Plot: Told in flashback, a talking bird named Melody explains how a neighborhood on Heptune street went from dingy and grimy with no Christmas spirit to a happy and bustling Christmas town thanks to a little girl and her father.
Breakdown: Ah, Rankin/Bass, creator of so many memorable stop-motion and animated Christmas specials that are still airing during the holidays to this day. Rankin/Bass closed their doors in 1987, but then they suddenly sprang back up and dusted off their production studio for one more Christmas special – today’s feature, Santa, Baby! – The last piece of media Rankin/Bass, as a studio, would ever produce before the studio was officially shut down entirely.
So, did they go out with a bang or limp out with a wheeze?
I hate to say it, but it’s the latter.
The animation is pretty cheap and stiff. It’s not bottom of the barrel, but it’s got a lot of obvious roughness to it.
The CGI has not aged well, in the slightest, I was nearly laughing during the opening credits. Character designs range from okay with the humans to very confusing with the animals. Melody doesn’t look like a partridge – she looks like Big Bird’s offspring after someone glued a purple mop to her head. And there’s a reindeer so small, it might as well be a cat. I get that it’s a runt, which is why it was rejected, but it’s ridiculously small.
Next, the music ranges from passable to terrible, which in itself is a big waste because they got Patti LaBelle and Eartha Kitt for this. The first song (not the one running over the credits) is one of the most horribly arranged things I’ve heard in years. It couldn’t catch a beat to save its life, the melody was all over the place, and the singing was blech.
The voices aren’t much better. At least I can say most of them are trying a little, especially Patti LaBelle, who seems to be having a blast, and Eartha Kitt (Who voices, who else, the cat), but the girl playing Dakota, Kianna Underwood, is really hard to listen to for long periods of time. She has this nasty habit of having her voice crack all the time and it’s a nightmare to listen to. Her dad is one of the worst since he’s really phoning it in. He sounds disinterested in everything.
As for the story, I think this one of those times where I need to walk you through everything to get the best scope on the problems.
A bird named Melody flies around a neighborhood on Heptune Street that is bursting with Christmas spirit, but she explains that it wasn’t that way last year. In a flashback to the previous year, we see a little girl named Dakota putting up signs to adopt animals at the local shelter. The shelter specializes in housing misfit animals that rarely ever get adopted and tend to cause trouble in town.
Among them are the typical dog, cat and bunny, but we also have a chicken, a pig, a chameleon and the aforementioned reindeer.
They explain why the reindeer doesn’t have a home, because some Christmas showrunners booted him when they discovered he was too small to pull a sleigh, which…well, duh. But who in this urban area is going to adopt a reindeer as a pet? Is that even legal?
….Oh yeah, and there’s a lobster too….*shrug*
Dakota actually seems like one of the few people in this area who lives in a really nice apartment. Her dad, Noel, writes music for a living, but he’s going through a rough time right now because his producer wants him to change up his music style to sound more like the hit hip-hop group, Streetbeat, who sound abysmal.
If you want a taste of how odd and lame Noel, is, he snaps at her, and when he decides to go to her room to hang out to make up for this, he suddenly has a fit and leaves because she innocently put on a Streetbeat CD for them to listen to together. Not that it would justify his childish behavior anyway, but she didn’t even know the thing about him being told to sound like Streetbeat before, and he didn’t explain it when he stormed off, so by her perspective she thinks she upset him because she wanted to listen to music. Nice.
She saves a really ugly bird from freezing to death, and it turns out that not only can she talk, but she’s voiced by Patti LaBelle and is magic. She’s is the literal partridge in a pear tree, and apparently that gives her magic powers. She can not only summon the other parts of the 12 Days of Christmas song, but she can also grant wishes and do random feats of magic like she’s the Genie from Aladdin.
Dakota wishes for her dad to write another new hit song so he’ll be happy again. Melody agrees, and her first step on getting him to this goal is making him one of those charity Santas who stands outside waving a bell to get donations. Uh…okay.
But he’s not waving the bell…well enough? Dakota dances in the street with it for a while and gets a bunch of money and people actually cheering, because that would happen. I understand that the bells are a legitimate instrument, but that’s the bells, plural. You can’t really play a singular bell well. You either do it fast or slow. The triangle has much more versatility than a single bell.
Despite Dakota helping him out and showing a desire to help more, Noel gets irritated and shoos her away. Nice.
Later, we get our titular song when Dakota’s mom, Alicia, suddenly starts singing it to Noel while he’s out on the street dressed as Santa. I guess that fits, but you’d think the song would be in a more important place when the entire movie is named after it.
I can’t say I dislike this musical number because it’s ‘Santa, Baby.’ They got Eartha Kitt to reprise it and even got Patti LaBelle to sing a bit of it. I don’t like it as much as the original version, mostly because it’s too fast and the instrumentals are kinda flat. Plus, it’s a bit crowded having three different women singing this song at the same time. Vanessa Williams (Alicia) does a fine job singing her part, but it’s just a little too much.
Noel’s a big asshole about it, though, and marches off, upset that his wife and daughter know he’s in a Santa suit raising money for charity. Oh no….How…terrible? Do people really give each other shit for this?
He goes even further by saying he doesn’t care for Christmas, which just kinda came out of nowhere. And oh the irony in someone named Noel hating Christmas. It’s Itsudatte, My Santa! all over again. Fun fact, my middle name is Noel. I’m 98% certain that has no connection with my love of Christmas, though.
The next day, Melody puts him back in the Santa suit, and for some reason he now seems to be really embracing his role as Santa, pulling a complete 180 with absolutely no prompt. She sends him out to collect coats for a coat drive, deliver food to the senior center, painting ‘Peace on Earth’ on a very unsafe platform that he falls off of and nearly dies. They don’t even help save him, despite watching him fall. Melody is magic, and yet the only thing that saves him is a series of convenient ventilation shafts that somehow allow him to slide out into the alleyway safely.
For a second, I thought Dakota was trying to save him by putting a dumpster filled with garbage at the end of the chute, but she walks right by. What was even the point of her doing that?
Next, they have him cleaning up the local park, which is covered in garbage, and now even the local kids are pitching in – even the ones they showed earlier who were complete assholes to a newsstand owner and a bunch of littler kids, knocking them over and dumping their fliers everywhere…
More people show up and sing ‘Jingle Bells,’ because they don’t have to pay for that song. 50% of it is pretty good, but the first verse is terrible, and when Alicia shows up the song starts playing way too fast. Like, comically fast.
Mr. Sweet, who is the superintendent for the entire neighborhood (is that a thing?) comes in to wreck their fun. He whines about the Christmas decorations, and demands Mrs. Garcia, owner of the shelter, to control her animals once more. Even though he is a grump, I agree with him on the animals. They’re running wild all over town, and they trespass all the time. She has to be breaking several laws by just letting them roam like that. Not to mention that it’s weird to have a bunch of shelter animals basically be strays all day.
Alicia reveals that he’s a grumpy gus because his wife passed away last year. He actually used to be really nice but clichés. (Seriously, how many ‘grumpy old guy’ backstories are traced back to their wife dying?) Not that that matters, because, in the middle of the night, Mr. Sweet opens up the pipes in the shelter so much that they burst, quickly flooding the shelter, destroying the place, and nearly drowning all of the animals and sending them soaking wet into the frigid inner city, where they’ll surely die anyway.
The shelter is so badly damaged that they get shut down.
But it’s okay.
His wife died.
Noel tries to make a new song, but it sucks and his producer hates it because it sucks. Even though Noel was just in a super jolly mood, he gets angry because his new song sucks. He even takes it out on his daughter….again.
Not only does he completely blow her off when she rushes through the door in a panic saying something terrible has happened, but when he learns about the shelter and that the animals will probably freeze to death without homes, he tells her it’s a tough world out there and she should stop caring about those “dumb animals” and instead start looking out for herself because caring for others is not getting her anything.
So, tell me again why we’re meant to root for this guy? I get that he’s frustrated, but he has the biggest most childish mood swings and treats his daughter, who has done nothing but help him this whole movie, like garbage.
Also, when Melody shows back up, he blames HER for Dakota hating him. The only reason I’d ever want him to get his stupid hit song is for the sake of Melody and Alicia because I don’t know if he’s their only source of income or not. If Alicia makes good money, then he can kiss my holly jolly ass.
Melody reveals to him that Dakota wished for the song, but the reason he can’t get it is because he won’t stop thinking of himself. (That’s a prerequisite for the wish? What a dumb wishing system. She wished for him to have a hit song, which can be terrible, good, heartfelt or shallow. It’s just popularity.)
After pulling a more reasonable, but still way too fast, 180 again, he and Melody walk through the biggest snowflakes in existence to find Dakota (Seriously, the snowflakes are so big and there are so many of them I really have trouble paying attention in the following scenes). Cue sappy clipshow of nice moments we’ve never seen between the two of them, reminding him of how much his daughter means to him.
He finds Dakota in the alleyway, so upset that she lost the ability to move her mouth when she speaks. She won’t go home until the animals have a home too, so Noel goes into the shelter to see what he can do. There’s a weird scene where he’s climbing the pipes to get to the shelter kitten, but the pipes collapse (Well, duh, the pipes all burst, what did he think would happen?) and despite Dakota yelling like Noel is falling and every indication given that he’s falling, the next shot has him climbing out the window. *shrug*
On the roof, the weathervane falls onto a utility box, knocking out the power to the whole block. The sparks also cause Noel to fall, catching the kitten and, somehow, they both hang from the gutter, fall soon after that and hang from the flagpole. The whole neighborhood comes out to investigate, and Mr. Sweet, pulling a similar 180, suddenly feels bad and tries to climb up to save them…err…well, I guess just the kitten for some reason.
Mr. Sweet: “Look, I just wanted your animals out. I didn’t want this.” Oh, blow it out your ass, dude. You nearly drowned the animals and completely decimated her shelter.
He saves the kitten, the crowd saves Sweet when he falls, and for some dumb reason they all leave and forget that a human being’s life is hanging in the balance. Melody has to come and save him while everyone else is in the shelter fixing it up….Oh yeah, they’re suddenly doing that now.
When Melody points out how everyone is helping, she credits Noel saying that this is what happens when people stop being preoccupied with themselves and start thinking of others. But this message really falls flat when you remember that they weren’t thinking at all about the man who was hanging from an icy flagpole outside, just so they could suddenly go inside with their magically conjured tools and equipment and fix up the shelter that now looks about 10x as big as it was before.
It’s really weird considering 1) The newsstand guy specifically wanted to save Noel and 2) If they learned how to not be selfish from Noel, why is he, of all people, the one they’re leaving to die?
Noel starts writing a new song on the wall, which is kinda counter-intuitive to what they’re trying to accomplish, and Alicia shows up completely randomly to help out.
Admittedly, this song is pretty okay. The singing is a bit off of the rhythm sometimes, but it’s still decent. Not sure it’s a song I’d really remember after watching this, though.
Within less than a night, probably just an hour or two given what happens next, they have the shelter, inside and out, fixed up and looking brand new, which is insane, but Christmas magic I guess.
Since Noel now has his song, he thanks Melody and she brings him to Santa with the power of the five golden rings, which are actually nine. Call me nitpicky all you want, I have eyes and I can count.
How the rings teleported them there, I don’t know, but now the story is just kinda going where it wants. Santa has a bum leg, so he’s assigning Noel and Dakota to the task of being Santa and delivering presents this year. Melody was sent out to find a replacement and acts like she’s been training Noel this whole time to be Santa, which means….she kinda lied, didn’t she? Technically, we don’t know if Noel writing that song was a fluke or a part of Dakota’s wish.
By the way, what does painting a billboard and nearly falling to your death have to do with being Santa?
Cue a faster more hip-hoppy to rap version of ‘Santa, Baby’, still sung by Eartha Kitt, and I kinda hate it. ‘Santa, Baby’ is meant to be a fairly slow song – it’s literally the singer sweet-talking Santa so he’ll give her stuff. Seduction is not done at 110 BPM.
Anyway, Noel sucks at Santaing because he’s not putting the presents under any trees (except one), he’s placing them on the sleeping bodies of everyone in town.
He’s throwing a lot of them too, so I hope most of these people are really heavy sleepers.
He sucks even worse when he gives a bunch of the shelter animals to a woman who was checking her hair in the shelter window earlier. Oh yeah, she certainly seemed concerned and interested in adopting a shelter pet then – and most certainly she was interested in the chameleon and the pig….
Ya know, one of the reasons why it’s such a bad idea to get people pets as Christmas gifts (especially young children) is because if they don’t actively want a pet or show a desire to put in the work to raise them or even if they’re the type to change their mind about these things, the animals just get put on the streets or returned to the shelter or store that they came from.
They give Mr. Sweet the kitten because, yeah, that’s something smart to do for someone who nearly drowned/froze to death a slue of animals earlier – including the kitten!
But it’s okay.
His wife died.
Anyway, Sweet is a better person now because a cat replaced his wife.
Then we cut back to present time again, which means, yeah, the entire town pulled a 180 out of nowhere, (Are you detecting a pattern?), and became all nice and good, cleaned up the neighborhood, made it a better place and got all jazzed for Christmas because they saved a cat and cleaned up a wrecked shelter in about an hour……
Also, this time jump is confusing because it’s like Noel and Dakota are just now going into the street after being Santa all night, but it’s supposedly a year later.
All of the shelter animals found good homes. I guess the reindeer was adopted by Santa, the lady they gave some of the animals to seems to have happily taken them in because okay, a little boy got the dog, the newsstand guy got the lobster (I still don’t get the lobster) the brats from earlier got the chicken, and another old lady got the bunny.
Bottom Line: So….that happened. This is far from a terrible movie, but it’s also far from a good one. The message is perfectly fine – have a heart, don’t be selfish and help out your friends, family and neighborhood – but it doesn’t really drive this message home in the best way. Everyone was changing their personalities at the drop of a hat, and the neighborhood just randomly got together to clean up the wrecked shelter in the middle of the night after saving a cat and forgetting that the guy they supposedly learned important lessons from was hanging from a flagpole outside.
Not to mention that the narrative is really weird. The partridge from the 12 Days of Christmas song grants a little girl’s wish of her dad getting a hit song by forcing him into charity work? And he had to agree to do it? And only after a ton of BS happens does he finally write the song, and it’s all because he became a better person through all of the charity work that he was doing just for the sake of getting his hit song? Yeah, he saved the cat of his own accord, but was that really the lynchpin?
What’s weird is we never get confirmation that he did write a hit song. We’re just meant to assume it’s that good.
And that wasn’t even the actual motivation behind Melody’s actions – she just wanted to find a replacement for Santa. What would have happened if Dakota really did want to wish for a toy or something? Would Melody actually get it for her immediately or would she have to put some other guy through a moral training camp to get the spirit to earn the toy?
That messes up the message even more because if Melody only did that stuff for Noel and Dakota to achieve her means, that means SHE was being selfish and thinking of her own needs above others.
I don’t even understand why Alicia existed. She did absolutely nothing all movie but literally wander around town and stop to sing ‘Santa, Baby.’ She cleaned up a little bit of the shelter for a handful of frames too, but that’s it. She was not a character in the slightest.
Speaking of the characters, they’re all very two-dimensional and boring. Noel’s a confusing jackass who only realizes the error of his ways when he learns his daughter gave up a wish for herself to give him something when he should have realized it by the fact that he acted like a prick and let her run out the door in tears. Dakota’s a very typical super sweet completely selfless little girl with no flaws besides her knife of a voice. Mr. Sweet is the grumpy old guy who’s grumpy because he’s lonely ever since he lost his wife. And everyone else exists.
As a whole, it’s just a very sloppy movie from start to finish. For a movie that keeps touting having spirit, soul and heart, it sure doesn’t have a lot of passion behind it. Even the cheapest of productions can be made into classics if you have the right passion behind it, something Rankin/Bass should certainly know, but this just reeks of lack of effort in nearly every area, which is a damn shame for the studio’s final production.
Being fair, neither Rankin nor Bass worked on this movie directly. Rankin is listed as an executive producer, but the project is not listed on his official works, and Bass’ name is nowhere to be found. So, technically, this is a Rankin/Bass movie in name only, which is another damn shame since Bass died back in 2014.
Of the three reviews on IMDB, two of them are really shining, though I’m not certain the first positive reviewer knows what they’re talking about because they call the animation nearly flawless and keep referring to Noel as Noah. It’s too well-written otherwise for me to make a solid call there, though. Plus, this movie was supposedly nominated for a WGA award for best animation in television!? What!? Was 2001 a bad year for animation on TV or what happened there?
Maybe I’m just not getting something, because even though, overall, the movie seems to average a middle-of-the-road rating, it seems to be consistently viewed as above average and very enjoyable by many families. Far be it from me to tell you otherwise, and I’m always a big proponent of letting people like what they like, especially when it comes to the holidays, but this movie just isn’t doing it for me.
I appreciate the spirited performance from Patti LaBelle, and Eartha Kitt’s always a joy, may she rest in peace, but I can’t see myself revisiting this movie any upcoming holiday season.
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