Christmas in July #5: I took joy in Mutts A Shtinky Little Christmas by Patrick McDonnell

(cover image courtesy Andrews McMeel Publishing)

 

Mutts, a delightfully retro, self-aware comic strip by Patrick McDonnell is not your usual humourous newspaper diversion.

First published in 1994, and described by the immortally-great Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts) as “one of the best comic strips of all time”, Mutts has always had a keenly-felt beating heart at the centre of its storytelling.

The willingness of McDonnell to be sweet and adorable, unashamedly heart-on-the-sleeve in an age of cynical standoffishness has paid handsome dividends, not only giving us two avowedly cute (but sassy and clever into the bargain) protagonists in Mooch, a cat, and Earl, a dog – their respective humans, Millie and Frank and Ozzie, though loving and attentive play a background role to the furry stars of the show – but a vehicle through which he can promote a variety of animal-friendly causes, including environmental awareness, conservation, animal adoption and the necessity of giving every pet an expansive love that knows no bounds (because they will most assuredly give it back, without question).

This willing, unconditional loveliness is on full, gloriously-affecting display in the small festive tome, Mutts: A Shtinky Little Christmas, where Mooch and Earl come to the rescue of a long kitten in the snow named Jules, who they rename Shtinky Puddin’ because, well, why not? (Shtinky, the spelling of whose faux-name reflects Mooch’s appealing lisp, loves tigers, and naturally their preservation in the wild, is a recurring character in McDonnell’s artfully-crafted world.)

It’s adorable, as is just about everything about this story which unapologetically, and thank goodness for that, pulls on every seasonal heartstring possible, giving us a story of two animals, and their humans, rescuing Shtinky not once but twice – let’s just say Mooch is a tad neglectful as one critical juncture – come to the salvation of another, and in the process giving us a seasonal tale about giving up our own comfort and wellbeing for the sake of others.

The book is not long, and more like an elongated comic strip than anything (this is not even remotely a bad thing; simply a format description) but in its short running time, we’re treated to a heartwarmingly, redemptive story that sends an important message about looking after the fellow furry creatures we share the planet with.

We even meet Santa Claus too who, along with having a big warm sack full of milk and cookies, scoops up Mooch, Earl and Shtinky from the dubious care of an unseeing snowman in a blizzard, depositing them safely home where love and belonging really lies.

We all know life can be cruel and unpredictable but just as he does in Mutts each and every single day, McDonnell reminds us in A Shtinky Little Christmas that what makes our time here on earth so worthwhile and meaningful is giving and sharing to others, no matter the personal cost, especially if it’s to creatures, and yes, people, far more vulnerable than us.

 

(cover image courtesy Andrews McMeel Publishing)

Christmas in July #4: Home alone feeling scrooged? These Christmas movies deserve some love, actually (curated)

From schmaltzy to savagery, we dissect the classic Christmas flick.
Love Actually, Universal Pictures.

 

Ari Mattes, University of Notre Dame Australia

 

The cultural environment in which we watch a film inevitably shapes our response to it. Engaging with the Yuletide ecology by watching Christmas films offers a genuine cinephilic pleasure, be it kitsch, ironic, or sincere.

The following taxonomy is by no means exhaustive – there are far too many Christmas films to mention – but should present a sufficient overview to keep one’s viewing-December occupied, should one so wish it, with cinematic and televisual fare ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Ho, ho, ho.

Classic Christmas Films

This is not (necessarily) because they used to make better films in the old days, but simply because old popular cultural products that are still being commercially tapped tend to be (comparatively) pretty good. We don’t read Dickens because people were better writers in the 19th century, but because Dickens was one of the great ones of the period, even if for every Dickens there were hundreds of duds, rightfully now out of print.Classical Hollywood cinema offers the most refined, and in many ways the most aesthetically pleasurable, Christmas films.

Likewise, we don’t watch the 1938 version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol because films were better in the 1930s, but because this particular film is excellent.

Black and white film, furthermore, evokes a nostalgic ambience that enhances the sentimentality that makes Christmas movies such prolific producers of warm and fuzzy gut-reactions.

 

(image via The Courier)

 

Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is the most canonised of the classic Christmas movies, appearing as the Christmas movie of choice in several films and TV specials – including a memorable episode of Beverly Hills 90210 – and it certainly warrants multiple Yuletide viewings.

Gloria Grahame is excellent in a minor role as Violet, and James Stewart as George Bailey does his usual wholesome act perfectly. Capra’s approach, as in most of his films, avoids pure schmaltz, and there is a critical edge in It’s a Wonderful Life’s depiction of the relationship between capitalism and small town America, challenging the role of finance and commerce as it perverts and invades social life.

There are a few other classic Christmas films, that, though less well known, are as good as (or better than) It’s a Wonderful Life – and are certainly worth including on one’s December list.

 

(image courtesy Warner Bros)

 

It Happened on 5th Avenue 

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) is a hilarious farce involving returned GIs squatting in a New York City mansion. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) is a delightful battle of the sexes film starring the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan.

George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street (1947), following the public trial of a man who claims to be Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), is a sweet, gentle film offering a nice counterpoint to the sharper-edged Christmas in Connecticut and It Happened on 5th Avenue.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947), starring Cary Grant and Loretta Young, and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940) also deserve mention, as do, for the musically inclined, the Bing Crosby beauties Holiday Inn (1942) and White Christmas (1954), and Vincent Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), starring Judy Garland.

Contemporary Christmas Films

Big budget, mainstream Hollywood Christmas films usually fall into one of three categories.

The first category includes the snide and sarcastic comedies (often featuring shallowly sentimental endings) that have dominated the genre in its large-scale incarnations since the 1980s.

 

(image via Moviepedia – Fandom)

 

The essential 1980s Christmas comedy, perhaps, is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) – and no self-respecting Christmas film lover’s December can pass without a visit to the Griswolds. Chevy Chase offers a pitch-perfect comedic performance as the quintessential frustrated American suburban dad, and Christmas Vacation is, arguably, the funniest of the Vacation series.

The other key 1980s comedy for cynics is Scrooged (1988), starring Bill Murray as a dissolute TV executive, and featuring cameos by players as diverse as Robert Mitchum and David Johansen, lead singer of the New York Dolls. Scrooged offers a wry revision of Dickens’ classic, though the cheerful ending does seem forced in the context of this film.

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

More recently, highlights include A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011) – a return to form for the pair of lovable stoners after the shambolic Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) – and Surviving Christmas (2004), a low-key comedy in which a depressed advertising hot shot, played by Ben Affleck, pays an “ordinary” suburban family, led by patriarch James Gandolfini, to host him for the holidays. As Gandolfini and his family increasingly regret the arrangement, Affleck continues to throw more and more money at them in his attempt to fabricate the kind of Norman Rockwellesque Christmas he never had as a child.

Deck the Halls (2006), following Danny DeVito as he tries, to the chagrin of pedantic neighbour Matthew Broderick, to bedeck his house in so many Christmas lights it can be seen from space, and Christmas with the Kranks (2004) are also worth mentioning, as is Ted Demme’s painfully funny The Ref (1994).

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

Columbia Pictures.

Many people swear by Bad Santa (2003) – though (like many of Terry Zwigoff’s films) it leaves a bad taste in the mouth – and probably the only Christmas films worth avoiding altogether are the extremely irritating Four Holidays (2008), starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughan, and Nora Ephron’s heavy-handed Mixed Nuts (1994).

The second, related, category features Christmas films about the waning of belief in a modern consumerist society, and the subsequent re-invigoration and reproduction of Christmas spirit and jubilation.

The best known in this category are the Home Alone films, but other highlights include Elf (2003), starring Will Ferrell, James Caan and Zooey Deschanel, following the shenanigans of an elf-raised human visiting New York City for the first time, and Jingle All the Way (1996), the best of Schwarzenegger’s comedies, in which he battles, on Christmas eve, to secure a popular toy for his son.

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

Jingle All the Way contains one of the brilliant scenes of Christmas cinema – a critique of the relationship between the consumer society and the Christmas legend in which zealous parents in search of Turboman, the El Dorado of Christmas toys, attack and maim each other in slow motion, accompanied by Andy Williams’ song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

It’s also notable for a hilarious performance by the late Phil Hartman in a supporting role as Ted, Schwarzenegger’s cheese-ball neighbour.

Fred Claus (2007), starring Vince Vaughan, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates and Kevin Spacey, is one of the best recent Christmas comedies, following the path of Fred Claus, Santa’s brother, as he struggles to emerge from the shadow of his legendary brother. It contains a brilliant spoof of AA-style groups, and is worth watching for this scene alone.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1998) likewise contains some hilarious scenes, as college student Jake (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, from Home Improvement) has to make it from the West Coast to the East Coast of the US by 6pm on Christmas Eve if he is to inherit his father’s Porsche.

 

 

Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters in Love Actually. © Universal Pictures.

 

Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday (2006) and Love Actually (2003) are both well-made romances set during the Christmas period, although Love Actually has demonstrated superior cultural staying power.

This type of Christmas film often follows a structure akin to A Christmas Carol – including, of course, numerous versions of that story. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is a particularly strong rendition of Dickens.

 

Muppet Christmas Carol (image via The Conversation)
 

The third category of big budget Christmas movies involves films closer to the Christmas story itself, about downtrodden people being given renewed hope over the Christmas period.

These “Christmas Miracle” films include Prancer (1989), One Magic Christmas (1985), and The Christmas Star (1986), all sweetly melancholic films.

The “Christmas Miracle” film is problematic, like so much Hollywood fantasy fare, in that it often offers miraculous solutions to prevalent social problems – even if it acts, in any case, as an eminently satisfying narcotic.

Telemovies

Films about Christmas would be few and far between if it weren’t for the small screen. By far the most prolific of the Christmas film categories is the telemovie.

These films are mostly of the hardcore-schmaltz, Hallmark-channel variety. This kind of super-schmaltz becomes much more palatable when viewed through the green and red lenses of Christmas cheer.

 

Trading Christmas (2011).
© Hallmark.

 

There are far too many Christmas telemovies to mention, but some are worth noting. The excellent Hallmark film, Trading Christmas (2011) is a low-brow version of The Holiday starring solid TV actors Tom Cavanagh (Ed), Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal), and Faith Ford (Hope & Faith).

Two others, unconnected despite the similar titles, are A Mom for Christmas (1990), starring Olivia Newton-John, and A Grandpa for Christmas (2007), starring Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine in one of his twilight roles.

Perhaps the strangest – and, arguably, most wonderful – Christmas telemovie is the unbeatable Santa With Muscles (1996), which follows Hulk Hogan (the Santa with muscles) as he tries to save an orphanage (!) from an evil property-developer-cum-scientist-cum-megalomaniac.

 

(image via Original Film Art)

 

If you are fortunate enough to source a copy of this tongue in cheek melodrama, look out for a young Mila Kunis as one of the orphans.

The other wonderful Christmas telemovie is the remake of Christmas in Connecticut (1992), a gentler and, in many ways, funnier, film than the original. Directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, this version makes a surprisingly insightful criticism of false representation in televisual culture, whilst still offering the requisite amount of sentimentality.

Other telemovies worth having on in the background as you decorate the tree, include The Dog who Saved Christmas (2009), sweet nonsense featuring tele-legend Dean Cain, and The Man who Saved Christmas (2002), a more sober biographical account of A.C. Gilbert, a toy manufacturer who refused to cancel Christmas in response to World War One, effectively played by Jason Alexander.

Genre films set during Christmas

There are also a considerable number of films that are straight forward genre pieces with Christmas thrown into the mix. These are mostly action and horror films.

There are two obvious examples of 1980s action films set during December that incorporate Christmas into their narratives in a way that is more than incidental.

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988), one of the most striking action films of the 1980s, is set during a corporate Christmas party, and John McClane’s subtle and not so subtle tirades (and raids) against the corporatisation of America resonate thematically with several of the more explicitly anti-consumerist Christmas films.

Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon (1987) is likewise set in Los Angeles during Christmas, and perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is the introduction of cop on the edge Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) as he breaks up a drug deal in a Christmas tree lot.

Something about the Santa myth lends itself to the horror genre, with its combination of magic and maniacs, and there have been several horror films set during Christmas.

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974, poorly remade in 2006), an unnerving “slasher” film avant la lettre, is the best of the Christmas horror films. The recent Rare Exports (2010), from Finland, effectively plays on the supernatural elements of the Santa myth.

Horror aficionados will insist on watching the five films of the Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) series – crude and unpleasant exercises in mayhem, without the style or suspense of Black Christmas.

Unless one has always imagined Santa as an axe murderer, one should probably avoid these.

Joe Dante’s monster-comedy Gremlins (1984), too, is set during, and reflects on, the Christmas spirit in small-town America, though it wears thin pretty quickly after the dazzling opening forty minutes or so.

The rest: incidental Christmas films, cartoons, TV Specials

There are, in addition to the aforementioned films, several films set partially or entirely during the Christmas period, even as this doesn’t figure at all thematically or in terms of plot.

Richard Kelly’s nasty The Box (2009), comes to mind, as does Joseph Zito’s Reaganite masterpiece of American xenophobia, Invasion USA (1985). Chuck Norris evidently doesn’t get a break when it comes to defending the US from its imagined enemies.

There are several animated Christmas films that are worth watching, including The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), The Polar Express (2004), and A Christmas Carol (2009) – along with innumerable TV specials and cartoons dedicated to Christmas.

 

The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Touchstone Pictures)

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) is particularly good – sweet and sombre at the same time – and some of the old cartoons – Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), for example – are Christmas staples. Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999) is a more recent impressive cartoon. Probably the sharpest of the TV specials is Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988), a brilliant, stand alone inversion of Dickens.

There is one final film that transcends these categories in the complexity of its generic composition – and no spectacular Christmas would be complete without it.

Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (1983), based on Jean Shepherd’s novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966), is a perfect blend of comedy, coming of age story, and suburban drama.

The ConversationIt deserves pride of place alongside It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Santa With Muscles at the top of everyone’s must see Christmas film list.

Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Christmas in July #3: Watched The Flying Nun’s “Wailing in a Winter Wonderland”

(image via Flickr)

 

One of the great delights of The Flying Nun (1967-1970) was, and shall always be, how wonderfully sweet Sister Bertille (played by Gidget herself, the incomparable Sally Field) is in just about every scene.

I know that kind of naively-enthusiastic caring character is not really in vogue anymore; people like their protagonists flawed, troubled and mired in contrary motivations,  but Sister Bertille wore her heartfelt simplicity and wore it well, adding an engaging likability that saw the show through tonal and narrative changes through its three short seasons.

In “Wailing in a Winter Wonderland”, which oddly enough doesn’t contain all that much wailing, unless you count the rendition of “Deck the Halls” at the end of episode – it’s actually quite lovely and in-tune, and while it’s sitcom 101 when it comes to Christmas episodes, it fits nicely with the overall saccharine sweet feel of the show – her willingness to do whatever it takes to make someone happy is front and centre in a storyline that’s as self-sacrificially festive as it gets.

We learn at the start, via the customary voiceover by Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond), the wisely-indulgent friend of Sister Bertille, that the annual giftgiving allocating for Convent San Tanco is underway, spearheaded by our very own flying nun. (Fresh off the success of Gidget, Field was apparently none too enamoured with the role or her character but you wouldn’t know it from the gusto for niceness that she brings to the role.)

The accent is on self-made gifts that carry meaning for the recipient and so when Sister Bertille ends up with aging Sister Olaf (Celia Lovsky), a Norwegian nun who wants to go home to see the snow one last time but is too sick to make the trip, she knows just what she has to do.

Which is, of course, to make it snow.

 

(image via Pinterest)

 

Now for an ordinary mere mortal without a habit or cornette who can’t defy the laws of physics like Bertille can, the idea of summoning snow in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it’s always sunny and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, would be laughably ridiculous.

But given her supposed God-given ability to fly, the idea is not beyond the reach of Sister Bertrille who, after a peppy/not peppy chat with the bored to tears US Weather Bureau rep in San Juan – she’s peppy, he, not so much – finds out that pellets seeded into clouds may produce snow.

It’s not exactly a fully proven science but intent on making Sister Olaf happy by having snow fall on the convent – an operation btw that must be done without Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood) – Sister Bertille, in concert with Sister Jacqueline and Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison) go full bore to make sure Sister Olaf gets her blessed end-of-life Christmas miracle.

Of course, this being a Sister Bertille adventure, where the best of intentions go comically awry almost every time, and we love her for it anyway because she’s genuinely nice and kindhearted, local club impresario Carlos Ramirez (Alejandro Rey) is roped in to proceedings (losing lots of money in the process), and the snow, naturally, or unnaturally in this case, ends up in the convent … and all over San Juan with some hilariously gentle consequences.

 

(image via Christmas TV History)

 

The joy of this episode, which ticks all the give-unto-others boxes and then some, and very much encapsulates the spirit of The Flying Nun generally, is that it manages to make corny sweetness work brilliantly well.

From the gorgeously bedecked convent to the touching interactions between Sisters Bertille and Olaf, and the sheer delight on the latter’s face when the snow really does fall just like it does at home, “Wailing in a Winter Wonderland” confirms the very loveliest festive sentiments at every turn.

Driving the self-sacrificial storyline is Sister Bertille, but Sisters Jacqueline and Sixto are indispensable as Santa’s helper accomplices, the Reverend Mother turns a blind idea (she knows something’s afoot but her admonishments are always wisely instructive rather than punitively cruel) and even good old much put-upon Carlos joins in the spirit of the show, albeit with more exasperation that exuberant bonhomie.

One of the great attractions of any Christmas movie or TV episode, at least those of a certain vintage or channel placing – Hallmark continues to fly the flag for heartwarmingly sweet festive storytelling – is the way the great Christmas ideal of self-sacrifice, peace on Earth, joy to all people is upheld.

We know it rarely works as idealistically as these tales would suggest, but we buy into the redemptive mythos anyway, happy to believe, if only for a short season, that all our foibles and flaws can be put aside in service of the greater festively-timed good.

“Wailing in a Winter Wonderland” is a dreamy, life-affirming delight that restores your belief in the wonder and magic of Christmas, that reminds us that the simple things and power of a meaningful connection matter more than any extravagant gift and that celebrates the sheer sweetness of putting aside what you want for the benefit and welfare of others.

If that isn’t the heart of Christmas, then frankly what is?

Christmas in July #2: I read A Sesame Street Christmas by Pat Tornborg

(cover art via Pinterest (c) Sesame Workshop)

 

If you’re a big kid at heart, and honestly where is the fun in not being one, then you’ll adore the idea of immersing in the loveliness and bonhomie of A Sesame Street Christmas.

First published in by Golden Books in 1982 with a delightful story of the Muppets of Sesame Street making the best of a rainy, not snowy Christmas (much of course to Oscar’s disappointment; he was delighted by the early disappointment with the absence of a White Christmas) at its centre, the book is a delightful collection of festive crafts such as Big Bird’s Bird Feeder, poems, recipes such as Nutcracker Sweets (thank you Grover and Herry Monster) and DIY ornaments, courtesy of Bert, who makes good use of his much-loved bottle cap collection.

While many of these activities were dropped in the shorter 1987 paperback version – was Oscar the editor? – they’re front and centre in the lushly-illustrated original hardcover version, which weaves these communally-minded activities in amongst the main narrative.

Naturally being Sesame Street, the narrative stresses the importance of togetherness and friendship, especially when your expectations for a holiday as wonderful as Christmas don’t quite go to plan.

In this instance, the hoped-for snow has not fallen while the mood-dampening rain has, and at first Grover, Ernie and Bert, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, the Count, Betty Lou and Prairie Dawn are bummed out.

Gone are thoughts of building a Bert snowman (Ernie), counting snowflakes (guess who?), eating of snow-cones (Cookie Monster) and a general stirring up of Christmas fun and in its place?

Well the kind of dreariness that makes a certain Grouch’s heart glad.

But not anyone else’s, and being the upbeat crowd that they are, Betty Lou and the others decide that milk and cookies, Christmas carols and storytelling will make for the best festive gathering ever!

Everyone takes it turns to tell poems – “The Night Before Christmas on Sesame Street” is a delight – stories, to teach crafts and just spend time with each other, with the party so successful that Grover is led to exclaim “Christmas is Christmas, whatever the weather!”

 

(artwork (c) Sesame Workshop / Golden Books)

 

Granted I am considerably older than Sesame Street‘s core demographic (and that of Golden Books for that matter), but even in the early stages of my sixth decade on earth, I find it warmly reassuring to be surrounded by all this positivity and good cheer.

Even despite my best efforts, and as a Christmas-aholic my efforts are considerable, the season doesn’t always meet expectations and you can be left wondering what else you could have done to make it as wonderful as you pictured it.

Honestly, and I don’t think I’m being simplistic here, A Sesame Street Christmas, contains a fundamental truth that makes this most wonderful time of the year every bit as good as we imagine it’s going to be.

The truth is that what makes Christmas, and indeed any celebration a real and sustainable joy, is simply being with people who you love and care for; yep, that’s it, simple but profound.

They may not be your direct family since some people aren’t gifted with the kind of families of which fond memories are made but it could be your found family, those friends who have gather together, formed bonds as tight, if not tighter than the “blood is thicker than water” variety, and who know that any celebration gains more meaning and happiness simply because those people are there.

While A Sesame Street Christmas doesn’t directly address the darker side of the festive season, beyond the wrong kind of inclement weather, it does acknowledge that things go wrong and that life doesn’t meet expectations – in Christmas’s case, a year in the making – and that that can be disappointing.

But rather surrender to Oscar’s hilariously bleak view of the world – example A: he can’t understand why you’d want to change anything about the version of Mr Scrooge who haunts the start of A Christmas Carol – everybody bands together and wraps presents with whatever is at hand (yes, even Oscar) and enjoys the company of their friends.

While it does start snowing, and even Mr Hooper turns up to celebrate, the party is a success long before this, with A Sesame Street Christmas reminding us again and again that Christmas is special because we are with each other, and if that;s in place, then everything else is icing on the cookie ornaments that Cookie Monster makes with Betty Lou.

 

(artwork (c) Sesame Workshop / Golden Books)

Christmas in July #1: Book review of Twelve Nights by Andrew Zurcher

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

 

There is something deliciously wonderful about subsuming yourself in any book that takes places at Christmas, even if like Andrew Zurcher’s debut novel, Twelve Nights, it is more situational than thematic.

There might be little that is innately festive in Zurcher’s lustrously-novel but that is in fact it’s greatest strength in some ways; it takes a time of the year that is inherently about safety, escapism, beauty, wonder and hope and inverts everything, for a time at least, delivering up a story of people in danger, a whole other world where authoritarian is on the march and doesn’t care who it hurts, and a family torn apart just when they should be at their most together.

Having said that, this remarkable book, which loses itself at times in its world building and philosophising, ending up more Lost than Lord of the Rings with its paucity of answers, very cleverly sets its epic adventure into a hitherto unknown world, for young girl Kay Worth-More at least, at a time of the year when the world is supposed to be a brighter, cleaner, more happy place.

Instead, Kay finds herself thrust into a nightmare, her father seemingly vanishing from existence, her younger sister Ell caught up with her, and her mother traumatised by a life upended.

“Kay turned to the window again. She counted the street-lamps as they passed, numbering them by their glows on the silvery ground, still frosty from the night before. Her left eye was now growing ridiculously tired – or maybe it was the funny flatness of seeing with just one eye – because in the centre of the circle of light cast by every lamp she was sure she could make out a little circular shadow on the ground.” (P. 5)

Ho ho ho and pass the eggnog while I wrap myself in tinsel will you?

The thing is, Zurcher’s decision to contrast the traditional home and hearth of Christmas with the rip-roaring family-splitting adventure Kay finds herself on, one replete with wraiths, eternally-living magical beings and ancient rites, is not quite such a glaring juxtaposition at it might appear.

In fact, Kay’s flight across Europe and the Middle East in search of her vanished father, her discovery of a society of people such as Will, who is more than his goofy persona might suggest, and his best friend Flip, and the climax where, naturally enough, evil is vanquished (though to what end no one is really sure) is the very essence of family and belonging.

The trick in the tale here is that Kay is not simply unearthing a whole other dimension of life unknown to her, and indeed to most of us who can’t see what lurks in the shadows and on the beguiling periphery of our vision, but finding out all kinds of things about her family, revelations that will both reshape and transform her family life, but also, rather ironically, cement and confirm it in ways she has been longing for.

 

(image courtesy Puffin Books Twitter)

 

For Kay is the child of a workaholic archeologist father who disappears off on digs at a moment’s notice, whose inner sanctum is his study, full of papers and unwashed plates, and a patient but increasingly exasperated mother who finally has enough one Christmas eve when the family isn’t together opening presents and celebrating as normal people do, and who puts her daughters in the car to find her husband over at his place of work.

Of course, he’s not there, no one has heard of him, and as the mystery deepens and grows, and Christmas Day is less about turkey and bon bons than being abducted in the middle of the night and crashing out of hot air balloons at dawn, it becomes clear to Kay that whatever it is she might have wanted, the journey to get there is going to be far more vaulting, surprising and complex than she could have imagined.

As epic, fish-out-of-water quests go, Twelve Nights is, for the most part, a satisfying read; we have a One who may in fact not be the One but also may be (ah, the maybes are intoxicatingly elusive!), a titanic battle between “good” and “bad”, great philosophical chasms between two camps unable to appreciate the others’ contrary world view, and a battle to the finish where the old ways might give way not to something liberal and fresh but to something draconian and stultifyingly tyrannical.

And all over the twelve nights of Christmas, no less!

“The old synthesis, Kay, was between the imaginers and the plotters. Always, since time was, the great rift has yawned between these two ways – the warp against the weft – those who create from nothing, and those who believe only in causation. The plotters cannot accept that the imaginers conceive, and the imaginers cannot suffer the sterile mechanics of the plotters. To the plotters, the imaginers are charlatans; to the imaginers, the plotters are machines. This had always been the great divide.” (P. 215)

Where Twelve Nights does excel with its sumptuous world building, its luxuriant storytelling – Zurcher has a poetic way with words that is damn near entrancing, a weaving of words that lulls you into a happy place where words feel physically beautiful around you – and its vibrant characterisation, it stumbles with its too-dense passages that explain while they don’t explain enough, its philosophical meanderings that sound immensely pretty but end up with too many words saying too little, and a plot that is A to B bog standard at times, winningly scintillating at times.

Overall though for all its imperfections, this is a book to lose yourself into, in the same way that Lord of the Rings or His Dark Materials draws you in, a totality of fantastical experience in a world so removed, and yet eerily similar to your own – the themes of two opposing philosophies and a march to fascist overlording will strike a chord – that it’s hard not to feel a giddy sense of excitement at the possibilities that unfold.

It helps immensely that Kay is a bright, independent and thoroughly capable young girl but also someone who is, at times, just a child, overwhelmed, unsure and wanting to ask more questions that she has time for.

She becomes, as all good protagonists should, our entry point into this marvellously complex and alluringly mythos-filled world – Zurcher is the Director of Studies at Queen’s College, Cambridge who writes on the likes of Spenser and Shakespeare, and it shows for better, and worse, at times – one which might be lacking in answers but which delivers up exactly what otherworldly adventures like this should which is a journey into places and idea unseen which nonetheless feel intimate and familiar, and which in the end, reaffirms what really matters to the world at large, and to us.

You’re a curmudgeonly one Mr Grinch? (poster + trailer)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
For their eighth fully animated feature, Illumination and Universal Pictures present The Grinch, based on Dr. Seuss’ beloved holiday classic. The Grinch tells the story of a cynical grump who goes on a mission to steal Christmas, only to have his heart changed by a young girl’s generous holiday spirit. Funny, heartwarming and visually stunning, it’s a universal story about the spirit of Christmas and the indomitable power of optimism.

Academy Award nominee Benedict Cumberbatch lends his voice to the infamous Grinch, who lives a solitary life inside a cave on Mt. Crumpet with only his loyal dog, Max, for company. With a cave rigged with inventions and contraptions for his day-to-day needs, the Grinch only sees his neighbors in Who-ville when he runs out of food.

Each year at Christmas they disrupt his tranquil solitude with their increasingly bigger, brighter and louder celebrations. When the Whos declare they are going to make Christmas three times bigger this year, the Grinch realizes there is only one way for him to gain some peace and quiet: he must steal Christmas. To do so, he decides he will pose as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, even going so far as to trap a lackadaisical misfit reindeer to pull his sleigh.

Meanwhile, down in Who-ville, Cindy-Lou Who—a young girl overflowing with holiday cheer—plots with her gang of friends to trap Santa Claus as he makes his Christmas Eve rounds so that she can thank him for help for her overworked single mother. As Christmas approaches, however, her good-natured scheme threatens to collide with the Grinch’s more nefarious one. Will Cindy-Lou achieve her goal of finally meeting Santa Claus? Will the Grinch succeed in silencing the Whos’ holiday cheer once and for all? (synopsis via Coming Soon)

 

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

I love animation.

Perhaps it’s my inner child still flexing his considerable imaginative muscles or maybe I just love the escapism that comes with made-up worlds, drawn and illustrated, that are so different and so much more free than my own.

Whatever the basis, I have loved animated films and TV shows since I was a kid and I don’t see the love affair ending anytime soon, as long as Pixar and Disney keep releaseing wonderful films, Laika and Aardman keep making gorgeously well-realised stop-motion films and Studio Ghibli’s superlative output is still there to stream.

One rung down from these A-gamers is Illumination Entertainment and while I enjoy their films on a reasonably superficial level, films like Sing and the Despicable Me series, while lovely and cute in their own way, never really hit the heights of Pixar or Laika. (The Secret Life of Pets aside which was actually quite moving and delightfully realised.)

So the fact that they’re behind the latest iteration of The Grinch means you can expect quick easy jobs, sparklingly colourful animation and lots of cute moments to distract from the lack of robustness in the story.

 

 

Now as Boss Baby, which somehow managed to snag an Academy Award nomination, illustrates all too painfully, kids care not often about robust storylines nor particularly fetching animation.

The big plus for Illumination’s films is that they do have a knack for catchy animation and memorably arresting characters, even if the narratives in which they exist aren’t as complex nor philosophically or emotionally dense as Pixar or Laika’s efforts.

All that to say that The Grinch looks like it will be amusing and fun as far as it goes but I can help agreeing with IO9 when they say:

“… this time around, it looks like the Grinch is less a public menace who seeks to destroy Christmas, and more a disgruntled humbug who’d take 11 items into the 10-item lane at the grocery store. I’m shaking in my fur pants.”

Still, while this is likely one for parents, and for guncles (gay uncles) like me, it could be amusing enough to pass the time and if they’re doing their job right, and let’s face it generating festiveness shouldn’t be that hard, get us in the Christmas spirit.

The Grinch opens in the USA and UK on 9 November and Australia on 29 November.