(1977, Children-Holiday/Television, color)
Not a lot of historicity to this story, so don’t go combing through Luke looking for it.
In a nutshell:
A talking donkey overcomes his physical defects to assist the Nativity.
Santa’s donkey Spieltoe (Roger Miller) takes a break from the hard work of hauling presents on Christmas Eve to address the audience. A bit of exposition, a bit of folk song, and a bit of stop motion animation later, we dive right into the story of his ancestor, Nestor.
Nestor lives with his mother somewhere in the Roman Empire, where he spends his days tripping over his five-foot-long ears while enduring the derision of his fellow stable-dwellers. The stable keeper (Paul Frees) joins in the ear-based persecution as well, feeding the young donkey with verbal abuse instead of grain. His mother solves the ear problem by folding them up and stuffing them into an old pair of socks.
One winter day, a troop of Roman soldiers break in to demand beasts of burden. The stable keeper sells him a handful of donkeys that includes Nestor. Nestor puts up a fight, and his ear socks come off during the struggle. The Romans punish the keeper for trying to sell them “imperfect misfits” and leave Nestor behind. The keeper blames Nestor for the incident and throws him out into the snow. Nestor’s mother breaks out of her pen to run after him.
Mom digs down into the snow and covers Nestor’s body with hers. The ensuing blizzard freezes her to death, so Nestor carries on alone. That is, until a wide-eyed cherub named Tilly drops from the sky to let him in on his Divine Purpose. There’s a preachy little Roger Miller folk ballad called “Don’t Laugh and Make Somebody Cry” as all the woodland creatures heap Nestor with cruel mockery during his subsequent journey. Tilly eventually guides him to a stable within a day’s walk of Bethlehem.
At the stable, Nestor endures even more mockery until Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary arrive to seek transportation. Divine Light beams into the stable keeper’s head, forcing him to give them Nestor for free. With Mary on his back, they start off for Bethlehem.
A terrible sandstorm obscures the way, but Nestor’s enormous ears are so sensitive that they can pick up the voice of Tilly, her backup cherub choir, and the ghost of his mother. He wraps his passenger in his ears to keep her warm, carries her through the storm, and drops her off at a stable in Bethlehem. Various sacred events ensue. Nestor returns to his first home, where the formerly abusive keeper and his formerly abusive fellow stable dwellers welcome him with open arms.
Now this is odd—a Christmas television special that does not attempt to address the True Meaning of Christmas. It bothers me, a little, that someone would use an event as sacred as the Nativity as a backdrop for their silly little version of The Ugly Duckling, but they mostly keep their distance from it, and what they do show is treated respectfully, making the end product more baffling than offensive. Guys, your movie doesn’t seem to be about Jesus. So why is He in it?
What it is about is fairly clear. The lesson is stated in song, to wit: “Don’t Laugh and Make Somebody Cry.” The derived moral is easy to see as well: Everyone, no matter how freakish, has an important contribution to make. I could raise issues like incongruous darkness of Nestor’s mother’s death. Or maybe I could write about the universally repugnant behavior of the other animals. (Don’t they have other things to do? Is there no four-legged creature in the world with any redeeming qualities?) Or perhaps I could bring up the way the stable keeper and his animals magically learn of Jesus’ birth and Nestor’s role in it, and then convert from the worship of Ceres (or whatever) to Christianity before his arrival at the end. Possibly I could mention that the Hummel-esque Tilly is the creepiest, most demented angel I’ve seen on film since I saw Christopher Walken’s portrayal of the archangel Gabriel...
Or I could just give in and admit that most kids don’t care about plot contrivances and thematic problems so long as there’s a funny donkey with big ears.
This is the shortest Rifftrax commentary thus far, clocking in at just over twenty minutes. Though alone on this track, Mike keeps this one funny by poking holes in the absurd story logic. When the stable keeper blames Nestor for the Roman soldier incident, Mike says, “My life as a disease-ridden stable boy was perfect until you came along!” When Nestor cries over his mother’s frozen corpse, Mike narrates, “Nestor died alone and afraid, carried forth upon great clouds of despair.” When the stable keeper lifts Nestor on his shoulders during the joyous reunion, Mike says, “Guy who beat me and killed my mother, you’re my best friend of all!” The Rifftrax website’s description calls this track “technically G-rated,” a reference to the number of times Mike says the word “ass” instead of “donkey” (it’s a large number), so if you don’t want your kids repeating the word back to you, don’t show it to them. For adults, though, Mike’s send up of a mediocre children’s TV special is nothing short of Christmas magic.
(1977, Children-Holiday/Television, color)