Mr. Krueger’s Christmas

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Debuted in 1980

25 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Willy Krueger is an apartment building custodian who lives with his cat in the building’s basement and on Christmas Eve, he fantasizes about being a well-respected gentleman in a fine house, helping to decorate the giant Christmas tree in Temple Square and conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A group of carolers visits him and he invites them to stay, but they only sing one song. He envisions himself in Bethlehem and kneels to talk to Jesus, thanking him for being his constant and best friend, and then two of the carolers return and ask him to join them.

Fun Fact: James Stewart said that conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was a lifelong dream of his that he finally got to live out in this film.

My thoughts: This special was produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and features classic movie legend James Stewart as Mr. Krueger in one of the last roles of his fifty year career. (He only did two things after this and one of them was voice work on An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.) I’m a huge fan of his and think his performance here is really wonderful. The director has said that Mr. Stewart felt very strongly about the film, worried about the over-commercialization of Christmas and fearing that the real meaning of the holiday was getting lost in the shuffle. When he is imagining himself conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, there’s a moment at the end of the song when the choir applauds him and that was apparently spontaneous and unscripted. The ending is a little over-saccharine, with the little girl caroler telling him she loves him (even though they literally just met) as they are heading off to join the carolers and there’s a voiceover (from WKRP’s Gordon Jump) reminding us that Jesus loves us, too. But you have to expect that in a special like this and it’s worth watching if you’re a Jimmy Stewart fan.

snow-haze

In this (very blurred) vision, he is sleigh-riding while the choir is all around him singing Sleigh Ride.

dancing

What would a Christmas tree lighting be without dancers wearing HUGE skirts?

clarissa

Is Clarissa about to smile sweetly at Mr. Krueger or fire demonic bolts from her eyes?

mittens-on-the-tree

Somebody else’s forgotten mittens are the saddest tree decorations ever.

Individual Superlative: That Voice, Though – I grew up watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year on TV and hearing Jimmy Stewart say ‘Merry Christmas’ is like an injection of nostalgic Christmas warmth. He says it a lot here.

Want to Watch it? Mr. Krueger’s Christmas is available on DVD and YouTube.

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Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

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Plot in 3 Sentences: Nestor is thrown out of the barnyard because of his long ears and his mother gives her life to save him during a snowstorm. He meets a cherub who guides him to his destiny, which is to carry Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. His ears allow him to hear guiding voices and bring the expectant couple safely to their destination, making him a hero among the animals.

Fun Fact: The special is based on a 1975 Gene Autry song, which Roger Miller covers as the title song for this show.

My thoughts: There’s no question that this seems like a mawkish and sentimental attempt by Rankin/Bass to recreate their earlier success with 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The stories share a lot of similar themes, although there was a little more social conscience at work here, as the show takes a much stronger stand against the bullying that Nestor receives from the other animals. A song called ‘Don’t Laugh and Make Somebody Cry’ was part of the original broadcast but is usually missing when it’s shown during the ABC Family holiday schedule. Long time Rankin/Bass fans will recognize some familiar faces in the cast, as models from The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Little Drummer Boy and Rudolph’s Shiny New Year were all re-used here. Yes, it’s a really sad story and I don’t watch it every year, but it’s one that I consider to be a classic that’s worth watching (if you have a box of Kleenex nearby).

camels

Further proof that camels are jerks.

sad-nestor

Nestor is showing us what all the viewers look like.

tilly

Tilly is adorbs.

mary-and-joseph

Mary’s eyes are so light blue that it makes her look blind.

Individual Superlative: Make that the Jumbo Kleenex – I watched the premiere of this special with two boys that I was babysitting and the three of us were reduced to a blubbering mass of tears and sniffles after Nestor’s mother died. “Ears, Nestor.” SOB.

Want to Watch it? Nestor, the Long Eared Christmas Donkey is available on VHS and DVD and it still shows up annually in the regular holiday programming.

Robot Chicken’s ATM Christmas Special

Title

Debuted in 2012

11 minutes

Plot in 1 Sentence: Comedy sketches include Santa dreaming about missing Christmas, Justin Bieber singing a Christmas song and G.I. Joe characters confused about what to get Snake Eyes.

Fun Fact: The show’s creators met with G.I. Joe comic book writer Larry Hama and recorded a short video clip with him that appears in the show.

My thoughts: Robot Chicken is very hit and miss with me. There are some funny ideas and I could pull together bits and pieces from all of their Christmas specials over the years to make one episode that I really enjoyed. There are almost always one or two references that I just don’t understand simply because I am not deeply immersed in pop culture, especially when it comes to video games and contemporary TV series. I usually know enough to get what the joke is going for, but not enough to find it funny. And while I am a fan of some shock humor, it wears thin on me if I feel like they’re just trying to see how far over the line they can go. I did think the idea of Santa trying to track down Jason Bourne just so he could give him a present was pretty funny but overall, I thought this one didn’t have much going for it.

Santa

This is not your mom’s Santa.

Bieber

And this is not your daughter’s Bieber.

Betrayed

It’s never easy to break up with your Christmas tree.

The Grinch

Okay, having the Nerd be even angrier at the Grinch when he finds out it’s the Jim Carrey Grinch was pretty funny.

Individual Superlative: Finish Un-Strong – To let you know exactly the level of comedy you can expect here, the show ends on a rape joke. Oh…and it’s a necrophiliac rape joke.

Want to Watch it? Robot Chicken ATM Christmas Special is available on Amazon Video.

Peace on Earth

TitleDebuted in 1939

9 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: On Christmas Eve, two young squirrels overhear the lyrics, ‘Peace on Earth, goodwill to men’ and ask their grandfather what men are. He tells them the story of humans and how they fought wars against each other until there were only two left and they killed each other. The animals come out into the now deserted city and build a new world based on peace and harmony.

Fun Fact: This cartoon short was remade in 1955 and the updated version included more modern weapons, such as flamethrowers and nuclear bombs.

My thoughts: When I saw this cartoon for the first time, it was during the Reagan era, when the threat of nuclear escalation seemed frighteningly real, so it made a huge impact on me. It’s cited as being one of the first animated shorts to tackle the subject of war in such a serious way. It throws in the little squirrels to get some cuteness points and there’s a moment when Grandpa sits on some knitting needles where it seems to be trying to go for some comic relief, but the tone feels heavy to me throughout. Some of the wartime images are unforgettable, especially when you think about the fact that some of the animators were drawing from recent memory of their own war experiences. Despite the bleak imagery, the message of the importance of peace and the pointlessness of war is a good one. Definitely worth seeing at least once.

Grandpa seems shocked that the little squirrels have fallen asleep on him.

Grandpa seems shocked that the little squirrels have fallen asleep on him.

One of the final soldiers advances on the other. This is a pretty intense image.

One of the final soldiers advances on the other. This is a pretty intense image.

I love the irony that the owl declares 'thou shalt not kill' to be a good rule...while surrounded by rodents, the traditional mainstay of his diet.

I love the irony that the owl declares ‘thou shalt not kill’ to be a good rule…while surrounded by rodents, the traditional mainstay of his diet.

The animals build their new city from what we left behind. So where are the McDonalds wrappers?

The animals build their new city from what we left behind. So where are the McDonalds wrappers?

Individual Superlative: Nobel or Not Nobel? – Several sources reported that this short was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize the year that it was released, but there seems to be no documented proof. It was nominated for an Academy Award, though.

Want to Watch it? Peace on Earth is available as a bonus on the DVD of A Christmas Carol and you can watch it on YouTube or the Internet Archive.

Jack Frost

TitleDebuted in 1979

50 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Jack Frost becomes human to win the heart of a winter-loving girl named Elisa, who lives in a town ruled by Cossack king Kubla Kraus. But when Kubla Kraus kidnaps Elisa, it is handsome Sir Ravenal who saves her and she falls in love with him. Kubla vows revenge on the whole town when winter ends and Jack Frost gives up his humanity to stop him by making winter stay longer, leading to the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Fun Fact: The reporter who is covering the Groundhog Day appearance of Pardon-Me-Pete is voiced by Dave Garroway, the first host of NBC’s Today show. This was his last television performance.

My thoughts: Here’s another one that has a layer of nostalgia to it because it’s one that I watched with my kids. The plot itself is pretty thin and more than a little convoluted, but there are some really lovely moments, too, including the idea of dream presents (empty boxes that you can pretend hold your heart’s desire) and Jack sacrificing his hopes for himself in order to save the people he loved. It shows up every year as a Christmas special, although it only involves Christmas in a marginal way. Jack is a pretty complex character, who struggles with the choices he’s made and has to deal with his inability to achieve his goals in either human or sprite form. But I think it’s very sweet when he covers Elisa’s bridal bouquet with frost and she tearfully tells her new husband that “an old friend kissed the bride.”

Her dream gift is a mirror. She wants to admire that meticulously curled hair.

Her dream gift is a mirror. She wants to admire that meticulously curled hair.

And I wouldn't be surprised to find that Sir Ravenal just wants to marry her for that dream mirror.

And I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Sir Ravenal just wants to marry her for that dream mirror.

Kubla and Dommy, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!

Kubla and Dommy, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!

My oldest daughter would kill me if I didn't include a picture of Holly, the sprite who looks after the Christmas snow.

My oldest daughter would kill me if I didn’t include a picture of Holly, the sprite who looks after the Christmas snow.

Individual Superlative: Steampunk Before It Was a Thing – Kubla Kraus builds technologically advanced robotics, included a steam-powered metal horse.

Want to Watch it? Jack Frost is available on VHS and DVD and you can watch the full special on YouTube. It also shows up on TV several times during the holiday season, but with a few of the songs cut.

The Snowman

TitleDebuted in 1982

26 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: A boy builds a snowman who comes to life at night. The boy shows the snowman around his house and takes him for a motorcycle ride. The snowman takes the boy flying around the world to a snowman party, where they meet up with Santa (or Father Christmas, since it takes place in the UK).

Fun Fact: Aled Jones’ cover version of the theme song, ‘Walking in the Air,’ reached #5 on the UK pop charts in 1985.

My thoughts: In spite of the fact that the animated version strays from the storyline of Raymond Briggs’ picture book, I love this special. The animation is lovely and draws heavily from the book’s illustrations. But my favorite element is the musical score, as performed by the Sinfonia of London. Several versions of the special were released, with the main difference being in the introduction. The version I have has the David Bowie introduction, so that’s the one that is most familiar to me, although I have seen the others, too. A sequel, called The Snowman and the Snowdog, was released in 2012 to celebrate the 30 year anniversary of the original.  People were happy to see the snowman back, since this special ends on a sad note, with James finding the snowman melted in the morning.

Cuz every girl's crazy for a sharp dressed snowman!

Cuz every girl’s crazy for a sharp dressed snowman!

This 'Before' picture is proof that the Snowman has had cosmetic surgery.

This ‘Before’ picture is proof that the Snowman has had cosmetic surgery.

Why does James have a spotlight in his bedroom?

Why does James have a spotlight in his bedroom?

The Scottish dancing snowman is my favorite.

The Scottish dancing snowman is my favorite.

Individual Superlative: Commando Warrior – we get to see James get dressed and he clearly doesn’t put on underwear before his jeans. Hence, he is going commando throughout his holiday adventure with the snowman. Brrr.

Want to Watch it? The Snowman is available on VHS and DVD.