You would think that Christmas cartoon specials are a slam-dunk, destined right from the can to be embraced by the audience, to endure for generations, and to mint advertising money year-over-year. Sure. Tell that to Nelvana’s production of A Cosmic Christmas (which is not bad) or the He-Man Masters Of The Universe Christmas Special (which is not good in any way). The audience embraced A Charlie Brown Christmas, Garfield’s Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer because they enjoyed them, not merely because they existed. And yet, sometimes a “failure” can have inherent qualities that were either missed on first sight or were not appreciated because they ran so far opposite of expectation. This is the story of such a show.
Ignored in its time whilst sandwiched between re-airings of wide-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked Rankin Bass holiday specials, A Wish For Wings That Work (1991) was supposed to be the opening media salvo for the characters of the comic strip Bloom County. One imagined that more specials and perhaps even a movie could have been in the offing if it had taken off. It was not to be.
In retrospect, it isn’t hard to see why. Even Bloom County creator and author of the book the special was based on, Berkeley Breathed, has been dismissive of the final product and was quoted, “…I’m glad you enjoyed it. I presume your family was on speed when they watched it. I would imagine it helps.” He later claimed that most of his dissatisfaction wasn’t necessarily with the show itself, but with how poorly it did, citing issues with how the production eventually came together as well.
Breathed was in a different place after the conclusion of the Bloom County spinoffs Outland and the Opus The Penguin solo series. He focused on children’s books and prints, and in these resided a sensitivity that was absent at Bloom County’s best. As a fan I gravitated to both, but I was more drawn to Breathed’s anarchic side. Bloom County represented the great big wet willy the comics page needed in that era. With strips that were too saccharine, too safe, or just too boring to mention glutting the already crowded newspaper page, Bloom County, Gary Larson’s The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes (the creation of Bill Watterson) became the only outposts for irony, satire, and the occasional fart joke. It was freshness for the often stale medium, and by freshness I mean the kind that got you slapped in the face in a 1930’s comedy.
Bloom County is, of course, about a town populated by seedy miscreants, precocious children, and talking (and barely talking) animals with butt-implants and sexual dysfunctions. Most of these inclinations did not make it into the children’s book A Wish For Wings That Work, but there were enough spices added to render it edgy enough for parents yet fantastical enough for children. Opus is, you see, a penguin, a flightless bird. His obsession with flight toward the end of the year, as all the other birds are migrating south, represents that thing we believe we should have but cannot. There’s something moving about that idea, about the arbitrary nature of existence in that by being a bird, and being that birds fly, it is staggeringly unfair that one should be a bird and not have the genetic ability to fly. Who hasn’t felt like that in some form?
In the story Opus does what all innocents do. He asks Santa Claus for the ability to fulfill his dream, while at the same time navigating around his braindead cohort Bill The Cat who wants to be his sidekick very badly, even if he can only articulate it in spits, sputters, and the oft-hacked-up hairball. This is seen in the cartoon special, and we see that Opus will eventually have his face-to-face with St. Nick, and just as in the adult world, he will not have the answer Opus was looking for. I think that this is the part of the story I’ve come to appreciate the most. It isn’t Santa that makes all wishes come true, but the care and goodwill of others. (As a matter of fact, Santa comes off as being just a little out-of-touch, which might not have endeared parents to the special either.)
Are parts of the show inappropriate? Probably. Another bird in Opus’ support group weeps over his wife having left him for a bird with big wings, and there’s little disguising the innuendo inherent in that. That character, voiced by Robin Williams and credited as “Sudy Nym,” is layered with the histrionics of a character from a Tennessee Williams play. There is also a cross-dressing cockroach having difficulties keeping his (her?) falsies in his (her?) dress. The thrill of all this is that the special would have been bookended by Frosty The Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which are both so earnest and sentimental. It is transgressive but only just so. It’s not the Bad Santa/Santa Con total strip-down of naivete. My favorite moment in the show is that when Santa’s sleigh becomes unhitched and he plummets from the sky away from his flying reindeer, he goes from the hearty, confident “ho, ho, ho” to “oh noooooooo!”
Now that Breathed is once again doing Bloom County — this time leveraging Facebook as his distribution medium with its inherent freedoms — he’s moved back toward that sense of helzapoppin’ anarchy, and he has reengaged an appreciative audience. Hopefully with this rekindling, he can look upon the TV special with a bit more charity than before. It is not all he expected it to be, and it is not all that it should have been. But A Wish For Wings That Work was (and is) funny, a little sick in the head, and a lot better than many would have you believe.