Saturday, December 28, 2019

A Special Sesame Street Christmas

Premiered December 18, 1978.

It's Christmas time on Sesame Street.  Its residents Big Bird (Caroll Spinney), David (Northern Calloway), Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) Maria (Sonia Monzano) and Bob (Bob McGrath) are in a celebratory mood.  They're joined by singer-actress Leslie Uggams, who is visiting for the holidays.

However, Oscar the Grouch (Spinney) hates Christmas and lets everyone know his opinion.  The others are tired of his attitude, he's starting to get in the way of having a good time.  Oscar seems determined to ruin Christmas for everyone.

In the middle of all this, Maria rescues an injured stray cat in the alley.  She and Leslie decide to name it "Tiny Tim" after the character from Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  Oscar doesn't like the cat because it tried to steal trash out of his can the previous month.

Leslie gets an idea.  She will give Oscar the "Scrooge" treatment and try to get him to change his ways. She recruits Anne Murray to pretend she's the Ghost of Christmas Past...

...Imogene Coca to be the Ghost of Christmas Present...

...and Dick Smothers to portray the Ghost of Christmases yet to come.

Can these "ghosts" work their magic in time to save Christmas and make Oscar little less grouchy for the holiday?

Plus, musical performances from Leslie Uggams, Anne Murray and Ethel Merman!

J.A. Morris says:
People who grew up in the 1970s and 80s remember Christmas Eve On Sesame Street, the Emmy award winning special that (deservedly) became a classic and was rerun for several years on PBS.  A Special Sesame Street Christmas was produced the same year but was never rerun and quickly forgotten (until its DVD release).  Upon watching it for this review, I can understand why.

It's an odd special, it feels more like a Leslie Uggams variety special, with Sesame Street actors as guest stars.  Some of the celebrity cameos are strange and random.  Michael Jackson appears onscreen for less than 5 minutes, yet his face is slapped on the DVD cover.  Screen legend Henry Fonda gets even less time.

If you're a fan of Oscar the Grouch, you'll enjoy this special.  Oscar is hilariously mean to all the entire cast.  Carol Spinney does a great job, the highlight being a funny performance of the Coasters' "Yaketty Yak."  I don't think I've ever seen Oscar "play" an electrical guitar anywhere else.

Tiny Tim the cat is certainly cute and sympathetic and serves as a nice contrast to Oscar.

Ethel Merman's appearance is memorable if nothing else.  She tells Imogene Coca that she "looks like an idiot", which is a strange thing to say in a special aimed at children! Merman's performance of the song "Tomorrow" belongs in the "over-the-top" showbiz hall off fame.  She certainly gives it her all though!

Anne Murray has a good voice, but her performance of "You Needed Me" (which topped the music charts the year this special was produced) feels out of place. Same goes for some of Uggams' songs.

On a positive note, I like the ending of the show.  Uggams and Merman join the Sesame Street folks in a medley of Christmas songs.  This means we get a brief duet of Merman singing "Winter Wonderland" with Oscar!

And I have to say that Maria and David look pretty cool in 1920s clothes during the "Christmas Past" scene.

A Special Sesame Street Christmas is more of a curiosity than essential viewing, but it's recommended to everyone who watched Sesame Street in the 1970s and especially recommended if Oscar was your favorite character.

J.A. Morris' rating:


2 and a half candy canes.
RigbyMel says: 

A Special Sesame Street Christmas is interesting but ...odd.   The writing feels very uneven.  As J.A. says above, there is some dialogue that seems inconsistent with Sesame Street's message of kindness and tolerance.

Plus in wacky 1970s variety special fashion, the celebrity cameos are random as all get out.  Henry Fonda shows up on a fire escape in a bathrobe to expound about Christmas morning for a grand total of maybe 30 seconds.  Michael Jackson literally walks across the set, hands Oscar a book about ghosts and leaves.

We get a couple of Broadway songs that have tangential (at best) relationships to the story, such as Ethel Merman's memorable performance of "Tomorrow."  Anne Murray sings her hit song "You Needed Me" to Big Bird, which seems wildly out of place as it's a romantic love song.

The special is also odd in that although it involves some of the regular human cast (Maria, Bob, David and Mr. Hooper) in addition to Big Bird, Oscar and Barkley the Dog (Toby Towson), it does NOT involve important contributors such as Jim Henson and Frank Oz, which may have contributed to the issues the special has with tone.

That being said,  Caroll Spinney does a great job as Oscar and Big Bird.  Casting Oscar in the "Scrooge" role makes a lot of sense, and Tiny Tim the Kitten is adorable. 

In doing some research about the special,  I found that others have compared it to the Star Wars Holiday Special, because of its weird 70s variety special format, celebrity cameos, and the fact that it only aired one time on a major network.  Both also maintain a cult following.

A Special Sesame Street Christmas has its moments, and the cast gives their all, but I can't really give this a strong recommendation unless you're a hard-core fan.

RigbyMel's rating:

2 candy canes

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Simpsons: "The Simpsons Christmas Special" AKA "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"

Premiered December 17, 1989.

"If TV has taught me anything, it's that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas.
It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs and it's gonna happen to us!"
-Bart Simpson

It's Christmas time in Springfield and the Simpson family is gearing up for the holiday season.

Homer (Dan Castellaneta)  is anticipating a Christmas bonus from his job at the nuclear power plant.  His hopes are dashed when his boss Mr. Burns (Harry Shearer) announces that there will be no bonus this year for "semiskilled" workers.  Homer is upset, but comforted by the fact that Marge has a stash of Christmas funds.

Unfortunately, Bart gets a tattoo at the Springfield Mall.  The tattoo-removal operation is successful, but it wipes out all of the Marge's Christmas money.

I like how the tattoo parlor is decorated for Christmas. 
Doesn't the proprietor look a bit like "Comic Book Guy?"
Homer is crushed, but doesn't tell his family about the cancellation of his holiday bonus.  Instead, he takes a job playing Santa Claus at the mall in order to earn more money for presents.

When his Santa "salary" amounts to only $13.00, he takes the advice of his friend Barney (Castellaneta) and decides to gamble his paltry wages at the dog track.  Homer bets on a longshot named Santa's Little Helper.  Will Santa's Little Helper win the race and save Christmas for the Simpsons?

J.A. Morris says:

The Simpsons is one of the greatest TV series of all time.  “The Simpsons Christmas” special is considered the first episode of the series.  After revisiting this special 30 years after it premiered, I can tell it was excellent from the beginning.

It tells a very relatable story.  Lots of people have Christmas experiences that are similar to Homer’s problems.  Either you don’t have enough money to get that special gift, or stores run out of the item your loved one wants.  It seems like the end of the world.

However, when all hope is lost (SPOILER ALERT), Santa’s Little Helper jumps into Homer’s arms and Homer brings home the greatest gift, as Marge says “something to share our love and frighten prowlers.” 

“The Simpsons Christmas Special” features the perfect combination of humor and holiday sentiment and it's just as great today as it was when it first aired.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 candy canes!

RigbyMel says: 

I remember watching and enjoying "The Simpsons Christmas Special" when it first aired back in 1989.   As the oldest of four children,  I related strongly to the sibling rivalry between Bart and Lisa. 

I also loved its skewering of some of the more saccharine elements of holiday entertainment coupled with the portrayal of a family that has lots of problems but genuinely loves and cares for each other.  The Simpsons have been around for so long now, that I don't know if current audiences necessarily appreciate how revolutionary and subversive the show was back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. 

The special successfully satirizes and pays tribute to the typical Christmas special, a feat that is not always easy to pull off.   Bart cynically tells Lisa that "there's only one guy who brings us presents",  but also cites Tiny Tim and Charlie Brown while invoking Christmas miracles and it doesn't feel inconsistent or out of left field because of the clever writing. 

Since this is the first "official" episode of the (now) long running series, there's some evidence of the show attempting to find its way -  for example Homer sounds a bit more like Walter Matthau than his current incarnation does.  But the wonderful snark and joy of the show is already present.   

We are introduced to a lot of characters including The Simpson family themselves, Mr. Burns, Barney (with yellow hair!), Patty & Selma, Flanders, and of course, Santa's Little Helper.    

I find that this special holds up extremely well after 30 years and tend to watch it at least once every holiday season.  Highly recommended. 

RigbyMel's rating:

4 candy canes! 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Last Christmas (2019)

Premiered November 8, 2019.

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is going through a rough patch as Christmas approaches. She has no real place to live, has flopped in her latest singing audition and has a complicated relationship with her immigrant family.  The only stable part of her life is her job. Kate works as an elf in a Christmas shop. Her boss “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh) likes her “elf,” but feels Kate’s work ethic has faltered ever since she recovered from a health crisis the previous Christmas.  

Her life improves when she meets a customer named Tom Webster (Henry Golding).  He encourages Kate to “look up” and appreciate all the good things in her life and in London.  Tom also suggests that Kate should swallow her pride and go stay with her parents, which she does.  

Kate and Tom spend lots of time together, exploring bits of London that she never knew existed.  When she visits a homeless shelter where Tom volunteers, Kate realizes she can fund raise for the shelter by singing Christmas songs in the street for money.    She learns that doing good things for others makes her feel much better about life.  

Will Kate manage to patch things up with the family and friends she has alienated?  Will she find happiness with Tom? You’ll have to go see this movie which was written by Emma Thompson and features the music of George Michael to find out. 

J.A. Morris says:

Last Christmas is a good movie that features a great cast.  Emilia Clark and Henry Golding are very likable actors and I found myself rooting for them right away.  Since Kate works in a Christmas specialty store, we get a lot more holiday decorations and imagery than you see in most Christmas films.  Emma Thompson is one of the greatest actresses of all time and she's great here as Kate's mother Petra.  

Michelle Yeoh is almost perfect playing the "good boss" role.  You might say that Yeoh's Santa character is a sort of "second mother" to Kate.

London is a great city and director Paul Feig does a nice job showing it off.  While the city is lit up for Christmas, the London of Last Christmas isn't a fairy tale version of the city, and the script isn't afraid to comment on current events in the UK (my co-blogger will say more about this).

I'll admit that I've never been a fan of the Wham! song that gave the film its title.  However, Clarke performs a version of "Last Christmas" that's a bit more up tempo and I liked it better than the original (and most other cover versions I can think of).  The soundtrack features "Last Christmas" and about a dozen other George Michael/Wham! songs.  So you'll probably like this film more if you're a George Michael fan. 

I'm reluctant to say too much because this movie is still in current release and I don't want to spoil the story.  So I'll just say that Last Christmas is recommended and I encourage fans of Christmas films to see it while it's playing on big screens.  George Michael fans will probably like it more than others.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 candy canes.

RigbyMel says: 

Last Christmas is an enjoyable holiday trifle with a lot of heart.  Christmas movies do have a tendency to be pretty formulaic,  but this is a well-told holiday tale with a twist, that I don't want to spoil.  Credit is due to Emma Thompson for crafting a touching story. 

As J.A. Morris says, the cast is top-notch and the leads are appealing and likeable.   

Plus, it's always nice to see bits of London done up for the holidays.  We see a fair amount of Oxford Street as well as Covent Garden (where "Santa's" Christmas shop is located) and bits of Camden Market (I think) and Marylebone.  

It's not all fairy lights and tinsel though, and I appreciated the embedded message regarding Brexit- related xenophobia that is directly addressed in a couple of scenes and more subtly addressed by showing that London is (and has always been) a multicultural city via good casting choices.  

One's mileage may vary in terms of the soundtrack -- I quite like George Michael's oeuvre in general, but have never particularly been a fan of the title song -- but it's well used in service of the story and the uptempo version of "Last Christmas" sung by Kate and friends made me like the song a little better.

Overall,  Last Christmas is a very enjoyable holiday confection and is well worth a visit to the cinema this season if one is so inclined!  

RigbyMel's rating:  


Three and a half candy canes