Sunday, 7 August 2016

Santa and the Three Bears

Director: Tony Benedict
Writer: Tony Benedict
Producer: Tony Benedict
Cast: Three bears, Santa
Country: USA
Year of release: 1970
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Inasmuch as this site has any sort of tradition, it’s that I review something Christmassy at Christmas time. This tatty old VHS had been sitting on the shelf for about 13 or 14 months, I believe, before I finally persuaded young TF, just turned three, to sit down and watch it on Christmas Eve 2006. This was preceded by a couple of weeks of: “Why don’t we watch Santa and the Three Bears?” “I don’t like it.” “How can you not like it if you’ve never watched it?” “I don’t like it.” And it was followed by TF insisting on watching the video again, later that same Christmas Eve, before he went to bed. And again on Boxing Day.

Kids, eh?

This old VHS tape is so astoundingly cheap that it doesn’t have a company name or catalogue number anywhere on the sleeve or the tape itself. On the other hand, the pictures front and back do actually match the characters on screen, which is something.

The first thing to stress is that these three bears, despite being referred to in the title as “the Three Bears” are not in fact those three bears, ie. The Three Bears. They’re just... three bears. There’s a mother bear named Nana and two bears cubs, Nikomi and Chinook (which I only know as a type of helicopter) and they live in Yellowstone National Park. (Although I have discovered that an identically titled but unrelated children’s book exists which does feature The Three Bears.)

Winter is coming so it’s time to hibernate but the two cubs are excited by the concept of Christmas, which they have heard about from a balding, rotund park ranger known only as Mr Ranger. As Nana settles down, they sneak off to Mr Ranger’s cabin, where he has put up a tree and a bunch of decorations, and he explains to them all about what Christmas involves: Santa and the elves and the reindeer and what have you (and to be fair, a brief mention of the Nativity). Then he returns them to their cave.

But the cubs are very excited and determined to wait up and see Santa. The kindly Mr Ranger, not wanting to disappoint them, puts on a beard and a Santa Claus costume and sets off with a sack of bear-suitable toys - including, somewhat oddly perhaps, teddy bears - but the weather closes in and he cannot make his way through the snow blizzard so he takes shelter for the night in a bus stop.

With no sign of Saint Nick, Nana eventually admits to her two disappointed young’uns that in fact ‘Father Christmas’ is just the Park Ranger and that’s why he’s not coming this year. So when a rotund figure appears silhouetted in the cave entrance and leaves a couple of stockings of toys, the cubs think it’s just Mr Ranger. Except of course that shortly afterwards, the blizzard having abated, Mr Ranger appears with two more stockings.

What? But then... who...? (“Ho ho ho!”) You get the picture.

Now, this cheapo-cheapo VHS release says the films run approximately 30 minutes but in fact it’s about 45 minutes or so. Santa doesn’t actually appear until more than 20 minutes in, and then only briefly in Mr Ranger’s illustrated explanation, although he does, as I say reappear at the end. Moreover, for the first ten minutes there are no bears either, as Mr Ranger potters around Yellowstone Park, accompanied by one of several instantly forgettable, sub-Snow White, choral songs, checking on all the animals. TF and I were looking at the box, wondering if we had the right tape, especially as the title card is missing from the opening credits.

And this really is a terrible copy. The sound is muffled beyond belief, making the dialogue and especially the singing borderline unintelligible. The picture quality is poor but then the animation is strictly Hanna-Barbera level so there’s not a lot of detail lost. Interestingly, there are some attempts at imaginative direction, including some POV shots when Mr Ranger looks down at the two bear cubs at his feet and some jazzy sequences when images appear and disappear in coloured rectangles of different sizes and dimensions.

Speaking of different sizes, it turns out that this anonymous looking little movie has quite a history. It was originally released theatrically in the USA in 1970 as a 76-minute feature film, the extra time being taken up with a lengthy live-action wrap-around in which another park ranger introduces his three grandchildren to the story of 'Santa and the Three Bears'. So that means that the film has a park ranger tell some kids about a park ranger who tells some bear cubs about Christmas. The whole sequence with Santa and the elves is an explanation inside an explanation. Wheels within wheels and fires within fires. Both the feature version and this animation-only version, which apparently ran for years on USA Network, are currently available on DVD.

There are some big names attached to this obscurity. Mr Ranger (and possibly Santa too) is voiced by Hal Smith who started out in westerns in the 1940s and moved into animation voices in the 1960s. He did a lot of additional voices for The Flintstones and other Hanna-Barbera shows, played Otis Campbell in The Andy Griffith Show and was the voice of Owl in Winnie the Pooh films and TV shows for Disney. Santa seems to have been a regular gig for him as he donned the metaphorical beard in Casper’s First Christmas (1979), Yogi’s First Christmas (1980), The Town That Santa Forgot (1993) and an episode of a Disney cartoon I’ve never heard of called Bonkers. Nana Bear is Wilma Flintstone herself, the legendary Jean Vander Pyl.

Writer/director/producer Tony Benedict was a frequent animation writer in the 1960s and 1970s, racking up credits on The Flintstones, The Jetsons (he created the character of Astro the dog), The Pink Panther Show, The Yogi Bear Show and various Warner Brothers holiday specials. He started out in uniform, drawing cartoons for a military newspaper, then sent some of his work to Disney where he was taken on as an apprentice animator on Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians. After three years he transferred to UPA to work on Mr Magoo then in 1969 he went to H-B, adding scriptwriting to his work as an animator. And he’s still going; some of this info came from a newspaper interview he did only last month.

Bizarrely, the live-action wrap-arounds (of which I have only seen frame grabs on various fansites) were directed by Barry Mahon, better known for nudie nonsense and exploitation fare such as Fanny Hill Meets Lady Chatterly, Nudes on Tiger Reef and The Beast That Killed Women. Shortly before he retired from film-making in the early 1970s he did turn to kiddie fare, directing versions of Thumbelina, The Wonderful Land of Oz and Jack and the Beanstalk. He also made another Crimbo obscurity, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. Mahon and Benedict reunited the following year on a truly bizarre Christmas special, Santa’s Christmas Elf (Named Calvin), which consists entirely of still photos of posed puppets. Mahon produced and directed it while Benedict designed and built the characters for what was probably not an homage to La Jetee but, you know, it would be fun if it was.

Santa and the Three Bears is pleasant enough, with a limited number of likeable characters and a simple message that is positive and heart-warming without being cloying or overly sentimental. That it has instantly become TF Simpson’s favourite film - apparently displacing Finding Nemo - suggests that there is something magic in it that a three-year-old can determine, even through the dreadful picture and sound quality of this tape.

But it does present a slight moral dilemma in that the central story features Nana Bear telling Chinook and Nikomi that (gulp) Santa doesn’t really exist and it’s just father-figure Mr Ranger in a costume. The fact that Santa is shown to actually exist after all doesn’t detract from the problem which I’m sure you can see: it raises doubts about the reality of Father Christmas, thus making it perhaps suitable for slightly older children but of dubious recommendation for three-year-olds (unless the dialogue is hidden behind a muffled sound, as here fortunately).

You see, I’ve been thinking about this and the fact that, like most people, I don’t recall ever actually believing in Santa Claus. I must have done - and TF certainly does, bless him - but it’s not ‘belief’ in the sense that we normally use. It’s not a conscious decision or an evaluation of the available evidence. Adults believe in flying saucers or ghosts or God because they consider what they have been told - about evidence or faith or whatever - and on balance they deem the existence of such a thing likely or even certain. But even the most devout believer is aware that there are those who don’t believe, that belief is a choice.

Small children don’t ‘believe’ in Santa Claus, they simply accept that he exists, and that he has flying reindeer and brings presents and is generally magical. They believe in him the same way that they believe in policemen or bicycles: it’s part of their model of the world around them. They don’t doubt, they accept on the available evidence, and ‘Mummy and Daddy told me’ is pretty strong evidence for a three-year-old mind. So when TF discovers or realises - as he must do one distant day - that Santa is just a fiction, it won’t destroy his belief, it will simply cause him to re-evaluate his model of the world around him. At least I hope so.

In the meantime, I might need to invest in a DVD of Santa and the Three Bears before next year because this tape is starting to wear out.

MJS rating: B
TFS rating: A++
Review originally posted 23rd December 2006

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