Saturday, 26 January 2013

Brer Rabbit's Christmas Carol

Directors: Al Guest, Jean Mathieson
Writers: Al Guest, Jean Mathieson
Producers: Al Guest, Jean Mathieson
Cast: Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear
Country: Canada
Year of release: 1992
Reviewed from: UK VHS

It’s a safe bet that the final credit on this film, “Based on works by Joel Chandler Harris and Charles Dickens”, is unique. As the title would suggest, this is the story of A Christmas Carol told using the characters from the Uncle Remus stories which formed the basis of Song of the South. It shouldn’t work, but to be fair it does, mainly due to some clever writing.

Brer Rabbit and all his chums live in a little town in the forest. Rather than simply place these characters awkwardly into the Dickensian plot, writers/directors/producers/editors Al Guest and Jean Mathieson have opted for an almost postmodern approach. The little town contains a theatre where an amdram production of A Christmas Carol is being staged as a benefit for the desperately ill Timmy Mouse.

As in the Disney film, the slightly dim Brer Bear is fiercely loyal to his ‘friend’, the conniving Brer Fox, who runs a firewood business. When Brer Fox, who has refused to buy a ticket for the show or to give any of his wood to the town’s poor, tricks Brer Bear out of the deeds to his cave, wily Brer Rabbit involves all the animals in what can only be described as an elaborate sting. It has already been established that Brer Fox has never heard of A Christmas Carol, so Brer Rabbit incorporates him into the play, unknowingly, in the role of course of Scrooge.

Calling in favours from Brer Magpie, who can do perfect vocal impressions, and assorted skunks, beavers etc, Brer Rabbit sneaks into Brer Fox’s house and awakens him with a fake ghost. This is a Halloween pumpkin stuck on top of a hat-stand draped with a sheet. The Jacob Marley role is taken by Brer Wolf, Brer Fox’s former business partner who died two years before. A combination of Brer Rabbit’s shadow hand puppets and Brer Magpie’s vocal skills persuade Brer Fox that the ghost of his former colleague has come to visit him. (One of several genuinely amusing moments is when Brer Fox says, in a scared voice, “But... but... but you used to be so much taller.” - requiring Brer Rabbit to stand on a stool to do his shadow schtick.)

Hiding under the sheets, Brer Fox imagines that his bed is being whisked through the air but in fact it is being carried by four beavers to the theatre where scenes from the play, slightly amended, are staged for his benefit, including the death of Brer Bear.

Brer Bear, meanwhile, is on his way to the swamp. He saw the ‘ghost’ through the window and is determined to save his ‘friend’; on Brer Owl’s advice he goes in search of Brer Gator who turns out to be a refined old English chap with a large mansion but no friends because everyone is scared of him. Brer Gator gives Brer Bear some possible anti-ghost devices including a smoking bucket used to repel mosquitos. Brer Bear tracks Brer Fox to the theatre where he is just in time to hear the terrified and thoroughly repentant creature announce “(I will) help Brer Bear!” The ursine one charges in, smoke fills the theatre and in the panic Brer Fox is spirited away back to his shack.

The next morning Brer Fox’s character is suitably changed and he throws a Christmas party for the whole town as well as paying for Timmy Mouse’s medical treatment. Brer Gator turns up too, dressed as Santa with a bag full of toys.

Running to just shy of an hour, this is a surprisingly faithful version of Dickens’ classic tale, for all its animal characters, Southern USA setting and multiple layers of reality. Brer Rabbit, as the ghost, reads out numerous verbatim extracts from the novel, most of which are followed by Brer Fox’s observation that “You ghosts sure do talk funny.” The second ghost has a holly wreath on his head, the third doesn’t speak - it’s little touches like that which show that the film-makers have read their source material and not just used it as a generic public domain story.

The animation is okay but nothing to write home about. The character design is a touch bland and most of the background characters are not only interchangeable, it can actually be quite difficult to work out what they’re meant to be.

The opening credits announce 'INI Entertainment Group' (or possibly 'Ini') presents 'A Magic Shadows Inc Production'. Magic Shadows until recently had a website where you caould buy individual cells from this film for 115 bucks a pop, as well as a couple of gangster novels as e-books and a really horrible sculpture of a clown. Talk about a diverse portfolio! The company is also in production, apparently, on an animated series called Going Buggs!

The voices, which are not individually credited, are supplied by Ginny Tyler (Invisible Girl in the 1970s Fantastic Four cartoon), Christopher Smith, Tom Hill and David Knell. Could that be the same David Knell who starred in Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town? Irv Holender and Michael R Ricci are credited as executive producers; they also made Lethal Woman together. William Mathieson gets an ‘additional dialogue’ credit. No animation studio is credited but the large number of people in the credits named Cruz, Santiago and Reyes points towards the Philippines.

Al Guest and Jean Mathieson were big names in Canadian animation in the 1970s, their most notable creation being The Undersea Adventures of Captain Nemo, a series of five-minute cartoons owing little to Jules Verne apart from the names of the main character and his submarine. These were shown in the USA as part of Captain Kangaroo and thereby embedded themselves in a generation’s consciousness. Guest and Mathieson also produced Rocket Robin Hood, an animated Phantom of the Opera and a half-hour special based on rock band Klaatu!

For all its fidelity to the source material and its occasional comedy moments, Brer Rabbit’s Christmas Carol does drag slightly with languorous direction that leaves most conversations sounding like a series of stand-alone speeches. There is little of the zip and zing that good cartoons should have - especially ones that star Brer Rabbit! Nevertheless, this is an original diversion that is worth seeing once. I probably enoyed it the most of the three animated Christmas Carols that I have seen so far.

MJS rating: B
Review originally posted 23rd December 2005

Six months after posting this review, I was delighted to recive an e-mail from Jean Guest (Jean Mathieson) explaining a few points:

  • Our web site. Somehow you got hold of old links from when we briefly became Animation Professors and our son decided to sell off what was hanging around from other periods of our life. (BTW - the cels were only $22.00.) We have now obliterated those web pages. Delta Entertainment now sells the (gold-bordered) DVD in the U.K.
  • INI & Irv Holender and Michael Ricci should not be credited. They were our distributors during production who promised to completely fund the production but did not do so. The result was their settlement of our lawsuit and the subsequent going out of business of INI. However, before the suit was settled, they sold the film wherever they could. You must have one of their original VHS releases.
  • Very perceptive of you to guess the Philippines, but the film was begun in our studio in Dublin. I suggest that you Google Al Guest and look up his Wikipedia entry to get the whole saga of our lives.

1 comment:

  1. Wouldn't surprise me if Irv was a crook here. I see though he's managed to still stay in the business to this day.