Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The American Father Christmas - A Childhood Destroyed


Every English kid knows and loves the work of writer and illustrator Raymond Briggs, whose books are offbeat hybrids of the picture book and the graphic novel. The two animated adaptations of his most famous works – the heart-wrenchingly sad The Snowman and the comical Father Christmas - are staples of British TV during the holidays.

The latter film, based off of Brigg’s book of the same name and its sequel, Father Christmas Goes on his Holidays, depicts a year in the life of Old Saint Nick. Unlike the perpetually jolly old elf that is the stereotypical American vision of Santa Claus, Briggs’ character does not live at the North Pole, but on a pretty regular-looking Everytown, England street. He only has two reindeer, whose names we never learn, as well as a cat and a dog. I don’t think he utters a single “ho,” although he does say “bloomin’” a lot. Ex: “bloomin’ snow, bloomin’ toys, bloomin’ kids, bloomin’ Christmas!” In Great Britian’s swear word vernacular, “blooming” is pretty mild - about the equivalent of saying “darn” over here.

In the beginning, Father Christmas breaks the fourth wall, explaining how one year the pressure of his job was so great he decided to take a summer holiday. He converted his sleigh into a Winnebego, he set off on a camping trip in the south of France, but found that the French food gave him diarrhea. He decided to relocate to Scotland for its fine beers and whiskeys (the English Santa likes to drink. It is customary to leave him a glass of whiskey rather than a plate of milk and cookies) but becomes disenfranchised by the rainy weather and the shark-infested lakes. He travels once again to Las Vegas, where he enjoys himself immensely, but runs up a huge hotel bill. So finally he travels home, to resume business as usual.

Another running gag in the film is that we continuously see fleeting glimpses of Father Christmas’s buttocks when he pulls up his swim trunks, or sits on the toilet during his nasty bout of indigestion, or bends over to put presents under someone’s tree. He doesn’t seem to really care for children when he encounters them face to face, and once or twice he is overly snappy and short-tempered: when he picks up his red and white suit from the dry cleaners, the clerk asks if he’s “off to a fancy-dress party,” to which he replies “I should be so bloomin’ lucky!”

His character’s voice was provided by the great Cockney comedian Mel Smith, an actor best known to Americans as the albino from The Princess Bride. Father Christmas is humanized – Briggs’ intent was to make him a harried, working class Johnny Lunchpail type; like a belovedly grumpy uncle. And all British kids have an uncle who cusses (albeit midly,) drinks, gambles, and shows his plumber’s crack.

We had both Father Christmas and The Snowman on tape when we were young kids, and when our family moved from England to the United States, we had all our videos transferred from PAL to NTSC by one of my father’s friends. These dubbed tapes have been watched so many times, not only by my sister and I, but by my parents friends’ and coworkers’ kids whom my father leant the tape out to. So imagine our surprise when our neighbor, Ken, came over to our house one day and produced a store-bought copy of Father Christmas with a picture on the cover.

“Thanks,” my dad said, puzzled. “But we’ve already got this one on tape.”

“Not like this, you haven’t,” said Ken, with an air of facetious doom in his voice. So that evening, my dad, my sister and I sat down to investigate.

Imagine, if you will, how upset Americans would be if anyone from a foreign country re-edited The Grinch. If someone out there thought Boris Karloff’s voice-over was too scary for children, and didn’t approve of the idea of stealing toys, so they recut the story to make it seem like he was only “borrowing” them. Or better yet, imagine if they redubbed It’s a Wonderful Life to make it seem like George Bailey wasn’t contemplating suicide, but was a cold water swimming enthusiast. If you do this, you’ll have some idea of the offensiveness of the American re-edited version of Father Christmas.

The titular character is no longer the gruff Bob Hoskins type – gone is Mel Smith’s wonderful voice work. Instead, they have given him a “posh” accent, like someone impersonating Richard Harris or Richard Attenborough. His grumpiness is severely neutered. He is no longer the cantankerous old codger we know and love, but a good-natured toy-bearing martyr who explicitly states that he “does it all for the children.” Uses of the word “bloomin’” are all cut out, including the changing of the song he sings as he sets out on Christmas Eve – “So jump up on my sleigh / And we’re on our way / To another bloomin’ Christmas” has been changed to a horrifically tin-eared “another mer-ry Christmas.”

The producers of this video have left no stone unturned in completely emasculating Briggs’ vision of the old man. In the British version, when Father Christmas leaves his cat and dog at the kennel while he goes on holiday, he sniffles a bit and mutters “Bloomin animals!” under his breath. In the American cut, he overtly sobs and cries “I’ll miss you guys!” Watching with my mouth agape, I felt a little part of my childhood die.

Needless to say, all the shots featuring Santa’s bare buttocks are removed, as are any references to him drinking. The sequence that takes place in the pub in Scotland is totally eliminated, making it seem like when he lands in Scotland he goes out, buys a kilt, and then flies off again. The most insulting change takes place at the end, when Father Christmas climbs into bed just as the sun is breaking on Christmas morning, and opens his own presents – an “awful tie from Auntie Edie, the usual socks from Cousin Violet and,” to his great happiness, a bottle of liquor from “good old Uncle Bob.” In the American version he smiles and says “ah, lovely – a bottle of fine cologne.” It was probably at this point that I got up and left the room in disgust.

I realize that America is a much more politically correct society than Great Britain, and that the idea of Santa Claus as someone who grumbles, complains about his job, enjoys a nice drink in the evening and sometimes even has to go number two does not fit with the American idea of what Christmas is all about. I also realize that buying the rights to a foreign cartoon and re-dubbing it is a great way to make a quick buck. But I implore Americans – please leave we Briton’s most beloved animated films alone. Keep your mitts away from Watership Down and The Wombles of Wimbledon Common., because Americanized versions of these will inevitably be sanitized and neutered shadows of their former selves. When you mess with our cartoons, you mess with our heritage. Please leave our heritage be.

6 Comments:

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