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.

Alias St. Nick

titleDebuted in 1935

10 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: A mother mouse reads’Twas the Night Before Christmas’ to her children on Christmas Eve and one little tough mouse insists that there is no Santa Claus. A hungry (and devious) cat overhears them talking, disguises himself as Santa and is welcomed into their home. The tough mouse discovers that the cat is an imposter and leads the others in foiling the cat’s plans and chasing him out of their home.

Fun Fact: The tough guy mouse was named Little Cheeser and he was featured in other MGM shorts after this one.

My thoughts: MGM released 37 animated shorts under the Happy Harmonies name from 1934 to 1938. When I was a kid, I loved that there were Silly Symphonies, Happy Harmonies, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies in the world of animated shorts and was really surprised to learn that they were all from different studios. I used to try coming up with new alliterative words for ‘happy songs’ just to see how many I could come up with, but all I can remember at this point is Delighted Ditties and that one doesn’t really work. Anyway, this short is a lot of fun. Little Cheeser (named for the gangster character in Little Caesar) is a pretty likeable character in spite of his smart aleck attitude. Although he mocks his siblings at the beginning (and again at the end), he stands by them when they are under attack and is the first to suspect the fake Santa. The cat’s voice is performed by Billy Bletcher, whose deep and gravelly voice made every character seem sinister. There are lots of great and creative uses of toys as weapons, including using a Jack-in-the-box as a tool to punch the cat across the room. At 10 minutes, it’s longer than most of the shorts of that time period, but it makes good use of its extra time.

doubter

Little Cheeser even stands like a skeptic.

kewpie

That kewpie doll better have some mace.

evil-santa

Yeah, when Santa is making that face, he’s the naughty one.

sandwich

MMmm…bacon, lettuce and mouse.

Individual Superlative: Full-On Toy Betrayal – The mice attack the false Santa Claus with the same toys that he brought them as gifts, which leads me to wonder if that’s why so many kids asked for toy guns and tanks back in the day.

Want to Watch it? Alias St. Nick is available on VHS, DVD and YouTube.

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.

A Pinky & the Brain Christmas

titleDebuted in 1995

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Brain’s plan to take over the world at Christmas involves having Santa deliver a special ‘Noodle Noggin’ toy to every house, allowing him to hypnotize every person within earshot of the toy. He and Pinky go to the North Pole and pose as elves to manipulate the system and get their toys made and delivered. But on Christmas morning, just as Brain gets ready to speak through his transmitter, he reads Pinky’s letter to Santa (in which Pinky asks Santa to give all his gifts to his best friend, Brain) and has a change of heart, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

Fun Fact: The characters’ voice actors, Rob Paulson and Maurice LaMarche, have said that they were in tears while recording the end of this episode.

My thoughts: Pinky and the Brain were recurring characters on the wonderful Animaniacs show, which started in 1993, and they were spun off into their own show in 1995. The show ran for four seasons and eventually spun off into a new series, which also included Elmyra from Tiny Toon Adventures. This episode really showcases what made this show (and Animaniacs before it) so wonderful. There is humor that works really well for kids and humor aimed specifically at the adults (such as the moment at the North Pole when Pinky tells Brain they’ve been invited to a Christmas party at Donner’s place and Brain tells Pinky he doesn’t want to join the Donner party). But there is also real warmth here, too. The characters have depth and complexity to them. Throughout the special, Pinky keeps bringing up his letter to Santa and Brain keeps ridiculing him for it. So when Brain reads the letter, you see that he really feels regret at how he’s treated his friend and when he delivers his new message, it’s so heartfelt. I think this one deserves more recognition and a place alongside the classics.

reindeer

Such tiny tiny reindeer.

elves

The elf outfit really suits Pinky.  NARF!

santa-reviewing-his-list

Would Santa use an exercise bike?  I think he’s more of a treadmill guy.

touched

Me too, Brain.  ALL the feels.

Individual Superlative: Ready for Prime Time – This episode was originally aired as a prime time special and not just as a regular episode of the show. It won a prime time Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.

Want to Watch it? A Pinky & the Brain Christmas is available on VHS and DVD.

The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack: Low Tidings

titleDebuted in 2009

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Flapjack wants to experience Low Tides Day but K’nuckles hates the holiday due to a bad experience with it when mermen sacked him for being bad when he was young. K’nuckles tries to find a hiding place so that the mermen won’t sack him again but all the spots are taken, so Flapjack aims to make him into a good person instead so he will have nothing to fear. Eventually, Poseidon asks the mermen to stop sacking people and decides that sacks will be only be used to deliver gifts.

Fun Fact: This was the first two part episode of the show.

My thoughts: There are some specials that are fairly easy to summarize in three sentence and wow, this sure isn’t one of them. The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack ran for three seasons on Cartoon Network and chiefly centered around a boy, the talking whale who raised him and the pirate they rescued together. The premise of their Low Tides holiday is that good kids can lower their boots into the water, where Poseidon will fill them with toys and bad kids are tied up in sacks by mermen. Although most of the special is regular animation, there are some stop motion scenes and a bizarre live action Poseidon who interacts with the animated characters. The special opens with a version of ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ with some funny rewritten lyrics. Overall, the special is really weird, like the show, but it has its funny moments. It’s probably better appreciated by those who already watch and enjoy the show, though, as there’s a lot to absorb otherwise.

little-knuckles

Little K’nuckles has a lot of teeth.

flapjack

Flapjack seems to be experiencing some holiday ennui.

mermen-with-bag

I didn’t know mermen were so grumpy.

poseidon-talking-to-townsfolk

“Observe my impressive blue muscular arm!”

Individual Superlative: Weirdest Narrator – The episode’s narrator character is the town comedian, a strange looking guy named Lolly Poopdeck.

Want to Watch it? Flapjack: Low Tidings is available on YouTube and usually airs on Cartoon Network during the holiday season.

Rugrats: The Santa Experience

titleDebuted in 1992

24 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: When Angelica discovers that the mall Santa is fake, she gets a box of toys to compensate and the unfair trades she makes with Lil and Phil get her worried that she will get coal for Christmas. All the families go to a mountain cabin for the holiday and Chuckie and Tommy set traps for Santa to find out if he’s actually good or bad. Chuckie’s dad tries to pose as Santa, and Angelica’s dad tries to hire a Santa impersonator, but those both go badly, then the real Santa shows up with presents for everyone (even Angelica).

Fun Fact: This is not only the first Christmas episode of Rugrats, but also the first time we actually get to see Angelica’s mother.

My thoughts: Rugrats ran for nine seasons on Nickelodeon and was one of the most successful cartoons on the network. This episode aired in its second season and is a really good representation of the show in general. Although the show is fairly formulaic, the characters are entertaining enough to make the show enjoyable to watch and the scripts had moments that played well to children watching, but also included some concepts that were aimed at the parents watching with them. There’s a lot going on in this episode that makes it good and most of it revolves around people caring for each other. Sure, Angelica is mostly centered on not getting coal for Christmas, but it shows that she knows what she did was wrong. When she gets her dream present from Santa, he tells her that sometimes wanting to be good can be important, but then we see that there IS a lump of coal in her dream house, reminding us that simply wanting to be good doesn’t cover everything. The earnestness with which the dads try to give their kids a perfect Christmas is sweet and we’re left with the conclusion that Christmas doesn’t need to be perfect. It generally is wonderful enough on its own.

babies-in-awe

The babies are understandably  in awe of Santa.

santa-and-angelica

But he seems pretty easy going here with Angelica.

mom

How do you even manage this hairstyle?

working-mom

Working moms are getting a bad rep here.

Individual Superlative: Most Honest Declaration – While all the parents are announcing what they plan to do in order to achieve the perfect Christmas, Grandpa declares that he will drink lots of eggnog and fall asleep. In my opinion, this is an important contribution to the holiday and I think I will join him. Eggnog solidarity, Grandpa!

Want to Watch it? Rugrats: The Santa Experience is available on VHS and DVD.

Invader Zim: The Most Horrible X-mas Ever

titleDebuted in 2002

24 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Zim poses as Santa in order to get money and then, as he learns more about Santa, to lure humans to their doom. But the Santa suit he creates begins to believe he’s actually Santa and fills Zim with warm emotions and jolly feelings toward children. Dib and Gaz show up in time to stop him by jettisoning the mutated spirit of Santa into space.

Fun Fact: This was the last episode to be completed before the series was cancelled, but it was actually the first Season 2 episode to air in the US.

My thoughts: Invader Zim was a short-lived series on Nickelodeon created by comic book writer Jhonen Vasquez (best known for his Johnny the Homicidal Maniac comic series). The basic plot (an alien sent to Earth to infiltrate and plot world domination) is simple, but offers a lot to work with and the show had a fair-sized cult following. It’s a little confusing if you’ve never seen any of the show before, but still enjoyable even without the full knowledge of the characters. The show is bookended by a mechanical snowman narrator, telling a group of children the story we’re watching as something that happened in the long ago past. It’s definitely on the darker side, in plot elements and character design, but there are plenty of funny moments and quite a lot of unpredictability, which is always welcome in the world of overdone holiday plots. Definitely worth watching, especially if you enjoy things a little on the weird side.

snowman-narrator

The robot snowman should do something about that unibrow.

jolly-jail

The ‘Jolly Jail’ turns incarceration into minty holiday fun!

soft-hearted-santa

Santa’s going all emotional on us.

easter-platypus

Next plan: The Easter Platypus!

Individual Superlative: Least Reassuring Santa Outcome – In the story’s ending narration, the talking snowman tells the children that Santa isn’t dead (which is normally good news) but that he’s out in space, gathering power to come back and destroy us all. You better watch out!

Want to Watch it? Invader Zim: The Most Horrible X-mas Ever is available on DVD.