Christmas in Tattertown

(Catch my previous Ralph Bakshi review here: Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures)

During the production of Mighty Mouse in 1987 and 1988, Ralph Bakshi was developing a follow-up series based on a series of independent cartoon strips he created before beginning work at Terry Toons at the beginning of his professional career. The strip was called Junktown, but for this new series, which CBS was initially supposed to pick up after Mighty Mouse’s run, Bakshi changed the title to Tattertown: a fantastical place where things that disappear end up, become vivified, gain personalities and intelligence, and live together in a city of seedy, urban decay akin to a 70s New York: a time and place Bakshi new well, and one in which I myself wish I was around to walk.

Unfortunately, after the bs with the American Fascist Association’s ‘misunderstanding’ (I’ll be a little generous) over the content of the first season Mighty Mouse episode, ‘The Littlest Tramp’, CBS pulled back from the new property. Fortunately for Bakshi, Nickelodeon was willing to pick up the property. Though not as originally intended as a 39-episode animated series, but as a mere 30-minute long Christmas Special that they could air in late 1988. There was very little compromise in this proposal between Bakshi’s vision of the project and what Nickelodeon ordered, but it was a chance for Bakshi to get the project released and to move on from the Mighty Mouse scandal as quickly as possible. So he took the job, delivered the film on time, and in the process, created the first animated work for Nickelodeon, which would continue to program specials over the next three years before finally moving into the episodic TV animation market in 1991 with the series Rugrats, Doug, and Bakshi’s friend Kricfalusi’s series The Ren and Stimpy Show.

Christmas in Tattertown, which was released four days before Christmas in 1988, briefly explored the dark city life of this imaginary town concocted by Bakshi. Throughout its short run-time, viewers are treated to a characteristic, if not toned down, Bakshi animated urban landscape. There are dive bars and speakeasies, what appear to be drug dens and cathouses, squalor and trash littering the streets, much of it alive and breathing anthropomorphic trash at that. Many of the interior scenes of clubs are animated in a traditional style more akin to 1930s animation than to the modern creator-driven animation revolution that Bakshi and Kricfalusi had helped to usher in with Mighty Mouse, while many of the main characters of this TV special are very modern and closer to an Animaniacs style. The result is an eclecticism that is pretty refreshing and rare in the medium of commercial animation work in the West, but also holds interest as a historical place-marker between two eras of animation.

Running throughout the film is Bakshi’s love for American music, and especially for music with a roots tradition to support it. In this case, Big Band Jazz plays whenever a scene moves to a bar or a club, which often heightens the kinetic energy of those moments and gels perfectly with the classical animation style of many sequences therein. Bakshi even names his narrator after quite possibly the greatest Jazz cat of all time: Miles Davis. This character, Miles the Saxophone (interesting not a trumpet, which was the instrument Davis played throughout his career) has a gruff voice like his namesake and seems to always know what’s on the up and up, what’s on the lowdown, and what’s been happening in and around his town. The referentiality of the short film is something that those in the know will respect and probably enjoy whilst watching the work, though these elements by no means raise it above the level of a mere kitsch, workaday film made seemingly on the fly and with none of the typical overt social commentary or deep reflection of Bakshi’s other street films.

The story told within the film is that of a young girl named Muffet with something of a chip on her shoulder. She treats her toys badly, throws them around, and even rips them asunder occasionally. So when her doll Debbie comes alive, she immediately runs off, gets lost, and finds herself in Tattertown. Unfortunately, so too does Muffet who begins to boss around all of the toys in the area, eventually corralling the forces of the largest, oafish, bumbling morons about who lead her to the area of the town reserved for military toys. She builds an army out of toy soldiers and fighter planes and plans to solidify her power from the defensive foothold of a large doll castle on the outskirts of town.

Meanwhile, back in the city, her doll is becoming friendly with the inhabitants of Tattertown. She finds the decay, the poverty, and the general lack of social mobility in the city appalling, and as such, decides to enliven them by introducing them to the concept of Christmas by celebrating it. As Tattertown becomes increasingly cheery, Muffet loses adherents to her regime who would rather listen to no one and have fun in the city with their friends. Eventually, she launches a full-out attack on the city with her air force, but the fools end up only attacking each other and diminishing Muffet’s air support to zero in the process. She dresses up as Santa Claus and dons her lackey Sidney the Spider (a direct analogue to the Fleischer Brother’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town design) in a reindeer suit. they power their flight into the city with the help of an overzealous fly minion, but are ultimately defeated by the real Santa Claus who has never appeared in Tattertown until this moment as no one had believed in him before hand.

The film, for all of its minor intrigue to a Bakshi scholar or fan, has very little import to an adult and flies in the face of Bakshi’s prior avocation of an animation by and for adults. Moreover, despite its occasional forays into harder edged dialogue, the resulting ethos is distinctly saccharine, unpleasant, and unpalatable. Instead of making the damn thing as quickly as possible for the first person willing to take it in any form, Bakshi would have done better to have toiled away for a few years in meetings with media execs to get it released in some other form than to have released something so supremely disappointing, in the context of his body of work, as this mindless piece of kitsch animation.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: The Butter Battle Book]

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