On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age.
First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing.
Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.
The Pitch: Merry Chompmas to All, and to All a Good Chomp
In the beginning, Namco created “Pac-Man,” a cute exercise in 8-bit graphics that features an incomplete yellow circle navigating a dot-filled maze while avoiding colorful ghosts. An instant hit, the game’s only obvious flaw was the lack of information offered about the yellow circle’s genitalia. It wasn’t long before the company rectified that problem in 1982 with the release of “Ms. Pac-Man,” a nearly identical game whose circular protagonist wore a bow to identify herself as female, drawing a clear line in the sand between the reproductive organs of these two-dimensional avatars.
The distinction was the first attempt at extracting narrative heft from a property that was little more than a fun maze game, but it would not be the last. Just two years after the original “Pac-Man” game debuted in arcades, someone at Hanna Barbara stated the obvious and said “this yellow circle needs to team up with Santa Claus to save Christmas.” 1982 also saw the release of “Christmas Comes to Pac-Land,” a holiday special broadcast on ABC featuring characters from the “Pac-Man” Saturday morning cartoon that was airing at the time. And while the special, directed by Ray Patterson and written by Jeffrey Scott, never entered the canon of perennial Christmas viewing material, the copies that exist online are eternal reminders of the weirdness that can emerge from shoehorning Santa into a world where he clearly never belonged.
“Christmas Comes to Pac-Land” begins, naturally, on Christmas Eve in Pac-Land. The geographic location of the idyllic nation is never revealed, but Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, their son Pac-Baby, and their coterie of ghost nemeses — plus their cat named Sour Puss and dog named Chomp-Chomp — live so far off the map that Santa was completely unaware of their existence. Their lives largely revolve around “chomping,” a catch-all verb that encompasses their love of munching on small dots, their love of munching on larger dots, and their love of biting their enemies out of spite and their friends out of love. But when Santa’s sleigh unexpectedly crashes in Pac-Land, Pac-Man’s feud with the ghosts must be placed on the back burner as he uses the power of chomping to help get the Christmas deliveries up and running again.
While “Popular Character Helps Santa Save Christmas” is a time-honored format for throwaway TV specials, this one has wormed its way into my brain in a way that few others have. In addition to the insane reliance on the word “chomp,” I’ve always been baffled by how utterly incompetent Santa seems to be. Some of the first words out of his mouth are “It’s a good thing my Christmas list is computerized, or I’d never get the job done on time.” It’s unsurprising that a video game company in the 1980s would want to promote futuristic technology, but the image of Santa as a man who would be helpless without his devices is a curious choice. He’s also forced to turn to Pac-Man because “all of the elves are off for the night,” which strikes me as an unprecedented level of managerial incompetence. If there is one night of the year that at least one of Santa’s elves should be on call for emergencies, it would be Christmas Eve!
I’ve watched “Christmas Comes to Pac-Land” several times in my life, and I still don’t have the faintest idea about the location of Pac-Land or the true definition of “chomping.” But my confusion about the details is outweighed by the hilarious context, which is that a crew of grown-ass adults attempted to make a 20-minute narrative story about a circular joystick icon and did a shockingly decent job. 2023 may have been the year that Hollywood finally figured out how to handle video games, with hits like “The Last of Us” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” finding ways to satisfy their respective fanbases. But I’ll always prefer the decades when filmmakers had no idea what the hell they were doing with video game characters but were forced to try anyway. —CZ
The Aftermath: How Does Christmas Work Exactly?
In Santa’s time-honored quest to maintain his status as the most hapless mythical figure to ever race around the globe in a single night, his reindeer and sleigh prove perpetually finicky.
Whether they’re drunk on eggnog or can’t see through the weather, the flying Christmas versions of the real deer species responsible for carting around Santa routinely throw up their antlers and leave the big man totally screwed. And across countless TV specials and Christmas films, the sleigh itself breaks down and has to be fixed, constantly running out of magic power/Christmas spirit/Zooey Deschanel’s singing voice/what have you.
It’s not the legendary mode of transportation’s fault, of course. As Zilko pointed out, Ol’ Saint Nick isn’t great at his job and he could stand to learn a thing or two about animal care. (Pac-Man and Chomp-Chomp definitely have the better pet-parent relationship!) But more than Santa’s lacking work ethic and skill, the mechanics of the magical red vehicle essential to delivering Christmas presents each and every year for all of time just weren’t made to last.
Now, that’s to say nothing of the structural integrity of the standard, horse-drawn sleigh that crashes into Pac-Land. Rather, the specifics of the iconic aircraft have changed so much as Christmas media has exploded into the 21st century that it’s become impossible to feel much of any lasting connection to Santa lore as it once existed. That’s got its pluses and minuses, but there’s something to be said for that diluted preciousness making it easier to force zany characters into variations on Santa’s story.
Watching Ms. Pac-Man check Rudolph’s nose like the check engine light on a car’s front dash, I was impressed. Not so much with her prowess as a mammalian mechanic (although, slay queen!); more-so with the level of imagination that was clearly put into this 22-minute oddity that never really makes sense but absolutely hits. The attention to detail on display in Pac-Land — from the surgeon general’s chomp warning to the ghost-based emergency response system — is hysterical and dazzling.
As it stands, it’s funny to think that the Pac-Man world is in some ways more firmly established than the oral and written Christmas tradition passed down between generations for centuries. I had more questions about Santa here than I have ever had about the Pac-people. Like, what kind of guy is he if he would read Pac-Baby “The Night Before Christmas,” essentially a rhyme-schemed fan fiction tribute to him? When he left his Christmas-clueless helpers a pile of presents, did he think to even explain to them what a full-ass tree was doing in their living room? And, as for inexplicably stumbling into Pac-Land and then leaving with no plan to get back on track, seriously what?
Co-mingling the muddled legend of Santa with this bizarre IP extension is a reminder of what makes so much holiday content great. Like an old arcade game that needs a good smack to the side, “Christmas Comes to Pac-Land” is a hiccupy delight and a good reminder that in the kaleidoscopic holiday world we live in today, anyone and anything can save Santa. Namco knows he needs it. —AF
IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…