Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ten Underrated Christmas Specials

 Every year we get to indulge in the tradition of watching Charlie Brown, the Grinch, Rudolph and Frosty spread  their tales of Christmas cheer. Truly it is a treat to look at the collaborative genius of Charles Schultz and Bill Melindez, or see all the tell-tale trademarks of Chuck Jones interspersed in Dr. Seuss' rhyming tale. And watching the herky-jerky motions of the Rankin-Bass specials reminds you that they just don't make them like that anymore (thank goodness!).
"Good Grief, I killed it!" Yes you did, Charlie. Your special is the gold standard.
 But there is a tidal-wave of Christmas specials made year in and year out. Do any of them deserve to stand with the above mentioned network staples? I say to thee, "Aye!" and even "Aye, verily!" Here are ten specials that either measure up to or surpass the specials we see every year.

 10. The Nutcracker Prince
 With voice talents like Keiffer Sutherland, Peter O'Toole and Phyllis Diller, this take on the traditional tale is fun, funny, and has plenty of action. The animation is very good (though not theatrical-release good), and they even venture to use a variety of animation styles to tell different parts of the story. The cast of accompanying toys adds comic relief, while the Rat King (while being an idiot) is a ruthless and determined enemy. Tchiakovsky's music plays throughout, completing the mood and feel of the story.

9. Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey
"Nestor saaaaad."

Nestor makes history.
Nestor is a donkey with an unusual feature- even for a donkey. He has incredibly long ears. This makes him an outcast similar to Rudolph, and like Rudolph, Nestor can make good use of his unusual gift/curse. He can stand on his ears and ski down the sand dunes! Rad, dude! But Nestor is looked at as being worthless and unwanted and it is in this moment that Nestor is chosen to help carry out one of the most important events in history. Nestor beautifully illustrates how God finds value and purpose in everyone, and how He sees things differently then we do.

8. The Snowman/Father Christmas
 Based off of the books/graphic novels by Raymond Briggs, the animation captures the wonderful styling that Briggs brings to his work. With an excellent musical score and nothing else, the short films take on a silent movie like quality that allow you to focus on and appreciate the images even more.

7. Precious Moments- Timmy's Gift
 Based off of the drawings and figurines of Sam Butcher's popular line, this Christmas tale is about a tiny angel who is tasked by God to deliver a crown to the new-born king. Arriving on Earth, Timothy's journey takes him through all kinds of perils like wolves and freezing cold rivers, and he makes friends along the way with a timid rabbit, a reclusive squirrel (voiced by Don Knotts), and a wolf cub. Timmy's kindness and desire to look out for the well-being of others has beneficial effect on each of his new-found friends, but when he loses the crown will Timmy make the right decision?

6. The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas
Ted Edward Bear (or Ted E. Bear) is a curious bear, and when he hears about Christmas, he's just got to find out what it is all about. How does he do that? Instead of hibernating like the other bears, Ted decides he is going to stay awake long enough to see Christmas himself. Finally, a very drowsy bear is greeted by Santa who kindly explains the holiday so that a bear can understand it. Hailing from 1973, the show got a lot of airings in the 80s. The look of the cartoon is dated, but in a way that is more retro than "old".

5. Garfield Christmas Special
 Before you begin scoffing at this selection, hear me out. Jon, Garfield and Odie return to the family farm for the holidays where we meet Jon's mom and dad, his cranky grandma and the just-as-weird-as-Jon Doc Boy. Of course, Garfield is bored out of his skull, but he is drawn to Grandma, who for all her gruff seems very sad and alone. Garfield also suspects a mystery when Odie keeps slipping away for no apparent reason. Investigating, Garfield inadvertently breaks whatever Odie was piecing together, and he stumbles upon a box of old letters- correspondences from long ago between Jon's Grandma and Grandpa (who died years ago).
Garfield fixes Odies contraption only to find out that it is Odie's gift to him- a back scratcher! Garfield then has a present for Grandma- the bundle of letters. Overcome with the joy attached to the memories in the pages, Grandma softens and all is right with the world. It is unusual to see a children's special address the loss of family members, and even more so for a holiday program, but Garfield kindly reinds us that the holidays can take a different tone after a loved one has died, and that we need to treasure the memories we make.

4. Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas
 A Muppet tale from the 70's, the scale of work on this production was amazing- from the different sets like the frozen river, the shack, Emmet's home, the talent show, and the town square to the cast of characters that includes all kinds of anthropomorphic woodland creatures. There are a ton of songs and musical numbers included (Ain't no Hole in the Washtub is my favorite) to add to the entertainment. The story centers around Emmet and his mother who have been barely able to get by after the death of Emmet's father. Mom works hard doing laundry and odd jobs, while Emmet tries to be a kid but ends up worrying about money, holes in the roof, meager meals, and helping his mom. While life is hard, they are still happy, knowing love is more important then material possessions. But when a talent show offers a prize that would allow Emmet to help his mom, can he and his friends win out against the Riverbottom Gang? This movie was important because it laid the production blueprint for creating feature-length Muppet movies. The Muppet Movie would release in theaters two years later.

3. The Tick Loves Santa
The Tick meets the REAL Santa!
 Easily the funniest selection on the list, the Tick is distraught after a robber- disguised as Santa- is chased by police and ends up sliding into an electric billboard and falling to his likely death. The Tick believes the robber was Santa and that Christmas is now canceled despite his fellow heroes attempts to convince him otherwise. But our robber turns out to be not only okay, but "charged" with an M burned into his chest from the billboard. Suddenly other Santas appear. They can only say "Ho, ho, ho," but they are good at fighting, robbing and taking orders from the robber who now dubs himself as Multiple Santa. After a skirmish with the Santas in which the Tick can't bring himself to hit any of them and the other heroes are soundly beaten, Multiple Santa decides to charge himself at the hydroelectric dam to create an army of Santas.
The Tick and his sidekick, Arthur, are visited by Santa and his secret service elves who convince our hero that the other Santas are bad and must be stopped. There a variety of hilarious moments like when a wave of Santas is rolling towards the Tick he yells, "It's a Yule-tide!!" Another scene involves two security guards discussing the nightmares they have watching a mechanical Santa at the store. When the Santas break in and run over the guards and Multiple Santa rips the head of the mechanical Santa one guard says to the other, "I may never sleep again."

2. The Small One
 This was Don Bluth's last project at Disney, and it tells the tale of a friendship between and little boy and a small, old donkey. Not as young and not as big as the other donkeys, Small One (as he is called) can't keep up with the others. The boy does his best to share the load with his friend, but his father points out that the donkey eats as much as the other animals and does less than half the work. The time has come to sell Small One, but the dad allows the boy to handle the deal ensuring that his friend doesn't go to a butcher or a tanner, but someone who will love him like the boy does. The boy and Small One meet person after person, but each prospective buyer has dire plans for the creature, or they just want to humiliate the beast, or they won't offer anything for Small One. Finally tired, alone and depressed, the boy and Small One are approached by a kind young man who sees value in the donkey and pays more than the boy was expecting. The man needs Small One for a very important job- to take his wife Mary on a journey to Bethlehem.

1. The King is Born
 Created by Nest Entertainment, the animation crew is made up of Disney animators under the direction of Richard Rich, you can see the stylistic influence from The Small One and The Little Mermaid. This is a pretty straight forward telling of the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph may come across as a little too happy-go-lucky at times, but at other times they express quiet confidence and wisdom beyond their years. Herod is a truly scary villain, working himself into frenzies and ordering the deaths of the new borns in Bethlehem. The inn keeper is not presented as a bad person but rather someone who thinks outside the box to try and help Mary Joseph in a time of need. It is a refreshing change, and it helps provide some comic relief.

I hope you have the chance to check out some of these hidden treats. Let me know what you think of the stories and the animation. Did I leave something deserving off the list?

Merry Christmas!

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