The holiday season is time for a cornucopia of cartoon Christmas creations. It just isn’t the holidays without Chuck Jones’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rankin-Bass’ Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer and, now, Bob Zemeckis’ The Polar Express. I have no truck against the airing of any of them, even if it gets kind of lame after the sixth time in one month. Cool as it is, I feel certain the late, great Bill Melendez would have wanted to see A Charlie Brown Christmas every single day from Thanksgiving to New Years Eve.
There are a lot of other holiday specials that deserve to still be aired, at least once a year. Many of them animated. Some stretch the limit of the definition, but they sure would beat the 50th repeat of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street or watching little Ralphie shoot his eye out (again) in A Christmas Story.
That said, here’s seven Yule-themed treats deserving to be back on the tube. If you have some others worth mentioning, well, that’s what the comment section is for. Here’s my list.
COOL LIKE THAT CHRISTMAS
This 1993 special is probably a tad too topical for modern airing, which is a crying shame. Produced by Phil Roman, directed by David Feiss and featuring a voice cast including Whoopi Goldberg, Tone Loc, Phil LaMarr, T’Keyeh Crystal Kemah, Tommy Davidson and Dr. Dre, this very urban holiday special was both highly hip and incredibly tender.
It tells the tale of Orlando (Davidson) and Maurice (Loc). When Maurice discovers a paper bag full of money in a back alley, he goes on a gift giving spree, not realizing what he found was a payoff for a major pimp/drug dealer. When the bad man comes to collect, Orlando gets tied into the mess. Now the two must figure out a way out of their jam, or their Christmases will be permanently cancelled. How they do it is absolutely incredible.
What really matters is while this special never shied away from “urban” issues, it still stayed on point about what the holiday is all about. Whoopie is wonderful as the matriarchal figure. Davidson is sweet as a young man trying to always do the right thing, and getting hung up in the process. If you want to see why LaMarr is now one of the hottest voice actors in the business, start here.
Well, worth sussing out. Now would some enlightened soul get this out on DVD?
HARDROCK, COCO & JOE: THREE CHRISTMAS DWARFS
This little bit of candy-coated corn was actually created in 1953 as a very, very, very early music video. It then earned a permanent spot on WGN, who put it on every Bozo Christmas special.
The sappy little ditty tells the tale of three stop motion dwarves, not elves, who help St. Nick on his annual delivery. The animation was done by a former Disney employee named Wah Ming Chang, who previously designed the maquette for Pinocchio and later design the original communicator, tribbles and tricorders for Star Trek: The Original Series.
The song itself is 50’s pap music at its worst, but Chang’s animation is so touchingly sweet it’s hard to imagine the holidays without it. Then again, we now live in a world where Bozo, or any TV cartoon host, no longer rules the afternoon airwaves. It’s a sadder world for the lack.
On the plus front, a small outfit called MBC released “Hardrock” on DVD with two other Christmas glories of times past, “Suzy Snowflake” and the original UPA version of “Frosty the Snowman.” Stack it next to your perpetual loop of the Yule Log.
THE IRON GIANT
There once was a time when Cartoon Network would air this first Brad Bird movie for 24 hours, and it would get killer ratings, too.
Set in the paranoid days of the early 1950s, a giant robot (Vin Diesel) crashes on Earth and becomes the “pet” of a fatherless boy (Eli Marienthal). The film also includes sterling performances from jazz man Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Aniston and Disney Old Man Ollie Johnston. Still, it’s the quiet and unconventional message of the second coming in the middle of the Yankee holiday season that’s the real grabber here, not to forget Bird’s superlative animation on all levels.
Of course, now that Bird is Mr. Incredible, a lot of the networks have been airing his second movie—you know the one, the one with the superhero family. Still, it would be just grand to see the tale of Hogarth and his giant robot again. Got that CN?
For all those who think Dustin Hoffman only started working on animation should hope to find this in their X-Mas stocking. Made in 1971, it was one of the first works of animation legend Fred Wolf and was built around the music of the late Harry Nilsson. It told the tale of Oblio, a boy with a round dome where everyone else is a literal pinhead. The discrimination sends the poor boy, never forgetting his dog Arrow, on their own magical mystery tour. It even had Ringo Starr as one of the voice artists.
There’s a very odd story about this film, too. Hoffman was both the narrator and Oblio’s dad in the original ABC-TV version. For contractual reasons, when the film was syndicated, Hoffman’s narration was yanked for another actor, Alan Berzman. With the advent of cable, both Berzman and Hoffman were gone, replaced by Alan Thicke. There’s also a fourth version, with Ringo Starr telling the story. Apparently there are bootlegs of the Hoffman version if you hunt hard enough. It’s well worth it.
The thing is, there once was a time when it was a Christmas staple, particularly during the syndication period. The film has a wonderful 'Alice In Wonderland' quality to it, and has a both a sense of maturity and fun that makes it worth seeing by both kids and their parents. Seeing a DVD release of it these days appears to be a Christmas miracle as it’s been long discontinued.
This used short to be a regular holiday feature on Fox’s Mad TV. Created by the truly underappreciated Corky Quackenbush, it stood the Rankin-Bass special and found the dark, dirty secret inside that diabetic coma inducing bit of stop motion. In reality, the tale of the nose glowing reindeer has too many parallels to the classic Francis Ford Coppola trilogy.
Rudolf and Michael Corleone? Santa sleeping with the fishes? Hey…it’s a tough world out there and sometimes a reindeer gots to do what a reindeer gots to do.
Apparently Mad TV is about to be cancelled. With that went not only “The Reinfather,” but its sequel “Ragin’ Rudolf.” There isn’t even a DVD collecting the entire series. Someone should knee cap the Fox execs who won’t do it. You can see it on a couple of YouTube sites though.
THE SIMPSONS ROASTING ON AN OPEN FIRE
Not only was this the first X-Mas themed Simpsons episode, it was the first full 30-minute length episode of Springfield’s finest, ever. For those who don’t remember, the whole thing kicks off with Bart deciding to get a tattoo, and the family having to use their holiday savings to have it removed. Compounding their problems, Homer’s expected holiday bonus doesn’t happen.
Homer’s solution is to spend the extra money he earned as a shopping mall Santa at the dog track. When the dog he bets on ends up last, guess what becomes the family pet.
The big issue here is after 20 years the episode appears to have gotten lost in the sheer volume of episodes. Sure, it’s nice that you can still get it in the first season set. At the same time, it would just be nice to see it on the tube one more time. It has the timeless quality of the best of The Simpsons. Next year, as we celebrate the series breaking all records maybe?
Last, but definitely not least. The third film by anime master Satoshi Kon is a true holiday tour-de-force.
The story revolves around three homeless people—a drunk, a cross dresser and a runaway—discovering a baby in a Tokyo dumping ground. They take the urchin in and then the most amazing “miracles” happen as we learn not only the true identity of the waif, but the tragic tales of the three, too. Loaded with some amazing OMG moments as well as some of the funniest and pointed lines in a holiday movie ever, Kon balances all this against the Japanese concept of Christmas and delivers a masterpiece.
Fortunately, this film is still readily available through Sony Pictures Classic. How appropriate.
WB ANNOUNCES FLEISCHER SUPERMAN COLLECTION
Normally this column doesn’t spare any time for DVD announcements, but this one is truly different.
Warner Brothers Home Video announced it has collected, restored, and will finally release the entire Fleischer Brothers Superman series of shorts of 1941-2. The only way one could get them previously was as part of the Superman tin collection the distributor put out several years back.
The set will come with all 17 shorts, totally over 170 minutes. It will also include two featurettes on the history of the shorts, as well as their impact, which can still be felt today. The release date is initially set for April, 2009. This is truly a set well worth waiting for.
FUNIMATION OPENS NEW PORTAL
FUNimation Entertainment announced the test launch of its online video service, www.funimation.com/video, offering viewers a large selection of streaming, on-demand, premium anime programming for free.
FUNimation will legally offer hundreds of high-quality, full-length episodes, including many full series, of current and catalogue programming from its library. Among the many titles of the video player launch are episodes of Darker Than Black, Guyver, Gunslinger Girl Il Teatrino, Jyu-Oh-Sei, Romeo X Juliet, Shigurui: Death Frenzy, STRAIN: Strategic Armored Infantry and many other top titles not available anywhere else.
Each week, FUNimation will also roll out the newest episodes from Japanese producers -- including those currently airing in Japan -- as well other select video such as trailers, exclusive interviews, podcasts and other FUNimation original productions.
"The site was created to bring together the largest selection of the best anime and offer it in the highest-quality video available – for free,” said Brandon White, Interactive Manager at FUNimation Entertainment. “We designed it with the anime fan in mind. They can watch their favorite series anywhere and anytime – as long as they are connected!”
During this beta period, FUNimation will continue to add features that will enhance the consumers viewing experience.
NEXT COLUMN: We start a two-part examination of the best of 2008. First up, the best films.