A Very Merry Cricket

title

Plot in 3 Sentences: Harry the cat and Tucker the mouse are dismayed by the general sense of unhappiness and distraction that pervades New York City. They travel to Connecticut to bring back Chester Cricket, hoping his music can once again bring the city together. Chester has trouble being heard over the hustle and bustle of the holiday, but then a blackout puts him center stage, where his music creates the perfect holiday mood.

Fun Fact: Animator/director Chuck Jones can be found in the collection of people listening to Chester’s song near the end of the special.

My thoughts: A Cricket in Times Square, written by George Selden, with wonderful illustrations from Garth Williams, was published in 1960 and won a Newbery Honor. Chuck Jones adapted the story as an animated special which aired in April 1973 and this sequel was aired later that same year. (Another sequel, Yankee Doodle Cricket, featuring the same characters bizarrely involved in the American Revolution came out two years later.) I loved this special when it came out and was moved by its gentle message of quieting down the loudness and slowing your hectic pace to listen to something as simple and beautiful as a cricket’s song. (Of course, I had been a fan of the book already, so I was predisposed to like the animated version.) Sadly, I think this one feels very dated now, although the message is even more important with the explosion of technology that has happened since the 1970’s. The ending, with its montage of Christmas carols and pictures of rapt New Yorkers feeling the holiday spirit, is still very touching. Most of the rest of the special is plot recap or sub-plot filler (such as the hungry cat and dog in Connecticut who try to have Harry and Tucker for dinner) while we wait for that moment, but I have to say it’s worth it. I’m happy to have this one in my collection.

santa

Mechanical Santa is full of fabricated joy!

singing

We’re getting the band back together, you guys!

predator-cat

Hey, that’s a main character!  Spit him out!

listening

Stopping for a musical interlude.

Individual Superlative: Haven’t I Seen You Before? – This special begins with a recap of A Cricket in Times Square and then pretty much retells the same story.

Want to Watch it? A Very Merry Cricket is available on VHS, 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.

Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story

titleDebuted in 2011

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: When Santa tells a new scout elf about a boy (named Taylor McTuttle) who is starting to doubt Santa’s existence, the elf volunteers to be sent there, believing he can turn things around. The family names their new elf ‘Chippey’ and although everyone else welcomes him into their house, Taylor’s disbelief pushes him to break the rule and touch Chippey, which robs him of his magic. Chippey’s fellow elves take him back to the North Pole and when Taylor writes Santa to apologize, Chippey’s magic returns and he celebrates Christmas with the McTuttles.

Fun Fact: The original Elf on the Shelf book was written by a mother and daughter team in 2004.

My thoughts: There are so many things I dislike about this half hour advertisement masquerading as a Christmas special that I don’t know where to start. Actually, I guess I already started with the fact that it’s just an extended commercial. I could let that slide, I think, if it was actually good, but it’s not. It’s just not at all. The animation is poor quality, the few lines intended to be funny miss by a mile and the songs are so cheesy they should come with a warning for the lactose intolerant. Sure, there’s some good choreography in the big elf dance number, but the song uses the word, “Extravaganzalorious” repeatedly to express the joy they’re all feeling. And in the obligatory meant-to-be-heartwarming song sung by the McTuttle girls, the lines, “Christmas is a time for forgiveness; that’s why we all believe in Christmas” are also sung repeatedly and that’s what supposedly makes Taylor regret his actions. He then says it doesn’t feel like Christmas without Chippey…after they only had Chippey for two days and Taylor hated him for both of those days! Ugh. Very little kids who have no real discerning taste in entertainment might enjoy this, but otherwise, I’d say steer clear.

santa

Santa has a cumulo-nimbus beard.

book-promo

A not-so-subtle plug for the book.

hospital

I hope they don’t have candy cane rectal thermometers, too.

bad-touch

Bad touch!

Individual Superlative: Littlest Big Brother – A huge backlash against the whole Elf on a Shelf phenomenon followed a couple of years after this special, with many people believing that Elf on a Shelf trains children to be comfortable with surveillance and give up privacy.

Want to Watch it? Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes and it usually shows up on the networks during the holidays.

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.

The Christmas Orange

title-cleanDebuted in 2002

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Anton Stingley is upset because he was born on Christmas Day and only gets presents once a year instead of twice like other people. He prepares an extensive (92 page) wish list for Santa but then only gets an orange on Christmas morning, so he sues Santa for failing to comply with his request and the ensuing trial prompts Santa to quit. Anton tries unsuccessfully to get Santa to change his mind and then, feeling bad that he has ruined Christmas for everyone, he gives away all his own toys and his generosity inspires Santa to return to his post.

Fun Fact: The picture book that this special was based on was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature, which is a Canadian literary prize.

My thoughts: This special is a little bit of a rollercoaster for me, because there are things I like about it and things I don’t like about it and it goes up and down several times throughout. The anti-greed message is good, if a little heavy-handed. There are a couple of scenes in the special that seem to come out of nowhere, especially when the elves show up at Anton’s house and seem to start setting up a workshop there, then abruptly stop when they realize they can’t work for Anton because he’s not an elf. There’s no explanation for it, so it seems like a big extraneous scene that was meant to be funny and just didn’t come off. I like the way that Santa is presented and his reaction to hearing that he’s been a disappointment to several people is actually a little heart-wrenching. Some of the jokes are pretty clever, including the prosecuting attorney’s assertion that if Santa were innocent, he wouldn’t need all those aliases. The animation feels a little on the minimal side, but the characterizations are solid. I enjoy watching this one every few years, but it isn’t a big favorite.

an-orange

Anton is clearly displeased.

studpustle

And his lawyer is equally incredulous.

defense

Santa’s legal representation seems like he may be in over his head.

facing-the-press

Even Santa can’t escape the scrutiny of the liberal media.

Individual Superlative:  Elves = Leprechauns? – For some reason, all of Santa’s elves here speak with an exaggerated Irish accent and since our unseen narrator does, too, I guess we should assume that our narrator is an elf. Or a leprechaun.  Or both?  I don’t know how this works.

Want to Watch it? The Christmas Orange was released on DVD, but it’s out of print so it’s a little hard to find.

A Garfield Christmas Special

titleDebuted in 1987

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Jon goes to the farm to spend Christmas with his family and indulge in all their holiday traditions. Garfield watches it all unfold with his customary sarcasm. But when Grandma confides in him that she misses her late husband, he summons up some Christmas spirit and brightens her holiday with the gift of Grandpa’s lost letters to her.

Fun Fact: Julie Payne, who provides the voice of Jon’s mother in this special went on to voice Liz, who was Jon’s girlfriend in the Garfield and Friends series.

My thoughts: I absolutely love this special and it was a must-watch every year when our kids were little. Although it’s mostly a comedy, what it really celebrates is family and all the little inside jokes and silly traditions that make being together so wonderful. Yeah, that sounds cheesy, but most families that I know have at least one or two really ridiculous holiday customs that are as sacred to them as Christmas bacon is in our house. (Mmmm…Christmas bacon.)  Jon and Doc Boy behave like little boys here, asking for a bedtime story (Binky, the Clown Who Saved Christmas) and waking up way too early to open presents. Garfield creator Jim Davis based this special and these characters on his actual family in Indiana and it really strikes a chord with those of us adults who still welcome the holiday every year with childish enthusiasm. Lou Rawls performs a few of the special’s songs and they are just awesome. Several scenes were cut (and one new scene was added) when the show was re-aired and the new version is the one in general release. Watching this brings back memories of Christmas with our kids, but also takes me back to Christmas when I was a little girl.

dream

This costume indicates a top level commitment to the holiday.

grandma-laughing

Everything you need to know about Grandma’s laugh is written on Garfield’s face.

oooooooh

Christmas tree lights produce the same reaction as fireworks.

story-time

I feel like this when I read books to my grown-up kids.

Individual Superlative: Most Memorably Named Brother – Jon’s brother’s official name is David Doc Arbuckle, but everyone calls him Doc Boy, much to his dismay. I may forget everything I was ever taught in school, but when I’m 90, I will probably still remember that Jon’s brother is named Doc Boy.

Want to Watch it? Garfield: A Garfield Christmas is available on VHS, DVD, iTunes, Amazon and YouTube.

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas

titleDebuted in 1973

21 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Ted E. Bear wants to stay awake and experience Christmas but all other bears laugh at him. He gets fired from his job and travels to the city, where he meets Santa Claus, who sends him to an address where he can find Christmas. He goes to the address but falls asleep under a tree and when he wakes up, it’s Christmas morning and he is a gift for a happy little girl, so he finally understands what it all means.

Fun Fact: A sequel called The Great Bear Scare was released for Halloween in 1983.

My thoughts: I remember seeing this one when it aired for the first time and I loved it then. I enjoyed re-watching it this year, although I have to admit it feels a little dated, as the fashions and design styles are 100% 1970’s. The character voices are even representative of the era, with Tom Smothers, Barbara Feldon, Arte Johnson and even Casey Kasem as the narrator. Pattie Bear, Ted’s girlfriend (I think) and co-worker, is obsessed with horoscopes, which is a 70’s staple for sure. But the basic premise is a good one and the notion that Christmas is found in the joy of giving and making others happy is still a valuable message. The animation is on the simple side, but to me, that just contributes to the real charm of this special. Especially after having just recently watched some high-tech animated specials that have felt cold and humorless, this one was a comforting cup of Christmas cocoa.

money-in-honey

A sign like that on the wall defines you as a person.

honey-emergency

Can you imagine how hard it would be to clean up all that honey?  You can’t do it.  You just demolish the factory and start again.

professor-von-bear

Professor Von Bear has his hands in the air and he’s waving them like he just don’t care.

santa-gps

Santa doubles as a GPS by providing helpful directions.

Individual Superlative: Disenfranchised Franchise – When the sequel was released, it was accompanied by a line of merchandise surrounding the town of Bearbank, including records, books and plush toys, hoping it would catch on and create a new franchise. Obviously that didn’t happen as planned.

Want to Watch it? The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas is available on VHS, iTunes and YouTube.