He's not just squirrelin' around!
When you think about squirrels, probably the last image that pops into your brain is that of a small gray tree climber recreating the Nativity or lighting the menorah. Ever since "not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse," the rodent's involvement in the holiday season has been rather limited. True, we all remember the classic tale of Timmy, the Xmas Rat who bit small poor children on the soles of their feet and gave them the magical spirit of bubonic plague as part of the Yuletide celebration. And we could never forgot Fred, the effeminate field mouse who taught the world that alternative lifestyles, be they between mice or men, were wonderful expressions of holiday togetherness (not to mention giving a new meaning to the notion of "stuffing one's stocking"). Probably the most famous varmint of Noel is Pablo, the prissy prairie dog who travels the globe in his enchanted Fed Ex packing crate and spreads monkey pox to all the bad little boys and girls on the planet. Apparently, we now have to add Rupert, the pecuniary nut gatherer, to the family of festive fleabags. Under the auspices of the talented George Pal (who really should have known better), this sentimental story of a poor family who gets an unexpected gift of God funds, thanks to that pesky ball of parasites, strives to be a classic, right alongside It's A Wonderful Life and Satan Claws. But A Christmas Wish is just a bunch of dreary droppings destined to turn your festive feast to foul famine in one onerous viewing.
Facts of the Case
The Amendola Family is flat broke on the day before Christmas. They wander the street, looking for a flophouse or discarded milk crate they can huddle into for the night. At one time, they were famous for their human pyramid act. Now, they are infamous for skipping out on creditors. When they con their way into a besmirched basement apartment owned by the Dingles, it looks like another game of advanced landlord abatement is about to begin. But the Amendolas don't know that the Dingles are rich, having just come into some gold mine money. And the Dingles don't know that the place where Daddy Dingle decides to deposit his dinero is also the home for a talented squirrel named Rupert.
Rupert used to do a bushy tailed one-rat show about the salted nut goodie and sooty blotch, but many felt his act too rodent risqué and he was banned from showbiz. After being abandoned by his elderly owner and picked on by the more bark-wise city squirrels, Rupe retreated to the only home he'd ever known, now occupied by the great unwashed Amendolas. He resigned himself to put up with Jimmy Durante's moldy old jokes with cheery aplumb.
But the Amendolas don't know that Rupert is residing with them. Hell, they don't know much, in fact. They are also unaware that the furry failure hates the wicked greenback and when Mr. Dingle stuffs the stash into his living room/toilet, Rupert pitches a hissy and flings the scrip out of his domicile before it filthy lucres up the place. Soon, it's raining tens—crash—Halleluiah, it's raining tens—boom—Amen! As the clueless leasees spend the heaven-sent cash, the town begins to think that they are up to no good—unlike when they knew that they were show people, and automatically a pariah. It will take another good deed by our scampering tree skunk to make the season bright, or at least answer the insatiable cash craving everyone has as part of A Christmas Wish.
If you're the kind of person who doesn't know it's time for the holidays until a large novelty movie mallet filled with syrupy sweet cheesy cornpone clobbers you over the conscience, then the story of the Great Rupert and the family of fools he fiddles with is bound to give your chestnuts a chubby. This story of a rodent rapscallion who thrusts a miser's penny-pinching fortune onto the paltry pauperness of a bunch of ex-carnies is guaranteed to have you praying for a paycheck and believing in the spirit of whining, coveting, and embezzlement. A Christmas Wish (apparently the old title The Great Rupert focused too much on philanthropist vermin for a tinseled tale) was special effects wizard George Pal's (War of the Worlds, The Time Machine) answer to the question "what animals have we yet to exploit in the name of Adestes Fideles?" After testing a pig, the ocelot, and the blue-footed booby, they settled on the potentially rabid and always flea-infested backyard tree rat. The result is a strange, sappy saga of people without the slightest inclination on how to manage their financial status suddenly turning J. Paul Getty and as a result, making the season bright. Where else but in Hollywood would the story of a Scottish squirrel (dressed in a kilt and tam o'shanter, he oddly does a kind of Irish-Gypsy jig) stealing thousands to benefit folks who don't deserve it even be conceived of as appropriate Yuletide fare. And yet A Christmas Wish is going to try its absolute hardest to bitch-slap you into caring about what happens to these itinerate idiots and their acorn hording accountant.
There are a lot of reasons to be wary of this movie. Aside from the fact that it's pure nonsense and saccharine enough to satiate the sweet teeth of several sub-continents, there is another, more troubling aspect afoot. A Christmas Wish is manic about money. This movie centers on the basic philosophical ideal that the unadulterated worship of paper and iron is paramount to eternal happiness. Now, let's face it, we are living in a material world and we are all material gir…um, people. Without a little dough-re-me stashed away for that insolvent shower that springs up every couple of weeks, we'd all be scanning the landscape for friendly hobo signs. But greed is not only good for A Christmas Wish, it's God! Characters mock those who are artistically inclined, assuming that the reason they do not have a job is because they hate money and manual labor (and not the desire to spread their special gift of talent to the masses). The skinflint and the loan shark are seen as sources of sawbuck salvation and sanctification. And folks of small or no fortune are pitied like they have palsy or advanced anal acne. Unless you have a gold mine paying off, an oil well gushing, or a Broadway agent sugar daddy frosting your billfold, Rupert and his avaricious rubes want little or nothing to do with you. Real "peace on Earth, goodwill toward men" sentiments, right?
A Christmas Wish is actually a very good film for the modern holiday experience. It's concerned solely with how much moolah you've got and how rapidly you can piss it away. The Amendola family manages to blow $1500 in seven days at 1950s prices (this was at a time, remember, when a steak cost a buck and sex with a hooker got you change back from your fin). The expert spenders in this movie prove that the commercialization of the season was inevitable. When they're poor and yet still have their health and their familial love, they're miserable. But when they suddenly find unexpected wealth, they go completely goofy, impulse shopping themselves into a froth. And this doesn't even begin to address the acting and performances here. Let's just say that those of you who don't know who Jimmy Durante is, and hope that this film enlightens you as to why he made your grandpa and grandma wet 'em, you better move on.
Frankly, calling A Christmas Wish a holiday classic is a lot like referring to dog food as gourmet forcemeat pâté. This is a movie that has about five minutes of Xmas cheer contained inside its overlong running time (Durante and the gang warble through the chorus of "Jingle Bells") and then it's all about IRS audits and FBI sting operations. Even poor Rupert is shortchanged, only given scant screen time to win us over with his stop-motion animation antics before he is relegated to the back burner for more episodes of binge spending. Frankly, what a film that rests its success on the back of an armatured taxidermy project needs is more stuffed shenanigans. But aside from his culturally indistinct dancing and occasionally money laundering, Rupert is just a George Pal prop experiment. He has no Xmas spirit or purpose. He doesn't get a visit from Santa. There is no chance for the perky pest to save Christmas for orphans. All he can do is just whip money out of his hidey-hole and sleep where he poops. So it's by the finest thread that this film and its furry freak finds its way into the Yuletide lexicon. And the same fragile filament describes the contemptible manner in which Fox presents this title.
Now, there were hundreds of bad ideas in the '80s: re-electing Ronald Reagan, messing with the formula of Coca-Cola, and giving Steven Segal a screen test. But none can top colorization for crass, contemptible carelessness: that digital diarrhea that rendered classic black and white films mostly peach and lime green. The fact that people actually bought this brazen bill of godawful goods proves that, back then, cinematic appreciation needed a swift swat in the short hairs. Thankfully, the DVD came along and has finally begun to settle the score. Until now. The fools at Fox have decided that the adding of horrid hues onto overly dark monochrome images is not such a badly outdated idea after all (if their news channel is any indication of their corporate ideology, Murdoch's empire is stuck in a decidedly Kajagoogoo k-hole) and has revived Ted Turner's paint by dumbers system. The version of A Christmas Wish they offer in faux fleshtones is so atrociously reminiscent of watching cable in 1986 that you'll swear MTV still only shows videos. As was proven over a decade ago, this methodology does not work—new fangled patented process claims or not. Humans were just not meant to look like soiled Silly Putty. Not that the black and white is that much better. There is a nice level to the ebony, but we see far too much grain and a very odd sequence of hyper-zoom close-ups that are obviously hiding something (what exactly is not known). Anything is better than the primary pigment nightmare, but the original elements are just the worse for wear.
On the sound side, we get that other hackneyed hallmark of a movie made before 1980—ersatz Dolby Digital Surround. Taking a mono movie from 50 years ago and messing with the mix to get the noises to channel surf is one thing, but there should be some rhyme or reason to the redesign. Not on A Christmas Wish. Voices during the songs have a strange echo effect and directional cues are badly executed. And the 5.1 and DTS are available on the colorized version only. So unless you feel like fiddling with the tint to recreate the classic look, you're stuck with mono.
It's interesting to see how Fox labels the original monochrome version of the movie as a "special feature." Perhaps it's to make up for the fact that the only other bonus is a commentary track from a woman who never saw the film she was in and a group of people who are proud they played computerized finger-paints with the image. Poor Terry Moore spends way too much time detailing her tawdry tabloid exploits (she was married to Howard Hughes and cheated on him with half of Hollywood before wedding some football player in a wonderful act of bigamy in international waters…hmm) and praising the movie's cuteness to give us any honest insight. Her hue enhancers aren't much more enticing. Aside from patting themselves on the back over the "realistic" look to their dated digital processing (and, by the way, the only way you can hear any of this dry droning is on the colorized version), they readily remark how "classic" the film is over and over, hoping to instill the same brainwashed balderdash into our own cranium. But it won't work. While it is honestly about as harmful as being pummeled with an overstuffed down pillow, A Christmas Wish just can't match the magic of movies like Miracle on 34th Street or Jingle Hell. Indeed, if it weren't for George Pal's dancing dysentery factory, this movie would be one long seminar on skid row economics. Here are a couple of credit hours you can skip.
For little kids and those easily fooled or incredibly gullible, Rupert's ruse and the glad tiding of great joy that it attempts to generate will probably be a divine slice of Aunt Stella's rum soaked spice cake, complete with cognac coolie and an Irish coffee on the side. Others with a more monetary bent could base their entire philanthropic nature on this tale of a robbing rodent who swipes from the miserly and scats on the insolvent. But most fans of good old-fashioned holiday cheer will take one whiff of this wooden waste product and pass on the puking pulp ASAP. A Christmas Wish, or The Great Rupert, or whatever you want to call it, is one movie that so badly misses the merriment mark that frankly, not even Lee Harvey Oswald could hit it, even with a pristine rifle and all the firing time he needed. Christmas is about giving, not receiving; sharing, not parsimonious greed. But until our insatiable squirrel understands this, the only thing he'll be getting from Santa is an audit.
A Christmas Wish is hereby found guilty of being a silly, stupid, and sappy holiday experience and is sentenced to ten years of de-sugaring. Fox is convicted of crimes against cinematic humanity for trying to reintroduce colorization into the glossary of acceptable DVD practices and is sentenced to death by Photoshop. Court dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Star Terry Moore
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