“You can set the world on fire / with chewing gum and a yard of wire! / How d’you do it? / Fiddly-dee! / With ingenuity!”
The Scoop: 1981 G, directed by Yoram Gross and starring Drew Forsythe, Barbara Frawley, Ron Haddrick, Anne Haddy and Ashley Ayre.
Tagline: That I’m aware of, none.
Summary Capsule: Santa and a little girl who can talk to animals go on a round-the-world trip to try and find a lost baby kangaroo. It’s… really not as schmaltzy as it sounds.
Deneb’s rating: One strange little cheaply-animated flick that will worm its way inside your mind. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you.)
Deneb’s review: This review is going to run a tad on the long side, as it requires two introductions – one for the movie itself, and one to talk about the circumstances under which I’m reviewing it, and the reviews that shall follow it. Since the latter is longer, let’s get it out of the way first.
Amongst my collection of movies are several old VHS tapes, unmarked except for handwritten labels. On these tapes, recorded off TV many years ago, are various movies, cartoons, snippets of TV shows, etc.
I think a good deal of people have tapes like these. They were recorded by my parents back when I was tiny, and they’ve been a part of my life ever since. They’re a motley assortment – some are bona-fide classics, some are obscure little gems, some are just weird – but (and I got lucky here) all of them are worth watching. I have done so many times, more than I can remember.
Time marches on, though, and the quality of the tapes has begun to deteriorate. Someday, who knows when, they will wear out entirely, and become unwatchable. This will be a sad occasion for me, since a major chunk of my childhood was spent watching them – even if I find replacements for all the things on them, it’ll still feel like losing old friends.
Thankfully, that day has not yet come, and the tapes remain in fairly good condition. So while I still can, I’m going to start reviewing their contents, so that when they do wear out, at least there’ll be some record left of their former glories.
I’m not going to review everything on them (I don’t think the world really needs a review of the Dumbo’s Circus episode that found its way on there, for example), but most of the movies and whatnot are sufficiently obscure or unusual that they qualify for inclusion here. Don’t expect RoboCop or anything, but – well, I still think they’re good. Needless to say, there’s a lot of nostalgia involved here, but I’ll try as hard as I can to be objective.
So, that being said, sit back, relax, and enjoy the first installment of… Tales from the VHS! A little flick I like to call Dot and Santa Claus. Because… that is its name.
Now, some of you have probably seen the Dot movies, but they’re sufficiently obscure that they require an introduction (which I warned you about in advance, so don’t gripe). The series is based on an old Australian kid’s book called “Dot and the Kangaroo”, which is about Dot, a young girl lost in the outback who is given a special root by a kangaroo. When eaten, it allows her to talk to and understand animals, and she decides to help the kangaroo find her lost baby (or “Joey”), while she herself tries to find her way back home.
The first movie in the series (which I haven’t seen) is apparently a more-or-less straight adaptation of the book, but from then on, they get stranger and stranger. I haven’t seen all of them, but according to Wikipedia, the series finished with Dot in Space. How they get Dot in space, I have no idea, but it probably involves a kangaroo somehow.
Anyway. Three of the Dot movies are on my tapes, so we’ll be seeing quite a bit of her in this series. I’m rather fond of the li’l moppet, myself, so let’s get to it, shall we?
Dot and Santa Claus is the first sequel, and picks up where the original left off. As is generally the case in the Dot movies, it starts as live-action, then turns to animation a few minutes in. (Dot herself is played by a different little girl each time, and voiced by a different one in cartoon form – in this case, she’s played by Ashley Ayre and voiced by Barbara Frawley.)
As the movie begins, Danny (Drew Forsythe), a “swagman” (“tramp”, basically), is making his merry way along the dirt roads of Coolabah, Australia. He happens to pass by Dot’s backyard, where she and her brother Ben (who we never see again after this) are tending to the various animals she keeps, including Grumblebones and Dozyface, a couple of kangaroos (she describes the set-up as “a kind of hospital”, but it doesn’t look particularly medical to me). Apparently not having a particularly strong sense of self-preservation, they aren’t at all alarmed at this random stranger poking his nose over their back fence, and cheerfully invite him in.
Luckily for them, Danny’s a nice guy, and Dot winds up giving him a brief synopsis of the previous movie. It seems that, while she obviously got home OK, poor Joey is still out there somewhere (uh, spoilers). She doesn’t know exactly where, but she’s gotten a tip that he might have been taken to Japan– which, given that she’s a pre-teen with no money for plane tickets, pretty much means the hunt is over, right?
Under normal circumstances, perhaps, but this is a Dot movie – nothing is normal here. It turns out that she’s talking to exactly the right swagman, because Danny has a little trick up his sleeve – either he’s Santa Claus in disguise, or he possesses the ability to turn into him; it’s never really made clear. Either way, he’s Santa now, and he whips up a quick flying sleigh, puts Grumblebones and Dozeyface in the harness, and after a quick switch to animation, off they all go to find Joey! Hooray!
Well, needless to say, he’s not in Japan, or things would be over pretty quickly. So for the rest of the movie, they follow a trail of clues around the world, encountering various (pretty mild) national stereotypes, while the two kangaroos bicker and gripe, and a series of musical numbers pop up, most of which have little or nothing to do with the plot. Joey better be grateful for all this when they do find him, is all I can say.
All right, let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first. While I have a deep affection for this movie, I’m the first to admit that it’s far from a masterpiece. Like all the Dot films, it’s made very much on the cheap, and it shows – there is more reused footage in this movie than you would believe. There are entire sequences that are basically one bit of animation played over and over, with variations. And there is quite a lot of filler – if you just played the story straight, it might fill up about half an hour. Maybe.
That being said, the more I watch this flick, the more I enjoy it – and I think that has a good deal to do with just how endearingly weird it is. It has that straightforward lack of logic that characterizes a lot of children’s entertainment – they don’t try to get the plot to make sense, they just do it, and it works out fine. I mean, let’s take a look at the basic premise here – a small girl and Santa Claus fly around the world on a kangaroo-drawn sleigh looking for a lost baby kangaroo. Uh… run that by me again?
For that matter, I’ve never been able to shake off a nagging feeling that some of the weirdness would seem a lot less weird were I Australian, and accustomed to strange and mysterious Australian Santa Claus traditions. I mean, he wears an akubra here. Is that just part and parcel of the Australian Santa image? Yes, Danny is wearing an akubra pre-Santafication, but it makes sense for him – he’s an Aussie dude – it makes less sense that he could whip up a Santa suit, sleigh and beard out of nowhere, but not a Santa hat. I dunno – this has been bugging me for years. Does Aussie Santa just normally wear an akubra? Why does it bother me so much?
Still, at a certain point, you’ve just got to accept that this Santa just swings that way. He’s an Aussie Santa, dammit, and whether or not the normal Aussie Santa wears an akubra and has rein-kangaroos, this Aussie Santa is the Dot Aussie Santa, and the Dot Aussie Santa wears what he wants on his head, and if he wants rein-kangaroos, he’ll have them!
And it’s a good thing he does, really, because it’s the kangaroos who steal the show here. One’s a grumpy cynic, one’s a rather motherly sort who just wants to catch up on her sleep, and together, they pretty much monopolize the whole movie. Sure, it’s about Dot, and Santa is, well, Santa, but who gets all the best lines? Grumblebones and Dozyface, that’s who!
All that aside, there’s a certain appeal to this movie that has little to do with the weirdness. Sure, there’s plenty of it that I haven’t even mentioned yet (Dot and the kangaroos reenact Goldilocks with communist bears! Santa gets in trouble for landing in a no-parking zone! Mice saboteurs rule the UN Building!), but really, I could go on all day. Let’s move on.
The charm of Dot and Santa Claus has to do with the general feel of the movie, which was rare then and rarer now – they literally don’t make kids’ flicks like this anymore. For all its cheapness and oddball antics, there is a sort of quiet melancholy to this movie that, strangely enough, doesn’t feel out of place at all. It’s difficult to describe – the film switches from upbeat, off-the-wall weirdness to slower-paced, more poignant scenes, some of which even border on tragedy. You’d think this gear-switching would feel wildly out of place, but somehow, it works – and it’s this strange contrast, I think, which makes the movie so memorable. Goodness knows it’s been stuck in my mind for long enough, even when I haven’t watched it for years.
Basically, this is one of those odd little movies that doesn’t really fit into convenient boxes, which makes it tricky to recommend – I mean, I would and do recommend it, but I’m not sure to whom. I guess if you have a fondness for older, somewhat slower-paced children’s movies that rely more on atmosphere and character than visual razzle-dazzle, Dot and Santa Claus will do the trick, all right – at any rate, if you’re looking for a movie to distract the little ‘uns without driving you out of your skull, you could certainly do worse than this one. It’s not perfect, but I’d say it’s worth a look, and deserves more love. Give this poor, neglected little movie more love!
(Oh, and the next movie I review will not be from Australia. I swear.)
- If you’re trying to drive an annoying song out of your head, I recommend you pop in this flick and watch the ‘Are you going to the Circus?’ sequence a few times. Whatever’s running through your mind will instantly be replaced by one of the most insanely catchy little tunes I’ve ever heard. Try it – it works incredibly well.
- There is – I kid you not – a cameo from Henry Kissinger in this movie. True, it’s a mouse, and it doesn’t have his accent, but it’s clearly supposed to be him.
- The ‘Dot in the pouch of a Red Kangaroo’ sequence is something of a series trademark – the song features in each of the Dot films I’ve seen.
Danny: You can do anything with a little bit of ingenuity.
Grumblebones: Kangaroos pulling sleighs! It’s ridiculous!
Ringmaster: (singing) Are you going to the circus?/It’s the finest in the land/Come along, come along, see the big parade…
Santa: They call it the Big Apple.
Grumblebones: That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t even look like an apple. Might as well call it the Big Banana.
Grumblebones: This water’s not cold enough!
Dozyface: Is it wet enough for you?
Stone lion: British lions do not cry.
Dot: I thought lions came from Africa.
Stone lion: Eh? Oh. Well, uh… yes, but we did have British passports, you know.
Natasha: I am Commissar Natasha Katja Ostrotski Kotfletsov. Comrade Ivan Feodor Stravinski Vasilievich Tchaskenko, and Comrade Vladimir Yakov Gregorovitch Gabriev Samovar Tchaikovsky.
Dot: This is Santa, and Grumblebones and Dozyface. Uh… I’m Dot.
Vladimir: Dot! Wot a fonny name! Ho-ho-ho-ho-ha-ha-ha-ha!
Danny: (singing) You can set the world on fire/with chewing gum and a yard of wire!/How d’you do it?/Fiddly-dee!/With ingenuity!
Joey: Elephant, wouldn’t you like to go home?
Elephant: Me? Go all the way back to India? Sorry, Joey – it’s hopeless. You just can’t hide an elephant in a suitcase.
Stone lion: They were ‘crazy about him’, if you’ll excuse the American expression. They traded him in for a second-hand bald eagle.
Dot: (Singing) Now isn’t it a pity/that even in the city/it’s hard to find someone to be your friend./You’d think with all the people there/so many people everywhere/you’d find another person in the end.
(swallows are landing on the sleigh)
Grumblebones: Aren’t two passengers enough? Now we’ve got fifty million!
Walter Q. Mouse: The Presidents of the United States come and go, but mice are here forever!
(The sleigh is flying over Sydney.)
Dot: It’s beautiful!
Grumblebones: Huh – ‘beautiful’! Dust, noise, smoke, cars – just think! I could be back in Coolabah now.
Dot: Yes – complaining about not being in Sydney!
Danny: You were lost? The Joey was lost? I’m lost.
Reindeer: Kangaroos? I don’t believe it! You… you can’t pull a sleigh!
Grumblebones: I just did.
Reindeer: But… you’re not a reindeer!
Grumblebones: And you’re not a giraffe! So what?
Zebra: Oh – I’m not a zebra. I’m a white pony. I’ve been behind bars for so long that I’ve got stripes on my back.
Joey: Why would they put a white pony behind bars?
Wolf: Rooowr, because she’s not a zebra!
Ben: I’m not a kid. Ben’s my name, mister.
Danny: I’m not a mister. Danny’s my name, Ben.
Dot: Natasha, if you are all equal, how come you do nothing, and they do all the work?
Natasha: Ha-ha-ha-ha! That’s because I am more equal than they are.
Grumblebones: All this for a Joey! They’re nothing but trouble, anyway.
Dozyface: You were a Joey yourself once, remember?
Grumblebones: I was not.
Dot: There’s nothing wrong with hopping! Some of my best friends hop around all the time!
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Dot and Keeto
- Around the World in 80 Days