Let’s face it, the Christmas season now starts, for many, as soon as the last trick-or-treater leaves their front porch on Halloween night. With this earlier timeframe, many may have already watched their fill of the standard, seasonal specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer may already be on their second or third viewings for devotees.
You may find yourself looking for some additional options to round out your Christmas special rotation. What follows are just a few that have become forgotten (by some, not by all) with the passage of each holiday Season:
The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas (1973)
From DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (the studio behind Saturday morning’s original Pink Panther series) comes this animated special about Theodore Edward Bear, a/k/a Ted E. Bear (voiced by comedian Tom Smothers) who decides to search for Christmas. Like other bears, Ted usually misses Christmas, as it’s hibernation time. But this year, he decides to forego his usual long winter’s nap and find out what Christmas is all about.
With the familiar DePatie-Freleng style that looks here like a carefully illustrated children’s book and narration by Casey Kasem, The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas provides a tremendous amount of comfort for Christmas special fans.
Directors Gerry Chiniquy and Hawley Pratt do an excellent job building a world here: the bears in “Bear City” work at the “Organic Honey Works” factory. Ted takes a tremendous amount of flak as he tries to stay awake for Christmas each year, and his daydreaming is taking its toll on his job and his friendships.
Despite this, Ted goes in search of Christmas, coming to a busy city, where he eventually meets up with Santa and learns that Christmas isn’t a “place,” as he had thought, but is indeed so much more, which he soon sees first hand when he meets a kind family. This outsider’s view of Christmas and realization of how special it is, provides a sweet perspective that only adds to the charm of The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas.
Greg Ehrbar wrote more about The Bear When Slept Through Christmas on this previous Cartoon Research post.
A Very Merry Cricket (1973)
The remarkable style of legendary animation director Chuck Jones is on full display in his Christmas-themed sequel to Jones’ A Cricket in Times Square (also 1973). That special, based on the children’s book by author George Selden, told the story of Chester Cricket (voiced by Les Tremayne), who finds himself in a picnic basket in his home of Connecticut and winds up traveling to New York City. Here, he is befriended by Tucker the mouse (Mel Blanc) and Harry the Cat (also Tremayne).
Chester, who can imitate the music he hears on the radio by rubbing his legs together, eventually holds concerts in Times Square, bringing a sense of peace to New York City. Chester returns to Connecticut, and as A Very Merry Cricket opens, it’s Christmastime in the city.
New York is very loud and overwhelming, with few people seeming to grasp the season’s true meaning. Tucker and Harry believe they have the solution: they set out for Connecticut, knowing that if they can bring Chester back to New York City, his music will be exactly what the city needs, once again.
While A Very Merry Cricket does recycle scenes from the original special, as it looks to re-cap its “back story,” there is enough here to provide a remarkable statement about how the cacophony of some parts of the season can be a distraction. Jones provides nice, stylized animation depicting an overly-active New York and Chester’s performance of “Silent Night” and a medley of other traditional Christmas carols is a satisfying, emotional climax.
A Very Merry Cricket is still a relevant special that speaks to the calm we all seek this time of year.
The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)
The “Grumpy Old Man” is the “Stingiest Man” in this 2D animated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol from the legendary holiday TV special wizards at the Rankin/Bass studio.
None other than Walter Matthau provides the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge (the actor is also humorously caricatured) in the well-known Christmas tale, which is a remake of a live-action version of The Stingiest Man in Town that aired as part of the anthology series The Alcoa Hour in 1956.
What differentiates Rankin/Bass’ version from other Christmas Carol adaptations is not just the studio’s recognizable animation (based on the style of artist Paul Coker, Jr), but also the addition of the character B.A.H. Humbug (voiced by Tom Bosley), an insect who narrates the special.
Additionally, there are memorable songs by Fred Spielman and Janice Torre, including the lovely ballads, “Yes, There is a Santa Claus” and “Birthday Party of the King.”
The Stingiest Man in Town is a memorable take on one of the world’s most familiar stories.
Ziggy’s Gift (1982)
When A Charlie Brown Christmas was a tremendous hit in 1965, other comic strip characters threw their hat into the Christmas special ring over the next several decades. One of these was Ziggy, created by Tom Wilson, who made his television debut with his 1982 Christmas special, Ziggy’s Gift.
Directed by the late, great Richard Williams, the renowned Academy Award winner behind 1971’s A Christmas Carol and the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), the special features the work of many immensely talented animators, including Eric Goldberg and Tom Sito.
Ziggy’s Gift tells the story of how the main character, the mild-mannered Ziggy, takes a job as a sidewalk Santa in the days before Christmas. He doesn’t realize that he is working for a disreputable company and is being pursued by both an odd-looking pickpocket and a determined police officer. In the end, thanks to Ziggy’s kindness, they all learn a lesson about the season.
The animation perfectly captures the style of the strip and couples it with full animation. Told with minimal dialogue (Ziggy doesn’t speak in the special), the animation of the physical humor is terrific to watch.
Ziggy’s Gift won an Emmy, and rightfully so. It’s a warm, quiet special that’s as easy to take as Ziggy’s comic strip itself.
Opus and Bill in A Wish for Wings That Work (1991)
Two other popular and beloved comic strips, Bloom County and Outland by Berkeley Breathed were translated to animation for this Christmas special. While featuring characters from both strips, the special was based on a children’s book written by Breathed the same year the special aired.
Opus, the penguin (voice of Michael Bell), wants nothing more than to fly and writes to Santa asking for wings for Christmas. Of his “wings,” Opus says, “This is a bad joke! This is built-in obsolescence.” He even attends an earthbound bird’s support group and tries to fly using balloons, but neither works.
Then, on Christmas Eve, when Santa’s sleigh crash lands in a nearby lake, only Opus, with his ability to swim, can pull it from the water so that Santa can continue his flight.
On Christmas morning, all the ducks in the neighborhood show up on Opus’ doorstep and reward him by taking him for a flight so that he can have his wish.
Opus and Bill in A Wish for Wings That Work captures the irreverence and satire of Breathed’s comic strip. There are even several laugh-out-loud one-liners. The scenes depicting unkempt and off-kilter Bill the cat (a favorite character from the strip) are particularly well done and a sequence involving a hairball is disgustingly hysterical
The special also features the voices of comedian John Byner, voice acting veterans Tress MacNeille and Frank Welker, Robin Williams, billed as Sudy Nim, as the Kiwi, and even an uncredited Dustin Hoffman as a cross-dressing cockroach named Milquetoast.
Directed by Skip Jones, Opus and Bill in A Wish for Wings That Work merges full animation with the look of the comic strip, much like Ziggy’s Gift. And, like all of the Breathed comic strips, there’s well-crafted story-telling and humor here, coupled with a perfect dose of heart.
These are just some of the many Christmas TV specials that may have somewhat faded with time. This is by no means a definitive list of them, and there are plenty more out there to choose from, as alternatives to seasonal familiars, to help animation fans balance their diet of Christmas viewing over the next several weeks