Archive for November 2011

Magic School Bus Recycles Holiday Special Clichés In The Name Of Science

November 30, 2011

As anyone who went to school in the 90s might know, there were 2 reasons to look forward to science class: Bill Nye The Science Guy and The Magic School Bus. As hokey as a lot of the edutainment we watched in school was, Bill Nye and Magic School Bus were the perfect blend of funny, educational, and entertaining. I remember the whole class would always be excited when we walked into science class and saw the teacher had signed out the TV and VCR for the period. I think that both shows are great and still hold up today, but I only have the holiday episode for one of them in my collection, and that’s the Magic School Bus Holiday Special. It’s got recycling, The Nutcracker, and a celebrity guest voice, but before I can get into it, I’ll give you the rundown for The Magic School Bus.

The show is quite simple to explain. A creative, zany teacher named Miss Frizzle has a class of 8 kids whom she takes on awesome field trips almost every day. Miss Frizzle has a Magic School Bus, hence the show’s name, that can transform itself into other vehicles, shrink itself, or even turn into a planet! She takes them on these field trips to teach them lessons about science, ranging from physics to biology to astronomy, and while taking a few liberties here and there (Which they do address at the end of each episode), the science is fairly accurate. Most people my age learned their science basics from this show, and still remember a lot of the lessons to this day. Having said all of that, I’ll now tell you about the special.

The cover of the DVD I watched it on

The special starts with a stage production of The Nutcracker that is just wrapping up. We see one of Miss Frizzle’s students, Wanda, in the audience, and just as she is clapping and cheering, she is snapped back to reality. She was day dreaming while the class is sorting recyclables for a trip to the local recycling plant. The other students ask her what she was thinking about, and she tells them all about how excited she is to be going to see The Nutcracker that night. It’s her family’s yearly tradition, and she really loves it. She has even brought her toy soldier, which she has had since she was a young child, with her to school so she can go straight from there to the play.

Wanda holding her toy soldier

The class is almost done sorting, but they are waiting on Arnold before they can go. He comes in and apologizes for being late, but tells everyone he was spending Hanukkah time with his mom because he won’t be home that night for the first night of Hanukkah. They sympathize, and he starts to help them all pack up the recyclables to the bus for the trip, when he drops a cool cross section mineral rock from his pocket. He tells Wanda that his mom gave it to him as an early Hanukkah gift. They are just about to leave when he sees Wanda’s soldier on the floor, and thinking it was meant to be recycled, tosses it into one of the blue boxes.

Wanda admiring Arnold's rock mineral

The children sing a song in the bus on their way to the recycling plant,  and before they know it they have arrived at a large recycling facility. Everyone carries some of the recycling inside, and it is here that we meet Miss Frizzle’s cousin “Murph”, voiced by Dolly Parton. She tells the kids where to sort the recycling by singing them a song about doing so, her first of many in the episode. Everything gets sorted and put in the right place, and then Wanda sees that he soldier has been mixed in with all of the other plastic. She tries to tell Murph that she needs to get it out of the bin, but it is too late. The plastic is all washed, melted, and cut into small plastic pellets! Arnold apologizes profusely and feels rotten about what has happened. In true It’s A Wonderful Life form, Wanda wishes there was no such thing as recycling, so that she could have her doll back. Luckily, it just so happens the Magic School Bus has a button for that, and everyone leaves the plant, boards the bus, and Miss Frizzle hits the recycling reversal button. It causes the recycling plant to turn into a pile of garbage, but this is just the first in a series of things to disappear because recycling is no more.

Liz, the class mascot, pressing the recycling reversal button

As the bus travels back to the school, all signs of recycling or recycled materials from blue boxes to playground equipment transform into garbage. Trees also start to disappear, what with no paper being recycled. By the time they make it back to the school, Wanda realizes how important is, but still want to go in to the class in hopes that her doll would be there. When they arrive at the school however, they can’t get in because the playground has been turned into a landfill!

The landfill playground

Wanda realizes the error of her ways, and wants to undo all of the un-recycling they just did, but by the time she comes around to the idea, the bus itself has all but disappeared, what with it having been made of recycled materials. The class all band together though, and with the help of Murph and one of her songs, begin recycling old cans and bottles and scrap metal into a new School Bus. It isn’t too long at all before they have a newly recycled bus and are ready to re-do all of the recycling they undid. As they drive back to the recycling plant, we see things going back to how they were, and it all looks much better. By the time they get back to the pile of rubble that was the recycling plant, Wanda is happy that recycling exists, even if it cost her her favourite doll.

The bus changing the rubble back into the recycling plant

After changing the recycling plant back to normal, Wanda realizes if they can make a new bus, they can surely make a new doll. Everyone goes back in side, and with the help of Murph, eight new soldiers are made from the plastic pellets, one for each student. Wanda now invites everyone to come with her to The Nutcracker that night, and they all say yes except Arnold. It turns out the reason he isn’t spending time with his mom that night is because his grandma is sick, and his mom went ahead to go check up on her, while Arnold and his dad are catching the late train. Everyone feels bad for Arnold, especially Wanda after a present from Arnold falls out of her bag. It turns out that he has given her his rock mineral to make up the loss of her original doll, and has included a note telling her to enjoy The Nutcracker that night. Wanda is visibly touched by Arnold’s gift, and wishes there is something she could do for him.

Wanda opening Arnold's present

We then cut to a shot of Arnold’s train that night, and he and his dad are settled in for their long journey. Just then, Arnold hears one of Murph’s songs coming for the back of the train, and heads back to check it out. He goes through a door to find that his whole class, along with Murph and Miss Frizzle, have attached the bus to the back of the train as a caboose and are all there to see him. He is shocked, because they are all supposed to be at The Nutcracker, but Wanda tells him that some things are more important than going to the ballet. She even has a present for Arnold, a bag of plastic pellets, which Arnold seems oddly pleased with. Then everyone joins in on one of Murph’s songs, and just before the special ends, the characters wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Happy Kwanza.

The whole class in the caboose bus to surprise Arnold

This special is a little hard to categorize, because it skates back and forth between a few of the usual holiday special tropes. The episode conveys two messages in the end, one Christmas oriented, and the other recycling oriented. Wanda realizes, ala George Bailey, that wishing something out of existence can have dangerous side effects, and may actually make for a worse world, a non Christmas message conveyed using Christmas Special clichés. She also realizes however, that sometimes being with a friend in need over the holidays is more important than doing something for yourself that you can always do again next year. Both are nice messages, and I’m glad The Magic School Bus was able to fit in an extra lesson at the end of an episode in the spirit of the holidays.

I like it when shows like this are able to do a holiday special, because even though the show was mainly made for edutainment purposes, the producers and writers knew that they could kill two birds with one stone by making a holiday episode. They were not only able to make an episode with a positive ecological message, they were able to use their soapbox and teach kids a great lesson in selflessness.

The episode’s only real downfalls are that like many other shows made in the 90s, they have included bad jokes that haven’t held up well over time. Also, as much as The Magic School Bus normally stretched reality to help prove a point, some of the things in this episode are downright silly and unbelievable, like Miss Frizzle having gigantic metal moulds to make a new school bus in her coat pocket. It was slightly lazy writing, but doesn’t negatively affect the show too much.

I would recommend this special to adults and kids alike. It’s a good special for the kids, as it teaches a couple of great lessons, and for anyone who grew up on The Magic School Bus, once you look past the dated jokes, you’ll realize the show still holds up pretty well. It’s also a nice special for all denominations, as it is not a Christmas Special, but a Holiday Special, and makes mention of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza as to not be exclusionary. Adults who didn’t grow up on The Magic School Bus might not love the episode, but there are enough fun songs and allusions to other holiday classics that most people should find something to like about it.

LazyTown Special Misses The Mark, But Is Still Zany Fun

November 29, 2011

I can honestly say that I am not a big fan of many of the kids shows that have been made since the year 2000. It takes a really funny or unique show to catch my attention, and only one of these post 90s shows so far has caught my eye. That show is Lazy Town, which aired for a few season between 2004 and 2007, and still runs in syndication on some children’s channels. It is truly zany and unique and I have never seen any other show like it.

Lazy Town is kind of hard to describe. First of all, the characters are a mixture of puppets and humans, kind of like the style of Sesame Street. The three humans on the show, Sportacus, Robbie Rotten, and Stephanie, are the main characters, while everyone else in LazyTown are puppets and make up the supporting cast. The puppets look kind of odd, as they are cartoony looking and made of vinyl, which may leave you taken aback when you first see them. The show is essentially about a place called LazyTown, where all of the puppet residents are content to be lazy all the time and eat junk food. Enter Stephanie, who moves to town and finds out that there is someone named Sportacus who watches over the town and it’s people, and that he would like to help all of the residents learn about better eating habits and exercise. Everyone in town is happy with the way Sportacus comes down from his blimp to help them, with the exception of Robbie Rotten, the only other human in LazyTown, who is only happy when everyone else in town is in a bad mood. He’s kind of the Dick Dastardly or Snidely Whiplash of the show, and certainly contains physical attributes of those characters. With that in mind, I’ll tell you about the Christmas Special entitled “Surprise Santa”

The cover of the VHS tape. Also available on DVD

The episode starts with Sportacus in his blimp above LazyTown, deciding it is time to decorate for Christmas. He does some backflips and spins (Because he is so sporty), and then uses a tennis racket to hit around some Christmas balls to decorate the inside of his blimp. It’s a cute little opener for the episode, and then we switch our focus down to LazyTown.

Sportacus decorating his blimp

Stephanie is at the mayor’s house with all of her friends, and they are planning for the annual LazyTown Christmas dinner party. We then see Robbie peeking in on them from his underground lair. He is jealous that he wasn’t invited to the party, and devises a plan to embarrass Sportacus, the guest of honor at the dinner, by shooting a giant snow ball from a cannon outside into the party and knocking out Sportacus. Robbie is excited about his idea, and goes back to spying on the mayor’s house to try and peek at all the presents. Stephanie’s friend Ziggy is acting very hyper, as it would appear as though he has had a little too much sugar. Their friend Stingy is there too, but isn’t helping everyone get ready, he’s working on a Christmas list that is so long it may as well be a book. He tells everyone that he likes giving gifts, but he really just loves getting them.

Later on that night, after everyone else has gone home, Stingy is still working on his list while the mayor is hanging lights on the outside of his house. He almost falls off his ladder, but Sportacus’ danger alarm goes off and he comes down from his blimp and rescues the mayor. At the same time, Ziggy has come back and is being really annoying towards Stingy, because he is still hopped up on sugar. Stingy shoos him away, and goes to ask the mayor’s girlfriend what she thinks is the best part about Christmas, to which she tells him that the best part of it is to give of course, not to get. Stingy wanders away to think about what he has heard.

The mayor, hanging off his ladder that is now being held up safely by Sportacus' skateboard

We then cut to Robbie, who is rigging his cannon to fire through the mayor’s window at the guest of honor seat, where Sportacus will surely be seated during dinner. He sets the timer to go off at 6:00, and then goes back down to his underground lair. While this is going on, Sportacus and Stephanie are building a snowman, and Ziggy comes over telling them he’d love to help. Problem is, he’s so hyper, he knocks it over. Ziggy runs away upset, but Sportacus tells him he shouldn’t be upset, rather he should just cut down on the candy and start eating “Sports Candy”, Sportacus’ code for vegetables. Ziggy feels better now, and even calms down a bit.

Sportacus, Ziggy and a piece of "Sports Candy"

We cut back down to Robbie’s lair, and he has decided that he wants to steal Christmas, so what better costume to sneak around in than a Santa Claus outfit? He dresses up in one while all of the other characters sing about Christmas and have a snowball fight. Robbie goes back up into the town, and is about to sneak into the mayor’s house when Ziggy comes across him. Ziggy tells him that he has been good, so to get rid of him, Robbie gives him some candy. Ziggy tells him he really shouldn’t, but Robbie tells him of course he should, because Santa has told him to. Ziggy eats it all, becomes insanely hyper, tells Robbie everything he wants for Christmas, and eventually leaves. Robbie thinks he is free and clear, when Stingy comes up and hands him his Christmas list, which must weigh 30 pounds. Stingy wanders off, satisfied to have dropped off the list, and Robbie makes his way up to the mayor’s chimney.

Robbie sneaking down the mayor's chimney

Everyone inside the mayor’s house is ready for dinner, when they realize they are missing a Christmas tree! They all take off to go find one, and Robbie sneaks in to steal all of the presents. He has almost all of them packed up, when he realizes that they have bought him a present, and don’t hate him after all! He unpacks the presents quickly, and tries to get away back up the chimney, but gets stuck. Everyone comes into the house, and thinks it is Santa! Ziggy is super excited, and helps pull Santa out, pulling off the costume and revealing Robbie is Santa! They ask why he is there, and he tells them he came to deliver presents!

They invite him to stay for dinner, and as a show of gratitude, they let him sit in the guest of honor chair. Everything goes well, until the clock strikes 6:00, and Robbie realizes a giant snowball will be headed their way any second. He tells everyone to duck, and Sportacus does some fancy flips on the table, catches the snowball, and throws it back outside. He thanks Robbie for the warning, and everyone sings and opens presents. Robbie finds out his present is a pair of socks, and decides he’d rather just stay a bad guy and not hang with this crowd. In his anger, the throws the head of the snowman Stephanie and Sportacus made through the air, and it lands in his cannon, which resets to go off in 1 minute. Robbie goes back down to his lair, and after he sits down, he hears his cannon go off, and the snowman head goes flying, lands in the secret tube down to Robbie’s lair, and lands on his head, a cute ending to the special.

Robbie's sad snowman head

This is kind of an odd special, because of the manor of the show, though I’d have to say it is an episode that teaches a non-Christmas related lesson, but uses Christmas as the reason to get a point across. The main lesson I got from the episode is that it is ok to have candy in small doses, but if you have too much it’s not good for you. Instead, have a little bit of candy, and then have a healthy snack, which I guess is a good lesson for kids from a fitness oriented show. I think they try and hint that Stingy should realize that Christmas is about giving and not receiving, but it is never implied that he picked up on the message, and he seems to stay as spoiled and bratty as always.

Also, you’d think that maybe they would have had Robbie be good for at least half an episode, but once he finds out they bought him socks, he goes back to being a jerk as well. I guess they didn’t want to confuse the kids by changing the attitudes of the characters, because in their eyes, Robbie is always a bad guy and Stingy is always a brat. For the older viewers however, it comes as a bit of a let down that with so many chances to teach the typical Christmas lessons, none of the opportunities are seized.

On the plus side however, the songs in this show are really catchy and fun and will have your toes tapping.

I would recommend this special for kids and adult fans alike. Kids will like the singing and puppets, and while the episode really doesn’t utilize it’s position to get across any cute Christmas messages, it’s still fun to watch the antics of Sportacus and Robbie, no matter your age. Their movements, Robbie’s especially, are so over the top and exaggerated, that it feels almost like watching an old silent movie when you watch all of his scheming and physical comedy. It’s a fun special to watch with the kids, or if you are into the zany action of LazyTown. Otherwise, I’d suggest skipping this special, because while I think some kids shows are universal, LazyTown is an acquired taste that many adults just won’t like.

Popular Christmas Special Is One You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

November 28, 2011

Before Glee mania swept the nation a few years ago, there was another show that Glee creator Ryan Murphy had created way back in 1999 that was set in a high school that despite its name, didn’t maintain its popularity for as long as he may have hoped. The show was called “Popular”, and followed the lives of two separate cliques in a high school: the popular cheerleader girls along with their jock boyfriends, lead by Brooke McQueen, and a group of female social outcasts and their male friend, lead by Sam McPherson. While Popular may have only lasted two seasons, from what I understand, it does have a bit of a cult following, and after having made my way through the first half of the first season, I can certainly understand why. On the other hand, because it wasn’t afraid to tackle certain story lines, I can also understand why this show might not be everyone’s cup of tea and did only last for a couple of seasons. From the episodes I’ve watched thus far, there was a Christmas Special that I’d like talk about today because I haven’t touched on one that falls under this category yet. But to understand the special, I’ll have to give you a little background on the show.

The cover of the season one DVD box set

I already explained about Sam and Brooke, but each one of their friends and family members play important roles in this show. Sam’s widowed mom and Brooke’s divorcee dad met on a singles cruise and have been dating since the beginning of the school year, much to the disappointment of both girls. Sam and her mom have even moved in with Brooke and her dad, causing tensions to rise even higher. Sam has her friends Lily, Carmen and Harrison to rely on for support, while Brooke, being the head cheerleader, has the rest of her squad to fall back on to, including her second in command Nicole, as well as a new transfer student named Mary Cherry and her friend Poppita. Also, unlike Sam and her friends, Brooke isn’t single and hangs around with her boyfriend, named Josh, who is always in the company of his plus sized best friend Sugar Daddy. Most episodes of the show center around issues between the two cliques, with the first few episodes focussing on Sam’s plus sized friend Carmen desperately wanting to be one of the cheerleaders. While Brooke wishes she could have Carmen on the squad, because Carmen is the best dancer at the school, Nicole convinces her otherwise because according to her, having a big girl on the squad would make their squad the laughing stock of the cheerleading world. That is pretty much all you need to know coming in to the Christmas special titled “Fall On Your Knees”

Nicole counting the UNICEF money

The episode starts off with Brooke and Nicole in the very posh girl’s washroom counting out the charity money the cheer squad has raised for UNICEF, with Nicole commenting that they could take some of the money to buy things for themselves, to which Brooke seems kind of disgusted, but just figures Nicole is being her usual bitchy self. Brooke realizes that they will beat last year’s record, which reminds her of a friend both girls lost last year. Brooke asks Nicole if she misses their friend and former cheer captain, Marley Jacob (Does the name sound familiar Dickens fans?), which causes Nicole to have a flashback to last year. Nicole looks a lot less preppy, and is under the tutelage of Marley to becoming one of the popular girls. Nicole is counting out the UNICEF money, with the intentions of giving it to the charity, when Marley exits her bathroom stall wiping vomit from her lips, and says they are going to use the money to go shopping. Nicole is clearly worried about her friend’s eating disorder, but even after saying something, Marley says she’d rather be thin than healthy. We cut to the girls about the walk into the mall, when Marley collapses. Her heart gave out from her eating disorder, and she passes away. Nicole flashes back to the present, and her and Brooke gather their things to leave the washroom, when Carmen walks in. She says she heard about the charity and gives Nicole some money, even after Nicole makes a joke about Carmen’s weight. Brooke leaves, and Nicole tells Carmen that she can try and brown nose all she wants, but it won’t help her get a spot on the cheer squad for second semester. Carmen tells Nicole she gave out of the goodness of her heart what with Christmas coming up, to which Nicole just says Bah-humbug, and the theme song starts.

Nicole's Bah-humbug face

After the break, we come back to Sam and Brooke decorating their tree together and talking about their respective Christmas traditions. It turns out that they both normally have all of their friends over to their respective houses for a Christmas Eve dinner, meaning one of them will have to forgo with the plan this year. After arguing for a bit, their parents agree that they should instead just have one big party, which neither girl really seems happy to hear. We cut to the next day at school and we see Carmen hobble into the school on crutches, and rather than show some compassion, Nicole just knocks Carmen’s books right out of her hands. Everyone heads off to science class, where Carmen tells Sam and Lily about how she sprained her ankle practicing some dance moves. Nicole says something bitchy, and then their teacher, Ms. Glass enters the class. She tells them that she really dislikes them as a class, but in the spirit of Christmas, she is cancelling their final exam and upping all of their GPAs half a point. Everyone seems overjoyed, except of course Nicole, who goes on a rant about how awful Christmas is, to which Ms. Glass basically tells Nicole that she’s being kind of a Scrooge.

Later, when everyone is leaving class, Carmen hobbles out, and we cue the Charlie Brown Christmas song while watching Carmen Tiny Tim her way through town, stopping at a store window and looking in at cheerleading uniforms on the manequins. She meets up with Sam, Lily and Harrison at a coffee shop, and even though she feels bad about herself, she says she knows there are people worse off. They look out the window and see the next social group down being harassed by bullies, and realize they should extend to them an invitation to the Christmas party at Brooke’s. Brooke and her gang are also at the coffee shop, and she suggests that in the spirit of Christmas they should let Carmen onto the squad, which Mary Cherry and Poppita agree about, but not Nicole, and since it has to be unanimous, it’s a no go. Nicole storms out to drop off the charity money, but upon seeing the blind charity collector, she actually steals money from the pot. She takes the money into the mall and finds Ms. Glass working the Clinque counter to make some extra holiday money (to buy her sister a hairless cat), and doesn’t waste a beat torturing her. Nicole asks for a product, then requests the manager and ends up getting Ms. Glass fired. Nicole is pleased with herself, and goes home to enjoy Christmas Eve by herself with her big pile of stolen money. While sitting in front of the fireplace, she hears the clocks start chiming and to her surprise, who should appear but the ghost of Marley Jacob!

The ghost of Marley Jacob

Nicole can’t believe her eyes, but Marley assures her that she is real and is here to warn Nicole about her wicked ways. She tells her that she will be visited by three ghosts who will show her the error of her ways, and that if she doesn’t change she will be forced to walk the earth as a spirit when she dies as well. Nicole, in true Scrooge form, still doesn’t believe it and goes to her room to try and go to sleep. Not too long after, her door swings open and standing there is Ms. Glass, who is the Ghost of Christmas Past. She takes Nicole on a trip down memory lane to when she was just a baby. Nicole’s mom resents her even as an infant, and the only person who seems to care about her is her Nana, the only family member Nicole has any happy memories of. From there we cut to Nicole as an unpopular, slightly chubby kid in grade 2 whom nobody likes, and they treat her the way she now treats Sam and her friends, especially Carmen. She runs home to her grandma, who cheers her up by giving her an early Christmas present, a ballerina music box. Nicole tells the spirit about how this is the best present she ever got, and misses her grandmother to this day, shedding some light on another reason why Nicole hates the holidays. We fast forward a bit until last year, right after Marley has died. Nicole is now queen bitch, and everyone at school takes notice of her new look. Nicole is now cruel to everyone in the school, and even makes Carmen run away crying, the same way those mean girls did to Nicole when she was a child. Nicole starts to feel a little bad, but then we hear the clocks chiming and she wakes up from her dream of the past.

Nicole and Mary Cherry aka The Ghost of Christmas Present

In sticking true to the story, Nicole is now visited by Mary Cherry, the Ghost of Christmas Present. She takes Nicole on a trip to Brooke’s house, where everyone has come together under one roof, despite their social standing, except of course Nicole. Brooke and Sam seem to have even buried that hatchet, as they exchange thoughtful gifts. Even the extremely unpopular kids have shown up, and when everyone is making their toasts, even though everyone is bad mouthing Nicole, Brooke still proposes a toast to Nicole, and Carmen spouts off the infamous “God bless us everyone” line. Nicole is taken aback by their kindness, but once again, we hear the clock chime and Nicole is taken away from the party to a dark place, and Mary Cherry tells her that she can see Nicole’s future, and it is nothing but doom! Nicole runs away, only to come across the third and final ghost, Christmas Future.

Nicole with the Ghost of Christmas Future

The cloaked spirit takes Nicole to next Christmas, where we see Brooke, Josh and Sugar Daddy studying for their finals, when Sam comes downstairs. She asks if she can join them, and all is well until Sugar Daddy mentions Carmen, which upsets Sam and she abruptly leaves the table. Nicole doesn’t understand, Carmen only had a sprained ankle, until Sugar Daddy mentions how deadly and fast gangrene is. Nicole asks the spirit to take her home, but the spirit takes her instead to a cemetery where Nicole finds her own grave, and she learns she died alone. Nicole repents to the spirit, and tells it that she has turned over a new leaf, and will do her best to keep the spirit of Christmas alive all of the days of the year. The spirit takes her hand, and she wakes up in her bed, and it is still Christmas Eve. She jumps out of bed, opens her ballerina music box, and then sets off on her quest to make up for her wrongdoings.

Her first stop is the blind charity collector, where she puts back the money she stole, plus the money the cheer squad raised, as well as a little extra. From there she heads off to Brooke’s house, where she shows up with an armful of presents. She has bought one for everyone there, everyone except Carmen that is. She then gives Carmen an ice pack and tells her to ice that ankle, because she’ll need to be in top shape when she starts cheer practice after the break. Carmen is overjoyed, and everyone else is happy to see that Nicole has turned over a new leaf. They are all so happy in fact, that they feel like caroling!

Nicole giving Ms. Glass a hairless cat

We cut to Ms. Glass’ apartment, where she is on the balcony with her sister, and apologizing that she couldn’t afford to buy her that hairless cat. Then they hear the singing from below, and Ms. Glass heads down, only to have Nicole hand her a hairless cat and apologize for being such a Scrooge. We fade out while everyone is still caroling, and the whole cast wishes us a Merry Christmas.

Well, it comes as no surprise that this episode falls under the category of being a take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, while at the same time, it does further the overall story of the show by now making Carmen one of the cheerleaders.

It’s usually hard to judge a special when it does its own version of A Christmas Carol, but this episode does make it a somewhat easy task. Nicole, by this point in the season, was a totally unlikable character with no real apparent reason to be a bitch other than the fact that she was popular. The writers do a good job of this episode by giving us reasons as to why Nicole not only hates Christmas, but also why she has become the mean girl she is today. While she still doesn’t come off completely sympathetic, it is much easier to understand why she treated people the way she did before her ghostly encounter. I think it was the perfect Christmas episode for the show to do, because the writers really needed to have some of the audience understand Nicole and her attitude to make them care about what happens to her in upcoming episodes, rather than just think to themselves that the bitch had it coming. While they could have crafted their own story to base around Nicole, I think they made a good choice by taking the Scrooge route. It works with the hourlong show format, and opens the show up to a wider audience base by giving an unfamiliar viewer a story that they are familiar with. It gives them a better understanding of characters they don’t know much about when they can be filed under certain character types, like Nicole as Scrooge and Carmen as Tiny Tim.

I recommend this special to people who are Glee fans if they have never seen an episode of Popular. It’s less than halfway into the season, and you’ll quickly pick up on some character comparisons between the Popular bunch and the Glee club members, and you will more than likely like the show and want to go back and start watching from episode one. I would also recommend this episode to anyone who loves seeing different spins on A Christmas Carol. Although this one is pretty by the book, it still has some good moments and good jokes worth watching it for. I don’t recommend this special for children or the occasional TV viewer, as there are a few adult jokes in the episode, and while it does have some one-off Christmas special elements, it has enough story embedded in it that it is slightly exclusionary to someone not willing to do their research about the show before watching it.

Doug’s Secret Christmas Is One To Tell All Of Your Friends About

November 26, 2011

I remember when I used to come home after school every day and turn on YTV to watch The Zone, their block of Children’s shows from 3-6. I loved it, and for most of the time that I watched it, the programming stayed the same. I remember, however, when they announced that they were replacing Rugrats with a show about a funny looking kid with hair like Fido Dido called Doug. I was outraged, and so were my brother and sister! How could any show measure up to Rugrats!? We dreaded the day when Rugrats would end, but when Doug finally premiered, I could see that this show was something special. It hit close to home for me, a show about a less than popular kid with a crush on a popular girl in school, so I got over the loss of Rugrats and embraced Doug. My whole family loved Doug, and I am sad to say I don’t remember watching this special with them when we were growing up, because it is a really nice special about families and togetherness, but we’ll get into that after I tell you a bit about Doug.

Doug, as I mentioned, is a less than popular kid who moves into a new city with his Mom, Dad and older beatnik sister Judy. He becomes best friends with a guy named Skeeter, and develops a crush on a girl named Patti. The show is told through Doug’s narration, by his entries into his secret journal. Other than Skeeter, Doug is also great friends with his dog Porkchop, whom Doug often uses as a sounding board and conscience when working through a problem. Doug also gets along with Mr. Dink, his next door neighbour, who is always buying new things that are, in his own words, “Very expensive Douglas”. Doug is just your average growing kid, and maybe that’s why I think the Christmas Special is great, it hits closer to home than most.

The cover of the VHS tape

Episodes of Doug always starts with a little setup sketch before the main title card, which is a nice touch for a cartoon. The one for this special is a spoof of The Grinch, with Doug’s bully Roger standing in for the sneaky character. He sneaks in to Doug’s house and tries to steal Christmas, only to realize that there is nothing to steal. No tree, no ornaments, no presents! Then he realizes he has been beat to it, as he sees Doug, also looking like The Grinch, with a bag full of Christmas things already. (It’s a nice little opening and sets the tone well for the rest of the episode. The imitation Grinch music is spot on and very funny)

The Dougrinch!

After the opening, we cut to the day after American Thanksgiving, when Doug starts getting excited about his family’s Christmas traditions. He is looking forward to getting out all of the decorations, going to buy the best tree at the local lot, visiting his Grandmother, and last but not least writing out a list of the presents he’d like to get that year. Once he figures out what he’d like to see under the tree, he goes downstairs to hand the list off to his dad. He finds his mom and Judy in the living room doing breathing exercises, because Doug’s mom is pregnant and the baby is due in a month or two. Doug ends up finding his dad in the den, and is about to hand him his Christmas list when his dad cuts Doug off to try and get up the nerve to tell him about the birds and the bees. It turns out he’s been wanting to talk to Doug about it for months, but hasn’t known how. Doug tells his dad that he knows all about sex, having learned about it in school, and after a long talk (That we see through a montage), he even ends up teaching his dad a bit. (I found this to be a very interesting scene for a cartoon, because it’s not often you even hear the word sex in a kid’s cartoon, especially one produced by Disney. It wasn’t played for laughs however, so I think it was a cute little scene to throw in the episode for the older viewers. It might bring up question about sex from younger viewers though, so keep that in mind if you watch this episode with children)

The book Doug's dad consults for advice

Anyways, Doug’s dad tells him that because of the baby on the way, they might not be getting as many presents this year. Doug is upset, but puts on a brave face for his dad, and hides his wish list. Judy, being the bratty older sister that she is, snatches the list away from Doug. He tells his dad it is a list of baby name recommendations, which is hard to believe after Judy reads off dirt bike and inline skates. Doug chases her off while she says she’d prefer the name Cleopatra.

The next afternoon, after a long day at school, Doug passes by the Christmas tree lot, and the owner tells Doug he’ll have to come get a tree soon, as they are selling quick. Doug heads home to get his dad, but upon arriving home sees a tiny, fake tree siting on the coffee table. Doug’s dad tells him that they just can’t be bothered with a real tree this year because of the baby. Already a little down about everything going on, Doug heads to the mall with Skeeter so they can go shopping for presents. Doug is about to buy some nice earrings for his crush Patti, when Skeeter calls him over to show him that he has found a replacement Christmas tree shaped waffle iron for his family. It is Skeeter’s family’s tradition to make Christmas tree shaped waffles every Christmas morning, something they can’t do this year because Skeeter accidentally broke their last waffle iron. Skeeter picks it up, but realizes it is way outside his price range. Doug feels bad, and wants to help Skeeter stick with his family’s traditions, even if Doug’s family can’t stick with theirs, so he gives Skeeter the money to buy it. Doug leaves the mall feeling happy about helping his friend, but a little bummed now that he can’t afford a present for Patti.

Doug leaving the mall and feeling a little down

After coming home from the mall, Doug goes up to his room, upset that all of the family traditions are being ignored, and tries to take his mind off it by thinking what he can get Patti with only 63 cents to his name. He realizes he should just make her a present, and gets started on making a pair of earrings himself. Being the oddball that he is, he makes Patti a pair of ear shaped earrings (It’s actually kinda cute, but at the same time, when you see a cartoon wearing cartoon ears, it is a little unsettling) They turn out great and he goes to the local malt shop to give them to Patti. She loves them, and gives Doug his present, which she tells him he can’t open until Christmas morning. They leave together, and Patti gets picked up to go to her grandparent’s house. Doug walks home, and along the way, passes by the houses of some of his school friends, and is a little jealous to see them all enjoying their yearly traditions. He is still a little optimistic though, hoping when he gets home his family will be more in the Christmas mood, and he even has a daydream about his family acting in their own Christmas variety special. He arrives home and is excited that at least they’ll be going to his grandmother’s house for dinner, but his mom tells him they won’t be going because of how far of a drive it is for someone as far along as she is in her pregnancy, plus Doug’s dad is still at the mall. Doug storms up to his room to cool down, and then decides to go for a walk. He goes to the Christmas tree lot, and the owner is just packing up, but he gives Doug his last tree. It’s small, but it’s a nice tree, and Doug goes home a little bit happier than when he left, and goes right to bed.

Angry Doug, as he storms off to his room

He wakes up the next morning and it is Christmas! He and Porkchop exchange presents, and he waits for his family to come and get him. And waits. And waits. But no one comes upstairs. He goes looking for everyone, and the house is empty. Just then, the phone rings, and it’s Doug’s dad. He tells him they are all at the hospital, and that something has happened. Doug gets there as fast as he can, and goes into his mom’s room only to see that she has had the baby a week early! Doug’s parents tell him and Judy that they combined the names that both kids suggested, and have named their new little girl Cleopatra Dirtbike Funnie! (One of my all-time favourite cartoon names)

Little Cleopatra Dirtbike Funnie

We cut to a few days later, December 27th, and Doug and his family are having a big Christmas party with all of the neighbours. Everyone is excited to meet Cleopatra, and Doug is happy to be surrounded by all the people he loves, even if it isn’t the 25th. He says something really sweet about it: “I guess no matter how you celebrate it, with lights or funny costumes, on the 25th or 27th, Christmas isn’t just a tree and presents, it’s a feeling.” Cleopatra runs out of diapers, so Doug goes to make a diaper run, when Patti comes up to him with her present in her hands and tells Doug he should open it. He does, and is excited to see it is a hand knit scarf that Patti made him, even though she hates knitting. They hug, Doug blushes, and they all lived happily ever after.

This episode falls under the category of a special that tries to convey a nice Christmas message, and I think that it does so greatly. Actually, Doug even goes beyond just learning a lesson about how sometimes traditions can change to make way for new and better traditions. He goes so far as to give away the last of his money to help Skeeter keep his traditions alive, because he realizes that even though his life is changing, it’s great to try and help someone keep a tradition alive if you can. Also, as the quote above demonstrates, Doug realizes that Christmas isn’t about the day or the presents or the traditions, it’s about being with the people you care about and getting together to celebrate.

I highly recommend this special to both adults and children. Even though the sex talk may bring up some uncomfortable questions with kids of a certain age, that shouldn’t dissuade any families from sitting down and enjoying this special together. I know that closer to Christmas when all of my family is around, I’ll be popping this tape back in the VCR for us all to watch.

Babar Special Is One That Even Elephants Could Forget

November 25, 2011

I love Babar. I loved the Babar animated TV show that ran when I was a kid in the 90s. When I bought this special, I thought for sure it was an episode from this series, but sadly, I was mistaken. It turns out that it is actually an animated special based on one of the Babar books, and while I thought I would love it regardless, I was mistaken. Now, it’s not a bad special per-se, but one that was aimed at a lot younger of a viewer than I. Keeping that in consideration, keep reading and I’ll tell you about my adventure to the Land of the Elephants.

The cover of the VHS tape

In case anyone out there is unfamiliar with Babar, I’ll give you a quick run-down. Babar is the King of the Land of the Elephants, which exists outside of the Land of Men. He lives in Celesteville, named after his wife, Queen Celeste. He has 3 children, Pom, Alexander and Flora. Also living with them in the palace is Celeste’s brother Arthur, whom along with his monkey friend Zephir, always manages to get into some kind of mischief. Babar and the elephants live in peace most of the time, although occasionally Lord Rataxes, the ruler of the Rhinoceros kingdom, starts a fight of some kind with Babar. In the cartoon I grew up watching, Rataxes was just kind of pigheaded and jealous of Babar, but he is a different kind of character in this special. With that in mind, I’ll get on to the special now.

It is mid-November, and Babar is making his rounds through Celesteville. Queen Celeste has had the gardener trim a large hedge in the likeness of Babar, and Arthur is playing hide and seek with Pom, Flora, and Alexander. Just then Zephir shows up telling Arthur and the kids that he has overheard about a wonderful man named Father Christmas who brings toys to all the good little boys and girls in the world. While everyone is distracted, Rataxes, who seems more like the typical mustache  twirling bad guy in this special, trims the Babar hedge to look more like him. Shortly after, Babar arrives home, sees the hedge, and sends his guards to look for Rataxes on the palace grounds. After dealing with that situation, Arthur, Zephir and the kids come inside to tell Babar that they would like Father Christmas to come to Celesteville, and he suggest that they write Father Christmas a letter. The kids all write down what they want, and stick their letter in the mail box, only to have Rataxes sneak over and take their letter out, replacing it with one of his own (Which he seems to have forgotten to stamp) After nearly 2 weeks of waiting, the kids are all upset, and Babar says he will go to find Father Christmas himself. He hops on a train to Paris, hoping someone there will be able to help him figure out where to go. Little does he know, however, that Rataxes is following him and plans to beat Babar in locating Father Christmas, so he can get the toys all for himself.

Babar on the train bound for Paris

Once arriving in Paris, Babar spends a day wandering around the city hoping someone will be able to help him find out where Father Christmas lives. After talking to a very helpful policeman, he meets a man who everyone is calling Father Christmas, and Babar thinks his search is over. The man, however, turns out to just be an old fellow with a beard, whom everyone just jokingly calls Father Christmas. He apologizes to Babar for the confusion, and tells him to go to the University, because there is a professor there who is a map expert, and if anyone would know where Father Christmas lives, it would be him. Babar meets the professor, and he does in fact happen to have a map of the North Pole that just so happens to have the exact location of Father Christmas’ house marked on it! He makes Babar a copy of the map, and off Babar goes, with Rataxes still following him from a distance.

The professor giving Babar a copy of the map to Father Christmas' house

After arriving at the North Pole, Babar rents a dogsled, and Rataxes follows him from above in a helicopter, which he crashes shortly after takeoff. Rataxes now falls behind, and Babar makes it close to Father Christmas’ house on the map, but comes across a sign that says no sleds allowed beyond this point. After taking off on skis, the winds pick up and blow the map out of Babar’s hands. Lost and cold, Babar digs himself a hole to sleep in for the night, and just so happens to fall through the bottom of it and right into Father Christmas’ living room. He is so startled when he sees Father Christmas that he faints.

Babar fainting

When he comes to, Babar finds himself wrapped in blankets and sitting across from Father Christmas. He asks Father Christmas if he would be able to visit Celesteville on Christmas and bring toys for all of the children, to which Father Christmas sadly says he can’t. He takes Babar on a tour of the facilities, and explains that because of how many human children there are in the world, he simply doesn’t have time for the children of Celesteville. However, after Babar settle a dispute between two elves over the colouring of a flamingo, he invites Father Christmas to take a relaxing vacation to Celesteville for tomorrow, the day before Christmas. Father Christmas agrees, and off they go to Father Christmas’ sleigh, which isn’t a sleigh at all, but looks like a giant green walnut that is carried off by birds. As they are taking off, Rataxes finally catches up, and grabs on to the bottom of the “sleigh” to catch a ride back to Celesteville.

Rataxes hanging from the bottom of the flying walnut

When Babar and Father Christmas are flying over Celesteville, Rataxes sees his home, lets go of the “sleigh”, and falls into the river. Babar and Father Christmas arrive to a big party in Celesteville, with a band playing a welcome song, and Father Christmas marvels at this wonderful place, flamingos and all. He takes the day to enjoy the warmth, and even gets a bit of a sun burn while sleeping in a hammock. He thanks Babar for the vacation by giving him a basket full of toys for the children, and his very own Father Christmas outfit so that he can deliver the toys that night himself.

Babar flying around in his Father Christmas outfit

After all of the children are in bed, Babar puts on the Father Christmas suit, only to find that it is magic, and it allows him to fly through Celesetville with ease and make light work of delivering all of the presents. When all of the children get up on Christmas morning, they are all excited to find they got just what they asked for. Rataxes looks in at the palace crying, but it turns out there is one present left that is just for him, even though he hasn’t been the nicest guy this year. He opens it with joy and enjoys the rest of his day celebrating with Babar and his family.

I think this is the first time I have watched a Christmas Special that really doesn’t fit into one of the usual categories. It doesn’t really teach any lessons, and at the same time, has nothing to do with the overall story of Babar. I think this can be traced to the fact that rather than a special written for TV, it appears to be a direct adaptation of one of the Babar books. The special, as such, comes off as not so much a special, but rather just an animated story book. I think the story really works as a picture book for kids, but not so much as a direct translation to the screen. Like I mentioned, there is no real moral or lesson to be learned by watching it, and as such it is really very forgettable. I only watched it last night and I find it slipping from my mind.

I can’t say I recommend this special to anyone over the age of 5. Very young children may enjoy the cartoonish antics of Rataxes, as well as the scenes with a flying elephant. If, however, you loved the Babar cartoon as a child, and you’re looking for a special to watch with the kids that will become a perennial favourite, I don’t think you’ll find yourself wanting to watch this one more than once.

Twas The Bump In The Night Before Christmas

November 24, 2011

For as long as I have loved watching Christmas Specials, there was one in particular that I loved seeing as a kid, but it took me until 2 years ago to finally track down a copy of my own. Nowadays the complete series has been released on DVD, but I remember before that happened how overjoyed I was when I discovered that the Christmas episode had been released individually on DVD. While the show only lasted one season, it cranked out one heck of a memorable Christmas Special, that as far as I am concerned is just as memorable as the show was, if not even a little bit more. “Twas The Night Before Bumpy” is the name of the Christmas Special, and it is the holiday episode for the stop motion children’s show Bump In The Night. What makes this special so great that I tried for years to hunt it down? You’ll just have to keep reading to find out.

The cover of the DVD case

Incase some of you are unfamiliar with Bump In The Night (And most people are), I’ll tell you a bit about the show. Bump In The Night was a claymation, stop motion show that was made in a traditional cartoon style. Our main character was Mr. Bumpy, a green guy with purple warts and eyes on stalks who loved to eat dirty socks left around the house. He is the creature that goes bump in the night, although he is not scary in the least. His best friends are a blue blob named Squishy, and a patched together dolly named Molly. Most episodes focused around Mr. Bumpy’s quest to eat socks and do silly things around the house, and most episodes featured a song or two, and a karaoke version of one of the songs at the end of the show. That’s really all you need to know, now on to the special.

The title card after the opening credits

The story begins on Christmas Eve. Mr Bumpy has laid some traps in the living room to try and catch Santa so he can steal his bag of toys. Squishy comes looking for Bumpy and trips all the traps, and only narrowly espaces being eaten by the Closet Monster. He only escape because Bumpy gives the monster a gift from under the tree, a nice neck tie (Even though Bumpy meant to give him a box of nitro glycerine) Bumpy and Squishy go find Molly who is helping prepare Squishy’s Annual Christmas Pageant. Squishy apologizes to Bumpy about wrecking his trap, and admits he’d love to take a peek inside of Santa’s bag, because he wants a pair of feet for Christmas so that he has something to attach tap shoes to. It has been Squishy’s lifelong dream to be a tap dancer, a dream squashed by the fact that he has no feet. Bumpy and Squishy decide that instead of waiting for Santa to come to them, they will go to the North Pole to steal the bag. They leave Molly in charge of the pageant, and head off on their journey.

After walking for hours, they seem to have ended up in South America, having gone the wrong way. They are captured by an earthworm, who just happens to be a general. Bumpy tells the worm that if he digs them a tunnel to the North Pole, Bumpy will give him a pair of robotic arms to make his commanding an army a whole lot easier. The worm agrees and they are on their way. Somehow they end up at Stonehenge, and an elderly hummingbird almost eats the general, but instead she knocks over one of the pillars and crushes him. She tells Bumpy that she needs to keep moving because there is no food for her here, and she needs to eat to fly, and needs to fly to eat. Bumpy tells her that if she will fly them to the North Pole, he will give her a jet pack so she doesn’t have to fly everywhere, and therefore won’t always be so hungry. She agrees, and off they go. Right as they arrive, she tries to eat Squishy because she is so hungry, and Bumpy and Squishy jump away from her and fall to the ground. They have arrived at Santa’s home, only to find that it is a fortress guarded by an army of snowmen and a squadron of elves! How will they get inside?

Santa's fortress at the North Pole

At this point we cut back to Molly at home. She is used to always being kind and supportive, but now the cast of the pageant is pushing her around, and she loses it. She becomes super bossy and pushes everyone as hard as she can to try and make the show perfect.

Back at the North Pole, to sneak inside,Bumpy and Squishy dress up as a snowman and almost make it through the front door, only to be stopped by some elves. They jump out of their costume and run inside, with snowmen and elves hot on their trail. Through some miracle, they find a trap door that takes them down to the basement, where Santa’s bag is. Just as they are about the enter the bag chamber, they are surrounded. Squishy stays behind so that Bumpy can go grab the bag, and Bumpy makes a run for it. The bag room scene is like a fun spoof of Raiders of The Lost Ark, with trap doors and booby traps, and even a rolling Santa boulder! Bumpy runs out of there with the bag and escapes the boulder just in time. With no time to spare, he hijacks Santa’s Sleigh and tries to escape. The elves and snowmen are opening fire, and Squishy makes it out just in time to grab on the back of the sleigh while Bumpy takes off. Bumpy is overjoyed now that he has the bag and doesn’t have to share with anyone, because he never planned to give the general or the hummingbird their gifts all along. However, the bag has sprung a leak, and now on his way back home, Bumpy is actually dropping hundreds of presents down chimneys without even noticing. Along the way the worm gets his arms, the bird gets her jetpack, and children all over the world get their presents as well.

Presents falling off the sleigh and into chimneys

Bumpy and Squishy finally make it home, and crash land in on the pageant. Presents go flying, and everyone there gets their presents, leaving only one final present in the bag. Bumpy snatches it up, only to be confronted by Squishy, who is upset that Bumpy broke his promise. Bumpy points out that Squishy did all the brave and daring things that night without feet, so why would he need them anyways? Squishy agrees that he doesn’t need feet for those things, but still needs them to tap dance. Bumpy geels guilty, and gives Squishy the last present, which just so happens to be tap shoe noisemakers! Squishy doesn’t need feet after all to be a great tap dancer, as he proves with his new gift.

Squishy putting on a show with his tap shoe noisemakers

Molly is at the end of her rope, and tells Bumpy he needs to sing his song for the finale of the pageant. He gets up and regales them all with a song about the lesson he learned this Christmas, that sometimes it just feels great to be selfless and give other people presents, rather than have them all for yourself, which would make everyone else sad. Molly is touched by the song and realizes how mean she was being, and goes off crying, revealing the only thing she really wanted for Christmas was a hug from everyone. They all decide to forgive her because they were being mean and rude to her, and they all go give her a big hug. Everyone has received a gift now, save for Bumpy, when suddenly the Closet Monster appears again. He gives Bumpy a very special present: a limited edition smelly sock, and Bumpy is overjoyed! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

This is such a great and fun Christmas Special that does a really nice job at getting it’s point across. It only really falls into one category as far as these specials go, as it is really a one off that has nothing to do with a show’s overall plot or story. It basically uses Christmas to get across a point, and that is that you can feel just as great giving gifts as you can receiving them. Mr. Bumpy learns this lesson once he sees just how happy everyone at the pageant is when they open the presents that Santa meant for them to have. Even though his present was lost along the way, he still gets great joy from seeing the smiles of his friends. It is a nice lesson to convey to the kids, especially when such a greedy and silly character like Mr. Bumpy can learn it.

One of the great things about this special that I didn’t really touch on in my synopsis, is that it is filled with music throughout, so kids won’t be bored by the time the hour long special (without commercials) comes to an end. They do a great job of making the songs memorable too by using familiar Holiday songs (Oh Christmas Tree, The Dreidel Song, The 12 Days of Christmas), but changing the words to fit in with what is currently going on in the episode. It keeps the show from lagging and allows some scenes in the show to be conveyed by montage, which really helps speed the story along. The words to the songs are so memorable, in fact, that even though I probably went almost 10 years between viewing when I bought the DVD, I still knew a lot of the lyrics to the songs. As an example, here is the song the snowmen and elves sing:

I highly recommend this Christmas Special to both kids and adults alike. Kids will get a kick out of all the wacky and cartoony fun Bumpy and Squishy get in to, and the adults will love the songs and the set design for the North Pole, as well as the Indiana Jones reference. It is a little long, at just under an hour, but if it doesn’t have you laughing, it will for sure have your toes tapping.

Saved By The Bell’s Hokey Christmas

November 24, 2011

For my first foray into a non-animated Christmas Special on this blog, I thought I would go with one that still has that animated and ridiculous feel to it, Saved By The Bell’s “Home For Christmas”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Saved By The Bell as much as the next guy (Well, if the next guy is the actor who played Mr. Belding, as he’s the only cast member who doesn’t openly mock the show these days), but even I find this holiday special to be a little over the top, and not in a good way. Seriously though, I watched Saved By The Bell all through grade 8 and hoped that high school would be as fun as this show depicted it. Oh, how ignorance sure was bliss. These days, I am shocked at how hokey the show is, but I still have a soft spot for it. However, as much as I like this show, I find this Christmas Special to be hokey to the Nth degree. Keep reading and I’ll tell you why.

The whole gang in front of Zach's Christmas tree

Just incase anyone is unfamiliar with the show, Saved By The Bell is about a group of six friends in high school and the crazy situations they get themselves into. The show focuses on Zack, a bleach blonde stereotypical California teenager, his nerdy best friend Screech, a muscle bound tough guy named A.C. Slater (Zack’s sometimes nemesis), Zack’s crush Kelly, a strong willed feminist named Jessie, and last but certainly not least, their sassy black friend Lisa. The show was preachy without being religious, and rarely dealt with issues most teenagers of the times were facing. Across five seasons, they only had two drug episodes, and one about drinking and driving, which I guess is better than nothing. But despite all its flaws, it is a cult favourite, and does have a certain charm to it. While its charm “saved” some of its episodes, I don’t think it helped much with this two-parter Christmas Special.

The special takes place entirely outside the show’s usual sets of the high school and diner, and is set mainly in the mall. Its Christmas break, and Zack and the gang are all keeping themselves busy with jobs and volunteer work for the Holiday season. Kelly is working at Moody’s, a men’s clothing shop run by a Scrooge of a man, Jessie is working as one of the mall Santa’s helpers, Slater has gotten a job wrapping presents, and Lisa is volunteering at the children’s hospital. Zack and Screech aren’t doing much other than hanging out at the mall and keeping their friends company, and that’s where Zack literally bumps into Laura, a waifish blonde. Before getting much of a chance to talk to her, she takes off. Zack and Screech start scouring the mall for her, but after Screech spills water on himself, the need to make a pitstop. They pop in to the bathroom and run across a man who is searching the phones for quarters and shaving in the sink. Zack figures out that this guy is homeless, and leaves some money behind for the down on this luck guy on his way out. Eventually, Zack and Screech catch up with Laura only to discover she is working with Kelly at Moody’s. Zack asks her out to lunch, but she turns him down after he makes a comment about hoping the homeless guy spends the money on food, not booze. (Gee, I wonder why she is so touchy about the subject?)

Laura, just before storming off from Zach

We cut to later on in the mall and Zack is trying to win Laura over so she’ll go to lunch with him, and he succeeds with the help of his friends. Things seem to be going well for Zack, so he goes to visit Slater at the wrapping booth. Slater sucks at his job, but is rescued with some help from our homeless friend, who then goes on his way. Seconds later, there is a commotion and it turns out the homeless man has fainted! Slater rushes to the rescue with his lifeguard training and resuscitates the man. Zack and the guys go to tell Kelly and the girls what happened to the homeless guy, and Laura overhears. The gang then head off to meet Lisa at the hospital and drop off some toys.

Zack and the gang in their Christmas outfits

This is the only cute part of the episode, and I think the only part that isn’t too heavy handed. None of the kids seem to be dying or anything serious, and it is just cute to see Zack and the gang dressed as Santa and his elves giving toys to kids. It is nice to see and everyone seems to be having a good time, and its a nice little reminder that at Christmas there are people who are needier than us who could doing with a nice cheering up. Since they are in the hospital anyways, they decide to go check on their homeless friend. When they enter the room, they discover Laura sitting there, and she tells them that she is the homeless guy’s daughter! (I guess that’s why she appears so waifish and took offense to Zack’s comments about the homeless) Zack invites Laura and her father over for dinner, and after some hesitation they agree. After they finish up their meal, Zack asks how they ended up homeless. Laura’s dad tells Zack and his mom the story about losing his job and just not having the money to pay their bills. Zack’s mom offers up her house for Laura and her dad to stay in, but they tell her they have somewhere they can go.

Zach helping his mom set the stage

The next day Zack is helping his mom set up a stage in the mall for their production of A Christmas Carol (They’re just trying to fit it all into these episodes, aren’t they?), and Laura tells them she’d love to act in it, but Mr. Moody won’t let her have the time off. Zack goes to Moody’s, works his magic, and gets Laura the time off for the play. Laura is hesitant because she wants to work so she can buy her dad a nice jacket that he can wear to job interviews, but she doesn’t want to let the gang down (She asked Mr. Moody for an advance on her salary to buy it, but in true Scrooge fashion he refused). They put on the play and everything goes well until they go back to Moody’s. The jacket Laura wanted to buy for her dad is missing, and Mr. Moody acuses her of stealing it, having since found out she is homeless. Moody calls security, and Laura runs away just as Kelly is coming back to work. She hears what happened and tells Mr. Moody that she set the jacket aside so that she could buy it for Laura. The gang spend the rest of the day looking for Laura, but to no avail.

After giving up, Zack and his mom go to buy a tree, and who should be parked in the lot but Laura and her father. Zack tells Laura about the whole mix up and she and her father go back go Zack’s to help decorate the tree. The rest of the gang show up, with Kelly bringing up the rear. She tells them that Mr. Moody had her stay late and wouldn’t let her buy the jacket for Laura…because he wanted to come give it to her himself! He apologizes for assuming that because she was homeless that she would steal it, and everything is right again. Zack’s mom comes in to the room and tells Laura and her dad that she talked to her husband and would like to invite them to live at the house until they get back on their feet. Laura tells Zack she doesn’t know how to thank him, and being the charmer that he is, he asks for a kiss. After she kisses him on the cheek, Laura and her father regale everyone with a rendition of Silent Night on the piano, and we cut to credits.

"Silent Night, Holy Night"

Now, while that may sound like kind of a sweet episode, and that hospital part was, parts of it are just too hokey, even for a kid’s show. The topic of homelessness isn’t something to be taken lightly, and the fact that Screech makes a couple of really bad jokes about being homeless doesn’t really help. That is the main problem I have with this episode. Had a more serious show tackled the issue, it might have been done with some class, but the writers of this show just couldn’t resist throwing in a few lame jokes. And as hokey as it usually is, it might have been nice for the cast to do a quick moment at the end of the episode to talk about the reality of homelessness in America. They usually tacked them on to the end of their “very special” episodes, and I think it might have redeemed this episode just a little bit. As it stands however, it is just another typical Saved By The Bell problem of the week episode, where by the next episode, Zack and gang have seemingly forgotten who Laura is.

Another thing that struck me as odd is that after finding out that Laura and her dad would be moving in, Zack would be so forward as to ask Laura for a kiss in front of his mom and her dad. I mean, the parents just agreed to have these two kids under the same roof for at least a few weeks, and rather than play it casual and possibly sneak around with Laura later, Zack shows her dad what a horn dog he is right in front of him by going for a thank you kiss. I mean, that’s kind of scummy too, how can she thank you for taking her off the street? Oh, right, she can kiss you.

The creepy kiss

So after all that, what does this special actually get right? Well, it gets it’s one message across fairly enough, that it is always important to help those in need when you are able to. The way they buy all those presents and give them to the sick children is really a nice thing to show to the kids at home, and might help them in being a little more selfless.

This two-part special uses two of the usual tropes to tell their stories. The first is by using the holidays to get a message across, as I just previously discussed. The other one is the always favourite modern take on Scrooge, although in this episode it is a play within the show, and it doesn’t seem as though by the end of the show anyone has taken anything away from that, not even Mr. Moody. Right after the play is when he acuses Laura of stealing, and it’s not until the very end of the show that he has his minor Scrooge revelation that he should be less of a penny pincher and more understanding of people.

I can’t really recommend this episode to anyone, be they a fan of Saved By The Bell or not. It is too serious of an issue to be shown on such a goofy kid’s show, and doesn’t really leave you feeling good at the end of it. It’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy when you know that by next episode, Zack will be moving on to a new girl and Laura will never be mentioned again, nor will homelessness.

Animaniacs Special A Christmas Comedy Classic

November 23, 2011

While Hey Arnold’s Christmas was the tape I make sure to watch every year, there is one tape my girlfriend makes sure to watch every holiday season, and that is “Animaniacs Heloooo, Holidays” With Animaniacs being more of an animated sketch show, featuring a whole cavalcade of characters, this is a more all over the place Christmas Special than most of the others that I will be reviewing. Don’t worry though, that doesn’t mean this one has any less laughs or Christmas messages than the rest. But what’s it all about?

The cover of the VHS tape

Well, like I mentioned earlier, this is a sketch show in a sense, so there is not an overall story arc for the episode, and none of the sketches have anything to do with one another. For those not familiar with Animaniacs, the show is about the Warner Brothers, Yakko and Wakko, and their sister Dot. They are 3 zany creatures who live in the Warner Brothers Studios’ water tower. They make trouble all over the movie studio and are chased around by Ralph, the studio security guard, and locked back up by Dr. Scratchansniff, Hello Nurse and The CEO. Most sketches focus on them, although there are other characters in their own sketches that pop up as well, including Pinky and The Brain, The Goodfeathers, Slappy the Squirrel and Buttons and Mindy. That’s pretty much all you need to know about the characters, but now let’s get to how they are used in the Christmas Special.

It starts with their take on “The Night Before Christmas”, with Ralph taking over the role of Santa. The CEO and Dr. S have told Ralph he must dress as St. Nick and deliver presents to the Warners to keep them appeased. It is told entirely through rhyme, and has a few good moments. From there we get to see a “Good Idea, Bad Idea” sketch themed around Christmas. Next up is a sketch about Chicken Boo, a man sized chicken who is standing in as a store Santa. Nobody seems to see that he is a chicken except for a small boy who is terrified of the big chicken man. He pulls of the beard and the people all turn on Boo, but instead of his usual beating, he ends up in Santa’s sleigh for a happy ending. We also get a funny musical number about how big the universe is, with the great chorus “It’s a great big universe and we’re all really puny, We’re just tiny little specks about the size of Mickey Rooney” Other than the song about the countries of the world, this is probably my favourite Animaniacs song in the show’s history and I’m glad it’s in this special. We also get to see a little upbeat jazzy version of The Little Drummer Boy that is a nice little break before the longer and more serious sketches.

Chicken Boo, dressed as Santa

After those opening sketches, we get into the two more traditional style Christmas sketches on the tape. The first is one that goes for the meaning of Christmas, and I think it does a great job at doing so. It is actually a really touching little sketch called “A Gift of Gold”, narrated by the modern day voice of Winnie the Pooh, Jim Cummings. As funny as it may sound, they story is about the adventures of a piece of gold wrapping paper. We follow it from its simple beginnings at a department store wrapping counter, through it’s initial tearing appart to get to a present, and then its terrifying journey to the dump. You start to feel bad for this little scrap of wrap, and are overjoyed when it escapes the dump and blows all the way back to town. There, a down on his luck man finds the little scrap of gold and uses it to wrap a discarded toy that he has mended for his son. He takes the present to his car, where he and his family appear to be living, and hands it to his son. The young boy is not only overjoyed to be getting a present, knowing how tough times are for his folks, but is equally excited about the beautiful wrapping paper as well. Rather than discard it, he folds it up carefully and keeps it in his pocket, much to the joy of his parents, as it seems they have taught him that sometimes even the little things in life can be beautiful, and should never be taken for granted.

The gold paper, before it takes its long journey

From there we go on to another traditional Christmas Special trope, a version of A Christmas Carol. Standing in for Scrooge is the CEO of Warner Brothers. It is Christmas Eve and he fires Ralph for not keeping a batter eye on the Warners, which is costing the studio big bucks. He goes on to be visited by 3 ghosts, each one in the form of one of the Warners. The Ghost of Christmas Past, played by Wakko, shows the CEO how bad a kid he was growing up, leading up to him forcing his father to retire so he could take over the movie studio. Next, Dot comes in as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and shows the CEO how he has ruined Ralph’s family’s Christmas. Finally, we see Yakko as the Ghost of Christmas Future, showing the CEO that one day Ralph’s son will take over as CEO and demote him to security guard. The CEO sees the error of his ways, and in true Scrooge fashion, rushes over to give Ralph his job back, as well as try and win over Ralph’s son, as to avoid becoming security guard one day down the line. As most characters in this situation do, the CEO has now been given an idea of what the meaning of Christmas is: Being generous and spending time with loved ones.

The CEO being confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Future

After that we get two more sketches, including one where Wakko belches along to Jingle Bells, which while kind of funny, can sound disgusting if you’re not into that sort of thing. The other is a spoof of Goodnight Moon, which I guess is a nice way to end a special.

For the most part, the Animaniacs aren’t meant to be taken seriously, just like their Warner cartoon predecessors, The Looney Tunes. However, as is proved by the wonderful sketch “A Gift Of Gold”, they do know how to be serious if the situation arises. That one sketch is worth watching this tape for, because it takes master storytellers and animators to make you really feel for something as seemingly meaningless as a piece of wrapping paper, and boy do they make you feel for it. By the end of the episode, when the paper is truly appreciated, and the message that sometimes the little things can mean so much is put out there, it really can be enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.

Also, as I touched on earlier, they do go the Scrooge way in the one sketch. They get the usual meaning across, that it is important to be with family and loved ones for the holidays, as well as to be as generous as you can. It’s a fun little take on the trope, and is short enough to not overshadow anything else on the tape.

Other than that sketch, the other are mostly funny and make for an altogether enjoyable Christmas tape to watch no matter your age. I recommend this tape to viewers young and old alike. The youngsters will love the broad comedy, and the older viewers will get the jokes aimed at them that they might not have gotten when they were just a kid. If you aren’t a big fan of the show however, just make sure you give “A Gift of Gold” a chance. You won’t regret it.

Hey Arnold’s Christmas Special Is One Emotional Ride

November 22, 2011

I figured since this special ranks very high among my very favourite specials, I should write about it closer to the beginning of this blog so that anyone who hasn’t seen it has plenty of time before the big day to do so. For those not in the know, Hey Arnold! was a show produced by Nickelodeon about a young boy, Arnold, who lived in a tenement building in a metropolis called Hillwood (seemingly based on New York City) with his grandparents. The show focuses around Arnold and his best friend, Gerald, and their adventures in the city. Arnold is occasionally picked on by a girl named Helga, who comments on the odd shape of his mellon by calling him “football head”, but as it turns out, she has a secret crush on him and in fact carries around a locket with his picture in it (It is really kind of creepy though. If the roles were reversed, and he stalked her, this show may not have ever been made) That’s pretty much all you need to know about Hey Arnold!, other than the fact that since it is a mid 90s Nickelodeon cartoon, it is kind of zany and eccentric and appealing to kids and adults alike.

The cover of the VHS tape I watched it on (The tape itself, in true Nickelodeon fashion, is orange)

So what is this special about and why is it one of my favourites? Well, the special actually starts on Thanksgiving, as Arnold and the other tenants in his grandparent’s building pick names for Secret Santa. Arnold ends up with the seemingly always sad Mr. Hyunh (pronounced “Win”), the tenant hes happens to know the least about. After dinner, Arnold goes to Mr. Hyunh’s room to try and find out what he should get him for Christmas. After talking for a while, Arnold finds out why Mr. Hyunh seems so down in the dumps, especially with the holidays coming up. It turns out that Mr. Hyunh was a young single father back in Vietnam before the war. He considered himself the luckiest man in the world, but with the war getting closer and closer to his village every day, he knew he had to try and get his little daughter, Mai (pronounced as it’s spelled) out of the country. In a startling bit of animation, we are shown the fall of Saigon, with Mr. Hyunh, with Mai in his arms, racing to get to the helipad on the top of the US government building to escape the country. After being turned away, Mr. Hyunh makes the hardest decision of his life, and gives Mai to one of the government officials so she can go to America and grow up away from a war torn nation. Before taking off, the official tells Mr. Hyunh the name of a city, Hillwood, where he can find Mai if he makes it to the States. Mr. Hyunh tells Arnold that it took him 20 years just to save up and leave the country, and he has been looking for Mai since his arrival in the city. Arnold realizes that the perfect gift he can get for Mr. Hyunh is a reunion with his missing daughter. But there’s only one problem: How is one nine year-old football headed boy going to find a missing woman in a big city? With the help of Gerald of course!

Mr. Hyunh, handing Mai up to the helicopter

While all of this is going on, Helga is trying to figure out what would be the perfect gift she could get for Arnold, her secret crush, for Christmas. She is going all over the city to try and find him something not only personal, but also flashy. In her travels, she runs into one of the girls from school, and they debate over which of them will end up with the “it” present of the year, Nancy Spumoni snow boots, which are steel toed, have gold inlay, and zig-zag stitching. The perfect gift, if only Arnold was a girl!

Helga, looking at the coveted Nancy Spumoni snow boots!

Arnold has spent weeks tracking down where he can find information about Mai, and on Christmas Eve day, he finally ends up at the right government office down town. But when he and Gerald go inside, they see that everyone has started partying, except for one lone worker, Mr. Bailey. They ask him for his help, but he tells the boys tracking someone down like that could take hours, maybe days, and he doesn’t have time to do it. Defeated, Arnold and Gerald are about to leave when Mr. Bailey gets a call from his wife asking if he has done the shopping yet. He tells her he hasn’t had time, but will get to it when he gets off work. Arnold and Gerald tell him that they will do his shopping for him if he agrees to look up Mai when they get back. He is hesitant, but eventually agrees, on the condition that they get EVERYTHING on the list before quitting time at 6 o’clock. Arnold and Gerald spend the afternoon getting everything on Mr. Bailey’s list, and are down to their last item, a pair of Nancy Spumoni snow boots! Arnold and Gerald spend the rest of their time trying to track down a pair of the boots, but to no avail. They run into Helga on their way to break the news to Mr. Bailey when they drop their shopping list, and she sees that the one thing Arnold needs is those snow boots. She goes home, not having found anything for Arnold, and her mother lets her open a present early. Low and behold, it’s the Nancy Spumoni boots! The one thing she wanted for Christmas, but also the only thing that will make Arnold happy! What will she do!? In a very selfless, and seemingly “Gift of the Magi” style move, Helga runs to the government office to give the boots to Mr. Bailey, who in the mean time has told Arnold and Gerald he won’t help because they didn’t get those boots. He is about to get into a cab when she appeals to his good nature, and we fade out while Mr. Bailey turns around.

Helga and Mr. Bailey. Will he stay after hours and help her and Arnold?

We cut to the next morning, and everyone in Arnold’s building is opening their presents, except for Mr. Hyunh. Arnold feels awful, but Mr. Hyunh re-assures everyone that he is fine without a present. Just then the doorbell rings, and who should come in but Mai! She walks up behind Mr. Hyunh and he turns around and is at a loss for words! (It really is a tear jerking moment, which I am not too proud to say has made me misty eyed on more than one occasion) Arnold is dumbfounded, and wonders how Mai ended up here. Gerald tells him he might just have an angel looking out for him, and we cut to outside where Helga is looking in the window and wishing Arnold a Merry Christmas.

Mr. Hyunh and Mai, reunited after over 20 years apart

This is such a heartwarming Christmas Special that I make sure to watch it every Christmas, along with all the other classics. It is a one off episode that really isn’t central to the story of Hey Arnold, as the show doesn’t really have an overall story arc. As well as being a one off, it is an episode that uses the holidays to get across a message, and it does so wonderfully. It is a great example of the timeless Christmas lesson that it truly is better to give than receive, especially when you are giving up something you wanted to give someone else what they needed. Helga really shows how much she cares for Arnold by giving up those boots, just so she can help him help someone else. Also, for such a fun and quirky cartoon, it really is a very heavy episode, especially for kids. The way they depict the Vietnam War is simple enough for kids to pick up on, but for those of us know know our history, it really is tragic to watch Mr. Hyunh go through something so devastating. I also love the music they play whenever Mr. Hyunh talks about Mai or Vietnam. It is a very sad little pan flute adagio that really gets across the pain and sadness Mr. Hyunh is feeling.

This special is one that I always recommend to everyone I know, and often times invite them over to watch it at my place during the Christmas season. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and even if you are not normally one for cartoons, this is a special that shouldn’t be missed. It is really emotional and will give you a really warm feeling inside by the time the credits start rolling, and we could all use a feeling like that around the holidays.

The Berenstain Bears’ First Ever Special!

November 22, 2011

To start off my second day of reviews, I watched a special I had never seen, but came highly recommended by my girlfriend. The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree was, from what I can tell, the very first animated TV episode the characters ever appeared in, and in true form they chose to start things off with a bang by going with a Christmas episode. While this is a Christmas centric episode, this was animated back in 1979, long before the Berenstain Bears switched their focus from family life to Christianity. So rather than being preachy, it is more about family and community than about God and Jesus. But now let’s get to the point here, what is the special about?

Cover of the VHS tape I watched it on

This special takes place on Christmas Eve day. Papa Bear has just returned home from fishing and has caught himself a very big Christmas Salmon, and after putting it in the fridge, he and his family get out all of their Christmas decorations to put up around the house. They pull out all of the boxes from all over the house, and are now ready to decorate their tree, except, low and behold, they haven’t picked one up yet. Papa Bear tells his children, Brother and Sister Bear, to get dressed, as they are going out to get themselves the biggest, fattest, straightest tree they can find. Mother Bear dresses her cubs warmly, as she senses snow in the air, and that a storm may be on the horizon. The three bears leave their house (Itself a large, hollowed out tree), and while the cubs think they are going to buy a tree from Grizzly Gus, the local vendor, Papa has a plan of his own. He grabs his axe and tells the kids they are going to go cut one down themselves. The cubs are luke warm about the idea at first, but Papa brings them around to his way of thinking by singing them a song, and they go marching up into the mountains to find a tree.

The Bear trio marching into the mountains

The first tree they come across after walking for a while looks great! It’s big, and fat and tall, and everything else he’s been looking for. But just as he’s swinging his axe, Sister Bear yells at him to stop. Papa Bear looks down and sees that their is a mailbox out front of the tree, and realizes the tree is the home of a skunk. Papa looks closer and notices that not only does a skunk live in it, but so do some squirrels, and chipmunks and a family of crows. He picks up his axe and moves on, realizing it would be wrong to cut down the home of all of those critters, because it is their Christmas too! The three bears keep walking and singing, and eventually come across another fine looking tree. Again, as Papa is about to cut it down, he stops when a large eagle pokes its head out of the tree. Turns out the tree is home to an eagle and a falcon, and they are none too pleased to see a bear with an axe standing in front of their home. The eagle chases them away from the tree and even throws Papa’s axe at him! (I was unsure what they were going for here. As much as this was a cartoon, the flying axe was a little too crazy for my tastes. The rest of the special is grounded in a sense, but when the bears duck under the axe, it hits a tree stump and digs pretty far into it! It is implied that if they hadn’t ducked, it would have cut them pretty seriously, so I personally think the axe bit wasn’t needed)

The flying axe, getting dangerously close to Papa and the cubs

By this time, the snow has started coming down, and it is really starting to come down pretty hard. Brother and Sister tell Papa they should just turn around, but Papa is obsessed with finding a perfect tree (They show this by making Papa’s eyes change into dancing Christmas trees every so often) At long last, Papa comes across a tree that is magnificent! It is huge, it is more than fat, and is very straight! Brother and Sister love it! Papa raises his axe, and is about to take a swing when he sees a tiny window in the trunk of the tree. He peeks inside and sees a bird, with his own little family, spending time together and decorating their own teeny tiny little tree! That’s when Papa realizes he shouldn’t have been wasting his day looking for the perfect tree, he should have just bought a tree and spent the day with his family decorating and having fun, instead of freezing their butts off in the mountains! Papa tells the kids it’s time to go buy a tree from Gus and go home, so he cuts out 3 pairs of skis from a nearby stump and the bears go down the mountain back to town. By the time they get their however, Gus has packed up his shop and there are no trees left for sale. Sister Bear is about to cry, but then she looks over at their house only to see that all of the forest animals whose houses they had spared that afternoon, have decorated the Bear’s tree of a house to be one giant Christmas tree! Then all of the animals sing a song with the Bear family, and the Christmas star rises in the sky, making a perfect star for the top of their tree.

The top of their decorated tree house, complete with Christmas Star

So what category does this special fall under? Well, it is basically a one off episode that is used to get a message across. The message the episode tries to get across is that it is more important to spend time with your loved ones than it is to obsess over the little details, like how perfect your tree is, or whether you cut it down yourself or bought it at a lot. For a family of Bears that has recently turned very preachy, they do a very good job of getting such a sweet message across without resorting to religion to bring the message home. The special is chock full of songs to keep the little ones entertained, and while they certainly aren’t of a Disney calibre, they are catchy enough and kind of cute. The episode clocks in at just under a half hour, which is the perfect amount of time for this episode. Any longer and it may have become boring or slightly over the top.

Overall, I would recommend this special to anyone looking to watch a sweet Christmas special that isn’t about the joy of giving over receiving, rather, it focuses on the importance of families during the holidays, and the time that should be spent together, not appart. It is perfect to watch with kids and adults alike.

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