Warm tales of shopping sprees and potty humor

Times Staff Writer

Lost the true meaning of the holidays again? Well, you can stop tearing the place apart. This weekend, "Eloise at Christmastime" and "National Lampoon's Thanksgiving Reunion" put the magic back where you left it. But then, you knew all along that the holidays are about family, flatulence and ruinous shopping sprees at the prominently featured flagship stores of corporate sponsors, didn't you? You sentimental fool.

Eloise, the original pug-owning New York rich girl, kicks off the Christmas shopping season in this holiday sequel to "Eloise at the Plaza." Adapted from Kay Thompson's 1958 children's classic, and starring Julie Andrews as Nanny and Sofia Vassilieva as the precocious scamp with the excellent paunch, the movie finds the 6-year-old Plaza-dweller updating her Christmas list as she eagerly awaits the arrival of her mother from Paris. Mother's not due until Christmas Eve, though, which leaves Eloise plenty of time to shop like Ally Hilfiger of MTV's "Rich Girls," cause panic in the elevator and save the day.

Eloise is intrigued, naturally, when she learns that the hotel's prickly events coordinator Prunella Stickler (Christine Baranski) is planning a big Christmas Eve wedding. The bride is Rachel (Sara Topham), whose father, Plaza owner Mr. Peabody (Victor A. Young), shipped her off to Europe four years earlier to save her from marrying into the service sector. But one look at Rachel's oily fiance -- and some well-timed eavesdropping -- rouse Eloise's suspicions. When she discovers that Bill (Gavin Creel), a show-tunes-singing actor-waiter and Eloise's best friend, is still in love with Rachel, she launches into action. She also helps Sir Wilkes (Kenneth Welsh) select the perfect gift for Nanny and saves a lonely old lady from eviction in her free time.

Fans of the "Eloise" books -- and especially fans of Hilary Knight's brilliant illustrations -- may miss the original, two-dimensional version of the character. As in the book, the Plaza is a luxury playground populated with colorful characters, but some of the glamour of 1950s pen-and-ink New York has been lost and replaced with a somewhat more brand-conscious modern aesthetic. Actually, what am I saying? The movie features one of the more flagrant instances of corporate back-scratching in recent memory: During their Fifth Avenue shopping spree, Eloise and Nanny bypass the nearby FAO Schwarz and head down to Times Square for a visit to Toys R Us, a promotional partner in the movie. The trade magazine Brandweek describes the store's appearance as a "cameo," but the store gets more on-screen time than some of the stars.

Vassilieva is cute and plucky, and the story moves at an energetic -- possibly hyperactive -- pace. Jeffrey Tambor, who plays the beleaguered hotel manager Mr. Salomone, feels wasted in an incidental role, though. And Andrews, the greatest movie nanny of all time, isn't given much to do besides throw up her hands in bemused despair and look exhausted. You keep wanting her to pull an umbrella out of her bag or tear down the curtains, and she is especially missed in the musical numbers.

In a TV season that appears to have been commandeered by idle girls with high credit limits, though, the live-action Eloise's charm feels slightly diminished by her lifestyle association to Paris Hilton, et al. Still, this being the Wonderful World of Disney, she may charge up a storm and run the help ragged, but she ultimately learns that the best gifts come from the heart.

Dr. Mitch Snider (Judge Reinhold), uptight anesthesiologist to the stars, learns a similar lesson in "National Lampoon's Thanksgiving Reunion." In this addendum to the "Vacation" canon, Mitch dreams of having a traditional holiday eating a home-cooked meal in the company of family. (In Encino, where he lives with his cavalier family, they usually eat the holiday meal in a restaurant.) An unexpected invitation to spend Thanksgiving with their long-lost hippie cousins in Idaho turns that dream into -- do I need to tell you? -- a nightmare. Mitch's cousins turn out to be Woodrow Snider (Bryan Cranston), a loopy hippie inventor and sometime washing machine repairman, his earth mother wife, Pauline (Penelope Ann Miller) and their kids, angry teen Twig (Britt Irvin) and young Harley (Reece Thompson), who enjoys putting spiders in his pants. The Sniders are outcasts in their own town, thanks to a wrong turn Woodrow took 25 years earlier. As the family waits for their tubercular turkey to drop dead of natural causes, Woodrow tries to find a way to ask Mitch for a big favor -- which might or might not involve a kidney donation.

Gradually, Mitch's tense, materialistic wife Jill (Hallie Todd) warms to the groovy Idaho Sniders' love-is-all-you-need credo, and the kids learn to get over themselves. Mitch and Woodrow get the chance to be heroic, which allows them to boost their self-esteem and save the day.

Many of the story elements -- funny cousins from the sticks, geriatric scatology, awkward moments in the shower -- seem to have been culled from the hallowed archives of Griswoldiana and defanged. But the familiar is comfy -- and isn't that (plus teen mud wrestling, scary food and gifts that come from vital organs) what the holidays are all about?


When to watch

What: "Eloise at Christmastime"

Where: ABC

When: Tonight, 8


What: "National Lampoon's Thanksgiving Reunion"

Where: TBS

When: Sunday, 8 p.m.

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