Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Top 5 "Fun, but Forgotten" Christmas Specials

Now that Thanksgiving has gone by and the Catholic season of Advent now in full force, I can finally be comfortable in talking about the Christmas season.

For those who don't celebrate Christmas, don't worry. This isn't about the holiday. It's about a topic that everyone regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof can talk about pretty easily: Christmas TV specials.

These suckers own network time everywhere for about a month, and anyone who claims they never run into them are... Amish. Or lack the means to own a TV/go near electronics stores/etc.

Everyone has their personal favorites that have gained some level of legendary status. My personal favorites include The Polar Express, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Year Without a Santa Claus, and the first two legs of the Santa Clause trilogy. (I watch the third out of a feeling of obligation.)

The Rankin-Bass universe rules the roost for 25 days on ABC (formerly Fox) Family, and Disney as well as Nickelodeon have a slew of TV show-based holiday specials. Those range from beautiful and near-perfect (Hey Arnold! Arnold's Christmas and Rugrats: The Santa Experience) to freakishly/awesomely disturbing (Invader Zim's Christmas Special).

But while so many all-time greats are considered must-watch, I'd argue that there are another level of specials/movies that should be must-see but are generally forgotten or missed.

And there are reasons for that. Some were made-for-TV films that no one cared to watch and couldn't gain a true following. Some were based on material that isn't as mainstream as Rudolph or Frosty. And some were just insane to the point that people refuse to watch them despite their entertainment value and still-present charm.

As such I am listing my Top 5 Fun, but Forgotten Christmas Specials/Movies.

To be clear, being on this list doesn't make a special good or bad. (Read my explanations to know if they are or not.) These are just specials that deserve viewership and yet for some reason don't gain traction.

Also, these aren't "hipster answers" either. All these specials usually air. I just usually never hear of people knowing of them (or in some cases liking them).

So let's begin!

Honorable Mention: Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer

I felt this was obligatory because it was requested by a fellow viewer of this thing. This is a special that airs no fewer than 10 times on Cartoon Network (among other channels) and yet it somehow still isn't in the public eye.

The special is based on the terrifyingly disturbing song of the same name. The premise is exactly what it says.

However, the difference between the evil song and this is that this special KNOWS it's going to look stupid and not only has fun with itself, but adds some nice dimensions to make it worthwhile.

What I really like is how the corporate transformation of Christmas is seen as a negative, but it's not outright demonized. The main CEO isn't the one who hates Christmas (the main character's sister and her lawyer are for that); in fact, he loves Santa and legitimately thinks he's giving back to his community. Nice change of pace.

The spin-off songs are as stupid as the main ones, and the thoughts of Santa having universal North Pole health care and/or Santa being sued for homicide are bouts of insanity that actually come across as kind of funny.

Everyone in this special is fun to watch and it's beautifully drawn. It's not truly being forgotten since it's EVERYWHERE, but deserves more credit than it gets for making a dumb premise entertaining.

Frosty Returns (1992)

Again, hard to make a point on a special that is on network TV twice a year (including tonight!), but no one really sticks around for this one it seems like.

And I'd be lying if I didn't know why: This thing is a BLATANT push for environmentalism. The whole story centers around a kid meeting Frosty and then the two have to team up with their nerdy friend to stop a villain from selling what basically amounts to "Global Warming in a Can."

Yeah, it's not subtle in any way. Heck, Ferngully had a more subtle environmental message than this. Seriously, "Don't pollute or you'll kill Frosty!" Wow.

So why is it getting mentioned? Well, to be honest, it's still a lot of fun. There are some actually funny moments and John Goodman does a nice job as Frosty. And the musical song breaks are much better (in my view) than the classic Frosty songs.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm not a big fan of the original Frosty special. It has one decent emotional moment and the rest of it is kind of lackluster. And maybe I'm more of a fan because Frosty Returns uses animators from the old "Peanuts" specials and the musicians who did the score for "Rugrats," but in any case, I look forward to this environmental thumping each year.

Regardless of if you believe in Global Warming, this is worth checking out. It has really no connection to Christmas, so it's the closest thing to a secular Christmas special you'll ever see, so I say everyone should see it.

5: Hey Arnold! Arnold's Christmas

This will only be touched on briefly, but this may be one of the five or 10 best holiday specials ever and it only airs once in a random Nicktoons Network timeslot AT BEST.

It's going to keep moving up over the years. The only reason it hasn't yet is because there's still a large base of people who watched Hey Arnold! and know of this special.

If you want a special that has humor and yet is mostly just beautiful emotion, this is the special.

Yes, the scene where Helga finds out about Arnold's dilemma is a little forced, but it's a Christmas special! Of course that's going to happen.

Ultimately, it's a story about a man who made a massive sacrifice for his daughter and the love of his American pseudo-family helping to bring them together. It's one of the few specials where I can't get through it without getting emotional. Heck, typing about it is bringing back emotion.

I need to get through this blog, though, so let's move on. (And on a final note, FIND THIS AND WATCH IT!)

4: The Story of Santa Claus

CBS shows this 1996... thing... like once every two years, and as weird as it is, it's a nice special that I make a point of seeing if and when it's on.

Santa going bankrupt: weird idea; elves being able to grant wishes: weird idea; Cosmic energy locking in a wish and forcing elves to work at the cost of their magic (and, I think, existence): bizarre idea. And yet all of it comes together in a way that doesn't make me hate it.

It's a strange special that introduces the idea that not all the elves were initially on board with Santa's somewhat nutso-crusade, but that they eventually come around to it.

I'm still not sure how a group of elves with the power to grant wishes and immortality (seriously, they make Santa and his wife immortal) couldn't just conjure toys out of nowhere, but again, that's what makes this fun to watch.

It's so weird to see the ideas that came into play here, and yet the sincerity of it and the excellent voice acting actually sucks you into the story.

It's a good experience watching it, and an even better "Wait, did that just actually happen?" reaction about 10 minutes after viewing. If you can find it, check it out.

3: Three Days

This movie came out in 2001 for then-Fox Family and as most TV movies are, it was quickly thrown down the card of importance. Which is a shame because of the few reviews I could find, people agree with me that it's really well-done.

Many people compare its plot to an altered version of "It's a Wonderful Life,'' and I see the comparisons, but there are stark differences. Basically, an out-of-touch husband is really focused on business, and upon upsetting his wife, she leaves the apartment and is hit by a car.

This leads to an angel named Lionel coming in and giving him the last three days back to him, and if he can prove his devotion and love, then she won't die.

The ticking clock element definitely adds suspense, but it's downplayed. Pretty much anyone with a sense of story can probably guess how he has to prove his love, but the question as to whether there will be a death or not really does feel ambiguous until the final moments.

Kristin Davis absolutely kills in the role of the wife, and I really loved the interaction between everyone as more layers come into play. And I don't think knowing the story is that bad here. Everyone can pretty much guess how Miracle on 34th Street is going to end, but that doesn't mean the characters don't take you for a ride.

I will say that the movie probably would have lived up to its full potential with a tragic ending, as the comedic ending is where a lot of cliched dialogue comes into play. That said, it's a Christmas film and you really have to do it this way if you don't want to suck. (Looking at you, Christmas Shoes, and your evil, evil messages.)

This will probably be on once this year at best, so when ABC Family puts it in a slot, find a way to watch it.

2. Olive, the Other Reindeer

I originally had this at No. 1, but moved it down for reasons you'll see. This special, though, is beautiful.

Yes, the premise is stupid, but at least in the TV special it makes more sense than the book it's based off of. Basically, Olive wants to be a good dog for her owner, and thinks that she should try to become Blitzen's replacement when he's injured in order to prove her merit.

What I love about this is that in this special, Santa is pretty much a given. People go to the North Pole and report on the warm-up runs for the reindeer. This actually takes a lot of confusion out of the special, such as "If the adults don't believe in Santa, then how do they explain the toys they DIDN'T buy under the tree?" That always irked me.

Anyway, the characters are all really compelling and the mailman being the villain is actually kind of a funny development (especially when you hear his motivations).

Overall, this is a must-see special and I really hope this goes down as an all-time classic one day.

1. Year Without a Santa Claus

I didn't even consider this for the list until I heard that no one in my brother's school had heard of it.

How is that possible? This is one of Rankin-Bass' legendary ones. I thought everyone knew this special, and the fact that a new generation is missing out on it upsets me.

The iconic Heat and Snow Miser Brothers and the elves, Jingle and Jangle, must never be forgotten. Plus, the South Town, U.S.A. characters are the most likable southerners I've ever seen in Christmas specials.

There are so many great emotional moments in this special that you probably come close to crying multiple times when you're younger. Heck, even as an adult it triggers the feelings to a degree.

And the Miser Brother songs. OH, the Miser Brother songs. These are so iconic that "Batman and Robin" used them in what was one of the most confusing (and yet somehow entertaining) 30-second bits of the movie. (Seriously, it's the only time I really enjoyed its stupidity.)

And Heat Miser's:

This special is amazing and needs to live forever. I firmly expect you to find this show's airdate on ABC Family and view it.

Well, that's it for "Fun, but Forgotten," but I still have one more Christmas special to talk about. It's one that many reviewers I watch (specifically those on TGWTG) either hate or call a "guilty pleasure," implying it should be acknowledged as weak.

I intend to prove that it is, in fact, a good film and deserving of its love. This month, I defend the live-action "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

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