Unlike some news networks that claim to be “fair and balanced” I refuse to buy into this “War on Christmas” thing that gets thrown in my face year after year. While Christmas is my holiday of religious affiliation, Chanukah, Ramadan, Yule and the Winter Solstice, and Kwanzaa are equally as comforting and inspiring to their followers. Unfortunately, when it comes to animated holiday specials or features, finding anything that isn’t Christmas oriented is a bit thin, so I apologize if this list is Christmas heavy. Growing up, and even now, there’s just an abundance of Christmas cartoons. Regardless, I’d still like to wish everyone Happy Holidays! Or, in the words of Krusty The Klown: “Have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah, a kwazy Kwanzaa, a tip-top Tet, and a solemn and respectful Ramadan.”
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966): Though I do like the live action film directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey, the animated TV special is a classic example of a simple adaptation made instantly memorable through the expertise of director, producer, and animator Chuck Jones and the brilliant narration by Boris Karloff. Clocking in at twenty-six minutes, The Grinch celebrates the joy and hope of the Christmas holiday by de-valuing that which we most associate with Christmas: presents. From beginning to end it’s a beloved classic that never fails to entertain. Plus, we got a sweet song in “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”!
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965): Equally, if not more, iconic than The Grinch, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first in a long line of animated specials featuring the popular characters from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip. The ever dour Charlie Brown can’t quite get in the Christmas spirit since he’s not all that sure what the point of Christmas is, what with the rampant commercialism and all. Upon being sent to get an aluminum Christmas tree, Charlie instead selects a small, rough-looking pine that happens to be the only real tree in the lot. After being laughed at for his choice of tree, Charlie laments that he doesn’t get what Christmas is all about, which cues Linus to perform one of the single most memorable moments from a special with many memorable moments. He recites from The Gospel of Luke, chapter two, verses 8-14. While it is one of the most overtly Christian TV specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas uses the gospel as a means to inspire comfort and solace in a holiday that, though overrun with commercialism, is rooted in acts of kindness, charity, and the miracle of a child’s birth.
Rankin-Bass Holiday Specials: Starting in 1964 with Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin-Bass developed and produced a vast array of holiday specials using “Animagic”, a form of stop-motion using doll-like figurines. Their only deviation seems to be Frosty The Snowman (1969) that was entirely traditional animation and featured Jimmy Durante as the narrator. Other popular specials include The Little Drummer Boy (1968) and, my personal favorite, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) featuring Fred Astaire as the narrator and Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle. And let’s not forget the Burgermeister Meisterburger! Rudolph also boasts a number of original songs that have become fairly well-known such as “Fame and Fortune”, “The Island of Misfit Toys,” “Silver and Gold” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Plus you have Yukon Cornelius and The Bumble. ‘Nuff said.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962): The first animated holiday program produced for television, Mr. Magoo was the also the first to be played annually until Rudolph two years later. Using the popular character created in 1949 voiced by Jim Backus (the millionaire from Gilligan’s Island), the special takes the classic story A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and frames the narrative as a play performed by actors. Mr. Magoo, of course, plays Ebenezer Scrooge, but there’s also Gerald McBoing-Boing playing Tiny Tim! The one-hour special is played straight and, for the most part, sticks to Dickens’ story, but leaves out all of Scrooge’s family in order to focus on his relationship with Bob Cratchit’s family. There are a number of original songs too, the most memorable of which “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” contributes the line “razzelberry dressing. ‘ The song “Alone in the World” is by far the most tragic as a ghostly Scrooge sings alongside his younger self in the classroom while he’s alone on Christmas. The special is still a classic and continues to be played annually.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983): As animated specials go, this is the one I remember the most since my mother loved it a lot. I mean, it’s Disney, so duh! Taking Disney’s cast of characters and placing them in Dickens’ story, this version of A Christmas Carol stays as true to the source material as possible, but injects a great deal of fun into what can be considered a tired premise. Scrooge McDuck, playing the character for which he was named, is a refreshing take on the character. Though Scrooge is supposed to be a miser and a generally unhappy person, Disney’s Scrooge is both, but there’s still a sense of cynical mischief in his interaction with those seeking charity. Major highlights in this special are all of the ghosts with Goofy as Jacob Marley, Jiminy Cricket as The Ghost of Christmas Past, Willie the Giant as Christmas Present, and Pete as Christmas Future. Getting to hear Goofy’s classic scream as he falls down the stairs or seeing any of his shtick never ceases to make me smile. Oddly enough, Mickey as Bob Cratchit has a fairly small role, but they manage to give him all of the emotional punch needed to tear out your heartstrings – as Disney is want to do. The look on his face as he stands over Tiny Tim’s grave is devastating. A favorite in my household, I look forward to watching it every year.
Eight Crazy Nights (2002): My apologies to my Jewish friends, but this was the only animated feature or special I could find that even remotely addressed Chanukah. However, if you like this movie, then good on you! Taken from a line in Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,’ the movie focuses on Davey Stone (Sandler), the drunken, curmudgeonly outcast of a small town who never properly mourned his parents’ death twenty years ago during the holiday. After committing one felony too many, he’s saved from incarceration by the kindness of Whitey and his sister Eleanor (both played by Sandler). Whitey is the type of nice guy who believes that his actions will be rewarded, but is continually overlooked by the townspeople until Davey finally points out how shamefully they’ve all been treating him at the annual town banquet. Not unlike most Sandler films, you either love it or hate it. The songs are good, for the most part, and the cast features a lot of Sandler’s buddies and SNL alumni. It’s at least worth watching once…once.
The Simpsons and Futurama: In the twenty-plus years of the series, The Simpsons has done their fair share of holiday themed episodes. In fact the first full-length episode of The Simpson’s was a Christmas episode, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”. Denied a Christmas bonus from the power plant, Homer takes a job as a shopping mall Santa so he can buy presents for his family. Convinced by Barney and Bart to go to the dog races in an attempt to increase the measly amount of money made, Homer loses everything when he bets on Santa’s Little Helper, the losing dog of the race. The owner of the dog, seeing him as a loser as well, kicks him to the curb where he runs into the arms of a resistant Homer and an enthusiastic Bart. Thus, the Simpson’s family Christmas is saved with the addition of a new family pet. By far one of the best contributions to Xmas by the creators and writers of Futurama is Robot Santa. First introduced in “Xmas Story,” Robot Santa is a robot built for the express purposes of judging everyone to be naughty, thereby delivering them gifts of murder and mayhem. Needless to say, Xmas isn’t a night you want to be caught outside as the Planet Express crew prepare their defenses and hold up in the building like it’s the end of the world. A year later, Robot Santa returned in “A Tale of Two Santas” with the crew delivering children’s letters to Santa at his fortress on Neptune. Trying to escape after mistakenly confronting the robot, the crew accidentally trap Robot Santa in the ice, leaving the position open for Bender to take the reins and try to give people actual gifts. This does not go over well. As a sidenote: Futurama also introduced us to Kwanzaa-Bot and the Chanukah Zombie, so at least a fair number of the holidays are represented…even if no one still knows what Kwanzaa is. But damn, doesn’t that Chanukah zombie have a sweet TIE fighter?
South Park (1997-present): Another long-running series, South Park has the “luxury” of producing episodes in a timely manner. And while there are a number of Christmas episodes to choose from, one of my favorites is “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics,” an entire episode devoted to holiday songs as sung by the townspeople of South Park, Colorado. Highlights are the modified version of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” “Carol of the Bells” as sung by Mr. Mackey, and Cartman’s rendition of “O Holy Night.” Other episodes worth mentioning are “Red Sleigh Down” and “Woodland Critter Christmas.” Both insanely funny and offensive at the same time. You know why.
Family Guy (1999-present): One of the best of the bunch during the show’s original run before the first round of cancellations, “A Very Special Family Guy Freakin’ Christmas” has just about everything you’d want in an episode of Family Guy. After accidentally donating all of the Griffin Family presents to Good Will, Peter tries to buy presents for his family on Christmas Eve. All the while, he’d rather be watching the KISS Christmas special(featuring the actual voices of KISS). Lois, on the other hand, tries to keep it together while everything falls apart. No gifts, a scorched dinner and kitchen, and worst of all, no paper towels to clean up the mess. Going on a Christmas rampage, Lois is only calmed by seeing Stewie give a monologue about Jesus and such. That and a heavy dose of tranquilizers. It’s a great episode and one that’s worth watching even if it isn’t Christmas.
So, there you have it. My extensive list of holiday specials. If I’ve left anything out, please feel free to let me know in the comments. Next time, we’ll be looking at the works of William E. Joyce and his influence in the world of animation.