The subtle trick Showtime's "Penny Dreadful is that it is far less about the blood, gore and the specter of gruesome death than the sharp pain and exhilarating pleasure of living, and the terror of feeling alone even in close company. Read our review in the May Picks section.
When I was young, I had taped a re-airing of 1978's `Witch's Night Out.' I watched the tape over and over again until I pretty much had the thing memorized. Sadly, I accidentally erased it, and it was not a special that was ever repeated anymore. I thought I had lost it for good until I stumbled across it for sale at a video store. I bought it and have loved remembering it over and over again. It wasn't until after I bought it that I learned it was actually a sequel, and that another Rankin-Bass/Leach-Rankin special with these same funny characters existed. I couldn't wait to track it down, which I did. But what a surprise it ended up being, and it was not a particularly good surprise. I thought I would take the time to analyze both of them here (There are SPOILERS for both).
I had the benefit of watching the second feature first. I think it helped me understand the first one more in that the characters are easily introduced in `Witch's Night Out' better. The first special relies on the characters' names to introduce you to what each character is like: The Children are Small and Tender, sweet and cute kids. There are Nicely and Goodly, two kind folks that mean well. There are Rotten and Malicious, obviously mean-spirited people. And there is Bazooey. I guess he is just supposed to be goofy with a name like that. In `Witch's Night Out,' though we have the same characters and names, we learn everything we need to know about them in five minutes by their words and expressions. But I guess that leads into the main difference between the two. The animation of `The Gift of Winter' is stiff and poorly done, while `Witch's Night Out' is vivid, colorful, and good. Indeed, `Winter' is made up of a series of stilted pictures that don't look animated at all, but rather just enough are there to allow one to realize you are watching what is supposed to be a cartoon and not just stills, sort of like the old Paddington Bear shorts that aired on Nickelodeon many years ago. While both specials give each character their own color to help distinguish them from one another, `Witch's Night Out' is much easier on the eyes, with bright and detailed backgrounds, and the characters are colored and drawn better. Voices seem better suited in the sequel, as well. Both feature Gilda Radner. She plays Nicely and Malicious in the first one, but not the second (they are played well by Fiona Reid and Catherine O'Hara). Instead, in the second she really shines as the Witch. Dan Aykroyd is a decent Goodly and Rotten, but he doesn't compare well to John Leach and Bob Church. Only Gerry Salsberg (Bazooey) is the same in both.
I guess all this would be irrelevant if the writing were good, but it just doesn't compare again. I don't know if I would feel that way had I watched `The Gift of Winter' first, but watching it second made me see its flaws. The narrator (Radner, doing triple duty) informs us that this took place `many years ago' and that there was no snow at this time, with winter being just cold and dreary. This is the most difficult sell right here. It is obviously taking place in the present era, yet it tries to suggest snow hasn't existed before. Even kids will have a hard time with this point. Anyhow, the people in one town are fed up with winter being so dull, so Goodly suggests that most of the town traverse to see Winter and demand that he do something about it. Winter, from what I understood, is a large blue being that lives far away in a large building and controls the season of winter. They never really say what he does or how he does it. Anyhow, the adults all go and Small and Tender tag along behind. Most of the adults get tired of walking (though they all somehow know which direction to walk, none of them know how far it is to get to Winter's headquarters), and we are left with our aforementioned characters. After some needless exposition, they arrive at Winter's building and then it is obvious Goodly had no idea what he was going to say. Winter quickly kicks the four oldest characters out, but not before Rotten and Malicious planted the dynamite they brought along to solve the problem . . . HUH???? Dynamite? Goodly demanding a being like Winter for change is stupid, but what the dynamite would accomplish is unfathomable. Oh, but Small, Tender, and Bazooey are still in the building, so the adults go in to save them. But they needn't have bothered, for Winter overhears the children talking about him and how mean he is. This makes him cry, creating the first snowfall and defusing the dynamite. This may sound like a cute way of explaining snow, but it isn't cute enough or funny. It certainly doesn't match up with the story of `WNO,' where a witch transforms the children into the spooks of their choice and scares the adults at a party. (I'd get into this more, but I am running out of allowed word space.)
The dialogue in the 1978 feature is full of terrific jokes and lines. I find myself laughing at almost every other sentence. Not so with the 1974 one. There are only two genuinely funny moments: when the adults discover Small and Tender in their company, and when the Ministry of Cold hands out forms for the characters to fill out. It isn't very touching either, unlike the second cartoon. It's sweet when Tender calls the witch his fairy godmother and when the townsfolk clap for her.
There are few specials better than `WNO.' After seeing `TGOW,' I am surprise `WNO' got made. I am more shocked that, after `WNO,' Jean Rankin never made anything else and these characters never returned. Zantara's scores: 5 out of 10 for `The Gift of Winter;' 10 out of 10 for `Witch's Night Out.'
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