A WISH FOR WINGS THAT WORK
Original Air Date: December 18, 1991
Stricken with being born a Penguin, poor old Opus cannot fly. But that won’t stop him from wishing… for 23 minutes straight.
Opus was never meant to be the star of Berkeley Breathed’s Pulitzer Prize winning comic strip, Bloom County, but the existential penguin introduced himself in a one-off gag six months in and simply refused to leave. Even after Breathed retired the Bloom County characters to create an all new, Sunday-only strip called Outland in 1989, Opus and company wormed their way back in, and eventually forced the original premise and characters into the shadows until that strip was retired in 1995.
Opus in an early strip and the book on which the special is based
During the Outland years, Breathed spun Opus off into a couple of children-friendly books, including A Wish for Wings That Work in 1991, which coincided with an animated Christmas special that same year. Following Breathed’s second retirement in 1995, he decided to come back to comics yet again in 2003, only this time he cut the bullshit with a strip simply entitled, Opus. Once he grew sick of that series, he once-and-for-all eliminated any chance of a return by killing Opus off in 2008.
Sorta dead at the moment
As a diehard comic strip fan, I couldn’t wait to watch Opus’s animation debut in 1991. But somehow, due to scheduling conflicts beyond an 11-year-old’s control, I missed the airing. During the dark days of life without DVDs and YouTube, I had no other choice but to wait for the following year.
I scanned the TV guide that December and each one that followed hoping to find A Wish for Wings That Work’s inevitable reairing, but that never happened… now I know why. When a reporter asked Breathed just a few years ago where he could find the special, the author curtly responded:
“Hopefully in the rubbish pail. We can do better than that and we will with an eventual Opus film…but I’m glad you enjoyed it. I presume your family was on speed when they watched it. I would imagine it helps.”
Opus’ falling fanny gag makes numerous appearances
Sucks to be right. As sad as it may seem for Wings That Work to fall into obscurity, the wasted potential displayed in Opus’s only onscreen adaptation to date is far more tragic. In spite of featuring some quality animation and clever wordplay, the pacing is agonizingly slow and none of the comic strip’s subversive charm translates on the screen.
You can’t see it, but that is a jar of “Herring Stomach Pate” on the left
Since the book only gave the animators thirty pages of source material, most of which were large pictures, the half-hour special really takes its time going almost nowhere. The special opens as Opus is writing a letter to Santa. It’s not clear what he’s asking for yet, but given the aeronautical theme of his room (and the title of the special), you’ll probably have some idea.
Looky there, Opus has a Tie Fighter!
Yes, Opus is a penguin. And his wings don’t work. But he sure wishes they did! If you feel like I just wasted your time with the last three sentences, you may want to skip the first half of the special, since it’s a flashback largely focused on driving home a point perfectly made by the title alone, then padded with overwrought dialogue and lifeless gags.
As much it would break my heart to state that Bloom County’s stable of characters do not work off the page, A Wish for Wings That Work gives me no reason to believe otherwise. Bill the Cat, I’m talking primarily to you. It’s not hard to see what made the hard-drinking Garfield parody standout on a newspaper page; however, any sense of edginess has been removed to appeal to kids.
You’re lucky to get away with having a nutsack for a face
What’s the point of a speechless, mildly gross cat when Ren and Stimpy are practically fisting each other over on Nickelodeon while you won’t show Bill coughing a hairball up in frame? Yet he still appears in nearly every scene just to punctuate it with an act of stupidity. Example:
1. Opus yearns for flight…
2. Bill does something (nothing)
Actually, none of the characters do anything in particular, really. Take Truffles the Pig, who shows up to reiterate that Opus cannot, in fact, fly. Nevermind that Truffles thinks he’s a Rhinoceros – that’s an irony that’s never explored and payoff/comeuppance that’s never addressed, making for an utterly useless scene.
Oh, yeah and then…
Bill does something (nothing)
Three ducks, who at least serve a purpose for the plot, also show up to mercilessly mock Opus for his inability to fly. For all I know, they could be quite likable, but I was too distracted by the fact that they were voiced by half the cast of Tiny Toon Adventures, who didn’t seem to realize they were recording a different show.
Featuring the voice of Plucky Duck as a plucky duck
Speaking of familiar voices, it’s important to mention that A Wish for Wings That Work was made by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Not only did the famous director bring along the cast from his other animated programs, the production coincided with the filming of Hook and Senor Spielbergo convinced Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman to perform uncredited voiceovers during Opus’ flightless bird group therapy meeting with Outland outcast Ronald-Ann Smith.
As much as I hate to admit it, Williams’ Kiwi is a standout character
Unfortunately, both celeb appearances are brief, and the favor they extended to Spielberg apparently came with the caveat that it be done quickly. You don’t have to be an audiophile to notice a significantly poorer fidelity. It’s as if someone stuck up a microphone next to Williams while he was on-set squeezing himself into a leotard and Hoffman demanded he do only one take, in the rain.
Hoffman voices variation on Milquetoast the cockroach, albeit in drag
Oh, and following the therapy sequence that’s little more than a Robin Williams showcase:
Bill does something (nothing)
It’s all pretty meaningless, and by the time you realize that this was all a flashback written in Opus’s opening letter to Santa, you’re halfway through the special. Luckily, this is where things almost get interesting. But first Opus has to get his wish to the big man, and fast.
HA! Fax machine joke – timeless!
Nicely done, nineties! Opus can sleep soundly knowing that technology got his letter to the North Pole on time. So, while he dreams of a prolonged plane crash incorporating way too much footage from Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon…
A little too long for a reference few will get
And, oh yeah…
Bill does something (nothing)
Santa has a little accident and falls out of the sky! The whereabouts of his landing… unknown.
Now that’s a Christmas image for the kids
Then those dickhead ducks show up at Opus’ door in an unannounced frenzy and drag him out to a thawed lake.
Both Opus and I assume this is part of some sort of fraternity hazing, but it turns out they’re actually in need of his help.
Dear God, won’t someone save The Claus?!
Oh, yeah! I do believe someone here is an aquatic bird…
The trashing I’ve given AWFWTW aside, the animation is a actually pretty awesome. Definitely cut above Amblin’s work during the early nineties, and the lake sequence is definitely a highlight for me. I’m a sucker for speed-based water displacement (probably not the technical term) so despite the special’s shortcomings, this does make for a pretty good climax.
Opus is validated as a badass by the big man himself.
And in front of his tormentors, no less!
Although Santa praises his courageousness, his cryptic message doesn’t leave Opus, or the viewer, with the gift desired. But I guess that depends on what you make of the events of the following morning.
Another unexpected knock at the door, followed by more ducks. Only this time, a giant flock of them!
With no explanation given, they smile, ignore his protests and yank Opus from his home once again… Oh, to what cruel measure?!
D’awwwww. No malice intended. No words necessary. In a show of uncharacteristic respect, the ducks swoop Opus up into the air, acknowledging his bravery with the gift of flight he always wanted. Meanwhile, back on land:
Bill does something (nothing)
Christ is neither seen nor mentioned throughout the entirety of A Wish for Wings That Work. However, during the scene where Santa is hauling ass, there are many clouds ambiguously shaped like recognizable icons. I’m awarding a single cross solely for my refusal to research it any further after all I could find was Goofy:
Santa’s certainly presented here, just never very clearly. I’m not sure what the animators were trying to keep from us, but Cap’n Kringle is only seen darkened, blurred, slightly out of frame, and most bizarrely, in an extreme close up
I also docked Santa a cookie for not rewarding Opus materially even though he saved his life. The guy has one job: delivering presents. And most certainly not to deliver mysterious messages taken from a Twin Peaks dream sequence.
The issue here is that Opus himself gained very little, and only the assholes learned anything about the Reason for the Season (not unlike A Charlie Brown Christmas.) But since the ducks didn’t make their intentions clear, one can interpret the ending in two ways, based on their adornment of Opus’s bow tie.
Either they’ve gained a new found respect for Opus and the innate gifts of his species and acknowledge his act of bravery by mimicking his style of dress. OR, saving Santa saved Christmas – thus ensuring presents did not go undistributed – and the ducks received the bow ties they’d been asking for. Could the ducks have been harboring a secret messianic plan for Opus all along?!
PRODUCT INFORMATION (Support the site!)
The special is available on a no-frills DVD entitled Opus N’ Bill in A Wish for Wings That Work. The book is still in print and holds up a helluva lot better than the special. October 2009 kicked off the first volume of Bloom County: The Complete Collection, the first time the comic’s entire run has been made available for purchase.