If they ever assembled a Justice League: North Pole, the founding members would be pretty obvious. There’s Rudolph and Charlie Brown, Ebenezer scrooge, and Frosty would be on the roster, the Grinch… but the superpower of warm fuzzy holiday sentiment isn’t limited to just the big guns. There’s a whole universe of audiovisual Christmas cheer out there waiting to be found. Pick your favorite TV show or cartoon, and there’s probably a very special Christmas episode for you to enjoy. Even Pac-Man had a Christmas special for crying out loud. The Grinch and Frosty will always be at the top of the holiday heap, but there are still a lot of lesser known Christmas specials that have more to offer than simple kitsch value. Consider these suggestions as a sort of JLA North Pole reserve. The Captain Marvel to Rudolph’s Superman, the Guy Gardner to Charlie Brown’s green lantern.
Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas: If you aren’t thoroughly charmed by this Jim Henson-produced tale of Down-Home music, fuzzy animals and crushing poverty, then you should probably admit to yourself that you are some sort of android…and not the lovable, borderline human kind of android like Data or the Red Tornado either, but a full-on psycho Rutger Hauer style replicant. Based on a children’s novel that, in itself is a riff on the classic O. Henry short story “The Gift of The Magi”, Jug band follows poor young Emmett Otter on his quest to win a Christmas talent contest so he can buy his mom a piano for Christmas. Meanwhile, his poor widowed mother want to win the same contest so she can buy Emmet a guitar “with real mother-of-pearl inlays…” Standing in the way of the Christmas dreams is the rowdy rock group from one town over, “The Riverbottom Nightmare band”, and Emmet’s reluctance to poke a hole in his washtub to make his bass.
As usual, Henson’s vision and the sincerity and artistry of his performers imbues a cast of anthropomorphized animal puppets with a humanity and poignance most flesh and blood TV actors would envy. The no-goodnik Nightmare Band, which includes a grizzly bear in ziggy-stardust glasses and a sequined Dracula cape, is a grade-A hoot, and the songs and dialogue are endlessly quotable. Don’t feel bad if these down-home muppets and their tale of Christmas comradery gets you a little teary-eyed. You’ll be in good company.
A Pinky and The Brain Christmas(Pinky and The Brain, Volume One: Disc 1): Maybe its my age showing, but its hard to come to terms with the fact that some of today’s cartoon fans may not be old enough to really remember Pinky and the Brain. Fixtures of Warner Bros. Animaniacs stable of characters, Pinky and the Brain were lab mice bent on taking over the world. The Brain, a swollen-headed Orson-Wellsesque megalomaniac was, of course, the mastermind of the operation, and dimwitted, lovable Pinky was the comic relief. Their 1996 Christmas episode was much more than just another obligatory holiday tie-in, it’s a touching little tale of world domination and generosity, told with the cynical edge the Animaniacs toons were famous for. The Brain’s big scheme involves infiltrating Santa’s workshop and producing a toy that will send out subliminal messages telling the world to surrender to the brain. On their way to the workshop, the duo encounters everything from shameless Grinch references to surly elves who talk like New Jersey teamsters. From the very beginning of the special, you just know, somebody’s going to have to learn the true meaning of Christmas before it all ends, and It seems like typical Christmas slush, but the shows trademark irreverence and wonderful voice acting and scripting build to a really effective conclusion. Pinky and the Brain is probably the most unlikely holiday tearjerker, and a real overlooked gem of Christmases past. NARF!
Invader Zim:The Most Horrible Xmas Ever (Invader Zim Volume 3: Horrible Holiday Cheer, Disc 1): From one deluded megalomaniac to another, Christmas, apparently, is a time to ponder world domination. Like Pinky and the Brain before them, Invader Zim and his defective helper-robot Gir saw the holidays as merely a tool to bring them to power Unlike Pinky and The Brain, Invader Zim‘s sense of humor was never simply irreverent, but pitch-black and cynical to the point where it made Pinky And The Brain look like The Care Bears. Hilariously voice-acted and exquisitely designed, the short-lived Invader Zim series was always a treat for disgruntled ears and eyes, and its worldview left little room for typical holiday cheer.
Usually, this sort of Christmas special would end with the crotchety old alien learning the true meaning of holiday spirit, but this is Invader Zim. Zim, forever on the lookout for ways to conquer the Earth for his alien masters, decides to disguise himself as Santa Claus (or The San-Ta, as he calls him) and convinces the gullible earthlings to build a doomsday weapon that will destroy them alls. Even after a battle with a Santa-hating super-scientist, a fascistic San-ta propaganda rally, and a rampage by a mutated nanotech Santa suit, Zim leanrs precious little about the true meaning of Christmas, and the sheeplike denizens of earth learn even less. Zim ranks right up there with Bah! Humbug! Holiday classics like South park’s Christmas specials or A Colbert Christmas as a cynical palate cleanser to cut through the cloying eggnog of holiday cheer. A the very least “The Most Horrible Xmas Ever”‘s riotous holiday song will get stuck in your brain, leaving you singing about “Jolly Boots of Doom…” instead of red-nosed reindeers for at least a few days.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town: after turning Rudolph into a holiday icon, and producing a string of sillier and sillier Rudolph sequels celebrating everything from New Years to Christmas in July, stop-motion animation producers Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass decided they needed to bring Santa back to his Grim and Gritty roots. Best described as “Santa Claus Year One” or “Santa Begins”, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town showcases a stop-motion Santa in his formative years, and reveals his rise to super-powered holiday icon. Everything that makes a good origin story is here…Chris Kringle’s tragic childhood, the genesis of his superhuman powers and supernatural paraphernalia, the construction of his secret base, and even his first mission in his alter ego of Santa Claus. Finally, a Santa tale his hardcore fans can get behind.
All kidding aside, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town is a clever little fairy tale that ticks off ingenious explanations for most of the finer point of the Santa legend…how he hooked up with the elves, why he comes in through the chimney, even how he met that holiday hottie Ms. Claus…none of it has any folkloric or historical context of course, but it gives Santa a superheroic kind of flair, making him more than just an obese old guy who has a jones for toys. Not as memorable or whimsically iconic as Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town is still a real holiday treasure from the heyday of claymation Christmas specials, and one all but forgotten in the home-video and cable era. Unfortunately, the sequel, where St. Nick has to save Christmas from a deranged, anarchist Easter Bunny, was never produced.
Mystery Science Theater 3000, Santa Claus Conquers the martians (MST 3K: The Essentials, Disc two)/ Santa Claus(MST 3K Volume XVI, Disc 2): What’s Christmas without the turkey right? And there are no better basters of turkey than the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew. For those who don’t remember, MST 3K was a show about a man (first comedian Joel Hodgson, later writer Mike Nelson) and his 2 robots trapped in space by evil scientyists and forced to watch really bad movies. As the cinematic cheese was served the trio gave running commentary on the films, mining the deepest pockets of pop culture for cheap jokes and head-scratching references.
Two holiday bombs received the MST treatment during the show’s 10 year run. The first was Santa Claus Versus The Martians, a no-budget 1960′s romp about mustachioed aliens in goofy helmets and their attempt to kidnap Santa Claus and bring him to mars. The film’s barely-trying visual effects and embarrassingly forced Jollity were easy game for the crew, and the shows interstitial skits, which include the crew’s now timeless holiday carol “A Patrick Swayze Christmas”, are almost as funny as the movie riffs.
MST 3K took another crack at holiday cheer in season 5 with Santa Claus, a bizarre Mexican kids film that pits St. Nick against the forces of Satan himself. Santa Claus is so bizarre, it barely needs the running commentary. With a pantaloon-sporting demon whose greatest dark power seems to be interpretive dance, a riotously offensive “children of the world” montage, and a creepy team of animatronic reindeer pulling a sleigh for a senile Santa, Santa Claus plays out like something David Lynch might dream up after binging on candy canes dipped in mescaline. The riffing is on point as well, and the trios new holiday song “Merry Christmas (if that’s all right with you)” has become another fan favorite.
Die Hard: So it’s not a Christmas special per se, but the 1988 Bruce Willis classic is a movie that demands annual holiday viewing. Argue the point if you like, but Die Hard does take place on Christmas eve…and in the end, the protagonists all learn the true meaning of Christmas…especially if the true meaning of Christmas involves how to throw Alan Rickman out a window. Really, what more could you ask for in a holiday film?
Sure, On the surface Die Hard is mostly about Bruce Willis getting beaten, shot at and lacerated while taking out an all star eurotrash goon squad that has taken over a high-tech office building. On the other hand, you don’t have to look too hard to notice lots of holiday special elements in this landmark action film. For example Christmas specials are always telling us Christmas is all about family. What is Die Hard but a movie about John McClane’s efforts to re-unite with his estranged loved ones…by gunning down every scumbag who stands in his way. Christmas is also the time when somebody makes a list and checks it twice, just to find out who’s naughty and nice. We all know what happens to the naughty ones. Case in point: in Die hard we see veteran stuntman/ action movie extra Al Leong swipe a Mars bar from the Nakatomi tower newsstand while waiting to ambush a swat team. Naughty, naughty Al. Stealing is bad. Al doesn’t get a lump of coal in his stocking from Santa, but he does get a lump of lead in the chest courtesy of John McClane. That’s close enough in my book. Even Reginald Veljohnson’s portly beat cop learns about the beauty of giving and receiving. He receives the gift of being able to draw his pistol with lethal force once again. In turn, he gives a hail of gunfire to naughty Alexander Gudunov, who won’t stay in his body bag like a nice boy. Holiday cheer abounds in Die Hard, and, honestly was there ever a better holiday greeting than “Now I have a machine gun, Ho, Ho, Ho.”?
None of these holiday treats is likely to replace It’s a Wonderful Life in the hearts of viewers, but that’s OK. Whether your idea of holiday cheer is singing otters or exploding helicopters, there are plenty of options to keep Christmas in whatever way you want.