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.

Spike’s Reindeer Rescue

title

Debuted in 2012

21 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Tony (the criminal bear) kidnaps some of Santa’s reindeer and elves Spike and Dorothy team up with Paco the Penguin to rescue them. Tony uses a giant robot to steal fish from the penguin village and Dorothy realizes he’s used the same workings as this year’s big robot toy so she uses the toy’s voice command to take control of it. The team rescues the reindeer, stops Tony’s plan and saves Christmas before Santa gets back from vacation.

Fun Fact: This special is a sequel to Spike Saves Christmas.

My thoughts: This digitally animated special is a French import that aired on the CW during its Saturday morning Vortexx programming slot, which featured programs from the Saban brand (famous for giving us the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and all the associated shows that followed it). The plot of this one is really convoluted and the fact that it also skips over plot points doesn’t help. If Tony’s big plot is to steal fish from the penguin village, I don’t see the point in kidnapping the reindeer, which have nothing to do with any of it. The animation has a low quality feel and none of the characters have any real personality. A good chunk of the special is a chase scene/showdown between the good guys and the bad guys.  There’s a moment when Paco is throwing the seagull minion of the polar bear mafia (there’s a phrase you don’t get to say often) at the crowd of seagulls chasing him and the point of view zooms up to show us that it looks like he’s playing a giant game of Breakout. It might have been funny in a better special, but here it’s just another weird moment in an onslaught of weird moments. Give this one a miss.

spike-and-raymond

Spike and Raymond are either shocked or not listening to Paco at all.

dorothy-and-robi-ho-ho

Dorothy shows extreme poise under pressure, yet she still gets paid less than the male elves.

reindeer-captives

All the reindeer are Swedish hippies.

santa

I know Santa’s supposed to carry some extra weight but when your waist is three times the width of your head, it’s time to start scaling back the cookies and milk.

Individual Superlative:  Very Merry Mafia – The polar bear villains have stereotypical Italian accents, so I think we’re supposed to assume they run some kind of crime syndicate in the North Pole. I somehow always suspected it.

Want to Watch it? Spike’s Reindeer Rescue is available on DVD.

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.

Regular Show: The Christmas Special

title

Plot in 3 Sentences: Mordecai and Rigby find Santa, who’s been shot and fallen into a garage. He shows them a Christmas present box full of dark magic and tells them how a rogue elf, Quillgen, is trying to get the box to destroy Christmas forever. Together with their other friends, they overcome obstacles and defeat Quillgen, destroying the box and saving Christmas.

Fun Fact: Many of the characters in this show first appeared in creator J.G. Quintel student films while he was at Cal Arts.

My thoughts: Regular Show, if you’ve never seen it, is another entry in the ever growing list of animated shows with weird elements. These types of shows are hit and miss with me overall. You have to have good characters, interesting plots or genuinely funny moments for me to stay on board. The Christmas episodes are the only ones I’ve seen of Regular Show and I have liked them quite a bit so I imagine I really should give the show’s normal episodes a try. This one has a really intriguing and complex plotline that feels like it’s straight out of a big action movie and the characters have real connections and emotions that I think would mean even more to me if I watched more episodes. Santa is voiced by Ed Asner who brings a gritty age-old wisdom to this badass version of the character. And the final showdown is set to the tune of ‘Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24’ originally performed by Savatage and re-released by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Even if you have never seen the show and don’t know anything about these quirky characters, there’s a lot here to recommend.

party

Benson gets bonus points for his festive holiday sweater.

santa-with-rigby-mordecai

I’m pretty sure this is the first pony-tailed Santa that I’ve seen.

test-family

This is what happens to people when they open the dark magic box.

whole-crowd

The gang is in peril and only Benson’s pinball skill can save the day!

Individual Superlative: Frodo’s Favorite – This episode has several references to Lord of the Rings, including the need to destroy the present in a cave of lava and Muscle Man’s attempt to smash it with a hammer.

Want to Watch it? Regular Show: The Christmas Special is available on YouTube and has been in the network holiday rotation since its premiere.

Merry Madagascar

titleDebuted in 2009

23 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: The gang (Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria) are leaving Madagascar in a hot air balloon, bound for New York, when they are suddenly knocked out of the sky by rocks thrown by King Julien and the lemurs. As King Julien explains that they thought the balloon was the red night goblin, the goblin appears in the sky and Julien knocks it down, revealing him to be Santa, now suffering from amnesia from the fall. The gang volunteers to deliver all Santa’s presents, using the magic-dusted penguins as reindeer and they save the day.

Fun Fact: The crashed airplane where King Julien keeps all his presents (and his skeletal girlfriend Amelia) is a Lockheed Model 10 Electra, which is the same airplane that Amelia Earhart actually flew.

My thoughts: As I have mentioned before, I am not a huge fan of most Dreamworks animation. There are a few I have enjoyed, but the original Madagascar was not one of them. In fact, that was one of the ‘couldn’t make it through the whole movie’ ones. So I was not at all surprised to be unimpressed by this special, which is actually the second special to feature characters from this film franchise. The first was A Christmas Caper, featuring the penguin characters, who also wound up with their own TV show.  One of my biggest issues with this special is that most of these characters feel like more like exaggerated caricatures and overused stereotypes, so I am not invested in anything that happens to them. It’s as if someone with a sense of humor completely different from mine is telling non-stop jokes while repeatedly punching me in the shoulder and yelling, “Get it?” loudly in my ear. The original movie was pretty successful, so this special may be a big hit with those who enjoyed the movie, but for me it was just obnoxious and overblown.

gang

It’s in the rules somewhere that every DreamWorks character has to make this face at least once.

toy

Everyone loves a choo-choo.

santa

Wow, Santa, that’s a serious bump on the head. Yikes.

julian

King Julien and the other lemurs have been knocked for a loop.

Individual Superlative: Which Subplot? – In addition to the bloated plot summary above, there are also subplots involving King Julien’s made up holiday, the gang giving up their dream of returning to New York in order to save Christmas and a star-crossed romance between a reindeer and a penguin. That’s a lot for 23 minutes.

Want to Watch it? Merry Madagascar is available on DVD, some streaming services and still shows up on network television frequently during the holiday season.

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.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Title

Debuted in 1970

51 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: A foundling child is adopted by a family of toymakers and he grows up determined to deliver his family’s toys to children in nearby Sombertown, where toys are outlawed. In order to do so, he befriends the Winter Warlock, charms a local schoolteacher and finds ways to get around the town’s rules. He marries the schoolteacher, eventually limits his toy deliveries to once a year (on Christmas Eve) and becomes Santa Claus.

Fun Fact: This was the first time that Mickey Rooney provided the voice of Santa Claus. He did it again in The Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph & Frosty’s Christmas in July, The Happy Elf and A Miser Brothers’ Christmas. Maybe he was so good at it because his actual last name was Yule.

My thoughts: This classic special has been a part of my Christmas for as long as I can remember. I was terrified of the Winter Warlock and his razor sharp teeth, so his transformation was always a big deal to me. And I used to think that the ‘Put One Foot in Front of the Other’ song was a big waste of time, but as an adult, I can better appreciate the concept of achieving goals by taking small steps. (So now it’s just Jessica’s love song, ‘My World is Beginning Today,’ with its trippy animation that I forward through.) Fred Astaire reprised his role as mailman/narrator S.D. Kluger in a similar special that explores the origin of the Easter Bunny. Burgermeister Meisterburger is a fantastic villain here and I kind of like that the story resolves with the people realizing that his laws are silly and overturning them. I could make a really good political statement here, but it’s Christmas so I’m not going there. In addition to being a good origin story, this special sets Santa up as a role model for perseverance and positivity. I’m glad this one is still out there entertaining a whole new generation. (And let’s face it…this is where we all learned the word ‘burgermeister.’)

A baby baby

This scene is equal parts ridiculous and awesome. “A baby baby, Zingle.”

Winter and Kris

Putting one foot in front of another is still the best way to get where you’re going.

Burgermeister

Burgermeisters just want to have fun.

Fever dream

“Before we animate Jessica’s song, let’s all drop acid!”

Individual Superlative: They Cut What? – Over the years, they’ve trimmed the special down to allow for more commercials by cutting songs and taking out the ‘traumatic scenes’ of Burgermeister Meisterburger setting fire to the toys. But some versions have removed the clips of Kris Kringle jumping from house to house on the rooftops, out of fear that kids will emulate his dangerous behavior, which seems ludicrous to me when you’re talking about a guy who has flying reindeer.

Want to Watch it? Santa Claus is Coming to Town is available on VHS, DVD, YouTube and it still comes on TV annually.