Tag Archives: Animation

NUTCRACKER FANTASY (1979)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky despised his own “Nutcracker Fantasy.” Forced into being a populist composer when careers in music were extremely rare in Russia, Tchaikovsky hated much of his own music, which masked a much darker personality: a self-loathing gay (it’s likely that he committed suicide) and a manic depressive. Yet behind that veneer of populism is an unorthodoxy. Leonard Bernstein found a soulmate in Tchaikovsky, conducting his music as if it was Mahler. When conductor Thomas Beecham arrived for orchestra rehearsal, he asked what was on the schedule. When someone answered “Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique,” Beecham quipped, “Let’s do what we can to cheer it up.”

When it comes to films with a Tchaikovskian theme, two come to mind in unmasking the dark-hued musician that classical fundamentalists prefer whited out. One is the infamous Black Swan (2010). The other is 1979’s criminally forgotten Japanese animated Nutcracker Fantasy (directed by Takeo Nakamura), which bypasses sugar plum fairies in favor of something spawned from a combination of , , and L. Frank Baum, along with slivers of Tchaikovsky and E.T.A. Hoffmann.  The result is authentic bizarreness amplified by considerable beauty (and vice versa).

Young Clara (Melissa Gilbert) is visiting her Aunt Gerda (Lurene Tuuttle) and Uncle Drosselmeyer (), a clock maker and doll maker. Clara falls in love with uncle’s Nutcracker doll and requests it as a gift. Reluctantly, with his wife’s prompting, Drosselmeyer gives Clara the doll. We soon discover the reason for his reticence.

Still from Nutcracker Fantasy (1979)An army of rats prize the doll and steal it from Clara. Chasing the thieving rodents, Clara comes to blows with two-headed rat queen Morphia (Jo Anne Worley). Although the nutcracker comes to life to protect Clara, she still loses the battle and wakes up with a fever. She dreams again, entering the kingdom of the dolls by passing through Drosselmeyer’s grandfather clock; it is hardly a peasant trip, as the dolls are at war with Morphia.

The nutcracker is now Franz (), the captain of the guard, and he’s trying to restore the princess (who looks like Clara) back to her old self. The King’s wise men try to break Morphia’s curse, but they suck. So, Clara tracks down the Queen of Time (Eva Gabor) for assistance in breaking the evil spell.  No problem, just destroy the “nut of darkness,” AKA Morphia’s heart. How the hell do you destroy a nut of darkness? With a pearl sword, of course, which Queenie happens to have handy.

A war breaks out, the enemy mice are slaughtered and, it turns out, they were children kidnapped by the creepy Ragman. A tad angry, the captain kills Morphia, but she curses him before croaking, turning him back into a nutcracker. Morphia’s rat son sets out for revenge, but Clara sacrifices herself, saving her nutcracker and thus breaking the evil spell.

That is as good as a synopsis as I can give, because if it sounds like a hodgepodge, it absolutely is. Characters like the Ragman are built up and dropped, and there are loopholes and inconsistencies aplenty. But who the hell watches something like this for coherency anyway? Yes, there are dull stretches, but you will not give hoot or a holler one, because the three-dimensional characterization of Clara, animation, music (which bizarrely includes animated ballerinas morphing into live action ballerinas and then disappearing), and superb voice acting across the board are dazzlingly impressive. Gilbert, Worley, and Gabor give what may be their most impressive performances, and Christopher Lee gets to sing (he actually voices several characters), sounding damned fine.

By, the way, I suppose I should add that it’s weird as hell, and far preferable to all the saccharine Nutcracker productions we’ve all been sadistically subjected to. Why would anyone ever want to watch another Nutcracker in the place of this one? I’d like to think Pyotr finally had his revenge.

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966) AND A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965)

Chuck Jones’ 1966 adaptation of ‘ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a rarity: a film that both surpasses the source material and is itself flawless—which is why the 2000 live-action remake was a pre-certified disaster.

Chuck Jones made his name with “Looney Tunes” and although he had a lot of competition (Tex Avery foremost), Jones, with his modernist sensibilities, was the best of the lot. Wisely, Jones filters Dr. Seuss’ seditious surrealism through his own pop aesthetics, bringing to the tale superior narrative pacing (it moves like quicksilver), wry wit, expertly judged tension, a gift for expressiveness, and the narration of , voice acting of June Foray, and raspy singing of Thurl Ravenscroft.

The story is a variation of Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” but  that’s just a springboard for Seuss, Jones, and company.  With his melodious British lisp and résumé in Gothic fairy tales, Karloff is a masterful storyteller, perhaps the best in animation since Bing Crosby narrated “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1949). Voicing the Grinch, Karloff snarls delightfully, and as the narrator he is an impeccable bedtime story host. Balancing those two makes for his last great role, one that ranks with the Monster, ImhotepHjalmar Poelzig, and Cabman Gray.

Still from How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)Casting Karloff was an intuitive coup. Jones, like and , was astutely aware of the connection between Christmas and Halloween. Both come from the Church; one uses the “seen” symbolism of horror as a counter to “unseen” divinity of the second. And of course, both involve children. June Foray is a delight in her small role as Cindy Lou, who could be no more than two. Her sense of wonder is authentic—never saccharine—staring right through the Grinch’s nastiness with big anime eyes (that predate anime). She actually has us rooting for her, as opposed to child stars who we might have been tempted to wish death on (e.g., the tyke in Son of Frankenstein). Ravenscroft makes an art out of insulting the title character in song—which must have been a first—and his work steered the short into a rightly deserved Grammy win for best soundtrack.

Although secular, its anti-consumerism message is as subtle as the Grinch himself—and is still needed today, before we have yet another Black Friday trampling death at Walmart.

Charles Schulz fully embraces the religious tradition in tackling the same anti-consumerism message in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from the preceding year. There’s little doubt that Schulz’ “Peanuts” series eventually became tiresome and repetitive (remember, “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown”?) but, with the perfection of this and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” perhaps the great comic strip artist deserved to be allowed to coast. Again, it’s no surprise that these parallel holidays brought out the best in Schulz. The bald-headed, existential Charlie Brown waxes angstfully over the hypocrisy of false Christmas Capitalism, until blanket-toting Linus takes on the role of a Lukian sage to set Charlie, Lucy, Schroeder, and Snoopy right. Curiously, Linus later mixes up that “unseen” of Christmas with the “seen” of Halloween by waiting for a Great Pumpkin that never arrives, but that’s part of the the sublime, idiosyncratic beauty of Schulz’ best characterizations. The Peanuts gang are children, yes, but they have adult-like complexities and inconstancies, too.

Still from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)Smartly, director Bill Melendez chose actual children to voice the Peanuts gang and deliver that Gospel of Luke message. What  could have been rendered agonizingly pretentious or overbearing proselytization is instead filled-to-the-brim with simplistic, joyous charm. There’s nothing at all contrived or bullying about the message which seeks (it doesn’t demand) a Christmas that isn’t shorn of a Christ child.

The musical ribbon that ties it all together is supplied by that tragically short-lived jazz miniaturist Vince Guaraldi who, like Haydn before him, finds a wealth of exhilarating fun in sanctity.

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964)

This fifty-four year old made-for-television holiday film has recently generated controversy on Twitter, proving that self-professed liberals can be just as obtuse as conservatives. The controversy was over the “bullying” in the Arthur Rankin/Jules Bass stop-animation. Its message is blatantly anti-bullying. Yes, Santa is a jerk at first and guilty of being bigoted and short-sighted, but hey, the narrator clearly states “Even Santa realized he was wrong,” and he makes amends. Gee, I thought the gospels and Charles Dickens all rather made the point that Christmas was also about admitting mistakes, learning from them, forgiveness, etc. However, happy-happy, joy-joy pseudo New-Agers seem to prefer everything whitewashed. Forget those dullards and the inherent silliness of Twitter users because this is possibly, along with Batman Returnsthe most delightfully weird holiday film of all time; and given that it’s from Rankin and Bass, that’s saying a bit. It’s doubtful that Rankin and Bass truly grasped their own weirdness, which makes it all the better.

None other than “Big Daddy” (of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Burl Ives, is our gospel narrating (pre-“Frosty”) snowman. He lets us know there’s a castle on the left here in the North Pole. Santa’s kind of like King Herod; a bit bitchy,worrying himself skinny about something, but even he’s not sure what.

Meanwhile, Rudolph is born in a cave, kind of like a reindeer Jesus, and there’s Mary and Joseph in the guise of Mr. and Mrs. Donner (I guess she doesn’t get a name). Rudolph is so smart he begins talking right after his birth, but he’s also “gifted” in having a shiny red nose, which agitates Donner to no end. How could he have fathered a misfit? Santa pays a visit to the new family and, upon seeing that blinking beak, lectures the newborn Rudolph about fitting in. 

Back at the castle, Hermey1)Ed: Originally article incorrectly read “Herbie” the elf. See comments on this post. is an elf who hates making toys and singing. But that’s what elves are supposed to do. Not Hermey; he wants to be a dentist. He’ll never fit in. “Why I am such a misfit?” is the the anthem of both Rudolph and Hermey.

At the reindeer training, the yearlings, including Rudolph, his new friend Fireball, and potential GF Clarice are all introduced to jerk redneck reindeer in a baseball cap, Comet. Naturally, things screw up when Rudolph’s shiny noise is discovered. No more reindeer games for him.

Like a savior cast out, Rudolph goes it alone… until he bumps into runaway Herbie. Cue song change from “Why am I such a misfit?” to “We’re a couple of misfits.” Together, they go out into the wilderness with the threat of Satan (in the guise of a bumble abominable) not far behind.

TStill from "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" (1964)hings get wackier still when our heroes meet prospector Yukon Cornelius. His anthem is “even among misfits, I’m a misfit.” He’s a boisterous mess, unable to decide between silver or gold, pea soup or peanut butter, and his presence makes no sense, rendering him the coolest character in the whole film. Yukon is perfectly voiced by familiar character actor Larry D. Mann, who was part of the Canadian Air Force team that liberated the holocaust death camps (his testimony is on YouTube).

With the predator Bumble closing in, our trio of misfits make a pit stop at the island of misfit toys, lorded over by a flying lion (!) named King Moonracer. A Charlie in the Box, a train with square wheels, a spotted elephant, a water gun that squirts jelly, an ostrich-riding cowboy, a boat that can’t stay afloat, and a doll named Sue, whose deformity is a tad ambiguous, are among the inhabitants. 

Herbie gives the Bumble a root canal, Yukon  sort of dies and resurrects, Santa gets fat again, Rudolph is the savior he was born to be, everyone learns the lesson of bullying, and the misfit toys get rescued. The end. 

This is a long way from the simplistic song made popular by singing cowpoke Gene Autry, and one would be tempted to ask WTF were Rankin and Bass thinking if it weren’t such a hoot. If we included made for TV Christmas movies here, I’d have likely obsessively pushed for its inclusion on The List. Rudolph was an enormous success. Unlike twitterers, 1964 audiences didn’t give a hoot or a holler about its weirdness, taking it all in stride, and the path was paved for many more Rankin and Bass oddities/blessings to come. At least one of those will be covered this month, but next week: a
Dr. Seuss/Chuck Jones/Boris Karloff combo. 

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1. Ed: Originally article incorrectly read “Herbie” the elf. See comments on this post.