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.
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.
Writer: Charles M. Schulz
Cast: Peter Robbins, Christopher Shea, Kathy Steinberg, Tracy Stratford, Chris Doran, Geoffrey Ornstein, Karen Mendelson, Sally Dryer, Ann Altieri, Bill Melendez
Plot: It’s nearly Christmas, but Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) can’t seem to find it within himself to enjoy the season. Nobody is sending him any Christmas cards, his little sister Sally (Kathy Steinberg) is more concerned with getting presents than any spirit of generosity, and even his dog Snoopy (Bill Melendez) is giving himself over to a Christmas decorating contest. His “psychiatrist,” Lucy Tracy Stratford), suggests that he take a hand in directing the children’s Christmas play. She also confides that she feels the holiday blahs as well, never getting the gift she really wants: real estate. Charlie Brown arrives at the theater to find a disjointed group of performers who lack any real holiday spirit, and his best efforts to turn things around avail him nothing. Lucy finally suggests that he find a big, shiny aluminum Christmas tree to help with the celebration, and he sets out with her brother Linus Christopher Shea) to search. Instead of one of the garish plastic and metal monstrosities that Lucy wants, though, Charlie Brown finds a little sprig of a tree that looks like it needs love. Lucy and the others mock the tree, and Charlie Brown, depressed, asks if there’s anyone who can tell him what Christmas is all about.
Linus, of course, can. In one of the most memorable moments in animation history, Linus Van Pelt recites the Christmas story from the Bible, reminding his friends that the season is not about plays or trees or decorations, but about something much, much deeper. Encouraged, Charlie Brown tries to decorate his little tree, but with one ornament it collapses. He slinks away, heartbroken, but Linus leads the rest of the children in fixing the tree and making it beautiful. Charlie Brown returns to see what they’ve done, and his friends wish him a Merry Christmas.
Thoughts: Is there any special as beloved, and as deservedly so, as A Charlie Brown Christmas? I’ve always thought that Peanuts in general, the classic comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, represents the pinnacle of human philosophy in the 20th century. There is no other work of art that so succinctly and completely captures the human spirit as Schulz’s squiggle children and their outlandish dog. And this, the first of what would become a mini-empire of animated classics, is perhaps the greatest of them all.
The special, as the story goes, was difficult to get made. Schulz and Melendez had collaborated on some short animated pieces for commercials and a TV documentary about the comic strip, and crafted the story in just a few days after Melendez committed the pair to producing it. They insisted on using real child actors to voice the children, which was unheard of at the time and especially problematic in that some of the cast was too young to read and needed their lines cued by Melendez (whose heavy Mexican accent can actually be heard in a few of the lines where the children parroted his voice too closely). The CBS network objected to Vince Guaraldi’s jazz soundtrack, to the inclusion of the Biblical passage, to the lack of a laugh track on the cartoon, but Schulz and Melendez stood their ground. I would imagine by the time the Emmy and Peabody awards started rolling in, CBS would have realized their mistake.
It is this film’s lack of perfection, I think, that makes it perfect. The animation isn’t polished, the voice actors are clearly amateurs, the editing can be choppy at times. But at the same time, the entire point of the story is that Christmas is supposed to be about something more than glitz and glamour, that the heart of the season is what really matters, and that there’s no reason to be ashamed of loving something, flaws and all. How hollow would that message ring in some of the computer animated films of today, the ones where all the characters look like polished plastic and none of them seem to have any souls? (Yes, I know that there’s currently a CGI Peanuts feature film in the works. I’m trying not to think about it.)
The imperfection of the plotting leads to some of this cartoon’s best character moments. This is one of the shortest synopses I’ve written for a Reel to Reel study since the early days of the first project, and the reason for that is that the actual plot is wonderfully short. Nearly half the cartoon is taken up by tangents that have nothing to do with the story – an ice-skating sequence, Linus showing up the rest of the kids pelting snowballs at a tin can, Lucy flirting with Schroeder on his piano. All of these bits are superfluous as far as the story goes, but go a long way towards demonstrating who these characters are and why they should matter to us.
It doesn’t matter if the lips don’t synch with the words, that the mouths disappear when characters stop talking, that there’s no physical universe in which Charlie Brown’s face in profile and Charlie Brown’s face head-on could possible occupy the same head. If you’re focusing on stuff like that, my friends, you have completely missed the point of this film.
In addition to being an excellent cartoon about the true meaning of Christmas, this special goes a long way towards making Peanuts the cultural icon it is are today. This cartoon was made 15 years into the comic strip’s legendary 50-year run, and while 15 years seems like a long time, in those early years the comic strip and its characters were very much in flux. Lucy was introduced as a baby then aged to being the elder of the group. Sally and Linus were both born during the course of the strip. Snoopy began as a relatively normal dog, but his imagination and behavior grew more and more outlandish. By the time this cartoon was made, the characters had finally settled into the personalities and roles that would define them for the rest of the century. To many of us, Lucy will always be the fussbudget in the psychiatrist booth, Snoopy will always be the dog capable of winning a decorating contest, and Linus will be the child wise beyond his years, the one who puts everything into perspective. (At least until Halloween.)
For all the generations that have been born since this cartoon premiered, how many of us first formed our opinions of these characters by watching A Charlie Brown Christmas? It’s not just a great Christmas special, this is an important piece of Americana. It’s part of our cultural heritage. And on our best days, as it always was with Charles Schulz’s comics, it is who we really are.
For all the dozens of Peanuts cartoons that followed, it was almost 30 years before they tried another Christmas tale – this time with 1992’s It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown. This would be followed again by Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales in 2002 and the ambitious hour-long special I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown in 2003. While these cartoons, like all Peanuts specials, have their moments of sweetness, nothing has ever approached the pure, sincere beauty of the original, and I daresay nothing ever will.