Christmas at Walt Disney World (1978)

So far on this blog, I have mostly talked about obscure and charmingly strange Disney comics. However, there is another treasure trove of weirdness out there that is the world of old Disney TV specials. The first one I will cover is a Christmas special that aired in 1978 (the same year as the now-infamous Star Wars Christmas Special).

The show opens with a group of carolers (including a small child in the front who doesn’t really seem to want to be there) singing “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. I never got why that song was considered a Christmas song, personally, but I can’t fault the special for including it since I’ve seen it in numerous Christmas compilations over the years. The camera pulls out to reveal they’re at the Main Street train station as the Walt Disney World Railroad full of Disney characters armed with fake snow passes by.

I love seeing the old costumes in these specials, along with characters who don’t always appear as much anymore. Check out the right side in the picture above–you’ll see King Leonidas from Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Brer Fox from Song of the South.

After the opening credits, we are taken to the Los Angeles International Airport to see “The Clinkers’ Christmas Vacation” starring comedy mime duo Shields and Yarnell. One thing you’ll learn from this special is that although the times we live in now are bizarre, things back in ’78 were pretty odd as well.

The Clinkers are a pair of mechanical characters that the two play, and this sequence in which they navigate their way through the airport is impressive, but unsettling. Their robotic movements are spot-on, and my still frames can’t do the scene justice. However, their permanently befuddled, unblinking faces, coupled with their jerkiness really plummets them into the Uncanny Valley and the whole thing is kind of unintentionally creepy.

After failing to get on the bus to WDW, they somehow manage to drive there by riding on their luggage. Okay, then.

The two stay at the rustic Fort Wilderness, although I’d have pegged a pair of robots for the sleeker Contemporary Resort myself. They continue to wander around, looking confused.

The sequence abruptly ends with them staring at a sign for the then-recently-opened Discovery Island, which serves a segue for the first big musical number.

On a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed set, an enthusiastic pirate chases a screaming woman, because this was before those elements were removed or toned down from the attraction. The band Pablo Cruise performs “Worlds Away” over a montage of fun Discovery Bay activities.

We also get a few shots of a vulture who’s just biding his time until Splash Mountain opens.

We are then treated to the most unintentionally disturbing ninety seconds of anything in a Disney special.

Shields and Yarnell return not as the Clinkers, but as a pair of giant babies, hamming it up in front of a bunch of parked strollers that you can find outside any Disney attraction. Adults playing babies isn’t cute. It was never cute. It’s creepy and off-putting. I can’t be the only person who finds this unnatural.

The two wander around for what seems like much longer than a minute and a half, and the sequence ends with them sucking on each others thumbs and the audience feeling like they need to take a shower.

As a palate cleanser, we are then treated to some great dancing by Yarnell, who looks a lot better here than she did as a giant baby. She is accompanied by the Firehouse Five and Mickey Mouse himself, who (naturally) is a good dancer, too.

“And now for something completely different.”

In his workshop, Gepetto (played by comedian Avery Schreiber) sits with Figaro (played by a real cat) and reads a Christmas card from his now-human (and even grown up) son, Pinocchio. In a genuinely warm scene, he muses about being a father and the memories of his son.

Feeling lonely, he sings to himself and builds a miniature Gepetto. Hey, why not? Then, we have a flashback to when Pinocchio became a living puppet, starting with footage from the 1940 movie, but…

Pinocchio is played by Shields! They’re all over the place in this special!

After getting his bearings, Pinocchio wanders out of Gepetto’s toy shop (which is apparently in the Magic Kingdom) and wanders around Main Street to the appropriate confusion of everyone that sees him.

Just like in the movie, Pinocchio is accosted by Foulfellow and Gideon, who have a moneymaking scheme in mind.

Pinocchio performs “I’ve Got No Strings” (actually lip-synching to the original Dickie Jones recording) for a large crowd, who presumably paid the crafty fox and cat earlier.

A keystone cop chases Pinocchio off (maybe he needed a licence to perform?) which leads to lots of chaos. Pinocchio finally makes it back to Gepetto’s shop and collapses in relief.

Following a funky performance of “O Come All Ye Faithful” set to Magic Kingdom fireworks, we are taken to Cinderella Castle, where the famous pumpkin coach arrives with the Fairy Godmother.

The Fairy Godmother is played by comedian Phyllis Diller (whose other Disney connection is voicing the Ant Queen in A Bug’s Life), accompanied by a sarcastic Danielle Spencer (Dee from What’s Happening!!). The Fairy Godmother wants to seduce Prince Charming herself, and Danielle agrees to help as long as the Godmother pays for all the rides later on (this was back when Disney attractions all had individual tickets).

From one classic Disney movie to another, we fade to the Sleeping Beauty segment, complete with the classic “storybook opening.” Sterling Holloway narrates this one. His unmistakable voice can be heard in nearly a dozen Disney productions, as characters such as the Cheshire Cat, Kaa the python, and Winnie the Pooh.

The Good Fairies bless the baby, but the Maleficent-type evil fairy appears and places her usual curse on the princess. The evil fairy is performed by voice actress Joan Gerber, who had an extensive career, notably playing Mrs. Beakley in the original DuckTales series, among many other characters.

I find it interesting the Good Fairies are younger and more glamorous than their movie counterparts, and Maleficient is not glamorous at all, unlike her own statuesque movie portrayal.

As in the original fairytale, the spell lasts 100 years until a prince happens to pass by, see the seemingly-dead girl, and decides to kiss her. At least in Disney’s Snow White they had previously established a romance.

This is followed by a ballet performance by Yarnell and Alan Kinzie, which I can find no real fault with, but my ignorant, uncultured self is bored and can’t bear to even sit through five minutes of this, so we’ll skip ahead.

The final part of the special is a ten-minute medley, featuring Andrea McArdle, who had originated the Broadway role of Annie a year prior. She walks down a snow-covered corner of Main Street, when suddenly…

Out march Brer Fox, Brer Bear, the Big Bad Wolf, Captain Hook, Gideon, and Foulfellow, all singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”! Apparently, even the classic Disney Villains can’t help but get into the Christmas spirit.

Thumper, Flower, and Brer Rabbit come out next. Bizarrely, Thumper is holding a real-live baby deer. Wonder how Bambi feels about that?

More Disney characters enter, several of whom carry more live animals. After singing more Christmas carols, Andrea sings “Home” from The Wiz, which debuted on Broadway in 1975 and had its feature film version hit theaters a few months before this special aired.

After even more singing (like I said, the medley is ten minutes long), Shields and Yarnell bid us goodbye and Merry Christmas.

Well, it was certainly…interesting. The whole special was mostly a series of vignettes of varying quality, but many of them rather strange.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Seeing the old costumes is always a plus.
  • As weird as some of their segments could be, Shields and Yarnell are quite talented.
  • It’s nice to hear a song from The Wiz.
  • Avery Schrieber is charming as Gepetto.
  • Sterling Holloway can check off yet another Disney production he’s been involved in.

LOWLIGHTS

  • The adult baby scene, hands down. I didn’t need to see that.
  • The Christmas medley is ten minutes longĀ and really loses steam about halfway through.
  • Phyllis Diller is clearly aware of the cheesiness of the whole affair and is waiting to cash her check, but the much younger Danielle Spencer noticeably seems embarrassed to be there.

Well, that’s the ’78 Christmas special! Hope you all enjoyed it, and happy Life Day!

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in “The Milky Way” (1955)

It was 1955 and Walt Disney’s Disneyland anthology TV series had been on for a year, sponsored by the American Dairy Association.

What better way to celebrate this partnership than by producing a promotional comic about how great milk is?

Disney printed several promotional comics around this time, featuring characters like Snow White and Peter Pan talking about how great various refrigerators and washer/dryers were. Another American Dairy-based comic exists featuring Brer Rabbit.

Today, though, we’re focusing on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For this blog, I want to celebrate not only the great Disney comics out there, but also the rather strange ones that have fallen through the cracks over the years.

We open on Snow White and her husband, Prince Charming (the only time I think he’s ever been given an official name, although fans like to call him Ferdinand), who has been summoned away to a neighboring kingdom. I guess it’s one of those time when “living happily ever after” really means “dealing with politics.” No wonder the story ended with the kiss.

As soon as Charming leaves, Snow White is summoned to the Seven Dwarfs’ house via a message from a little cardinal. She journeys out to the Dwarfs, who inform her that the Wicked Queen is apparently alive and after her. The message from the neighboring king was a fake and she wanted to get Snow White alone.

The problem is, why not just tell Prince Charming before he left? The bird shows up while the Prince is only a few yards away. I suppose it was a “too late” moment, but I personally think the Dwarfs are jealous of Charming’s relationship with Snow White. Many fanfiction writers appear to agree.

The most intriguing part is that they use the Queen’s real name, Grimhilde. She has only been called that in production materials and comics, but never (to my knowledge) on any screen appearance. Also, Thumper from Bambi is in this, which is kind of neat, since I love those old Disney comic crossovers where everyone was just neighbors with each other.

The Dwarfs celebrate Snow White’s return and hope that Grimhilde never finds out where she’s hiding, although if I were the Queen, I’d check the cottage first thing. If Snow White really wanted to throw her off, she should have hidden with Pinocchio or something.

Grumpy refuses to drink his milk, so Snow White talks about how wonderful it is and that it might make him sleep better. Also, adults apparently need three glasses a day? I love me some milk, but even I’m behind on that one. Maybe things have changed since ’55.

Thumper makes a physical appearance, warning them that Grimhilde is now searching the forest for Snow White, to which I called two paragraphs above.

Snow White leaves the Dwarfs house and rides to the fortune teller, Madame Zo (who only appears in this comic), to see if Grimhilde has left any guards at Castle Charming.

Madame Zo is grumpy (the mood, not dwarf) because she can’t seem to lose any weight without feeling weak. Snow White suggests a diet that includes three glasses of milk a day. I don’t know enough about milk to dispute that, so maybe that’s the secret to weight loss? Milk? Sure, let’s go with milk.

Madame Zo is so elated by the prospect of dairy products that she runs off to buy some, entirely forgetting about Snow White’s plight. See what you’ve done milk? See what you’ve done? Are you happy now?

Grimhilde spots Snow White and orders her men to shoot her with arrows. Well, that’s a more direct way than the ol’ poison apple bit, I’ll give her that. She clearly learns from her mistakes.

Snow White rushes back to the Dwarfs’ cottage to find that Grumpy, through the almighty power of milk, has fallen asleep with a smile on his face! Perhaps as long as he drinks his milk, his name shall no longer be “Grumpy,” but rather, “Content.”

This peace is not last, of course, because Grimhile easily tracks Snow White down and is about to attack the cottage, when Charming swoops in and makes quick work of the guards, prompting a retreat.

Charming drinks his milk, you see.

Interestingly, the Prince was going to have a similar scene in the 1937 Snow White movie where he would be imprisoned by the Queen and left to drown in her flooding dungeon and need to fight his way out with the help of Snow White’s animal friends. It was cut because the animators weren’t comfortable with the action sequences involving realistic humans yet. A similar scene finally made it into Sleeping Beauty, nearly 30 years later.

According to Charming, Madame Zo’s raven informed him of what was going on, so Madame Zo didn’t fail Snow White, which means that milk didn’t fail Snow White, either. Sorry, milk. I was too hasty there.

So what have we learned from all this?

Milk, Dopey. Milk.