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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