Ho ho howdy folkses! Welcome to the Eighth Day of The Twelve Days of Shitmas celebration for 2021! Our last special came to us with a solid pedigree of popular family entertainment and featured one of the most beloved canine stars of the silver screen of the past fifty years. It should have been thoroughly heartwarming, but it left us completely cold. Today's special is cold by design, taking place as it does in the extraterrestrial realms of the interstellar wastes, far beyond the thermosphere of this puny blue orb we call Earth. In the immortal words of Khan Noonien Singh, "It is very spaaaace." It is also very cold in Canada, and that happens to be where today's feature was made.

Fill up your Molson muscle, eh. It's Shitmas time!

We're posting a brand-new review of a Christmas special every other day beginning December 3rd, culminating in what we consider the worst of the bunch on Christmas morning. If you don't know about our Secret Santa sneaky link feature by now I just don't know what's to be done with you. It's not the kind of sneaky link where you pretty much stopped going out on your own when you got engaged two years ago, but your fiancee is off to a three-day seminar in Toronto, so you figure you might as well hit that old dive bar on Fourth Street you used to frequent and maybe catch up with the staff. The place is empty on a Tuesday night, so it's mostly just you and that hot bartender Kate you used to crush on really hard before you met Karen. She can't believe you're gonna marry a Karen, doesn't think you're the Karen type, but she congratulates you anyway. You're not much of a drinker anymore, but Kate keeps lining them up, on her, and next thing you know it's 2:45 AM, you're up in the room she rents above the place, and she's on you. Needless to say, you go back on Wednesday and Thursday, and when Karen gets home on Friday, she finds you strangely distant. Why have you had such a long engagement, anyway? Are you even ready for a lifetime commitment? Can you even see yourself with a Karen? It sounds like you have some decisions to make, pal. At any rate, our Secret Santa Sneaky Link is simply a hidden link in one of the screenshots to a strange or unsettling depiction of Santa Claus that may or may not have been mailed to us anonymously in an otherwise empty Tim Horton's coffee box from somewhere in Saskatchewan, without a message, name or return address...and we don't even know anyone in Saskatchewan.

This is only our third year celebrating Shitmas, but already we seem to have a tradition of including on our list a holiday offering from our agreeable neighbors to the north. Sharing the longest border in the world counts for something, I suppose, and we can always count on those crazy Canucks to surprise us with something wholesome, entertaining or just plain weird to add a little pep to our yearly festivities. For our inaugural Shitmas in 2019 we featured a French Canadian Day Eight, with a goofy slapstick tax shelter from the Xerox corporation, The Christmas Martian (1972), and for Day Nine in 2020 we presented a delightful Christmas-themed episode from a much-loved adventure series, The Forest Rangers: Santa MacLeod (1965). This year we're back to our original Canada slot with an uneven but inventive animated special that swings back and forth between refreshingly odd and quirky and frustratingly meandering and slow.

George & the Christmas Star was written and directed by Gerald Potterton, who four years before had helmed the successful animated anthology film Heavy Metal (1981), and had previously directed Buster Keaton in the splendid live-action short The Railrodder (1966). Looking through his credits on IMDb after watching today's special, I was surprised at how much of his work I'd already seen.

George... tells the gentle tale of a nebbishy nerd who wishes for something different to liven up his holiday routine, and finds it by following his dreams. Along the way he makes some friends, has some adventures and learns a valuable lesson about what it means to be happy. Cynical prat that I am, if I had read that description rather than written it, I probably would have passed this program by, assuming it would be too sappy and saccharine for my tastes, but I'd have missed out on something truly unique that ultimately defied my expectations, even as it left me somewhat disgruntled at its liesurely pace and unexploited potential.

We open on a stone farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Seriously, it's sitting on a flat, featureless field of white beneath a vast starry sky that looks as much like an artist's rendering of nowhere as anything this side of the "Nowhere Man" sequence from Yellow Submarine, which incidentally Gerald Potterton also worked on as an animator. There are no trees, no grass and no other structures, just this one lonely house set amidst a sea of eerie emptiness. It's an oddly stark and minimalist visual approach to a genre that's usually bright, busy and gaudy, and it's the first indication that what we're about to see is not your standard Christmas fare.

As someone who hates mowing the lawn, I heartily approve.

Unfortunately, we also get a couple of early indications that Potterdon didn't have the money to make the special quite as special as he doubtless would have liked. The score is god-awful, consisting of low-rent, lo-fi, single-keyboard synth music--dull, droning, miserable stuff--that was apparently all they could afford after spending the rest of the music budget on a pair of songs by legendary Canadian crooner Paul Anka. Low-rent and low-fi, too is the voiceover narration from George, which is sleepily monotonous and slowly, inexorably siphons off the energy and good will generated by the eccentric story and offbeat visuals.

Inside the house our titular hero is carrying a ladder over to his Christmas tree, followed by his faithful gray cat. Being a serious animal guy, I found the cat to be something of a distraction later on for reasons I'll discuss later. The tree is enormous with all the usual baubles and accouterments, missing only the traditional star at the top to make its festive adornments complete.

George sets the ladder against it and climbs up, produces a piece of paper and some scissors and makes a five-pointed star which he places at the apex of the mighty fir. At first, he smiles at having completed his holiday preparations, but then he puts his hand to his chin and gives it a disapproving glare. Something is missing. The star seems too ordinary, lacks pizazz, is wholly unsuitable for such a magnificent specimen of Christmas wonder, so he tears it up and tries successively topping it off with a series of other sundry items he happens to have on his person, and boy-howdy, he sure does keep a lot of junk in his pants.

Not a euphemism.

None of these drab things strike George's fancy, either, especially a live frog, who burps in his face and hops away, using the cat's head as a springboard as it escapes the house and hitchhikes to Arizona to start a new life. Our poor befuddled hero, meanwhile sits on a rung of the ladder, wracking his brain to think of an appropriate option. He happens to gaze out of a nearby window and notices a particularly bright and beautiful star. He realizes what he needs is not a paper star but a real star, this particular star, in fact, so he hops down from the ladder and runs off to plot and plan and scheme a way to get it.

Many of the visuals we see are cobbled together using repurposed photos and line drawings from old catalogs and patent diagrams. When he pulls out a telescope, for example, it's a tinted cutout of a vintage illustration of a telescope, and the various pictures on his walls are from older print ads and design documents. It's reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's animations for Monty Python, the backgrounds from John Korty & Charles Swenson's Twice Upon a Time (1983) and the works of (gratuitous name-drop alert) artist Cal Schenkel, who designed album art for Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and other musicians. I met Schenkel back in 1993, at his home/studio in Willow Grove, PA, just a few months before Zappa's death, and found him to be an endearingly soft-spoken fellow with lots of terrific stories about the fringe-royalty of avant-garde American rock music, many of whom were his personal friends.

Calvin Schenkel, a kind and humble man.

So, George goes outside and specs out his star, then scampers off to throw together "a few odds and ends." Soon he's pushing a fifty-foot column of junk across the screen towards an unseen workshop, where he whistles and hammers and cuts and bolts together a massive spacecraft built from a motley assortment of cast-away hunks of metal and old machinery.

I suspect George may be a hoarder.

Faster than you can say "In space no one can hear you pee," George climbs into the rocket and takes off on his journey to the stars. Everything seems to be going swimmingly at first, but suddenly he finds himself in total darkness, with no stars in sight, having fallen into "the blackest of black holes." After what seems an eternity in this lightless abyss he spots something glowing in the distance and exclaims "It was a sign!"

Not a metaphor.

Next thing George knows his ship makes a hard landing, and he goes tumbling out a window, eventually making a soft landing on a nice, comfy bed, one of a vast expanse of nice, comfy beds stretching out in all directions to the limits of his vision.

Not an exaggeration.

It seems George has landed on an asteroid-cum-motel (tee-hee!), run by a chatty robot named Ralph, who pops up at his bedside and offers him a hot chocolate...and George is the kind of guy who never says no when a chatty robot offers him a hot chocolate.

Great. Now I want a hot chocolate. Brb.

Ralph explains that he's got one million beds and has been operating the place for the past ten years, but despite his natural disposition towards gregarious hospitality, George is his very first customer.

He says it's kinda ironic his being there all alone running a hotel at the ass end of a black hole, because all he ever really wanted to be was a piano player...and at that revelation a panel opens up in his belly and a keyboard slides out, with two sets of mechanical pistons to strike the keys, and Ralph performs the show-stopping production number "You've Given Me a Reason (To Believe)," during which he flies above George's bed, sings in Paul Anka's voice and shoots fireworks out of his head.

Swingin' on a star, baby!

The song has serious Vegas lounge cred and I kinda dig it, but George doesn't seem terribly impressed. In fact, when Ralph finishes the number and descends to his bedside to see what his guest thinks of his performance, the tenderfoot astronaut has fallen asleep.

The next morning, or whatever constitutes "morning" on an asteroid-cum-motel (tee hee!), George wakes up early and heads back to his ship as Ralph hovers around asks if he maybe should take up the violin instead. As he wanders off sadly, muttering to himself, George realizes that Ralph is sad and lonely, stuck as he is on this little planetoid all by himself, so he offers to take him along.

Farewell, asteroid-cum-motel (tee-hee!).

It proves to be a fortuitous decision, as George is unacquainted with the ways of the cosmos at large, its customs, tropes and laws, and having someone who really knows his shit comes in mighty handy. As George acquaints his new friend with the where, why and how of his star-hunting quest, they're suddenly pulled over and questioned by a troop of robotic Space Rangers, travelling in a gargantuan craft shaped like horse, and wearing Mountie hats under their glass fishbowl space helmets. There are four of them, and they speak in a series of trills and bleeps. Poor befuddled George has no idea what they're saying.

"What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Fortunately, Ralph speaks their language and is able to explain that they're out star-hunting, unfortunately star-hunting requires a permit and George ain't got one. Still, George is white, so instead of being shot or beaten or tazed in the testicles, he's able to avoid a citation and make a deal with the Rangers. All he has to do is bring them back a load of space junk and they'll give him the permit, then he can hunt stars all he likes.

They head out to a nearby debris field and start collecting junk, but they soon find themselves under attack! Laser beams zip past their heads and they look up to see an enormous pirate ship bearing down on them!

The nose of the craft opens like a plastic egg and swallows up George's rocket, and before they know it they're up on the poop deck, surrounded by a gang of peg-legged, hook-handed, poorly harmonizing space pirates.

They seem friendly enough.

Ralph makes the mistake of criticizing their singing and both he and George end up in the brig.

There they meet another prisoner, a smokin' hot lady astronaut named Barbara, who really makes George's retrorockets fire at full thrust, if you know what I mean. Ralph, meanwhile seems discomfitted and bemused by their instant mutual attraction. He stares directly at the camera, looking shell-shocked like he just walked in on them in flagrante delecto.

Calm down, dude. They're just shaking hands.

Barbara explains that these pirates stole her ship and sold off the fuel to a gang of Space Bikers, and Ralph realizes they're all in pretty serious trouble. He says they'd better find a way to escape pronto or they'll never get that star and make it back to Earth in time for Christmas. He has a plan, though. He whips out his little belly-piano and they all start singing Christmas carols, hoping to lull the music-loving, yet tone-deaf pirates to sleep. Unfortunately the three prisoners' far suprior singing merely annoys the brutes and they order them to walk the plank into open space.

DJ George, MC Ralph and a yo-ho-Ho.

At about this point in the special, my mind began to wander a bit, back to the beginning of this rambling, somewhat sleepy adventure, and I suddenly remembered George's cat, left all alone in that big ol' house in the middle of nowhere, with no one to take care of him, or give him scritchies, kibble, nose boops or treats.

Poor li'l fella.

I'm usually a no-worries, laid-back, easy-going sort of guy (*cough*Bullshit!*cough*), but there are definitely a rare few things that metaphorically burn my biscuits. Social injustice, for example. Hate that shit. Medical offices where you can't reach a human being, can only leave a message, and can never get a call back to schedule your colonoscopy appointment to save your fucking life. Yes, I'm at that delicate age, and it gives me a massive rage-boner to have to chase somebody around for three months just so they can shove a camera up my ass. They should be chasing me around just for the privilege, amirite?

What I hate more than just about anything else in the whole fucking universe, though are pet "caretakers" who don't take care of their pets, particularly those who don't get their cats fixed then let them roam around the neighborhood making hundreds of feral kittens that folks like me have to trap and spay/neuter, then either return them to their colonies or find them homes.

Now I have no idea if George ever got his cat neutered, but I do know he left him alone while he took a trip to space. I also know this is a cartoon, but however anthropomorphic the cat might be I couldn't help but notice he still hasn't got opposable thumbs. He can't fill his own water bowl, scoop his own litter or open cans of wet food, and he sure as shit can't dial a phone and call somebody else to do it for him. How long did George think he was going to be gone? A few hours? A few days? A few weeks? Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and didn't even reach the edge of our solar system until 2012, which is more than twice a healthy cat's entire lifetime. The nearest star to our own is Proxima Centauri, at 25,300,000,000,000 miles away. I don't think George even went back into the house after building the rocket and now here he is imprisoned by pirates and about to be left out in space to die.

I'm worried sick about that poor kitty.

George tells us "It looked like we were doomed, and doomed is not a good thing to be. Especially around Christmas time." You're telling me? I still have four more articles to write!

Anyway, just as the feline-neglecting doofus and his pals step off into oblivion, the Space Rangers reappear and engage the Pirates in battle.

Eat your heart out, George Lucas.

Deus ex Machina plot point resolution successful, George gets both his ship and his star-hunting permit, and soon the three unlikely crewmates are on their way to capture the chosen star.

Unfortunately, there are other dangers in space besides pirates. "Look guys!" shouts Barbara, pointing towards a bunch of moving specks of light in the distance, "We have visitors!"

They peer out a porthole and see a vicious gang of Space Bikers closing in on them. These are the dreaded "Bell's Angels" led by the cruel and felonious Ding Dong Bells, who hijack passing spacecraft and steal the fuel for their bikes!

Like a true nature's child, he was born, born to be mild.

George knows the game is up, but he has one more trick up the sleeve of his ill-fitting spacesuit. While Ralph keeps the bikers at bay with a few of his cranial fireworks, George and Barbara prepare a "star shuttle," and before you can say "In space no one can hear you flush," the three protagonists make their escape, leaving the ship and its fuel to be looted by the low-rider bandits.

Is that thing OSHA compliant?

Now it's time for the other Paul Anka song they spent too much money on. This one is called "Anyone Can Reach a Star," and it's all about following your heart and pursuing your dreams and reaching for the stars and all that sort of platitudinous bullshit. It trades the swingin' Vegas cornpone of the previous number for undiluted, gut-churning schmaltz, and morphs into a cheesy music video where Ralph winkingly performs all sorts of capers and antics while George and Barbara smile and laugh and pretend to have a grand old time.

Thankfully it fades out about halfway through the number because they've finally reached the special star and have to perform the delicate operation of capturing it, using a glowing chamber in the nose of the shuttle.

I'm no scientist, but I don't think that's how stars work.

Barbara gets so caught up in George's triumph she removes his helmet and gives him a kiss. Sadly this does not cause catastrophic decompression of his spacesuit and he neither suffocates nor freezes to death, nor does his face explode.

That could've been the money shot right there.

There is just one teensie-weensie little problem, though. The shuttle was only designed to grab the star and fly straight back to the rocket, and wasn't meant to carry them all the way out to the star and back to Earth. No sooner do they have the thing safely stowed away they realize they're out of fuel, stranded, nine hundred-thousand-million-monkeys from home.

Ralph thought it was even more monkeys in kilometers.

Suddenly Barbara spots a tiny red light in the distance, seemingly flying closer and closer to them. She looks though the periscope-telescope and sees a bunch of mechanical reindeer feet followed by the rails of a sled and says, "Guess who it is?"

If it's not Jimmy Hoffa or Elvis I'm not interested.

George sticks the star in a box and the three travelers hitch a ride with Santa back to Earth. Along the way they stop at lots of other planets, because apparently Santa distributes his gifts to all the good little Christian boys and girls throughout the entire universe, but the Space Jews will still have to settle for socks and wool trousers from Hanukka Harry.

By the time they get back to his house George is so excited about finally having his star that he bolts out of the sleigh, oblivious to Santa and his reindeer, unmindful of his friends, and completely ignoring the lonely and confused cat who's been waiting at the door for his dinner for the past three days.

"Da fuq you been, dude?"

George is already at the top of the ladder by the time Barbara, Ralph and the cat reach the base of the tree. He suddenly remembers there were other people involved in his selfish quest, so he turns to them and smiles. Then he turns back to the box.

He opens it, then quickly closes it tight, struggling to hold the rumbling lid in place. Suddenly the star bursts free from its bondage, sweeps though the house and out the chimney, then resumes its proper place in the sky, directly above George's house.

The moral of the story: You reach for the stars you burn your goddamn fingers.

George is completely gutted. After all the considerable bother he'd just gone through to get the thing, having it escape his grasp at the very moment of his triumph seems almost laughably gratuitous in its cosmic cruelty, but when he looks down and sees his new little family gathered together at the base of the tree, these faithful companions who had shared his dream, shared his quest, shared his dangers, shared his joys and are still there with him now, sharing his moment of pain, he realizes that things could not have turned out better. The star is now back where it belongs, after all, and in seeking to possess it he had found something far more precious: friendship!

Also some sweet lady astronaut boo-tay!

The End.

I can only recommend George and the Christmas Star with some serious caveats. It was enjoyable for me the first time through if only for the novelty of it, but for all its goofy and original notions it seems only about half cooked and never fully congeals into a cohesive whole, with its many ideas coming and going so rapidly they don't have time to make an impact.

The characters needed to be better developed, too. Ralph the robot was funny and appealing, providing some vital charm and energy, but George seemed to be sleepwalking through his narration and Barbara simply didn't have enough screen time to give us a sense of her personality. Everyone else was just a blip, barely there, their personalities not even registering. Except the cat, because cats are awesome even when they're doing nothing at all.

Shitmas Bonus!
Christmas Cracker!

It turns out George has a dirty little secret. This wasn't the first time he tore up his paper star, built a rocket ship and went to space to steal a real one. In fact he did it once before all the way back in 1963 as part of an Oscar-winning short film called Christmas Cracker, funded by The National Film Board of Canada.

Back in the 70's & 80's my local Philly PBS station WHYY used to show NFBC short films as interstitial links when their regular programming didn't end tidily within an on-the-hour or -half-hour time slot. I saw a ton of them, both live action and animated, and found them uniformly fascinating. It's where I first saw Potterton's The Railrodder, as well as the 1978 Oscar winning animation Special Delivery that I spent years trying to find a copy of as an adult. Now, thankfully, there's an official NFBC YouTube channel so I can get my fix of it whenever I please.

Watching Christmas Cracker for this article stirred a murky memory, and I'm sure I saw it at least once on WHYY when I was a kid. It's a terrific little film, even if it does feature that pervy, air-humping Jack-in-the-Box dude from our Day One special Santa & the Fairy Snow Queen. Apparently he'd emigrated to Canada sometime after 1951, and was still every bit as creepy and disturbing over a decade later.

"Still got it, baby!"

He doesn't hump the air here, or say things three times for no reason, or indeed say anything at all, but he does provide some twitchy transitions between three brief Christmas themed sequences, each in a completely different style, with the entire program running to just over nine minutes.

The first vignette is a perky, cut-out animated couple dancing zestfully to a jaunty rendition of "Jingle Bells."

"Yeah, girl! Shake what yo' mama gave ya!"

It's conceptually simple, but the animation is smooth, colorful and peppy, and the "Jingle Bells" arrangement is snappy and frolicsome. The two unnamed characters broadcast better-defined personalities through their movements and facial expressions in two minutes than either of the human leads from George and the Christmas Star managed to convey through their entire half hour special.

The second sequence is bright and clever, using a variety of tin toys to relay a silly tale about a snapping alligator who bullies the other wind-up toys, only to get his comeuppance from an astronaut, an elephant and a couple of robots. It's got a manic, infectious energy and an odd, dreamlike aesthetic, full of brisk edits and funky dutch angles.

I want all of these toys.

Finally we get to George doing his thing. It's a bit more low-key than the other two parts, but essentially it's exactly the same story as our main feature distilled to about five minutes and told without the monotonous, brain-numbing narration. The deadpan, silent George is far more relatable and entertaining than the somnolent, droopy-faced George who never shuts up, and seeing this original version made me wish that Potteron had stuck closer to his initial concept instead of trying to over-explain what he added to flesh it out twenty-two years later.

What, no pirates?

Christmas Cracker somewhat redeemed George and the Christmas Star for me and convinced me that it has solid remake potential. With a few tweaks and a bit of development I think it could be turned into something special and enduring.

Obviously you'd have to get rid of the narration, and while you're at it why not have Ralph be the only character who speaks at all, aside from the various aliens emoting some comic gibberish he has to translate? He's the funniest and most likeable character, so make him more central and run with it.

Barbara should at least be more taciturn and George needs to just shut the fuck up maybe she's a hot alien and her native tongue is untranslatable, and maybe he lost his ability to speak when some drunken savage crushed his larynx in a bar fight in Ottowa. You know how Canadians are. What's more universal, after all, than the language of love?

I honestly believe there's a diamond in the mud here just waiting to found, rinsed off and polished into something beautiful and endearing. Let's get Aardman on the horn, stat, and make it happen!

"Beep! Boop! Beep!"

Merry Christmas, folkses.

Next Installment: December 19th!

As always, Cheers and thanks for reading!

Written by Bradley Lyndon in December, 2021.

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