December 15, 2013 posted by

Christmasy Cartoonz, Part 4: specials, direct-to-video and theatricals

Welcome back to our serialized listing of animated Christmas films. This week a look at theatricals, made-for-TV-and-home-video productions and several TV Specials created in CG. As always, if you notice something missing, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Now let’s begin with direct-to-video animated Christmas movies. Some of these were first shown as TV specials, but all were made primarily for DVD sales. Some excessively sugary examples include:

An Angel for Christmas. 1996. A 45-minute Canadian musical video by Blye Migicovsky Productions of Toronto, distributed by Gaiam, Inc. In 1901, the town of Ironville is controlled by the miser D. D. Kovet, who employs all who live in it in his factory. He has made Christmas illegal because it slows down production. Angela, a little girl, helps the townsfolk to celebrate Christmas. At least Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t break into out-of-character musical numbers. Click here to see it.

Casper’s Haunted Christmas. October 31, 2000. An 84-minute CGI production of the Harvey Entertainment Co. characters, animated by Mainframe Entertainment and distributed by Classic Media. Kibosh, the supreme ruler of all ghosts, threatens Casper with eternal punishment if he breaks the ghostly law of having to deliberately scare at least one person a year; with his uncles, the Ghostly Trio, as well since they are responsible for him. Kibosh sends them all to Kriss, Mass. with orders that Casper must scare someone before Christmas Day. Casper is mistaken for a non-scary snowman by Holly Jollimore, a girl “his age” who hates Christmas because everyone in town, especially her parents, overdo the Xmas spirit. Casper, of course, tries to help everyone instead of scaring them. Meanwhile the Ghostly Trio, who do not want to be punished for Casper’s failure, hire Casper’s lookalike cousin Spooky to scare someone while impersonating Casper.

The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus. October 31, 2000. An 80-minute direct-to-video cel-animation adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel. A Mike Young Productions production, marketed as a Universal Family & Home Entertainment Production.

Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Merry Christmas. October 14, 2003. A 45-minute cartoon movie, produced by DiC Entertainment Corp. and distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Strawberry Shortcake has not got Christmas presents for her friends yet. She and Honey Pie Pony, her saddle-obsessed talking steed, go from Holidayland to the North Pole shopping for the perfect presents. When leaving Santa’s workshop, Strawberry stops to make some snowballs, which melt and ruin all the presents. But her friends assure her that they don’t mind because it’s the thought that counts.

The Happy Elf. December 6, 2005. A one-hour (45 minutes) CG TV special directed by John Rice and produced by Film Roman. Lil’ Farley (singer-songwriter Harry Connick, Jr.), a street musician, tells two arguing children the story of Eubie the Elf (Rob Paulsen), Santa Claus’ most hyperenthusiastic helper. Santa (Mickey Rooney) assigns him to bring Christmas joy to gloomy Bluesville, where all the children are naughty. The rappin’ Mayor of Bluesville (Kevin Michael Richardson, also the voice of Derek the Black elf, with Gilda (Carol Kane) Eubie’s best friend) explains that the town’s largest product is non-flammable coal, which nobody buys and the children throw to make mischief. He offers to put up a Christmas tree if Eubie can find another use for the coal. Also featuring Lewis Black as Norbert, the head of the elves’ naughty and nice department.

The Little Matchgirl. October 3, 2006. A 6-minute Disney cartoon, directed by Roger Allers. Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 story of the poor little street girl who tries to sell matches in winter, lights them to keep warm at night, and freezes to death. Disney’s additions include moving the setting from Denmark to Russia (with no dialogue and Alexander Borodin’s Nocturne from String Quartet No. 2 in D Major music), and adding a Christmas scene with a decorated tree and gifts in the matches’ flames. Originally intended for the cancelled Fantasia 2006; premiered at the 2006 Annecy International Animated Film Festival (June 5); released as an extra with The Little Mermaid Platinum Edition DVD on October 3, 2006.

A Christmas Carol. November 4, 2008. A Mattel direct-to-video 68-minute feature starring Mattel’s doll Barbie, brought to CGI life by Mainframe Entertainment in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is such a loose version of Dickens’ plot that it might be said to be “inspired” by it rather than an adaptation, the same way that the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Its blurb: “Barbie in A Christmas Carol is a heart-warming adaptation of the classic Dickens story filled with cherished Christmas carols, fabulous fashions and lots of laughs! The tale stars Barbie as Eden Starling the glamorous singing diva of a theatre in Victorian London. Along with her snooty cat, Chuzzlewit, Eden selfishly plans to make all the theatre performers stay and rehearse on Christmas Day! Not even Eden’s costume designer and childhood friend, Catherine can talk Eden out of her self-centered tantrum. It’s up to three very unusual Christmas Spirits to take Eden on a fantastical holiday journey that will open her heart to the spirit of the season and the joy of giving.” The three Christmas Spirits are dressed in fabulous fashions, of course. Marketed by Universal Studios Home Video.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Another adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel, in CGI animation by Toonz Entertainment in Singapore. This was originally announced for a 2010 release, but has not appeared as of 2013. However, the 3’27” trailer (below) is still available as an example of what it would have been like. (Apparently, not as sugary as the others.)

Since the mid-2000s, original Christmas TV specials not based upon CGI animated theatrical mega-hits essentially disappeared, and were replaced by CGI Christmas TV specials based upon those movies, which become either DVD movies or extras on their feature’s DVD releases after their TV broadcasts. The Madagascar Penguins in A Christmas Caper, October 7, 2005, 11 minutes. Shrek the Halls, November 28, 2007, 30 minutes. Merry Madagascar, November 17, 2009, 30 minutes. Kung Fu Panda Holiday, November 24, 2010, 30 minutes. Donkey’s Caroling Christmas-tacular, December 7, 2010, 8 minutes. Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas Special, November 24, 2011, 26 minutes.

Disney has made an annual series of original Prep & Landing half-hour CGI TV specials for ABC-TV, starring Lanny & Wayne, two of Santa Claus’ elves who are members of the Prep & Landing brigade who go ahead of Santa on Christmas to prepare children’s homes for his visit. There have been three: Prep & Landing, broadcast December 8, 2009; Operation: Secret Santa, December 7, 2010; and Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice, December 5, 2011. The first and third were rebroadcast together on December 9, 22, and 24, 2012 as Disney’s 2012 Christmas TV special. (There have also been Shrek, Monsters vs. Aliens and Toy Story TV specials for Hallowe’en.) Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury, a spinoff of DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon, was not a TV special but an original 22-minute direct-to-DVD, released November 15, 2011.

While Christmas animated short TV specials were proliferating, Christmas-themed animated theatrical features have been rarer. In the last five years, features that have been two years or more in production have been aiming for really big Yuletide releases.

Santa and the Three Bears. November 7, 1970. A 46-minute feature by Ellman Film Enterprises, using a lot of Hanna-Barbera regulars. With a live-action introduction. In Yellowstone National Park, elderly Mr. Ranger prepares to celebrate Christmas. After the bear cubs Nikomi and Chinook get him to tell them about Christmas and Santa Claus, the cubs want to celebrate Christmas instead of hibernating. Nana, their sleepy mother, complains to Mr. Ranger who promises to dress up as Santa Claus and visit their cave. A bad snowstorm on Christmas Eve makes it look that he will not get there, but the real Santa comes to save the cubs from disappointment. With lots of musical sequences. This was made to play at children’s theatrical weekend matinees.

A Family Circus Christmas. June 1, 1979. A 30-minute production of Cullen-Kashdan Productions, directed by Al Kouzel, was released theatrically on June 1st, and then seen as a half-hour TV special on December 18, 1979.

Based on Bil Keane’s comic strip, emphasizing three-year-old Jeffy. The family prepares to celebrate Christmas. Jeffy tries to sneak an advance peek at his presents and is warned, “Santa Claus is watching you!”, which terrifies him. The well-meaning children (Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and baby P.J.) make a mess, but finally the tree is decorated with the previous years’ ornaments, except that the topmost star is missing. Billy and Dolly try to convince Jeffy that Santa is not real, but he does not believe them, and embarrasses them when they see a department-store Santa. He has dreams that Santa takes him to the North Pole and promises to grant his wishes. The toy wishes are no problem, but Jeffy wishes for his Grandad to visit them, which is impossible because their grandfather is dead. In Jeffy’s final dream, Santa comes to their house bringing Grandad’s ghost, who shows Jeffy where the missing Christmas star is. And it really is.

The Nutcracker Prince. November 21, 1990, 75 minutes. Directed by Paul Schibli, produced by Lacewood Productions in Ottawa in a lush Disneyish art style, distributed in the U.S. by Warner Bros. Screenplay by Patricia Watson, loosely based on E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and with Peter Tchaikovsky’s music.

In 1290 Stockholm, the Queen orders a cake made of blue cheese, the King’s favorite, for his birthday. The blue cheese draws all the mice, led by the Mouse Queen (Phyllis Diller), who eat the cake. The angry King commands his “inventor” (is “wizard” not P.C. now?), Drosselmeier (Peter Boretski), to capture the mice. Drosselmeier and his handsome nephew Hans (Kiefer Sutherland) do so, but the Mouse Queen and her son escape. The Mouse Queen curses beautiful Princess Pirlipat to become seriously ugly. The King commands Drosselmeier to cure her. Drosselmeier learns that the only way to break the spell is for her to eat a Krakatooth Nut that has been cracked by a young man who has never worn boots. The King promises Princess Pirlipat in marriage to anyone who can save her, but the Krakatooth Nut is so hard that it breaks everyone’s teeth. Hans finally succeeds, but the Mouse Queen is so angry that she turns him into a Nutcracker. In the ensuing confusion, the Mouse Queen is killed, the King exiles Drosselmeier and his Nutcracker nephew, and the Mouse Queen’s son becomes the new Mouse King (Mike MacDonald), swearing revenge on Hans for ruining his tail. The story jumps to the “present” in 1850 Germany. Young Clara Schaeffer’s rich family is celebrating Christmas.

Their eccentric old Uncle Drosselmeier arrives with a gift for Clara (Megan Follows) of the Nutcracker, which he says is the Prince of the Dolls, who will be cured if he defeats the Mouse King in battle and wins the hand of a fair maid. That night, Clara plays with the Nutcracker, introducing him to all of her dolls. The Mouse King and his army of mice appear. Drosselmeier brings all the toys to life, who recognize the Nutcracker as their Prince. The Mouse King is defeated but escapes, reappearing the next night threatening to kill Clara’s kitten Pavlova (Frank Welker) if Clara does not give him the Nutcracker. Drosselmeier awakens all the toys again, and there is an even more furious battle. The Mouse King is seemingly killed by the Nutcracker and his mouse army scatters in panic, but toy old General Pantaloon (Peter O’Toole) has been gravely injured. He can only be cured inside the toy castle that Drosselmeier has previously given to Clara’s younger brother Fritz. The toys carry Pantaloon into the castle. Clara, who has been reduced to doll size by Drosselmeier’s magic, follows them into the castle and finds herself in the wondrous Land of Dolls (Tchaikovsky’s ballet). Clara and the Nutcracker have a romance until the dying Mouse King appears for one last attempt at revenge. Clara defeats him, but all of the toys have become inanimate again. Clara awakens the next morning to find no sign of the battle or Land of Dolls, and the Nutcracker missing from her dolls. She hurries to Drosselmeier, and finds him with Hans restored to life. She greets Hans with, “Hello, Nutcracker”.

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, October 29, 1993, was technically a Hallowe’en rather than a Christmas release, but it has a very annoyed Santa Claus as an important supporting character.

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie. October 16, 1998. An 86-minute cartoon feature, directed by William R. Kowalchuk, produced by Tundra Productions, and distributed by GoodTimes Entertainment — the studio’s first theatrical as opposed to home video release. Inspired by Robert L. May’s song and Johnny Marks’ music, which is included, but featuring an original story. Rudolph is the son of Santa’s reindeer Blitzen (Gary Chalk) and Mitzi (Debbie Reynolds, also Mrs. Claus). Embarrassed by Rudolph’s freakish nose, his parents try to hide it, but it is accidentally revealed to everyone including his uncles Comet, Cupid, and Dancer. Meanwhile, Boone (Richard Simmons) and Doggle, two of Santa’s elves, accidentally ruin some statues in the palace of Stormella, the Ice Queen (Whoopi Goldberg), and she closes her ice bridge to the public in revenge.

Rudolph, now exposed, is sent to school where all of the reindeer children ridicule him except for Zoey, who becomes his girlfriend. He makes an enemy of Arrow, Cupid’s son.

Still later, when they are adolescents, Rudolph (Kathleen Barr) enters the Reindeer Games to become one of Santa’s Flyers, with the encouragement of Zoey (Myriam Sirois). Arrow (Matt Hill), Rudolph’s rival for Zoey, wins by accusing Rudolph of cheating, getting him disqualified. Blitzen gets him requalified and Zoey furiously renounces Arrow, but meanwhile Rudolph runs away. Zoey goes looking for him, crossing the ice bridge to look in Stormella’s palace. Stormella imprisons her in a cell.

Rudolph makes friends with Leonard the polar bear (Bob Newhart) and Slyly the arctic fox (Eric Idle). The three meet the Sprites of the Northern Lights, who tell them of Zoey’s imprisonment. The three set out to rescue her, crossing Stormella’s ice bridge and infuriating her into creating a super blizzard, isolating the North Pole. The three succeed in rescuing Zoey and changing Stormella from evil to good, partly thanks to Rudolph’s glowing nose, but they cannot stop the blizzard. Boone and Doggle bring everyone to Santa’s workshop, where Santa (John Goodman) asks Rudolph to guide his sleigh and reindeer through the blizzard with his nose. Rudolph becomes a hero to all.

In Search of Santa. November 23, 2002. A 75-minute CGI movie, directed by William R. Kowalchuk, produced by Tundra Productions, and distributed by Miramax Family Films. Princess Crystal (Hilary Duff) and Princess Lucinda (Haylie Duff) are rival heirs for the South Polar penguin kingdom of Royal Rookery Rock. When Santa Claus’ existence is challenged as “human propaganda”, Crystal sets out to travel from the South to the North Pole to prove him real, while Lucinda joins her, ostensibly to help but actually to force Crystal’s abdication. The journey together, despite hungry wild animals, animal (mostly bird) pirates, unfriendly elves, and three evil penguins trying to usurp King Calvin’s and Queen Penelope’s throne, forges a sisterly friendship. The computer graphics are unusually poor for a theatrical release, but In Search of Santa only got a nominal theatrical release before its true fate as a home-video release.

The Polar Express, November 10, 2004, directed by Robert Zemekis, is in motion-capture that many feel is not true animation, but I’ll include it here anyway. The same goes for the Zemekis-directed motion-capture theatrical Disney’s A Christmas Carol, starring Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge, November 6, 2009.

Sony/Aardman’s Arthur Christmas, DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians, and Disney’s Frozen (snowbound but not technically about Christmas) have seemed to make a Christmas-related animated theatrical release an annual event for the last three years; so well-known that they do not seem to need synopses. (Before that, there have been frequent live-action theatrical features like 1988’s Scrooged, 1994’s The Santa Clause, 1996’s Jingle All the Way (with Arnold Schwarzenegger, not the 2011 Hallmark channel 25-minute stop-motion TV special featuring Jingle, the Husky puppy), and 2003’s Elf.)

Finally, let’s at least acknowledge all of the Christmas-themed animated Christmas cards, personal short films, and parodies of the last couple of decades. Nobody could track all of them down! Animation has gotten technically easy enough since the beginning of the 21st century, with new computer technologies, that almost any animation fan can produce his or her short cartoon or CGI film; and hundreds have.


The Christmas Card, by later Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam, might not seem like a personal short film because it was broadcast so long ago on the “Do Not Adjust Your Stocking” 50-minute Christmas special episode of the British comedy TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set, on December 25, 1968. But Gilliam does have such a uniquely personal style of animation that I feel that it can fairly be included here.

Frannie’s Christmas, by Mike Mitchell (March 26, 1993). Little Frannie Stein is shocked, SHOCKED, when she learns that there is no Santa Claus. So she and her little brother dig up a body from the cemetery and make one. Video below is an excerpt demonstrating the film’s recent 4K restoration.

Santa Claus!, by JibJab. December 2004. Evan and Greg Spiridellis have been skewering Santa Claus and Christmas for years. Santa Claus! is one of their earliest and best Christmas jabs.

Aussie Jingle Bells. In 2008, the Australian automobile dealership Private Fleet made a crude animated Christmas card to the lyrics of Colin Buchanan’s 1992 Aussie parody of Jingle Bells. “Oh, jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way; Christmas in Australia, on a scorching summer’s day …”

The Spirit of Christmas, by British animator Cyriak (2012). Warning: This one is pretty gory.

Do you get the impression that animators don’t respect Christmas?

Next week: “Foreign Christmasy Cartoons” (and yes, I know that technically I should put British and Canadian productions in with the foreign cartoons). See you then!


  • Yarst! What happened to “Papü Meets Santa Claus”? I know that I included it!

    “Papü Meets Santa Claus”, by New York-state Flash animator Xeth Feinberg (2009). Weinberg, who has been a story artist on Blue Sky’s “Ice Age” and “Robots”, has been creating Flash animation shorts at his Mishmash Media website since 1997.

  • Another interesting list – There may be a whole lot of crappy Christmas specials out there, but there are also some real gems. This list actually features two of my all time christmas favourites – “Nightmare Before Christmas” (it may have originally been released in time for Hallowe’en, but come on, it’s really a Christmas film and it’s often re-released at Christmas in 3D) and Terry Gilliam’s “The Christmas Card”. Looking forward to the list of foreign cartoons.

  • Regarding Polar Express, “is in motion-capture that many feel is not true animation” I would add that it needs to be included because motion capture could be considered a latter day rotoscoping.

    This had been a fantastic overview of this corner of animation history. Thanks!

  • What about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas? Did you list it elsewhere and I missed it?

    Seems it would belong in the Direct-to-Video category. One of my all-time favorites.

  • I remember seeing that Mainframe/Rainmaker Casper special and found it to be really dull. Speaking of that Canadian studio, I think that would make for an interesting subject.

  • I got to work on a sequence where Santa is tortured by Oogie Boogie in one of the above:

  • You forgot “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas,” “Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas,” “An All Dogs Christmas Carol,” “Bah Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas,” “The Polar Express,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys.”

  • If this list includes any English-language releases, I would add the feature adaptation of A CHRISTMAS CAROL made in 2011 by London-based Illuminated Films and directed by Jimmy Murakami.

  • Correction to my previous comment: it’s 2001, not 2011.

  • Did you mention Arthur Christmas?

  • “It’s A SpongeBob Christmas” in glorious spot-motion from last year.

  • oops….”stop-motion”

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