Written by Bob Siegel and originally published by Washington Times Communities. Used by permission
December 12, 2011 – One would expect a Top Ten Best Holiday Movies list to be followed by a Top Ten Worst list. But what kind of Scrooge would I be if I made sport of something near and dear to somebody else’s heart? And yet, sometimes people do need warnings.
Perhaps a compromise with a kinder, gentler Scrooge is in order. I plan to restrain myself and talk about just three movies that did not make my Top Ten list. One is a mixed review. The others are so bad, they deserve a spotlight of their own without being watered down by other bad reviews. Much as I regret criticizing anything that lifts up Christmas, somebody had to say it. Otherwise the rocks themselves would cry out in pain.
Mixed Review: Disney’s Babes In Toyland
Although it’s quite corny in places, I cannot forget the thrill I had seeing this movie in the theater as a child. Considering when it was filmed, Babes In Toyland (1961) had wonderful special effects and plenty of Disney magic. If you can stay with it up to the time the children actually enter Toyland (about half way through) you will find that the wait was worth it.
“The March of the Toy Soldiers” number and the final battle sequence are absolutely spectacular, even more so when we remember that this was before the time of computer animation.
I am disappointed that this movie didn’t become more popular. But with an all star cast, including, Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) as an enjoyable villain this time, Tommy Kirk, Tommy Sands, and Annette Funicello of the early Disney family, the hilarious Ed Wynn (Uncle Albert from Mary Poppins) as the toy maker himself, and timeless Christmas music from the original stage version, Babes and Toyland should be an annual tradition.
Why then, did it not make my Top Ten list? Because my review is one of the most mixed I have ever written. The bad parts are so terrible and the good parts are so wonderful, one not only feels frustrated, but must also wonder what went on in production. Either a lemon script was partially saved or a brilliant script was pushed off the wall, and, like Humpty Dumpty, (who ironically would have blended in well with the background of this movie with its Mother Goose theme) no one could put it together again.
There is little to redeem the first half of the film. In places, the songs and dialogue get so stupid and so childish, you would be embarrassed to have your friends or family walk into the room and catch you watching this albatross. Yes, the movie was made for children so we need to cut a little slack, but not much.
Although we can accept the fact that Mother Goose Village is a setting for youngsters, Disney’s hallmark genius and well deserved reputation are generally demonstrated in an ability to entertain kids and adults alike. Not so this time. Early in the film, the talented actors are wasted with stilted dialogue that often rhymes (an interesting experiment that simply did not work). Yet in the second half of the movie, they are not rhyming anymore (Go figure). Once the kindergarten poetry stops, the conversations are crisp, witty and (at least a bit) more realistic.
Part One did feature some fabulous dance numbers. But honestly, you would do better to read the Cliff’sNotes and then fast forward to the second half. The movie, after all, is called Babes in Toyland and (trust me on this) the part about Toyland is better than the part filmed for babes.
I still love the movie, mostly for nostalgic reasons. But if I placed it in my Top Ten List and you watched the first half, my reputation would be on the line. I do not love Babes in Toyland enough to put it high on a list and I love it too much to put it on the bottom. So instead, I offer this review alone, apart from any list at all.
There are too many bad Christmas videos to count them all. Undoubtedly people will argue over the worst more than the best. I did not want to spend a lot of time talking about the clunkers. Instead, I will list the two I despise the most.
1) (Absolute Worst!) THE GRINCH (film version)
This was only the promotional title. For its release in America, the official billing became: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
If I wanted, I could review the title alone: This is NOT Dr. Seuss’ version. In fact, it could not possibly be more the opposite of Dr. Seuss’ version. It is Ron Howard’s version. When all is said and done, this is not truly the same story and it did not have the same message! These are not insignificant points.
Once again, I love the original Dr. Seuss book and the annual half hour animated CBS special that Seuss (Theodore Geisel) also worked on. He was no longer alive when the bomb squad accidentally missed this WMD. Perhaps, God in his mercy took Geisel home first.
Why do people feel they need to tamper with classics? Is it to put their own names on pieces of art that were already signed by others? Is it for money? They usually deny either of those reasons. “Oh, I’m doing this as a tribute,” they claim.
In the case of director, Ron Howard, I am not sure if he would call this a tribute. Hopefully not. It would only make the project more of a travesty.
To be fair, there were a few good things about the movie. Visually, it was stunning and fun to watch simply from the standpoint of eye candy beauty and clever gadgetry. And I suppose if we had to have a real live actor portraying the Grinch, Jim Carey did about as good a job as anyone could. It also boasted one beautiful song. And…That’s it! I can compliment nothing else. Getting more out of me would be like trying to suck blood out of a turnip. If only they’d released the song alone.
But alas, we are dealing with Hollywood, where producers ask themselves only two related questions: “Is this marketable?” And, “Will this sell?” Seldom (if ever) do they wrestle with enough artistic integrity to raise their hands from across the big boardroom table and spit out the words, “Say, J.B, should we really do this? Is it really necessary?”
How do you take a thirty-minute television special (even less, minus the commercials) and make a two-hour movie out of it? Obviously, you have to pad the story. In this case, so much stuffing was jammed inside, we can barely taste the original turkey, although turkey is certainly an appropriate description for a film that should have borrowed the verbiage of Tim Burton’s holiday title: The Nightmare Before Christmas.
As for that padding: Learn all about sensitivity and Political Correctness as flashbacks show us a boy Grinch who grew up in a dysfunctional environment and was ridiculed by all the other little kids at Whoville Elementary School. Discover the sorrowful backstory about the girl he fell on love with who wanted nothing to do with him. See? The problem wasn’t in his own nature. It was the fault of everyone else!
Although the film does start with the familiar narration, “His heart was two sizes too small,” it then goes on to prove that his heart actually had nothing to do with the problem. It was the surroundings, his environment, Silly. Didn’t you know?
But I’ve saved the best for last. Check out this new ingredient, something you’ve never seen in a Christmas story before! The people of Whoville are only into the commercialism of Christmas! They have forgotten what Christmas is really all about!
Oh, Ron Howard, you have certainly topped yourself this time! Rarely has such creativity enveloped the wonderful world of winter cinema. Just imagine: a message decrying the commercialism of Christmas! I was so amazed, startled, and downright shocked. I almost spilled my box of Hot Tamales into my lap! Only one person in Whoville protested commercialism, Cindy Lou Who. You remember her: “Little Cindy Lou Who, who was two.” Only this time she is not two. She’s old enough to give lectures on greed and other Capitalistic invasions that conspire to wreck the holidays.
Am I crazy? Wasn’t Dr. Seuss’ ENTIRE MESSAGE that the people of Whoville WERE NOT into commercialism? Doesn’t the Grinch learn this when he steals all their gifts, decorations, and food, only to find them singing and celebrating anyway?
If asked why he felt compelled to change everything around, perhaps Howard would say, “We needed more of a story. After all, the original was under thirty minutes and we were making it into a two-hour feature.”
And therein lies the very source of his problem. The mistake was assuming this needed to be made in the first place.
I will close with the irony of ironies: For the sake of money alone, Hollywood turned a beautiful Christmas tradition into a lecture against commercialism. Good one, guys!
I realize I may lose a lot of friends over this “beloved classic.” Admittedly, I am biased here. I generally do not find Will Ferrell funny. Since most of his movies are comedies, perhaps you can see the problem. Ironically, he worked in The Office when his 4 episode appearance was floated as a possible replacement for Steve Carell. Even though originally my jaw dropped in sheer horror to hear Ferrell’s name as a possible addition to my favorite sitcom, I was pleasantly surprised at how well he fit in.
Alas, Ferrell did not end up becoming a regular on that show. But I did want to mention The Office since it was one time I actually found him entertaining and I owe the poor guy some kind of bone even though it will not make up for the rest of my comments. So yes, (for the sake of being fair and balanced) he was good in The Office.
As for Ferrell’s other work? Let’s see. How shall I put this? I’m sure in real life he’s a nice guy. But on the screen, seeing him in a preview is like watching a flashing, yellow warning light, or seeing the words, “Caution! Regardless of how novel the original idea may have once been, Will Ferrell eventually joined up with this project.”
Look, I know a lot of you think the movie was cute and I’m not trying to be unsentimental here. I don’t mind stories about elves. I loved Lord of the Rings. If that trilogy didn’t elevate elves to heroic status, I don’t know what did. And you’ve already seen two installments of The Santa Clause featured on my Top Ten List. Both films were literally loaded with elves from start to finish. No problem here with elves. I want to make that abundantly clear. I am hoping to avoid a lawsuit, just in case there is some Elf Anti-Defamation League out there somewhere.
“What was wrong with Elf?” you ask. If you saw the movie and if you are a Will Ferrell fan, nothing I say will matter, and there is little point in wasting time to convince you otherwise. If such is the case, just ignore this critique and enjoy the movie. I can be happy for you if you can appreciate the freedom you have in a country that does not allow dissenters to be tortured: But torture is what I’ll experience if I should ever again in my life have to be in the same room with this video.
On the other hand, if you did not see the film and you want to know what was wrong with it, perhaps brevity would be most effective here: IT STINKS!!!!
I guess that was a bit too brief. Sure…OK…I’ll provide a little more detail: IT REALLY STINKS!!! You want more? IT SUCKS RAW EGGS WITH TWO STRAWS!!!
OK OK. You’re looking for more depth and sophistication here. Fine. I suppose I could rationalize my lack of substance by saying there was nothing three-dimensional in the film to grab a hold of but with 3D movies making a come back, I don’t want to give the studio any ideas. Elf in 3D might just end life as we’ve known it.
All right, I’m getting there! Why was it so terrible? Aside from my distaste for Ferrell himself, it’s a tough one to put your finger on.
I could say Elf is a stupid story. But several of the movies on my Top Ten list were also stupid stories. I guess I could put it this way: There are two kinds of stupid: Funny-stupid and stupid-stupid. The difference is in the acting and the writing.
As I’ve mentioned already, with fantasy, if we believe in the characters, we will believe in the story. With better writing and better acting, the premise of this movie might have come across as quite clever and original.
Too often, Hollywood remakes something good (like The Grinch) and turns it into a disaster. Here’s a thought: Why not remake something that was bad but had some potential? If that is ever done, perhaps I’ll enjoy a future version of Elf. But in this present incarnation, no cigar.
Ferrell (a human who was raised by elves and grew up believing he was an elf) and his real human father, James Caan, with whom he reunites, have zero chemistry although the film cried out for the kind of chemistry Sonny visited upon Carlo in The Godfather.
As for Ferrell’s love interest? Zooey Deschanel is cute and at times the romantic sub-plot had its charms. But all charm evaporated when Deschanel sang “Santa Clause Is Coming To Town” in order to lift the spirit of Christmas so that Santa’s sleigh could function. You couldn’t sell a plot like this to the 99 Cent Store. Well, maybe you could. Elf was a hit.
Despite the above mentioned flaws, the main problem does keep coming back to Will Ferrell. I guess this is one of those opposition reviews, the kind you might find in Superman’s Bizarro Universe: Just as The Santa Clause would have flopped if not for Tim Allen, Elf might have succeeded if not for Will Farrell.
Now I should say…There was one bright spot to the film; Bob Newhart, as Will Ferrell’s elf dad. For five minutes I thoroughly enjoyed myself, thinking I had discovered a new Christmas treat. Unfortunately for my soon to be dashed holiday hopes, after those five minutes, the movie continued.
Well there you have it. But hey, that’s just my opinion. What do I know? If most people liked the movie, I must be in the wrong. After all, the majority is usually right, isn’t it? Of course, there was that time when the majority thought slavery was OK. And then there was that other time when the majority said you couldn’t split the atom. Never mind. Just go rent the film. If you like it, you like it. If you hate it, and you have as much fun as I did tearing it to shreds, your Christmas may still be merry after all.
Also by Bob Siegel: Part One: Top Ten Holiday Movies
Bob Siegel is a Christian apologist who also has a theater background. In addition to his theology education, he graduated San Jose State University with a B.A. in Theater Arts and has written over 14 original plays, including the award winning, Eternal Reach.