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The Christmas Special Day 14: A Chipmunk Christmas (1981)

chipmunk-christmastDirector: Phil Monroe

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.

The Christmas Special Day 3: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

how-the-grinch-stole-christmasDirector: Chuck Jones

Writers: Irv Spector & Bob Ogle, based on the book by Dr. Seuss

Cast: Boris Karloff, June Foray

Plot: In the town of Whoville, Christmas is a season beloved by all. The Whos in Whoville gather together to cut down the town tree, decorate the community, and celebrate the season. But not everybody is happy with the season. North of Whoville, in a mountain cave, lives a green creature called the Grinch (Boris Karloff, doing double-duty as the narrator) who hates Christmas with all of his two-sizes-too-small heart. As he watches their celebration begin, he vows to destroy Christmas for everyone. Stitching together a Santa Claus suit and putting “antlers” on his dog Max, the Grinch sweeps into town and begins breaking into houses, stealing every present, every decoration, every morsel of food, even the roast beast. As he goes to work in one house, however, he’s interrupted by little Cindy Lou Who (June Foray).Cindy Lou mistakes him for Santa and asks him why he’s taking their Christmas tree. He tells her he’s bringing the tree to his workshop to repair a broken light, then ushers her off to bed and finishes his insidious task.

The Grinch and Max take their loot to the top of a mountain, where he plans to spy on the Whos as they wake up and find their Christmas ruined. To his shock, though, the Whos come from their houses, join hands, and begin to sing despite their lack of gifts, of trees, of boxes and bags. That’s when it dawns on him… that perhaps Christmas has a deeper meaning than those things one can buy from a store. As his heart fills for the first time in years, his sleigh of toys begins to tip over the side of the mountain. His newfound Christmas spirit gives him the strength to rescue the sleigh and he races back to Whoville to return everything he stole. The Whos welcome him with open arms and even allow him to carve the roast beast.

Thoughts: Like most movies (even short films) that are based on children’s books, when the time came to animate How the Grinch Stole Christmas there was a need to beef up the story considerably in order to make it fill the allotted running time. Fortunately, this is a case where just enough was added to make the story a real classic (as opposed to the 2001 feature film where just enough was added to make the whole thing feel like a waste of time).

Out of all the specials I’m going to talk about this month, this may be the most singularly perfect case of voice casting we’ll see. Boris Karloff, as both the narrator and the Grinch himself, delivers a legitimately flawless performance. The Narrator has the sort of homespun quality you want – it’s like having a grandfather or a gruff uncle calling you around the fireplace to tell you a story. Then he shifts into the Grinch persona, adopting a nasty edge to his timbre that sends him from being your grandfather to that creepy old man down the street you’re really afraid of but feel compelled to pester at Halloween. Complimenting Karloff in the small but vital role of Cindy Lou Who is the legendary June Foray, one of the two greatest voice artists of all time (the other being Mel Blanc, and if you want to rank anybody else above those two you are wrong). Foray gives Cindy Lou a tender innocence that could easily be obnoxious and saccharine, but she imbues it with such sincerity that she’s impossible to dislike. Cindy Lou is the child every parent wishes they could present to Santa Claus down at the mall.

Then there’s the direction. Chuck Jones, perhaps the greatest animator in American history, takes the performances of these voice artists and crafts a beautifully rendered, visually amazing world that perfectly captures the wonderful lunacy of Dr. Seuss’s best work, while still maintaining his own inimitable comedic style. In the antics of the Grinch and his dog Max, you can see the finest moments of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner or of Tom and Jerry, both of whom experienced their best years when directed by Jones.

The Grinch slinks along like a snake in this cartoon, he casually licks his fingers to unscrew a light bulb, and in one of the greatest moments in the special, his face grows into this insidious, far-too-wide grin when he concocts his terrible scheme. This sort of thing is all Jones, all part of his amazing animated style. The action sequences, when he’s racing up and down the mountain in his sled, or where he desperately tries to save the presents at the end… again, Jones is the star here, showing off the potential of animation to tell a story of this nature in a thrilling fashion.

Rounding out a perfect crew was Thurl Ravenscroft, best known as the voice of cereal mascot Tony the Tiger, singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The song is great in and of itself, but planting it in Ravenscroft’s deep baritone gives it a feeling that no other Christmas song can boast. That song, that performance, is just as famous as any other part of this cartoon, and it’s well-deserved.

This film also passes a rather unique test when it comes to Christmas specials. There are honestly far too few truly original stories out there. We live in a world where half the Christmas stories told are just retreads of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. This film is its own story, though, not a parody, which makes it impressive enough. But eventually, it reached the stage where it is the source of parody – plenty of movies and TV shows have spoofed the Grinch over the years. That places it in the upper echelon of Christmas stories, the strata of tale that writers who can’t come up with their own story choose instead to build upon. If that isn’t the sign of a cultural landmark, I don’t know what is.