I’m always eager to check out a new Veggie Tales DVD, but I sometimes wait until I can borrow it from the library rather than purchase it. When I saw their version of The Little Drummer Boy, I wondered how it would compare to the original. The Rankin/Bass stop-action movie released in 1968 has always been one of my favorite Christmas specials.
Usually when Veggie Tales retells a story, they change it considerably, not only in the details but in the “big idea” behind it. When I looked at Veggie Tales’ The Little Drummer Boy in the store, somehow I got the impression that it was less about bitterness and forgiveness, and more about what a small boy (or any of us) could give as a gift to the Christ child.
So I was surprised, when Al and I watched it, to find that the story of Aaron follows so closely the one I remember from my childhood. The characters are nearly all the same (the camel Joshua even looks the same), and the major events are pretty much the same. There are some details that are different, both changes that have to do with Veggie Tales style and others that apparently are to make the story less upsetting in certain ways.
One change that I don’t understand is that it is implied that the Romans are responsible for the destruction of Aaron’s home and the loss of his parents. In the original, it was bandits. Either is plausible, certainly, but I don’t see the purpose of the change. I read in some reviews of the original that its portrayal of Arabs is unacceptable by today’s standards, so perhaps it was felt that it was necessary to avoid showing them as bad guys. But those who destroy the farm are not even shown – why would it be wrong to simply say they were bandits?
[Spoiler alert]Another change is that at the end, Aaron’s parents suddenly show up. They apparently also escaped, and they thought that Aaron had died. I realize that for young children, watching a show where a child’s parents die could be very upsetting. But it seems strange to me to let them be upset for the whole show, and then bring back the parents at the end.
I also was quite surprised that the father seems to think it will be no problem to take care of the lamb’s injury – in the original, that healing was seen as something only the newborn king could do, and I don’t see why Veggie Tales would want to change that. From one review I read at amazon.com, apparently children may not realize that there is any particular significance to Aaron seeing baby Jesus, and think that it is the reappearance of Aaron’s parents that result in his changed attitude.
The Veggie Tales “style” comes through mostly in the entertainment offered by Ben Haramed. There are French peas who do acrobatics, and a squash who tells lame jokes. And the audience throws slushies to show what they think of the show. The entire story is also encapsulated within a story about Junior Asparagus, who is angry with his friends for going Christmas caroling without him.
Those details aside, however, a synopsis of the story would sound very much like one of the Rankin/Bass production. A young boy survives the destruction of his home, and henceforth avoids human society as much as possible. A greedy showman happens to see Aaron making music with his animals and tries to use the boy as a money-maker in his show. That doesn’t work out because of the boy’s anger at the audience, but Ben Haramed does find a way to make money off the boy by selling the boy’s camel to three magi whose camel is ill.
Aaron finds his way to Bethlehem to find the magi and his camel, and ends up at the stable where shepherds and magi are worshipping a newborn baby. Outside in the street, however, a chariot hits his lamb and severely injures it. Desperate for help for his lamp, Aaron tries to get help from the magi, who instead direct him to the baby. Aaron plays his drum for the baby, and in the baby’s presence realizes that he needs to discard his bitterness and forgive those who hurt him.
So does Veggie Tales improve any on the movie I grew up watching and loving? The quality of the images is certainly better – I don’t remember thinking the Christmas special I used to watch on TV was jerky or grainy, but then, that’s all I knew. (I wonder now how much of the poor quality I always accepted as the norm was from the film itself and how much from the poor reception we always got.) I don’t know why the other Rankin/Bass Christmas specials now on DVD look better than this one – were they better to begin with, or did they have a bigger budget for restoration?
There is also a direct application of the lesson to a modern child’s life. While I always found Aaron’s story very touching, I couldn’t really relate to a child who had lost his parents and came to hate all people. I never thought of myself as being one to hold grudges, but as an adult I realize that as a child I was not very forgiving. (I remember actually being annoyed at myself, as a child, because I had forgotten that I wasn’t ever going to like a particular person anymore.) The lesson Aaron learned is one I would have benefited from, but I didn’t think I needed to.
On the whole, though, I have to say that I still prefer the original. I don’t know if that’s because it is a part of my childhood, because of the changes that I consider unwarranted, or just because there is a particular genius to the original that the Veggie Tales version doesn’t have. I realize, however, that many of today’s children are not going to want to watch a 1960’s era TV special. After reading reviews at amazon.com, I wonder if many of their parents have ever seen it either.
I don’t know what I’d think of the Veggie Tales version if I’d never seen any other. The reviews I read are mostly positive, applauding both the fun aspects of the movie and its heartwarming message. If it’s the only Little Drummer Boy movie some people will see, then I guess I’m glad they won’t miss out on its timeless message of love and forgiveness.