Christmas Is Here Again

Director: Robert Zappia
Voice Cast:
Ed Asner, Kathy Bates, Jay Leno, Andy Griffith

It's getting to be that time of year again, and there are many traditions that I look forward to during this special holiday season. And they range in many different forms, from Christmas decorations in homes and in stores, to holiday feasts with turkey. But there is one regular holiday tradition that I have a special interest in, and since I am a media critic, you can probably guess what I am especially interested in. And that are holiday specials produced by filmmakers. It's always interesting to see what Hollywood and other outlets produce for the holidays. Not all of it is good, mind you, but it seems that almost every Christmas-themed screen production has something of interest, at least for me. I can remember when I first heard about the Christmas TV special Mr. Krueger's Christmas and getting very excited about the promise of seeing Freddy slashing brain-dead teens during the holiday... and being sorely disappointed to find out it was actually a warm-hearted production by the Mormon Church. And its star, Jimmy Stewart, was no Robert Englund. Speaking of Jimmy Stewart, there is also the annual showing of It's A Wonderful Life on one of the major television networks... and in some markets, the made for television remake. "Remake?" you are probably saying. Yes, a remake. In 1977, they made It Happened One Christmas, with Marlo Thomas playing the Jimmy Stewart role, Cloris Leachman playing the angel, and Orson Welles playing the evil Mr. Potter. Although this remake pretty much copies the original's screenplay scene for scene, there is one big difference apart from the change of gender of the main character and the angel - it's awful. It's proof that just having a good script is not enough, you also need stuff like good direction and actors to make a good movie. It's so bad, that I'm tempted to review it for this web site, though that would mean I would have to sit through it again.

Anyway, with my love of movies and television productions, I have a soft spot for Christmas holiday themed movies and television production. But there is one specific kind of Christmas holiday themed movies and television productions that I have a real soft spot for, and that are those that are not live action. Specifically, the kind that have been animated. Some of these animated Christmas productions that I look forward to every year include How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the Canadian production A Cosmic Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Ziggy's Gift, and various works by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass such as Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty The Snowman. You might be wondering why I have such a soft spot for these specials. Well, one reason is nostalgia. I first saw these productions as a child, and when I watch one of these classic animated productions, a lot of memories of Christmas as a child flood my mind. Another reason that I am interested in these productions is that they are not "real". Let me explain. Since these productions are hand-drawn, or use stop-motion animation or some other animation technique, they can't be accepted as being the real thing. They become magical in a sense, portraying a reality that really isn't. And Christmas is a magical season, where at times it seems that almost anything can happen. These animated productions seem to fit the mood of the holiday season. Of course, they seemed a lot more magical when I was a child and somewhat naive, but even as an adult, their unreality manages to wave an enchanting spell.

However, I feel I should mention that the animated Christmas holiday specials that catch my fancy happen to be the older ones. Animated Christmas holiday specials that are more modern tend to rub me the wrong way. I can remember the first time that I saw a commercial for an Christmas Is Here Againupcoming broadcast of Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer. I was simply stunned by how bad it looked from its cut-rate animation. And when I actually sat down to watch it (well, actually only the last five minutes), it really came across as a work by hacks. Certainly, there are more recent holiday specials with better animation like the ones based on Dreamworks animated movies, but there is a cynical cash-in air around these productions that turns me off. But recently, during my annual search for a Christmas production to review for The Unknown Movies, I decided to find and review a more modern animated production for variety's sake. I picked Christmas Is Here Again because it managed to round up an intriguing voice cast. The story concerns a young girl named Sophiana (Madison Davenport, Ponyo), a disabled orphan who lives in an orphanage run by one Miss Dowdy (Bates, Misery). One day, Sophiana is wandering around in the nearby forest when she comes across an elf named Paul Rocco (Daniel Roebuck, Cavegirl). "Paul Rocco"? Anyway, the elf takes Sophiana to the North Pole where he lives, specifically to the home of Santa Claus (Griffith, The Andy Griffith Show) and his wife Victoria (Shirley Jones, Oklahoma!) Shortly after arriving there, Sophiana learns of a crisis. Decades earlier, Santa's magic bag of toys was stolen by an evil figure by the name of Krad (Asner, O'Hara's Wife), and because of this, the idea of Christmas has faded away from the people of the world. This revelation does not sit well with Sophiana, so with the aid of Paul Rocco, she sets out on a journey to find Krad's lair and retrieve Santa's sack (of toys), aided by a fox named Buster (Norm MacDonald, Saturday Night Live) and a polar bear named Charlie (Brad Garrett).

Feature length animation for decades had a turbulent time. When it started, the Disney studios pretty much cornered the market for an unbelievably long time. Then when the cost of animation started to increase considerably, even the quality of Disney productions started to suffer for a number of years. But when computers became affordable and available to practically anyone, not only did the quality of animation suddenly go up considerably, even small animation studios found they could afford to make feature length animated movies. Though that doesn't mean that anybody should be able to make animated movies, which Christmas Is Here Again unfortunately shows. Though I must admit that not everything about the movie is bad. For starters, the animation and art design does show some skilled craftsmanship. The movie was put together in a 1.85:1 widescreen process, helping to give the movie a wide and not confined feeling, which director Robert Zappia takes advantage of in several ways. The backgrounds don't have a confined old television feeling - they sweep the screen - and they consistently have a pleasing retro feeling to them, showing a clear influence of the famed UPA animation studio with their simplistic yet striking to the eye look. These backgrounds also have been given extremely strong colors that makes every location look striking, from the outdoor scenes to the underground lair of Krad. The actual animation also looks bright and colorful, and Zappia sometimes takes additional advantage of the widescreen process to have multiple things going on all over the screen, whether its hundreds of snowflakes falling to dozens of elves moving about in Santa's workshop.

Not everything about the animation is ideal, though. The movie very often has that trademark found in many modern animated television shows where a character's head (or other portion of its body) stays in the same profile as it moves about on screen. Also, the movie on a few occasions cheapens out by reusing some animation, or sometimes showing still frames where nothing is moving at all. However, I will give the animators and art designers credit for managing to accomplish all that they did on what was reportedly a budget of only one million dollars. And I don't think kids in the audience will mind the cost-cutting measures. But I think even younger kids will find other elements of Christmas Is Here Again not up to those found in well known holiday classics, the songs for instance. There are a total of ten songs in the movie, and they are pretty flat. They lyrics all sound like they were the first things the songwriters came up with instead of being carefully polished, with simplistic lyrics like, "Children near and far / Are wishing on a star" and "Will the stars that shine so bright / Twinkle twinkle through the night?" It's a long way from You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch. This may be why the all star voice cast sounds pretty unenthusiastic singing these songs. In fact, they also give pretty lazy performances when they stop singing and are just speaking. The gee-whiz attitude of Jay Leno (who provides the movie's sporadic narration) sounds phony, Andy Griffith forgets to remove his trademark drawl voicing Santa, Daniel Roebuck simply makes his elf character an annoying Italian stereotype you've heard many times before, and Norm MacDonald sounds like he's channelling the Sugar Crisp bear.

I have a feeling that those aforementioned voice actors, as well as the others in the cast, gave lethargic performances because of the unsatisfying script. For starters, a look at the movie's characters reveals that no character is fleshed out adequately. Sophiana, the movie's chief protagonist, comes across more or less as one note. Krad, the movie's chief antagonist, only has about five to seven minutes or so of screen time, believe it or not. It's hard to get worked up one way or another with a movie where both of the opposite extremes are so flat. But there are other problems with the story as well, which director Zappia wrote. There are a number of incidental details that don't make sense, like caterpillars in winter... berries ripe to be picked in winter... Sophiana told during breakfast to be confined into her room "until morning"... Sophiana in the snowy woods unable to find her way back home when she would have left footprints behind... the unexplained fact as to how Santa knows Krad stole his sack... among other head-scratching moments. I could also criticize the extremely slow pace of the story despite the running time only being seventy three minutes, but I really want to talk about some other stumble the story makes. (Spoilers ahead). It turns out that Santa's magic sack was made from the swaddling clothes baby Jesus was wrapped in. Now, I am not an extremely religious person. But all the same, this mix of religious elements that seem true to millions with fictional Christmas elements like Santa Claus just seemed, well, wrong to me. It's possible to make an animated Christmas production that entertains as well as delivers the true meaning of Christmas - A Charlie Brown Christmas did that - but Zappia clearly did not have the right vision in mind when making Christmas Is Here Again. He probably should have either eliminated the religious angle or started again from scratch if he wanted to have it. On the other hand, he did succeed in making the first family animated Christmas production to have a flatulence joke. I'll let you decide if that's a milestone or a gravestore for this particular genre.

(Posted November 30, 2016)

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See also: Blizzard, Santa With Muscles, Ziggy's Gift