Louie bastards or something? Because that’s what this thing seems to be implying. It would explain why their name is Duck. Then again, so is Daisy‘s, who we can assume to be no relation. And her three nieces are ALSO named Duck! And they’re confirmed to be her sister’s kids, not that anyone knows who her sister is. I swear to Gald, there’s some Blue Velvet-level secret-keeping going on in Duckburg.

(I would love to see Mickey get smacked with that thing, and if that makes me a bad person, so be it.)

SCROOGE - Played, naturally, by Scrooge McDuck, for the first time ever by Alan Young. Of course, since Scrooge was only ever in one cartoon prior to this, it’s not that impressive. Anyway, there’s not much effort needed in adapting him to suit this story. He’s always been a crabby old tightwad with a heart of gold, so all they had to do was hold off on the gold-heart stuff until the end. Watching this as a child, I was fascinated by Scrooge’s nightcap, and I frequently wear hats to bed to this very day.

(And now, my Hal Smith impression. Gawrsh! A-hyuk! Wah-hoo-hoo! Can I have my paycheck now?)

MARLEY - Every time there’s one of these use existing characters to adapt an old story movies, someone only gets a part due to a combination of there not really being a part that’s right for them and there being nobody in the set cast that can fill the part well, but they have to have a part because they‘re a major character. And so it is with poor Goofy. There’s nothing really Marley-like about him, but where else were they going to put him? So he shuffles around doing his little pratfalls and all that, and it’s just kind of blah. HIGH POINT: Scrooge compliments him for his former ruthlessness, and he looks proud for a minute before remembering he’s supposed to be sorry. LOW POINT. When he walks through a wall, only to trip on a cane. If he can go through a wall, why not a cane? And why would falling down the stairs bother him? Was it just an excuse to put in the “WAAAAAHHH-HOO-HOO-HOO!” sound effect? Of course it was.

(Things I would love to her Jiminy Cricket say: "I'ma cut you!")

PAST - Played by Jiminy Cricket. Not much to say here. The kindest and gentlest spirit is played by a friendly little cricket-dude. Pokes a little fun at Scrooge, but mostly just shows him the ol’ good times. One thing I did notice is that the part of the book where Scrooge gets angry at the spirit for dragging up painful memories and basically kills it was taken out. This is the second time Jiminy has escaped death by the grace of Disney. In the original book Pinocchio, the nameless cricket shows up in Gepetto’s house and tells Pinocchio to get a job, whereupon the puppet throws a hammer at his head and kills him. That book is pretty fucked-up.

(Sure, why not?)

PRESENT - The writers have made an odd choice here in casting the giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk in this role. He’s a fun character, sure, but his only appearance prior to this was as a villain in half of a 35-year-old anthology movie. He’s great in this, though, stomping around tearing the roofs off of houses to show Christmas joy. And I like the idea of a huge ghost that uses his physical prowess to manhandle Scrooge into seeing what he shows. Incidentally, in the original treatment, Present was played by Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy. (Past was Merlin, and future the old lady version of the queen from Snow White.) Makes sense, what with her being all about conscience and all. Of course, in the book, she tries to put Pinocchio into a coffin because he refuses to take some medicine, then later fakes her death and makes him think it was his fault. Fucked. Up.

(Oh my god! THAT'S how you spell Ebenezer?)

FUTURE - I like this one. Future is always so impassive, just pointing this way and that registering no reaction, rail-thin and faceless. This one is fat and obnoxious, and has scowly eyes peering out of his cowly hood. He blows cigar smoke in Scrooge’s face, and instead of solemnly hovering, stands around impatiently with his hands on his hips. When Scrooge asks whose grave he’s standing on, the ghost is positively delighted. “It’s yours, Ebenezer!” He laughs, throwing back his hood, “The richest man in the cemetery!” That’s pretty awesome. He is, of course, played by Pete, because Pete is the only notable bad guy in the entire Disney cast. His one line is voiced by Will Ryan, and it sounded really off to me, until I realized that I’ve only ever known Pete to be played by Jim Cummings, and his Pete voice is pretty much his generic tough guy voice. So it’s more likely he’s doing it wrong. By the way, what is Pete? A cat?

(Belinda! No grinding on the popcorn!)

- Can we all agree that Mickey Mouse is annoying? That stupid little giggle he does, that voice, the near lack of a personality, the weak-willed good-guy attitude. Well, anyway, he’s playing Bob Cratchit, so all he has to do is snivel around the place getting shit on, which is about par for the course for Mickey. To be fair, he was kinda cool in some of his middle shorts, like the late 40s or so. But this is not them. In this, Mickey is full into generic, personality-free corporate mascot mode. And every time he does that stupid little giggle, he reminds me of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. This is the first time Mickey is played by Wayne Allwine. For those of you who are fans of Adorable Trivia, Allwine is arried to Russi Taylor, who plays Minnie Mouse. Awwwwww… (Not in this though. She would have, but Mrs C. doesn’t get any lines.)

(I can make it on my own!)

TINY TIM - Played by Morty Fieldmouse according to Wikipedia, though it could easily be Ferdie. The other one plays the other kid. They’re Mickey’s nephews in the regular continuity, because anything the Ducks can do awesome, the Mice can do half-assed. Still, the kid’s cute, and there’s something about the way he gimps down the stairs that just tugs at the heart. Frankly, Tim is always played as a freakin’ saint, and a cute baby mouse is just the icing on the cake. And while I think I may have mentioned I’m none to fond of Mickey, the sight of him tearfully laying a crutch down in front of a gravestone is pretty devastating, and the animators did a wonderful job on the moment immediately after, when he looks up and realizes he’ll never see his son again. Since this entry wasn’t that funny, I’d like to mention that in the book Pinocchio, Gepetto hates children, and the first thing Pinocchio does is bite him and steal his wig.

(I am a well-rounded character, dammit!)

FEZZIWIG - Blink and you miss him. The Fezz is played by Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows. He fiddles while Rome burns. I mean while his employees dance.

(Aww. He's still dressed like a sailor. Was he ever actually in the navy?)

FRED - You know, of all the corporate icon cartoon ducks with temper issues that play second banana to some manner of farm pest, Donald is my second favorite. It should be mentioned, though that while I like Daffy a bit more than Donald, I like Donald waaaaay more than I like Mickey. But then, I like Horace fucking Horsecollar more than I like Mickey. Donald is the obvious choice here, what with already being Scrooge’s nephew, but at first seems an odd choice for the holly-jolly Fred, given his famously short fuse. But he stays firmly on the up side of the mood swing here, and a happy Donald is one with relentless enthusiasm in the face of antipathy. A scene where he blows his top at Scrooge would be nice. Actually, that would be better in a straight-up adaptation. “Merry Christmas, Uncle!” “What is merry about it?” “Well, it’s such a joyous time!” “Humbug!” “Oh, fuck you, you dried up old sack of crap! Pardon me for hoping you could cheer up a little. Next year I‘ll listen to experience and not invite you to dinner. And when you die, I‘m stealing your hat.” But I digress, as usual. Donald is played for the last time by Clarence Nash, making him the only character voiced by his original actor. At 79 years old, he still sounds great, leading me to wonder if that was his actual voice and he was pushed into his career as the first professional voice actor by shame. Probably not.

(I say old chap! What do you mean you've never seen our movie?)

CHARITY CASE - The charity collectors are played by Mole and Rat from The Wind in the Willows. Factoring in that the future gravediggers are the Weasels, that movie is shockingly well-represented relative to it’s importance and quality. Scrooge has a finny bit at the beginning where he justifies not giving money to the poor because if the poor weren’t poor, these two would be out of a job. Later, he pays them in big gold coins he explicitly describes as “gold pieces“. 100 gold pieces? Where are we, Gondor? Or has Scrooge made his money from piracy? Or were the animators too lazy to look up Victorian British currency? If so, I don’t blame them. Before they decimalized, that shit was nuts.

(Those hats must have been so inconvenient in the wind.)

BELLE - Played by Daisy Duck. I’d make a joke about Scrooge makin’ time on his nephew’s girl, but looking at that family tree, nothing would surprise me. Standing under some mistletoe, she makes specific reference to her lips. That’s a little weird.

(Scrooge commences his plan to rid the world of the poor. Step 1: poisoning Bob. step 2: ??? step 3: PROFIT!)

OTHERS - A few characters from Robin Hood show up in the background here, including Skippy and his siblings and Lady Sassmouth. Wikipedia states : “The Robin Hood characters depicted in the special are possibly their descendants because the film Robin Hood takes place in 12th century England, and this special takes place in Victorian England.” It does not seem to bother Wikipedia that pretty much no other featured character was even born in 1845. Scrooge was born in 1867, according to Don Rosa, which I guess makes him closest. Of course, if we’re to assume Duck Tales to take place in the ‘80s, Rosa’s timeline doesn’t necessarily match up with animation. I mean, it can’t.

(I'd like to remind everyone that the man on the right started his career by playing the third lead with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in Sophie's Choice. Here he is backup dancing for Calista Flockhart singing "Santa Baby".)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL - Does anyone actually enjoy listening to Santa Baby? A woman croons orgasmically about… whoa. My word processor just autocorrected that to “orgasmic ally”. That’s so cool. Anyway… about all the inanely expensive things she wants for Christmas. It’s a stunning blend of crass commercialism, inappropriate sexual entendre, and just plain ickiness. Originally performed by Eartha Kitt, too, so you can add her weird voice to the mix. Apparently she did a sequel, entitled “This Year’s Santa Baby”. The mind boggles. The song has also been recorded by such diverse artists as Evanescence, RuPaul, Macy Gray, Miss Piggy, and those bastions of wholesome holiday entertainment, The Pussycat Dolls. It was also apparently recorded by DJ Run, but the less I know about that, the better.

(Nice hair, but you're a Duck, not a flock of seagulls.)

COMING UP NEXT - Another one that uses classic characters to tell an old story, only in a sadder way on account of the creator and one of the stars being recently dead, and the fact that we can now point to it and say with relative authority that that’s where the downfall began. Also, Michael Caine is in it!