Growing up, we children of the '60s got quite used to badly dubbed import animation. Seems that the success of foreign cinema spelunkers like K. Gordon Murray and Sandy Frank inspired more than one mainstream studio to buy up other countries cartoons, saddle them with sorry Western cadences, and simply sit back, waiting to rake in the jack. Of course, for every decent example of the conceit (the original Speed Racer, for example), there were far too many failures. While foreign pen and ink still suffers from horrid translations and tacked on dialogue, fan demands have made the distributors far more faithful to the source. Of course, none of this applies to the depressingly dumb Scuff: A Christmas Tale. Taken from a supposedly popular Spanish kid's show, this wildly uneven take on the Charles Dickens classic A Chri...yes, another one of those...has our selfish little dog learning about the magic of sharing. Of course, there's a ghost involved (only one, oddly enough) and far too much local color to resonate with kids outside the continent.
Scruff is an aggravating little puppy who will not share his love of eggs with anyone. He lives on a massive piece of property with several other animals, as well as a human master who is trying to make a go of it as a farmer. One day, Scruff is asked to help set up the Christmas decorations in the barn. Fearing his friends will find the eggs he has hidden there, he refuses. He then runs off into the countryside to avoid their judgment. On the way, he develops an unhealthy hatred for the holidays. Soon, a big blue blob of a dog ghost comes calling. It is his job to prove to Scruff that sharing is fun, that his owner is a kind and gentle man, and that his barnyard pals really like him. Hopefully he learns his lesson quickly. A group of disgusting rats is set on ruining the upcoming Noel for everyone.
In 2002, Antoni D'Ocon (who according to the IMDb, was heavily involved in bringing the Problem Child franchise to the world of animation) helped a version of Catalan poet, novelist, and playwright Josep Vallverdú children's favorite Scruff become a Spanish TV staple. As with most underachieving cartoons, the stories were simple, the lessons even more simplistic, and the end results just right for underdeveloped fetal minds to latch onto and love. Now comes a full length movie, yet another rip-off of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and still further proof that, when it comes to playing with the pen and ink, some nations need to drop out before they hurt someone. Sure, complaining about crappy direct-to-DVD kid vid fare is like shooting badly hand-drawn fish in a senselessly CG barrel. Scruff offers nothing but nonsensical incongruence, voice dubbing that gives new meaning to the term brain damaging, and a lack of overall charm and grace that can only be matched by its hamfisted and heavy-handed treatment of the material.
The biggest problem here is the shrill and consistently stupid English translation. Scruff goes from being a semi-adorable dog to a cutesy pie American irritant with enough whiny aural quirks to make Alvin and the Chipmunks lime green Jell-O. His dialogue is delivered in a far too rapid manner, the words almost never matching his mouth movements. It's more or less the same all around. The human characters are rendered in outright stereotype, the other animals are strictly from a bargain basement Babe remake, and the single Ghost of Christmases whatever sounds stupider than the subjects he's supposed to convert. All along, plotpoints jump about like fleas on a festering cur, messages and metaphors get mixed up and misused, and an oddball combination of computer generated backdrops and standard cell action causes a kind of artform ADD. One moment, you're watching our scrappy little hero scamper around like he's dodging Disney executives, the next, an unusual overhead shot stops everything dead while poorly rendered bitmap trees and topographics take over.
But the worst part of Scruff's adventures is the lackluster adaptation of Dickens's original tale. No one is expecting biting social commentary from a mutt who moans incessantly about not wanting to share his snacks, but at least the writers could TRY to follow the classic fable. Instead, they invent their own "inspired" storyline. Their lack of consideration raises several confusing questions? If Scruff is the supposed bad guy Scrooge substitute, who is his Cratchit? If he doesn't have one, why is his clearly babyish behavior considered so horrible? If the rats are the real villains here (they destroy the Christmas items that Scruff is later accused of), why are they in and out of the story like expositional helpers? What does the main character and his failing farm have to do with anything? Better yet, what about the other agriculturalist who teams up with a rich corporate sponsor to basically run everyone else out of business? If one wasn't so accepting, you'd swear this was nothing more than a cobbled together combination of old episodes, tossed around a spectral entity and given an attempted Dickensonian sensibility. Whatever it is, it's dull, lifeless and flat.
Well, for one thing, Scruff: A Christmas Tale sure is colorful. It's also soft, blurry, loaded with pixilation problems, and rife with low rent animation issues. The 1.33:1 full screen image resembles a poorly put together, direct to DVD title. Sometimes, the transfer is terrific. Most of the time, it's borderline terrible.
Of course, this is a dubbed version of the original. The Dolby Digital Stereo mix stinks, offering the voices way too high and the music overmodulated to compensate for the consistently loud conversations. There's also a bunch of buffoonish sound effects that, while keeping within the cartoon spirit, seem added on and unnecessary.
These are the kind of titles that make critics angry. You can sense the cash grab at work, the almost con artist like way an otherwise inferior product like this is produced and distributed to desperate parents who don't know any better. While it's possible that some dim or considerably dense child might cotton to this sour scraggy dog tale, the vast majority of wee ones will be shouting for the latest from Dreamworks or Pixar before long. Easily earning a Skip It, Scuff: A Christmas Tale is a tragedy. One imagines that the Spanish series deserves better than this half-baked seasonal stink bomb. No yearly yuletide will be merry and bright if you bring this sorry excuse for entertainment into your home. If you have a need for every Noel captured on film, perhaps you'll find this tolerable. Everyone else will prefer a big fat lump of digital coal in the stocking come X-mas morning.
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