Susanna McLeod, Christmas Toons on Television

December 14, 2007

    It happens the same way every year at this time. I turn into even more of a cartoon-kid when the Christmas specials come on TV. There are a lot of great ones to watch - some wonderful new shows and the classics. It is the classic animations that capture my heart each December, the ones that I just have to see or Christmas doesn't feel right. Do you feel the same about some of the seasonal programs? My first must-see is always A Charlie Brown Christmas.

   Produced by Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first television special for the inimitable Peanuts comic strip creator Charles Schulz. But when the half-hour show was completed, the CBS network considered it a failure.

    “You can’t read from the Bible on network television,” was one of the judgments told to Schulz by the network executives. They were positive that mainstream audiences would not watch such religious storylines. The popular cartoonist disagreed and insisted the story stay as it was, with the reading of Bible passages from Luke by Linus, the use of untrained children’s voices and a piano jazz-style musical score. And to top off the irregularities, there was no laugh track and the animation was considered crude. Lucky for viewers, it was too late; the show was to air in one week and there was nothing else to replace it. The CBS network braced itself for negative ratings.

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    Much to the surprise of executives, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” drew an audience of nearly 17 million on its first US run. That was almost half of television viewers in the mid-1960s. The special-that-almost- wasn’t is now a revered classic. Linus's rendition of the bible verses bring meaning to a season that has become all-too politically correct. Somebody has to say what Christmas is about.

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   Another treasured animation is How The Grinch Stole Christmas. First published as a children’s book by author Dr. Seuss, the pictures were almost sterile in black, white and red with splotches of pink and yellow. When the tv special was made in 1966, the surly Grinch was given a makeover with more refined features and a sickly green-coloured fur to enhance his unpleasantness. At the time of its meticulous, labour-intensive production, The Grinch was considered one of the most expensive animations made for television.

   “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,” is a song that I love to sing along with. For years, I thought the wickedly happy voice was that of narrator Boris Karloff. I was wrong – the true vocalist’s name was accidentally left off the credits. That deep, smooth voice was none other than Thurl Ravenscroft, a man who made a fifty-year career with Kellogg’s® Frosted Flakes as the voice of “Tony the Tiger”. His growling of “They’re Grrreat!” made him famous. (Ravenscroft also worked for Disney and a number of other companies.) Another tale of anti-commercialism, How The Grinch Stole Christmas shows that the spirit of the season is much more than materialism.

    In our home, there’s no missing the 1964 version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, either. An adaptation of the famous Christmas song written by Johnny Marks in 1949, Rudolph is an exquisite example of stop-motion animation. The cartoon’s storyline, which seems so simple at first glance, takes on the serious issues of loneliness, love, loss, friendship and heartache. And all the while, the threat of Christmas being cancelled looms large. With the bright illumination of Rudolph’s noisy but brightly glowing nose, Christmas Eve’s dilemmas wrap up with cheering friends and the successful flight of Santa and his team of reindeer. (There's nothing like a Bumble with a toothache!) The program was touched up and digitized in the past few years so that the frames are sharp and colours bright. The hour-long special has several original musical scores that are a delight to croon along with.

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    Even more than animation, A Muppet Christmas Carol has my undying affection. The traditional story of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is transformed into a class of its own when the Muppets take over the cast. (Puppeteer Jim Henson named his characters “Muppets” since they were a blend of marionette and puppet. The ingenious creator died suddenly from bacterial pneumonia in 1990 and I cried when I heard of his passing.) Hosted by Gonzo the Great and Rizzo the Rat, few humans appear in the 1992 special, the best of which is “Scrooge,” played to cantankerous perfection by Michael Caine. Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy play the roles of Bob Cratchit and his wife, with Kermit’s nephew Robin portraying the unwell Tiny Tim. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, the singing choirs and the snippity lower-class are all fanatastic in Muppet form. I revel in the classic tale and hilarious additions, such as Rizzo the Rat squealing out, “Light the candle, not the rat! Light the candle, not the rat!” when his tail is accidentally set ablaze.

    I’ve waited another long year to have my fill of the innocent, uplifting holiday specials again, and I’m not moving a muscle until my heart is stuffed to bursting with Christmas spirit. Bring on the hot chocolate and caramel truffles, please, 'cause the programs are about to start.

    And I think Charlie Brown was right, too. Christmas is just too commercial.

© Susanna McLeod 2007