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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.

The Christmas Special Day 11: A Flintstones Christmas (1977)

flintstone-christmas-collectionDirector: Charles A. Nichols

Writers: Duane Poole & Dick Robbins

Cast: Henry Corden, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Gay Hartwig, Lucille Bills, Virginia Gregg, Hal Smith,  John Stephenson

Plot: It’s Christmas Eve in Bedrock and the Flintstones and Rubbles are finishing up their preparations. Wilma (Jean Vander Pyl) and Betty (Gay Hartwig) try to persuade Fred (Henry Corden, taking over the role seamlessly from the late Alan Reed) to play Santa at the orphanage’s Christmas party that night, but Fred refuses and heads to work. When he arrives his boss, Mr. Slate (John Stephenson) informs him that his wife wants Fred to play Santa for the same party. This time, to protect his job, Fred agrees. At home, Fred and Barney (Mel Blanc) prepare for the party, but hear a thumping from the roof. They find Santa Claus (great voice actor Hal Smith, who played Santa in no less than five different cartoon series over the years) in the snow. Although Fred is skeptical at first, Barney finds the sleigh and reindeer, proving they’ve got the real Santa in the Flintstone house.  Santa sprained his ankle on Fred’s roof, and Barney suggests Fred as a substitute while he heals. Santa gives them a dose of magic and sends them on their way.

Things go relatively smoothly for Fred and Barney’s first few deliveries, but some turbulence knocks the sack of presents out of the sleigh. Barney calls Santa on the sleigh’s CB radio (it was the 70s, people), and Santa tells them to go back to the North Pole for another load. As they wait for the sleigh to be reloaded, Fred and Barney take a tour of Santa’s high-tech operation and pitch in making some toys. They get back in the air and speed up their deliveries, realizing Fred is still scheduled to play Santa for the orphans. Back in Bedrock, the children are starting to get upset – almost as upset as Mr. Slate. Fortunately, Fred and Barney finally arrive, spilling in through the chimney with such a spectacular entrance Mr. Slate forgives their tardiness… until Fred realizes they’ve given out all the presents already. With a little of Santa’s Christmas magic, Fred produces more, and the children are overjoyed. As they open their gifts, the boys return home to send Santa on his way. Wilma and Betty return home, angry at their husbands for rushing out of the party, and Santa ducks out before they see him. Although the girls don’t believe Fred and Barney’s story about filling in for Santa, they forgive them and begin trading gifts. Fred is horrified to realize, in all the commotion, he didn’t get Wilma a present, but Santa saves the day one last time, slipping one down the chimney. Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm spot Santa flying away, and their fathers join them at the window, waving goodbye, while the girls just chuckle at the four kids looking up at the skies over Bedrock.

Thoughts: Like Fat Albert, this 1977 special takes characters from a popular cartoon show and gives them a Christmas adventure, although unlike Fat Albert, by 1977 the original run of The Flintstones had been over for several years. Fortunately, with animation, it’s easier to do a reunion special without worrying about actors getting older or passing away or refusing to reprise their role – in almost every case, a new voice artist is always a possibility. This special managed to get most of the original voices back, but one wonders if Mel Blanc felt a little confused that he was remaking a cartoon he’d done 13 years prior.

A Flintstones Christmas borrows much of its plot from the 1964 episode of the TV show, “Christmas Flintstone” (brilliantly clever with titles, these Hanna-Barbera folks), specifically the story of Fred filling in for Santa Claus after he injures himself. This special adds in more and different music and ages the children – Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm are elementary school age, whereas they were still babies in the original. They also trade out B-plots – in the original, Fred was working as a department store Santa for extra money, whereas here he’s dealing with Mr. Slate and playing Santa for orphans. The B-plot is used to give urgency to the A-plot as well, while in the original Fred was pretty much done with his gig when he stumbles into the real Santa and is called upon to fill in. Still, if one were to sit down for a marathon of the assorted Flintstones Christmas specials and episodes throughout the years (something a guy like me is honestly very likely to do), you’d be a bit shocked when you essentially saw the same show twice.

Having dealt with that particular elephant in the room (I’m going to ignore the one about characters celebrating Christmas before the birth of Christ), let’s talk about the story for what it is. The notion of Fred filling in for Santa is a wonderfully natural one – the heart of the character is that of a sort of good-natured lummox. For all the times throughout the years where Fred gets short-tempered or angry, at the core of the character is a deep, abiding love for his wife and friends, the sort of thing that lends itself perfectly to playing Santa. The actual mechanism for getting him into the suit was pretty clever for the time, although it seems that Disney picked at this cartoon when they made Tim Allen’s more morbid The Santa Clause.

Although there was music in the original version of this, this version has much more of it, almost making it into a full-blown musical as both Fred and Barney break into song about how much they love Christmas at assorted points in the show. While none of the music has broken out and become of particular note, it’s perfectly passable and a nice addition to the cartoon. The animation style is really indicative of the sort of thing we got from Hanna-Barbera, up to and including a nice little Rube Goldberg-style montage sequence in Santa’s workshop, where Fred and Barney spill out onto the conveyer belts and get temporarily caught up in the mechanisms of the toymaking machines. We saw this sort of thing a lot in the old Hanna-Barbera cartons, second only to the “hall of doors” chase scenes they did so often, particularly in Scooby Doo.

In terms of sheer volume, the good folks at Hanna-Barbera may have been second only to Rankin and Bass for producing great Christmas cartoons. However, there aren’t a lot of ‘em I could use for this project, as so many of them are feature film length, regular episodes of assorted TV shows or, saddest of all, not available on DVD. Maybe next year. But for now we’re not quite done with the Hanna-Barbera characters… not yet.