|THE TALKING CHRISTMAS TREE (???, 1990)|
Why was it such a misfit?
We've got a real mystery on our hands this time. I uncovered this VHS tape under a pile of garbage at Goodwill recently:
If you can't read the primitive dot matrix print, it says "HOLIDAY BEDTIME STORIES PRODUCED FOR MEIER AND FRANK BY MIRA." You can't test-play VHS tapes you find at Goodwill, you just have to drop a buck on them and take them home, and hope they weren't a waste of money. I had no idea what this was. And after watching it, I still have no idea what it was.
Meier and Frank was a chain of department stores native to the Northwest. They lasted until the mid-2000s when they were sold to Macy's. And they had an apparent involvement in a Christmas special that was 100% produced locally for KOIN Channel 6 in Portland, but I cannot find any evidence that the special actually aired there. I have no idea who the production company "MIRA" was either.
But I do know one thing: it was done cheap! The whatever-it-is opens with a theme song: "If you've ever seen a house fly, or a kitchen sink, or a door jam, or a camera wink, or a willow weep, or a coffee tee (these puns are illustrated by respective ornaments and the last one is a coffee cup holding a golf club)...then you just might believe in me, the Talking Christmas Treeeeee."
The Talking Christmas Tree promised by both the title and the song is a frightening-looking pine with a smiling expression permanently frozen on its trunk. Its lips do not move when it talks, it just stands there and shakes while making goofy remarks. The special is co-hosted by Santa Claus, who turns to the camera and says "HO HO HO, you kids are supposed to be in bed, aren't ya? Oh, right, you're here for the STORIES." The Talking Christmas Thing is in his workshop to narrate five tales depicted with cutout drawings from picture books. But he has a second and more significant function.
As Santa explains it, "This tree has a very special job because every time one of you has a KIND THOUGHT for someone else or a GOOD WISH for them, this tree turns that thought into a holiday decoration! So you see, all the lights and ornaments you see at Christmastime are really the kind thoughts you all have for each other!" Huh...live and learn. After Santa says this, the tree spins around maniacally and yells "AW SANTA, GET READY, IT'S HAPPENING! IT'S HAPPENING AGAIN!" A few low-tech post-production sparkles shoot out of him and a wreath materializes on Santa's wall.
"Oh my, look at the clock! It's seven snowflakes past an icicle!" Santa helpfully points out. "You better start the first story before the kids have to get to bed!" Santa magics up his Enchanted Storybook while the tree explains "I can turn stories into holiday decorations too, kids, with your help of course." And the first of these is called....
"Uncle Henry had a problem, he believed mirrors tell lies. This was because he could swear he had more hair than the mirror led him to believe. Aunt Anna also had a problem: she liked to save wrapping paper. She would save as much paper as she could. On Christmas she would insist that no one tear up their wrapping paper because she had to save it, and she'd sometimes reach for it before the gift opener had even finished unwrapping it!"
"Anyway, that year, Aunt Anna wrapped up ALL the Christmas presents...but it wasn't enough! She couldn't suppress the urge! So she wrapped up the furniture! And the dog! When Uncle Henry came home for dinner he couldn't eat it because the dinner was wrapped up with a sticker that said 'Do Not Open Until Christmas'!"
Geez, how far can this escalate? Pretty far. The next day Uncle Henry gets a call from the mayor that Aunt Anna has turned into a public nuisance. She escaped the house and wrapped up all the stop signs and caused traffic accidents. She was now attempting to gift-wrap entire buildings, and succeeding. Could this terrorist be stopped?
Uncle Henry gets an idea: turn the tables. He gift-wraps Anna's tape and scizzors and sticks "DO NOT OPEN UNTIL CHRISTMAS" stickers on them. Because Anna couldn't bring herself to disobey the stickers, the town is saved. But...probably pretty angry with them?
Or maybe not. As the tree explains, "On Christmas Morning everybody ran out and excitedly unwrapped all the stop signs and buildings! It was the best Christmas ever! The End." Thanks, tree, that was....interesting. But don't get too weirded out too quickly -- we have to get through four more of these.
Also, the tree's powers absorbed the story and turned Anna into an ornament. Though Henry will probably miss her, this is really for the best for everyone.
The tree's second story is called "The Magic Elevator." Meier and Frank's prime location used to be in downtown Portland and it was quite a sight to behold during the holidays. You know those old movies where the kids will go to the Big Important Store downtown and just stare at the picture windows full of toys? That was this place. It was THE place to meet Santa and he usually appeared below a massive tree, with a train riding around it that kids could actually fit inside and ride. I'm lucky to be old enough to remember all this while it was still a thing, but not lucky to be that old in the first place.
Anyway, this story starts out there, with four children decorating that massive tree. More than one of the kids feels unhappy because their parents can't be with them -- they are stuck at work. One kid blames one element of society in particular for this: elevators. "When my mother enters the elevator, she's all happy, but when she comes out of it several hours later, she looks tired and sad." The other kids agree: elevators must go!
But perhaps they just haven't met the RIGHT elevator. Suddenly, their tree disappears and in its place stands a creepy man with a handlebar mustache, dressed like a tree. He tells them HE'S an elevator....a MAGIC elevator! He promises to take the four kids anywhere they want to go!
Uhh, didn't your parents tell you to avoid people like this, kids? Too late, they've already boarded his box and are shooting through the sky. But the kids really don't feel like going anywhere because their parents aren't with them. "They're all stuck at work," a kid tells Handlebar Elevator Man. HEM has a solution for that....he'll just visit all their offices and physically yank them out of their important meetings!
No, I'm not kidding.
The drawings that follow are both hilarious and disturbing at the same time. HEM pulls a woman out of a board meeting by her hair and reaches out to grab another man out of nowhere at his office. You'd think this would be traumatizing or they'd at least protest a bit, but....no, everything works out fine and the famlies all have fun riding the elevator.
After that he brings the parents back to where he grabbed them from (no word if any of them got fired) and touches the elevator back down in the store. After the kids exit, he waves goodbye and disappears, with the tree reappearing where he stood. But this time, the tree has been already decorated with thousands of lights. One kid wonders if the whole thing was a dream, but the lights "wink" at him to prove it wasn't.
And the ornament generated by that mess was...the kids in the elevator! The tree adds it to his branches.
The tree's third story is about a cat owned by a little girl named Ellen. The cat has a problem: he's too fat. Ellen's parents are threatening to send him to a cat exercise farm for Christmas (I don't think that's a thing), but Ellen can't bear the thought of being without Jingles. Also, Ellen is in a wheelchair, but this doesn't affect the story in any way. People who are physically disabled prefer the kind of representation where their disability isn't focused on, so....good work, Meier and Frank.
Ellen's friends get the idea to send the cat to an aerobics class, but....it's a cat and just sits there, staring at everybody. That was their best idea, so now they just sit around sad...until the cat starts pawing at the window of a clothing store. Seems he really likes the purple spandex outfit that store is selling. Well, cats don't wear clothes and they don't make them in his proportions, so--
--okay, never mind. The problem is actually that the clothes are too SMALL for the cat, because Jingles is too overweight. Well, there isn't much that can be done about that--
--okay, NEVER MIND, THE CAT IS DOING AEROBICS NOW! Jingles just lacked the proper motivation. So he stretches and pumps those legs and gets physical, physical, until he finally slims down. Ellen's father holds him trimphantly over his head and announces that Jingles has lost so much weight, he won't have to go to a cat fat farm after all.
But then there's this new problem: Jingles is so happy now that he purrs all the time. And his purring is so loud it's saturating the entire house and keeping the family awake. Ellen's dad says he's going to send the cat away just for that. Seems when he was plumper, his fat softened the sound of his purrs and prevented this from being a problem. And no, fat-shaming isn't the lesson here -- there's a different ending. It's at that moment that Ellen remembers the suit.
Once Jingles is wearing the purple suit, the purring is insulated and not as loud. The family is happy, Ellen is happy, and for Christmas she gets a purple spandex outfit so she and her cat can be twins. The End.
The ornament generated by this nonsense is, naturally, Jingles. Tree, your stories are seriously bats***. What could possibly come next?
Reggie and Tyrone are best friends. The story starts out by mentioning that, but it doesn't affect anything. The real focus of this one is their next-door neighbor Mr. Wallis, who "gets a little confused." Reggie and Tyrone find out Wallis has been chosen as a pinch-hit Wise Man for the town Nativity Play this year, as the usual actor is sick. The boys instantly know there will be trouble. The problem is that Wallis has a tendency to...get things mixed up.
When they visit his brownstone, Wallis has a tree decorated in "Happy Valentine's Day" banners and he's wearing an Easter Bunny suit. Tyrone asks Wallis if he even knows who the Wise Men were. "Of course! Washington and Lincoln, right?"
The kids ask him if he has a suit suitable for playing a biblical figure. All his outfits are holiday-related, and the wrong holiday. Then Reggie points out a Fourth of July Uncle Sam outfit and says, "Hey, that would be perfect!" They know it wouldn't be perfect...they figure Wallis is a lost cause at this point and they might as well amuse themselves.
Wallis does indeed come to that play in a star-spangled outfit -- and waving sparklers! The audience starts laughing. The poor infant selected to play Baby Christ can't take it and starts crying.
But like a little drummer boy, the sight of Wallis in his marvelous suit instantly fascinates and calms the tot. Wallis saves the play and is invited to play the same role from that point forward, in the same outfit. I wonder how that guy he replaced felt about that.
So...what are we in for to top this all off? The fifth and final story this tree has up its branches must be the strangest one of all, right?
Well....that's a letdown. No twists in the narrative here...it's just the public domain poem. They illustrate this with the drawings from the previous stories, so the dancing cat appears out of nowhere. Santa is photos of the live-action version. The effort is rather low considering everything we've just seen, and not worth the buildup. It almost makes you so angry, you want to grab some wrapping paper and make some public safety signs illegible.
But the VHS doesn't end without one final ornament gift from the tree: himself! Now you can stick his horrifying grin on your own tree and wake up to it on Christmas morning. Hop to it!
Why didn't it fit in?
If it happens, let me know.