As we "dahoo dores" the holiday season, I'm always amazed at how the Christmas specials we watched as kids, still air in prime time. Charlie Brown and The Grinch still give the gift of decent ratings close to 50 years after their initial broadcast. But have you noticed that it's only Charlie Brown, The Grinch and nothing else? There isn't a vintage holiday special outside of those two (and maybe Rankin/Bass's Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty The Snowman) that still gets re-gifted around Christmas time.
Today I thought we'd highlight 5 vintage holiday specials that I feel don't get the love they deserve. To me, all of these cartoons still hold up and feature great animation and memorable songs - but will never be considered the "classics" that Charlie and The Grinch are.
A VERY MERRY CRICKET (1973)
Of course Chuck Jones is renowned for his take on Dr. Seuss's How The Grinch Stole Christmas. But not a lot of people are aware of his holiday special that followed.
A Very Merry Cricket is actually a sequel to another special he did called A Cricket In Times Square. Similar to Seuss, both specials (and the third, called Yankee Doodle Cricket) were adaptations of popular children's books written by George Selden.
In the special, Tucker (a mouse, voiced by Mel Blanc - natch!), Harry (the cat) and Chester (the cricket) are on a mission to bring peace to a noisy and manic city. Their mission: not unlike what was presented in the first special. I don't want to ruin it for you, but let's just say if you don't get misty-eyed near the end, you are a nasty-wasty skunk.
Speaking of the end, did you catch the cameo in the crowd at the 22:53 mark?
A Very Merry Cricket features some typically great animation, but some of it is abstract and unlike what you'd expect to see in a Chuck Jones cartoon, especially if you were only raised on The Grinch. This is evident at the very beginning of the film and near the end, when the cityscape is presented in a sometimes nightmarish and alien fashion. But the special also contains those Chuck Jones-ian character flourishes you've come to expect, like the creepy serpent-like street cat at the 14-minute mark.
Obviously, this is no Grinch. It's a bit slow in the story department, and the music is sometimes out-of-place with an over-synthesized feel, typical to any film of that decade. But it definitely has its heart in the right place, which is why I'm surprised it's largely ignored.
THE PINK PANTHER IN: A PINK CHRISTMAS (1978)
Original Pink Panther story-men John Dunn and Friz Freleng wrote this half-hour cartoon (adapted from O. Henry's "The Cop And The Anthem") featuring a down-on-his-luck Panther on the hunt for food during the busy holiday season. What's great about this special is that the animation is similar to what you'd see in previous Pink Panther shorts. It isn't cheapened or dumbed-down like a lot of the other Christmas specials are. I'm looking at you, Yogi's First Christmas.
There's a timeless quality to the material, which I think is greatly benefited by the forced perspective of writing for a character that can't speak. It becomes necessary for filmmakers to draft a story that can translate without use of dialogue. Most of the original Pink Panther cartoons can still be enjoyed without benefit of sound, and like always, it's amazing the level of humour and emotion they can wring out of a character that, at this point, had already been part of the public consciousness for close to 15 years. I think some of the best comedy can be found in films that adapt beyond the cheat of dialogue. They must be incredibly difficult to write for, but when you watch them, it seems effortless. It didn't hurt to have original creators and gag-men back on board, who understood the character and what made him work.
The music is also unexpectedly great, with a few songs peppered throughout by a children's choir. It's all strangely affecting for a Pink Panther cartoon. But it works, and doesn't sway from the Panther's classic roots. And the reason why it works is that it's simple and genuine.
ZIGGY'S GIFT (1982)
If you're young, this will be a very hard sell. But you shouldn't use this information to dissuade you from giving the special a chance.
First of all, it's based on a newspaper comic strip called Ziggy, which was created by Tom Wilson. Ziggy had some popularity in the 1980's, but was later forgotten - kinda like newspapers. Maybe 'forgotten' is the wrong word. Ziggy, the comic strip, still exists today, written and drawn by Tom Wilson's son. But Ziggy (in both print and cartoon) has never been praised to the extent of Good Ol' Charlie Brown.
Ziggy's Gift is directed by animation legend, Richard Williams, who is best known for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He won an Emmy for this special. You can tell the simplistic character design appealed to him, and he would've embraced the challenge of trying to figure out a way to make this squiggly, squashy character move. His design also allowed Williams to create stark, dramatic contrast to some of the environments and characters that Ziggy would encounter.
Heart and humour once again go hand-in-hand to make this an unknown classic. The voicework is funny and tough to catch in the first viewing. Pay particular attention to a Walter Cronkite-wannabe on TV near the opening.
Songs (by Harry Nilsson!) are kinda sappy, but fit the feelings conveyed.
Once again, this is another example of a cartoon greatly benefited by lack of dialogue. The secondary characters speak, but Ziggy doesn't. It was a wise decision because it makes the emotional impact of Ziggy's actions that much greater.
There's a lot of talent on display here, if you can move past the unknown and/or unwanted association to a totally uncool comic strip character. But at least this uncool comic strip character's Christmas special is good. I'm looking at you, A Family Circus Christmas.
A CLAYMATION CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION (1987)
This is another classic marred by snarky pop culture. I blame The Simpsons.
Yes, The California Raisins make an appearance, who became uncool and over-merchandised in their later years. But even they're fun to watch in this, from a time when success hadn't yet gone to their shrivelled heads. They play a small part in a fun and weirdly traditional mixture of song and skits. The rest of the special is hosted by 2 dinosaurs, who segue in and out of cute Christmas-themed music videos. It's hard to explain, but somehow it works.
Claymation creator Will Vinton is under-appreciated for his contributions to cartoon-dom. And this is another shining example of why. This special aired for several years back-to-back with A Garfield Christmas, but is rarely seen nowadays, probably due to its antiquated animation techniques. However, heart and humour are hard to create on a computer. I'm looking at you, Shrek The Halls.
THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY (1968)
I mentioned Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty The Snowman above. They are established holiday classics. But Rankin/Bass's third holiday special, The Little Drummer Boy, is not. I expect this has something to do with our generation's changing perspective on religion, but it is the more mature and most touching of Rankin/Bass's work.
This is a retelling of the classic Christmas story/song, where a drummer boy (here, named Aaron) witnesses the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Sure, there's cutesy creative license in the use of animals - his lamb, Baba, donkey Samson and Joshua the camel - but the basic elements of the original story remain intact. Even if you have differing religious beliefs, there's no denying the beauty in the song itself, which is touchingly showcased near the end as Aaron plays for the king and discovers that his dying lamb has made a miraculous recovery from a horse-cart injury. Your kids will likely have a lot of questions about this, but seriously, when has this blog ever been intended for children? I mean, really!
The holidays for me have always been a time for nostalgia. And hopefully these specials took you back to a memorable Christmas from your past. Here's to the classics, and to making new ones out of holidays to come! Have a wonderful and merry Christmas!