Monday, December 21, 2015

A Claymation Christmas Celebration

Do any of you guys remember this?

No, of course you don't.  What you remember is the California Raisins singing "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer," which is on this special from 1987, but strangely enough that's not the only segment of this show.

Strap on your boots, this is a pretty wild ride.

The special is a 24-minute program that originally aired in 1987 along with A Garfield Christmas.  The two ran back-to-back for several years, but I don't really remember it taking off the same way as, say, A Charlie Brown Christmas or How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

It managed to win the 1988 Primetime Emmy award for "outstanding animated program," however, but I think that's because claymation in general was such a novelty that nobody would think someone would invest that much time and effort into producing something a half-hour long.

Those people had clearly never heard of Will Vinton, the man who gave us the California Raisins, the Noid, and the M&M commercials we all love so much.

The show is broken up into segments, with two recurring characters introducing each one.  We have Rex and Herb, two walking, talking, well-dressed dinosaurs.

Because the idea of dinosaurs being around doesn't conflict at all with the major religious symbolism of the holiday to anybody, right?

Nobody is more disappointed than me that Rex didn't eat Herb.
Rex is well-spoken, calm, and speaks with a serious case of Locust Valley lockjaw (think Thurston Howell the Third), while Herb is...well, Herb is rather annoying, to be honest.  His voice moves around a bit but keeps swinging back to being a excitable, overweight nerd.

In fact, of the two running jokes through the show, one is how Herb simply can't stop eating until he's puffed out like he stole gum from Violet Beauregard.   The other ongoing joke is how people keep getting the song "Here We Come A-wassailing" wrong, swapping out the key word for things like "waffles" or "wallowing."  Rex, determined to correct everybody, keeps trying to explain the history of the song, but is continuously interrupted and ignored.

The fact Rex doesn't eat anybody is amazing.  But, it was 1987, I'm pretty sure nobody was ready for claymation blood in a children's cartoon back then.

The hosts get to introduce each of the other segments, and many of them are pretty creative.  The first one is the three kings singing their own song (with several camels doing a doo-wop/jazzy backup for the chorus).  While the animation takes an interesting "smoky patterns" motif, it gives each one of the kings gets their own spotlight.

Next up is a chorus of bells (with mustaches!) playing the "Carol of the Bells" by smacking themselves with hammers,  Considering how hard it is to make clay look like it's moving, I don't even want to know how they managed to animate bells smacking themselves in the head and vibrating.  Naturally, for humor, one of the bells is...well, a "dumb bell" and keeps screwing up his part until the conductor beans him at the end to get the final note.

Spoiler alert: the dumb one is in the upper right.

"Oh Christmas Tree" is probably one of my favorites, despite not having a lot of humor or craziness in it compared to the others.  Starting with small children decorating a tree, the animated short starts zooming in on one ornament that opens up to another location where another tree is decorated.  In that tree is another ornament that opens up, and the film keeps zooming in on these settings, letting us take in various holiday preparations, all while being the Inception of Christmas carols.  It's pretty charming and simple, with a children's chorus providing the singing.

After that is probably my least favorite, where we get a pair of ice-skating walruses harassing a group of penguins to an orchestral version of "Angels We Have Heard On High."  While I like the song, and the idea of two walruses ice skating and falling in love can be cute, the constant abusing of penguins just seems silly for silly's sake, especially at the end when the walruses fall through the ice and the penguins attempt to roll a giant snowball over them to trap them.

Not pictured: the food chain behaving as it should.
Next up is an updated, soulful version of "Joy To The World," and we actually get a history lesson explaining the song was written by a 15 year old Isaac Watts, but I can't really find any sources online to corroborate that statement.  The whole thing is done as a trippy mix of stained glass art and swirling, psychedelic visions.  Considering we've already seen sentient bells, talking dinosaurs, and camel teeth that would give any strong soul nightmares, you might be able to imagine just how trippy this one is.  There's lots of swirling, like colored sand is changing shape and patterns.  There are times the clip has portrayals of people show up, and I found it interesting that it seemed that, without exception, everyone was African-American.  "So?" you might be asking.

I don't know.  I just find it interesting, and pretty cool.  I don't remember there being a lot of specials in the 80s that would do that without it simply being negative somehow.  Consider the next one takes a song by a classic black R&B group and has it sung by raisins.

Next (as I already alluded to) is the one everybody remembers, where the California Raisins sing "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and I'm going to say something that makes me sad.  People might know that I loved the California Raisins growing up, and I still love the style and way they were animated.  I used to watch their own show, I loved their covers of classic Temptations songs, and I owned a wind-up raisin holding a microphone.

This segment does not hold up.  The humor is flat, the "story" is almost non-existent (they miss a bus while standing around nowhere near the bus stop, and so they create Santa's sleigh and fly off into the sky?), and while the singing is naturally the best part of it, the mouths don't seem to sync up as well as they do in the other sketches, particularly after seeing clay bells vibrate.  There's nothing really original about it, and I found myself pretty disappointed.

Plus, were we supposed to be able to tell the raisins apart?  I never could as a child, and I still can't really figure out if any raisin had a particular "role" in the singing, like "bass man" or "falsetto guy" or anything.

Seriously, do they even have names?
The show ends with the mystery of "a-wassailing" being cleared up by the arrival of what's supposed to be some of Santa's elves on a truck but look and sound more like leprechauns.  Everybody present breaks out into a full version of the song, Rex finds Herb grossly overweight, and the credits roll as "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" is sung.

For the most part, this special really holds up well.  The animation is crisp and flowing to a level that makes you wonder how long it took to make it.  The attention to detail (especially in group scenes where more then ten characters are moving around) is astounding, and there are some very clever characters introduced (why hasn't anybody else thought of creating a "waffle cart?")

The special is for sale on DVD, but, and we all know I would never advocate doing anything that might be perceived as illegal, I don't think it would be outside the means of reason to assume that the entire special might be online (though not in very high definition) on a video site to be watched.  If you have kids, or you were alive during the 80s, I say give it a watch.  For the most part it remains a really solid Christmas special, and who knows, maybe we'll get some new claymation masterpieces in the future.

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