Sunday, November 23, 2014

SPECIAL REVIEW: The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't (1971)

"Because of you two, I almost ended up in that big acorn tree in the sky!"

Last time, I revisited a somewhat obscure Thanksgiving special that I had only seen in the first grade. This time around, it's off to something more people have seen: The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't. Back in the 90's Cartoon Network played the heck out of this special when November rolled around; nowadays, not so much. You can probably catch it on Boomerang or something, but I can't make any guarantees.

The last review, The Mouse on the Mayflower, came to us from Rankin-Bass. This one comes from Hanna-Barbera.

Scrappy... Scrappy... Scrappy... he's not in there. We're safe.
(Two Fred Flintstones*, though.)
Yes, Hanna-Barbera. Spawned at MGM, dominated TV animation in the Dark Age, and absorbed by Time-Warner! Some animation enthusiasts (one being my guest, maniacaldude, from my Fraidy Cat review), would consider it a mere baby step up from Filmation's works. But for better or worse, its made its mark on the industry. On one hand, it's the company that unleashed Scoobysploitation on the world and invented the looping background. One the other, it made syndicated cartoons (and to some extent, anime) possible.

With all that out, let's get into the special.

SUMMARY
(SPOILERS AHEAD!)



We start with a boy and his sister (who sounds a little too old) about to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner with their parents. At the same time, a family of three squirrels (with the youngest played by June Foray... and no, this isn't Rocky) about to celebrate the holiday as well. Why would a bunch of animals celebrate a human holiday? Well, the squirrels have an ancestor who was involved with the first Thanksgiving! Surprise!

The father squirrel goes over the basic history of the founding of Plymouth Plantation: the voyage of the Mayflower, the hardships of the first months in the New World, meeting the Wampanoag (here, true to history, they don't meet the boat!), et cetera.

The squirrel's forefather, Jeremy, was living in a tree at the settlement. Close to his tree was a cabin belonging to a boy called Johnny Cook and his family. Just like in the last special, the Pilgrims were British... but lack accents.

I didn't know Fred Jones from Scooby-Doo had
ancestors who came over on the Mayflower!
Johnny goes out into the forest with a toy gun and mistakes a Wampanoag boy for a turkey (who mistakes Johnny for a turkey as well). They get into a fight and Jeremy has to come down and resolve the argument. He tells them that they should be friends. The squirrel goes up them and speaks to the boys directly. They don't question it or run back to the village or anything.

What rules apply here? We've established that animals can talk to other animals, what about here? Can the boys understand Jeremy because they're younger?

Of course, the two boys patch things up. The native boy introduces himself as Little Bear...


Wrong Little Bear and you know it! Pre-K stuff will have no presence on this blog!
Besides, this show's from 1971.

The weird thing about the whole sequence? A minute ago, during Papa Squirrel's summary of the traditional Thanksgiving tale, we saw the two boys together gigging for fish in a stream:

I guess they didn't say anything during this time and forgot who they
were in a few months.

Finally seeing eye to eye, LB and Johnny go back to the settlement and we get an extension of the special's theme song. This sequence also showcases the relatively small amount of footage HB had for it. We are shown two sets of three Puritan ladies carrying cauldrons around, turkeys roasting on a spit (with the background being the only thing that changes), kettles warming over a fire, all shown no less than twice during the sequence. We also get an alternate version of the intro when we hit the second half!

Obviously, it was filler. But then again, this is a Dark Age special and they needed more singing. Still, pretty good party considering that none of the settlers wanted to do anything for their first few months in North America.


Time for another history lesson. When Plymouth first started out, it was practically a socialist state. Before Karl Marx was even a thought, Governor William Bradford wanted all the settlers to make a common pool for all goods made there to be used by all the colonists when they needed it. Bradford wrote of the results of this method in his account, Of Plymouth Colony:
The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's and other ancients applauded by some of later times; and that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labor and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice.
Basically, when something had to be done, people tried to weasel their way out of work. After all, what was in it for them? Why put effort into a single project when others were also working on it and you could opt out and still reap the same benefits? The winter of 1620/21 was called the "Starving Time" by Bradford and the socialized economy of Plymouth was gradually phased out by the introduction of private property. Only when they had land of their own, the Pilgrims were able to put the stuff they'd learned from the Native Americans to optimal use and prosper.

"This had very good success," wrote Bradford "for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been." 



Amid the revelry, Johnny and LB run off into the forest, pretending to be hunters; naturally, Jeremy tries to get the two back to Plymouth Plantation before they get lost. He, instead, gets stuck in a small log. The two boys' absence gets noticed by the people at the feast; it gets cancelled and search party is sent out to find them.

The boys get lost and eventually reach a river. They try to take it downstream, thinking the colony is down that it... only to almost go over a waterfall! Quick thinking by Jeremy gets the two to dry land, where the squirrel chews them out for almost getting him killed. Getting his bearings straight, the squirrel points the two back toward Plymouth.

The duo sings a song (with the BGM using a duck call as an instrument) while strutting aimlessly through the woods and crossing the same stream twice. Jeremy tells them that going back to Plymouth on their own is a stupid idea an calls in a bunch of his animal buddies to babysit them while he scurries off to find some adults.

In the meantime, the two boys play hunter again (under animal supervision) and run into a wolf!

...

Holy crap! This isn't just a Thanksgiving special... it's Jonny Quest, 1621!


Think about it! You've got a blond-haired Caucasian protagonist...


...his Indian friend (Native American and Oriental, for the respective versions)...


...and their animal companion!


Even the father of the first boy listed has red hair!

And that says nothing about the constant life-threatening scenarios both groups of kids consistently find themselves in! 

And nobody noticed this after forty-plus years?

Anyway, with a wolf out trying to kill the boys, Jeremy's animal friends take action against the beast. Sparrows dive! Porcupine needles are launched like rockets! Rocks and acorns are hurled!

At the same time, Jeremy finds the search party and tells them where the boys are... in Squirrel. What would this accomplish? He spoke to the boys in English, but his words are basically "Jrbbl! Jrbbl! Gblubub!" here.

The wolf corners LB and Johnny. LB uses his bow on it, but the arrow seems to be just a toy since it bounces off the beast's snout. The search party attempts to shoot it with a musket, but fears that the gun would hit one of the boys. Fortunately, Jeremy bites the wolf's tail, shifting its attention to him. He tricks its into a hollow log, where it gets stuck!

With LB and Johnny safe, the festivities resume and Jeremy is made the guest of honor! He sings a song in honor of what all they were able to have and is joined in each verse by the two boys. This begs a question: is Jeremy singing in Squirrel or English? Given just a few scenes back, he was speaking to the search party in Squirrel. Will they understand him here, or just LB and Johnny?

"For if it hadn't been for him," says Papa Squirrel "there never would have been a Thanksgiving." I dunno, the mouse living in the steeple of Siloam Presbyterian Church over on McElveen Avenue may dispute your claim.

The squirrels eat their meal and the son wishes that Jeremy were alive to join them. Little does he know, that painting of his forefather is haunted by his spirit!

Ba, ba, BAAAAA!!


VERDICT

After doing The Mouse on the Mayflower, I knew I had to take a look at this one. It's only half as long, but it tells its own story rather than have the whole thing reenact the Mayflower's journey across the Atlantic and the founding of Plymouth Plantation. A lot of great voice talent is brought in and even some of the animation is pretty good considering the time and studio (like one shot of the wolf running at an angle and the smoothness of the boys' walking through the woods). The depiction of the Native Americans as non-stereotypes via Little Bear probably helped this special last a little longer in the modern consciousness than in Mouse.

Hanna-Barbera, yes, was low budget, but sometimes they got creative. One example I can think of right off the bat: the use of Jeremy rolling a boulder up a small tree to bend it over to prevent the boys from going over the waterfall. They had Jeremy moving on a flat plane, but rotated the background. Better than having Little Bear or Johnny saying "Look! Jeremy bent that tree down!" when it happens offscreen.

The weakest point for this special, I believe, is the songs. There were only three, but they were all pretty forgettable. Two of them, "Let's Take the Shortest Road Home" and "It's a Wonderful Day To Say Thank You" were pretty flaccid, yet the former was fluffy enough for my tastes. It also seemed as if they were hoping that "Dinner on the First Thanksgiving Day" was going to take off and become THE song for the holiday; it was played three times: the intro, the cooking montage, and the credits. Of course, if HB did try to attempt another Thanksgiving special, they'd probably reuse it... just like they did with their original Christmas carols.

After all is said and done, TTTAW is a pretty good special when you consider its age. When Turkey Day rolls around, try to YouTube it, it's worth your time this season.


I'm DLAbaoaqu. Happy Thanksgiving to my readers in the US.



*The "Fred" in the trenchcoat is a spy who just so happened to look like the real one. The movie was A Man Called Flintstone. I saw it a couple of times on Cartoon Network's Cartoon Theater back in the late 90's.



Sunday, November 2, 2014

SPECIAL REVIEW: "Mouse on the Mayflower" (1968)


Autumn, 1993. A much younger DLAbaoaqu was in the first grade. He and his class were shown a VHS tape shortly before Thanksgiving break. It was a little cartoon about a mouse that traveled with the Pilgrims to the New World and participated in the settling of Plymouth Colony. He vaguely recalled the mouse living in a church and a bunch of sailors (plus one Indian) trying to ruin the new holiday.

The special would never cross my mind again for twenty years. When it finally did, a Google search revealed its title: Rankin-Bass' The Mouse on the Mayflower.

I haven't touched on Rankin-Bass yet, but my friend maniacaldude from last time considers its stop-motion efforts (codified by the Rankin-Bass Christmas Special Universe) to be some of the lowest quality he's ever seen. But I'm probably not going to delve into that stuff here (as far as I know). Instead, I'm planning on sticking with RB's traditional animation.

All that out of the way, let's find out if this special is a pearl trampled under countless football games... or just another turkey.

SUMMARY


We open at a church in the late 1960's, whose belfry is home to our narrator -- a mouse called William. His forefather, Wilhelm, boarded the Mayflower back in 1620 and was present at the founding of Plymouth Colony. William reads us Wilhelm's account of those events.

We start in England, where the Puritans are gathered together at their church. Of course, people didn't understand their customs... but the worst thing that King James I and his supporters ever do is hurl tomatoes at the church door.

Wilhelm goes on to talk about the members of the congregation: we have William Bradford, Miles Standish (who was actually a Stranger), an original character called Charity Blake, John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, and (finally) Wilhelm himself.

With the historical figures, the character designers did a pretty good of replicating their appearances:

JOHN ALDEN
MILES STANDISH

William Bradford on the other hand, has merged with Reverend William Brewster, took his job, shaved, and became a stock Pilgrim:


Bradford announces that, since everyone's tired of being treated like dirt by the king, they're all going to move to Virginia and start a colony there. It would seem that the stuff about their financial and ideological troubles in Holland and the issues with the Speedwell aren't being discussed (either for time or other matters), so they just cut to the boarding of the Mayflower on September 6, 1620.


As the Saints and Strangers (okay, this version was dumbed down... there are no Strangers in this telling) board, we are shown our subplot for this special: the love triangle between Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. Here, Alden is depicted as pretty much Standish's whipping boy instead of one of the ship's coopers. Of course, Standish does get a little owned on his end and has to take care of a chicken:

 To think that Bright Noa would get it worse centuries later...

When Bradford shows the captain (accurately identified as Christopher Jones) the chest with the money to finance the trip, we meet two of the villains of the special: the sailors Scave and Quizzler. Seeing the gold used to pay for the trip, the twosome plan on stealing it for themselves should a disaster befall the ship.

The weird part of this? They're the only two characters with British accents; despite Bradford, Standish, Jones, Alden, and the rest of the Mayflower's passengers and crew historically originating in England, they all sound American.

Where is Wilhelm in all this? He overslept... but he makes the ship. By shoe:


As the Pilgrims adjust to their cramped life on the Mayflower, the ship enters a storm with thunderless lightning. Seriously, bolts with no noise to follow.

Amid the pitch of the Atlantic waves, a beam cracks, threatening the ship's frame. The two sailors try to use this as a way to make off with the gold, but Wilhelm leads Standish into the hold (by stealing a medal off of his chest). Standish finds the broken beam and tells the sailors to warn the passengers; Quizzler tells him it's none of their business... and Standish up and SLAPS the dude across the face!

Words don't describe the awesomeness of this scene. Just watch:

video
No-nonsense attitude.
British with no accent.
Now slapping people.
You ARE the 17th Century Bright Noa.

As history tells us, the beam was repaired because of a "great iron screw" (reportedly of a printing press owned by Brewster, but others have suggested a building tool used by the passengers)... only here, they came up with the idea through Wilhelm! Standish congratulates Wilhelm for his ingenuity, though HOW he knew his name is a mystery.

After the storm passes, we return to our love triangle. Alden tries to pass on Standish's messages to Priscilla, but gets shoved away by Ms. Blake. Other than to remind the viewer that they're still in the story, it serves as a segue to a musical number... but we'll get into those after the summary.

The Mayflower finally reaches the coast of North America. But surprise! They're not at Virginia... it's New England! With winter coming on, the passengers were left with no choice but to start a colony there.

This is only partially accurate to history: Mayflower's destination was Virginia, but Virginia (at this time) stretched as far north as New York state. The first bit of North American soil the Pilgrims ever saw was Manhattan Island. They attempted to settle there, but the shoals proved to be too big a risk. The Strangers, those who boarded the Mayflower for non-religious reasons, wanted to mutiny when the ship went to New England. Because of this, some ground rules had to be set down which leads us to the next point in the special.

With preparations for a settlement underway, a binding document was written up for all passengers on the ship to sign. At only one-hundred ninety-six words, this document -- the Mayflower Compact -- would allow for a temporary period of self-government until the Virginia Company could get permission for the Puritans to permanently live there from the Council of New England. Of greater significance, the document would be the forerunner to the Constitution of the United States.

Of course, Wilhelm signed it in the special as well.

In our reality, the original Mayflower Compact is lost. Whether it was through a fire or the American Revolution, we may never know.


The one of this universe was in our narrator's possession inside of a random American church.

Back to the special.

The story bypasses the surveying of Cape Cod and skips to the landing at Plymouth Rock. Here, Alden relays another message to Priscilla from Standish. She clearly isn't interested in him and Alden has the upper hand in the triangle... but he can't really bring himself to admit his love for her.


Meanwhile, Wilhelm encounters a Native American mouse called Little Big Thunder and the two quickly become friends. How a rodent can identify with a human ethnicity is beyond me... but I think some obscure SJW will come out of the woodwork to call me dumb for "just not getting it".

With another mouse around, we finally can hear Wilhelm talk. Unfortunately, Thunder's syntax is that of the old, trite "You heap big chief?" thing. It's quite dated and a trifle unsettling, I'll give it that... but it's not something that would make me put an unskippable, ultra-PC disclaimer telling you stuff you should already know between the article link and this review.

Anyway, Thunder's new friendship with Wilhelm brings the Wampanoag into the picture, several months ahead of history.


We then get introduced to the third villain of the story: Smiling Buzzard. This violent soul quickly gets excommunicated from the Wampanoag Confederacy and wanders into to the wilderness, where he summons a grizzly called Big Wheeze. The bear, according to Wilhelm's account, wandered out of Canada and came to Cape Cod.

"The part of Big Wheeze will be played by Baloo!"

It doesn't take long before the villains of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres bump into each other (apparently, bad guys can detect one another via their noses) and form an alliance.

The Wampanoag come across the Puritans during a prayer meeting. Yeah, no Samoset to greet them in English; a whole bunch of them just waltz up and try to get a closer look.

As for our four villains, they attempt to make it seem like the Wampanoag killed Quizzler in order to provoke a massacre. The mice catch onto to what the group was trying to do and perform a pantomime act to tell the Puritans and Natives to be friends. It worked for Standish.

As for bad guys, their cover was blown by Ms. Blake's chicken, which showed that Quizzler was playing possum. Standish proceeds to chase the foursome away with his musket. They headed due west, never to be seen again in this special. I'd like to think that they tried to make their own settlement on the other side of the Appalachians... but it eventually died out being as the population was three men, a bear, and no women.

A pineapple? Must have cost an arm and a leg for Massasoit!

With the Puritans now on friendly terms with the Wampanoag, they begin building their town. But snow starts falling. Thus starts the deadly winter of 1620/1621, where the population was slashed dramatically.

Amid Wilhelm's grieving, he finds newly-sprouted wildflowers, which he shows to Bradford. Winter has passed, and the colony starts to turn around. By autumn, the Plymouth Plantation has an abundant amount of food, so much so that Wilhelm suggests inviting Thunder to the festival... something quickly extended to the Native Americans. If you don't know where this is going, you probably need to brush up on your American History and culture.

Finally, the Standish/Priscilla/Alden triangle is resolved during another relay. Priscilla, fed up with Alden being Standish's messenger boy, demands that he speaks for himself for a change. Thus, the future is guaranteed Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe, and much, much more! Eventually Standish's genes would enter into the bloodline and produce Dick van Dyke!

No, really. The people listed here are really John Alden and Priscilla Mullins' descendants.

The first Thanksgiving goes over quite well and thus the ground is broken for what would eventually become the United States. Oddly enough, Wilhelm could understand how it became a national holiday -- something that never took place until the Lincoln administration. Was he immortal or something?

THE END


VERDICT

Not exactly stellar in terms of animation quality, but it was okay for 1968. Looking at the art style, I'm reminded of Scooby-Doo, what with all the eyes that match everyone's skin and it hitting the airwaves one year before. Only the animation wasn't done by Hanna-Barbara, it was outsourced to Toei Animation. Y'know... the Dragonball series, Digimon, Voltron, One Piece?

Of course, there were mistakes made in regard to research. Some stuff was only partially correct and other events were moved around at the expense of the plot. For instance, if the Wampanoag had met the Puritans on good terms in 1620, where were they during the deadly winter at the start of the following year? The script could have used just one more revision.

Historically inaccurate? Yes, but it's not the most grievous case (believe me, we will get into worse stuff in the future).

But where this special shines brightest is the music. Some songs reminded me so much of RB's latter Tolkien cartoons, be it the rousing title ("Mayflower, Mayflower"), the upbeat song where Wilhelm tries to get situated on the ship ("How About A Little Elbow Room?"), or the grandiose recurring piece "November". It helps that Wilhelm and the narrator were played by Country-Western artist Tennessee Ernie Ford (say what you will about RB's overall animation quality, they pulled in some excellent vocal talent).

Also, we have a song for Priscilla Mullins: "When He Looks At Me". It feels so Bond-esque and is peppered with psychedelic imagery (which is a point in this special's favor from me... I like that stuff). It also has some Disney shout-outs, specifically to Cinderella.

All-in-all, it's pretty good for small kids... but if you're into the facts, it may not be for you (except from a point of bile fascination, maybe). If I may make a recommendation, track down the Pilgrims episode of This Is America, Charlie Brown. It's noticeably shorter than this special and a lot more accurate.


Hmm... I brought up Hanna-Barbara in this verdict.


I'm DLAbaoaqu and I'll Return!

Mouse on the Mayflower (1968) is owned by Time-Warner.
Anastasia (1999?) is owned by Dingo Pictures.
Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ (1986) is owned by Sunrise.