Continuing our survey of Television Christmas Specials with an overview of various shows from 1980 to present day. If I’ve forgotten your favorite from this era, let me know in the comments below.
Santa’s Pocket Watch. 1980. A British 20-minute TV special, produced by Pete Parsons Studio. Narrated by Santa Claus. Sam, a little boy, sneaks downstairs on Christmas Eve to wait for Santa. He hides in Santa’s sack and returns to the North Pole with him. Santa invites him to the Christmas party that his elves have prepared while he was delivering presents. Everyone gets a gift except Sam, whose gift is at his house. To cheer Sam up, Santa gives him his own musical pocket watch that plays “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. Sam falls asleep, and when he wakes up, he is back home. He thinks that he has dreamed the whole thing, but he still has the pocket watch. This is the worst professional animation that I have ever seen. To cut production costs, Santa’s workshop has only seven elves (Stubbs, Socks, Specs, Pockets, Pimple, Conk, and Old Tash) and his sleigh is drawn by one reindeer (Garibaldy).
The Christmas Raccoons. December 17, 1980. A Canadian 25-minute CBC TV special, introducing Kevin Gillis’ The Raccoons characters: forest-dwelling Bert Raccoon, his friends Ralph and Melissa Raccoon, greedy industrialist Cyril Sneer (aardvark), human forest Ranger Dan, his children, and Schaeffer the sheepdog. This was the first of four CBC TV specials animated by Gillis’ Gillis-Wiseman Productions (later expanded to Evergreen Raccoons Television Productions) that made The Raccoons popular enough to lead to a 1985-1991 cartoon series on Canadian and U.S. TV. On December 23, Dan the Ranger learns that the trees in Evergreen Forest are rapidly disappearing. In the forest, Ralph and Melissa Raccoon and their boarder friend Bert prepare their Raccoondominium home for Christmas. The Raccoondominium is chopped down by Cyril Sneer, who is cutting down the forest to sell the lumber. Cyril loses the Raccoondominium, which is found by Dan’s children Tommy and Julie and their dog Schaeffer. The children bring it home to be their Christmas tree, which causes the Raccoons to suspect them of being the tree thieves. All is eventually straightened out, and Cyril is persuaded to stop logging the forest and to plant new seedlings to replace the trees cut down. The children keep the Raccoondominium as their Christmas tree, and the three Raccoons start a new home in one of the new trees nearby.
The Smurfs Christmas Special. December 13, 1982. A half-hour Hanna-Barbera TV special, co-written by Peyo, the Belgian creator of the Schtroumpfs/Smurfs in 1958 and drawn in his art style. The Smurfs prepare their village for a merry Christmas, while Gargamel sulks about how miserable Christmas is. A grandfather is bringing two young children, William and Guinevere, in his sleigh to visit their rich Uncle Edgar. They are attacked by a fierce wolf, controlled by a mysterious man in a purple cloak. The grandfather is trapped by the overturned sleigh, and the children go for help. Gargamel chases them away, before the man in the purple cloak comes and offers him the power to destroy the Smurfs if he will capture the children for the man. The children are threatened by wolves but are rescued by a band of Smurfs; William thinks that Papa Smurf is Santa Claus. The Smurfs set out to rescue the grandfather, who has already been rescued by Uncle Edgar looking for the children. Uncle Edgar encounters Gargamel and Azrael (who Uncle Edgar does not know are also looking for the children), and offers ten gold pieces for their rescue. Gargamel now has even more reason to find the children. Gargamel captures the children and turns them over to the man in the purple cloak, who is implied to be the Devil, angry at Uncle Edgar for being so good. The man takes a fearful Gargamel away along with the children, but as he is about to transport them sorcerously to “his home”, the Smurfs rescue them. Gargamel tries to claim the ten gold pieces, but Uncle Edgar orders him off. The children go off with Uncle Edgar, and the Smurfs return to their village which is magically restored after Gargamel’s destruction of it. This was the first of two Smurf Christmas TV specials, the other being ‘Tis the Season to be Smurfy (December 13, 1987). See also the video-extra Smurf Christmas Special with the DVD release of the 2011 The Smurfs theatrical feature.
The Snowman. December 26, 1982. This is the beautiful half-hour British adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture book. The TV special adds the Christmas elements, which are not in the picture book. A 12-year-old boy in a small English town during a snowy winter builds a snowman, which comes to life at midnight. The boy brings the snowman into his house to show him how humans live; the snowman reciprocates by taking him (they fly over the Pavilion at the Brighton pier) to the North Pole to visit Santa Claus. The animation was by TVC London using soft colored pencils to match Briggs’ art. The Snowman was so popular that it has been rebroadcast each Christmastime from 1982 to the present in the United Kingdom, and it is often shown in other countries. In 2012 a 30th-anniversary sequel was made; The Snowman and the Snowdog, dedicated to John Coates, the producer responsible for the 1982 special. The video shown here is from the original 1982 broadcast, with Raymond Briggs himself providing the live-action introduction. For the 1983 broadcast, he was replaced by the more popular David Bowie, and it is this version that is usually seen.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. December 17, 1985. A 50-minute Rankin/Bass stop-motion (“Animagic”) adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1902 children’s fantasy biography of Santa as Claus, a baby; emphasizing his adventures as an adult hero; to when he becomes Santa Claus as an old man. Here’s the opening 25 seconds.
The Little Troll Prince: A Christmas Parable. November 27, 1987. A 60-minute TV movie produced by Hanna-Barbera, designed by Iwao Takamoto and with an all-star voice cast (Vincent Price, Jonathan Winters, Don Knotts, Cloris Leachman, Charlie Adler, Rob Paulsen, Frank Welker). The tiny trolls are nasty and ugly, except for little Prince Bu who says “please” and is kindly. Two-headed King Ulvik sends him to Sinister School. His good grades enrage the other troll children, who trick him into believing that the giant humans are eating trolls. Bu goes to a Norwegian human house, where he mistakes gingerbread men for cooked trolls. He tries to get the other troll children’s help, but they tie him to a tree in the forest and leave. Bu is rescued by two human girls, Sonja and Kristi, who teach him about God. Bu is retrieved by the trolls, who put him on trial for being untroll-like. Bu insists on telling them about God, whereupon they disown him. Bu loses his trollish tail, pointed ears, and big nose, and he is adopted by the good gnomes, who are friends of Sonja and Kristi.
Care Bears: The Nutcracker. December 10, 1988. A.k.a. The Care Bears’ Nutcracker Suite. A 62-minute cartoon production by Nelvana Ltd. that was planned as a theatrical movie, but ended up as a TV special. A schoolteacher tells her class a very loose version of E. T. A. Hoffman’s 1816 The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, as adapted by Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet, with the Care Bears added. The Care Bears Funshine and Grumpy take a Cloud Mobile from Care-a-lot to Earth to comfort Anna, an unhappy little girl. Suddenly a dimensional portal opens near them, and a wooden soldier, the Nutcracker, emerges fleeing the Rat King and his rat army. The Nutcracker explains that he is from Toyland, which is about to be taken over by an evil Vizier; the Rat King is his henchman. Funshine and Grumpy summon the other Care Bears, who decide to enter Toyland. Two of the Bears, Hugs and Tugs, are told to stay behind with Anna’s brother Peter. The Bears attempt to steal the Vizier’s ring of power, but are defeated. Peter, Hugs, and Tugs fight the rat army, and while all attention is on them, the Sugar Plum Fairy uses the ring to turn the Nutcracker back into Toyland’s prince and to free the Care Bears, who quickly defeat the Vizier and the rats. Finally, the schoolteacher is revealed to be Anna, grown up and married to the prince.
Jingle Bell Rap. 1991. A half-hour TV special, animated by Perennial Pictures Film Corp. of Indianapolis. The K9-4 is a quartet of rapping ‘n rockin’ musical dogs (Fetch, Licks, Rollover, and Bones) who, with their groupie Roxie, return to their hometown of Barkersville for a special Christmas Concert and tree-lighting ceremony, and a very special reunion for Rollover with his estranged dad. Perennial Pictures has created such animated half-hour Christmas TV specials or direct-to-video releases as A Merry Mirthworm Christmas (December 14, 1984), Aliens First Christmas (November 12, 1991), Up On the Housetop (August 15, 1992), Deck the Halls (November 24, 1994), Jolly Old St. Nicholas (November 24, 1994), O Christmas Tree (1994), We Wish You a Merry Christmas (September 1994), and The Ugly Duckling’s Christmas Wish (1996; 70 minutes).
A Wish for Wings That Work. December 18, 1991. A half-hour (23 minutes + commercials) cartoon, produced by Amblin Television and Universal Cartoon Studios, of Berkeley Breathed’s popular Opus the Penguin asking Santa for wings that he could fly with. Opus, with Bill the Cat, tries Rube Goldbergish schemes to get airborne. Other characters from Breathed’s Bloom County and Outland newspaper comic strips populate the TV special.
Father Christmas. December 24, 1991. A British half-hour (24 minutes) TV special for Channel Four, combining two of British author Raymond Briggs’ picture books; Father Christmas (1973) and Father Christmas Goes on Holiday (1975). Santa decides to take a long vacation after delivering presents one Christmas, reasoning that he has 364 days until next year’s Christmas. He visits France, Scotland, and Las Vegas, before returning home and preparing for the next Christmas. Since Briggs was also the author of The Snowman, and both animated adaptations were produced by John Coates, Coates made Father Christmas seem to be a direct sequel to The Snowman, with references to Briggs’ other picture books. A version was prepared for American TV with a new soundtrack replacing the thick British dialogue, and scenes edited out of Father Christmas getting drunk, overeating, or dancing with the Las Vegas chorus girls during his holiday.
Nick & Noel. November 25, 1993. A half-hour (22 minutes) TV special, directed by John Sparey and produced by Film Roman. Barnaby the mouse narrates this story of motherless little Sarah and her cat Noel; her father, writer Howard Hicks; and their new next-apartment neighbors, singer Leslie Lee and her dog Nick. Howard can’t write with Leslie’s noisy singing practice, they become enemies, and so do the dog & cat — until Sarah’s father forgets to mail her Christmas letter to Santa Claus, and the pets set out to deliver it to the North Pole (which they think is on North Street in town). The humans go looking together for their missing pets, Howie and Leslie fall in love and Sarah becomes best friends with Leslie, and Sarah gets a new mother.
The Twelve Days of Christmas. December 3, 1993. A half-hour (32 minutes) TV movie, directed by Masaki Îzuka and produced by Pacific Animation Corporation. Written by Romeo Muller (who wrote the 1964 Rankin/Bass TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; not Robert May, the writer of the Rudolph song). Narrated by The Partridge in the Pear Tree. In a Medieval kingdom of anthropomorphic bears, the bold, brave, and arrogant Prince Carolboomer woos the King’s daughter, Princess Silverbell, who keeps telling him “NO!” Carolboomer, believing that she will succumb to him if he can give her what she truly wants, orders his squire Hollyberry (voice of Phil Hartman) to steal her Christmas list. The nerdy but smart Hollyberry accidentally gets the king’s list of crossword-puzzle answers instead. Carolboomer orders Hollyberry to get each of the bizarre items on the list, with terrifying results since most of them – the partridge, the two turtle doves, the three French hens, the four calling birds (or colly birds, the Medieval name for the common blackbird), the six geese a-laying, the seven swans a-swimming – come with feathers, which Princess Silverbell is violently allergic to. Despite this, the haughty Carolboomer orders Hollyberry to keep delivering them every day. By the twelfth day, Hollyberry has fallen in love with Silverbell himself, and Silverbell has noticed that he is loyally doing all of the increasingly hard work for her that Carolboomer is taking the credit for.
The Town Santa Forgot. December 3, 1993. A half-hour TV adaptation of the poem Jeremy Creek, by Charmaine Severson, produced by Hanna-Barbera with production design by comic-book/superhero artist Scott Jeralds – and narration by Dick Van Dyke. Jeremy Creek, a spoiled little boy, sends a letter to Santa Claus asking for so many toys that Santa thinks the letter must come from all the children of a town named Jeremy Creek, not a single child. Santa and his elves scour a map and find there is a town of that name that Santa has never visited. Jeremy the boy awaits Christmas impatiently, even climbing on the roof on Christmas Eve to grab the toys as soon as Santa arrives. He is devastated when Santa doesn’t come, until he hears a TV newscast on Christmas day that Santa has visited a town with his name where he had never been before. When Jeremy sees on TV how happy the children are, he realizes that the satisfaction of his accidental good deed is better than any enjoyment of the toys could be. Nominated for a 1994 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program (For Programming Less Than One Hour).
The Spirit of Christmas. December 1, 1995. Hoo-hah! This is the notorious 5-minute, 12-second video “Christmas card” made from animated construction paper by recent college graduates Trey Parker and Matt Stone, about Jesus and Santa Claus trying to kill each other to establish supremacy over Christmas, meanwhile wiping out innocent bystanders right and left, while the local foulmouthed children look on. In 1992 Parker & Stone made a similarly-titled film while students at the University of Colorado, though it had an evil, tentacled snowman monster instead of Santa Claus. Fox executive Brian Graden saw it in 1995, and gave Parker & Stone $2,000 to film a similar video that he could send to his friends that Christmas. The video got passed around and copied during 1996, and was eventually seen by executives of Comedy Central who commissioned Parker & Stone to develop it into a TV series. South Park went on the air on August 13, 1997, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Twas the Night Before Bumpy. December 19, 1995. A 64-minute TV special featuring the cartoon cast of the Bump in the Night TV series, animated in clay stop-motion by Danger Productions, producer Ken Pontac’s studio that did Bump in the Night and little else. Bumpy, a little green monster living under the bed, tries to steal Santa Claus’ bag of toys with the help of the blue Squishington, who lives in the house’s toilet tank. They go to the North Pole where they are successful, but Bumpy grabs the sack and abandons Squishington. When the sack tears and Bumpy loses all the toys, he is left without anything.
The Story of Santa Claus. December 4, 1996. A one-hour (44 minutes) TV movie directed by Toby Bluth and produced by Film Roman. Nicholas “Santa” Claus (voice of Ed Asner) is a toymaker with his wife Gretchen (Betty White), but he gives away more toys to poor children than he sells, and greedy Mr. Minch (Jim Cummings) forecloses on their shop. Santa decides to donate his remaining toys to the Angel’s Island Orphanage where he grew up, but a storm blows them to the North Pole where they find a colony of elves led by Nostros (Tim Curry), an elven wizard. Santa saves the life of Clement, Nostros’ son, and Nostros must grant him one wish. Santa wishes to be able to deliver new toys to every child in the world on Christmas. Nostros, horrified, says this is a wish that they are physically unable to make good on, but if they do not, all elves in the world will lose their magic and die. Santa and Gretchen, distraught for accidentally dooming the elves, try to make enough toys for all the children. The other elves help, and the girl elf Aurora promises to use her magic to help deliver them in one night. Finally even the grumpy Nostros pitches in. After Santa returns to the North Pole successfully, the elves make him and Gretchen honorary elves, granting them immortality so they can make and deliver toys every year.
Sonic: Christmas Blast. December 24, 1996. A half-hour TV movie based on the TV series The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, animated by DiC Entertainment. IMDb’s synopsis: “Sonic the Hedgehog must stop the evil Dr. Robotnik from ruining Christmas after Santa Claus disappears.” The real Santa has been kidnapped by Dr. Robotnik, and replaced by a robot Santa who tells the inhabitants of Robotropolis that he is retiring in favor of Robotnik Claus (Robotnik in a Santa suit). Everyone is despondent when Robotnik decrees that henceforth they must give him presents instead of vice-versa. Sonic and Tails go to Robotropolis, learn the truth, and rescue the real Santa; but by then Robotnik has all of the presents. Sonic increases his speed to get all of the presents back and properly distributed by Christmas morn. Santa is so impressed that he retires for real in Sonic’s favor.
Annabelle’s Wish. October 21, 1997. A 54-minute TV special for the Fox Network about Annabelle, a calf (baby cow) on a Tennessee farm where Santa gives all the barnyard animals the gift of speech for Christmas day. Annabelle’s wish is to become one of Santa’s flying reindeer. Simultaneously Billy, a timid mute human boy who is happy on the farm (his grandfather’s), is threatened by his arrogant, rich Aunt Agnes who wants to take him away from the people that he loves. The animation was produced by the Baer Animation Co., a Palmdale, California-area studio that has sometimes subcontracted animation for Disney.
Santa vs. The Snowman. December 12, 1997. A 32-minute TV special, produced by O Entertainment and animated by DNA Productions. The IMDb synopsis: “A lonely snowman finds Santa’s workshop. But when he sets off the perimeter alarms and is chased away, he wonders why he couldn’t be Santa and get all the love and fun this year. With the aid of “Snow Minions Made Easy”, he pits his snow army against Santa’s elves and captures Santa. But can he really do Santa’s job?” This was rereleased theatrically as Santa vs. the Snowman 3D on November 1, 2002 in IMAX 3D theaters, and as a 3D DVD by Universal Studios with 3D glasses.
Olive, the Other Reindeer. December 17, 1999. A 45-minute TV special based on the 1997 children’s book by Vivian Walsh and illustrated by J. Otto Seibold; written and produced by Matt Groening and animated by DNA Productions. Olive, a Jack Russell terrier, learns that Christmas may be cancelled because Blitzen, one of Santa’s reindeer, has been injured and cannot fly. Olive sets out for the North Pole to volunteer to replace him. She is constantly sabotaged by an evil Postman who wants to permanently end Christmas to ease his mail load (he has been sending Santa counterfeit children’s hate mail, hoping to discourage Santa), but is helped by Martini, a friendly and clever but not too honest penguin. Olive guides the reindeer home safely in a heavy fog by using her dog’s sense of smell to home in on Mrs. Claus’ gingerbread cookies.
Christmas in South Park. December 20, 2000. A 100-minute TV musical movie that reprises the Christmas segments of many regular TV episodes. The IMDb synopsis: “Howdy Ho! Mr. Hankey, everybody’s favorite piece of poo, is here to show us his line up of holly jolly Christmas songs! There’s S.D. Kluger singing the Mr. Hankey theme, then we’ve got Mr. Mackey singing Carol of the Bells, Eric Cartman singing ‘O Holy Night’, Jesus Christ and Santa Claus singing a medley of Christmas jingles, and even Mr. Garrison wishes all the religions of the world a Merry Christmas! It really is a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Krazy Kwanza, and all the rest!”
Timothy Tweedle: The First Christmas Elf. December 25, 2000. A 60-minute TV special animated by Evening Sky Productions; an adaptation of the children’s book by Sharon McKay. Narrated by Comet the reindeer (Howie Mandel), this is the story of how the elves, miniature people who make toys and are the forest animals’ friends, get Santa Claus started. Timothy Tweedle (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), a boy elf who is small even for a miniature elf, goes looking for his grandfather after the North Wind brings winter early, and is captured by greedy Fabulous Flo, who forces him to perform as a living puppet for the Big People. He escapes but faints in the forest, and is rescued by Santa Claus, then only middle-aged and a not very good toymaker. Flo and her two henchmen, who are looking for Timothy, find the elf village and capture them all. Timothy and his friend Noel persuade Comet to rescue them. The elves, grateful to Santa for saving Timothy, help him to become the Christmas toy-giver, with the friendly South Wind carrying Santa’s sleigh and reindeer into the sky.
The Santa Claus Brothers. December 14, 2001. A 60-minute TV movie co-produced by Film Roman Productions and Nelvana, Ltd. The Big Cartoon Database’s synopsis: “A comic Christmas tale for all season and ages. Santa’s sons, Mel, Daryl and Roy, may be 150-year-old triplets, but they have to do a little growing up to do before they are ready to take over the family business. Sent on a mission to find the true meaning of Christmas, the three boys discover the realities of the outside world, the world discovers the unique magic of the Santa Claus brothers, and the brothers discover themselves.”
The Christmas Orange. December 9, 2002. A half-hour (22 minutes) TV special directed by Ian Freedman and produced by Bardel Entertainment in Vancouver. An adaptation of the 1998 children’s book by Don Gillmor and Marie-Louise Gay; a satire on today’s overly-litigious society. 6-year-old Anton Stingley awakes on Christmas to discover that Santa Claus has ignored his 16-page, 600-item wish list and brought him only an orange. Lawyer Wiley Studpustle persuades Anton to sue Santa in Judge Oldengray’s court for breach of contract. The disillusioned Santa vows to never deliver another gift. Anton must change Santa’s mind to save Christmas. This TV animated special has no connection to the 1996 live-action two-hour French movie L’Orange de Noël.
Noël Noël. December 13, 2003. A half-hour (22’33”) TV special directed by Nicola Lemay and produced by the National Film Board of Canada for broadcast on Teletoon. A pastiche of Christmas overcommercialization. Noël Noël is a humble toymaker who falls in love with Beatrice, a forest fairy whose magic makes his toys fantastically popular. But he thinks that he must achieve material success for her to truly love him, so he chops down her magic fir tree to build a great Christmas department store, driving her away. Years later, he has become a superrich mogul, but his success is meaningless to him without Beatrice. His materialism turns him into a hideous monster every Christmas day, but little Zooey Murphy, whose parents have impoverished themselves buying his products (including a “pet” reindeer), and her dachshund Snooze help him to find Beatrice again.
Once Upon a Stable. December 12, 2004. A half-hour (23-minute) South African TV special that you did not see unless you were there, but you may have seen it in America as a religious DVD. Funded and marketed by Animated Family Films of West Palm Beach, Florida; directed by Chris Schoultz; and produced by Sunrise Productions of Cape Town, S.A. A badly CGI-animated story of how the zany Stable-Mates (Esmay the cow, Horace the pig, Drake the rooster & his hen, Slink the rat, and Monty the horse) of that stable in Bethlehem greet the birth of “the King”.
Animated Family Films and Sunrise Productions are also responsible for Lion of Judah, a June 2011 CGI theatrical feature about Judah the lamb, and the barnyard friends of Once Upon a Stable, at Christ’s Easter crucifixion; and they are currently in production of Bethlehem or Bust, a 90-minute theatrical “prelude” to the two aforementioned. (Since Jesus is estimated to have been 33 years old when He was crucified, how are the animals that were present at His birth still alive?)
Next week: Christmas CGI animated TV specials, direct-to-video movies, and theatrical features.