Back in the Day ...
Merry, merry, ho, ho, yada, yada, yada.
I'm decidedly grinchy this year. I heard myself say those words that signal the change from a young, starry-eyed go-getter to that woman who sounds frighteningly like my mother: "You know, back in the day ..."
Gasp! Choke! Gurgle! Hack! Did I say that?
It happened when I was thinking about holiday entertainment on television. Actually, it first occurred earlier this year when Charles Schulz died. Sure, there are enough Peanuts comic strips to last us the rest of our lives, but the fact that Charlie Brown's dad (so to speak) died wilted something inside me. Then, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown didn't air ... and I didn't notice. It took well over a month for that "Hey, wait a minute ..." sensation to creep up on me. It's not even that I thought Great Pumpkin was all that great. As a kid, I remember sneering at it, though I eventually warmed to it. I appreciated Linus' faith and stubbornness and soon anticipated The Great Pumpkin as I did the first snow, turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce from a can, homemade tamales, and hot chocolate made from Mexican chocolate by my grandma, who made it special for me because I was her favorite, no matter what the other grandkids think. Bless her soul. But I digress.
As it turns out, The Great Pumpkin will rise again. The holiday cartoon series, including the perpetually charming A Charlie Brown Christmas, will be shown by ABC in 2001, when it officially acquires the rights to the Peanuts holiday specials. CBS, which held the rights for 35 years, simply opted not to air The Great Pumpkin this year but will show A Charlie Brown Christmas on Monday, December 4.
Once I sorted out that very important information, I was back to my old self. But that wilted feeling returned watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade last week. My favorite part of the parade has always been the big balloons sailing in the crisp, New York sky. But a balloon of Jeeves from AskJeeves.com? Woody Woodpecker, yes. Bart Simpson, yes. But Jeeves.com? Why not have Tony the Tiger or Joe Camel? Only cartoon characters -- real cartoon characters! If I'd owned a cane, I would have stamped the floor with it and spit something out about whipper-snappers. Okay, so Ronald McDonald has a balloon, but at least he's a clown, I sloppily reasoned.
Performances from current Broadway musicals during the parade are always entertaining, but the selection from the new musical Seussical made me all the more grinchy. Seussical is a mélange of characters and story snippets from books by Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel). As the Seussical performers sang and boogied about, I thought, "No, no, no! They're not doing it right!" Part of my alarm came from knowing that during his lifetime, Dr. Seuss refused to have most of his work adapted for film or stage. (One exception was the half-hour holiday cartoon, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! -- more on that later.) He was afraid that allowing his work to be adapted would open it up to crass commercialism. Well, guess what? Since his death in 1991, Cat in the Hat hats, plush toys, games, and, now, theatrical and film productions have bloomed. Is Geisel spinning in his grave?
What really troubles me is how the Dr. Seuss spirit doesn't seem to be present in either the selection from Seussical I viewed or in the trailer for the new Grinch movie directed by Ron Howard. I haven't seen either yet, but I just know I'll hate them. Now, to despise something before I've even seen it -- isn't that what irritates me about certain self-righteous, right-wing fundamentalists who hide their fascism behind the Bible, the American flag, or both?
What exactly is it that I think Seussical and the newest incarnation of The Grinch "aren't doing right"? What is the Seuss spirit? In part, it's a sly whimsy and a deep connection with childhood reality, a reality juxtaposed with Dr. Seuss' ticklish language and loopy illustrations. But that's not it entirely. In my mind, the Seuss spirit is most evident in the half-hour animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! that I grew up with. In this version, Cindy Lou Who is a kid, not the wise waif who redirects the adults, namely the Grinch, as I understand she does in the film. (Speaking of wise kids, Haley Joel Osment has built his short movie career playing children wise beyond his years -- he even communicated with the dead, for goodness sake). What I think is missing from the current Grinch movie and other modern films and television shows with children in key roles is that they fail to remind me that I was once a kid, and that part of that kid -- mischievous, stubborn, and full of wishes -- is still alive under the weight of part-time jobs, three student loans, a computer flickering toward the scrap pile, and bones that ache when it rains. When I was a kid, I wasn't wise. I didn't know how to shepherd adults toward acting like adults (if only ... ). And more importantly, I wasn't expected to.
But the real reason I stammer "They're not doing it right!" with the indignation of a four-year-old is because Seussical and now the new Grinch movie don't reproduce my first experience of the Grinch. That experience has already been staked out by the half-hour cartoon I grew up with. It's curious, though not surprising, how powerful that claim is. And like it or not, there's a whole new generation of kids who will take the new, live-action, high-tech Grinch into their hearts as one of their favorite holiday memories. These are the same kids who won't blink when they see the Jeeves.com balloon floating in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. As for me, I like my holiday fare as corny and low-tech as I remember it "back in the day." I'll go see the Grinch movie, if only to avoid some well-deserved finger-wagging -- but I can't promise I'll like it.
Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns: The former first aired in 1969, the latter in 1995. Sunday, 7 and 7:30pm, CBS.
Other Holiday Treats
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!: Need I say more? Monday, 6pm, Cartoon Network. Repeats on December 24.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Burl Ives narrates this 1964 classic. Tuesday, 7pm, CBS.
Christmas Comes to Bikini Bottom: The hilarious SpongeBob SquarePants experiences Christmas for the first time. If you've never watched this frenetic cartoon, this might be a good introduction. Wednesday, 7:30pm, Nickelodeon.