|CHUCK E CHEESE IN THE CHRISTMAS THAT ALMOST WASN'T (???, 1983)|
Why was it such a misfit?
To properly explain what you're about to see, you need to know about a man named Nolan Bushnell.
Bushnell was the founder of Atari, which was purchased by Warner Bros. in the mid-70's. Bushnell was also a big entrepreneur and tried to start as many businesses as he could. Chuck E Cheese was one of those businesses, created when Nolan became frustrated with the lack of clean, hooligan-free arcades for kids. When one business took off, Nolan would let it run itself and go found another one. He was partially able to do this because of the limitless cash flow WB gave him -- they didn't care what else he was up to as long as he kept Atari profitable.
Both these habits ended up doing him in. He wasn't watching Atari when they manufactured a Pac-Man cart based on a shoddy pre-beta program, and he didn't check in when they ordered more carts than there were Ataris to play them on. He wasn't looking when Warshaw was told to make an ET game in six weeks. And when the video game market crashed, he was somewhere else starting a different company, and got the news WB was throwing Atari away and him with it. It was during this time period that a Chuck E Cheese holiday special went into production.
Did that backstage drama affect the quality of the special? Um, sort of. Here is a moving GIF that depicts the lovely animation in this cartoon with 100% accuracy:
That's correct: there is even LESS movement in this than there was in The Great Bear Scare. I don't think you can classify this special as a cartoon or even a motion picture -- it's more like a slideshow. Obviously it was released unfinished...but if they only got as far as an animatic, why has the ink and paint been completed? Why are there finished backgrounds? These aren't the steps a cartoon is supposed to take!
I was stumped for answers, but luckily, someone stepped in to provide them: Travis Schaefer, owner of ShowbizPizza.com, the Internet's authoritative voice on all things Chuck E (and Billy Bob). Schaefer is currently working on a book about the history of the restaurant, and he provided me an excerpt that told everything about why this special exists, and in this form.
One of Bushnell's other companies was a small animation studio called Kadabrascope. It was the first studio to use computers to do all its animation work, and if it had ever completed a cartoon, it would have debuted a new technique that wouldn't become commonplace until two decades later. Kadabrascope boasted that it would bring old-school, 24-frame-a-second, smooth animation back to the industry at a fraction of the cost. They would do this by creating the usual number of limited drawings and then have the computer create the in-between frames itself -- a process they called "tweening." If you've heard the phrase "tweening" before, it's because it's how ultra-cheapie cartoons from third-world countries make their characters move. In other words, Kadabrascope would have unleashed Flash upon the world. ....Maybe it's a good thing they sunk before then.
Of course, they would not even get this far and the video game crash would shutter Kadabrascope right after the animatic had been completed. The original intent was to have this cartoon playing in a loop on monitors at all Chuck E Cheese restaurants during the 1983 holiday season...then, one year later, it would make its prime-time debut on NBC. The unfinished product was too embarrassing for either of those options, but not for putting it on VHS and selling it at the concession stand next to the rubber spiders. They'd make some of their money back, they hoped, so the half-cartoon was released that winter.
So how does this one open? With Chuck E and his dog friend Jasper T. Jowls in the middle of the forest, next to a sled being pulled by robots. Yes, this is how Chuck E likes to travel. Is that bizarre or what? Well, I guess the use of sled dogs would be insensitive if Jasper is there. And if you're Chuck E. Cheese himself, you obviously have access to animatronic things. ....Actually, now that I've thought about the circumstances, this makes perfect sense.
That's one nasty cleft
palate on Jasper; poor dog. Chuck E and Jasper are going
to personally deliver their Santa letter to the North
Pole. "Ah, you brought it, right?"
"Awright, to the
North Pole we go!"
The joke is that it is indeed right there. A little further north, an elf is scouting the snowscape with a telescope, watching for the mail. "Here it comes, the last mailbag of the year!" A tiny sack plops near him and he runs to pick it up. As he's hoisting up the sack, a much BIGGER sack drops over him. That's the kind of timing joke you need more than one drawing every three seconds to pull off. Seeing the other sack hover over him for ages is disorienting. This is going to be rough.
The elf stuffs the mail into a hole in the snow, where it drops down a chimney into Santa's office. Thus we take our first look into Santa's workshop. Look how bustling it is!
They hold on that drawing for five seconds. Combined with the dark colors chosen, the result is that the place looks positively dead, while a lively musical score suggests the opposite. When the special leads into its first song, the camera shifts to ground-level, but every time they need an overhead shot, we get this drawing again. Over and over.
The musical number is a pretty generic, garden-variety elf work theme, but after seeing the character designs, it made me realize maybe I don't WANT the characters to move.
I would have such horrible dreams. At least when they're frozen I know they can't hurt me.
An elf named Fortran is running around the workshop looking for Mrs. Claus. When he finds her, he says he's been working on a surefire way to get everything finished in time for Christmas, but that there are a "few bugs" she might need to know about. "Don't worry, I don't allow bugs around here," Missus states before walking away. "No, that wasn't quite what I meant....Mrs. Claus? Mrs. Claus!" Fortran is the name of an old computer programming language, so coupled with the "bugs" comment, we can presume a computer is involved in the plot in some way. This production crew would know a thing or two about computers messing everything up, wouldn't they?
Back at the sled, Chuck E announces he's going to get some sleep for a little while and that Jasper can take the controls. The controls consist of shouting "Mush" at the robots, which is something even Jasper can handle -- until he finds a way to mess it up. "Well, this was easier than I thought. You just have to know how to handle these beasts." The robots don't appreciate being called "beasts" and take the pair on a wild ride from that point -- at least I think it's wild. Like everything else it's hard to tell.
Over a cliff picture, across an iceberg picture, and just when Jasper thinks the worst is over, he gets a "STORM WARNING" message on his dash. That's when they run into a storm -- as in, an anthropomorphic storm that looks like a person. They skim right past his face, waking him up, and he doesn't look like he appreciated the graze.
The elves are now huddled in the main hall (same terrible overhead shot, but with a couple extra props) where Fortran is about to unveil his big invention to Santa. "I hope it's better than his other ideas. Remember when he had us all wear roller skates to increase efficiency?" They share a laugh. Another elf reminds them he's had his useful ideas too. "Without Fortran we wouldn't have those conveyor belts, and we'd still be dragging heavy toys all over the workshop!" True enough. They agree he deserves another chance.
Santa arrives and asks Fortran what's hidden behind some drapery. Fortran pulls it away and reveals......
We're trusting the future of this workshop to ALPHA 5? Why don't we just replace the reindeer with Bulk and Skull while we're at it? The elves are equally skeptical, but for a different reason: "How is ONE ROBOT supposed to help our production speed?" one points out.
Well, it would have been pointless to stop at just one. Fortran gives a whistle and the room starts filling up with identical copies of the same robot drawing, leading into....boy, I don't know.
It would sure help if the animation was completed. This scene was intended to be a multi-screen montage of the robots building toys and knocking the elves out of the way, set to some robot-y beeping music, but it's in a placeholder form that consists of three different drawings repeated, some of them completely unrelated (we get a square that has an elf just standing there and smiling). The term "hot mess" gets thrown around a lot these days, but I think I've found the #1 definitive example.
One elf is painting a dolly before an Alpha yanks it away and finishes the job. In response, she sadly walks into a supply closet and starts painting another one while singing.....very...........slowly. "Whoooooooooo will make the rooooooses sparkle like I doooooooo? Whooooooo will make the bluuuuuuuuuue sky blllllllluuuuuuuuuuueeeee?"
If that wasn't dull enough, when the girl finishes her song, it's followed by what may be the worst crime against timing any cartoon in existence has ever committed. The scene shifts to an establishing shot of the North Pole, and holds on that shot for a record 25 SECONDS before Chuck E finally says "Well, here we are, Jasper!" How much did this video cost to buy? I'm assuming Negative Fifty Dollars, as in they handed YOU money at the counter, because anything greater would be too much. Negative Forty Dollars would be a ripoff.
Jasper goes through a bit of distress when he realizes that despite their being at the exact top of the world, Santa's workshop is nowhere to be seen. If it's not here, it can't be anywhere. He gets so panicky that he almost loses his letter to the wind. After a few seconds of chasing it, he does catch it -- but he and Chuck E fall down a chimney in the process, which was curiously sticking out of the snow.
"Of COURSE!" Chuck E realizes. "It's the North Pole, so Santa's workshop would be buried in snow!" No, that doesn't make sense. You riding a robot-driven sleigh as transportation, THAT makes sense, but this doesn't. Santa wouldn't let his place be buried all the time -- otherwise, how would he get out to deliver the toys?
Jasper steps out of
Santa's office and takes a peek downstairs. He finds a
whizzed-off elf who's lamenting the fact that he's been
The rat and dog do find the Claus down there, and Jasper goes wild with elation. Chuck E talks down his starstruck friend. "Just remember, Jasper, it's Santa Claus! We gotta be polite!" Another thing worth pointing out is the people who wrote this special had nothing to do with the people who wrote the skits for the bots at the restaurant. Chuck E, during this time period, was quite the wiseacre and 50% of his dialogue consisted of cheap shots and putdowns. So no, the 1983 Chuck E would never insist on being polite, even at Santa's place. Here is video evidence from someone who, somehow, rescued working bots for his own private collection:
I had forgotten about the elephant feet in the wall that applauded at the end of each skit. What a trip.
Just as Chuck E asks Santa what is going on in his workshop, the scene cuts to Mrs. Claus preparing a stew, for no reason. She suddenly hears thunder and wind outside, walks out to the balcony and trash-talks the storm-being who's making all the noise. "Well! If it isn't that old mischief-maker! What's he up to now?"
He's throwing FIREBALLS, somehow. Completely against type, especially for the North Pole, but I should've stopped asking logic questions a long time ago. One of these fireballs gets down Santa's chimney and bounces through the workshop, wrecking some of the Alphas and bringing production to a standstill once again. Hey, that solved the main conflict, if accidentally. You're not so bad, cranky storm man!
But no, he gets scolded for it. Mrs. Claus gives him such an earful (and a nose-whacking with her wooden spoon of wrath) that he feels ashamed of himself and blows away the snow surrounding Santa's HQ. Second problem taken care of.
The cartoon could have ended there, but then Chuck E had to open his mouth. "Hey, it seems ta me that if these robots are good at assembling the toys, and you elves are good at designing and painting them...why don't ya try working TOGETHER? Try teamwork!" Yes, that's the real moral, and to prove it, Chuck E starts to sing.
Up to this point, the Chuck E animatronic was voiced by John Widelock, who couldn't sing a note. He lasted all those years because he basically spoke his song lines while every other robot sang louder to mask him. That wouldn't be possible this time, so Scott Wilson, the voice of Munch, was asked by the director to give it a shot. Wilson nailed it in one take and was given the role of Chuck E right then, a job he would keep until 1993. Widelock, by the way, was in the room when this happened.
Thanks to TEAMWORK being drilled into their heads, the workshop gets all the toys done just in time. Order is restored at Santa's and he flies off with his bag of toys on schedule, laughing into the distance? Is there anything they forgot? ...Oh yeah, Jasper still has his letter.
If Santa already left, what hope is there? Chuck E has only one idea: maybe if they wish with all their might, the letter will just vanish from Jasper's hand and appear in Santa's sleigh. Does he have any better ideas? Can't TEAMWORK help them? Apparently not. They decide to go for it and wish.
Sonofagun, it actually
works. The letter blinks out of sight. "Do you think
he got it, Chuck?"
This has been a strange afternoon.
Why didn't it fit in?
Back to the corner with YOU, Baby!
Does Mary Lou Retton like it?
Mary has this thing about rats, especially rats that sell pizza. So no, she didn't like this one.