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Merriest Christmas Specials Ever
Reviews of the Rankin-Bass Christmas Mythos
Reviewed by Joe Crowe, © 2001

Format: TV
By:   Rankin-Bass
Genre:   Fantasy / holiday cheer
Released:   1960s and 1970s
Review Date:   December 26, 2001

If you instantly recognized what Saturday Night Live's TV Funhouse was doing on the Ellen DeGeneres-hosted episode a few years back, when they did a stop-motion cartoon called The Narrator That Ruined Christmas, then you know whereof I speak. Appropriately enough, because the Rankin-Bass cartoons first aired in the 70s, That 70s Show also referenced them that season, when Kelso was told by a stop-motion Santa that it's okay to like them. "Screw those dumb-asses," who don't like Christmas cartoons, Santa said.

Christmas is good, with the giving and the getting and the cranberry sauce. Christmas specials on TV are bad, because holiday-themed stories can be slapped together on a moment's notice, with little thought of creativity or fun. These are accepted constants about the holiday season. But it isn't always that way, and I have proof.
Everybody who has ever been or still is a child has seen Christmas specials. Every sitcom does a special, most of the time with the jerk character on the show, from Louie on Taxi to everyone on Friends, playing the part of Scrooge in an allegedly zany take on A Christmas Carol. Just as prolific are Christmas cartoons, with crude animation and sappy stories. Everybody does it. Witness the horrifying title of the Christmasy Scooby-Doo video: A Nutcracker Scoob.
And they never go away. Make a Christmas special one time, and you're guaranteed a broadcast of that thing each year on some channel somewhere. I illustrate my point thus: A Pac-Man Christmas airs on Cartoon Network every single year. Not every Christmas toon can be Charlie Brown or the Grinch, but they all try, in a not-trying kind of way.
Why is this critic being so critical? It's the holidays. Shouldn't we forgive suckiness in entertainment at this very special time of year? Nope. Sucking at Christmas is still sucking, and there's no excuse for it. Thus, I reward that which doesn't.
I have watched Christmas stuff on TV since the 70s when I was but a wee lad in my short pants, and now I'm making my list. Before you Scrooges complain about me covering these on a sci-fi website, allow me to merrily remind you that these Christmas specials aren't the only stories out there with magic and elves...
You may have heard the Rankin-Bass name in connection with another fantasy property: they did a much-berated cartoon of The Hobbit that's still being hollered at to this day. But they also did Thundercats in the 80s, so it's a trade-off. They did Frosty The Snowman in 1968 in traditional animation, (with a singing Jimmy Durante), but they hit their stride later, with a stop-motion animation technique called "animagic" that set them all apart. 

These specials are irony-free, but they're not maudlin, dreary, or dull. The ratings I will give are based on how seasonally entertaining these are. I call it a mythos, because that's what it is. The characters, the setting, and even the backstory are well-defined. There are quests and villains and drama. Plus, the imagination didn't stop at the stop-motion puppetry. These characters are just goofily memorable and interesting. None of Tolkien's Rivendell elves wanted to be dentists.

Continued . . .
Joe Crowe is merriment editor of RevolutionSF.

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