Friday, December 26, 2014

2014's Christmas Movie: The Magic Christmas Tree (1964)

The Christmas movie tradition continues. Like last year, I started the month by inflicting a Christmas-themed movie on the Warhammer 40,000 gang. Despite repeated warnings beforehand, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972) earned a lot of groaning and cries of despair. For the evening of Christmas itself, my mother and I watched the RiffTrax take on The Magic Christmas Tree (1964).

The movie is awful, of course. Not Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny awful, though, which is the cinematic equivalent to the time I had an ingrown toenail treated in Mexico and the doctor didn't think local anesthetic was necessary. No, The Magic Christmas Tree is more like the esophageal motility and pH study I had a couple years ago. The one where they put a probe up my nose and down my throat.

Good times...

Again, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett of MST3K fame try their best to get us through this movie. Before the feature presentation, though, they treat us to some vintage toy ads, at least one of which my mother remembered. They follow this up with a hilarious cartoon from 1933 called The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives. I suppose I should rephrase that; the cartoon itself isn't funny in the least. It's one more example of the "wacky animated characters sing and perform slapstick comedy to a jaunty tune" genre of shorts that were so common in the early '30s. It's the riffers' jokes that make the film worth watching.

The film proper starts during Halloween when a husky kid named Mark convinces his two friends to check out the rundown house on the hill. (Once Mark is referred to as "husky", Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy can't help but to constantly refer to that particular character trait.) The home is owned by an older woman who the kids believe to be a witch.

At the same time that the friends are approaching the home, the woman is trying to get her cat, Lucifer(!), out of the tree. The friends eventually chicken out, but Mark eventually comes face to face with the woman. She convinces/frightens/bribes him to get the cat down. I honestly don't remember why he ends up doing it since the film has more padding than almost any movie I've ever seen and my attention started to wander.

Mark succeeds in getting Lucifer down, but he loses his grip and falls. When he wakes up, the world has transformed from black and white to color a la Wizard of Oz, while the old woman is now wearing a literal witch's hat. (Note: do not attempt to emulate a classic movie in your zero-budget film, as it only reminds people of how much they would prefer to be watching that movie than this one.)

Despite her literal witch costume, the old woman says that she's a good witch and wants to reward Mark for getting her cat out of the tree. She gives the boy a box containing a magic ring. Also inside the box is a seed that will grow into a magic Christmas tree when it's buried with the wishbone of the Thanksgiving turkey, the ring is spun around the wearer's finger nine times, and three magic words are spoken. Or something. The whole thing is ridiculously convoluted and is the butt of several of the riffers' jokes. I was surprised that none of them suggested that the three magic words would be "klaatu, barada, nikto".

Well, it's more of a "color" film than it was before 

A cheap calendar effect shows us that most of November has passed and the next thing we know, Mark is planting the magic seed. Well, "next thing we know" is a bit too generous to the film's editor. Marvel as Mark pulls the seed out of his drawer! Thrill as the husky boy explains to his pet turtle what he's about to do! Sweat with anticipation as Mark puts on his slippers, crawls out his bedroom window, eventually finds a place to plant the seed, slowly digs a hole, plants the seed, spins the ring, and says the magic words! All in real time! Seriously, the time it takes for Mark to actually plant the seed is given more screen time than major plot points later in the film.

By the next day, the tree is fully grown. The movie then "delights us" with the endless sequence in which Mark's dumb-as-dirt father struggles to get his lawnmower started, haphazardly trims the grass while "humorous" sound effects (mostly circus horns) fill the soundtrack, and then destroys the machine by running it into the 7 foot tall tree that sprung up on his property overnight. Unable to cut down the tree with a saw or an ax, dad decides the tree is there to stay.

Fast forward to the night of Christmas Eve. Mark's parents and sister (I guess, I don't think the character is ever introduced) find themselves entirely unprepared for Christmas. They don't even have a tree. The family goes out to find one while Mark stays home under the pretense that he has gifts to wrap. Once they're gone, the boy tries to figure out how to use the tree, which the old woman claimed will grant three wishes. The tree begins talking to Mark, its tone and unintentional innuendo providing the riffers with a wealth of material to work with.

Mark's first wish is to have "just an hour" of the kind of power that the tree has. No, the tree doesn't impose any time limits on his wishes, nor does it immediately act on his statement, preventing him from asking for more than an hour. The boy is apparently too stupid to realize that he could just as easily ask for a day, or a week, or a lifetime of near omnipotence.

Once given phenomenal cosmic power, Mark turns night to day (nobody seems to notice) and proceeds to play silly pranks on people. In fact, other than making a woman throw a pie into a baker's face, all he really does is make people's vehicles drive away from them, forcing them to "comically" run after them. A deliveryman, a cop, and several firemen all find themselves chasing after their cars or trucks in another excruciatingly drawn out scene.

"I wish I had never agreed to star in this movie" 

Mark, having utterly wasted his first wish on a single "hour of power" that he used to commit budget-friendly tricks, has to think hard for his second wish. When the tree says that it doesn't have all night since Santa Claus will soon be there, Mark decides that his second wish will be to have Santa Claus all to himself for a day. Not only does this selfish act conjure up Kris Kringle in the boy's living room, but it confines him to a chair located next to the magic tree. Mark declares that Santa will spend the day giving him whatever he wants, which leads to... nothing really. I'm certain I was fully conscious during this scene, but I have no idea what happened. I know Mark told the jolly fat man that he was there to give the little brat whatever he asked for, but in the very next scene the kid is nowhere to be found, leaving Santa to talk to an obnoxious magic tree.

Everything that follows this is tremendously confusing and makes the amount of time spent establishing the planting of the tree and the dad's first encounter with it even more absurd. Sure, when a couple minutes of footage and a line or two of dialog could have established that the seed had been planted, had fully grown in a day, and was indestructible, the filmmakers instead give us endless footage that suggests the editor was out for a coffee break. But when events that are essential to understanding the plot are involved, the movie skimps on the exposition. I suppose it could have been worse; Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny revels in overabundant explanatory dialog, all delivered in the most stilted manner possible.

Anyway, the tree sadly informs Santa that he can't be freed until Mark comes back. Mark is next seen in broad daylight in the woods with what appears to be a pellet gun. Presumably it's Christmas day, Santa missed his annual trip, and the extent of Mark's demands from Santa has been... a pellet gun? So, not only is this kid a selfish brat, but he's immensely stupid to boot, squandering effectively limitless power on stupid tricks and a single toy he could have gotten for any given Christmas.

While wandering around the woods, Mark runs into a giant who declares him to be his slave because the boy is so selfish. Huh?

Up to this point, we had indeed seen a witch, pointy hat and all, a magic, wish-granting tree, and Santa Claus himself. But with those few exceptions, nothing else about the world of The Magic Christmas Tree has led us to believe that child enslaving giants roam the woods. Thus threatened, Mark reneges on his behavior, wishes that it were the day before (this line is the only real indication that this part of the movie takes place on Christmas day), and that his previous wishes had been undone. The disappointed giant declares that he'll have to wait for another selfish little boy.

Having thus learned his lesson (i.e., that selfishness leads to enslavement by giants), Mark wakes up in black and white land to find the old woman looking over him. As we all suspected, he had been knocked unconscious by the fall from the tree and all the color sequences were a dream. Nevertheless, his actions had gotten Lucifer out of the tree and the woman wants to reward him for it. The boy balks initially, afraid that he'll start the whole cycle over again, but instead of a magic ring the woman offers him milk and cookies.

On a side note, while the cheap Christmas novelty that passes as the magic ring gets a lot of attention, it has little to do with the magic tree itself. All Mark does is spin it several times before saying the magic words, which just seems overcomplicated.

This movie further confirms what I suspected with Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny; MST3K did the best of the bad Christmas movies with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) and the Mexican-produced Santa Claus (1959), leaving the worst films in the public-domain for RiffTrax to mock. I assume that Mike Nelson and the gang prepare for each RiffTrax episode the same way they they prepared for MST3K; by watching each movie multiple times and writing down the jokes as they came to them. I can't imagine those guys make enough money off RiffTrax to justify doing that to themselves.

F (the movie is an atrocity, but the riffing is top notch)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Music Review: Wonders (The Piano Guys)

Five months is definitely the longest I've ever neglected this blog. Unfortunately, I've not had a whole lot to say on any non-40K subject. However, the Piano Guys have given me something to write about with their new album Wonders.

I first heard about the Piano Guys when somebody linked to their video for "Cello Wars"; an entertaining take on John Williams' most famous Star Wars themes: "The Imperial March", the Force theme, and "Duel of the Fates". It wasn't until much later that I found out that the well-known pianist (at least in Utah) John Schmidt, who I had seen perform at BYU, was the group's piano player.

After seeing the videos for "Titanium/Pavane", "The Cello Song", and others, I was eager to buy their first album, The Piano Guys. They followed this up with another series of videos, including the fantastic "Rockelbel's Canon" (still one of my favorite videos), which ended up in their second album, The Piano Guys 2.

The Piano Guys are still going strong with their latest album The Piano Guys 3 Wonders, which was released earlier this month. The album includes:

"Story of My Life": The Piano Guys are apparently fans of One Direction, having done at least two versions of their songs (the other I'm aware of is "What Makes You Beautiful"). Most of the reason why I like this track is because, like so many of their other works, I can't help but to mentally associate it with their video, which was designed to be a tearjerker.

"Let It Go": Of course they did a cover of "Let It Go"; who didn't? What makes their version unique is how they've mixed it with a classical piece, specifically Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons: Winter".

"Ants Marching/Ode to Joy": I have to admit that I was completely unfamiliar with the Dave Matthew's Band's "Ants Marching" before hearing the Piano Guys' version. If it weren't for the Piano Guys or Weird Al, I would know practically nothing about popular songs or bands. Once again they've mixed it with a classical piece, "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's "9th Symphony".

"Father's Eyes": A rare song from the Piano Guys; the vast majority of their work is instrumental with occasional non-lyrical vocals in background. Although I like the track, the singer's voice is a bit too high for my tastes.

"Kung Fu Piano: Cello Ascends": This is another cover of a modern work that incorporates a  classical piece. In this case it's an arrangement of "Oogway Ascends" from Hans Zimmer's score for "Kung Fu Panda" (hey, something I recognize!), mixed with Chopin's Prelude No. 20, Op. 28. The video for this was actually filmed on the Great Wall of China.

"Summer Jam": I believe this may be one of the album's original pieces. It's upbeat and kind of fun, but rather forgettable.

"Batman Evolution": Definitely one of the highlights of the album. After opening with Danny Elfman's theme from Batman (1989), the Piano Guys sample music from the campy '60s Batman TV show, followed by another bit of Elfman's score, and then Hans Zimmer's and James Newton Howard's Batman theme from Batman Begins (2005)/The Dark Knight (2008). They finish off the track with a brilliant mix of Elfman's and Zimmer's/Howard's themes. The '60s theme is noticeably absent here, but it would almost certainly feel out of place if it had been included.

"Don't You Worry Child": Another actual song; this time it's a cover of one by Swedish House Mafia (no, I'd never heard of them). Interestingly, the Piano Guys have given the song an Indian-feel and have replaced the song's original words with Hindi lyrics. This may be one of my favorite pieces from the Piano Guys, probably because the singer, Shweta Subram, has a beautiful voice and because I'm a sucker for songs with foreign lyrics (most of my favorite Josh Groban songs are in Italian or Spanish).

"Home": This is a cover of Philip Philip's song (I haven't heard of this guy either, am I that out of touch with modern pop culture?). For people like myself, they've thrown in a bit of Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor ("New World Symphony"). This piece starts out a little slow after the energetic "Don't You Worry Child", but it picks up near the end. And anything with Dvořák has to be good.

"The Mission/How Great Thou Art": This is a mix of a theme from the film The Mission (1986) and the well-known hymn "How Great Thou Art". The music is beautiful, of course, but it's best heard while watching the video, which was filmed at Iguazu Falls and at the foot of the famous Cristo Redentor statue in Brazil.

"Because of You": After some Sunday afternoon music, the Piano Guys give us something more upbeat. I don't know if this is a cover of something or one of their original works.

"Pictures at an Exhibition": This is the Piano Guys' rendition of the "Promenade" melody, variations of which are repeated throughout Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition". It also happens to be one of my favorite classical works. While staying faithful to Mussorgky's original, it gives it a much more modern sound.

Although a fan of their previous two albums, I thought that Wonders was stronger than Piano Guys 2. It has more memorable tracks, a lot of variety, and some of their best songs.

By the way, it's always a good idea to watch the Piano Guys' videos. For several of their arrangements, the visuals are a lot of the fun (most particularly for "Rockelbel's Canon").

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

I rarely see movies in the theaters anymore. I don't like crowds, I don't like having to follow someone else's schedule, and I don't like the prices. In the rare cases when I do go to the theater, it's usually weeks after a film's release when there are less people.

However, I've been a Godzilla fan for about 25 years. And I've been waiting to see this movie since it was officially announced in 2010. When I realized that Godzilla (2014) was going to be released a) on my Friday off and b) when most people are in school or at work, I decided to see a movie on its opening day for the first time in years.

The opening credits consists of footage taken of a highly classified event from 1954. For years the world was convinced that the US Government's activities in the Pacific during that time consisted of extensive nuclear testing intended to prove new bomb designs and to intimidate the Soviet Union. However, brief images of an enormous aquatic creature and an atomic bomb with a hastily painted crossed-out monster on the casing show that a lot more was going on than nuclear brinksmanship.

Fast forward to 1999 where Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) of Project Monarch, the secretive organization that was involved in the 1954 event, is taken deep into a collapsed mine in the Philippines. The elevated radiation levels are suspicious enough, but the enormous fossilized bones and the two cocoons confirm his fears. Although one cocoon is intact and appears to be entirely dormant, the second was obviously breached shortly before its discovery. The freshly dug tunnel leading away from the cocoon puts Project Monarch on high alert.

Whatever was in the cocoon makes a beeline for Janjira, Japan, producing seismic waves that has chief engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) worried about the safety of the nuclear plant where he and his wife (Juliette Binoche) are employed. Soon the reactor has been breached and the plant goes into lockdown, trapping Brody's wife behind a shielded door in a lethally radioactive hallway. As Brody mourns, the ground begins to shake even more violently and the plant collapses into a crater with a roaring sound that's unlike any caused by an earthquake or structural failure. The Brodys' son, Ford (played as an adult by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has the misfortune of seeing the collapse from his schoolroom. Janjira is immediately evacuated and is permanently abandoned.

Fifteen years later, Ford is a US Navy ordnance disposal technician living in San Francisco with his wife and child. Not long after coming off active duty, the US consulate in Japan informs him that his estranged father has been arrested trying to enter the quarantine zone around Janjira. After retrieving his father and returning him to his apartment near the abandoned city, Ford finds articles on the disaster posted all over the walls, as well as an eclectic collection of books; the oddest being a text on the use of echo-location in animals.

The very next day, Ford finds himself entering the quarantine zone with his father under protest. Although the area is supposed to be extremely radioactive, Joe's Geiger counter finds no trace of radiation. The two return to their former home and find Joe's computer disks on which he has recordings of the seismic wave that was detected prior to the disaster. Joe and Ford are captured almost immediately thereafter, but instead of being outright arrested, they're taken to the former site of the nuclear plant where a enormous project is underway. As Joe is being questioned, Dr. Serizawa realizes that they've found one of the only survivors of the Janjira disaster who knows anything about the events that led up to the collapse of the plant. 

Unfortunately for Joe, Ford, and the Monarch team, activity within the huge cocoon growing in the location of the plant's destroyed reactor is reaching its apex. The radiation emitted by the ruined reactor has been completely absorbed by the creature inside, which has been feeding on it for the past 15 years. When it emerges, the insect-like, electromagnetic pulse-emitting Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO) immediately destroys the surrounding research facility, unfurls a set of wings, and flies off in search of the MUTO that had been hibernating inside the intact cocoon found in 1999.

With the cat out of the bag, Dr. Serizawa reveals the truth; the newly hatched MUTO is but one example of an ancient creature that lived long before humanity. These creatures fed off of radiation, which was more plentiful on ancient Earth, and became dormant when the background radiation levels dropped off. With the advent of the atomic age, some of these creatures were awakened, one of the first being an enormous reptilian "alpha predator" that Serizawa calls Gojira. Although believed to be destroyed in 1954, Serizawa suspects that it may only be hidden deep in the ocean and that it may be humanity's only hope for eliminating the MUTOs.

Godzilla (which is how everyone but Serizawa pronounces the word) may have been inactive for 60 years, but it doesn't take him long to detect the presence of the MUTO and to track it down to its first stopping place in Hawaii. Unfortunately for Ford, the airport where he's supposed to catch his plane back to San Francisco is where Godzilla and the MUTO will have their first encounter. As is standard for a Godzilla film, the rest of the movie focuses on the ever-increasing futility of humanity's efforts to control the unfolding events.

I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. The special effects are amazing, the cast is good (especially Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston), and the subject is treated with a seriousness that I hadn't seen outside of a Japanese Godzilla film.

It's the latter item that really sets Godzilla (2014) apart from Godzilla (1998). It was very obvious in the latter film that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich had no respect for Godzilla as a character. The movie features ridiculous characters like "Mayor Ebert" (a painfully obvious parody of Roger Ebert), a buffoonish military represented primarily by a belligerent commander and his stuttering subordinate, protagonists that can't decide if they're in a comedy or a disaster film, and a giant iguana that looks and acts nothing like Toho's creation. The big iguana was such a disappointment for Toho that the 2001 Japanese film Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (I love how literally they translated the title) incorporated the American monster into Godzilla canon by stating that New York had been attacked in 1998 by some creature that the Americans had mistaken for the real Godzilla. By 2004, Godzilla: Final Wars had renamed the American monster "Zilla". When Zilla attacks Sydney, Australia, the real Godzilla promptly knocks him into the Sydney Opera House and apparently kills him with his atomic breath (the 1998 Godzilla's lack of atomic breath was widely panned by Godzilla fans).

By contrast, it's obvious that faithfulness to the source material was foremost on the minds of the makers of the most recent film. Not only does the creature physically resemble Toho's famous monster suits, but the latest Godzilla behaves in an identical manner to his Japanese counterpart. He is more like a force of nature than merely an animal. Although more or less indifferent to humanity, Godzilla is the hero of the film by virtue of opposing another, more destructive monster.

The filmmakers also understand a key principle that Devlin and Emmerich do not; if you want an audience to take something as absurd as a giant radioactive reptile seriously, you need to surround it with realistic people and events. Although the characters aren't continuously dour, there are no comic relief characters in Godzilla. Even better, the director and writers have completely omitted that most annoying of disaster movie elements that I'm certain is taught in Film 101: the completely unnecessary human villain. There is no popularity-seeking mayor endangering the populace, there's no sinister organization trying to maintain its secrets long after the monster is loose, and there's no mad general willing to nuke a populated city to destroy the menace.

Yes, Godzilla does have Project Monarch, but the organization's motives are in nowise sinister, despite Joe Brody's obsession. Once the MUTO hatches, the military steps in and 60 years of secrecy are quickly ended in the interests of warning nearby populations. And yes, there's a strong difference of opinion between Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) and Dr. Serizawa on how the monsters should be dealt with (as usual, nukes are involved). Serizawa believes that Godzilla is 'a force for balance' and that interference is futile. However, the Admiral makes it clear that his interest is in preserving the lives of millions of people. With so much at stake, he simply cannot share Serizawa's faith in an unpredictable force like Godzilla and trust that he won't turn on humanity immediately after dispatching the MUTOs.

Contrary to expectations, Godzilla doesn't use cheap tricks to make the audience side with Serizawa. Admiral Stenz is shown to be sincere in his motives, logical in his conclusions, and conservative in his strategies. The disagreement isn't portrayed as a matter of right versus wrong or scientists versus the military, but as a serious dilemma in which neither side is obviously right or wrong. In other words, Godzilla gives us a more realistic portrayal of human behavior and motivation than so many other movies that aren't about giant radioactive monsters.

If I had one complaint about Godzilla it's that Godzilla himself doesn't get quite enough screentime (the MUTOs get a lot more attention). Like Jaws (1975), the director keeps the monster in the background for much of the film and saves the real monster versus monster action for the very end. But the few appearances we do get are glorious. I love Pacific Rim (2013), but not a single scene in Guillermo del Toro's love letter to kaiju eiga compares to the first time we see Godzilla let loose his iconic roar.

That scene, and at least two more that I won't give away, put such enormous grins on my face that my cheeks hurt for hours afterward.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book Review: The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks

Late last year I reviewed Max Brooks' 2006 novel World War Z, the follow-up to The Zombie Survival Guide, published in 2003. While the bulk of the Guide consists of tips for surviving a zombie apocalypse, my favorite part is the "Recorded Attacks" chapter, which illustrates that the zombie virus, solanum, has been infecting humans for thousands of years. Thanks to limited human interaction between continents and secret zombie-fighting groups like the Japanese Shield Society, the world had avoided a global pandemic (until World War Z, that is).

The Zombie Survival Guide contains just over 60 recorded events, ranging from an African outbreak in 60,000 B.C. (as recorded in cave paintings), to a case in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2002. Theses events are presented clinically, like Brooks' other publications, which actually makes them more effective.

In keeping with the current trend of releasing graphic novels as tie-ins to popular books, in 2009 Brooks published The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks, which contains illustrated adaptations of 12 of the Guide's historical events. I'm not certain how they chose which stories to include, but it seems that most of the stories in Recorded Attacks are those that the Guide presents with the most detail or that are the most "historically" relevant. However, I suspect that at least a couple were included because they were particularly gruesome in illustrated form.

The comic books I grew up on were a lot different

Recorded Attacks primarily lets the pictures do the talking. The illustrator, Ibraim Roberson, using a limited palette of black, white, and gray, ably depicts the horror and the tremendous amount of gore that we only imaged in the previous books.

What text we do get is used to set the seen or to clarify what we're seeing. It consists mostly of blurbs lifted from the Guide's Recorded Attacks chapter and thus carries the same cold, factual tone as the previous book. The contrast between the matter-of-fact text and the visceral images is extraordinarily effective.

A Word on Content
Obviously The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks is filled with images of violence; it's a graphic novel about zombie attacks, after all. The illustrations may be in black and white, but the lack of color does little to reduce their impact. Additionally, Recorded Attacks contains a few scenes of non-sexual nudity. One involves the "corpse" of a young woman that is removed from a shallow grave (she quickly attacks those who disinterred her) while another shows a partially dressed woman chained up in the hold of a slave ship along with dozens of other slaves.

I would strongly recommend this book to zombie fans, particularly those who enjoy the horrifying ghoul-plagued universe that Max Brooks has created. And it should go without saying that I can only recommend it to mature adults who are not easily offended.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

2013's Christmas Movie: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)

For the past four or five Christmases I've had the tradition of re-watching at least one of the two Christmas-themed Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes; either Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) or the Mexican-produced Santa Claus (1959). Usually I watch the movie on Christmas night, although in 2012 I fulfilled the tradition early by subjecting my Warhammer 40,000 gaming group to Santa Claus a week or two beforehand.

This past Christmas, I again carried out the tradition by inflicting Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on the group. (The movie was universally regarded as being worse than Santa Claus). However, thanks to my mother (a fellow MST3K fan), I added a new movie to my list of Christmas films to suffer through annually: the RiffTrax take on Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972), which I watched on Christmas night.

If you're an MST3K fan and you're not already familiar with RiffTrax, I strongly suggest you check them out. RiffTrax is done by Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. Mike Nelson was the head writer for MST3K long before he took over as the show's host halfway through its run. Kevin Murphy was the voice of Tom Servo from the second season on while Bill Corbett played the voice of Crow T. Robot for the three seasons that Mystery Science Theater ran on the Sci-Fi Channel. Those final three seasons are probably my favorite, so I was very happy to find that RiffTrax is very similar in the tone and pacing of the jokes. There's no Satellite of Love, there's no Shadowrama, and there are no wisecracking robots, but it turns out that Mike, Kevin, and Bill do just fine without them.

Anyway, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny has almost no plot to speak of and the entire film turns out to be a framing story for another film (Thumbelina in the version that RiffTrax mocks and Jack and the Beanstalk in other versions). The movie starts with Santa's elves discovering that the reindeer have arrived at their strangely snow-free North Pole workshop without the jolly fat man or his sleigh. While the elves wonder about their boss's whereabouts, we discover that Kringle is stuck on a beach in Florida. Unlike his NSA-like counterpart in Santa Claus who uses various bits of technology to spy on all the world's children (and even to look into their dreams), this Santa Claus personally flies around the world before Christmas to determine which children have been naughty and which have been nice.

During his pre-holiday audit, Santa apparently set down on the beach and became stuck. Bizarrely, the eight flying reindeer that Santa usually employs were unable to pull the sleigh free of two inches of loosely piled sand. Deciding that it was too hot to hang around, the reindeer headed home and left the fat guy in the fur coat to die of heatstroke. After muttering about the heat for several minutes, Santa uses his vaguely defined powers to summon a dozen or so children for help.

The children, being dullards, decide that a sleigh that couldn't be freed by eight reindeer might be moved by the kind of animals you would typically find at a petting zoo. One by one the children bring a miscellaneous animal (e.g., a donkey, a sheep, a pig), harness it to the sleigh, and then watch as the animal fails to do what eight large, magical animals working in concert failed to do. Santa, apparently as dimwitted as he was when he conquered the Martians, simply allows the children to waste their time and effort while sitting on his duff and muttering encouragement. By far, the most surreal moment occurs when, instead of a real animal, one child brings an actor in a shoddy costume a gorilla. I'm sure someone thought that this would be whimsical; instead it just comes off as creepy. You'd think that at least one of these children, who live within walking distance of a Florida beach, would have thought to bring a sand pail and shovel and simply dug the sleigh's runners out of the sand.

The horror...

With the children having exhausted all their ideas, Santa decides to encourage them by telling a story; a relatively faithful version of Thumbelina. Since this version of Thumbelina was originally a separate film that was shoehorned into this one, it has its own framing story as well as opening and closing credits. In this film within a film, a girl visits the Pirates World theme park (which was put out of business by Disney World shortly after this movie was released). While there, the girl listens to a recording of the story while admiring several associated dioramas. Most of this film consists of the the girl's imagining of the story, which is periodically interrupted by brief scenes of the girl moving on to another diorama while the recording drones on. The RiffTrax gang frequently points out how odd it is that Santa is apparently telling a story about a girl that's listening to a story at a pirate-themed amusement park.

Who doesn't think of the classic story of
Thumbelina when they think of Santa Claus?

The quality of the sets and the acting almost brings Thumbelina up to community theater standards, which is more than can be said about those parts featuring Santa Claus. Even weirder, in a 90 minute movie called Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, a fairytale that has nothing to do with Santa or bunnies takes up about 60 minutes of the total running time. By the time Thumbelina has married the flower-fairy prince, the audience has mercifully forgotten that Santa Claus is even in this movie. Sadly, though, once Thumbelina's story is over we still have to get Kringle out of the sand.

Contrary to all reasonable expectations, Santa's story has inspired the children to run off and ask the Ice Cream Bunny to help. The children soon return on an antique fire engine with the Ice Cream Bunny at the wheel. As a parent, this whole sequence is utterly nerve-racking. It's painfully obvious that the actor in the bunny costume can barely see since he repeatedly has to jerk the wheel to keep the truck on the road, all while a dozen unrestrained children are riding on the vehicle. Santa greats his "old friend" warmly, confident that this mascot reject will save the day.

The Ice Cream Bunny, apparently a mute, merely nods while winking one poorly actuated eyelid. Thanks to Bill Corbett, this scene may very well be one of my favorite MST3K/RiffTrax moments. Whenever the camera focuses on the Bunny's horrifying face, Corbett supplies him with an utterly bizarre laugh. I can't even think about this scene without cracking up.

Having decided to use the fire engine to return to the North Pole, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny climb into the truck and immediately drive off. Yes, this means that Santa simply leaves the children on the beach, apparently expecting them to walk home while he rides away on a mostly empty vehicle. Almost immediately after the fire truck is out of sight, the sleigh magically disappears. No, there is no explanation as to why Santa didn't demonstrate this kind of magic before. Given everything that came before I think we can safely say that he's an idiot and simply forgot that he can do magic.

Oh, and Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer show up on a raft at one point and watch the children's attempts to help Santa Claus. No, they don't actually contribute to the story nor is their presence explained. That's just the kind of movie this is.

F (but thanks to the RiffTrax guys it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen)


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