Yes, Virginia, there is sappy bullshit!
This movie came well recommended by TGWTG reviewer CR in his “12 Forgotten Animated Christmas Classics” video. For the record, it was the older special by the Peanuts team that he put on the list, but he said this version was even better in a lot of ways. Make no mistake, this is shit. Complete and total shit.
It starts off well enough with… no, you know what? It actually doesn’t start off well enough. Because it starts off with a credit sequence that proudly displays the names of famous actors: Neil Patrick Harris, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alfred Molina, a couple others. You know what that means? It means those actors are actually IN the special! We’re actually going to see them onscreen, and they’re going to throw their entire bodies into the craft! NO THEY FUCKING AREN’T!!! BECAUSE IT’S A CARTOON!!!
To clarify, voice acting is important. But when you claim that the voice actor is actually in the movie, when he never appears onscreen, you are FUCKING LYING!!! Doing a voice in a studio is not the same thing as playing a part in front of a camera. An actor on camera plays a part in full, with his entire body. The entire performance is him. A voice actor only plays one half of a character, namely his voice, and so the actor’s voice is the only tool that he uses. The other half of the character is played (for lack of a better word) by an animator. Now, consider how much is conveyed non-verbally. Consider how much of the performance of an animated character lies in his facial expressions, body language, etc. Consider that even with techniques like rotoscope and motion capture, only a certain amount of the actor’s physical performance comes through and the animator can make or break the final animated performance (see Robert Minkoff’s comments on The Polar Express.) Then tell me that we should give full credit for an animated role to the guy who did the voice, and I will forcibly pull your head out of your ass.
Look, who starred in the classic Bugs Bunny cartoons? The best answer is Bugs Bunny. Mel Blanc played the role on the voice-end. He did not, however, perform any part of the visual aspect. Animators like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Friz Freleng created everything you see: the smirks, the gestures, the physical comedy. The role is every bit as much theirs as it is Mel Blanc’s. But would you say any of these people were actually in the cartoons? That would be ridiculous. Likewise, would you say that the talented actors who gave their voices to Disney’s classic films were in their respective movies? You might as well say that the talented animators who painstakingly created performances frame-by-frame were in them. Both statements would be equally ridiculous.
(By the same token, I would argue that you can’t give full credit to an actor in a film when his voice has been dubbed over. The actor only played half of the role: the visual half.)
Anyway, we know the real reason they give the big-name actors doing the voices so much credit. Let’s all say it together. “Look, we got big name actors to do the voices for our animated film because you’re so stupid, you’ll buy anything with their names on it, and you’ll never even realize that they never appear on camera. Now will you just hand over your fucking money, PLEASE!?” And what else do we know about a lot of animated movies that hire big name actors to do voices? We know that they think having big name actors is enough: they don’t need to worry about any other aspect of the production. They don’t need a good script or good animation. They can put out shit and just rake in the money. So whenever I see an animated movie begin by showing me the names of big-name actors, I start to worry. (It was the same way with Astro Boy.)
So, let’s get the animation out of the way. For the most part, it’s nice. Colorful, bright. But then there’s the mouth movements. …I’m miming it here trying to convey how off it is. You can’t see me miming. Ok, I’m moving my mouth muscles in the most exaggerated way I can. That’s what everybody looks like. Remember Disney’s Dinosaurs? Like that, where the movements are way too fucking big, and you just can’t believe that the characters’ mouths could stretch that much. All they had to do was dial it back some; make the movements smaller, more natural. It looks stupid when you exaggerate this much.
But what about the bad story? Well, of course we need to look at that! For those not familiar with the famous story, which actually did happen, I’ll bring you up to speed. In 1897, a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to New York newspaper The Sun. Her father always said, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” So she asked them if there was a Santa Claus. And the editor wrote a very careful response, which appeared in the paper. He basically said that Santa Claus exists in a metaphorical sense; he is hope, and faith, and human kindness, and enchantment, and things intangible. If you wanna be cynical, sure, you can point out logical fallacies. But the fact is the guy did a good job of writing an article that allowed him to tell the girl that Santa exists without being a total liar.
The story gained significant fame, and was adapted for books and for television a number of times. (While the editorial was, in fact, published in September, the adaptations commonly put it around Christmas time. It makes sense. This is, at heart, a Christmas story, so why not set it around Christmas time?) It is said that some versions I have not yet seen are very good indeed. This one, however, is shit.
It starts out — after the, ahem, credit sequence — with young Virginia crafting an amazingly ornate Christmas-themed popup book. This is charming. Her little brother then asks her how Santa has time to make all those toys when, after all, he has seen Santa out on the street ringing a bell. So they go out to investigate. Of course, it isn’t really Santa. What it is, however, is a former reporter for The Sun who now collects coins on the street for charity. His former boss at the paper, the Grumpy Editor, comes by, and they have a conversation which basically goes like this.
“Please give a penny for charity!”
“Harumph! I am cynical and bitter! I will give you a penny, but what good will it do? You were a bad writer when you worked at The Sun, and I scoff at your hopefulness and positivity! Harumph!”
Anway, this former reporter (the movie actually credits him as “Scraggly Santa”) talks with Virginia about things. They become friends. He says that he’s doing work for Santa, in that he is doing what Santa would do if he himself were there. So Virginia asks if Santa actually pays him to do this work, and his answer doesn’t satisfy her. This weakens her belief in Santa Claus.
Now is probably a good time to mention the Believe Meter. Yeah, this movie actually has a Believe Meter. It’s this semi-circular meter with lights and an arrow. It goes up or down depending on the strength of Virginia’s belief in Santa Claus. Subtlety? What’s that? Allowing our characters to convey their feelings through performances and trusting the audience to understand how they feel? Boy, you’re talking some strange words there!
Virginia meets her school friends outside what I’m assuming is school. She has her popup book with her. Her friends like it. Then the stuck-up bully comes. If this were live action, this actress’s conversations with the director would have gone like this:
“What’s my motivation?”
“You’re a bitch.”
She poo-poos Virginia’s belief in Santa Claus, tells her it’s “infantile,” snatches her book away, and ends up getting it wet, which we can assume ruins it, although the only thing that seems to actually get wet is the back cover; I bet if she opens the book, the pages will be bone dry. What really makes this scene annoying is the soundtrack, which takes this bully too damn seriously. “Does anyone doubt that this bully is a source of legitimate conflict? They won’t by the time we add this heavy-handed music! The bully is very, very bad and makes Virginia very, very sad! This is Shakespearean-level tragedy right here!”
You know, that’s part of the problem with this story: we didn’t need a cunt of this magnitude. We needed the kids at school to be kinda rough on her, and that was it. We didn’t need the kind of bully who damages your belongings. It doesn’t work for the story.
Oh, by the way, I have another issue with this scene. The bully plays keep-away with Virginia’s book, and like always in these stupid productions, Virginia tries in vain to grab the book instead of just grabbing the bully. Look, Virginia, the book is up there where you can’t reach it, but the bully is easy to reach! Punch her in the gut or kick her in the shin and grab the book when she doubles over in pain! If you don’t wanna hurt her, just grab her shoulder, pull her in, grab her arm, pull her in again, and then you’ll be able to grab the book! This is basic stuff! It’s what a real person with two brain cells to rub together would do!
Also by the way, there is a scene a little later where the bully is with her mother, and the mother bullies her around and tells her things she does are “infantile.” Fuck you, movie: your character is still one-dimensional. Just because you say she has a motivation doesn’t make it true. Motivation has to be there in the performance, and it fucking isn’t.
So this whole incident weakens Virginia’s belief in Santa Claus. She comes home and talks to Dad, who appears to be working on the first lie detector. She asks if there is a Santa Claus. The lie detector spurts out a long strip of paper with a very agitated graph on it, spews some steam, and breaks. You know, years ago, we could deal with things in a more subtle, human way. We didn’t need big dumb gags like these. We could have, you know, performances. Like I was talking about earlier. You could tell by a character’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language what was on their mind. It would be small; even, you know, subtle. And nobody would be confused as to what the characters were thinking. At any rate, the father evades the question. He dances around the issue, panics, stumbles over his words, acts flustered, talks about how Virginia got presents last year, and somebody ate the cookies, “so it stands to reason….” He’s a “funny” character.
And so the Believe Meter goes down. Then the next morning, Virginia’s mother talks to her. Her mother is an actual person rather than a caricature, so she says some things that an actual parent might say, and Virginia’s Believe Meter goes up.
Then Virginia gets the idea to write her famous letter to The Sun, so they can tell her if Santa Claus is real or not. But it goes to the desk of Mr. Grumpy Pants Editor, who is not amused. “A little girl writes to me and asks me if Santa Claus is real? Harumph! I am running a serious paper! We already don’t publish enough serious articles! I have no time for frivolous things! I am busy with matters of consequence! Harumph!” But he is not a man; he’s a mushroom! If you get that joke, congratulations. (Also, he declares that Brooklyn will never be incorporated into New York City. Ha, ha, ha.)
This is another character that’s all wrong. The editor shouldn’t be an asshole. He should be professional, well-spoken, tactful, compassionate. Because you can’t have him suddenly become all these things in the final act (which is exactly what happens. And of course, it’s bullshit, which proves my point.)
And the Grumpy Editor throws the letter in the trash, because he’s grumpy. And the bully finds the letter in a trash can outside, reads it, sees Virginia’s signature, and grins a bitchy grin. She finds Virginia and taunts her about the letter. “Well, well, well! I’m a bitch! Feel bad about yourself! Bitchety bitch bitch bitch, a bitch is what I am!” Again, the soundtrack lays it on thick. And Virginia feels bad that the newspaper did this to her letter. Again, we didn’t need any of this crap in this story! The kids at school and Virginia’s own inner conflict should have been enough!
So, remember the former reporter who’s collecting coins for charity? The bully taunts Virginia right in front of him. So when that’s done, he grabs the letter and runs into the Grumpy Editor’s office. Their talk goes like this.
“Harumph! I am grumpy! I will tear up this letter because it is not important!”
“This letter is very important, and you should answer it! I know you’re a grumpy man, but there’s one thing you didn’t count on: an Inspiring Speech. I now give an Inspiring Speech about the importance of hope. Now I’m leaving.”
I must pause here to cover something important. There’s a particular something about the way people in this film talk about the importance of believing in Santa Claus. See if you can spot it. Remember when Virginia’s mother talked to her earlier about the existence of Santa Claus? Here’s what she said. “Virginia, believing in Santa isn’t something you prove. It’s something you do. Whenever we do things that Santa would, like being kind to others or helping those that have less than we do, that makes Santa real. That’s the proof.” Did you catch it? I bet you did. What about the Inspiring speech the former reporter gave to the Grumpy Editor? When the Editor grumps that he only prints the facts, the former writer tells him that “this is bigger than facts! Just because you can’t prove something doesn’t mean it’s not real.” (See? My belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is perfectly valid.) And what is this that is more important than facts? “Hope. Belief. Inspiration!” And he goes on to say, “When people believe, they make the world a better place.” (Which is why those hell-bent on institutionalizing bigotry and enacting genocide so often use their belief system as justification.) So in case you haven’t figured it out by now, Santa Claus is both God and Jesus. The movie wants us to swallow this Hallmark-Movie, New-Age Christian bullshit. You can just imagine the conversations ultra-Christian parents have with their kids afterward. “If these things are true about Santa, they can also be true about Jee-zuss.” Blow me.
So of course, the Editor is deeply moved by the Inspiring Speech. He agonizes over the letter for hours. I can imagine the reporters coming in and saying, “Sir, what are our assignments? We need your direction, sir.” “Sir, we really need your input in order to finish the paper. We need to know if you want rewrites on anything.” “Sir, it’s late. Can we go home, sir? Sir? You’ve been looking at that letter for six hours and haven’t said a single word the whole time. Are you ok? It’s like you can’t even see me! …I’m just gonna leave, sir. See you in the morning, sir.” And finally, of course, the Editor reforms completely, writes an amazing editorial reply to Virginia’s letter — which a man as cynical as he had been up to this point should not be capable of writing — and then… oh, then! The article appears not in the editorials section, which would have been sufficient in a more subtle production, but on the very front page! And the world becomes a better place instantly! Virginia’s Believe Meter shoots way up; the former reporter, who until now was having trouble getting even a single penny, receives handfuls of coins and a reconciliation with the Editor; the people raise a Christmas Tree in the center of town; the bully writes and mails a letter to Santa Claus; people’s faces glow with warmth and joy; The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes; Scrooge gives generously to the people he shunned only a day before; the elves and reindeer at the North Pole accept Rudolph’s nose and Hermey’s choice to be a dentist; and as the message travels forward through time, it reaches a hardened, cruel dictator in Germany, and with tears in his eyes, the previously cold-hearted Hitler orders his officers to forgo the campaign of genocide against the Jews and to release them from their ghettos, and with the swift signing of a peace treaty, World War II ends without a single further bullet being fired! All because of this one newspaper article! Also, because Virginia’s belief is now so strong, Santa walks up to her house and stops to say hello; this actually happens. Her believing in him makes him real. So you see, when you believe strongly enough in a supernatural being, he will materialize and you will receive concrete evidence of his existence.
This movie really pissed me off. I rushed right over here to start writing while the end credits were still rolling, but before I could even finish the first paragraph, I heard this fucking song. It’s this sappy ballad about how “yes, Virginia,” there is a Santa Claus if you just believe. That’s the fucking icing on the cake. Just for that, my Approve Meter went down a few extra points. One Star for this turkey.