Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Toon-arama Christmas

by tryanmax
Christmas time is a season of traditions. Some are very old like decorating trees and exchanging presents. And there are some traditions that have come more recently. Clearly one of my favorite traditions of the modern age is the annual lineup of animated Christmas specials that fill up the primetime TV schedule like a stocking stuffed with trinkets. Most of the classics have been around since before I was born. I can’t imagine a world without A Charlie Brown Christmas, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the Grinch, “The Chipmunk Song,” or any of the dozens of Rankin-Bass Productions.

Along with the classics, the networks throw some new stuff our way each year. Most of these don’t have much staying power. The He-Man & She-Ra Christmas Special just doesn’t jingle many bells these days. But every now and then, something new comes along that manages to capture the Christmas spirit in a way that earns it a spot on the nice list for years to come. It may be too soon to tell, but I’d like to share with you a couple of more recent Christmas specials that just might make the cut.
Shrek the Halls (DreamWorks, 2007)

If you don’t know the lovably uncouth ogre named Shrek by now, you’re probably living deeper in the swamp than he is. And while he and his interminable series of films are not for everyone he appears to have left a mark on the culture at least for a generation. As for me, I actually enjoy watching the grumpy green giant anachronistically deconstruct beloved children’s tales in his antisocial way. But, surprisingly, Shrek doesn’t give Santa Claus for a sardonic makeover—at least not directly—and that’s a good thing.

The limited action of the special focuses on Shrek trying to prepare the “perfect” Christmas for his wife Fiona and their infant triplets. The problem is, being an ogre, Shrek has never celebrated Christmas before. So the fairytale characters encountered in the films offer to help out, much to Shrek’s chagrin. This leads to lots of gags related to the characters’ stories and conflicts between their different personalities, including plenty of slapstick.

Amid the chaos, Shrek attempts to read “A Visit from St. Nicholas (The Night Before Christmas)” but is interrupted by Donkey, Gingy, and Puss in Boots who each have their own version of the tale rife with hilarious idiosyncrasies—but I leave those for your viewing pleasure.

Eventually Shrek grows impatient with all the commotion and orders everybody out in a fit of anger. Naturally, Fiona and Shrek talk it out and Shrek apologizes to everyone in a scene that isn’t nearly as schmaltzy as it could have been. Finally, Shrek gets the chance to tell his version of the story, not about Santa, but of Ogre Claus.

This Christmas special hits a lot of the right notes. For starters, it’s just fun. I think the producers did a very smart thing by keeping it simple rather than setting Shrek off on an epic Christmas Quest. (Though there is a hint of that as Shrek quickly treks to Far Far Away to pick up a copy of Christmas for Village Idiots.) Much of what made the Shrek films so popular is the social awkwardness of the main character, so a Christmas gathering provides more than ample fodder on its own.

Also, good parody has inherent longevity, especially when the source is long-lived as well. The alternate takes on “A Visit from St. Nicholas” are highly imaginative, memorable, and comprise the bulk of the special. More importantly, one does not need to be very familiar with the Shrek franchise to get the humor. The stories that Puss and Gingy tell are simply from the perspectives of a cat and a cookie, respectively, and one only need know that Donkey is a goofball to understand his oddball rendition.

Marks against Shrek the Halls are few, but those who don’t enjoy gross-out humor simply do not enjoy it. This is not for them. I have a hard time imagining anyone being offended by this special otherwise—the most irreverent gag is a choir singing “Waffle Santa” to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. Finally, deconstructing classics is a bit of a fad right now. As such, Shrek is at risk of simply fading away. However, his films and Christmas special may be enduring enough to be a perennial reminder of this time rather than a relic of it. We’ll see…
Prep & Landing/Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice (Disney, 2009/2011)

Where Shrek keeps it simple, Prep & Landing goes in the other direction by adding a brand new element to the Christmas mythos that is stylish and hi-tech. Normally I would say that is a recipe for dating a program and making sure it slips right away, but not in this case. I’ll elaborate in a bit.

The story follows Wayne and Lanny, a pair of Christmas elves who are part of an elite squad known as “Prep & Landing.” They are basically Santa’s advance team whose job it is to ensure that the children are snug in their beds and not a creature is stirring before the big guy arrives. To accomplish this task, they are equipped with loads of high-tech gear (cleverly disguised as Christmas novelties), direct two-way communication with the North Pole and a dictionary of holiday-themed code words.

But all is not well with the P&L crew. Wayne is disgruntled at having been passed over for a promotion after 227 years of faithful service and has become disenchanted with the job. As such, he is less than a perfect mentor to the rookie, Lanny. Wayne slacks off, leaving the inexperienced Lanny to do all the work. It’s a disaster. So much so that it looks like Santa will have to cancel the landing, something never done before. Of course, the dire prospect causes Wayne to pull himself together and save the landing, Mission Impossible style!
The sequel, Naughty vs. Nice, introduces the “Coal Elf Brigade,” the rehabilitation arm of Santa’s gift program. Their job—you guessed it—is to deliver coal to the children on the Naughty List…along with encouraging notes such as, “Try Harder Next Year.” In this episode, Wayne and Lanny are called upon to perform a special mission: to recover classified North Pole technology that has fallen into the hands of an unknown hacker. For this mission, the pair have been assigned to work with the foremost expert on naughty children from the Brigade, Wayne’s younger (but bigger) brother Noel.

The hacker, a girl by the name of Grace Goodwin, is intent on removing herself from the naughty list, believing herself framed by her little brother. Their sibling rivalry parallels similar tensions that persist between Wayne and Noel. When Grace hacks into the “Fruit Cake” (a sort-of elfin iPhone) the device malfunctions threatening to put the whole world on the Naughty List. Wayne and Noel must resolve their issues and work together to execute a risky operation which will save Christmas.

As cheesy and predictable as both of these storylines sound, they actually work pretty well in context. This is because they present appropriately high stakes without ever getting too serious about it. Of course we never really doubt that Christmas will be saved in the end, either.

While the stories are solid enough for 20+ minute specials, the real entertainment comes from exploring this previously unseen aspect of the Santa story. As I said before, throwing hi-tech at the Santa myth has usually been a disservice to the story. That’s because in most cases, it gets shoehorned in as Santa receives a mid-movie makeover and it serves more as a punch line than a plot point. But in Prep & Landing the tech is integral to the story from the very beginning. It is, in fact, what makes events seem plausible.

Furthermore, the tech doesn’t strike me as the sort that will become dated in any bad way. Rather, it is more like the tech seen in Bond movies or, perhaps more similarly, The Incredibles. Little of it is realistic in the first place, but it bears a rough similarity to tech we know and understand. Plus, much of the humor takes place at the North Pole Christmas Eve Command Center, which is a healthy mix of Christmas puns and timeless office humor.

If I had to give one more reason why I think Prep & Landing will stick around, it’s because it has the Disney marketing machine behind it, which will certainly help, but in this case it’s a good product worth promoting.

What about you, have you seen any recent Christmas specials that you think will stick around for years to come? What about your favorite forgotten specials that have gone away? And feel free to discuss the perennial favorites like those I mentioned at the beginning, too. Merry Christmas!

45 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Why am I reminded of the Boiler Room Elves?

tryanmax said...

Honestly, it's b/c they got to me. I had a whole exposé on toy shop unions ready to go, but the BREs thought it would be a real shame if I were to accidentally encounter a little too much nutmeg.

Tennessee Jed said...

My favorite as a kid was "The Spirit of Christma" special produced by Bell of Pennsylvania in the mid 50's. It used marionettes to portray the poem "The Night Before Christmas" as well as the nativity. A few years ago, enterprising nostalgia types made a DVD which is available on Amazon. It was rather cool back in the day of 14" b7w fishbowl shaped screens.

http://www.amazon.com/Spirit-Christmas-Artist-Not-Provided/dp/B000GDH8UQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1355932421&sr=1-1&keywords=the+spirit+of+christmas+the+philadelphia+holiday+classic

rlaWTX said...

I have to admit that I doubt these will have the same lasting power of Charlie Brown's Christmas or the animated Grinch (IMO the Carrey version belongs in the same pile of undoingness that contains those SW prequels - along with both the colorized and remake versions of Miracle on 34th Street), but I might actually watch Shrek if it came on TV.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I am not surprised the BRE's got to you. They are persistent little buggers.

In terms of the films, I have to agree with rlaWTX, that I personally doubt these will have the staying power of a Charlie Brown and I think the reason for that is the fragmentation of our culture. Something like Charlie Brown became a phenomena because when it was shown on television, there were no real alternatives... maybe Gunsmoke. So most people watched it. And then they talked about it. And it became "the thing." Today, there is so much competition that you really don't have that anymore where a single special or miniseries or whatever can capture the public because you never get more than a tiny fraction of the public on any one channel.

The closest you can come is an "event movie", but everything is now sold as an "event" so even that has been diluted.

Jocelyn said...

I am a HUGE Shrek fan (I wore out my 1st DVD), but I try not to watch the little spins off, either Holiday or otherwise because I think they usually aren't entertaining enough. After your review tryanmax, I just might have to check out Shrek the halls (and the 3rd Shrek doesn't even exist to me!).

K said...

I'll go with the Rankin Bass stop motion Christmas shows as my faves.

The best Christmas stories I've seen for "kids" are some of the old Carl Barks "Uncle Scrooge" Christmas themed stories. Pity Disney didn't decide to animate them.

Jocelyn said...

And for the holidays, we always watch A Christmas Story. I especially like watching it because it jogs memories for my Mom who grew up in Wisconsin (everyone got their tongue stuck on a pole, somewhere, and my grandpa was a firefighter, so he saw this a lot). So it's fun to listen to the same and new memories she has from watching the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Jocelyn, I loved the first Shrek, liked the second and despised the third.


K, I too will go with the Rankin Bass stuff. I love all of those. The hot and cold bothers, Rudolph, the Island of Misfit Toys. :D

tryanmax said...

Jed, I think I've seen that one before. Did you perhaps share a link to an actual video before? In any case, I thought it was cute even if the marionettes were a tad creepy.

tryanmax said...

rlaWTX and Andrew, I actually agree that that these will probably never enjoy the broad appeal that things like Rankin/Bass and Peanuts have enjoyed. These are just my nominations for some recent things that I think may have a shot at not disappearing completely and, even if they do, I still think they are worth watching while you can.

Jocelyn said...

I am a HUGE Shrek fan (I wore out my 1st DVD), but I try not to watch the little spins off, either Holiday or otherwise because I think they usually aren't entertaining enough. After your review tryanmax, I just might have to check out Shrek the halls (and the 3rd Shrek doesn't even exist to me!).

tryanmax said...

Jocelyn, believe it or not, I haven't made it all the way through the Shrek films, if only not to dull my enjoyment of the ones I've seen (1 and 2). Shrek the Halls works b/c it does what made the first couple of films work. It's basically just the Christmas gags that don't fit into the first two movies.

tryanmax said...

K, I wonder if any of Carl's Christmas storylines were ever incorporated into Duck Tales? I may have to investigate.

It's hard to top Rankin/Bass, they pretty much defined "Christmas Special."

tryanmax said...

Jocelyn, unfortunately, TBS has all but ruined A Christmas Story for me. I'll have to give it some time and see if I warm back up to it.

Anthony said...

The Santa's Little Helper episode of the Simpsons is a modern(ish) classic.

I also like the Futurama episode with the debut of the robot killer Santa, though that isn't one I watch with the kids :).

Speaking of aggressive Santas, I saw Rise of the Guardians. The tattooed, dual sword wielding Santa was a unique interpretation, but while my oldest (who like me, isn't picky) enjoyed it well enough, I doubt it will become a holiday staple.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I LOVE the Futurama episode. I particularly like the line "I know where you live!" when Fry is holding up the bird cage. LOL! That and "I'm gonna buy you so many lizards."

tryanmax said...

Anthony, I love that episode of The Simpsons. It was actually a sleeper pilot. (and what a sleeper it was!) I used to have a hard-bound book of the same. I have no idea what became of it and still hope for it to turn up in my parents' basement.

Lots of folks like the Futurama Santa, so he may not be going anywhere soon, either.

I have yet to hear much praise for Rise of the Guardians.

Tennessee Jed said...

Max - I think you are right, but can't remember. I do think clips of it are available on youtube.

Individualist said...

I see Santa vs the Martians did not make your list.

Probably a good thing.

rlaWTX said...

I think I may be the only person who cannot stand "A Christmas Story".

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, Nope, I don't like it either.

tryanmax said...

Indie, only if they redo it as a cartoon!

tryanmax said...

rlaWTX and Andrew (you two are on a roll), see my comment to Jocelyn.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I saw your comment. Put me in the category though of someone who just doesn't really like the film -- not someone who is burned out by it.

BevfromNYC said...

True confessons - I've never seen "A Christmas Story"...

tryanmax said...

Bev, I'd tell you it's the Gone With the Wind of Christmas movies, but that would be too mean a trick.

tryanmax said...

If answering my own question is allowed, one Christmas special I liked as a kid that's gone now is Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration. If the name doesn't ring any bells, Vinton is the guy responsible for the California Raisins. He's also responsible for those talking M&Ms.

ScottDS said...

Sorry I'm late!

I like A Christmas Story but I agree with the guy at filmschoolrejects.com who says it's time for a 24-hour Gremlins marathon instead! Many people forget it took place during Christmas.

I've never actually seen any of the Rankin-Bass specials. I certainly know of them and I've seen bits and pieces over the years but I've never actually sat down to watch any of them.

When I was a kid, there was a Muppet Christmas special I always used to watch. Not the Muppet Christmas Carol movie but a TV special. I think the Fraggles were in it, too!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, How can you be human and not have seen the Rankin Bass specials?

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Well, according to Occam's Razor, then I guess I'm not human! :-)

I don't know. I'm NOT saying it's because I'm Jewish, though that sometimes meant Christmas-themed specials weren't exactly high priority.

Again, I'm as aware of them as anyone else, I just haven't seen them. I will one day.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Santa Claus has nothing to do with Christianity. He's a creation of the Coca Cola company... smooth, refreshing... and he's meant as a symbol of America... delicious, healthy. Everyone should watch everything they can about Santa Claus... Coke will affirm your life, make women love you... In fact, the only people who don't like Santa Claus are communists... Pepsi is made from the piss of commie beavers.

Worship Santa... drink Coke.

tryanmax said...

Scott, I can get down with a 24hr. Gremlins marathon, so long as they alternate b/w 1 & 2. I'm a little incredulous that you haven't seen any Rankin/Bass specials. There are just so many of them.

I'd be careful with the whole not human/Jewish thing in the same post. People have been known to buy into that one. ;-)

The Coca-Cola Co. said...

Correction: Worship Santa...drink Coke...save the Polar Bears.

AndrewPrice said...

Uh... yeah.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I already drink Coke. Too much of it, in fact!

tryanmax -

Tell me about it!

And don't feel incredulous - there are plenty of classic TV shows and movies I still haven't seen. But there's still time to do so.

tryanmax said...

Wait a minute... Santa, Satan.

Nah. Still just a coincidence. :-D

The Universe said...

Mr. Saslow, consider this your final notice. Life expectancy on the planets Earth and Moronica are directly correlated to the number of Rankin-Bass specials you have seen before you hit 35. You have been warned.

Drink more Coke.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, One of the biggest laughs I ever got from the Simpson's was when Bart's dog (Santa's Little Helper) was mistakenly called "Satan's Little Helper" by one of the characters.

T-Rav said...

Maybe I've said this before, but it bears repeating....I HATE HATE HATE The Christmas Story with a burning passion. I think the fact that it's got its own 24-hour marathon for no reason makes it a lot worse, but I cannot stand that movie. It's so stupid, and I frankly wish Ralphie would shoot his eye out.

Okay, that's probably a little strong. But I really cannot stand that movie, and I don't understand what other people see in it.

tryanmax said...

Hmmm, perhaps it's worse than I remembered. I haven't actually seen A Christmas Story in almost a decade. I was just assuming I had soured on it, but maybe it's worth a cautious look.

Anthony said...

I haven't seen A Christmas Story in years, but I enjoyed it and can't think of any reason I wouldn't enjoy it nowadays.

tryanmax said...

Anthony, the thing I remember most about it is my complete inability to relate to it. Some stories are timeless and other...well, aren't.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's my thing too -- I just don't relate to anything in the film.

Firefly said...

A little late, but for what it is worth, the best Christmas animated program (IMEHO)is Opus and Bill's A Wish for Wings that Work. It was a Bloom County-based cartoon that was broadcast maybe once or twice during the '90's, and (short version) was based on Opus the Penguin's entreaty to Santa Claus to grant his deepest desire to fly. It was not your typical Christmas special, but it had so many flat out funny lines and a really sweet heartfelt ending, I really was surprised when it disappeared from broadcast TV. But then again, a show that is marketed to kids that contains the line "Is this the support group for cockroach cross-dressers in distress?" may have generated some interesting reactions. In addition to the true Christmas standards (original Grinch,Rudolph, Charlie Brown, Shrek, Frosty)it is part of our holiday routine. And yes, TBS ruined A Christmas Story for me. Run it once with no interruptions... That would suffice.

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