22 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Battle of the Cartoons

The Grinch vs Rudolph vs Year Without a Santa Claus

Today we're waging a war with the ammunition of sentimentality and cuteness, the annual battle for our hearts and minds to decide which vision of the festive season chimes closely with our own. These are the cartoons first foisted upon the Baby Boomers in the 1960's and '70's, and which inexorably have had staying power in the holiday viewing rotation, partially due to the hand me down nostalgia of that most self-referential of generations. Your preferences between these jungian archetypes will say as much about you as any Rorschach inkblot (especially if your inkblot is the one that attacks Daffy in Duck Amuck).

How The Grinch Stole Christmas has the incredible collaboration between the dean of forced rhymery of all time(ery), Dr Seuss, and one of the geniuses from the Looney Tunes stable, Chuck Jones. The voice talent is a double act of narration from Boris Karloff and songs from Thurl Ravenscroft. They adapt the Dr Seuss book with a rube goldbergesque slapstick straight out of any Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote tale.

First we should give some time to the unsung (or at least uncredited) singer of the Grinch, Thurl Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft's voice is so deeply ingrained in cartoon DNA, he was the voice of Tony the Tiger for over fifty years and he is even to be heard (and seen) on rides in Disneyland (particularly the Haunted House).

You're a mean one Mr Grinch - Thurl Ravenscroft

I'll draw your attention back to the lovely WFMU, who dedicated a day to Thurl as part of their most recent 365 days project: 365 Days #184 - Thurl Ravenscroft Festival. It's a bit sad that he was mistakenly left out of the credits leaving some to think that the song was sung by the estimable narrator, Boris Karloff. The song itself is a complete grotesque joy of Grinch baiting invective, and a perfect preparation for spending holiday with relatives who will get on your nerves. Thurl only gets this song and its frequent reprises, the only other song is the bizarre Whoville Christmas Carol that consists of gibberish and some bland sobriquets around the title Welcome Christmas, it's like a training video for Walmart Greeters.

The Grinch is for people who identify with sourpusses and are content with the simplest of plots. Grinch hates Christmas, plans to steal Christmas, has road to Whoville/Damascus moment, gives Christmas back. Christmas in Whoville is nearly devoid of religion and stealing it involves co-opting their overindulgent feasting, decorating and gifts. I'm pleased by the non-denominational approach, but there are irksome metaphysical questions left unanswered, are these the same Who's that Horton heard? Does that apply the same physical restrictions of scale to the Grinch? The citizens of Whoville are capable of storing their vast civilization in a small space, do they possess Gallifreyan or Kryptonian technology?

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has a huge head start in the music arena, it's built around the hit Johnny Marks song, and is filled with other great seasonal favorites written by him. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree even gets a sneak peek as incidental music in one scene. Burl Ives puts in his bit as a narrating snowman, whose persona is clearly modelled on him, this serves as an excuse for him to croon Silver and Gold and A Holly Jolly Christmas.

A Holly Jolly Christmas

Sadly, a favorite bit that I think I remember, wasn't even actually in the show. While Rudolph's stop motion Santa was probably one of the first of his kind, he had a close relative in the seasonal Norelco ad, in which a Santa rode a triple bladed electric razor head through a wintry landscape. I don't know if they ever even sponsored Rudolph, but somehow, and this is not a trick of my memory now, at the time I thought it was the same Santa.

Norelco Santa

Where the Grinch is a sociopath, Rudolph is merely intensely neurotic. Due to the poor quality of Santa's breeding program, this is what happens when you restrict your stock to eight, Rudolph has his unfortunate mutation, which his father, Donner, tries to hide. Rudolph is left with feelings of inadequacy, and so he leaves home, an outcast. His journey has him encounter kindred spirits including an elf who only wants to be a dentist.

We're a Couple of Misfits

Their journey brings them to the Island of Misfit Toys, whose origins are never properly explained, did Santa have a Dr Moreau moment? The Misfit toys are deeply conflicted, here they sing about Christmas being the Most Wonderful Day of the Year, when clearly it is the day they feel most unfulfilled and persecuted.

The Most Wonderful Day of the Year

Of course Santa saves the day by patronizing Rudolph mercilessly to restore his self respect (after all, what did Santa do on foggy nights before Donner's condom burst? or is there a long lost outtake on the Island of Misfit Toys where Rudolph and Hermey find the graves of the previous Rudolphs?).

I'm never really sure if the moral of this one is that you should accept yourself because your flaws are what make you special, or that people never really love you for yourself but for the one thing you do freakishly well.

The Year Without a Santa Claus is often conflated in my mind with Santa Claus is Comin' To Town (so much so I bought the DVD of the latter thinking I was getting the former). They're both from the stop motion stable of Rankin/Bass, and have some voices in common. ... Comin' To Town is the one with the Burgermeister Meisterburger and The Year Without... is the one with the Snow and Heat Misers. Although I have friends who adore both of these, I've already mentioned the only things I find memorable about either. That said, the two Miser songs are so bloody catchy I have actually sat through the rest of the rubbish just to get to those bits. Snow Miser's voice is provided by Dick Shawn the standup who played the addled psychedelic rocker Lorenzo St. DuBois in The Producers. Heat Miser is Broadway stalwart George S. Irving, who reprised the role (along with Mickey Rooney as Claus) 34 years later in A Miser Brothers' Christmas, a sequel focussing on the two catchy brothers. I don't know whether they get as good a song, or merely repeat the originals, but they say you can have too much of a good thing. Too much!

Snow Miser / Heat Miser

I don't even vaguely remember the plot, but it's one of those quest formats, and one of the innumerable tedious hoops that the characters jump through includes resolving the sibling rivalry between the Snow and Heat Miser brothers, which clearly rests in their inability to develop separate theme tunes.

If you prefer this one, you hate your brother, or you are a catatonic couch potato easily swayed by an earworm of a jingle.

Of course the winner could only be: A Charlie Brown Christmas (OK, I cheated, we'll see him tomorrow!) Grinch has the best song, Rudolph is the best musical, and The Year without a Santa Claus is, um, a little bit better than that other one.

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