The Christmas Special Day 14: A Chipmunk Christmas (1981)
Writers: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Hal Mason
Cast: Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Janice Karman, June Foray, Frank Welker, Charles Berendt, R.J. Williams
Plot: Five days before Christmas, the Chipmunks rouse David Seville (Ross Bagdasarian Jr., taking over the roles of Dave, Alvin and Simon from his late father, with Janice Karman playing Theodore) from a sound sleep and start to rush him out the door. As the boys go to the stores, Alvin overhears a little girl admiring a golden harmonica like Alvin’s, wishing she could get it for her sick brother Tommy (R.J. Williams). Tommy’s mother, however, seems skeptical Tommy will live to see the holiday. As the Chipmunks head into the recording studio, Alvin’s spirit has been diminished, and he heads out on an unscheduled break just minutes after recording begins. He finds Tommy at home and visits the sick boy, giving him with his harmonica and telling him he won it in a contest. Alvin rushes back to the studio and joins in the singing, his spirits restored. The Chipmunks are later booked to do a Christmas Eve concert at Carnegie Hall – a huge break – but they want Alvin to do a harmonica solo. Alvin can’t tell Dave (who gave him the harmonica) he gave it up, so he and his brothers try to buy a new one. He dresses up as Santa and charges kids for a picture, which Dave breaks up, admonishing his sons for trying to use Christmas to make money. When his brothers bumble out that Alvin needs money to buy something for himself, a disappointed Dave sends him to his room. That night, Alvin dreams of visiting mad inventor Clyde Crashcup (Charles Berendt), asking him for a loan, but the addle-brained Crashcup proves little help. Dave’s disappointment only grows when he walks past the dreaming Alvin, hearing the boy cry out for money in his sleep.
With two hours to go before the Christmas Eve concert, Alvin sets out to try to buy a new harmonica. While he’s gone Dave gets a phone call from Tommy’s mother, telling him the harmonica did wonders for the sick child. At the mall, Alvin stares at the harmonica he still can’t afford, when a kind old lady (June Foray) comes from nowhere and buys it for him. To thank her, he begins playing “Silent Night,” and a crowd forms to listen, including Dave, Simon and Theodore. Dave apologizes for misjudging Alvin, and the Sevilles head to Carnegie Hall for the concert. As he finishes his harmonica solo, Alvin runs into Tommy, out of bed and well. Alvin pulls him on stage to play an encore with the Chipmunks. Their song even reaches Santa Claus (Frank Welker), passing overhead on his rounds. He returns home to Mrs. Claus, telling her she should get out on Christmas some time and see what it’s like. As he drifts to sleep Mrs. Claus – a familiar, kindly old woman – looks at the audience and hushes us… why tell Santa, after all?
Thoughts: The Chipmunks, those animated anthropomorphs who rocketed to novelty album fame with “The Chipmunk Song,” had been off TV screens for some time in 1981. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this special was the start of a comeback, leading into a new Saturday morning cartoon that would be the version of the Chipmunks throughout my formative years. And it’s fitting, as their first hit was a Christmas song, that Christmas would factor into their comeback as well.
This special was something of an all-star piece, with the already-great June Foray stepping in as Mrs. Claus and the soon-to-be great Frank Welker as her husband. Even better, Chuck Jones pitched in on animation and character design for the special, and having watched it so relatively soon after How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it’s not hard to see some of his trademark gestures and designs, even if the flow of the animation isn’t really his. Some of the visual gags are distinctly Jonesian, though, such as Alvin as a miniature Santa being hoisted and lowered onto kids’ laps via a pulley… there’s a Wile E. Coyote flavor to it. (There’s also a great nod to Jones and Foray’s previous Christmas collaboration, as Alvin encounters a little girl named Cindy Lou.) The Clyde Crashcup sequence is a double whammy, bringing back a great (and mostly forgotten) cartoon star of the past, as well as presenting a sequence of confusion and misunderstanding that echoes a Dr. Seuss poem – or even one of Jones’s few feature films, the great The Phantom Tollbooth.
Although the Chipmunks would return during the run of their TV show with takes on A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, this special was all-new, and a really refreshing change. So many Christmas specials hinge on a character lacking Christmas spirit and finding it at the last minute. This time we see Alvin – often presented as the self-centered one in the group – show true Christmas spirit at the very beginning, and still winding up in a jam. The arc of the story is utterly unlike any other Christmas film I’m aware of. There’s not even really a lesson to be learned – Alvin knows and does the right thing right away, without having to go through trials or face the intervention of some wise mentor. If there’s anything he does wrong it’s not confessing to Dave that he gave up the harmonica, and given the circumstances, I think most people would have done the same thing. It’s a really refreshing change of pace, and makes for a unique special, unlike any of the others we’ve watched so far.
I have to confess, friends, I think the Chipmunks have hit something of a low point. I’m not at all a fan of the current movie series, where I think some of the silly charm of the original has been traded in for gross-out humor and tendrils of raunch that just don’t fit the spirit of Ross Bagdasarian’s characters. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still love Alvin and the boys, and especially at Christmas, I like looking back at these old cartoons and remembering when they were… y’know… good.