It's Nickelodeon's first animated special. It had been planned as the start of a 39-episode TV series for 1989, but the project was abandoned and so the pilot became a one-off Christmas special. Nickelodeon showed it annually for a while.
It's also by Ralph Bakshi and based on a high school comic strip of his, then called Junk Town. Tattertown is where all the rubbish you throw away goes... and comes alive. He'd used this idea before, mind you. It's the opening scene of Hey Good Lookin'
, in which a rubbish bin and a pile of garbage have a theological discussion that ends with the garbage being taken away to "heaven".
This TV special is nothing like that. It's less bleak and sweary, but way more fun.
Firstly, I had no idea where this thing was going. It starts out with a little girl (Debbie) who loves her doll (Muffet) and yet by mistake ends up in Tattertown. She'd never have chosen to throw it away, but here it is and so now it's sentient. This gives us a surprisingly human moment where Muffet realises she's alive. "I can talk! I can touch!" She then runs away. Debbie gives chase and suddenly, if you're prepared to think about the meat that's underneath this children's cartoon, we're looking at a situation of unusual moral complexity. Who should we be rooting for? There's no villain and both sides could make a powerful claim to being the injured party. Does it make you a slaveowner to love your toys and dolls?
Incidentally, the episode's also racially aware. The narrator is an audibly black saxophone, while I think Debbie is meant to be Chinese. Admittedly it's hard to be sure, given the bouncy 1930s art style, with jolly rounded lines everywhere and a joyful abandonment of realism. There's hardly a single hard straight edge in the whole thing. However I think Debbie's hair and skin colour both suggest (very subtly) that she's not Caucasian.
That was cool. However it then got ten times cooler when our adorable blonde moppet with curls and a frilly dress turned into a megalomaniac. "I'm Muffet the Merciless and I'm taking over this dump. Now scram!"
From there it just keeps getting loopier. Halfway through you'll realise that you'd forgotten the title. I loved it. It's a ramshackle plot that's happy to go off in all kinds of odd directions and indulge itself with surreal characters, just for laughs, but that's what makes it great. Besides, the cast hold it together. Debbie rules, while Muffet is basically a one-woman Pinky and the Brain, five years early.
It's also insanely quotable.
"Oh flibbertigibbet, she got away again!"
"What kind of a crazy place is this? Can't a person be evil in peace?"
"It's so hard living with these lower life forms."
As for the animation, that's wonderful too. It's explosive in its energy, with only one character who's human (Debbie) and all the rest being joyfully lunatic creations. In fact it's going so fast that I think they have trouble slowing down, with the episode's one deadpan line ("Not exactly, Harvey") not quite coming off properly, but I love the slight 1930s-ness of it. This is even underlined with a little 1930s history in black-and-white when a textbook starts revisiting the past.
It's brilliant. It's also kind of disturbing in places, albeit in a jolly, endearing way that's surely going to shoot over the heads of children and their parents. A toy loses its arm and then later gets decapitated, albeit harmlessly, and there's a "meaning of Christmas" montage that looks like the usual corny platitudes until you realise that from the toys' point of view, it's looking almost like horror. However to detect interpretations like that, you'd have to be looking for them. It's perfect children's entertainment by anyone's definition and I can't believe they won't love it. I did.
"I'm not your friend! I'm nothing to you!"