With a voice cast that includes Edward Asner, Kathy Bates, Jay Leno, Brad Garrett, Shirley Jones, and Andy Griffith, a film like "Christmas is Here Again" ought to be a runaway success, not a movie that makes you want to run away. But in an attempt to touch just about every Christmassy base, this animated film from Robert Zappia ends up being so far out you'd think it was made by Frank Zappa. It's like the holiday Jell-O mold with too much fruit and marshmallows dumped into it, when a little would have been just fine, thank you.
There's a wide-eyed orphan, an extroverted elf, Santa and his wife, a Rudolph-style reindeer, a fox, a polar bear, and a hunched over villain who wears Halloween colors and looks a bit like the Grim Reaper. Lumps of coal make an appearance, but they're mined by children who are recruited and transformed by this villain, Krag (Asner). The kids are forced to work underground, though I was never clear about what the relationship was between mining all this coal and Santa's sack of toys, so I can imagine what little ones were thinking. But the gist of this film is that Santa's sack, which is magical, has been stolen, effectively canceling Christmas for almost 30 years.
Wow. You'd think one year would be bad enough.
And as if Zappia felt the need to somehow connect the secular Christmas icons and the birth of Christ, he brings in Bible verses and the Nativity story. It turns out that Santa's sack got its magic because it was made from the swaddling cloth that covered baby Jesus in the manger, and so the giving of Christmas gifts by Saint Nicholas is a reminder of Christ's gift to the world.
Now, I'm sure that many people will find this clever combination appealing, and I'd probably feel more gracious about it if it weren't for that business with the villain and his coal mining children. It's hard to watch those sequences without thinking of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and all those poor hijacked kids. It's downright creepy, even though the kids in "Christmas is Here Again" are Selves, naughty children who only thought of themselves who were recruited by the Krad and turned into hooded faceless minions to work the mines. Kind of like the kids who go to Pleasure Island in "Pinocchio." In fact, as you watch this film, you'll find a number of déjà vu moments, with echoes of "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Annie," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and all sorts of films.
Thankfully there's Grinch-like adventures, all drawn in the style of today's Cartoon Network shows, with a plot that harkens back to the old claymation Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa Christmas specials that delighted Baby Boomer children. And in fairness, some of those Rankin-Bass cartoons had some pretty far-fetched kitchen-sink plots too. The style of animation in "Christmas is Here Again" is one of the livelier aspects of this 74-minute Christmas cartoon, and the music isn't bad either, although when you have someone like Jones doing the warbling there's a bit more vibrato than you'd think Mrs. Claus capable of, and Griffith's and Asner's singing isn't terribly impressive. Still, the happy music (not the villainous tunes) takes a little of the edge off, and as such it's an important part of the story.
At the heart of this animated feature is a disabled girl named Sophianna (Madison Davenport, "Kit Kittredge") who lives in an orphanage run by Miss Dowdy (Bates, of course--who else?). With a cane to help her walk, she's like a feminist Cartoon Network version of Tiny Tim who's been crushed time and again on Adoption Day, always passed over. Though this little girl has plenty of faith and spirit, one day after listening to Mrs. Claus sing to the kids about how they can be anything they want, she gets dejected and goes into the forest. There, she finds an elf frozen in a block of ice and rescues him. Paul Rocco (Daniel Roebuck) tells how he was Santa's chief helper, but that when the sack turned up missing on his watch he felt compelled to look for it. A 30-year search?
Anyway, little Sophianna vows to help him, and it's her faith and spirit that drives them both to find that missing toy sack of Santa's (Griffith), with Leno narrating every step of the way. There are animals, too, like Dart, the reindeer (Ford), who has to help them reach the tallest peak in the North pole where the villain is rumored to live; Charlee the polar bear (Garrett), who's as dim as a faulty Christmas light bulb; and Buster (Norm MacDonald), a fox who's as sneaky as they come. But the most entertaining animal is a caterpillar with no lines, a little guy with heart markings to match Sophianna's heart necklace.
My children thought this was entertaining enough, but I couldn't help but wince at a few of the songs, yawn over sequences that felt ordinary or too derivative, and cringe when the whole creepy villain and coal-mining Selves did their thing--which should be enough to scare the littlest children. Then again, the Burgermeister was pretty creepy in "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," and another Rankin-Bass cartoon, "The Year without Santa Claus," had Mother Nature in it and a bunch of misers, while "Jack Frost" had its own weird themes. So maybe I'm being too hard on this. As I said, my kids liked it, but I'm thinking this cartoon will only hold appeal for children, rather than crack the nighttime line-up of family films that parents watch with their kids as a kind of Christmas countdown.
The video quality is decent, though, with bright colors and a minimum of grain. What's more, "Christmas is Here Again" is presented in 1.85 anamorphic widescreen, so on today's 16x9 television monitors it fills out the whole screen and looks up-to-date contemporary in its graphics.
The audio is also decent, a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround that involves the rear speakers just enough to remind you you're listening to a six-channel soundtrack. The tonal quality is good and it's a clean-sounding audio with no hiss, pop, or distortion.
Though the bonus features are brief, it's a pleasant surprise that there are any at all. A behind-the-scenes feature relies way too heavily on clips and talking heads summarizing the plot, and there isn't nearly as much information as you'd hope for. Meanwhile, a feature on Daniel Roebuck as Method Actor is played for laughs, a staged little bit of fun (or nonsense, depending on your point of view), and another feature on Madison Davenport is basically a "we discovered her" testimonial that integrates predictions from Garrett, Roebuck and the director about how big of a star Madison will become with behind-the-scenes clips of her working with Jones and others. I think they're probably right. This kid is a real talent, and the voice control that she has at eight years old is amazing. Rounding out the bonus features is a "name that reindeer" bit of nonsense that takes its inspiration from the Leno "Tonight" person-on-the-street interviews, as Madison, the director, and assorted others try to name Santa's reindeer. Heck, hasn't anyone listened to the old Gene Autry song?
What begins with promise gets bogged down in a narrative that's way too familiar--which is to say that while kids will watch this again and again, adults will . . . well, run from the room to find any old thing to occupy their time. "Christmas is Here Again" is for kids only.