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.
The Christmas Special Day 5: Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Directors: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writer: Romeo Muller
Cast: Jimmy Durante, Billy DeWolfe, Jackie Vernon, Paul Frees, June Foray
Plot: Children’s entertainer Professor Hinkle (Billy DeWolfe) is perhaps the world’s worst performer, with tricks that won’t work and a rabbit named Hocus Pocus who won’t cooperate. After a failed show at an elementary school, the children race outside to build a snowman, whom they christen Frosty (Jackie Vernon). Hocus and Hinkle rush outside, where Hinkle throws his hat at the rabbit. It’s retrieved by one of the children, Karen (June Foray, again, proving that if there is a goddess of voice animation it’s her), who places it on Frosty’s head. The snowman snaps to life and bids everyone a happy birthday, but Hinkle snatches his hat back and leaves. Hocus steals the hat again and returns it to the children, who use it to bring Frosty to life again. He plays and dances with the children until he notices the temperature is rising, and he’s beginning to melt. Karen and the children promise to send him to the one place he’ll never melt: the North Pole. They parade through town to the train station to send him off (startling a traffic cop along the way) but are stumped when they realize they can’t possibly afford the ticket. At Hocus’s suggestion, Frosty and Karen hop into a refrigerated boxcar on a north-bound train. Hinkle, who realizes the hat has genuine magic power, hops on the same train, determined to steal it back.
When Frosty realizes the frozen car is making Karen sick, he and Hocus get off with her at the next stop. Hinkle jumps from the train so as not to lose them, crashing in the process. Karen is still in danger of freezing, so Hocus tries to rouse the local forest animals to build her a fire. Although Karen is safe for the moment, Frosty knows they need to find help soon, and Hocus suggests Santa Claus, who is scheduled to make his Christmas Eve rounds in mere hours. To keep her warm in the meantime, Frosty finds a greenhouse, but Hinkle manages to trap them both inside. When Santa arrives, Hocus brings him to the greenhouse, where Karen is safe, but in tears: Frosty has been reduced to a puddle with a corncob pipe and an old silk hat. Santa tells her that Frosty is made of magical Christmas snow, which can never go away forever. He uses his magic to rebuild Frosty, but before he places the hat upon his head, Hinkle shows up to demand its return. When Santa warns him he’ll never give him another Christmas present again if he hurts Frosty, Hinkle backs down and is sent away to write a massive apology. Santa places the hat back on Frosty’s head, restoring him to life. He takes Karen home and promises her that Frosty will return every year with the Christmas snow.
Thoughts: Frosty the Snowman gives us yet another case of Rankin and Bass magic, but this time, we’re going for traditional animation. This studio is much better known for their stop motion work, but they did several specials in this format, and later applied it to their version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and 80s TV shows like Thundercats.
Like Rudolph and Little Drummer Boy, this film takes a classic song and gives us an expanded storyline to fill out its half-hour running time. The song even shares DNA with Rudolph – Gene Autry commissioned the piece from Walter Rollins as a follow-up to his earlier Christmas hit. And a hit it was, but like Rudolph, it needs some work to succeed as a narrative. The original song, let’s be honest here, doesn’t exactly have a riveting plot: Snowman gets magic hat, snowman comes to life, snowman starts to melt, snowman leaves. Hard to get a full-length special, and what’s more, there’s no antagonist.
That, in fact, is what really makes this special: Professor Hinkle. He’s a really entertaining bad guy, very different from the usual Rankin/Bass assortment of monsters, evil wizards, and misers. Hinkle is kind of a pathetic figure, but in a funny way. He’s utterly failed at life, he’s a disaster as a magician, but he seems to have more greed than genuine evil in him (despite his own protests to the contrary). Even as he’s trailing Frosty and Karen he has to keep reminding himself to “think nasty… think nasty…”
Looking back on this as an adult, you start to realize that Hocus Pocus, the rabbit, is actually a pretty lousy influence on the children. His refusal to work with his partner in the first place is what costs Professor Hinkle his hat. Hocus steals the hat later (for a good cause, perhaps, but it’s still theft). He convinces an underage girl to illegally board a train with a man she’s known for all of seventeen minutes, without so much as a phone call home to tell her parents not to worry. Yes, he technically helps to save her life multiple times, but seeing as how she would never have been in danger if not for him, it’s hard to give him too much credit for that.
Christmas is almost an afterthought in this special. It’s not really mentioned at all in the original song, and you’ve only got a quarter of the special left when it’s even mentioned that this is all taking place on Christmas Eve. (What school is in session on Christmas Eve? Did they used to do it that way?) It works out for Karen, of course, because otherwise Santa Claus wouldn’t be around to save her and…
Wait a minute, this all happened on Christmas Eve? What did they even need the train ticket for? Why didn’t Frosty just wait around for Santa in town in the first place? They could have saved themselves all kinds of trouble! And don’t tell me it’s because Santa wouldn’t show up while the kids were awake, because this is a Rankin and Bass special and he breaks that rule all the time. He even breaks this rule in this very cartoon, because if he was waiting for all of the animals to be asleep before he shows up Hocus couldn’t even have flagged him down in the first place! Good grief, Romeo Muller, were you even trying?
Yet, this is a classic.
You see, out of all the great characters in the Rankin and Bass catalogue, there may be none as ridiculously endearing as Frosty. His sweetness, his heart that remains warm despite being encased in snow, the fact that he even apologizes to Hocus for some truly ridiculous suggestions for getting help… well, he’s a better snowman than I. This cartoon is the reason I can’t put on a top hat without getting the urge to wish everyone a happy birthday. It’s ludicrous! It’s incomprehensible!
And it’s a valued part of our collective childhood, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it.
Frosty returned twice more in the annals of Rankin and Bass – in 1976’s Frosty’s Winter Wonderland he’s given a snowwife, Crystal. In 1979, the Frosty family teamed up with Rudolph for the stop-motion feature length film Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. Both of these are worthy sequels. Less so is 1992’s Frosty Returns, a terrible, painfully preachy cartoon produced by CBS and unforgivably directed by Bill Melendez (of A Charlie Brown Christmas), and in 2005 there was the CGI Legend of Frosty the Snowman, which is more faithful to the original, but still merely okay. As usual with these characters, Rankin and Bass did it best. All others need not apply.
The Christmas Special Day 4: The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writer: Romeo Muller
Cast: Jose Ferrer, Paul Frees, June Foray, Ted Eccles, Greer Garson, music by the Vienna Boys Choir
Plot: Aaron, an orphaned drummer boy (Ted Eccles), has grown up with a disdain for all humanity after his family was killed by bandits. His hatred grows even more intense when he and his few animal friends are abducted by a travelling salesman, Ben Haramed (Jose Ferrer). Ben Haramed paints Aaron’s face and forces him to perform at the marketplace for donations. He grows angry and lashes out at the people around him, and Ben Haramed’s troupe is driven from town. As they cross the desert, they encounter a group of three kings (all voiced by the great Paul Frees, who also voices Aaron’s father) who are breaking camp on a long journey to follow a star in the heavens. One of their camels has collapsed under the weight of his pack, and Ben Haramed sells them Aaron’s camel Joshua to replace it. Enraged, Aaron takes his remaining animals and sets out to find his missing friend.
He follows the same star as the Magi, finally arriving at the town of Bethlehem. Dozens of shepherds arrive as well, all following the same star. He tracks them to a stable, where they are bowing before a manger. Aaron and his animals rush to their missing friend, but his sheep Baba is struck by a Roman chariot in the streets. Aaron takes the dying sheep to the Magi, where he finds them presenting a baby in the manger with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. When one of the Magi tells him he cannot save Baba, he suggests Aaron take Baba to the newborn king in the manger. With no gift to present the baby, Aaron begins to play his drum. As he finishes, Baba comes back to him, miraculously healed. Aaron’s angry heart melts, as the star shines brilliantly over the little town of Bethlehem.
Thoughts: I don’t typically get religious in my writing, but it would be somewhat negligent to do a project like this one, examining the all-time great Christmas specials, without touching upon a few of them that actually deal with the true meaning of Christmas. Take this 1968 special by our friends at Rankin and Bass (oh, we’re just getting started with them, folks), which dramatizes the old favorite of the Little Drummer Boy.
Rankin and Bass took the classic song and greatly expanded upon it, giving the little drummer boy a backstory, a reason for being in Bethlehem, and a name. For the most part, the additions to the song work very well. The add-ons make Aaron a very different kind of character than the cipher who arrives in the song to humbly play his drum for Jesus. Instead, we’re introduced to a child who has shut himself off from the world, keeping his affection only for his animals. Aaron turns to Jesus to save his friend, but viewed through a spiritual prism, it’s clear that Aaron himself is the one who truly needs salvation. In a very real way, this special makes the Little Drummer Boy the first soul to be saved by the Son of God. It’s a very clever angle to take, rooting the story very strongly with the Bible tales and making Aaron a far more significant character than he was described as previously. It doesn’t change anybody’s religion, of course, but taken from a narrative standpoint, writer Romeo Muller came up with a really good way to make this cartoon matter in a way the original song really didn’t.
The music here is strong, if not quite as iconic as many of the other Rankin and Bass specials. The original “Little Drummer Boy” is the only one that really stays with you after the show is over, and that’s mostly because it’s a piece that virtually everybody who watches this will know already.
More so than some of the other films we’ve looked at (or will look at) this short does express some of the limitations of early stop motion animation, especially in terms of precision. As Aaron plays his drum, the beat doesn’t match the movement of his hands. When we get to the line where “the ox and lamb kept time,” the camera pans across them nodding rhythmically, but not in the same rhythm as the song. You feel a little bad for chuckling at this, as it is supposed to be a wonderfully somber moment, but fortunately the emotion of Baba’s rejuvenation sweeps in as the song ends to save the day.
This isn’t the greatest religious-themed Christmas special, but it’s one of the earliest greats. Other films would later tread over some of the same ground, and one imagines director Don Bluth was drawing on this ten years later when he created his last short for Disney before striking out on his own, The Small One. Were this a project about Christmas films in general and not just television specials, you can rest assured, Small One would have a place of honor. As far as the TV spots goes, if you’re looking for one that actually features the nativity, this is as good as it gets.
The Christmas Special Day 3: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
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.