*½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras C
directed by Matthew O'Callaghan
by Bill Chambers 2-D animation is dead, long live 2-D. Mickey Mouse and his apostles move into the realm of 3-D with Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas, cementing this maddeningly disposable gewgaw's place in the history books next to far more sublime firsts like 1928's Steamboat Willie (Mickey's debut) and 1935's The Band Concert (Mickey's colour debut). But while it's tempting to lob cheap shots along the lines of "Uncle Walt is spinning in his grave," fact is Disney's frosty remains were already a veritable "Price is Right" wheel by the early '70s, and if he'd lived to see the digital revolution, he probably would've been one of its pioneers. In other words, it's not sacrilege to experiment with a CGI Mickey, but the results probably never should've seen the light of day.
Motion is just one issue, although because these characters have found themselves consigned to sweatshop facilities over the past few years, the impression that Mickey, et al are struggling against zero-gravity is almost preferable to the choppiness of the "House of Mouse" TV and dtv ventures. No, the true foil proves to be texture, something the hand-drawn cartoons never had to address: in the uncanny valley, Mickey and Goofy appear to be made of liquorice, Donald suggests a hollow lawn ornament lit from the inside, and (a curiously diminutive) Pluto, whose implicit fur is given due consideration, looks in dire need of a hosing-down to rid himself of all that powdered cheddar. Translating their mascots into bits and bytes will probably turn a quick profit in this, the year of Shrek 2, Shark Tale, and The Incredibles, but it seems a foolhardy move for a studio that relies on these icons for financial sustenance: wean kids on Digital Mickey and they won't want anything to do with the still-active ink-and-paint one.
As for this anthology piece, a sequel to 1999's 2-D Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas, it's predictably uneven. "Christmas Maximus" has a little novelty thanks to its violation of the unwritten rule that there's no aging in Toontown (Goofy's son Max, last seen as a high-schooler, is now in college and dating), while "Donald's Gift," in which Donald just wants to drink hot chocolate in peace, and "Mickey's Dog-Gone Christmas," about Pluto going to live with Santa's reindeer after Mickey chews him out, vaguely honour their respective canons. Of the remaining two stories, there's indisputable entertainment value in the expressionistic "Christmas: Impossible" (if only because it subversively casts Donald's nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie in a fiendish light), but things get off to a rocky start with the thoroughly ill-conceived "Belles on Ice," wherein Minnie Mouse and the equally moth-eaten Daisy Duck square off in an impromptu figure-skating competition, destined to learn some inapplicable teamwork moral. Ironically, the flat effigies of Mickey and co. that decorate the pop-up books in a framing device have more charm than the moving 3-D counterparts do.
Disney presents Twice Upon a Christmas on DVD in a Pixar-clear 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer complete with a surprisingly intricate (though not particularly expansive) 5.1 soundmix in your choice of Dolby Digital and booming DTS. A smattering of extras begins with a deleted scenes section that more accurately details abandoned concepts for the films; running 12 minutes when "play all" is selected, "All Things Deleted" includes intros from producer Pam Marsden, Disney Toon executive Jeff Howard, and director Matthew O'Callaghan that never once make mention of the precedent-setting nature of the production! "Backstage Disney: Inspiration on Ice" (3 mins.) amasses soundbites from the adorable Michelle Kwan, who provided a live-action reference for the "Belles on Ice" sequence. Three uninspired "Games & Activities" ("Santa's Workshop Challenge," "Guess What Donald is Saying," "Santa's Sort"), "sneak peeks" at the upcoming Bambi and Mary Poppins Special Editions, Mulan II, Pooh's Heffalump Movie, The Aladdin Trilogy, and Eloise at Christmas Time, and a ROM option to print Christmas cards round out this FastPlay-enhanced disc.
IT'S A VERY MERRY MUPPET CHRISTMAS MOVIE
**½/**** Image B Sound B Extras C
written by Tom Martin and Jim Lewis
directed by Kirk R. Thatcher
by Walter Chaw There's just a second in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie where we see Scooter in S&M gear, gyrating in a cage in a leather bar as Kermit ponders a world where he's never been born. It's a moment that by itself merits this made-for-TV holiday special a look, as it demonstrates a level of caustic irreverence missing from the Muppet franchise since the death of Jim Henson in 1990. Director Kirk Thatcher, the punk-rocker Spock dispatches in Star Trek IV, brings enough wit to the table to counterbalance the substandard voice work (Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson in place of Henson and Frank Oz) and embarrassing embedded commercial announcements for NBC that include a cameo by the entire cast of "Scrubs".
Kermit finds his theatre foreclosed by the evil Mrs. Bitterman (Joan Cusack), and his despair catches the notice of both well-meaning guardian angel Daniel (David Arquette) and, eventually, God Herself (Whoopi Goldberg), who offer our green hero a glimpse, Capra-like, of what things would be like without him. Goldberg, alas, is tiresome in her umpteenth turn as some sort of wise Guinan while Arquette, only ever good taking a hatchet in Ravenous, should have switched places with William H. Macy, who appears as his bureaucrat boss. Among the human players, Cusack alone demonstrates the right energy, proving again that she's one of our brightest comic actors.
A holiday film in the sense that it takes its cue from a holiday film (It's a Wonderful Life), the real value of It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie is how it serves as a reminder that the Muppets used to be a keen mirror to contemporary silliness. An extended sequence where the obnoxiousness of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! is carried to a somehow more obnoxious crescendo by a bunch of carpet samples on sticks isn't particularly funny, but it is a pretty good skewering of a subject that could only gain through a little satirical self-awareness. Cirque du Soleil receives similar treatment (with Matthew Lillard as a Gallic choreographer) in an unfunny yet on-target skit that identifies at once the strengths and weaknesses of the piece.
The kids division of MGM presents It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie in a full-frame "Special Edition" presentation all the more puzzling for the fact that a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer was prepared for the film's R2 release. The picture looks as good as a recent TV movie ought to while the DD 5.1 soundmix is an uninvolving front-speaker affair. A lengthy "Inside Pepe's Studio" featurette takes a fairly funny approach by having Pepe the King Prawn impersonate James Lipton whilst interviewing director Thatcher about the making of the picture. A blooper reel is also more or less a hoot, a few deleted scenes are pretty much indistinguishable from the bloopers (with more Carson Daly--never a good thing), and a series of Muppet bios are borderline clever in a sort of excruciating way ("Favorite Song: Rainbow Connection"). Trailers for Good Boy, Just 4 Kicks, the Muppets Party Cruise videogame, the Kate Winslet/animated A Christmas Carol, Prancer, A Freezerburnt Christmas, Second Star to the Left, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hamilton Mattress, Hi 5!, and Miss Spider's Sunny Patch Kids round out the platter. Originally published: November 10, 2004.