Sunday, November 25, 2012

15 Most Underrated Christmas Specials

Every year the networks always give a push to the same specials.  Rudolph, Charlie Brown, Frosty, the Grinch, Prep and Landing, etc.  Here is a list of the ones that deserve airtime or at least more attention

The First Christmas: The Story of Redundant and Misleading Titles is one of the better Rankin-Bass specials.  It is extremely schmaltzy and attacks the heartstrings with cliches.  Blind orphan!  Missing dog!  Nuns!  But there is heart there nonetheless.  There is a warmness to this special and it is short and simple, lacking the unnecessary complications of many of Rankin-Bass's longer specials.  This is probably their most unmarketable special which is why it rarely airs, it looks like it is airing in a few early Saturday morning marathons on 25 Days of Christmas this year though.

It is surprising that there is no real definitive yearly Looney Tunes holiday special, as one of the most enduring pop culture franchises they really deserve one.  This special is not a masterpiece by any means and is pretty forgettable.  But it is enjoyable and understands the characters (Chuck Jones was involved in this).  It is comprised of three shorts: an adaptation of A Christmas Carol (preceeding Bah Humduck! and this year's Dickens themed episode of The Looney Tunes Show), a Christmas themed Road Runner and Taz being confused for Santa.  Nothing overly memorable, but not objectionable.  Surprising that this had never made its way to airing on Cartoon Network or The CW.  Seems like a network would want to associate themselves with Looney Tunes.

The only real problem with this special, Charlie Brown Christmas Tales and I Want a Dog for Christmas is that they aren't A Charlie Brown Christmas.  But then again, what Christmas special is?  Looking at these on their own merit, they are fun Peanuts specials.  Basically just comprised of jokes from the comic strips, but Charles Schulz always had great jokes so they are worth a watch.  I think that Christmastime is probably the best of the three Christmas sequels, but it hasn't aired since its original airing in '92.  With the annual success of A Charlie Brown Christmas on ABC I think that ABC Family would do well to add this to their lineup.

12. Tangerine Bear (2000)
For a low budget Christmas special the animation and character designs are really good.  It is lacking a bit in pacing and the songs are forgettable, but any faults it has it makes up for in heart.  This is a good premise for a Christmas special, nobody wants to buy a teddy bear because his mouth was sewn on upside down (much like the Tangerine Bear's voice actor, Jonathan Taylor Thomas).  ABC premiered this special and it had re-aired on Cartoon Network, but nobody since.  It is not a familiar franchise, but it hits most of the right notes for Christmastime.

Created for the BBC and popular in Britain with two sequels.  Stateside the British version was aired on Fox Family (back when it was Fox Family) and then CBS redubbed it with American actors.  Both versions are good, but I personally prefer the British voices more.  A lot of Christmas specials utilize stop-motion as an easy reference to Rankin-Bass, but this stop-motion animation actually has its own personality and feels very unique.  This special has plenty of funny irreverent jokes and has a different take on reindeer.  Has not aired in the US for years, but it is one that is worth being rediscovered.

Based on a story of Frank L. Baum (which was later adapted into a traditionally animated direct-to-video movie which is good too).  I wish that Rankin-Bass had made more special's like this.  Instead of being related to a song or a celebrity narrator this is an eighties fantasy story.  The stop-motion benefits the genre well and the characters are likable.  It is airing a couple of times this year on ABC Family after being off of the air for the last few, but it is definitely worthy of a better time slot.

9. Pinky and the Brain Christmas (1995)
I guess this is officially an episode of the series, but it premiered in primetime and is good enough to stand on its own.  Christmas seems like a natural fit for Pinky and the Brain.  Pinky is clearly going to buy into everything about Christmas and utilizing Santa to take over world is a brilliant plan.  The ending of this is one of the most heartwarming moments in any holiday special.  I know that the series has not aired on TV in years (which it really should), but this episode could easily air independently of it every year and find a new audience.

8. Little Drummer Boy (1968)
Okay, this is revered as a holiday classic and one of the four Rankin-Bass masterpieces, but it never gets that much attention.  ABC Family doesn't give it much of a push or any primetime airings.  And ABC has aired Rudolph's Shiny New Year annually and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town recently.  This special should start airing on broadcast television again, the problem may be that there isn't a good companion for it to fill up an full hour (as the sequel is pretty unmemorable and unnecessary).

I always enjoy this special, it isn't the best or my favorite but it is everything that a Christmas special should be.  Brevity is definitely Rankin-Bass's friend and this is nice, simple and concise.  Aaron is a little irritating as a lead character (we get it, you hate all men, spell it out for one more time).  But look at him rock out on that awesome drum solo.

7. Garfield Christmas Special (1987)
Garfield and Friends is probably my second favorite series ever, they have such a perfect grasp on the characters.  I really love that they don't go the cliche route and have Christmas change Garfield, he is always going to be a curmudgeon, but he can still experience the holidays.  It is also very rare for a Christmas special to focus on an actual nuclear family and it acknowledges that Christmas for many is remembering lost loved ones.  The highlight of the special though is Garfield putting the star on the tree.  I don't remember this one airing when I was growing up and the series was popular in reruns, but some network should give it a home.

6. Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
The gang's all here caroling all the way and they've created a right's nightmare.  The reason that this one doesn't air anymore or have a DVD release is that there are too many copyright issues with the characters and songs.  But fear not, it is all on YouTube and it is a sheer delight.  The Muppets are wired so perfectly for song and dance and it is great hearing them sing Christmas classics.  Having a meeting of the four Muppet franchises provides some great opportunities such as Bert and Ernie explaining Sesame Street "small talk"to Doc and the Swedish Chef's reaction to Big Bird.  There are great gags such as the icy patch and Gonzo and Animal having to sleep on coat hangers.  It ends perfectly with a cameo from Jim Henson, this special perfectly celebrates his legacy.

5. A Christmas Carol (1971)
This may be too scary for younger kids and adults certainly won't take a cartoon seriously, so it is easy to see why this doesn't air on TV, but that's a shame because this is one of the best adaptations of A Christmas Carol.  This Academy Award winning television special produced by Chuck Jones and directed by the legendary Richard Williams seems to be told from Scrooge's perspective.  You really feel the emotions, fears and memories that Scrooge is experiencing.  The animation style looks just like illustrations and is very unique.  There is also absolutely no padding as it jumps around quickly and effectively through events of the book.  I am sure that this is one you may not have seen, but I highly recommend that you do.

4. Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too (1992)
I love all things Winnie the Pooh.  This is a special I grew up with and I still watch every year.  Pooh as the most innocent and jolly character ever created lends himself perfectly to the holiday.  This one has a memorable score and lots of cute moments (I always get a kick out of Eyeore swinging from a tree singing "tra la la la la").  It airs infrequently on ABC Family after ABC stopped airing it annually, but I would love to see this return to primetime.

3. The Snowman (1982)
This cartoon epitomizes the enchantment of Christmastime.  I remember not being interested in this when I was younger because there was no dialogue, but I rediscovered it last year and I couldn't believe I spent so many Christmases without it.  There is a wonder and childlike energy to this cartoon amidst its detail, maturity and cleverness.  The animation keeps the style and artistry of the award winning book.  This probably wouldn't be a ratings smash if it reaired, but new audiences deserve to discover this.

2. A Decemberween Pageant (2002)
Okay this never aired on television, but I feel like I need to mention Homestar Runner.  I love Homestar and I think that the Brothers Chaps are geniuses.  Decemberween is the Christmastime holiday that the characters celebrate, it satirizes specials that avoid mentioning Christmas (i.e. Life Day) while avoiding mentioning Christmas itself.  There are many great Decemberween cartoons such as Homestar Presents: Presents, A Death-Defying Decemberween and the sbemail: what I want.  But A Decemberween Pageant is the best as it highlights the absurdity of the website.  The characters are putting on a play that dramatizes the origins of Decemberween which features Dr. Christmas, a sailor named Archibald and The King of Town.  The genius of this cartoon is that it never fully tells you anything, it just gets more and more absurd.  Watch this and have a laugh.

1. Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)
I mentioned this already in another blogpost as the most underrated Christmas special ever.  This is absolutely perfect.  Sesame Street has thrived on heart and it has never been more evident than in this hourlong special.  I love everything about it: the memorable songs, the skating scene, the Gift of the Magi with Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster being unable to get through a letter to Santa, everything.  Part of the fun of this special is that it still holds up but it has a very late seventies feel.  I watched Sesame Street in the early nineties so it is fun seeing Kermit and Mr. Hooper and some older sets.  This one is available on DVD, but PBS or someone really should make this a holiday tradition.

Best Disney Christmas and Winter Shorts

I don't think that this segment of Melody Time is anybody's favorite, but it is pleasant and features gorgeous artistry.  The most common complaint is that it is too saccharine and sweet, but come on it's Christmas, we need light material like this.  Disney has used this short on a number of anthologies, videos and picture books; it has become somewhat iconic.  This is a very idyllic view of wintertime and always warms my heart a bit.

A short between the two Prep and Landing specials (I still need to see Naughty vs. Nice).  It is fun enough, albeit not as memorable as the original Prep and Landing.  However it is nice to see Disney support a newer franchise like this.  Not too much to criticize other than Betty White has received way too much overexposure.  Don't get me wrong, she's talented, but this came out in a period where she was stretched really thin.

13. The Hockey Champ (1939)
I always love the determination of Huey, Dewey and Louie when it comes to besting a smug Donald.  This is a nice diversion from the usual Donald short as Donald has the upper hand for most of it.  The ice provides plenty of fun gags for the animators too.

12. Winter (1930)
I just discovered this recently.  This was the final installment of a Silly Symphony series highlighting the four seasons.  And it has that simplistic quality of the early Disney shorts as it mainly surrounds forest creatures skating to Jingle Bells.  I wish Disney would do more with this short, it may not feature any recognizable characters but it is extremely pleasant and has great atmosphere.

11. Rugged Bear (1953)
This is one of the best Humphrey the Bear shorts, as he tries to warm up in Donald's cabin without getting caught.  A giant bear's attempts at hiding naturally provide many great gags.  Disney really should look into revisiting the character of Humphrey.  He is just so innocent and singularly minded, always works great. 

10. Art of Skiing (1941)
This is one of the most important Goofy shorts as it is the first How To short featuring the narrator and also makes the first appearance of the Wilhelm Scream.  Goofy's physicality and inability to perform a simple task is always amusing and skiing (or rather "shiing") is the perfect backdrop for the likable, lanky star.

9. Toy Tinkers (1949)
Why should Donald get a break on Christmas?  Chip 'n Dale make there way into Donald's house and play with his Christmas toys, particularly amusing due to their size.

8. The Small One (1978)
I didn't grow up with this short, I get the feeling that the people that like it most are the one's who watched it as a kid.  As a short it is very good, especially considering the quality of anything animated in the seventies.  However like most of Disney's seventies output it is a little dull, this premise should have been far shorter.  Working in the short's favor, however, is Don Bluth's animation which gives the simple story some personality.  Also props for acknowledging the birth of Christ.

Disney's interpretation of St. Nick in Santa's Workshop was so good that he makes another very welcome appearance here.  One of the best adaptations of Moore's Christmas rhyme, because there is no padding in the story.  This is a solid seven minutes as it only adds sight gags to the classic tale.

This is one of the most popular Christmas shorts that Disney often uses.  Pluto, Chip 'n Dale and Mickey are all in fine form here and the gags are nonstop.  Pluto doesn't often run into Chip 'n Dale but they make great adversaries.

One of the best Donald Duck shorts ever and one Disney usually uses around Christmas.  I love the escalation in this as Donald and his nephews go from playing around to full out war.

4. Santa's Workshop (1932)
I love this version of Santa Claus.  He has never been jollier and is animated with such sincerity.  The elves are a delight too, in particular the crotchety old elf checking the list twice who must be a forerunner to Grumpy.  It is great seeing the toys in action and this has to be the best interpretation of Santa's workshop.

3. Prep and Landing (2009)
This airs as a television special but it was produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios and was conceived as a short.  Santa using high-tech has been done many times before but this gives a fresh spin on it and there is so much detail in the Prep and Landing process.  This is one of the most successful new franchises from Disney and is already considered a Christmas classic.  This is different from most specials as it is about frustrations at work and the desire for more attention.  Satisfaction in your job is a great message for Christmastime.  My main criticism is that the yuletide puns seemed forced.  "That's so tinsel," is a phrase that is never going to happen.

2. Mickey's Good Deed (1932)
This is one of the best vehicles for Mickey ever.  Mickey is often considered to be dull and uninteresting but this classic short uses his strengths.  He has never been more sincere or full of good will.  Also the character gets to express a full range of emotions as he conveys sadness very convincingly.  Selling Pluto to bring Christmas to others is a sad concept, but this short absolutely works.

I have mentioned my affinity for this on this blog before.  This cartoon is my Christmas tradition, I will watch it several times a year.  The casting is absolutely perfect and it condenses Dickens' story just right.  I can't wait to see this again.