Ziggy's Gift

Director: Richard Williams   

Though many years have passed since it's happened and I have had thousands of experiences in between, I still remember vividly to this day my first encounter with Ziggy. It happened on a summer morning in 1979, not long after I had gotten out of bed. It was my birthday, and I had just started to size up all the loot I was about to receive, all of which was on the dining room table. I remember two of the things I got as presents for that birthday. One of which was a homemade certificate made by my parents that said that I was entitled to see the Battlestar Galactica movie that was currently playing in our town's drive-in theater. (I don't know why I remember that certificate so well when I don't remember anything about the movie when we did go to see it - in fact, I don't remember anything about the movie when I did see it again years later.) The other thing I remember getting on that birthday was a small cardboard box which had the words "VALUABLE JUNK" written on the top flap. And beside those words was a picture of a small man who was bald and had a big nose. This cartoon figure also had a disarming smile on his face. I don't know why, but at the time I found there was something about this cartoon fellow that I found pleasing. Something about him also intrigued me, but there was no clue as to his identity - was he a one-shot character, or someone who appeared elsewhere? There were no clues on the box, no copyright notice or labels of any kind anywhere to identify this character. At the time, I decided to put my search on hold, and the box went promptly in the top drawer of my dresser where it remained for years.

As it turned out, it didn't take me that long after my birthday to find out who this loveable-looking character was, and that was Ziggy. I soon discovered that he had a comic strip of his own, and it wasn't that long until one of the newspapers that my family subscribed to got the Ziggy comic strip. I started reading it, and I soon became a fan. Being a kind of an odd man out myself, at least at the school that I attended, I could identify with this lovable loser. And I admired that despite all the setbacks he suffered, he always had an optimistic heart and tried to do good in the world around of him. Soon I wanted more Ziggy than I was getting on a daily basis. I remember the time that I got a Ziggy book as a present ("The Ziggy Treasury") that had Ziggy creator Tom Wilson writing several pages of comments. The book could have been better edited, however; I noticed that there were two strips in the book that used the same "I must be in the wrong comic strip!" gag. Then in December 1982, I got a real treat - Ziggy appeared on TV in a Christmas special. I sat down to watch it, and I loved it. I thought it would become a regular Christmas classic on TV, especially when it subsequently won an Emmy. But... it didn't. Despite all the acclaim that it received, and being directed by an animator many consider to be one of the best animators of all time, I don't believe the special ever aired on TV ever again. I had to wait many years later, when I was an adult and having moved to another city, to see it again (I had then found a video store that had a copy on tape.) The video store closed a few years later, and I found myself without a source to see Ziggy's Gift again.

At that point, I thought that the special, now in a sea of obscurity, would stay in that obscurity forever. And it did, for several years. But miracles do happen on occasion, and I was amazed one day when searching the web that I found out that Ziggy's Gift had been given a release on DVD. Finding out this news, my first thought was to get a copy and review it on my web site, to tell people about this neglected classic and to try and boost its audience. But another part of me almost immediately shot this idea down because, well, Ziggy's Gift is not a movie. It's not even movie-length - it runs less than half an hour. Time went by, and eventually I started to think about Ziggy's Gift again. This time, I decided that I would review it. It's definitely unknown, for one thing, and fits with the other stuff on my web site in that category. And I had forgotten that I had broken my rules before - I had reviewed The Star Wars Holiday Special, and that was not a movie. So here's the review. And yes, I know I am reviewing this Christmas special at a time that's not considered the holiday season. But that's for your benefit - after reading the review, you can order it and get it in time to watch during the holiday season. Now let's get to the special, okay? The setting is in some unidentified big city on Christmas Eve. In his apartment, Ziggy sees a newscast on how many people are suffering from hard times. So when he reads the morning paper and sees an advertisement asking for volunteers to stand on street corners and gather money for charity, Ziggy leaps at the chance. He gets the job... but he doesn't know that the charity is really a scam, one that pockets the money all for itself. Soon there is a policeman tracking Ziggy down, convinced that Ziggy is in on the scam. Will Ziggy find himself behind bars on Christmas Day?

Where do I start by telling you just how wonderful this Christmas special is, and why it deserves to be broadcast year after year like Charlie Brown and the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials? Well, after a lot of thought, the answer that came to me is to start with the biggest reason that Ziggy's Gift works, and that reason is the character of Ziggy himself. The creator of the Ziggy comic strip (Tom Wilson) wrote this Christmas special, and he gave Ziggy here the appeal he has in his comic strip. In the beginning of this special, we see that Ziggy lives in a somewhat undesirable place, a small apartment that's not exactly furnished in a luxurious way. But Ziggy never complains or shows any grief about this, he's accepted it. He's more interested in helping other people than himself, which is why he signs up for the volunteer position. He never gets down, depressed, or angry about anything. When a passing truck flings a glob of snow into his face, his reaction is.... nothing. He just accepts it. Later, when a rival charity worker sets up his kettle right beside Ziggy and starts ringing his bell, Ziggy doesn't protest or get angry. Instead, Ziggy simply walks away to another spot. He also loves animals; he is shown to have a pet dog ("Fuzz") who he must treat with a lot of love, since the dog follows him everywhere, even into the bathroom. Later, there is a sequence where Ziggy sees outside a grocery store a bunch of live turkeys crammed together in small cages. He decides to.... well, I won't spoil it for you, except to say that his act seems to fit with all of his other actions up to this point, and that it can probably be concluded that Ziggy is a vegetarian. (Well, no one's perfect.)

There's another thing that makes Ziggy so appealing here that will give him a wider potential audience than you might think, including little children and people who do not speak English. That fact is that, unlike the comic strip, Ziggy in Ziggy's Gift never once utters a (real) word. Just about all of his communicating comes from his actions; he is basically a character like the classic ones silent movies stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton played. During the few times he does open his mouth, there is always a sly trick used so that we don't hear his actual voice, like when he is mouthing the words to a Christmas carol that a couple of other people with him are singing. (We hear the other voices, but not his.) I'm glad that Tom Wilson made this decision to not have us hear Ziggy speak, because his silence weaves a kind of magic that spoken words would have spoiled. Director Richard Williams (whose past animated work includes material with characters that don't speak a word) is clearly perfectly comfortable working with this special's silent characters (there is another character, a thief, who doesn't really speak that has more than a passing resemblance to the thief in The Thief And The Cobbler. ) There are a number of clearly personal touches of his that show he was not treating this project as just another work assignment. When Fuzz looks out the window at the beginning, his nose leaves a little mark on the window pane. And when he subsequently follows Ziggy to the bathroom, when he turns, his feet slip on the floor for a microsecond just before he regains his footing and continues to follow his master.

The rest of the animation is equally impressive, definitely above average for the date and the medium (television in 1982). Though there are a few instances where the same frames of animation are used more than once, the rest of the time it is clear that some serious money was spent here. The various characters, who all look like they could have been designed by Tom Wilson himself, move around smoothly and not in a jerky manner, and I also observed that the human characters actually sport five fingers on each hand instead of the usual cost-cutting technique of giving characters four fingers on a hand. But even if the animation was poorer, I don't think it could have taken away the power that the rest of this special has. This special has a lot of heart to it. Don't get me wrong, this isn't some sappy holiday special. I must point out that I was tickled by a number of moments lighter in nature. There's the scene where Ziggy is struggling to put toothpaste on his toothbrush, and later having an equal struggle with his newspaper. There is also the slightly naughty moment when Fuzz gets revenge on the rival crooked charity worker that pushes him and Ziggy away... I could go on. But there are also more serious scenes that work just as well. When Ziggy spots a homeless man curled up against a building, his gesture to the man is so simple yet beautiful that I have to admit that I got a tear in my eye, and I just got another one just remembering it. Try also not to cry at the end, where (don't worry) Ziggy is saved from serious trouble and he goes home with the same good heart he started with that morning. You're a good man, Ziggy Brown. (Sorry, I got my lovable bald underdog cartoon characters mixed up.)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check Amazon for Richard Williams' "The Animator's Survival Kit"

See also: Blizzard, The Flight Of Dragons, Raggedy Ann And Andy