|THE BERENSTAIN BEARS' CHRISTMAS TREE (NBC, 1979)|
Why was it such a misfit?
The Berenstain Bears are no strangers to animation, with two cartoon series notched on their belt (CBS in the eighties, PBS in the zeroes). But before either of those were a gleam in an executive's eye, they had their own Christmas special.
Stan and Jan wrote the script, and it feels like an authentic Berenstain Bears book: The entire thing is mostly in rhyme, and the plot concerns somebody disobeying strict directions and paying the price for it. The bears made their first transition to moving film seamlessly, except for one drawback: this cartoon's animation is pretty limited. You can see every cel appear in sequence with your own eyes, and many bits are reused over and over. The Great Bear Scare is still worse at this, but...that goes without saying.
The Berenstain Bears are so excited that today is tree day, they're gathering all the ornaments before they even walk outside. "They had boxes of things....in closets and cubboards and corners of halls, they had bangles and bells and bright-colored balls, strings of bright beads to hang in the rooms, and a Christmassy (wind-up) bear that sang Christmassy tunes."
When Brother Bear pushes a button, the wind-up bear sings "'Tis the season to be furry, especially if you're a bear." Well, I guess if you were a bear, you'd have no choice. The piece de resistance of their collection is a multi-pointed star so glittery and gaudy it would be impossible outside of a cartoon to exist.
Mama Bear doesn't explain why she isn't going out with Papa and the kids to find the perfect tree, but she does give Papa the following instructions: they're to buy a tree from Grizzly Gus's Christmas tree lot down the road, and they're to come home before the big snowstorm hits. Given that Papa is carrying an axe as he walks away, it's already obvious he has no intention of listening to Mama, even though she's the Flawless Voice of Feminine Reason and he is the Stupid Husband Who Can't Do Anything Right. This special, by the way, was so influential that every single three-camera family sitcom has been copying its structure for the last 20 years.
"But Papa, I don't
mean to fuss, but Mama said to buy one from Grizzly
Gus," Brother protests.
"No matter what, no matter where.....if it means going through the Panama Isthmus, if it means climbing to the top of Pike's Peak, I will find the right tree if it takes us a WEEK!" Papa declares. This line baffles me....they find the one word that rhymes with "Christmas" and they don't take the opportunity?
Every time Papa sees what he thinks is the perfect tree, or every time he even thinks about trees (which is every thirty seconds), his eyes turn into tree-shaped light shows of red and green. They use this same animation clip over and over until it gets well past old.
Papa sees a magnificent tree ("It's nooks had crannies! Its crannies had nooks!") and readies his axe in the chopping position....but just as he's about to take the first swing, Brother notices something unfortunate.
A. Skunk lives here. A SKUNK LIVES HERE!
Not only a skunk, but also a bunch of squirrels, a grouse, twenty crows, and one small chipmunk angrily waving his arms in karate positions. Not wanting to risk a confrontation, Papa Bear and the cubs leave this tree alone. It would just make them hypocrites anyway -- the Bears live in a tree themselves.
It's starting to snow now, which Mama warned him about, but Papa is determined. "I will find the right tree. No matter when, no matter where! Or my name isn't Papa Q. Bear!" That's right, his actual name is Papa, which probably means the other bears are actually named Mama, Brother and Sister. Quick fact: the first Berenstain book, "New Baby," featured the birth of Sister and Brother was called "Little Bear." I guess he had his name legally changed at that point.
Papa finds another tree to go gaga over, and gets into position once again -- and guess what, the same thing happens, only with an eagle this time, which chases after him. Uh-oh, is this one of those stories? Are we going into a rut just for rut's sake?
Yes we are. Tree #3 has the same problem, housing a family of small birds. By now the blizzard is so bad that anyone would have to be crazy to keep venturing through it, like our ursine bad role model here. (At least he doesn't chop down the trees anyway; give him some credit for that.)
There is one extra thing Papa notices about these birds, though. Their tree is even worse-looking than Charlie Brown's, yet they're perfectly happy with it, and decorating it as lavishly as possible. That gives him a perspective he'd never had before. Papa Bear's heart grew three sizes that day. "It's not about the tree. It's about family! Mamas and Papas, and Sisters and Brothers!"
Sister and Brother, who
have been complaining this entire trip about slogging so
long through the snow, flip around and start griping
about the opposite thing.
Grizzly Gus has left the building. Papa took so long trying to find a wild tree that by the time he got back, all the pre-cut overgrown evergreen weeds were purchased! Sister starts to cry at the prospect of no tree, when suddenly, she notices something....
Something you should have guessed all along....
Yes, as thanks for sparing their own domiciles, the creatures of the forest have gathered together to turn the Bears' house into the greatest Christmas tree ever. And Mama must have let them in the house, because all their ornaments and decorations are on it too, including the wind-up bear and the gaudy star, which is suddenly outshone by the inexplicable reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem.
The brightness of that star causes all the other bears to come out of their houses and witness the amazing decoration job, and they get so happy at the sight, they start singing about "Christmas Eve reminds us all to love all creatures great and small!" Over the top? A bit, but the way I'm describing it makes it sound more overblown than it really is.
Why didn't it fit in?