Remember...? Christmas Special

Will Vinton's classic claymation special, including singing, ice-skating and dinosaurs.
December 30, 2007
Much like the beloved Simpsons cartoon, I'm premiering my article series with a Christmas Special before its actual birth as a weekly affair.

So, it's the holiday season once again and any TV nut knows what that means: Christmas movies and special programs! There are plenty to choose from:
-Miracle on 34th Street (classic B&W version if you like the legalese argument, modern color version if you prefer the religious faith argument)
- It's a Wonderful Life (for saccarine sweet holiday cheer)
- A Christmas Story (for post-modern cynicism and snarky humor)
- Frosty the Snowman ("Happy Birthday!" says the perfectly atheistic, yet ironically paranormal figure)
- Santa Claus: The Movie (a rather strange, yet poignant "save christmas" film from the mid-80s)
- The wonderful stop-motion creations of Rankin/Bass, including Rudolph, Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, Sam the Snowman, Hermey the Misfit Elf (now starring in Full Metal Jacket mash-ups on various video sharing sites), Yukon Cornelius the peppermint prospector, the Misfit Toys, quarreling brothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser, and the most famous member of his near-extinct species, The Bumble.

But I'm not here to talk about ANY of those beloved programs. I'm here to reminisce about my most personal Christmas special: Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration

Original album cover

For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Vinton, he's who some refer to as, "the Walt Disney of claymation" with his inventive and award-winning productions using plasticine (aka "modelling") clay. Most 1980s buffs will know him for his creation of the Dominos Noid commercials, in addition to the world-renowned singing group, the California Raisins. Later credits would include special effects in the feature film Return to Oz and the television series Moonlighting, genesis of the CG M&M commercials, and personal projects such as The Adentures of Mark Twain (trippy and fantastic when I stumbled across it) and The PJs (which utilized a refined technique Vinton dubbed "foamation"). I could go on, but suffice to say, Will Vinton gets creative with a "lost art" of animation.

I watched for this every year as a kid, and even though it's a compact half-hour (counting commercials), it hits a lot of levels. The special begins in London's famous "Christmas Square," and we're introduced to Rex and Herb, anthropomorphic dinosaurs who will be shepherding us through various classic, Christmas-related songs and exploring the history behind them. The characters are not only a continuation of Vinton's latent dinosaur fixation, but also a light-hearted satire on public figures (the late) Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. While Rex maintains a rather dry and stuffy demeanor, Herb drowns himself in the glutuonous abandon of holiday celebration, much to Rex's chagrin.

The show's scope and style ranges all over, and the first musical segment illustrates this beautifully. "We Three Kings" is set, as you would imagine, in the landscape of ancient Bethlehem, as the three wise men prepare to visit the newborn Jesus. But in between the traditionally-sung verses is a comedic doo-wop refrain by the wise men's camels. Vinton's style embraces the classic nature of the piece, while also modernizing it in a creative and amusing way.

Next, an instrumental version of "Carol of the Bells" with Maestro Quasimodo conducting an orchestra of church bells gonging themselves on the head (with one dull-witted bell continually putting off the song). Again, creative and amusing.
Then, a pair of pajama-ed children decorate their seasonal evergreen while a children's choir singing "O Christmas Tree" is played underneath. As the song develops, the perspective shifts in a fractal pattern as each tree shown in the segment holds an ornament with another Christmas scene featuring another festive tannenbaum (and so on).

Following this are the songs "Angels We Have Heard on High" (interpreted as a humorous love story between two ice-skating walruses) and "Joy to the World" (rendered from a stained-glass window but sung in a surprising soul/gospel manner). But it's the last segment I love the best, and the sole reason I remember this special so well.

The California Raisins, arguably Vinton's most famous creation, sing their own version of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" (inspired by a similar version by The Temptations). This version has ingrained itself in my mind as the de facto way the song should be sung. It's just as upbeat, but a little more "funk-ay" and perfect for drunken holiday karaoke. To me, it's the height of the program.

Throughout the show, Rex has been trying to tell various patrons of the London square that it is "Here We Come A-Wassailing," not some other homonym such as "waffling" or "waddling." He also has great pains trying to explain just what wassailing is. (It's the act of caroling, or rather caroling around a neighborhood; kinda makes that song redundant, huh? "Here we come, a-singing, we're singing this-here song. Here we come a-singing..."). It's the eventual arrival of a group of (Irish?) Christmas elves that helps set everyone straight. At the end of the night, Rex has run out of Christmas carols (what, no "Silent Night"?) and Herb has run out of digestive storage, so they bid the audience farewell in the famous George Burns fashion* ("Say goodnight, Herb" "Goodnight, Herb") with the assembled group singing together.

I won't deny this special isn't very multi-cultural or inclusive of other belief systems, but that's actually something I'd cite as a positive element. This special gets to just be about Christmas, and not have to diverge into uneven tangents about other winter holidays. Also, I wouldn't say it's very heavy-handed about the Christian elements at all. It's just saying, 'Christianity is connected to Christmas, and here are some examples how.' But there isn't a whole lot of in-your-face attitude about it, no sermons or anything, and that understated quality is a style Vinton uses to take this TV special from regular cheese to pleasant festivity and nostaglia. Visually, the production is resplendent in detail, color and movement. It seems more "alive" and "real" than any cel-drawn work could ever be, but also better than a performance by live actors. Will Vinton creates a holiday special that's original while also being classic, a truly remarkable accomplishment.

The special is available to watch online at the following links. Now, as I like to say, Happy Winter Solstice.

*I know it's disputed as myth, but that's what everyone remembers it from.
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