Christmas Cracker

TitleDebuted in 1963

9 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: In the first of the three animated shorts, two children dance to the music of Jingle Bells. The second features a collection of vintage toys racing and playing. The third shows a man trying to find the perfect star for his Christmas tree.

Fun Fact: This short was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, but lost to Pink Phink, the very first Pink Panther cartoon.

My thoughts: There are several interesting facets to this short. There are no spoken words in the whole thing and all three segments feature different types of animation. The boy and girl are animated paper cut-outs and their movements seem to be creating the melody of the song. It’s very simplistic, but cute and fun, with only the two characters dancing as the snow falls around them. The vintage toy segment is a little odder and more conceptual, done with stop motion animation. I love the collection of toys, which seem like real antiques compared to today’s modern toys and devices. These two shorts together take up a little less than half of the running time and the rest is devoted to the third story, which uses traditional animation. There are some comic moments as the guy tries several unusual items to top his tree and a nice message at the end when he tries to steal an actual star from the sky (which only zooms back up into space) and realizes that the paper star he initially tried actually works pretty well. I hadn’t seen this one before and liked it quite a bit.

Jingle Bells Dance

Are they kids pretending to be bells or bells pretending to be kids?

Toy parade

That gator stands no chance against the robot overlords.

Xmas Tree with Frog

Well, at least it’s green.

Rocket

There are a few flaws with this rocket design.

Individual Superlative: Surely You Jest – The jester who appears in the title sequence shows up between each of the shorts to tie them all together and is either comical or creepy, depending on your opinion of jesters in general.

Want to Watch it? Christmas Cracker is available on YouTube.

Santa’s Workshop

TitleDebuted in 1932

7 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: It’s Christmas Eve and the elves are busy prepping the reindeer and finalizing all the toys. Santa makes a final review of the naughty and nice list and inspects the toys before packing them up for his trip. A toy airplane knocks several shelves worth of toys onto the floor, where they have an impromptu parade into Santa’s bag and he bids everyone farewell, then flies away on his sleigh.

Fun Fact: This was the fourth Silly Symphony animated short to be released in full color.

My thoughts: Disney’s contract distribution deal with United Artists significantly boosted the quality of the studio’s animated shorts and this is one where you can really see the difference. The backgrounds are loaded with details and there’s so much going on in every frame. I think I saw this one for the first time as part of the Disney Channel Christmas special, when it was kind of meshed together with The Night Before Christmas (which picks up right where this one leaves off) and I loved it. I’ve always had a particular love of those cartoons that showed manufacturers or artists at work, with lots of funny gags on how things are made. This one is full of all kinds of silly concepts, such as checkerboard paint (for making checkerboards) and scaring the dolls with spiders to make their hair stand on end so it can be permed. The scene in which an African-American doll says ‘mammy’ instead of ‘mama’ is almost always removed when this short is aired. Santa is depicted as delightfully jolly and fun-loving, succumbing to the urge to play with his own toys a bit. And the elf who promises to add a cake of soap to Billy Brown’s stocking is voiced by Walt Disney himself. This one’s a nice dash of Christmas cheer.

Head elf

The elf who monitors good behavior doesn’t stand for shenanigans.

Santa and list

Could Santa be any jollier?

Tail drill

Yikes!  Did you get permission from the horses for this?

OK

Santa just approved this doll’s behind. No wonder he’s jolly.

Individual Superlative: Equal Opportunity Offender – In addition to the African-American stereotype doll, there are also Asian and Jewish stereotype toys in the toy parade at the end.  Just to make sure they didn’t leave anyone out in the ‘Wow, is this going to be controversial in a few decades’ category.

Want to Watch it? Santa’s Workshop is available on DVD and YouTube.

Bump in the Night: Twas the Night Before Bumpy

titleDebuted in 1995

64 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Mr. Bumpy wants to get Santa’s bag to take all the presents for himself so he cons Squishington into helping him with the promise of his dream gift – a pair of feet. They meet others on the way and battle Santa’s snowman army, but Bumpy gets the bag and rushes back home, unknowingly dropping presents on the way. He gets home just in time to close the Christmas pageant with a song and then, having learned something about the joy of giving, he gives the last remaining gift to Squishington, who finally lives his dream to tap dance.

Fun Fact: The phrase ‘things that go bump in the night’ comes from a traditional Scottish prayer from the 19th century.

My thoughts: I mentioned to my awesome future son-in-law that I was dreading watching this one and he bravely offered to keep me company, stating that he (much like my son) has a strange enjoyment for really bad shows. Well, most bad shows. Once again, it seems that all the worst specials are compelled to go long and Bumpy’s 64 minutes feel like a couple of hours stranded in rush hour traffic with an overheating engine and a full volume radio you can’t adjust. Between the gross-out scenes, the ethnic stereotypes (the British hummingbird sounds like a Monty Python character and might as well have just said, “Blimey!” and “Crumpets!” over and over) and bizarre moments such as a ‘grassy knoll’ joke, I don’t think this special has any real concept of who its target audience is. The talented Jim Cummings gives Bumpy a voice that sounds like the love child of Bobcat Goldthwait and Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil and it was grating on my nerves after 5 minutes. (It was hardcore chomping on them after another hour.) A subplot involving Molly Coddle (the comfort doll) having to show some confidence so she could direct the pageant was tiresome and pointless, seeming to serve as just a vehicle to get more re-worded songs into the thing and stretch it out longer. Can’t recommend this one for anyone.

pageant-performers

All the toys and the insect (who sings the song in this special’s Hanukkah nod) look miffed. They must have realized what special they’re in.

snow-soldiers

Frosty goes to Boot Camp?

sniffing-armpits

Nothing says holidays like oozy blobs smelling their own armpits.

worm

Is this worm channeling Steve Buscemi or John Waters?

Individual Superlative: Most Non-Original Original Songs – Every song in this is a traditional Christmas song with new words that often just summarize the plot and they’re all really repetitive. And they mostly play over re-played footage (sometimes multiple times – I seriously lost count of how many times they showed the same map) from this special and other episodes of the show.

Want to Watch it? Bump in the Night: Twas the Night Before Bumpy is available on VHS, DVD and YouTube.

The Christmas Toy

titleDebuted in 1986

49 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Rugby Tiger thinks Christmas means he will go back under the tree to be discovered all over again by Jamie, but he discovers that a new toy, Meteora (the Queen of Space) is going to be Jamie’s new Christmas toy. Some of the other playroom toys go to rescue him and Mew, the cat toy, is found by a human, which freezes him forever. Rugby realizes how much he cares for Mew, which unfreezes him and all the toys celebrate on Christmas morning with the new Christmas toys.

Fun Fact: This special inspired a short-lived TV series, called The Secret Life of Toys that ran for one season.

My thoughts: I recorded my copy of this during one of its early television broadcasts so my copy has the Kermit the Frog intro and closing that were deleted when Disney acquired the rights to the Muppet programming. I really liked having the Kermit bookends on these specials, because it kept that comfortable ‘Muppet’ feeling even when there were no other familiar characters. The basic premise of this special is very similar to the plot of Toy Story, with a loved toy being jealous of a newer space-themed character who isn’t aware that they’re actually a toy. There are some great characters here and my favorite is Mew the catnip mouse, who constantly has to reassure everyone that his bad smell is only catnip. Rugby singing ‘Together at Christmas’ to a frozen and lifeless Mew has me reaching for the Kleenex every time. It’s no wonder the song was re-worked for Muppet Family Christmas a year later. The story has a lot of warmth and humor, like most of the really good Muppet productions. I really enjoy this one.

rugby-and-apple

Apple is Rugby’s best friend.

meteora-closeup

Meteora’s space bra looks really uncomfortable (but it provides excellent support).

fashion-doll

A running gag involves the fashion doll always wearing the wrong clothes.

mew

“It’s CATNIP!”

Individual Superlative: Least Cuddly Toy – Meteora’s face is full of warrior fierceness and there is nothing soft or cuddly about her. But Jamie picks her up and hugs and kisses her, whispering that she loves her. I actually think this speaks volumes about how we feel about really special toys. Or that Jamie is just really not as judgmental as I am when it comes to cuddly toys.

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

Christmas in Tattertown

titleDebuted in 1988

26 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Debbie and two of her toys fall into a magic book and end up in Tattertown, a city that’s home to everything that’s ever been lost. Her doll, Muffet, rejoices at being free and heads to Deadster (the home of war toys) to plot her takeover of Tattertown. Debbie teaches everyone in Tattertown about Christmas and the story ends with Muffet in jail.

Fun Fact: This was the first animated special created specifically for Nickelodeon.

My thoughts: Imagine dropping acid in a room full of toys, probably while you also have a high fever and maybe schizophrenia, and you have a good idea of what watching this special is like. Christmas in Tattertown was actually the pilot episode of what was supposed to be new 30+ episode series on Nickelodeon, which was just hitting its stride as a network. Director and writer Ralph Bakshi was joined by an impressive group of animators and voice talent to create the series based on his comic strip, Junktown. There were a few different factors that killed the series and the most interesting one involves the American Family Association’s ridiculous assertion that Mighty Mouse’s sniffing of flowers was representative of cocaine use. It blew up into a big thing and since Bakshi was involved in the Mighty Mouse show, Nickelodeon’s support for Junktown wavered. So they aired the pilot as a standalone Christmas special. Knowing it was meant to be a pilot helps explain some things, since they thought they’d have other episodes to flesh out characters and build their world better. The animation is fantastic, clearly paying respect to the early days of animation, with wacky squash-and-stretch characters and silly visual gags. But the pace is too frenetic, the characters are too bizarre and there’s too much unexplained for me to enjoy.

miles

Miles, the jazzy saxophone narrator, is probably my favorite character.

debbie-and-dog

Debbie is giving her dog the fish eye.

muffet-as-santa

Muffet does not make a convincing Santa here.

tannenbaum

That’s Tannenbaum, the comic book store owner, who will also double as their Christmas tree. Huh?

Individual Superlative:  Most Confusing Internal Tag Struggle – I initially checked the box to tag this entry as for ‘Not for kids’ when I watched this, but the more I thought about it, there’s nothing really overtly adult about it. Then again, there are some questionable moments, but then again…let’s just say I went back and forth and eventually decided not to tag it. I think, with today’s kids, it’s probably all fair game.

Want to Watch it? Christmas in Tattertown is available on YouTube and still sometimes shows up during holiday programming.

The Insects’ Christmas

TitleDebuted in 1911

6 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: A Father Christmas ornament comes down from a Christmas tree and magically creates an outdoor Christmas tree for the creatures of the forest. The insects (and a friendly frog) make their way to the tree to receive gifts and celebrate the holiday. They also have some winter fun, sledding or skating on the ice, and then Father Christmas returns to his spot on the tree.

Fun Fact: Filmmaker Władysław Starewicz was a director for the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he began making films with insects.

My thoughts: This is the oldest short in my collection and currently the only one that has celebrated its 100th birthday. There are lots of different versions of this one available online and it’s tough to know which version is closest to the original as Mr. Starewicz conceived it. It was originally a silent film, with Russian title cards. In the years since, several different pieces of music have been added to accompany it and English title cards were added, too. Whichever version you watch, though, you’re in for something surreal and dreamlike, maybe a little disturbing and definitely unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s worth noting that stop motion animation got its start in 1898, so you’re seeing the art form in its infancy. It’s not particularly great or enjoyable, but I’m glad to have it for its historical context.

Making the tree

Santa has mad horticultural skills.

Frog

Either that frog is huge or Santa is tiny.

Miss Dragonfly

Miss Dragonfly has to go powder her thorax.

Party

There ain’t no party like a preserved insect party.

Individual Superlative: Dead-on Casting – Yeah, I’m just going to come right out and say it. There was no Claymation in 1911. These bugs are stop-motion animated dead bugs and that’s a dead frog giving Santa a big man-sized hug. I don’t know of any other film where all the principals were dead before the film was made. Kind of freaky when you think about it.

Want to Watch it? The Insects’ Christmas is available on YouTube.

Merry Dog

TItle

Debuted in 1933

8 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Pooch the Pup goes to see his girlfriend, but a hungry husky follows him to her house. The husky poses as Santa and offers to take both of them on a sleigh ride but his disguise gets spoiled and they see who he really is. Pooch and his girlfriend fight the husky and the real Santa shows up to save the day.

Fun Fact: Pooch was the first recurring cartoon character from the Walter Lantz studios, preceding Woody Woodpecker (by 8 years) and Chilly Willy (by 20 years).

My thoughts: I was totally unfamiliar with Pooch the Pup before seeing this cartoon, so I thought the bad guy in this short was a wolf. Fortunately, the internet clued me in to the fact that it’s supposed to be a husky. There are some funny gags in this short, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of substance to this character, which makes the whole thing a little flat.  He’s pretty interchangeable with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and actually, there are a couple of Oswald shorts that were originally written for Pooch. The basic plot of the short follows the basic plot of lots of shorts from this era – hero woos girl, bad guy tries to steal girl, hero gets the best of bad guy and wins girl in the end. They just threw some snow on the ground and added Santa into the mix to make this a Christmas short. I give this one a solid rating of ‘meh’ as it has no big highs and no big lows.

Home security

When your door is warning people away, your security system is not playing around.

Wolf & Santa

You don’t often see people steal Santa’s actual beard.

Bad touch

Bad touch, Fake Santa! Pooch, why are you okay with this?

2 mouth Santa

I have to think that the few moments in which Santa has two mouths and three noses are just a mistake. Or he’s a mutant.

Individual Superlative: Don’t Eat Your Problems – The cat that’s been plagued by mice comes out at the end with giant belly, presumably full of mice.

Want to Watch it? Merry Dog is available on YouTube.