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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Christmas Conspiracy is the new short animated film from Jennifer Clary, whose previous short, Dirty Girl, I reviewed on this website back in the spring. That film had a very successful run, playing at fifteen different film festivals where it won two Jury awards. It also landed a deal with Ouat Media, a company that specializes in distributing short films.

Done completely in clay animation, The Christmas Conspiracy is narrated by none other than Dick Van Patten, an actor whose unmistakable voice is perfect for a warm-hearted holiday tale. The story takes place in the tiny town of Bedsbottom, where a widowed mother named Mrs. Duckett overhears her two children, Jim and Jane, questioning the existence of Santa Claus. She fears that their lack of faith signifies pessimism toward the world in general. Other local children are also expressing doubt, so together with several prominent town leaders, Mrs. Duckett hatches a plan where the kids' presents will be stored in a giant warehouse, to be distributed on Christmas Eve by a conspirator in a Santa costume. When the children see him, they will be filled with the magic of Christmas and all its incipient good feelings.

The plan, of course, goes massively wrong. It would be improper of me to spoil what happens, so let's just say that the Christmas season stands to be completely ruined thanks to a casual act that is both kind of funny and kind of sad at the same time. With the situation having gone from bad to worse, Mrs. Duckett and the others can only hope that someway, somehow, a miracle will find Bedsbottom and save the holidays.

Clay animation can take several forms. It can be of the intentionally cheesy and cheap-o "Mr. Bill" kind, or it can be painstakingly elaborate, like those old California Raisins commercials. The Christmas Conspiracy purposefully falls somewhere in between. The animation looks good, yet it's also done in a low-key fashion that suits the whimsical quality of the story being told. In some respects, it evokes those old Rankin-Bass holiday specials we all watched endlessly as children.

What I admire about Jennifer Clary is her ability to straddle a thin line between tones. Dirty Girl's live action scenes quite dramatically showed a woman undergoing invasive cancer surgery, while clay animation was used to depict the cancer cells being removed from her body. It was a completely unexpected and left-field creative decision that packed an enormous punch. For better or worse, we tend to associate clay-mation with lightness and frivolity, so to see it used to portray something as serious as cancer was almost shocking. And therein lied the film's strange, alluring beauty.

The Christmas Conspiracy also walks a fine line. On one hand, it is a traditional warm-and-fuzzy holiday story about the magic of Christmas and the value of believing in something during troubling times. On the other hand, there's a very sly sense of humor running underneath it all. The personalities of the characters, the nature of the scheme they hatch, the way the plan goes off-track…they are all part of a very subtle subversion of traditional Christmas tales.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay this clever film is that it manages to lovingly tease seasonal sentiment while still delivering a payoff that is sweet and meaningful. This is my kind of holiday entertainment.

The Christmas Conspiracy world premieres at the Santa Fe International Film Festival the first week of December. I'll keep you posted on other places where you might be able to catch it in the future.

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