1972: Jack O'Lantern by Rankin Bass

“I smell a rat here!” says the witch.
“Oh, I do hope so,” says her husband, the warlock. “I’m famished!”

In 1972, Rankin Bass launched a series of animated shows entitled Festival of Family Classics, presenting cartoon versions of old folk tales and classic literature. One early episode, Jack O’Lantern, wound up being re-aired regularly as a Halloween special in many local markets. 
And in many ways, it’s a pure Halloween special. It wasn’t billed as a special episode or anything, but it does exist outside of any regular series and inhabits a world all its own as it tells the story of how jack O’lanterns came to be. 

Having already seen from Mad Monster Party that Rankin Bass specials had the capability to rise above their station (hey, they weren’t all Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, and even the corniest ones have plenty of things going for them), I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself enjoying this one. Maybe there’s just a certain thing about any series with the word “Family” in the title that makes me think something is going to suck, but this is a very solid half hour program with good jokes and fun characters that make up for its short-comings in the production department. In fact, it has the opposite problem of the Mad Monsters entries from Rankin Bass: it could actually stand to be longer. Watch a few dozen old Halloween shows and you’ll find that most of them could stand to be either longer or shorter; the ones that just aren’t as long as they could be are generally much more fun to watch than the ones that try to get 90 minutes out of what could have been an eight minute script.

Beginning with a couple of kids begging grandpa to tell them a story (a kind of a lame framing device, if you ask me), the special goes immediately into a flashback of grandpa’s boyhood days on a farm, where he lived with his parents, his sister, a couple of cows, and Billy, their pet goat, “Who didn’t do much of anything except cause trouble.”
One day, their father told them (quite casually) that they’d probably all starve to death soon, because all of the crops were being stolen. Not by crows, he says, but by ghosts and goblins. Young grandpa is a smart lad, and wisely figures that they probably just needed a better scarecrow. To improve their old headless model, he carves a face into a pumpkin.
But this is no pumpkin - it's a leprechaun named Jack O’Lantern who has turned himself into a pumpkin seed to hibernate. As soon as the face is carved, he begins to talk in a thick Irish brogue, and confirms that ghosts, led by Zelda the witch and Archie, her warlock husband, have been stealing the crops to drive farmers off the land so that they can take it for themselves. With a sly chuckle, Jack hops onto the shoulders of the old scarecrow and begins to dance around. That night, he foils the Zelda, Archie and their ghostly minions at every turn.
This all seems like a Home Alone-style story of foiling would-be robbers until Zelda manages to capture the kids; she threatens to turn them into stone if Jack doesn’t leave her and Archie alone and give them his pot of gold (is it wrong that I like it when kids are actually threatened in these things?) Jack emerges in leprechaun form (which makes him look like an Irish Mr. Magoo), leaving his pumpkin behind and saying it’s the pot of gold. 
But Jack still has a few tricks up his sleeve….

The animation here is about a step above what you see in The Great Bear Scare - basically a moving slideshow. It’s a bit annoying at first; enough so that I wished they’d just done a slideshow with voices over it. But I got used to it quickly, and found this one to be rather enjoyable overall. The production values may have been pretty low, but the script is sharp. Jack, with his broad Irish brogue and exaggerated expressions, is fun to watch, and his rivals are terrific - Archie is a wimpy old warlock who calls to mind a Victorian undertaker who happens to fly on broomsticks. Zelda is, like most witches in cartoons, a feisty woman given to wisecracking - she reminded me of the witch in that Donald Duck short, Madame Mim from The Sword in the Stone, the witch in Witch’s Night Out, and so many others). It’s a style of witch that never seems to get old, though.
Despite the low budget, people who grew up watching this and track down a copy today won’t be shocked by how bad it is; quite the contrary, it’s really a nifty little special, lifted above its production limitations by a good script. 
It's been uploaded to youtube by the folks at DTV5, who have remastered it into looking like an episode of CBS Storybreak, complete with commercials. I'm not sure WHY they made it into a Storybreak (or why the commercials come from both Chicago and New York stations from various eras), but it's neat!


Steven McFly said...

Too bad this link is dead! I have this & love it !!!

susan v said...

where can I buy this or get a link? we watched this a million times on VHS when we were small! good times!

Anonymous said...

It comes as an extra on the Mad Mad Mad Monsters (1982) DVD, at amazon: http://www.amazon.com/MAD-MONSTERS-Various/dp/B004VW4V8U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1387227396&sr=8-1&keywords=mad+mad+mad+monsters


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...