Category Archives: 3-The Christmas Special

Welcome to ReeltoReelMovies.com!

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the new ReeltoReelMovies.com! I’ve been working on my Reel to Reel movie studies for about a year and a half now, and I decided it was time for the project to have its own home on the web.

If you’re new here, allow me to explain. Reel to Reel is an ongoing movie project. I love movies, friends, and I love stories in general, and over the years I’ve become deeply interested in the themes and tropes that make up all stories. All storytellers, I believe, draw from a common well, a sort of universal pool of ideas, fears, hopes and desires that come together to create fiction. Each storyteller has his own personal pool of course, made from his own experiences, culture, and dreams, but ultimately, everyone who wants to tell a story is influenced by those stories he or she has been exposed to in the past, whether they intend it or not.

With each Reel to Reel movie study, I create a course of films that fit into a specific genre or theme, then one at a time I watch them and write my thoughts on them here for you. It’s not exactly a review, although I do tell you what I like and don’t like about each film. More than that, though, I look at where the ideas in the story came from — recurring threads that different filmmakers pick up on and twist in their own ways, recurring character types, morality plays, and other things that we’ve all seen a thousand times when watching movies… there’s nothing here you haven’t noticed yourself. I’m just trying to put it all into words and maybe think a little bit about where it all comes from and why. After each study is complete, I take some time to do some rewriting, polishing, and expansion (by adding a few more movies), finally releasing the entire study as an eBook.

As of this writing, on Christmas Day 2012, I’ve finished three studies and released the first as a book, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen (a study of horror movies). I’m planning to import all of the previous articles from my personal blog at EvertimeRealms.com and re-present them right here, so keep your eye on the category list and tag cloud to see what’s currently available. Then, in 2013, I’ll release the eBook of Reel to Reel 2: Lunatics and Laughter (a study of horror/comedy films) and Reel to Reel 3: The Christmas Special, and I’ll start to work on Reel to Reel 4, the theme of which I have not yet chosen. Keep in mind though, friends, that I’ve got a full-time job and other obligations as well, so I’m not promising any specific schedule at this point.

What I do promise is to not let this page go dead in-between movie studies. Even when I’m not immersed in a theme, I watch a lot of movies. So check here periodically for other pieces — reviews and other geek punditry about new movies, old movies, upcoming movies or movie news that I feel like sharing thoughts about.

Thanks for reading, friends… and welcome aboard.

The Christmas Special Day 25: Prep and Landing (2009)

prep_postertDirectors: Stevie Wermers & Kevin Deters

Writers: Kevin Deters, Stevie Wermers & Chris Williams

Cast: Dave Foley, Sarah Chalke, Mason Vale Cotton, David DeLuise, Derek Richardson, William Morgan Sheppard, Nathan Greno

Plot: Before “The Big Guy” (William Morgan Sheppard) can make his rounds, it’s up to the Prep and Landing Elves to scout ahead and make sure your house is ready: children nestled in their beds, no creatures stirring, and so forth. For over 200 years Wayne (Dave Foley) has been a Prep and Landing elf, but this year he’s certain he’ll get promoted to Head of the Naughty List. He’s shattered when North Pole Christmas Eve Command Center Coordinator Magee (Sarah Chalke) tells him he’s been passed over in favor of his partner, an elf he helped to train. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s being given a new rookie, Lanny (Derek Richardson), an idealistic young elf who thinks he’s landed the “most tinsel” job in the world. Broken, on Christmas Eve Wayne starts to sleepwalk through his job, bumbling and eventually getting caught by a little boy named Timmy (Mason Vale Cotton). Lanny manages to put Timmy back to sleep, but a massive snowstorm is raging, and as Wayne has slacked off his work, Magee is left with no choice but to declare a “Figgy Pudding” situation — they’re going to have to skip Timmy’s house. Realizing the depths of his mistake, Wayne snaps Lanny into action, calling the boss back and transforming an inflatable snowglobe into a beacon to guide him in for a landing. Christmas is saved, but Wayne’s career may be over. The next day, the Big Guy calls him into his office. Wayne is ready to accept his punishment, asking only that the boss assign Lanny a good partner to replace him. But to his surprise, the Big Guy tells him he understands… everyone winds up on the naughty list once in a while, but he gave him Lanny precisely because he’s so god at his job. When Wayne leaves the office, he tells the waiting Lanny he was offered a promotion, to head of the Nice List, but he turned it down. He’s decided he’s more of a Prep and Landing guy.

Thoughts: One special is not enough to declare it a new Golden Age of Christmas Specials, but if Disney keeps turning out things like this – and starts inspiring other studios to do the same, we’ll have plenty to choose from very soon.

Disney really pulled out all the stops for this, with animation as crisp and energetic as anything they would put on the big screen, characters just as well-developed and entertaining, and even a musical score by Michael Giacchino. If they had showed this before The Princess and the Frog, not a single moviegoer would have been disappointed.

Prep and Landing is one of those cartoons that genuinely does everything right, starting with the characters and cast. Wayne and Lanny make for a fine odd couple, with Dave Foley bringing in the sort of exasperated worker attitude that worked for him on Newsradio and Derek Richardson matching it with an enthusiasm that would be obnoxious if it weren’t so sincere. Sarah Chalke’s Magee has a sort of frantic, manic energy that perfectly suits the character of the woman who’s doing the real legwork of running the north pole operation, and her interaction with her voiceless assistant, Tiny, make for a constant string of sight gags that still make me laugh after watching this a half-dozen times. I didn’t mention Santa’s reindeer Dasher and Dancer (Nathan Greno and David DeLuise) during the synopsis because they really don’t add anything to the plot. However, they bring out some fantastic comedic moments, adding to the conceit that Santa’s operation is treated like a cross between NASA and a military enterprise. The two of them put on the persona of hardcore, Top Gun-style pilots, while Magee runs things like she’s in charge of Mission Control and we’re about launch for outer space.

The characters, of course, play these things all perfectly straight. There’s no winking at the camera, no tongue-in-cheek moments where you get the impression the characters know they’re in a Christmas special. Instead, every beat of the story comes across like we’re watching a vital, life-and-death situation, even as Wayne’s depression sends him into mocking the Big Guy and his partner and Christmas in general (even shutting off a TV presentation of Mickey’s Christmas Carol – a nice touch).

It’s also nice to see the Elves elevated into stars for once. Most Christmas specials focus on Santa or one of his ancillary associates – Rudolph, Frosty, even Mrs. Claus. Until now, any special or movie that has shown the Elves in any large part has kept them in supporting roles. The only exception I can think of is the 2003 film Elf, and even that is less about the Elves themselves ad instead focuses on a goober who happens to think he’s an elf… not exactly the same thing. This is the first series I can think of that takes real Elves and shows us what they can really do, making them our heroes. It’s telling that “the Big Guy” is rarely mentioned by name, that his face never actually appears on-screen. Sure, we all know it’s Santa, but by keeping our distance from him it’s easier to look at Wayne and Lanny as our stars instead of worrying about what the boss is up to on this particular Christmas Eve.

This special has become the start of a lucrative franchise for the Disney folks. After winning a boatload of awards, they came back in 2010 with a seven-minute short (Operation Secret Santa) and, in 2011, another half-hour (Naughty Vs. Nice). Both of these have expanded the world of Prep and Landing, introducing more characters, more parts of the overall operation, and more worlds to explore with our favorite Elves. The characters even appeared in an eight-page Marvel Comic (Disney being Marvel’s parent company), in which Wayne and Lanny prep the Avengers’s headquarters for Santa’s arrival. Point is, these guys are becoming legitimate stars in their own right.

Unfortunately, last I heard a third full-length special was put on hold after Naughty Vs. Nice didn’t quite grab the ratings bonanza the first film did. But with both specials being shown all over ABC and ABC Family, and the DVD and Blu-Ray now available, there’s always hope. I love Wayne and Lanny, I love Magee and Tiny, I love the whole world of these gutsy little Elves, and I want to go back there again.

The Christmas Special Day 24: Shrek the Halls (2007)

shrek-the-hallsDirector: Gary Trousdale

Writers: Gary Trousdale, Sean Bishop, Theresa Cullen, Bill Riling

Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Cody Cameron, Susan Fitzer, Christopher Knights,  Gary Trousdale, Conrad Vernon, Aron Warner, Marissa Jaret Winokur

Plot: With only 159 days left until Christmas, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) begins pestering his friend Shrek (Mike Myers) to begin the preparations. Over the next few months, Donkey gets more and more insistent and Shrek more and more resistant, until it’s finally December 23 and he realizes for the first time his wife, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and their triplets are looking forward to their first Christmas as a family. Not wanting to let her down, Shrek sets out for town to figure out how to “make a Christmas.” He winds up with a copy of a self-help book, Christmas For Village Idiots, that promises to help him one step at a time make the holiday Fiona deserves.

The next day, Christmas Eve, Fiona wakes up to find Shrek decorating their house for Christmas. Although she’s happily surprised, Donkey shows up to drop off a Christmas card and criticizes the decorating job. Fiona and the babies pitch in, and by dark Shrek is ready to sit down and tell his kids the Christmas story, but he’s interrupted when Donkey bursts in along with all of their friends. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) entertains the kids while the others race around putting up more and more decorations, ruin supper and – in the case of the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) – make a pass at the angel-shaped Christmas Cookies. Although Shrek tries to hide from the chaos, Fiona lures him back, but things just get worse. He tries to get himself back into the spirit by telling his kids his Christmas story, but Donkey again steals the spotlight with an insane poem about a Christmas parade. Puss in Boots gets into the act with his tale of “Santa Claws,” and the Gingerbread Man jumps in with a story that’s really more appropriate for Halloween. A fight ensues and Shrek, while trying to hide his book, accidentally starts a chaotic chain reaction that ruins the party and sets both himself and the Christmas tree on fire. Boiling with rage, he throws Donkey and the rest out of his house. Fiona is upset that he threw out their friends, and sets out to find them while Shrek complains about how they ruined “his” Christmas. He catches up to them and tries a halfhearted apology, finally admitting that ogres don’t celebrate Christmas, and he has no idea what he’s doing. Everyone apologizes to each other and the odd little family returns to Shrek’s home to settle in for the night. Before lights out, Shrek tries once more to tell his Christmas story: a tale of a Santa Claus making his visit to an ogre home. As he finishes, they hear laughter in the air and rush outside to see Santa Claus flying across the moon.

Thoughts: My thoughts about Dreamworks Pictures Shrek franchise are fairly simple: I thought the first one was entertaining. As for the rest, my grandma always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. But even the worst franchise can sometimes turn out a charming Christmas story, so when Shrek the Halls made its network TV debut, I gave it a chance, and I rather liked it.

In truth, it suffers from many of the problems that plague Dreamworks Animation in general – too many topical jokes and current songs that hurt the special’s ability to become a real timeless classic. There’s a reason Rankin and Bass didn’t throw the Beatles into their specials… well, they also probably couldn’t afford them, but you see my point. In truth, this and oversaturation is one of the reasons Dreamworks will never quite reach the heights of a Pixar or Disney Animation Studio – they’re so focused on making a franchise that’s current and modern and now that the next generation of children will find themselves tuning out to the constant reminders of the world their parents grew up in. To put it another way, my two-year-old niece loves every Toy Story movie (and, in fact, everything Pixar has produced). I find it really hard to believe that she’ll latch on to Shrek or Kung-Fu Panda in the same way, even once she gets a little older and enters into the sphere of the intended demographic. They also rush out sequels, cranking out cookie-cutter cartoons that rarely, if ever, match the original, rather than allowing the story to dictate the future of the characters. Finally, there’s an emphasis on gross-out humor (such as the Gingerbread Man throwing up a chocolate kiss and the Donkey eating it) that shuts out older viewers… something else Pixar doesn’t feel the need to succumb to.

But don’t get the impression that I didn’t like this cartoon – I did. The animation itself is top-notch, and a lot of the characters and design are very imaginative… the giant Waffle Santa Claus, for instance. Puss in Boots is a great character, especially if you’re a cat owner and recognize how easily he slips from the persona of the suave Latin lover into a typical feline, which leaves him embarrassed.

Like any good Christmas special, the true test comes in when the hero learns his lesson at the end. Shrek has an interesting character arc here – he goes from being a complete Scrooge to suddenly wanting desperately to create a good Christmas for his family. From there he bumbles, he misunderstands the meaning of Christmas, he learns it, and then gets it all right. This time around, rather than giving a religious message or a message about the virtue in giving and sacrifice (all of which are well and good, by the way), the message is one of family. You may fight and struggle and drive each other crazy, but there’s a reason you stick around people besides blood. It’s a nice message about love and the truth about what a real family is, and it’s one even the children will no doubt be able to grasp.

Throughout most of the 90s and early 2000s, there was a dearth of new televised Christmas specials, which is why this particular Reel to Reel project has been so heavily weighted with films from the 60s through the 80s. (In a way, it’s the exact opposite of the problem I had with Lunatics and Laughter.) But in recent years, Dreamworks and Disney both have stepped up and started to change that. Have a wonderful Christmas Eve, my friends, and come back tomorrow for the finale of The Christmas Special with my favorite TV Christmas Special to premiere since I was a child.

The Christmas Special Day 23: A Scooby-Doo! Christmas (2004)

scooby-doo-christmasDirector: Scott Jeralds

Writer: Jonathan Collier & James Krieg

Cast: Mindy Cohn, Grey DeLisle, Casey Kasem, Kathy Kinney, Frank Welker

Plot: A group of kids find an enormous snowman in the woods. When they try to take its nose, it comes to life, removes its head, and hurls it at them, making them run away in a panic. Nearby, the gang in the Mystery Machine is on their way to Mill’s Corner to spend Christmas at a condo owned by Daphne’s (Grey DeLisle) uncle. The bridge to the condo is out, forcing them to detour through the town of Winterhollow, where they meet the kids fleeing from the Headless Snowman, who also startles Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker). When they walk into the local diner, a man called Old Jeb is raving about the Headless Snowman who has been terrorizing the town for years. Sheriff Perkins (Kathy Kinney) calms him down and tells the gang there’s no way to get to Mill’s Corner that night with the bridge out. The gang checks into an inn, which is full to bursting with people who have had their homes damaged by the Snowman. The innkeeper, Asa, tells them the town doesn’t celebrate Christmas anymore due to the snowman… some of the children have never even seen a Christmas tree.

Everyone is summoned outside when a loud noise signals an attack by the snowman. There they find a boy named Tommy telling the Sheriff the snowman startled him and smashed his chimney, ripping open a wall in his house. Fred (Welker again) tries to comfort the boy, promising they’ll try to save Christmas. As the gang searches, the Snowman chases them all into a tiny shed, when they send plunging down the side of the mountain and hurtling through the air before smashing to safety. Asa calls a professor from Mill’s Corner to help, and Velma (Mindy Cohn) takes note that Asa’s business seems to benefit greatly from the snowman. Professor Higginson tells them the story an old prospector called Blackjack Brody who froze to death hiding gold bricks he stole from a local man, and that his ghost is sending the snowman to destroy the older homes in Winterhollow searching for his gold. Velma brings the gang to Jeb’s house, expecting the ghost to come there next. They hide when the Snowman appears and starts tearing apart the walls. A sneeze alerts him to our heroes and chase resumes via the classic horror movie technique of the musical montage. Eventually, Scooby and Shaggy lure it away and Sheriff Perkins arrives, claiming to have followed a set of mysterious footprints. Fred, Daphne and Velma go off to set a trap for the monster, but it attacks Scooby and Shaggy instead. They lead it into a series of heat lamps the others set up, melting the snow and revealing a robotic core being piloted by Professor Higginson. Velma reveals that Higginson is a descendant of the man Blackjack Brody stole his gold from in the first place, and he’s been searching for the gold he believes is rightfully his. Remembering how heavy the bricks in the smashed chimneys were, Velma finds the truth – Brody painted the gold and it was used to build the houses in the town. Tommy gives the shivering Higginson his scarf to warm him up, and he realizes the error of his ways. As the gold is rightfully his, he donates it to the town to help them rebuild. The gang sets up a Christmas tree – Winterhollow’s first in years – and everyone gathers around to watch it glow.

Thoughts: This is pretty atypical for a Christmas special, but a perfectly normal episode of Scooby-Doo. The formula is time-honored and well-worn for these characters. Like virtually every episode of the assorted cartoons, a “monster” shows up terrorizing people for reasons that are dubious, but usually somehow financially motivated. The gang investigates three or four suspects, all but one of which are red herrings. They catch the monster, Velma unmasks him and explains how she knew it was really him. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’m told some of the more recent Scooby-Doo cartoons actually try to mix it up by having real monsters, but I haven’t seen any of those… in fact, with a 2004 air date, this is the most recent visit with the original Scooby Gang I’ve ever seen. I do, however, have to give the makers of this cartoon credit for managing to tell a story with a Christmas feel without restoring to many (if any) of the typical Christmas tropes. Don’t misunderstand – I love those trope, those tropes are great. But I’ve been watching these specials for weeks now, and one can’t help but appreciate the change of pace.

The atypical part comes in at the very end, when Higginson repents instead of being carted off shouting that he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those rotten kids. It’s a Christmas special, so I can accept the villain who repents at the end – that’s what Christmas is all about, after all. But the way the people of the town are so willing to forgive is nothing short of supernatural. This is the man who has terrorized their town, destroyed their homes, and stolen Christmas itself from an entire generation of children, and they’re ready to forgive him even before he offers to use the gold to help them fix their houses. Ladies and gentlemen, either Winterhollow is the most forgiving town on this or any other planet, or the good Professor had some sort of mind-control apparatus that the gang somehow missed while they were hopped up on Scooby Snacks.

Come to think of it, it’s not like he even really needs the gold. The man has the money to either purchase or develop and build a robotic upside-down top that has the ability to animate and control snow, which it somehow endows with superhuman strength sufficient to rip apart a brick… freaking… wall. If you can do that, what do you need hundred-year-old gold for? Market it! The possibilities for a Vegas stage show alone are staggering!

It’s not the strongest mystery, but then again, Scooby-Doo ain’t exactly Sherlock Holmes. I pegged the professor as our culprit even before he arrived for one simple reason: he told Asa he was coming into town from Mill’s Crossing – the same town the gang was unable to reach because the bridge was out. When he walked through the door I nodded to myself and said, “Yep, he was there all the time.” Startlingly, though, when Velma is doing her Reveal Sequence, this nugget of information is never mentioned. Deleted scene? Serendipitous screw-up? Who knows? I’m just going to take it as further evidence that I’m smarter than most cartoon characters, with the obvious exceptions of Simon from the Chipmunks, Brainy Smurf, and Snarf.

This is a relatively recent cartoon, particularly when you look at the rich history Scooby and the gang enjoy, but they still manage to work in most of the classic bits. My favorite scene is, indeed, the musical montage, when the gang tries to outwit the monster. They even usually succeed, at least for a few seconds. Scooby and Shaggy douse him in syrup and almost have one monster sno-cone, the others start singing Christmas carols and he temporarily forgets he’s a demonic hellbeast and offers them hot chocolate… This may not be a laugh-a-minute show like some of the other Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but when it’s on, it truly has some of the funniest tropes in the cartoon kingdom.

Like I said back when we discussed A Flintstones Christmas, it’s a shame I couldn’t work in more Hanna-Barbera into this countdown. There are dozens of cartoons spread out amongst their various franchises that just fill you with the Christmas spirit. Unfortunately, almost all of them fall into one of the three categories that I disqualified from this project: they were run as part of the regular series, they’re too long and therefore count as a TV movie rather than a TV special, or they’re a take on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – such as one of my favorite Yuletide adventures with the Scooby gang, “A Nutcracker Scoob.” But fear not, friends. Reel to Reel is a long-term project. There’s always next year.

The Christmas Special Day 22: Hooves of Fire (1999)

hooves-of-fireDirector: Richard Goleszowski

Writers: Andy Riley, Kevin Cecil, Richard Curtis

Cast: UK VERSION-Robbie Williams, Ardal O’Hanlon, Paul Whitehouse, Jane Horrocks, Steve Coogan, Caroline Quentin, Jean Alexander, Ricky Tomlinson, Rhys Ifans, Harry Enfield; US Version-Ben Stiller, Britney Spears, James Woods, Brad Garrett, Hugh Grant, Leah Remini, James Belushi, Jerry Stiller, Rob Paulsen

Plot: The red-nosedRobbie the Reindeer (Ardal O’Hanlon/Ben Stiller) has long dreamed of winning a spot as the navigator on Santa’s sleigh team, and it looks like he’s finally being given a chance.  He reports to the sleigh team, run by a taskmaster-lke Blitzen (Steve Coogan/Hugh Grant). As Donner (Jane Horrocks/Britney Spears) shows him to his room, Blitzen begins plotting… he’s been jealous of Robbie’s father ever since the day that (unnamed) most famous reindeer of all saved Christmas, and now he can take revenge on that reindeer’s son. Donner quickly develops a crush on Robbie, but he’s oblivious, only having eyes for Vixen (Caroline Quentin/Leah Remini). Robbie meets Santa Claus (Ricky Tomlinson/James Belushi) for the first time at a party the boss is throwing for the elves, where Santa gushes over Robbie’s father and Vixen rebuffs his advances. Santa has a surprise for the party as well: he unveils the Sleigh Mark II, a new high-tech vehicle full of bells, whistles, and a computer navigation system. Robbie suddenly realizes that, to keep his spot on the sleigh team, he has to be physically fit… which will be hard, as Blitzen has been sabotaging his fitness training. Disheartened, Robbie wanders out into the snow to walk south. He winds up frozen solid and would be lost if he wasn’t found and thawed out by a group of elves. He joins them working in their toy factory, but a series of mishaps bumps him lower and lower on the totem pole until he’s stuck using his antlers for a forklift – which is where he is when Donner finds him. She tells him he’s still got a chance to make the sleigh team, if he can compete in and win the upcoming Reindeer Games. She also convinces him Blitzen has been his enemy all along, and they turn to a legendary reindeer named Old Jingle (Harry Enfield/Jerry Stiller) for help.

They find Old Jingle in his house, precariously perched at the top of Pointy Mountain, and Robbie asks him to help him train. Jingle tells him his best shot at winning is the Steeplechase event, and Robbie begins training. On the day of the games, Robbie suddenly becomes a crowd favorite by saving a baby from a fall. Vixen tries to use Robbie’s crush on her to force him out of the games, but he’s fallen for Donner instead. He leaves the stadium, however, when he learns that Jingle has been trapped under his house. He rushes off and saves the old reindeer, but misses the start of the race, and Blitzen gets an enormous lead. Amazingly, Robbie makes up ground quickly, and one of Blitzen’s cronies has him stumble into a steeple. Robbie uses his special “Nose Jump” to vault to the finish line, but the photo finish reveals Blitzen to be the winner. Donner kisses him, and in his glee Robbie rushes off and performs in every event, breaking all the records, albeit unofficially. As Robbie’s dad sends a congratulatory blimp over the stadium, Blitzen is carted off for drug testing and Santa gives Robbie the keys to the sleigh for the night. He takes Donner out for a romantic evening on the moon, where together they watch the Earth come up.

Thoughts: It’s always nice to see a tweak to a Christmas classic, and this BBC special from 1999 definitely qualifies. While they’re always careful to avoid mentioning Robbie’s famous father by name, there can be no doubt who he is or what made him so famous.

Hooves of Fire picks up on Rudolph, creating a bizarre semi-sequel by way of sports story. Robbie’s tale echoes his father’s in certain ways – picking up on the Reindeer Games, for example. His journey is not just a copy of his father’s however. Although his own nose does some weird things, it never becomes the center of the storyline the way Rudolph’s does. Robbie is made an outcast not because he’s different, but because Blitzen holds an old grudge against his family. Even when Robbie pulls out his nose’s special abilities at the end, they don’t directly contribute to his success. Remember, he loses the games. He wins in the end because he’s made everyone love him for reasons that don’t have anything to do with his nose. Also because Blitzen is a jerk who, evidently, was ‘roided up.

The plot with the Reindeer Games is a mirror of cheesy 80s sports movies… particularly, and appropriately, films like Ski School. We have the jerk jock and the Yoda-style mentor there to help win the day, the goofy protagonist who focuses on the sexpot without realizing the cute girl next door type is in love with him. The writers load up the tropes, and it’s usually for the purposes of ridicule. That’s kind of the weird thing about the comedy, actually – half of it is straight-up parody of Christmas movies, of sports movies, of romantic comedies and so forth. In the other half, though, the BBC gives the show a really sharp, unmistakably British sense of humor, full of cutway gags and non sequiturs that feel almost Monty Python-esque in their scope.

The stop motion used here feels a step beyond Will Vinton, closer to the sort of thing Aardman Animation puts out on their best days. Something about the character design is really bizarre, but in a funny way. The reindeer, for example, are actually weird 2-D designs, with eyes and a mouth that all go on the same side of the head like a character in Peanuts. The designers keep that feel when they plump the characters out for their animated forms, resulting in a set of reindeer heads that obviously don’t work in the real world, but work perfectly in the quirky version of the North Pole director Richard Goleszowski puts forth. The costuming is cute as well: Jingle walks around with briefs on over his clothing, the elves have several diverse designs that range from the traditional to the mini-biker. The steeples in the steeplechase are actual steeples, looking like they were ripped right off the houses.

And Mrs. Claus had a beard. What else is there to say?

If there’s any major complaint, it’s that for some reason they re-dubbed all of the voices with American actors for the stateside presentation of the film. (Except for Blitzen. In his case, they replaced British actor Steve Coogan with… more widely-known-in-the-US British actor Hugh Grant.) I can only assume this was some sort of effort at marketability. In the 13 years since this film was first made, of course, British pop culture has become much more popular here in the US of A – I imagine if this cartoon was released for the first time today, they probably wouldn’t have bothered with the American voices.

Robbie has returned in two other cartoons – Legends of the Lost Tribe in 2002, and 2007’s Close Encounters of the Herd Kind, the latter of which I was actually unaware of until I did the research for this article. I’ve got an older DVD, with the first two cartoons on it, but now I’ve got a quest. I’ve got to see the 2007 film, because Robbie rocks.

The Christmas Special Day 21: A Wish For Wings That Work (1991)

wish-for-wings-that-workDirector: Skip Jones

Writer: Berkeley Breathed

Cast: Michael Bell, John Byner, Joe Alaskey, Tress MacNeille, Andrew Hill Newman, Robin Williams, Alexaundria Simmons, Frank Welker

Plot: As Christmas approaches Opus the Penguin (Michael Bell) has one wish: a new pair of wings, because the ones he’s been saddled with don’t allow him to fly.  Opus and his friend Bill the Cat (John Byner) have found themselves the subject of torment by a group of ducks (Joe Alaskey) who mock Opus for being flightless, to the point where Opus is going to a support group led by a young child named Ronald-Anne (Alexaundria Simmons). The other birds in the group rave, particularly a Kiwi (an uncredited cameo by Robin Williams) whose wife has left him for an albatross. After an effort at becoming an airborne vigilante fails spectacularly, Opus turns to Santa for help.

On Christmas Eve, though, Santa Claus (Frank Welker) suffers a mishap and falls from the sky. Opus, meanwhile, sleeps fitfully, having dreams of being a pilot. Even in his dream, though, the plane falls from the sky, because penguins can’t fly. He wakes up and finds himself accosted by the ducks, who are in a panic. They take Opus to the lake, where Santa is perched on his sleigh, stranded in the middle. The ducks are scared of the icy water, and it’s up to Opus the Penguin to glide out and save Santa Claus. Grasping the reigns in his beak, he tows Santa back to dry land. Having lost his hat in the rescue, Santa gives Opus his own hat, and makes him see that his courage is a gift that more than makes up for flightless wings. Opus’s joy is short-lived, however, when he realizes he isn’t getting his Christmas wish. On Christmas morning, he steps outside to see that the three ducks have returned, with dozens more. They grab him and pull him outside, taking him with them into the air. Bill, who we discover suggested going to Opus for help in the first place, begins running behind, and the support group disdains him from the sidewalk. But Opus doesn’t care. For one day, Opus the Penguin can fly.

Thoughts: I’m not sure how popular it is today, but in the 80s I remember Berkeley Breathed’s comic strip Bloom Countyas being one of the more clever, slightly subversive features in the newspaper (definitely the ones carried by the New Orleans Times-Picayune). It was sharper and a bit more pointed than a lot of other strips (coughFAMILYCIRCUScough) without ever reaching the preachiness of a Doonsbury and getting bogged down in its own self-importance. The strip has been rebooted a few times over the years – under the names Outlands and Opus – and the so-called penguin Opus has not always been the star, but to me, he’s the icon.

While animated in a soft, lovely style that is perfectly acceptable for children, early in the special we see signs that this is an elevated cartoon, something that will go over the heads of the playground set, and possibly bore them. Opus blames the “accident of birth” that left him as a flightless bird on Congress rather than his mother, and suggests that Bill move into a recycling bin rather than a garbage can. These are the sort of things that adults will see as satire and kids will see as gibberish. Other not-so-subtle bits include the Kiwi who is outraged that his wife left him for a better endowed bird, a war toy store called “Stormin’ Norman’s” and a cross-dressing cockaroach.  Although it does a better job of disguising itself than Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, it’s not a show for children.

The trouble is, this was 1991. The Simpsons was still new, South Park wasn’t a glimmer on the horizon, and cartoons were still for kids, as far as anyone was concerned. The prime audience for this special likely dismissed it without even tuning in, and the kids who turned in looking for an alternative to their 900th screening of Rudolph gave up and turned back before Yukon Cornelius even showed up. The sequence where Opus dreams of being a pilot – helped along by footage from an old war movie – is quietly amusing in a way that isn’t instantly memorable, but brings a smile to your face when you come back and watch the special again the next year.

And it’s a shame, because the special has a sweet little message that you don’t really see anywhere else. Like Rudolph or Nestor, we’ve got a story about a main character who suffers from some physical characteristic that he sees as a disadvantage. Like Rudolph and Nestor, in the end it is precisely his abnormality that allows him to save the day. Unlike Rudolph and Nestor, though, this realization isn’t enough for Opus. While the message of Rudolph’s story is a good one (be proud of who you are), Opus’s message is considerably more realistic. Discovering you can do something useful is not, in and of itself, enough to make a person forget a lifelong dream. It’s pretty unlikely that Opus had never taken an ice-cold swim before, too, so it’s not like he even discovered something new like Rudolph and Nestor did. Rudolph’s nose helped him achieve his dream. Opus was told his gift made his dream unnecessary, which any child could tell you is a load of penguin guano. (I know penguins don’t really produce guano, please don’t send me e-mails about this.)

Still, for all the cynicism, the special ends on a very positive note. While we weren’t looking the bullies, the ducks, experience their own change of heart and help our little hero have his dream after all. Most of us will never be that lucky, of course, but it’s a more realistic conclusion to this particular hero’s journey than most of the others we’ve watched. Of course, this is a cartoon with a cross-dressing cockroach, so “realistic” is something of a relative term.

Although I would have been 14 when this special premiered, I don’t remember watching it at the time. At some point, I became aware of it, then a few years ago I found it on DVD and watched it for the first time. There’s something quiet, sweet, and lovely about this special, and if you can find it, it’s well worth rotating the 22 minutes into your Christmas cartoon marathon.

The Christmas Special Day 20: Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1988)

christmas-at-pee-wees-playhouseDirectors: Wayne Orr, Paul Reubens

Writer: John Paragon, Paul Reubens

Cast: Paul Reubens, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Dinah Shore, Little Richard, Cher, Magic Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Joan Rivers, Charo, Kevin Carlson, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Fletcher, Darin Grimes, Rick Heitzman, Suzanne Kent, William Marsha, George McGrath, S. Epatha Merkerson, Alison Mork, John Paragon, Lynne Marie Stewart, Vic Trevino, Wayne White & the Del Rubio Triplets

Plot: As Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) makes out his list for Santa Claus, he gets a visit from his friend Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), who has strategically placed mistletoe into her hairdo to get kisses from everyone. She’s brought Pee-Wee his Christmas present: her own homemade fruitcake. Less than enthused, Pee-Wee gives her a bottle of homemade perfume that smells just like him. As he continues his preparations, he gets a call from Whoopi Goldberg, asking to be on his Christmas special, but he’s booked solid for the next two years. When he’s reminded that he forgot to get decorations for the Christmas party, he wishes he hadn’t been so selfish, getting the attention of Jambi the Genie (John Paragon). Pee-Wee uses Christmas to con an extra wish out of Jambi (he usually only gets one a day) and has the Playhouse quickly decorated, planning to use his other wish for “something special” later. Mail Lady Reba (S. Epatha Merkerson) arrives and Pee-Wee gives her a set of press-on toenails and an enormous letter to Santa. She gives him another fruitcake, and a huge box containing singer Grace Jones, who was supposed to be shipped to the White House. She sings her own rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” before she’s reboxed and sent off to Washington (where I’m sure President Reagan was highly appreciative). Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello stop by to make Christmas Cards, and Cher drops in to get today’s Secret Word. (It’s “Year.” So whenever anyone says “Year,” you scream real loud. You know where this is going.)

The King of Cartoons (William Marshall) drops in with a gift for Pee-Wee (two fruitcakes), and Annette starts the cartoon, preceded by a Christmas message from Joan Rivers on the set of Hollywood Squares. The excitement is heightened when a snowfall sends Pee-Wee out to play (after telling Frankie and Annette they can’t join him until they finish making their cards). As he plays, his friend Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne) stops by, and the two of them listen while the Del Rubio Triplets perform “Winter Wonderland.” Little Richard joins the gang as they go ice skating, but he’s not that good on skates, and has to watch as Pee-Wee demonstrates his own prowess, courtesy of his stunt double, Hans. Everyone goes in for hot chocolate to warm up and listen to a song by special guest k.d. lang, backed up by the Puppet Band. As night falls, Pee-Wee hangs up his giant Christmas stocking(s) amidst those of his friends, then tosses Frankie and Annette bread and water to sustain them as they toil away on the cards. Pee-Wee gets more visitors, more well-wishers, and more fruitcake… even, courtesy of Charo, one in Spanish. Pee-Wee’s friend Mrs. Rene (Susanne Kent) stops in to teach him about Hanukkah and gives him eight days of fruitcakes. Finally, Frankie and Annette finish making the 1000 cards, and are allowed to join the party. Randy, Pee-Wee’s Marionette buddy, seems to have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, so the Magic Screen shows him a video of a Nativity Play and tells him the story of the first Christmas. “Touched,” Randy gives Pee-Wee a fruitcake. Finally, Pee-Wee leads them to a new wing of the Playhouse where he has a couple of construction workers building walls using the fruitcakes for bricks. As the gang begins caroling, Pee-Wee hears sleigh bells – Santa Claus has arrived! Santa (Aaron Fletcher) pops in and tells Pee-Wee his list was so big that he didn’t have any presents for the other children. Pee-Wee’s friends, with the help of his flashback to Randy, convince him to sacrifice his presents so the other children can have Christmas, and Santa rewards him by inviting him to join him on his sleigh to deliver the presents. Before he goes, Jambi reminds Pee-Wee of his special wish, which he uses to wish for Peace on Earth, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

And everybody screams real loud.

 Thoughts: If you were around in the late 80s, and were just at the right age, you might remember Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as something of a phenomenon. It was an odd sort of show. To kids, it was a bizarre, surreal blend of puppetry, animation and sketch comedy that tapped into a primal source of humor for us all, a sort of subversive answer to Sesame Street that seemed to want to use the same tricks, but instead of teaching us to spell and count, taught us to scream real loud. To adults, it was a weird production that was half parody and half celebration of the sort of kid-centered variety show that existed in the 50s and 60s, but was largely extinct by that point. To everybody, it was something that would prove impossible to forget even after Paul Reubens was forced to retire the character in disgrace. (We won’t go there, this is a family countdown.)

As an adult, it’s hard not to look at this and immediately understand that Pee-Wee creator (and performer) Paul Reubens was in this more to entertain himself and the older audience, and any kids who really got into it were just a little extra credit. If you doubt that, look at the guest list for this special. Find one seven-year-old circa 1988 who either knew or cared who Dinah Shore, Charo, or the Del Rubio Triplets were. Come on. I’ll wait. Most of the older guests seem to be wallowing in their own irony – particularly Frankie and Annette, who were riding an irony-fused wave of nostalgia popularity at the time. Only k.d. lang really seems to get into it, performing a wild and ridiculous rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” that clearly demonstrates that she realizes how crazy what she’s doing is and has decided to just roll with it.

Pee-Wee himself, as a character, is hardly the role model of a Charlie Brown or a Rudolph… or even a Fat Albert. He’s kind of rude at times, openly disdainful of the gifts his friends give him, engages in a weirdly antagonistic back-and-forth with the viewers, and comes across as rather self-centered even at his best. It’s actually part of the reason kids liked him so much, I think – he was a more cynical character and, as a result, a slightly more honest one.

Even the bits that you usually get in a children’s show have a weird sort of twist. The scene where Frankie and Annette make Christmas Cards, for example, is the kind of quasi-education craft segment you’d get in any kids’ show… so why does Pee-Wee look at the former supercouple as if they’ve fallen from another planet? (Because that’s what most kids would do when some grown-up starts rambling about trying to make Christmas Cards with a potato, that’s why.) Perhaps the best “tip,” though, comes when Pee-Wee plays in the snow, and tells the kids at home that they can substitute 20 pounds of coconut shavings if they don’t have any snow at home. You’ve got to wonder how many kids tried to convince their parents to let them give that one a try.

Although this is billed as its own standalone special, even more than many of the others we’ve watched, it feels very much like a longer episode of the TV show. Reubens and his guests engage in most of the once-an-episode bits that we’re all used to from the weekly series, like his journey through the magic screen or his daily wish from Jambi the Genie. As was true for most episodes of the TV show, the plot is loose at best, with Reubens and company instead pinwheeling from one segment to another with no real logic or connectivity beyond the need to discuss Christmas and keep up the running gag about Pee-Wee getting fruitcake after fruitcake instead of real gifts.

It’s entertaining, at least, but perhaps not as much as a lot of the other Christmas specials we’ve watched this month. It has its charm, but Pee-Wee doesn’t really age as well as a lot of the other characters who’ve come together to make our Yuletide merry. Ah well. Perhaps the next cast of misfits will do better.

The Christmas Special Day 19: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

muppet-family-christmasDirectors: Peter Harris & Eric Till

Writer: Jerry Juhl

Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Karen Prell, Steve Whitmire, David Rudman, Caroll Spinney, Gerard Parkes

Plot: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) and many of the Muppets are off to spend Christmas at Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house (Fozzie and Ma Bear performed by Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, respectively). They arrive to find that Ma is about to leave, having planned on taking a vacation to Florida for the holidays. Doc (Gerard Parkes) and his dog Sprocket (Steve Whitmire) are renting the house for a quiet holiday. When the Muppets arrive Ma decides to call off her vacation, and Doc finds himself surrounded by strange creatures. (Perplexed, he asks Sprocket if the Muppets are like the “Fraggles” his dog often reports encountering back home.) As everyone settles in, Kermit gets a call from Miss Piggy (Oz again), who is finishing up a photo shoot and plans to join them later. A Turkey (Whitmire again) arrives at the door, having been invited by the Swedish Chef (Henson), and the poultry-loving Gonzo (Dave Goelz) tries to convince him that a turkey at Christmas is more likely to be the main course than a guest. As more Muppets arrive, the farmhouse begins to descend into chaos: the Turkey tells Chef that Sprocket is the turkey, Fozzie Bear attempts to start up a new comedy routine with a Snowman (Richard Hunt), and the Turkey starts to hit on Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla. Scooter (Hunt) cheers everyone up with some home movies of the gang as babies, and just before Gonzo and the turkey come to blows, a group of carolers arrive: the Muppets’ friends from Sesame Street. They come in, Bert and Ernie (Oz and Henson) engage Doc in small talk about the letter B, and Christmas Eve.

Chef gets the Turkey into the kitchen and begins sizing him up for the pan, but the Turkey deflects his attention by pointing out the most delectable dish of all: Big Bird (Caroll Spinney). The news reports a terrible storm approaching, and Kermit begins to worry about Miss Piggy, who still hasn’t arrived. The different groups begin bonding, with Janice (Hunt) and Cookie Monster (Oz) “sharing” a plate of treats, drawing Animal (Oz)’s admiration, Oscar the Grouch (Spinney) offering to share his trash can with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire), and Bert and Ernie leading the Sesame Street gang in a performance of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Kermit gets a call from Piggy and tries to convince her to stay off the road during the storm. The pigheaded (rimshot) Muppet doesn’t listen, though, and tries to hail a taxi. The Chef summons Big Bird into the kitchen, planning to prepare him for dinner, but is touched when Big Bird – feeling sorry for him spending Christmas so far away from his home in Sweden – gives him a present of chocolate covered birdseed. When Doc sees Kermit staring out into the snow again, he offers to head out and look for Piggy. As Kermit waits, his nephew Robin (Nelson) summons him to the cellar, where he’s found what he believes to be a Fraggle hole. The two frogs wind up in the subterranean world of Fraggle Rock, where the Fraggles are in the midst of their own midwinter celebration, in which Mokey (Kathryn Mullen) is giving Boober (Goelz) a yellow pebble – which has been a present from Fraggle to Fraggle 37 times. Boober gives the pebble to Robin. As the Frogs return to the farmhouse, Doc arrives on a dogsled wearing a Mountie uniform – all things Miss Piggy just happened to have for him when he found her in the snow. After all, Miss Piggy knows how to make an entrance.

With everyone finally safe and warm in the farmhouse (which is now so tight on space Gonzo and Animal have to sleep on hangers on the wall), Ma Bear officially welcomes everyone to her home and Rowlf the Dog leads the extended Muppet family in their annual Carol Sing. The music summons the Fraggles into the farmhouse, and they join in. Gifts are exchanged – Kermit gives Piggy a mink, and Robin passes the Fraggle Pebble on to Grover – and in the kitchen, Jim Henson himself watches on and smiles… then recruits Sprocket to help him wash the dishes.

Thoughts: We finally get to Jim Henson’s most famous family of characters, the Muppet Show Muppets, making the Henson company’s final entry in our countdown. This special hits on several levels. First of all, it’s full of fantastic Christmas music – in and of itself, that’s enough to make it worth watching. We get a lot of traditionals in the Carol Sing at the end, as well as plenty of other songs throughout. There’s also a song plucked from Fraggle Rock – the joyful “Pass it on” – and the show caps off with a slightly modified version of “Together at Christmas” from The Christmas Toy.

It’s also impressive just how many different stories the special manages to juggle. Kermit and Piggy’s story is ostensibly the A-plot, but it doesn’t really have much more screen time than the Chef’s attempts at dinner, Gonzo’s rivalry with the turkey, Fozzie’s new act, Ma’s effort to find room for everybody, or the introduction of the Fraggles to the rest of the family. All of these things could command a larger chunk if they eliminated the other stories, but it would be a real loss to do so.

It’s also worth noting that most of the stories are pretty original – no retreads of Dickens or Capra or O’Henry, even though Henson has turned to that well before. It’s interesting to note, though, that of the four specials we’ve watched from the Henson company, all four have dealt with gift-giving and self-sacrifice on a fairly significant level. Food for thought.

But the thing that makes this legendary for fans of the Henson company is because this is the only time the casts of all three major Henson families came together on-screen. We saw the Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters interact on several occasions in the past, but throwing in the Fraggles (at the height of their popularity when this special was made) makes it… well, extra-special. There’s even a small bit with the Muppet Babies, when Scooter shows the home movies, allowing us to see them as puppets for only the second time. (Their debut was in the feature film The Muppets Take Manhattan – for their own show, they were animated.) Unfortunately, due to rights issues with the music used in that scene, most of it was cut from the special’s DVD release. There are actually several scenes removed or abbreviated for this reason, so a complete version has never made it to DVD. Even worse, because of the fracturing of the Jim Henson company, in which the Muppet Show characters were sold to Disney and the Sesame Street characters given to the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), the three families are now all owned by three different companies. Because of this, the DVD has been out of print for years, and can only be obtained used. Good luck – I managed to snag it when it was new and I’ve been watching the same disc for ten years, and it’s now extremely hard to come by. (Although you can find the whole thing on YouTube, and it’s worth it.)

Jim Henson was one of those creators that comes along once in a generation. While he wasn’t the sole force behind the creation of the Muppets, and probably gets too much credit for Sesame Street in some circles, the fact that he was the epicenter of so many different creative movements in his too-short time on this planet is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that so many people continue to use his creations to tell new and wonderful stories 20 years after his death is astonishing. He made something magical and lasting, and this special is one of the few places you can see the scope of his talent all at once, all together, as it should be. That, in and of itself, is a Christmas miracle of a kind.

The Christmas Special Day 18: A Garfield Christmas Special (1987)

garfield-christmasDirectors: Phil Roman & George Singer

Writer: Jim Davis

Cast: Lorenzo Music, Thom Huge, Gregg Berger, Pat Carroll, Pat Harrington Jr., David Lander, Julie Payne

Plot: Garfield the Cat (Lorenzo Music) wakes up on Christmas morning to find his owner Jon (Thom Huge) has arranged an incredible gift – a chair that will read his mind and produce any gift he can imagine. Garfield produces dozens of presents before he realizes it’s all a dream. Jon wakes him up in the real world, on Christmas Eve, planning to pack up and go to his parents’ farm for Christmas.  On the farm Jon, Garfield and Odie (Gregg Berger) get caught up in the preparations, while his mom (Julie Payne) and Grandma (Pat Carroll) clash in the kitchen.  After dinner, Jon’s father (Pat Harrington Jr.) can’t get the star on top of the tree, and Garfield is sent in to do the job. After a few heart-rending moments, he pops out of the branches, places the star, and falls back down, taking the half of the decorations with him. Despite the chaos, when Dad plugs the tree in, it’s perfect. Jon’s parents have his brother Doc Boy (David Lander) sit down at the piano to lead a singalong, but Grandma quickly takes over. After, as she relaxes with Garfield in her lap, she relates how her late husband always made Christmas magical for her and the kids.

After Dad’s rousing recitation of Binky: The Clown Who Saved Christmas, the family goes to bed. Garfield watches Odie sneak off to the barn, where the dog struggles to put together some bizarre contraption. Garfield helps without Odie’s knowledge, then stumbles onto a bundle of old letters. Inside, Jon and Doc Boy try to rouse their parents to open presents – at 1:30 a.m. Dad forces them to go back to bed until morning – real morning – when Garfield presents Grandma with the letters he found. She’s stunned to realize Garfield found the love letters her husband sent her years ago, letters she thought were lost forever. Odie then pops in with his own gift – the contraption from the barn, a backscratcher for Garfield. Touched, Garfield comments on the true meaning of Christmas… love… before he tells us all to get out.

Thoughts: It’s easy to forget, considering how bland it’s grown in recent years, but Garfield actually used to be pretty funny. Both the comic strip and the 80s/90s cartoon had some really good years, and this 1987 special is one of the earlier efforts with the newspaper star.

Garfield’s cynicism is a trademark of the character, of course, but for a children’s Christmas special in 1987 to open up with a main character proclaiming the virtues of greed and avarice was a rather surprising way to kick things off. His complete lack of excitement and enthusiasm is what makes the character so funny, in fact. While Jon bubbles over with excitement about Christmas, Garfield bemoans days of work, chores, “electrical contracting,” and other such activities that draw him away from his cozy bed. Looking back as an adult, it’s a lot easier to sympathize with Garfield than Jon’s family. Even if you forget everything else that goes along with Christmas, life on a farm… it’s not easy.

Grandma Arbuckle (who made a return appearance, triumphantly, in Garfield’s Thanksgiving special a few years later) is another comedic gem, throwing out such bizarre observations as “in my day all we had were wood-burning cats.” That sort of weird, surreal comment is just the thing to elevate this beyond being just a wacky kids’ show and into something with a little bit of an absurdist quality that adults can enjoy too. As the show progresses, though, we start to get the sense that her lunacy is a bit of a front, a shield she puts up to hide a bit of loneliness that’s come upon her in her age.

Lorenzo Music was truly fantastic in the Garfield role, bringing in a amusing, dry quality that sells every line. Even Frank Welker, who does the character in the modern version of the cartoon, doesn’t really hold a candle to Music, who passed away in 2001. Pat Carroll’s Grandma is another great find, straddling the line between sweet little old lady and aging hellfire. Fans who like to play “who’s that voice?” get a nice puzzle as well – Jon’s brother Doc Boy is voiced by David Lander, alias Squiggy of Laverne and Shirley fame.

The story of this special is pretty loose. Although I don’t think most of it is based on any specific comic strips, it definitely has the feel of being plucked from assorted holiday-themed strips that don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another, then stitched together into something resembling a plot. The later Peanuts specials have often been fraught with this problem, but this is one of the few times Garfield fell victim to it.

With the loose feeling, the special doesn’t really latch on to the real Christmas spirit until the end. Suitably, the cartoon maintains Garfield’s rather pessimistic air until the moment Garfield realizes Odie is trying to make him a gift. After that, it quickly swings into the realm of the sweet – Garfield helps Odie and improbably finds the one thing that would mean more to Grandma than anything else. It’s quite a coincidence, but it’s not hard to accept in a cartoon of this sort.

This is one of my favorite of the various Garfield specials, and it set things up very nicely for his weekly cartoon series the next year. That one became a staple for me for many years, and even now, I’d rather watch some of those old episodes than most other cartoons on the air today. The modern Garfield Show doesn’t really hold a candle to the old one (despite having much of the same cast and writing staff), but I still like to go to this one every Christmas season.

The Christmas Special Day 17: A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)

will-vintons-claymation-christmas-celebrationDirector: Will Vinton

Writer: Ralph Liddle

Cast: Tim Conner, Johnny Counterfit, Greg Black, Ron Tinsley, Patric Miller (Musical Director)

Plot: Unlike most of the Christmas specials we’ve covered this month, A Claymation Christmas Celebration doesn’t exactly have a “plot.” This film instead features a pair of dinosaurs named Herb (Tim Conner) and Rex (Johnny Counterfit) as they host a revue of classic Christmas songs starring Will Vinton’s animated characters, including the California Raisins. In London, Herb and Rex try to give us some background into the first song, but are interrupted as a set of dogs come by singing “Here We Come A-Waffleing.” As Rex tries to correct them, he realizes he has no idea what “Wassailing” actually is, and sends us into “We Three Kings.” Herb then tells us that bell-ringing ceremonies have their roots in attempts to ward off evil, which takes us into “Carol of the Bells.” As the dinosaurs go into their next, a group of geese begin to sing “Here We Come A-Waddling,” Rex throws us to “O Christmas Tree.” When we return, the dinosaurs are looking up “Wassail,” tossing us into an ice ballet for “Angels We Have Heard on High.” A cart of hungry, hedonistic pigs gives their version of “Here We Come A-Wallowing,” tempting Herb away as Rex tries to introduce “Joy to the World.” The various wassailers begin arguing as the dinosaurs send us to the real stars of the special, the California Raisins performing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Finally, a load of cider-guzzling elves arrive and explain the meaning of “Wassailing” – going around the neighborhood, singing carols, and sharing treats and drinks. The dinosaurs and the rest of the cast join in to sing the proper version of the song, dovetailing into “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as they all say farewell.

Thoughts: This special is such a product of its time. In the 80s, the California Raisins turned up for a series of ads, were rock stars for a while, provided parents with the cheapest Halloween costume imaginable, and then faded from the public consciousness. It’s a shame too, because I really do love Will Vinton’s work. This special shows off his considerable talents as an animator, not just with the clay figures of the Raisins and other characters, but on other forms of animation as well. During “We Three Kings,” for example, as the Magi sing, we drift into different styles of animation that look like oil paintings. Later, in “Joy to the World,” the style mimics the look of stained glass, while still having a very lively, evocative feel to it. It’s the most unique visual in the entire special, and a wonderful showcase of the potential inherent in this kind of animation.

“O Christmas Tree” is another display piece for Vinton’s skill, beginning in a simple setting with a pair of children decorating their tree. The camera zooms in on an ornament on their tree, taking us to a scene in a candyland, then repeats the process. We go through Santa’s workshop, then into Santa and Mrs. Claus’s own home. Each scene has a similar composition, but a distinctly unique decorating style that shows off the different sorts of stories Claymation can be used to depict.

Vinton also has real skill at comedic animation. In “Carol of the Bells,” we see several different bells (each with distinct faces that reveal a lot of personality) engage in a head-bonging chorus that would have made Jim Henson himself proud. The scene also has a good punchline, delivering the final note in a Chuck Jones fashion. The ice ballet has a bit of Disney’s Fantasia and a bit of Disney’s Donald Duck (the cartoon where he engages in an ice battle with his nephews comes distinctly to mind).  Vinton is a smart writer as well, dropping in nice little literary Easter Eggs like making Quasimodo the director of the Bell Choir.

The music is also phenomenal in this special. This is one of my all-time favorite renditions of “We Three Kings,” in which the Magi sing a quiet, respectful, traditional version, which then spins into a peppy, jazzy chorus provided by the camels. “Joy to the World” has a sort of bluesy feel, while the California Raisins cover of “Rudolph” is right up there with Burl Ives as one of the best versions of the song.

Sadly, Vinton’s studio has been gone for some time now, and with CGI ruling the animation roost there aren’t too many people left doing this sort of thing. Even the final few stalwarts of stop-motion – Aardman, Henry Selick, Tim Burton – don’t do the sort of wild, experimental stuff Vinton tried to bring to the table. We don’t see the likes of this anymore, and that’s a real shame. As of this writing, the DVD (which also includes Vinton’s Halloween and Easter specials) is still available from Amazon. It’s definitely worth getting.