Season's Greetings from Saturday Matinee! Whether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia Festival, Star Wars' Life Day, or the now-erased-from-history Bobunk, this is a time to celebrate the kindness and good will towards our fellow man. Plus, there's so many great holiday specials and movies that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Disney itself is no stranger to such specials; a now-lost 1927 cartoon short titled "Empty Socks" featured Oswald the Lucky Rabbit dressing up as Santa Claus. Four years later, Mickey Mouse would assume that role in the classic short "Mickey's Orphans." Christmas is the predominantly-celebrated holiday in Disney shorts and films, and some of the studio's most memorable cartoon shorts are holiday-themed. Just look at classics like "Pluto's Christmas Tree" or "Toy Tinkers." It's too difficult to pick just one short to talk about today. Instead, take a look at my top five Disney cartoons and/or films that celebrate a different aspect of the holiday season.
#5: "Mickey's Orphans" (December 9, 1931): The Wild Child in Us All
Mickey is decorating the Christmas tree while Minnie plays "Silent Night" on the organ, with Pluto sleeping peacefully at the fireplace. An old woman tearfully leaves a basket by the door, then rings the doorbell before running off. Pluto brings in the basket, and Mickey and Minnie are surprised to find a baby kitten. However, several more kittens emerge from the basket, and soon spread out throughout Mickey's house. The mice are delighted (whoa, what?) at their new tenants, and decide to spread the holiday cheer. While Minnie takes care of the kittens, Mickey dresses as Santa and Pluto becomes a reindeer. They pass out toys to the foundlings, who begin to wreak havoc all throughout the house, destroying whatever they can. It's quite a messy sight, and Mickey and Minnie hope the decorated Christmas tree will placate them. Instead, the young ones ambush it, taking down all the ornaments and branches, leaving behind the skeleton of a tree. Oh well, Merry Christmas!
"Mickey's Orphans" represents the wild child in us all, especially during the holidays. We have spent the past eleven months of the year trying to be as good as possible. Once December hits, many of us have way too much pent-up energy that simply must be released. Some of us opt to wait until Christmas day, using all that craziness in opening our gifts. I'm sure many of us have seen the memorable "Nintendo 64" kid (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhWLtii3dEo). The N64 kid is just as energetic as the foundling kittens. Sure, their destruction of the home is rather malicious, but the cuteness factor makes it forgivable. They celebrate Christmas like there's no tomorrow.
#4: "The Clock Watcher" (January 25, 1945): The Joys in Giving
An already-late Donald Duck is rushing to work at the Royal Bros. department store. He manages the gift wrapping department, although he doesn't care much for the job. During the start-of-work song, Donald just sits in frustration. As the gifts come in, he wraps them haphazardly and without much commitment. So long as the job is done, Donald is satisfied. A fragile glass bowl gets shattered when Donald stamps "Fragile" on the wrapping. He sits and reads a magazine while making "wrapping" sounds, and even gets trapped in a rocking chair as he tries to wrap it. Donald then is tasked with wrapping a jack-in-the-box that refuses to stay shut. He tries everything, and his attempts to shut the box take over his duties for the day. When the quitting-time bell rings, Donald wants to leave, but his boss tells him to stay and wrap more packages.
This short is not strictly-Christmas related, but gift-wrapping is very common during the season. Setting up Donald as the irascible gift wrapper is something we all go through each year. I personally dislike wrapping gifts - I'm more of the "gift bag with tissue paper" guy - but I still marvel at the amazing wrapping that others do. However, let's not forget the whole point of gift-wrapping: we're giving something to someone else. Even though it's merely Donald's job to wrap gifts, he's doing it because people have cared enough about others to buy gifts for them. Thus, "The Clock Watcher" serves not only to show the frustration of gift-wrapping Donald, but to celebrate the joy of giving gifts.
#3: The Small One (December 16, 1978): All Creatures Great and Small
A boy and his donkey, Small One, enjoy playing together and collecting sticks. Small One, old and weathered, cannot carry large loads anymore, and the boy's father decides that he must be sold. The boy takes him into the city of Nazareth, hoping to find a buyer. However, nobody wants such an old donkey. The only one willing to buy Small One is a tanner who wants him merely for his hide. The boy refuses, hoping to find a seller, but by the end of the day, has accepted that Small One must be sold to the tanner. Before making the sale, a man asks the boy if he can buy Small One. He is traveling to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife, and needs a small but strong donkey to carry her along the way. Small One is perfect for the job. The boy joyfully sells Small One to the man for one piece of silver, and they part ways. Small One carries the woman on his back, as the man leads them to Bethlehem, following the star in the sky.
The Small One is unique among Disney cartoons. While Christian allegories can be found in their animated films, Disney has rarely made any direct references to Biblical stories. "Father Noah's Ark," a 1933 Silly Symphony, is the only other example I can think of off the top of my head. In The Small One, the Biblical connection does not occur until the final minutes, and as such, I don't always consider it to be a Biblical story. After all, it's based on a children's book by Charles Tazewell. I selected The Small One as it best represents the little things in life. Small One may not be much, but he means a lot to the boy. During the Christmas season, we sometimes overlook the little things in our lives as we get swept up in the commercialism of the holiday. Small One reminds us that all creatures, great and small, still have value. Likewise, our lives will mean something to someone, whether it be a stranger or a loved one. Christmas is the best time to be reminded of what we mean to others, and what others mean to us. As the lyrics tell us:
Small one, Small one, Don't look so blue
Somewhere a friend is waiting for you
Someone still needs you to brighten his day
There's a place for each Small One
God planned it that way
#2: Mickey's Christmas Carol (December 16, 1983): The Spirit of the Season
I'm sure everyone knows the story of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. For those of us that don't, it begins on Christmas Eve, with the cold and stoic Ebenezer Scrooge. He cares nothing for Christmas, or for anyone else. However, a visit from his deceased partner Jacob Marley changes everything. Scrooge is visited by three spirits of Christmas: Past, Present, and Future. In his past, Scrooge is confronted with the shadows of his life, how he became who he is today. In the present, Scrooge sees how others - like his clerk Bob Cratchit and his family - view Christmas, with or without him. And in the future, Scrooge learns what will happen to him and others in a Christmas without him. Scrooge eventually learns the error of his ways, and completely reforms. He becomes the greatest celebrant of Christmas, keeping its spirit with him all throughout the year.
Disney's version of A Christmas Carol remains one of the most definitive adaptations ever done, quite a feat given how many are done year after year. My personal favorite is The Muppet Christmas Carol, but Disney's version is easily the close second. In a brisk 25 minutes, we see the essence of Christmas captured with such loving care and tribute. Right from the beginning, with "Oh, What a Merry Christmas Day," we are prepared for a feel good story that celebrates the joy and spirit of the season. Christmas does not always need a religious connotation. Over the centuries, it's become a celebration of good will toward men, of the kindness and generosity that we share with others. What better way to show this than through favorite Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Jiminy Cricket, and Uncle Scrooge? They are just as timeless and unforgettable as Ebenezer, Bob, Jacob, nephew Fred, etc.
#1: Swiss Family Robinson (December 10, 1960): Homecoming
Our last look at Christmas is not in a cartoon short, but a scene from the 1960 live-action film Swiss Family Robinson. It features what I believe is the best representation of Christmas in Disney. The Robinson family are celebrating Christmas as best as they can on the island. Mother and Father play carols on the organ while young Francis plays with his new toys and pet monkey. All they'd like for Christmas is for Fritz and Ernst to come home. Mother begins playing "O Christmas Tree" on the organ, but soon stops and begins to cry. However, voices are heard in the background, and the family look out to see their Christmas wish has come true. Fritz and Ernst have come home! With them is Roberta, the young woman they rescued from pirates, and a zebra they rescued from a swamp. The family joyfully spend Christmas night together dancing to the delightful "Swisskapolka."
I've always loved Swiss Family Robinson, and this scene shows one of the main reasons why. The story is all about facing adversity together as a family. We may get caught up in the adventure with the pirates or the humor between the brothers. However, the heart of it all is the steadfast love and devotion between family. The Christmas scene shows just how close the family has become, especially as they are all they have. Christmastime is all about family. It may not always be the biological relatives, but the people in your life whom you choose to celebrate with. Thus, even if we're thousands of miles away or even just five minutes down the street, we can always count on our family. It is what binds us all together and what keeps us happy the rest of the year.
From all of us at From Screen to Theme, to all of you...
A Very Merry Christmas.
A Very Happy Hanukkah.
A Very Happy Kwanzaa.
A Very Saturnalia Festival.
A Very Peaceful Life Day.
A Very Joyous Bobunk.