The Christmas Tree

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This piece was written in answer to a challenge issued by Roxy at Viva Video : The Last Picture Store to write seriously about the themes in The Christmas Tree in exchange for free rentals. So of course I had to meet this challenge, writing what follows just after the Thanksgiving Holiday 2020. But before I continue, I’d like to recommend my childhood favorite Christmas cartoon The Trolls & The Christmas Express (1981).

Though they may not know it, to a generation Flamarion Ferreira was Saturday Mornings. She was one of the driving forces on such classic cartoon series as The Smurfs (1981 – 1982), Ghostbusters (1986), and BraveStarr (1987 – 1988). And though her 1991 television special The Christmas Tree (1991) may not be on par with these more renowned credits, her visual style and sense of childhood whimsy pervades the proceedings. The Christmas Tree, much like The Smurfs, has a strong moral center around which the narrative is framed. Television specials for children, particularly at that time, were far more pious than those irreverent romps one is likely to see today. 

The Christmas Tree tells the story of the Kindle family who has come to a small Northern settlement in order to find a new home. While the husband/father character must work in lumber for the next few months, his wife and children find lodgings and employment, courtesy of the town mayor, at the local orphanage run by a Mrs. Mavilda where hope for adoption exists solely in the guise of a tree that the resident orphans have named Mrs. Hopewell. The suggestion of disenfranchisement and the desire for “home” will figure largely, as is typical with Christmas films, in The Christmas Tree. What is arguably compelling about this animated television special is the central relationship at the core of the film’s narrative conflict.

Within the rudimentary moral complex of The Christmas Tree one is presented with two highly contrasting dynamics; the good of Judy Kindle (voiced by Karen Drygas) and the evil of Mrs. Mavilda (voiced by Helen Quirk). Of these two poles, Judy Kindle is the far less compelling. Judy Kindle functions very much in the pattern of a virtuous Disney Princess type (a more than slight resemblance to Belle from Beauty And The Beast), incorporating other aspects of the type such as appearance, manner, and disposition. Judy Kindle is the manifestation of any child’s idea of the “perfect mother” which, in the maternal void of an orphanage, imbues her character with power and importance in the eyes of the children. Mrs. Mavilda, on the other hand, is an alcoholic with a gambling problem who exploits her position for her own ends.  

The Mrs. Mavilda “type” isn’t really any more unique than Judy Kindle, it’s more a matter of characterization. Between laughing maniacally and saying things like “What a hangover” with campy bravado, Mrs. Mavilda seems less rooted within the sphere of Disney’s signature style and more in line with Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981). What’s interesting about this is that the kind of evils on display in Mrs. Mavilda’s character aren’t fantastic, they are common, every day evils. Corruption, moral debasement, psychological abuse, drinking, gambling and embezzling aren’t exactly common sins among the evil doers in Disney or Saturday Morning Cartoons. 

The fantastic does eventually make its way into the film though when the Kindle children run away to enlist Santa Claus’ aid in saving their beloved tree Mrs. Hopewell. Here the film segues into a kind of adventure story that draws on familiar Rankin-Bass tropes. What’s interesting here is that sentimentality is subverted by failure so that the one hope for salvation rests once more with Judy Kindle. 

It’s also worth noting that within the power dynamics of The Christmas Tree all of the major players are women. Judy Kindle and Mrs. Mavilda are our representatives of right and wrong of course, but then there is the tree, Mrs. Hopewell. This “magical” tree is not a proper character, but rather an allegory for the all encompassing forces of nature and the orphans’ own internal maternal impulses and desires. By imbuing these wretches with hope, Mrs. Hopewell is giving them strength and unity, coupled with all of the various ramifications that come with these noble qualities. 

As The Christmas Tree comes to its final confrontation between Judy Kindle and Mrs. Mavilda as the former blocks the latter and her cronie from cutting Mrs. Hopewell down, the film embraces a frantic display of fantastic Christmas magic. Once the mayor and Santa Claus appear and Mrs Mavilda is struck by Santa’s lightning, Ferreira wastes no time in establishing a utopia and bringing the narrative to a close. Judy’s husband reappears and insists that they adopt all of the orphans while, almost simultaneously, the mayor gives Judy Mrs. Mavilda’s job. Even as the end credit music begins to rise on the soundtrack a narrator informs us that Mrs. Mavilda has been given employment as Judy Kindle’s assistant, reversing their earlier roles, with the simple justification that “She’s good now”. 

The heavy handedness of The Christmas Tree will come as no surprise to those familiar with either Flamarion Ferreira’s animations or with older Christmas specials in general. The Christmas Tree, like the more aesthetically assured La freccia azzurra (1996), wears its morality on its sleeve; stressing the virtues of compassion and honesty with the zealousness of a Kenneth Copeland sermon. The Christmas Tree isn’t the best children’s film that deals with Christmas, but I can see how it would engage with a certain kind of nostalgia for some audiences.