Christmas Specials. They’re just as much a part of the holiday as stockings, lights, presents, and eggnog-induced arguments with family members. Over the decades, the number of traditional viewing options have steadily accumulated, to the point that there’s now one for every mood and occasion. Feeling the seasonal doldrums? So is Charlie Brown, and he’ll help you get in the Christmas spirit. Want something sweet yet surreal? Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer tells a heartwarming tale of acceptance and dental fetishism. Do you miss your kindly-but-insane alcoholic grandpa and wish he were still here to share the holiday with you? Jimmy Durante in Frosty the Snowman has you covered. There truly is a different special to meet all your yuletide needs; and, if things had turned out a different way, one of those yearly viewing traditions would be a surreal short with a very bizarre pedigree indeed: an animated special written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, produced by Steven Spielberg, based on a children’s book based on a political comic and featuring the voices of Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman.
Though it looks bizarre from the political landscape of 2017, Berekely Breathed’s comic strip Bloom County (and its Sunday only successor, Outland) was a tremendous crossover sensation in the 1980s and 1990s. While it makes some level of sense for strips like Garfield and Peanuts to inspire tie-in merchandise, Bloom County was overtly political in nature. There were jokes about Reagan and Jeane Kirkpatrick; major character Cutter John was a paralyzed Vietnam war vet; the strip paid homage to the PMRC Senate Hearings. It was, in other words, the last thing you’d expect to inspire greeting cards, plushies, and children’s books.
Yet it did.
Though author Berekly Breathed may not have predicted it at the time, two throwaway characters turned into breakout successes: Opus, a neurotic penguin; and Bill, a demented cat with substance abuse issues. Breathed used Opus as a mouthpiece for middle America, instilling the little penguin with all the fears, insecurities, and aspirations of the average joe or jill circa 1985; Bill was a vehicle for parodying pop culture and the wildest fears and excesses of the far-right (over the course of the strip, he would both spy for the USSR and become a corrupt televangelist). Popular culture is a weird beast, though. Somewhere along the line it was decided that the duo transcended the bounds of politics, and they became iconic figures almost as prolific as Garfield—ironic, considering Bill began life as a one-off joke about the Garfield marketing machine.
Breathed readily embraced the phenomenon, using it as a jumping off point for his secondary career choice: children’s book author. It wasn’t such a surprise—even at its most biting, the humor in Bloom County was always wry rather than wrathful, never reaching the venomous levels of Millard Fillmore or the nihilism of Doonesbury. Maybe it wasn’t such a leap, then, that he’d want to write kids’ books; and write kids’ books he did, beginning with 1991’s A Wish for Wings that Work. Though it used the backdrop and characters of Outland, Wings is an entirely apolitical story, and a sweet one at that. Opus, forever hoping for things beyond his reach, writes to Santa Claus asking for the gift of flight, recalling all the wacky ways in which he’s tried to achieve the feat himself. When Christmas Eve arrives, Opus finds himself pressed into service to use a skill penguins do have—swimming—for a unique rescue operation, which leads to an unexpected but sweet denouement.
Sweet is the operative word in that description of the book. Whatever light traces of cynicism Bloom County may have had, Breathed dispensed with them completely for Wish. It’s a genuinely heartwarming, uplifting little Christmas story without a trace of meanness, and the story holds up for readers of all ages, whether you’re a child delighted at the story of a funny penguin or an adult enjoying a story that’s really about being happy with the gifts you’ve been given. Though it’s a bit worse for the wear now, I still have the same copy my parents got me for Christmas 1991, out of the back of one of those flimsy Scholastic catalogs they sent home with you from school. The book made no small splash at the time of its release; and, considering just how big a deal Opus was, it only made sense that the Christmas story would be made into a Christmas special.
What didn’t quite make sense was the special’s pedigree. It was already somewhat surreal that a Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist would write an endearing children’s book. That surrealism was about to be amped up tenfold with the special’s production team: Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, the production duo behind movies such as E.T., Indiana Jones, and Gremlins came on board, as did Steven Spielberg himself. Spielberg’s involvement brought with it a further layer of unexpected celebrity: since he was, at the time, filming Hook, he convinced Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman to record dialogue for two of the special’s minor characters. To top things off, the special would be the first directorial effort for seasoned animation veteran Skip Jones, whose credits included An American Tail and the Alvin and the Chipmunks properties. All the parts were in place for Wings to become another Christmas tradition, right alongside Frosty and Rudolph.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t.
While the film retains the gentle climax of the book, what leads up to it is almost the exact opposite of what made the story so endearing. All the cynicism Breathed kept out of Bloom County leaks into the story in weird and unexpected ways, ambushing anyone who was expecting the same gentle tale. Opus is inexplicably mean to Bill; there’s a lot more sex jokes than are generally appropriate for a family program; and there’s a weirdly mordant ambiance to the whole thing, in both the animation style and the tone. The special borrows a group therapy gag from the strip that, here, becomes a parody of sexual support groups, with Hoffman voicing a transvestite cockroach and Williams playing a kiwi bird who delivers an (apparently) ad-libbed monologue about how his wife is displeased with his wing size. The second act is also largely taken up of a dream sequence not present in the book, in which Opus imagines himself as a pilot in a 1930s adventure movie—a cute idea, but it goes on for waaay too long. Although Opus and Bill had managed to take off in so many other commercial avenues, apparently television wasn’t ready for them—the show was only a mediocre ratings success, and it did not become the seasonal staple CBS had hoped for.
Owing to the special’s poor performance, Breathed has been notoriously unkind to Wings. For years, he was reticent to say anything about it at all, and when someone could get a word out of him, it wasn’t a nice one—in 2003 he told a Washington Post reporter who expressed a desire to see the film on DVD, “I’m glad you enjoyed it. I presume your family was on speed when they watched it. I would imagine it helps.” He finally opened up about his disappointment more eloquently to Animation Magazine in 2011, explaining that, among other things, he was disappointed with the quality of his own writing, admitting that he’d gotten in over his head trying to write a script without any prior experience. Breathed also explained the film’s weird tone, noting that Jones was fired from the project late into production due to his baffling desire to cram as many obscene gags into the special as possible. I’ll let Breathed speak for himself on that one:
“[Jones] managed to sprinkle a profane cornucopia of inappropriate flotsam around in the show…. check out the opening credit sequence: Watch the snowy hills during the pan. Some of them aren’t hills… It’s pretty funny now. Imagine how funny it was when we finally spotted it during final mixing, six days before network broadcast. Keep in mind, this was a Steven Spielberg production of a family Christmas show…Too late to change! This was the pre-digital age. We courageously let it go without telling anyone.”
Despite its flaws, the special isn’t completely without merit, nor has its reputation necessarily soured over the years—Variety gave it a glowing review, it currently sits at a 7.8 on IMDB, and more than a few people had to have requested it for Universal to have gone to the trouble of reissuing it on DVD. It’s just not exactly a Christmas movie—it’s more a surreal short that happens to take place at Christmastime. Taken in that context, it’s much more enjoyable, and I’ve got to admit that, while it may have tainted my happy memories a bit, I’ve still watched it around Christmas the past few years. There’s just something so early 90s about it.
If the special does have one overriding virtue, though, it’s that it serves as a reminder of the source book. Sadly, Wings has been out of print for several years, though used copies can be had from scrupulous sellers for a few bucks (and unscrupulous sellers for several hundred. C’mon, guys. Opus is for everyone). For anyone who cares to track down a copy, though, it’s a story worthy of becoming a Christmas tradition, even if its adaptation looks best after an eggnog or two.