Saturday, March 16, 2013

Movie Review: A Family Circus Easter

With the Easter holiday nigh upon us this March, I thought I'd take a look at 1982's A Family Circus Easter, a TV special that my brothers and I watched about a kajillion times when we were kids, and that I've now introduced to my son via YouTube (currently available in two parts, here and here).  The only reason we're not watching it on VHS is that our VCR makes everything sound like it's underwater.  I still have the old tape with which my dad recorded the special off of broadcast TV:

videotape with [A Family] Circus [Easter], in my dad's handwriting

A Family Circus Easter features the entire Family Circus gang, leaping from newsprint to animated TV screen: Mommy, Daddy, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, PJ...


Could you possibly guess who it is??  No, it's not Mama Cass, Batman, or even a Harlem Globetrotter.  The  short answer is kind of a let-down: (SPOILER) it's the Easter Bunny.

The more involved answer is actually pretty surprising: the Easter Bunny is voiced by none other than Dizzy Gillespie.  This obscure fact gives some major cultural cred to this otherwise fairly shoddy TV special.

The Easter Bunny dominates the last few minutes of the show, transporting the children to an imagination-fueled Easterland and singing a ridiculously catchy circus/jazz (jircus? jircus-core?) song about the merits of discovering the answers to your questions for yourself.  This song will unrelentingly stain your mind like Easter egg dye and melted chocolate for hours after hearing it.

Up until viewing it for the first time in decades this past week, this was really the only part of the show that I remembered, so it must have been my favorite part as a kid.  But as an adult, there's a scene -- buried deep in the slow, mundane part of the plot -- that struck me a lot harder.  I'll have to back up a little bit to explain what happens.

First of all: yeah, AFCE is strange (in awkward, not interesting, ways), and not extremely well done.  The voice casting is noticeably odd.  Mommy's voice comes off as stiff and professional, and never attains a maternal warmth.  Daddy and Jeffy are fine but unremarkable.  Billy, though -- for some reason they cast a kid with a really strong Brooklyn or Boston accent.  (I can't tell for sure, my ears and lips being more attuned to the vowel-stretching cadences of Minnesooooooooota.)

Nothing against the accent -- it's just strange that none of the other family members has it.  I guess Billy spends most of the year at an East Coast boarding school.

No, the real turd in the voice pool is Dolly, who bursts into a nausea-triggering musical number not once, not thrice, but twice.  I involuntarily wince every time she lands on one of her clumsy rhymes, sung with the annoying gusto of a professional musical theater ass.  If that girl on Glee's hero is Barbra Streisand, Dolly's hero is Ethel Merman.  

Why don't you make it simple -- forget about surPRISE
Why aren't your hiding places right before our EYES
Why not in our pockets?  Why not in our SHOES?
We think we could solve the mystery if we had some other CLUES.

And, just to rub the vinegar into your ear canals, the incidental music playing in the background of most of the show weaves her melody into endless permutations, assuring you of no relief from the memory of her child actor nastiness.  

Alright, so Billy, Dolly, and Jeffy are wondering why the Easter Bunny has to be so tricksy about hiding Easter eggs.  Mommy's Zen-like non-answer establishes an undercurrent of the show: "No one has ever asked that question before."  The kids deftly avoid the ramifications of Mommy's koan by waking up before sunrise to hide the eggs themselves, out in the open, where tot PJ will successfully find them.

They then set about capturing the Easter Bunny, so that he won't re-hide the eggs in difficult places.  They actually do capture a random rabbit, who eventually makes his way into the house, and then chases their dog Barfy (yes, Barfy) throughout the yard.  This bit is by far my son's favorite part of the show.

The only problem with the kids' scheme is that there's no greater power in the universe than a toddler's power of obliviousness.  Even when Jeffy doesn't steal the eggs from right under PJ's nose, PJ utterly fails at obtaining even a single egg.

Something interesting happens here.  It gets to the heart of the theme of the show -- that it's better to confront and pursue the answers to mysterious things yourself than to simply be given an easy, pat answer -- and it also rings true with "kid-ness," in a surprisingly nuanced way.  Even the Circus' comic strip neighbor, the laudedly "real" mopey kid Charlie Brown, rarely hits these notes so correctly.

When the three older kids see PJ weeping over his empty basket, they rally 'round and fill his basket with their own findings.  

You really expect this to be the happy ending to the conflict.  In any other cartoon -- even a Peanuts special -- it'd be obvious that PJ would suddenly beam with joy and hug his siblings in gratitude.  But that's not what happens.  PJ does the thing that his unexpectedly illogical toddler-logic compels him to do:

I, for one, was pretty surprised.  Like I said, the scene rang true with genuine "kid-ness" in a way that the rest of the show didn't prepare me for.  What's also interesting is that -- following the theme of "no easy answers to difficult questions" -- PJ's sad tantrum doesn't immediately get resolved.  The three older kids are left hanging on to loose threads of good intentions and disappointing results.

And even though the plot eventually gets resolved by the end of the show, you're still left with the nagging oppositions that AFCE calls into play: mysteries and explanations, belief and logic, the difference between the fantastical Easter Bunny and a real backyard rabbit, the easy way and the road less traveled.  You have to wonder: like Thomas insisting on touching Jesus' wounds for himself, is A Family Circus Easter asking us to question our own "easy answers" about Easter, our beliefs, and our own path through life?  

Who knows?


  1. Oh man, I laughed so hard at this. I feel like I have to go track this sucker down and have a look-see for myself.

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