It’s one of our favorite times of year when TV is filled with Christmas specials – Freeform is starting its 25 Days of Christmas and we will be watching. As children of the 70’s, we loved this time of year for TV watching, and we had to be ready to catch our favorite Christmas specials when they aired (there were no DVDs, DVRs or even VCRs then). We scrutinized the TV listings for Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown because we knew we had only one chance. Now The Grinch is on 30 times a season, plus on-demand, plus Blu-Ray, so you can never truly miss it. This makes it just a little less special than it used to be. We asked the question what are some of our favorite Christmas cartoons and, in a special twist, what’s our least favorite.
I still get excited about my favorite Christmas cartoons. As a kid, it was special to be able to stay up and watch these shows, where kids now can record them and watch them at a more convenient time. That’s just not as much fun. When I saw that CBS Special logo spin I knew it was time.
It was hard to pick just three as I like so many, keeping The Grinch, Year Without a Santa Claus, Charlie Brown, and Rudolph was tough. A good Christmas special has to be fun, has to have great music and has to give you that feeling of hope.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)
Santa Claus is coming to Town is a hall of fame Christmas special, it’s fun, has a great villain and the songs are fantastic. This is another Rankin/Bass gem that takes a typical Christmas story and gives it a mythology. In this case, it’s the origins of Santa Claus. They also told this story in their 1985 cartoon, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus but it’s a completely different story and that one goes much crazier. The gist of this one is that Kris Kringle, as a baby, is adopted by elves and Mrs. Kringle who are toymakers, nearby is Sombertown which is run by the Burgermeister who outlaws toys. As Kris ages, he finds ways to sneak toys into town. We learn how the reindeer fly, why we have Christmas stockings, why Kris grows a beard, why he changes his name, how he marries Mrs. Claus etc… There is the Winter Warlock, who scared the crap out of me as a kid, and also has no real bearing on the original myth but is a fun character. An interesting fact, for some strange reason the penguin’s name was Waddle and at some point, during its broadcast run it was changed to Topper
Bonus: Like all Rankin/Bass specials it’s narrated by a classic Hollywood star, in this case, Fred Astaire who plays the mailman. He reappears in their Easter special “The Easter Bunny is Coming to Town” to play the same role.
MG: Astaire might be my favorite of the Rankin/Bass narrators, although it’s hard to top Burl Ives as the snowman in Rudolph. I’ve watched this recently and I don’t really get the point of the Penquin in this, other than just as a random sidekick. I was scared too of the Warlock. Overall this might be the “darkest” of the Rankin/Bass Xmas specials.
‘Twas The Night Before Christmas (1974)
This is a Rankin/Bass special that does not use stop-motion but 2-D animation. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is not as famous as the rest and it’s short, roughly 24 minutes or so but it’s one I often seek out to watch. The 1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore is used as the backdrop but the story is it’s own. Santa sees a letter to the editor in the Junctionville newspaper claiming that he does not exist from “all of us” basically saying they don’t believe in him anymore. Santa apparently very offended decides he is not bringing gifts to the children of Junctionville. The rest of the time, Mr. Trundle and Father Mouse try to figure out who sent it and how to fix the problem and there is a giant musical clock tower involved. I do like how Santa just says screw it to the town and has to be won over to come back, it’s kind of a dick move considering the spirit of Christmas. He even returned all the kid’s letters unopened. There are a couple good musical numbers as well “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand”, and “Give Your Heart a Try”.
Bonus: When ABC Family first aired this, they took out the song “Give Your Heart a Try” because it had the word gay in it, but years later put it back in.
MG: Rankin/Bass loved portraying Santa as a dick (see Rudolph). I haven’t seen this in years, and have been unable to find it on DVD when I’ve looked for it. I liked how it featured both a human family and a mouse family. It’s remarkable how hated mice are in the real world, but they are always fun and adorable in cartoons. “Even A Mircacle Needs a Hand” is a good song, but one of those that gets stuck in your head for days.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
I love Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, I try to watch most versions but will admit upfront haven’t cared for many of the modern versions. My all-time favorites are the Alastair Sims 1951 faithful version and the Albert Finney 1970 musical Scrooge. Out of the cartoon and children’s versions, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is my favorite. Mr. Magoo was not my favorite cartoon character as a kid and actually thought the concept of blindness being the driving force for each plot and Charlie the Chinese sidekick racistly portrayed was not cool. Fortunately, in this special, no Charlie and blindness is not really an issue. The whole concept is that Mr. Magoo is starring in a stage play of A Christmas Carol playing Scrooge. For the most part, it stays fairly faithful to the source material. The big change is the order of the spirits with past and present changing places in order of visit and it actually works. Award-winning composers, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill created the music which is a highlight. Very often when televised the running time is hacked down quite a bit and it takes some of the fun away from it.
Bonus: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is the first full-length television Christmas cartoon predating Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer by two years.
MG: You got me on this one – never seen it and wasn’t even aware of its existence. I never liked the Mr. Magoo cartoon, although I’ve used it as a cultural reference on various occasions when someone missed seeing something obvious. I also love the Finney version of “A Christmas Carol” and I know you scoff at it, but you really should check out the well-made and faithful Jim Carrey animated version from a few years ago. Gary Oldman plays various parts in it if that entices you at all.
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)
Just to head off “this is not a Christmas cartoon” comment, it’s close enough. It involves Santa and Rudolph including a recap of Rudolph’s story in 2-D animation glory. I loved this mess when I was younger – no clue why maybe it’s because Rudolph is back or just the Rankin/Bass magic. I could write a book on the problems with this cartoon and I understand full well, it’s a cartoon, it doesn’t have to make sense. The songs are not memorable at all. The supporting characters are ridiculous, named after the year they were in or from which makes no sense. Ben Franklin is 1776 but he lived before and after that so is he also on the island of 1775 as well? And does everyone get that name why does he get it? There is a boring knight (Sir Who Gives a Crap) and a caveman (cavemen and dinosaurs did not co-exist, just saying). I guess the more compelling characters are the vulture Eon the Terrible (his eon is up and he needs to stop the new year from coming otherwise he dies) and Happy or “Baby New Year”, a big-eared full haired newborn. He is basically the Rudolph character so this special has the same message, it’s ok to be different and I guess you can laugh at your deformities with your friends. There are also characters such as a camel and toy soldier named after times. It doesn’t bother me that this is a convoluted mess as much as I know with zero talent I could sit in a room with a friend and hash out a better concept for a Rudolph sequel than this travesty. Since Disney is all in on remaking all their cartoons in live action splendor, I would pay money to see a live action version of this wreck. This fits perfectly in the years before taping shows because you see it once a year and think it’s great and then you go and grow up and see it anytime you want and it’s horrifyingly awful.
Bonus: This is a direct sequel to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer starting on the same night as the original cartoon (continuity issues be gone), there is also a third to round out the trilogy where Rudolph and Frosty team up.
MG: You are a little too harsh on this one. Believe me, it’s by far not the worst of the Rudolph cartoons (see my pick below). I’ve watched it recently, and despite the lack of making sense, I still found this entertaining. I never did like the Baby New Year, though, as he’s basically a useless pain in the ass that always wanders off and causes more work for Rudolph. I think this one showcases Rudoph’s maturity and leadership skills quite well.
DJ: I admit Rudolph himself shines in this, you got that completely right.
As a kid, I distinctly remember fishing out the TV Guide (not THE TV Guide, as that was for the rich people, just the free newsprint one that came with the Sunday newspaper), the week after Thanksgiving and circling the Christmas shows so I wouldn’t miss them. I grabbed a snack and settled in front of our downstairs TV by 8:00 when they usually started. I can even remember some of the commercials, for example, there were always clever 7-Up ones themed for Christmas. I can’t think of any Christmas shows that I didn’t like as a kid, although they definitely don’t all hold up now. You don’t see as much of the overtly religious ones, like Little Drummer Boy, or Nestor The Long-Eared Donkey, which is like a Rudolph story set in Bethlehem. Anyway, here are my picks.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
I know this is the most famous of all Christmas cartoons, but I can’t overstate how much I connected with this show. It was THE cartoon I looked forward to every holiday season. The story of misfits who overcome adversity to prove their worth really resonated with me as a geeky and shy kid. I know this may sound corny, but the bond that forms between Rudolph, Hermey, and Cornelius informed my view of how one should be loyal and committed to close friends and stick together even through adversity. (Ok, Rudolph does bail on them at one point, but it’s a sacrifice to protect his pals). I had a crush on Clarice too – I hoped to one day find a girl that could boost my spirits by singing “There’s Always Tomorrow” as well as she did. The island of misfit toys was akin to the bounty hunter scene in Empire Strikes Back – it took on this mythical element and the briefly seen misfit toys became fan favorites. Long before that happened, I enjoyed trying to figure out what was wrong with each toy, even the ones in the background. When I was really young, the Bumble legitimately scared me, but as I got older I started to see Santa as more the villain, as he was a short-sighted bigot, who only accepted Rudolph back when he could be useful to him. Maybe that’s why I was never that big on Santa. Perhaps to a fault, this show became the template for virtually all subsequent Rankin/Bass Christmas specials – a downtrodden protagonist, a scary villain, and Santa acting like a dink.
Bonus: The original Rudolph only airs on CBS, vs. most other specials that air on Freeform and other stations, and has been aired every year since 1964, making it the longest continuously running Christmas TV special in history.
DJ: This one is the grand-daddy of them all. Probably the best. The Bumble scared me, Yukon was a fantastic non-classic Christmas character, he needs a live action prequel. King Moonracer was a god and reminds me of King Ezekiel on The Walking Dead. My only complaint there is the King takes in misfit toys but refuses to allow misfit animals and people to stay, so they fight racism while still being racist? And Santa is a selfish bastard no question.
The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974)
They might as well rename this one “Snow Miser vs. Heat Miser” since these two characters have become such popular figures in recent years. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy even does a cover of the great song from the show about these guys. But I seem to recall a time maybe in the late 80’s/early 90’s when this show was languishing in relative obscurity. Other than my writing partner for the blog, I used to mention how cool the Miser brothers were and got blank stares. I also recall having a hard time finding it on VHS/early DVDs (in fact, it wasn’t released on VHS until 1991). But it must have developed a cult following over the years as it is now one of the top Rankin/Bass shows. In any event, once again as a kid there was a scary element to this, which was the Heat Miser, even though he’s not specifically the villain. There’s one point in his musical number when he melts a spotlight and it looks like blood, which always bothered me. The rest of the show is not quite as memorable as the Miser brothers’ musical number, but it’s decent. It’s interesting to see the differences from a decade ago when Rudolph came out. The villain is not as clear-cut, although local government isn’t portrayed very positively, from the weasely mayor to the brutish police that throw Vixen and two elves into the slammer. However, Santa, as played by Mickey Rooney, is portrayed in a more positive light compared to the mid-60’s portrayal. We also get a female narrator for the first time – Mrs. Claus, voiced by Shirley Booth. While there was a live-action made-for-TV remake done in 2006, which I won’t see, I’m surprised a feature film hasn’t been made of this. I can see Jim Carrey hamming it up as the cold miser.
Bonus: The newfound popularity of the show spawned a sequel in 2008 called (surprise) A Miser Brother’s Christmas. At some point, I watched at least part of it. It was stop-motion again and even Mickey Rooney reprised his role as Santa, but I don’t’ recall enjoying it.
DJ: Another great one, it did seem to disappear for awhile before coming back strong. I do get a kick out of Jingle and Jangle, the elves trying to help Mrs. Claus. Kind of another “we need to prove to Santa we still beleive in him” trope. Great voice work from Rooney, Booth, George S. Irving, and Dick Shawn. The live action version sounds dreadful.
Bugs Bunny’s Looney Christmas Tales (1979)
Bugs Bunny was my favorite cartoon character as a kid and I religiously watched Looney Tunes every Saturday Morning. So after a steady diet of Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, I was pumped when this special finally premiered on CBS in 1979. It is only 30 minutes and features 3 clips: Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol, Freeze Frame and The Fright Before Christmas. I have to admit, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this special since I never see it aired anymore and don’t have the DVD. My recollection of this abbreviated version of A Christmas Carol is that it was fun to see so many Looney Tunes characters in one episode, it was like a Looney Tunes all-star game. Yosemite Sam played Scrooge, with Porky as Cratchit, Tweety Bird as Tiny Tim, and Elmer Fudd, Pepe le Pew, and Foghorn Leghorn play a group of unharmonious carolers. Bugs has a dual role as Scrooge’s nephew and the ghost of Marley (the other 3 ghosts are unfortunately cut for time). I wish they had just dedicated the entire show to the version of A Christmas Carol, especially since the next clip, Freeze Frame, is a rather rote Coyote/Road Runner chase. It has nothing to do with Christmas other than the Coyote coming up with the idea of catching the Road Runner in a snow drift. Fortunately, it is short. The Fright Before Christmas (great title), is much better – featuring the Tasmanian Devil wreaking holiday havoc as an accidental Santa. I love when Bugs reads his nephew’s extravagant Christmas list that includes things like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde chemical set, a controlling interest in IBM, and Frank Sinatra’s old address book. If I’m being honest, I can’t say this special is better than The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or Charlie Brown’s Christmas special, but it’s a lesser-known gem that is worth seeking out.
Bonus: In classic Looney Tunes humor, right before the Christmas Carol clip ends, Yosemite Sam, as Scrooge, after giving his money freely to the other less fortunate characters, asks them to give him all the money back.
DJ: Looney Tunes is also my favorite cartoons by far, not even close, but I have never seen this. It doesn’t sound terrible, but I too would watch The Grinch or Charlie Brown first too. I wish this would air again so I can see it.
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys (2001)
DJ, time to one-up you on horrible Rudolph sequels. This one forgoes the classic stop-motion animation for full-on computer animation. While the cover art for the 1 hr 15-minute show promises a fun new chapter of the story featuring the characters we love like Yukon, Hermie, and even the Bumble, this is a disaster from start to finish. To begin with, the animation is horrendous (see trailer below – or maybe don’t), even by 2001 standards. While they had long fallen off the “A-list”, I have no idea why name actors like Rick Moranis, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Richard Dreyfuss would sign on to voice characters based on this atrocious script. I can’t even spend time describing the plot – but I’ll tell you the villain is the Toy Taker, who takes the toys from Santa’s shop and the Island under the premise of saving them from kids who will outgrow them and throw them away. Rudolph is on the case with his new bride, Clarice, and they are joined by Hermey, Yukon, and a hippopotamus named Queen Camilla. There’s a blimp involved, Rudolph contemplates plastic surgery to fix his nose, and Yukon finally captures the Toy Taker using some of Hermey’s dental floss. Spoiler alert: the Toy Taker is discovered to be a teddy bear who was discarded and that turned him into a bad dude (uh-oh, is that where Pixar got the idea for Lotso in Toy Story 3? I smell a lawsuit). Anyway, watch this at your own risk. I challenge anyone to get through it all.
Bonus: If you want even more bad Rudolph, this same director, William R. Kowalchuk, and same production company, Good Times, made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie, in 1998. I’ve never seen it but, it looks and sounds awful. Despite the same people making both, the movie is a sequel that inexplicably has a whole different continuity to the story than The Island of Misfit Toys.
DJ: Yeah you got me there, the trailer is a flaming pile of garbage. The animation is abysmal, total cash grab, no artistic spark at all. The reason it wasn’t mine is because there was no way I was seeing this or the Miser Brother’s sequel. When was the last really good Christmas cartoon, has their been one recently?
MG: That’s a great question. I can’t think of any good ones in the past several decades. Seems like the only new Christmas specials are based on established movies or shows (Toy Story, Penguins of Madagascar), and that’s not even saying they are good. Perhaps our readers could suggest a newer Christmas cartoon that is worth checking out.