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.