Today in Tedium: The thing about holidays is that the best ones involve getting a lot of gifts, rather than just one or two. And with that spirit in mind, the next few issues of Tedium are going to maximize the holiday spirit as much as they can. Welcome to the “Twelve Things of Tedium,” a roundup of a dozen really interesting holiday things that should get you in the spirit but may not be on your radar the way that, say, Rudolph or The Grinch are. Today’s issue will focus on holiday films and television shows that deserve your time—with music getting a nod on Thursday and traditions ready just in time for Christmas Eve. Read this one with a little egg nog nearby. Or not. I’m not looking. Cheers. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s Tedium is sponsored by Lemonade. More from them in a second.
Will Vinton and the sad saga of the Claymation Christmas Celebration
Two years ago, I pointed out a cultural failing involving one of the greatest animators of the last century.
And honestly, it’s such a crappy situation that I feel the need to call it out again in a more pointed form. And while I understand the issues behind it, it doesn’t make the situation suck any less.
Here’s the deal: In 1987, Claymation pioneer Will Vinton, who owned his own production studio and was considered one of the most innovative animators of his time, created a Christmas special at the height of his success. That film, rather than focusing on a single property (the California Raisins were big at this time), emphasized an entire style of film. It was great. It won an Emmy and led to two other seasonal sequels, and has inspired a variety of parodies and style riffs.
Back in 2017, in honor of its 30th anniversary, I wrote about it—and noted that Vinton’s work had been severely minimized as a result of its complex ownership situation that disconnected Vinton from his life’s work.
As a result of bad business decisions, Nike founder Phil Knight ended up with control of Will Vinton Studios—allowing Knight to boot Vinton out of his own company, rebrand it, and put his son Travis in charge, relaunching it as Laika. Travis Knight is an impressive animator and film director today, but his path to success literally involved his dad crushing the studio of the man he once interned for.
One thing I probably should have emphasized more than I did is that Vinton lost ownership of his work as a result of this—something that probably has played a factor in the Emmy-winning Claymation Christmas failing to resurface on television.
Last year, Vinton died, having lost both ownership of his life’s work and his nest egg in a bad financial deal with a multibillionaire. Laika, which has become a successful film studio in its own right, didn’t even bother to mention Vinton’s death on its Twitter page despite the fact he literally started the studio … but was quick to honor Travis Knight for winning an award two weeks later.
I can tell people care about this issue because I’ve seen a lot of Claymation-related search traffic lately. And, given that, I think that a little push might help change the situation for the better.
To be clear, I don’t mean to speak ill of the current work being done by Laika. It’s great in its own right and they’re telling a lot of original stories at a time when franchises rule the day. But Vinton’s ideas are a part of their history—a history that they very much own. They should promote his work on modern streaming services, because Will isn’t alive to make that case himself.
If you think this situation stinks, tell them on Twitter. Let them know Tedium sent you.
Lemonade makes insurance that doesn’t suck (finally)
Insurance was supposed to be a good thing—we’d pool our money together and if something bad happened to one of us, we’d be covered. But insurance companies have since become the big bad wolves who take all our money and make us wait an eternity to receive claims (if at all).
Introducing a refreshingly different approach to insurance. Lemonade has transformed the insurance model—treating your money as if it’s just that—yours. No more long waiting times and fighting claims. Lemonade takes a flat fee, pay claims super fast, and give back what’s left to causes you care about. You heard that right. Lemonade donates all unclaimed premiums to communities and non-profits you care about.
The terrible Christmas cult film for a new generation of holiday haters
As I’ve mentioned many times before, I consider watching Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a classic bad film, as an important part of my holiday traditions, something I’ve carried with me for at least the past 15 years. It’s become nostalgic for me in the same way watching Ernest Saves Christmas has.
But watching the same thing every year gets old, right? And sometimes you need a new holiday tradition to help you get through the weeklong Christmas coma.
For some, that might involve watching Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny. While the film currently does not list on the IMDB Bottom 250—it doesn’t have enough reviews for that just yet—it does have a lower rating than the current bottom-feeder, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (1.4 out of 10), and well above Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (2.6 out of 10).
Ice Cream Bunny actually has somewhat similar roots to Martians—both were specifically developed as kiddie films, with a cast of children along with the adults. The place where their stories start to diverge, however, is with storyline. While Martians is poorly produced and lacking in anything resembling special effects, it has a roughly comprehensible plot. Bunny offers no such thing, feeling surrealistic from beginning to end. Santa’s sleigh is stuck in the sand in Florida, and he can’t get it out. Surrounded by a group of kids, he tells a completely different story, which effectively turns Bunny into a wraparound film for either Thumbelina, a movie directed by this movie’s producer, Barry Mahon, or Jack and the Beanstalk, also directed by Mahon. (As anyone who has seen the MST3K classic Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders can tell you, wraparound films are dangerous.)
Then after that’s all done, the Ice Cream Bunny shows up in a fire truck and saves Santa from a terrible fate of being stuck on a beach in Florida.
Like Martians, part of the reason why Ice Cream Bunny is getting more modern-day notice is thanks to the intrepid research of bad-film riffers, with RiffTrax first uncovering the nonsensical holiday turkey in 2010. The film has since become one of the service’s most popular episodes.
What is an Ice Cream Bunny? We’re not quite sure, and the movie doesn’t really bother to explain. Evidently he has a fire truck with an air raid siren, and lives at a place called Pirates World. We also know that we are strongly in favor of ceding all power to it and letting it enact whatever foul agenda it desires, just as long as it lets us take a ride through Pirates World in that sweet, sweet fire truck.
This is not exactly a good film, but bad films deserve love, too. Spend an hour and a half dousing your eyes with this garbage.
Five lesser-known Rankin/Bass holiday specials
For more than 20 years, the film studio operated by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass consistently put out a variety of animated works (some stop-motion, some hand-drawn), with most of them based on holiday themes. While its most popular films helped to build up the Christmas holiday’s secular traditions, it also covered a lot of religious ground. And decades later, only a handful of their specials have maintained interest at the same scale as some of their more successful hits.
Some of Rankin/Bass’ lesser known holiday specials:
- The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold. Answering the question of whether there are ever enough holiday specials with aplomb, this Irish-themed Christmas special from 1981 was already a bit strange thanks to its combination of Irish folklore and holiday cheer. (At one point, a character dives into a song called “Christmas in Killarney.” Really.) The show answers a pretty good trivia question: What was Art Carney doing in 1981?
- The Little Drummer Boy, Book II Going slightly less off-the-grid with the source material, this 1976 special is a sequel to a prior Rankin-Bass Christmas special, 1968’s The Little Drummer Boy. The special received an Emmy nomination—the only one a Rankin-Bass special ever earned.
- Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. What if you applied the concept of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus—effectively taking a similarly unusual misfit and making him into the hero that saved the day? Nestor, from 1977, answers this question. (It also, usefully, makes clear that Santa has a donkey.) Notably, the stop-motion film comes with an interesting point of inspiration: It’s based on a Gene Autry song—here’s a version performed by Hank Snow.
- The Stingiest Man in Town. It may not look like it, but this Charles Dickens-inspired 1978 film is an anime. See, many of Rankin/Bass’ productions were made in Japan, and the co-director of this holiday film, Katsuhisa Yamada, worked on a variety of anime productions throughout his career. (The Rankin/Bass anime ties go even deeper, too: Many of the Japanese animators who worked on these films would later work with anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli.) The film, featuring both Walter Matthau and Tom Bosley in the voice cast, is based on a prior television musical from the 1950s.
- The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow This special is somewhat high-concept for Rankin/Bass. It’s based around the story of an orphaned shepherd boy who nearly dies after being struck by lightning and is nursed to health by a convent of nuns, only to regain his sight after his wish of Christmas snow is granted, producing sight-restoring tears. The film features a prominent voice acting role from Angela Lansbury.
Why “An American Tail” may be the greatest Hanukkah movie ever made
If you’ve been on the internet for longer than five minutes in the past decade, you’ve most assuredly heard the meme that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. It’s getting old, you might argue.
But have you heard the case about An American Tail, the ’80s animated classic about a family of mice who emigrate to the United States, being a Hanukkah movie? That case is both stronger and more unexplored in the modern day, and it deserves notice.
Born of a partnership between two of the most important icons of ’80s film—director and producer Steven Spielberg and animator Don Bluth—the film plays heavily into Jewish culture, with the story based on Spielberg’s ancestors and their emigration to the United States. At the beginning of the film, main character Fievel Mousekewitz receives his signature hat as a Hanukkah gift from his papa. Soon, the Mousekewitz family’s holiday celebration is disrupted after an attack on the Russian community in which they live; the Cossacks attack the village—while the cats attack the mice.
In response to the incident, the family heads to America, a land where they’re promised there are no cats. But along the way, Fievel gets separated from his family, who initially believe he died.
I won’t spoil it for you if it’s been a few decades since you’ve last seen it, but let’s say that the story pulls some Finding Nemo-like heartstrings, perhaps even more than Finding Nemo does.
Don’t let the animation fool you—this is a fairly dark tail, full of struggle before it picks up near the end. Roger Ebert famously criticized its bleak nature. “The hero of ‘An American Tail,’ a young mouse named Fievel, is made to undergo such hardships in this movie that the children in the audience may despair long before the happy ending,” Ebert wrote of the film in 1986.
In a recent interview with Vice, Bluth defended his decision to not sugarcoat the film’s historic element. “Now shall we manicure this and make it look like everything’s wonderful in America … and people are all good to each other? That’s certainly not real,” Bluth said.
Now, to be clear, there aren’t a ton of Hanukkah movies, and nearly all of them play up the fact more than Tail does—most obviously Eight Crazy Nights, an animated Adam Sandler vehicle, and The Hebrew Hammer, a blaxploitation-style crime thriller with (as you might guess) a Jewish protagonist.
But in many ways, that’s what makes An American Tail so effective. If you don’t know anything about Jewish culture, it’s not necessary to understand the film, and that makes it something that can be universally appreciated. And in a world where antisemitism still runs rampant, these sorts of positive images hold a lot of value for general audiences.
“When you’re a child whose culture hasn’t gotten much of the cinematic spotlight, it’s an emotional thrill, and quite possibly a self-esteem boost, to see it center stage in an animated adventure film—one that all of your friends would be seeing and quoting well into their nostalgic adulthoods,” the website Hollywood.com notes.
Look, I get it. The holidays are for watching the same stuff you watch every year. I’ve written about this phenomenon before. It’s not about the holiday classics. It’s about you and your memories of the room you were in when those holiday classics were still fresh.
But this year, before putting on A Christmas Story for the 400th time, consider playing something else first. I’ve already given you a few options, and some of them are pretty effective tearjerkers—you would not believe the mess I was when watching An American Tail.
Comfort zones are great and all, but this is about your cultural understanding—and as the guy who sends you emails about things that you probably don’t experience in your daily life, you probably need a guy like me pushing you out of those comfort zones.
As you celebrate your holidays this year, don’t fear going off the beaten path. You might just dig what you find. Unless it’s Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.
More of the Twelve Things of Tedium coming later this week!