Sunday, December 15, 2013

Frisch's Top 10 Christmas Specials

Ho ho ho!  Joy to the World!  Peace on earth and good will toward men!  It's Christmas!  The most wonderful time of the year!  And what's one of the most wonderful things about Christmas?  Christmas specials, of course!  Those wonderfully sentimental and schmaltzy shows that everyone looks forward to watching on TV every year.  Whether they're produced as a special episode on an ongoing series or as a one-off event, Christmas specials hold a special place in the hearts of many.

So today I'm counting down my Top 10 Favorite Christmas Specials!  But keep in mind, I'm only including specials on this list, not feature films.  (Though, spoiler alert, my favorite is totally The Muppet Christmas Carol.  For the record.)

Anyhoo...on with the list!  I've checked it twice, so here we go!

10.  A Miser Brothers Christmas

This one makes it onto the list solely as a guilty pleasure.  I only became familiar with it a couple of years ago.  To be honest, I don't have a lot of nostalgia for the classic Rankin-Bass Christmas specials.  For one thing, I haven't even seen most of them.  As a kid I only ever saw bits and pieces of Rudolph, since our tape was missing most of the middle act.  And, while I don't care much for The Year Without a Santa Claus, I do find the Miser Brothers quite amusing.

As the title implies, the Miser Brothers are the stars of the show in this special, but it also pays homage to many other Rankin-Bass specials, particularly Rudolph.  It's also terrible.  I mean really REALLY bad.  The story is ridiculous, the songs are garbage, and the voice acting is incredibly grating.  And I love it.  It's just so incredibly awful that you can't help but enjoy it.  And, shockingly, the stop-motion animation is incredibly well done.  The characters look fantastic and their movements are smooth and lively.  Not a holiday classic, but one I like to put on just for laughs.

9.  The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis

Christmas isn't especially prominent in this episode of The Big Bang Theory, but it's still in there!  The main story actually has virtually nothing to do with the holiday.  It's a pretty standard Leonard/Penny plot line that could be a part of any episode.  That said, it's sufficiently entertaining with some clever jokes here and there.

The secondary plot is where the Christmas theme comes into play.  It chronicles Sheldon's journey to find and appropriate Christmas gift for Penny and the finale that results is easily one of the most memorable moments The Big Bang Theory has ever seen. Airing as part of the show's second season, The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis is a fine example of why I still consider season 2 to be the highpoint of series.

8.  Gift of the Night Fury

I didn't expect much from Gift of the Night Fury.  Now, don't get me wrong, I absolutely love How to Train Your Dragon.  It's one of my all-time favorite films.  But I just had trouble seeing how a How To Train Your Dragon Christmas special would turn out to be any good.  I figured it would just be a quick cash-in with a cheesy lesson and sub-par animation quality.  Or, perhaps more likely, just an early Christmas episode of the then-upcoming TV show.

Boy, was I wrong!  The special, which in reality is only very loosely holiday themed, plays out like a little mini-sequel to the movie.  The animation is just as good as what was seen in the film and the story is actually quite solid with some good character development and world building.  The scenes that play out between Hiccup and Toothless are just as heartfelt as the feature film and it makes for a pleasant and memorable half hour of animation.  Astrid being reassigned to comic relief duty feels a little out-of-character but, as a whole, Gift of the Night Fury is well worth watching any time of the year.

7.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean

Mr. Bean's signature brand of silent British comedy is fairly easy to enjoy all the time, but he's definitely at his best at Christmas time.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean is a throroughly entertaining episode that delivers up great gags at every turn and also manages to hit all the warm and fuzzy moments you'd want from a Christmas special.  It's kind of staggering just how many great little moments this episode manages to pack in over the course of a half hour. 

Bean playing with a nativity set and famously getting a turkey stuck on his head are probably the two standout moments, but there's a ton of other great gags included as well.  Like many Mr. Bean episodes, Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean is also slightly tinged with melancholy, calling attention to just how pathetic a life Bean leads, even on Christmas.  For the most part, though, the episode is content to serve up a rapid-fire succession of hilarious antics.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean is not only a great Christmas episode, but one of the best episodes of the series as a whole.

6.  A Very Possible Christmas

I have long considered Kim Possible to be one of the finest animated television shows ever created.  Sure, it kind of wore out its welcome after the first couple of seasons, but when the show was at its best it was extremely well-written, witty, and had a phenomenal cast of characters.  Dr. Drakken, the main villain of the show, remains one of my favorite cartoon villains.  So how could I not include A Very Possible Christmas on this list?

A love letter to classic Christmas specials as a whole, A Very Possible Christmas exhibits all the clever writing and great humor that was standard for the series.  Numerous allusions to famous lines from other classic Christmas specials are sprinkled throughout, with Charlie Brown and Rudolph, among others, all getting nods.  The bickering duo of Ron and Dr. Drakken provides comedy gold and the conclusion of the episode is hilariously corny.  Though a little obscure these days, A Very Possible Christmas easily earns its spot on this list.

5.  A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa

Oh, goodness.  How on earth do you pick just one Muppet Christmas special to put on a list?  The Muppets go with Christmas like peanut butter goes with jelly.  As such, they've starred in their fair share of Christmas specials and movies over the years, many of which are hailed as classics these days.  As I mentioned earlier, The Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite Christmas movie.  So how about the realm of television specials?  While many would cite A Muppet Family Christmas as the Muppets' best special (for good reasons, I might add) I personally opted to go with the far more recent and lesser known A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa.

This show holds a special place in my heart, having aired on the day I arrived home for Christmas break my freshman year of college.  Since I wasn't exactly a huge fan of college at that point (or at any point really) I was pretty excited to head home with the promise of new Muppets that evening.  And it didn't disappoint!  Though not the most impressive spectacle that Muppets have ever created, Letters to Santa manages to tell a sweet little story with some fun songs and good jokes.  Nathan Lane and Bobo the Bear absolutely steal the show as a pair of bumbling airport security guards and Richard Griffiths proved to be an excellent Santa Claus.  Though smaller and more subdued than some Muppet adventures, Letters to Santa is still a great example of why the Muppets and Christmas go so well together.

4.  A Charlie Brown Christmas

Though I kind of slighted the Rankin-Bass specials earlier in the list, never let it be said that I don't know how to enjoy a classic Christmas cartoon from time to time.  The next two cartoons on the list are about as iconic as it gets outside of the realm of Rankin-Bass' stop motion epics.  In fact, they may even be the most iconic specials of all.  First up is A Charlie Brown Christmas.

You'd have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy this 1965 special, which was also the first animated Peanuts cartoon ever produced.  It's crude animation is still charming.  It's stilted dialogue is as endearing as ever.  It's jokes are just as clever and witty as the comic strip.  It's jazz soundtrack is still as much a classic as the show itself.  And, of course, Linus famously rattling off Luke 2:8-14 to explain the true meaning of Christmas is one of the most memorable Peanuts moments of all time.  A pointed criticism of the commercialization of Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas feels more important with every passing year.  It's no wonder it remains a seasonal fixture nearly fifty years later.

3.  Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Much like Charlie Brown, the 1966 Chuck Jones classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, based on the Dr. Seuss book by the same name, has proven to be such a holiday staple that not including it on this list would be as much a crime as stealing Christmas itself.  If you ask anyone to name a Christmas cartoon, Grinch is probably going to be one of the ones to get mentioned first.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is largely a faithful adaption of the original story, with most of the text of the book being recited verbatim courtesy of narrator Boris Karloff, who also voices the Grinch.  That alone would be enough to make this special memorable, but the addition of some slapstick sledding sequences, a more climactic finale, and some of the most iconic songs in Christmas cartoon history further strengthen the cartoon without spoiling the poignancy of the story.  It's not hard to see why The Grinch is one of the most well-known Christmas specials around.

2.  The VeggieTales Christmas Spectacular

Origianlly airing on PAX in 1998, The VeggieTales Christmas Spectacular was a pretty big deal at the time (or at least felt like a big deal to nine year old me) because it was the first time VeggieTales ever aired on television.  The centerpiece of the show was an airing of the Christmas themed VeggieTales episode The Toy That Saved Christmas.  If you recall my Top 10 VeggieTales Episodes list from a while back, you'll know that The Toy That Saved Christmas is one of my favorites.  It's an example of Big Idea at their creative best and manages to deliver a message about the meaning of the season very much like that of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  It's funny, exciting, and well worth a spot on this list on its own.

For the TV version, Big Idea took everything up a notch.  A new framing device is introduced, featuring the VeggieTales gang putting on a stage show and stalling for time when the film for The Toy That Saved Christmas goes missing early in the show.  It allows for some of the more memorable songs from the concurrently released A Very Veggie Christmas album to be animated and it features one of the best Bob melt-downs in VeggieTales history.  The VeggieTales Christmas Spectacular is pretty unknown these days, but thankfully it is preserved on The Toy That Saved Christmas DVD as a bonus feature.  It makes a great Christmas special even better!

1.  A Flintstones Christmas

One of my favorite childhood memories about Christmas is how Cartoon Network would show old Christmas cartoons all day long on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The majority of these cartoons came from Hanna-Babara.  They were all pretty much the same, just swapping in different characters.  Christmas was always in danger for some reason, usually because Santa is ill or hurt, but our heroes step in to save the day.  A few corny songs were usually sung and they all finish off with a horribly sentimental ending.  Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Smurfs, you name it.  Heck, even Pac-Man had one.  But, in my opinion, the best has always been A Flintstones Christmas.

A Flintstones Christmas hits all the cliches.  Santa can't do his job because he's sprained his ankle and he has a cold.  So, of course, Fred and Barney fill in for him.  Cheesy songs are sung.  Christmas is saved.  And so on.  It's the ultimate example of a archetypal Christmas Special.  It's horribly corny but you can't help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside when you watch it.  A Flintstones Christmas isn't nearly as well known as most classic Christmas cartoons, but it's has long been my all time favorite, both as a little kid and now.  And thanks to the magic of DVD, I can still experience it every year!

Well, folks, that's my list!  I hope you all get a chance to enjoy your favorite Christmas specials this year, and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!!!

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