Cartoon Review: The Fat Albert Christmas Special

Posted: December 7, 2012 in Cartoon Review, Holiday, Reviews
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The Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977/ Filmation/ Dir.Hal Sutherland)

Doing holiday specials is a tough gig. Quite often, they’re produced as a fast buck idea. Something to throw at the screen during December, and if possible, break up the McDonald’s Commercials a little. Most the specials I have seen, and I’ve seen WAY more than I should, fit into this category. Particularly existing properties, like the Smurfs or He-Man, fit this mold.

You know what? We’re not going to mention another holiday special for the rest of this review. I’m going to show my hand early and just say it. This is good. I don’t want to taint that by comparing it to something less good. If it’s really good, it should be able to stand up on its own without putting something else down. And I think this is good, and I think it goes beyond a cynical cash grab, and I think it might really be worth your while.

Stately Wayne Mannor

To start with though, how does a show like Fat Albert even get made? Well, there was a brief flirtation with black culture in the 70s, and another one in the 90s. The 70s one was focused on city dwelling. You suddenly got shows like Good Times, and The Jeffersons. It wasn’t a perfect situation, but it gave some strides for a while. Fat Albert was part of that, but with a difference. Fat Albert taught a lesson every episode, and it had educational advisors, and it was the herald of a new kind of kids show… or was supposed to be. Basically, it just became a sort of template for He-Man and the idea of a non-white on that show sent shudders down people’s spines. When it was on though, it was a good show. The animation could be a little rough at times, but it at least had heart. I may be talking through nostalgia/the special I just watched. Let’s talk about that shall we?

Every girl’s crazy for a Sharp! Dressed! Man!

So… there’s a laugh track on this cartoon, that’s distracting. At least it should be, actually it only jumped out at me once or twice and then I got over it. Okay, there’s a laugh track, and I’ve dealt with it. It also contains characters that even at the time of transmission were becoming anachronistic stereotypes. The styles and fashions were set in stone in 1972, and it was now 1977 and people just didn’t dress like Rudy anymore. Once you get over that though, and allow the whole thing to be a warm blanket of “Old Stuff” and actually get down to the story, it’s actually pretty good. The only thing is that there are elements that will blindside you if you’re not careful. It’s not that it gets really deep, because there isn’t time for that, but it does get heavy.

We would like to talk to you about the Church of the Forgiving Hand…

There are three main stories going on in here. The first is a simple tale in which the gang’s clubhouse is threatened, the second is a family doing the whole Nativity Re-Enactment bit and the third is… we’ll get to the third because it’s the one that smacked me in the side of the head. The boys are rehearsing a nativity play they intend to put on for their families. The rehearsals are interrupted by Mister Tyrone, who looks like a black Ebenezer Scrooge. Now, his outfit might strike some as a bit silly, but I grew up near Detroit. Elderly black men dressed like this man is dressed, right down to the top hat, well into the middle 80s. Tyrone owns the junk yard where the gang has their clubhouse. Said clubhouse is about ten feet by eleven feet on the outside, but contains a grand ballroom and a 700 seat theater inside. Fat Albert is a Time Lord because he’s got himself a TARDIS!

Wow, she got Betty Davis eyes.

After hearing that Mister Tyrone intends to destroy their clubhouse, the second story shows up. A little kid named Marshal comes to the club house and in an exposition dump, explains that his mother is about to have a baby, that the job his father came to town to get fell through, and that they have nowhere to stay. Fat Albert welcomes the family into the clubhouse, sends the father and Bill off to get help at the hospital, and goes to talk Mister Tyrone into not destroying the clubhouse. Tyrone agrees, provisionally, not to destroy the clubhouse if Fat Albert stands outside his shop in a Santa suit and gives out small gifts to lure in customers. During this time, Bill and the father get told that they have to go to the City Hospital because of a lack of insurance. Seems that the City Hospital is on the other side of town, and if your job didn’t happen to be there after you moved your family, then you’re screwed. This was in the days before the laws that said emergency cases like this had to be taken. These days, the baby would be born in a hospital and the family would just have to worry about the fees later.

Saddest! Santa! Ever!

During this time, the gang finds Fat Albert working outside Tyrone’s and angrily confronts him. Upon hearing that Fat Albert is handing out free stuff, the gang descends on the table in a miniature riot. Tyrone finds them and blames Fat Albert for the kerfuffle, firing him and declaring he’s going to tear down the clubhouse as soon as he can get a bulldozer up to the place. It’s at this point that Mudfoot Brown (The old man the kids know) shows up and starts to give Tyrone hell. Even Fat Albert tries to defend Tyrone for a moment, mentioning that he misses his wife who died. Mudfoot starts to tear into Tyrone, who tries to walk away but is yanked back. Mudfoot starts to his Tyrone hard about his behavior saying “What do you hink Martha would say, if she could see you now?” To which Tyrone replies “Life hasn’t been worth much since she’s been gone.” And unmoved, still righteous with anger and needing to hammer the point home Mudfoot responds with “No. You haven’t been worth much since she’s been gone. You only got one chance left.” and… this is still a kid’s cartoon right? I mean, we just looked into the heart of an angry old coot and found a man whose life was shattered by the passing of the only person that made it worth anything. If they show could have been longer, I would like to have seen a little more of this story. One more scene with him looking over pictures of the good times or something. Sadly, time restrains us.

So what do you think? Do you think God stopped the bullets?

The gang reunites with Bill, and they discover that the baby won’t wait. Rudy and Dumb Donald (what ARE these names?) go to get the doctor while the rest of the gang goes to the clubhouse. Now during this time, Marshal has been on his own and finds a starving puppy that he literally throws a bone. When he and the dog comes to the door of the clubhouse, he over hears his father complaining that he doesn’t know how they’ll make it with another mouth too feed. He goes on to say that he can’t even make enough to feed Marshal. Marshal hears this and decides to cut out, to spare his parents the extra pain of having to feed him. He doesn’t tell anyone, he just sort of fades into the snowy night. That’s a complex bit of selflessness, one that anybody who grew up in a struggling family can understand. Again, this is a heavy bit of emotion for a kid’s show. Marshal continues on his journey, and is found by the gang, who then try to convince him that his parents would be poorer without him than with him. Sadly, they lose him again when he slips away, leaving them in no better circumstances than they were before.

Okay, I can TOTALLY explain this.

When they get back to the clubhouse, they find that the baby has been born, but that Marshal is still missing. Tyrone then bangs on the door, which leads everyone to assume that this is indeed the end. Russell grabs Tyrone’s leg and begs him not to destroy the clubhouse or at least not to send the baby out into the cold. What they don’t know, but I think we do, is that Mister Tyrone has suffered a transformation. Mudfoot opened the Autobot Matrix of Tyrone’s heart and he had become Tyronus Prime, so cue Stan Bush. Tyrone announces that A) He’ll get the family to the hospital in his car, B) He has connections that could get Marshal’s father a job and a place to stay, and C) He would never dream of tearing down this little baby’s historic birthplace. Yes my dears, Cthwalkkan* can be saved!
*Cthwalkkan is a Welsh solstice festival from the 6th Century BC that was abandoned when even the Welsh agreed that it was a stupid name.

I have gazed in to the Palantír Mithrandir and seen our destruction.

And that’s just where it ends. Tyrone looks up and asks “How am I doing Martha?” and we get the exterior shot of the clubhouse in its junkyard. I’m going to say it, this is far better than it has any right to be. It should be a cynical cash in, but it’s not. There are some heavy themes, and for the most part they’re dealt with fairly well. If I have a complaint, it’s that the whole thing goes by a little too quickly. They should have been afforded an hour, but they were clearly subject to the whims of the network. That’s okay though, it works well enough. I can deal with this, it’s well thought out and doesn’t just appeal to a sense of stupid nostalgia wrapped up in shiny paper. So many of the holiday things I’ve reviewed make no sense when thought about logically, but this one holds up pretty well.

Official Score:
71 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

Yeah, I got nothing left.

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