Wednesday, December 15, 2010

10 FAVORITES (15) - Holidays PART II: Christmas Specials

'Tis the Season to be Jolly! This week's Holidays Edition of 10 FAVORITES is devoted to the television specials we all grew up adoring. Now, I am not talking specifically about the many many many variety shows and music specials devoted to Christmas. That is another list all to itself (maybe next year!). The TV specials listed below were either animated or marketed towards children (and their families). There are many different animated/children's programs that deal with the Holidays. Some are good. Some are bad. Some are just average. And some are just horrendously awful. But there are those that even transcend goodness into absolutely enjoyable and made my Christmases just a little bit brighter growing up. These are the ones that I believe are the best of the bunch.


Mickey's Christmas Carol AND Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol
I already talked a little bit about Charles Dickens' classic story when I discussed by favorite Christmas films. And so of course there are many brilliant TV adaptations of the tale (both made-for-TV movies and various spoofs of the tale). These two always seem to go together for me because I saw them around the same time (even though Mr. Magoo's pre-dated Mickey's by about 15 years or so). I saw Mickey's first and absolutely loved how the House of Mouse team managed to cast each character perfectly (i.e. Mickey as Bob Cratchitt, Donald Duck as Nephew Fred and Goofy as Jacob Marley). In Magoo's, I love the irascible and frustratingly blind character as Ebeneezer Scrooge mainly because of his voice actor, the great Jim Backus (known to us all as Thurston Howell III from Gilligan's Island), was so right for the role.

Robbie the Reindeer: Hooves of Fire
From the masters at Aardman Animation Studios (the people behind Wallace and Gromit) and the BBC, this clever tale about Rudolph's son joining the Reindeer team at Santa's Workshop is witty and heartwarming. In this (the first of three specials), Robbie is new to the Workshop and is immediately disliked by Blitzen (deliciously voiced by Steve Coogan). Blitzen challenges him to a race in a sort of Reindeer Olympics and Robbie has to prove himself worthy of replacing the legacy of his famous father.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
The animation of this special (and others like it) used to creep me out but now I look at this show with respect for what the team at Rankin and Bass Animation were able to do with stop-motion animation. The movements are very choppy and static but for the time when this special was made (1970), it becomes more fascinating and, therefore, more marvelous. The story is about how Santa Claus came to be Santa Claus, with the fabulous greedy villain of Herr Bergermeister. The voices, which include Mickey Rooney as the titular hero and Fred Astaire as our narrator (and singer of the title tune!), are so heartwarming and pleasantly delightful.

Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Special
Claymation seemed to be all the rage in the 1980's and the early 1990's. So it was bound to happen that master Claymation artist Will Vinton (the man behind The California Raisins) would try his hand at making a few specials, including this enjoyable Christmas one. Because there was no specific Claymation series on at the time (just various specials), this show took the form of series of music videos (this is the early MTV generation after all) introduced by two dinosaur critics (that vaguely spoofed Siskel & Ebert). Some of the best sequences include a doo-wop style rendition of "We Three Kings" and a cleverly done "Carol of the Bells" featuring an orchestra of Claymation bells (led by Quasimodo, who else?!?!)!

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
I have previously discussed my love for Sesame Street when I listed my favorite songs from the seminal children's program. By the early 1980's, the show had been on for over a decade and, it being the 1980's, marketing was coming into play and the powers that be at PBS decided to create this delightful Christmas special. The story revolves around how Big Bird wants to stay up on the rooftop to wait for Santa, because Oscar the Grouch told him Santa does not exist. It is filled with memorable songs and moments including an opening sequence where full-bodied versions of Ernie, Bert, the Count and Cookie Monster are Ice Skating!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Yet another classic Rankin and Bass stop-motion animation special. This one is more fascinating because of the story (which was based on the classic song and 1939 poem) includes a journey to the Isle of Misfit Toys and escaping an Abominable Snow Monster. The characters including Rudolph, Hermey the Elf, the greedy and befuddled prospector Yukon Cornelius and, of course, narrator Sam the Snowman (voiced by the great Burl Ives) are all delightful and bring a smile to everyone each year it airs.

A Garfield Christmas
Garfield was one of the most famous comic strip characters and his lazy, lasagna-loving style was brought to television in the 1980's. The various specials (including a Halloween one and a Thanksgiving one) were so successful that they led the cartoon cat to getting his own Saturday morning cartoon series in the early 1990's, Garfield and Friends. The Christmas one was the first one and was one of their best mainly because we got to meet Jon Arbuckle's hokey and silly family, including Jon's Grandma (who was such a delight that she was brought back for the Thanksgiving special).

Frosty the Snowman
This 1969 Rankin and Bass Christmas special (based on another great holiday tune!) was not stop-motion (like the Rudolph and Santa Claus ones were later), but yet whole-heartedly enjoyable. Jimmy Durante took the role of narrator this time around and comedian Jackie Vernon voiced the titular Snowman who greeted everyone with "Happy Birthday!" The story is of how Frosty came to be with the help of the magical top hat of a selfish, greedy magician (voiced by the comic character actor Billy de Wolfe). The comedy is so hilarious (sometimes unintentionally so) and the characters are really delightful, especially de Wolfe's mean and childish magician.

A Muppet Family Christmas
Who doesn't love Muppets?!?! And what is better than the Muppets? MORE MUPPETS!!!! In this phenomenal special, the Muppets we love from The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock came together to make this Christmas one to remember. It was great that Jim Henson was able to gather his family together one more time before his untimely death in 1990. Highlights from this special include the opening (where the Muppets sing "We Need a Little Christmas" from the Broadway musical Mame), the Electric Mayhem's take on "Jingle Bell Rock," Kermit and Robin meeting the Fraggles of Fraggle Rock, and the grand finale where the entire Muppet family takes part in a medley of Christmas Carols.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
When it comes to TV Christmas specials, there are really only two that we can consider THE ULTIMATE ones. This one is the first of those two (take a guess at number 1 people!). Dr. Seuss' brilliant creation of the mean Grinch who lives atop the mountain in Whoville and despises the noise of Christmas is a true classic. Everything from Boris Karloff's narration and characterization of the Grinch to the songs (which include the delightful "Welcome Christmas!" and the delicious "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch") make this one of the best Holiday specials in TV history (and FAR better than the disappointing 2000 film version featuring Jim Carrey).

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Does this one really surprise anyone? There is no kind of animated special like the kind by the Peanuts gang. Charles Schulz created some of the most beloved characters including Charlie Brown, his sister Sally, his best friend Linus, Linus' sister Lucy and Charlie Brown's dog Snoopy (who became the virtual mascot of my childhood!). And for Christmas (back in 1965), they did everything right. The writing was so clever (mimicking Schulz' style so well) and the story was so completely Charlie Brown. Everybody always felt, at one point in their life, like Charlie Brown: a boy who truly believed he couldn't do anything right. His small tree is so endearing and sweet that we just want to root for him. And who could forget Vince Guaraldi's jazzy and nostalgic piano score?!?!

So there you have it: THE 10 BEST CHILDREN'S TV CHRISTMAS SPECIALS. Each one is a treat for anyone trying to get into the Christmas mood. Is it really a surprise that Charlie Brown and the Grinch would top the list? If it is, and one of your favorite specials wasn't mentioned, don't hesitate to let me know. Next week, I will discuss my favorite Christmas Carols and there are plenty to choose from.


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