a very special christmas special: A Wish For Wings That Work (1991) (or: Mommy, Why Is The Penguin So Mean To The Kitty?)

04 Dec

Bloom County.  Outland.  The Opusverse, we’ll call it, or the Bloom Count-inuum.  Whatever it is, that’s one of my natural mental homes.  I’ve already talked in these pages about how much Berke Breathed’s skewed heartland aesthetic and lovably neurotic characters affected me and how I think about the world, and now that he’s retiring, we’ll miss him.   Maybe one day there’ll be another Opus and Bill TV special.  Maybe.  But probably not.

There was one, though, in 1991.  It’s an adaptation of the picture book A Wish For Wings That Work.  I’ve posted the full movie below.  I haven’t seen it in years, and I’ve always… sort of liked it.  Some people swear by it.  Some people swear at it.  You’ll see what I mean after the jump.

Look, if there was any justice in the world, Opus, Bill, Milo, Binkley, Oliver, the Basselope, and Steve Dallas would be just as beloved as Charlie Brown and Snoopy.  Their faces would be plastered all over Knott’s Berry Farm attractions and at the Mall of America, there would be holiday specials and musicals and they would take their place in the pantheon of 20th Century American Icons.  And yet… I’m sort of glad they’re not – mostly because Berke ain’t like that.  He’s very protective of his characters and his vision, even to the point of disowning a perfectly fine (if occasionally flawed) film like A Wish For Wings That Work.

It’s based on his first children’s book ever (a modern classic if there ever was one – I have a copy somewhere), and concerns Opus – a penguin, if you didn’t know, who therefore cannot fly.  He wants, more than anything in the world, to be able to fly.  He’s writing a letter to Santa when we first see him, and he’s eating vienna sausages dipped in herring pate.  As Opus spends a lot of his time in the comic books kicking back and eating disgusting food, this is a great way to start.

He’s voiced by Michael Bell, who I think does an okay job.  Obviously, he’s not going to have the voice you have in your head when you read Bloom County, but he does well anyway.  Charlie Brown talks like a generic kid, so they have generic kids do his voice in the specials.  Opus is more… specific.  In this reader’s head, he sounds a little like Daffy Duck without the lisp.  Bill sounds like, well, Bill.  He doesn’t so much talk as barf emotively.  I know a cat like that.  I live with a cat like that.

DRDMJR spreads the holiday cheer for us today.

Opus, as has been previously established, is writing a letter to Santa for “Wings That Work.”  We then see him running through town (is this Outland, or Bloom County?  It actually appears to be the pseudo-Bloom County that existed near the end of Outland‘s run.)  Around 5:16, Opus makes a reference to the “Watusi.”   If this doesn’t warm your heart, you weren’t there, man.

As part of his running around, he bounces off of a destitute Bill with a resounding “No cats!  Especially no BILL THE CATS!”   If this is your first exposure to the penguin, it makes him sound like kind of a jerk.  But you don’t know Bill.

Berke Breathed never liked what they did with this special – sure, the pacing isn’t great, but the characters, especially Opus, move exactly like I picture them moving.   That’s something.  When Opus gets into a snit in the comic strip, he has a very distinctive march-like way of walking that is captured perfectly here.

Opus goes to a support group for disturbed birds, to help him deal with his flightless waterfowlness.  Hey, it was the 90s.  You want Red Menace/Cold war subtexts, you watch Rudolph.  You want “consumerism is ruining childhood, brought to you by McDonalds,” you watch, well, anything made in the 1980s (we’ll get to The Christmas Toy one of these days, I promise.)  You want jokes about group therapy?  Welcome to the ’90s.  We feel your pain.  Have a Zima.

The kiwi, by the way, pining for his wife who’s left him for an ALLLLBATROSS, is voiced by Robin Williams, uncredited.  The cockroach cross-dresser is supposedly Dustin Hoffman, also uncredited.  I’m guessing they just liked Bloom County, but figured CBS couldn’t afford ’em.    Truffles the pig, who thinks he’s a rhinocerous today, gets a lot of face time for a minor Bloom-verse character.

There’s a misadventure involving balloons and christmas ornaments and Bill that’s pleasingly visually odd, which ends in calamity.  Again, Opus yells at Bill for ruining everything.   For me, this is the only thing about this special that really doesn’t work;  if you’re a fan, you know there’s an up and down history between Opus and Bill.  If you’re the sort of grown-up who reads subtext, you can plainly see that Opus is transfering his self-anger about his non-flightishness onto his hapless kitty friend.  If you’re anyone else, though, you feel bad for the poor little homeless junky cat, and this is the exact moment where you stop caring whether that bratty little penguin gets his damn wings or not.  Hmph.

Oh look.  Opus faxed his letter to Santa!  Ah, 1994…. twas a simpler time, with its fax machines.   Then he’s off to bed, saying to himself “I’ll be flyin’ on Christmas mornin’.  I’ll be flyin’ on Christmas Day,” as the camera pans out to show a snow covered landscape and a cozy penguin in a cozy house.  If you were the type of kid who got Bloom County books for Christmas, and read them in bed with a fire in the fireplace and snow on the ground, there’s an instant twinge of nostalgia.  Then we realize that Opus has left Bill out in the cold.  With snow piled ridiculously on top of his head.  Again, hmph.

Then, hark!  It’s SANTY CLAUS!!  And HO HO HO NOOOO he’s lost his reindeer!!

Now, a dream sequence.  A weird one.   That goes on too long.

Yep, here, Opus dreams that he’s flying a plane in some old movie.  Why is the plane going down?  Because… PENGUINS CAN’T FLY!!!

Opus wakes up with a start, and his nose is all squished up!  And his fanny falls off! Awwww… nostalgia.   A bunch of annoying geese show up again, and tell Opus there’s all manner of higglety-pigglety calamity afoot.  Seems Santa has crashed his sleigh in the pond outside Opus’s house, which somehow isn’t frozen, even with all that snow.  Never mind that… penguins can’t fly, but they sure can swim.  Opus jumps in, saves the day, and… pulls Santa Claus to shore.  Just by being himself.

This is where Andy tears up a little.  Excuse me.


The next morning, all the annoying geese have Opus’s bowtie.   Turns out Bill told ’em Opus was the go-to-guy for such a Santa rescuin’ adventure, and they take Opus for a little celebratory flight.  Awww….

So, yeah.  My final verdict is this:  if you’re a fan of Opus and Bill, you’ll love this thing.   Even if you’re not a fan, there’s a lot to like, but Opus’s blind desire to fly regardless of how his actions affect others makes him somewhat unlikable himself,  which isn’t how I remember him.  He’s an everyman, and everymen aren’t supposed to be lovable all the time, but his relationship with Bill comes across as unnecessarily abusive if you don’t know Bill D. Cat.

(Bloom County geek note:  ever notice how, after Bill got resurrected in Oliver’s lab, they spelled his name “Bill Z. Cat” instead of “Bill D. Cat?”  Wonder if this was significant at all…)
Anyway, here’s a bonus Bloom County Christmas comic from about twenty years ago that I’ve always liked.  Enjoy.

Next time…..: Squirrels don their gay apparel.  “What? F**k off!” they seemed to say….


3 responses to “a very special christmas special: A Wish For Wings That Work (1991) (or: Mommy, Why Is The Penguin So Mean To The Kitty?)

  1. Gilly

    December 5, 2008 at 7:32 am

    Thanks for posting this — I loved this special, haven’t watched it in years! How I miss the Opus of the 80s. Outland never really did it for me.

  2. Bill D.

    December 7, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Haven’t seen this since… wow, probably since it aired. Thanks for unearthing it!

    And I can’t help but think how hard it must be for a comic (strip or book) creator to see his/her work translated into animation, since something somewhere is going to happen on screen that’s precisely the way they drew (or even envisioned) it. A look, a movement, a voice… something’s gonna go wrong. So I’m not surprised Berke didn’t quite like how this turned out. Just as Walt Kelly hated the one Pogo special that Chuck Jones produced, and based on what little I’ve seen of it, I’m not surprised, as it’s a lot more Chuck Jones than Walt Kelly.

    Sparky was always pretty smart to have as much of a presence in the Peanuts specials as he did (well, the early ones, anyway… I suspect, or more likely pray, that he had little to do with stuff like Flashbeagle.).

  3. geekusa

    December 7, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Ah! Parts of Flashbeagle were inspired by his daughter Jill’s interest in aerobics – they actually filmed her working out, and matched Peppermint Patty’s “Get in shape” routine to her movements.

    Flashbeagle looks horrifically dated now, but I’m not gonna lie – I owned that soundtrack. “Just turn on that Charlie Brown smile, and turn on that Charlie Brown griiiin…”


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