As the air grows nippier, the days grow shorter, and the insanity that was 2018 winds down, I am slowly being reminded of the Christmas season rolling in like a massive thunderhead. I welcome the good Christmas songs, the decorations, and the smells of pine, peppermint, gingerbread, chocolate, and wood fire. What I do not welcome are the bad Christmas songs, the cheap commercialization, The Black Friday pandemonium that causes actual fatalities, the coercing obligation to buy and donate when you’re already broke, and the insipid, vapid, hollow holiday specials.
Now, as you can tell from this list, I don’t have a problem with Christmas specials as a whole. Plenty are good. Great, even. But as a jaded millennial who realizes the pointlessness of a corporate cash grab TV special that teaches us “The true meaning of Christmas” while making mucho dinero exploiting our emotions, pardon me if I don’t entirely buy it. A Christmas special, a good one, is a tall order. There’s only so many times someone can save Christmas, help Santa, or share the Christmas spirit with a disadvantaged one. That’s when a good writer can make a passable Christmas tale and make it one that feels like it’s actually trying.
Of course, I love the classics: Rudolph, Frosty, Wonderful Life, Grinch (The 1963 animated one), Charlie Brown, you get the idea. (And before you ask, I cannot stand A Christmas Story, Elf, The Santa Clause, and Jim Carrey’s Grinch) And yeah, Disney is hardly blameless in its pursuit of cheap holiday specials and extorting us by appealing to our emotional vulnerability regarding the season, but there are a few that do charm me. This list is to acknowledge the good holiday specials from the mediocre ones, the specials that actually deliver on what it means to be a Christmas special.
10. Prep and Landing: Naughty versus Nice (2011)
In 2009, Disney aired a special on ABC called Prep and Landing, a half-hour presentation about an elf named Wayne, whose job is to clear rooftops for Santa’s incoming landings. However, jaded Wayne is being passed up for a promotion, and is assigned a trainee who is klutzy, but yet good-spirited. It was a good special, if a trifle cliché.
In the sequel, Wayne and Lanny are tasked to cooperate with Wayne’s brother, a coal elf named Noel, to find a device that generates naughty/nice readings. The device wound up in the hands of a girl who wants to alter her settings, but there are some legitimate twists here that I dare not give away. The crux of the emotional center here relies on Wayne and Noel’s relationship, and it kind of works, given its unique aspect.
A lot of specials love to put their own spin on the Santa mythos, particularly in explaining how Santa can do all the implausible things we believe him to do. Prep and Landing utilizes song lyrics and key holiday-themed phrases to allow the world to be fully infused with Christmas-ness. At times it feels like they’re shoehorning in them in for the sake of a cheap gag, but the sequel eases up a bit on this and allows the story to be more naturally told.
9. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Charles Dickens’ classic novel has been adapted countless times, particularly for film and TV for one reason: it’s a damn good story. Even if you infuse it with so much comedy, it can still hold its own as a good quality story, as this version applies.
Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Fozzie as “Fozziwig”, Statler and Waldorf as Marley and Marley, and Gonzo as Charles Dickens, this has all the Muppet slapstick, chaos, and heart you ever wanted and more. Various parts of the book’s literature arises frequently, and the Muppets’ antics and songs never feel like padding, which can be easy to do. There are even unique characters who play the three spirits, who encapsulate everything you want them to be.
Michael Caine may not be the best Scrooge, but he does seem to love working off his “co-stars”. He has just the right gravitas to make Ebenezer Scrooge look and act like every bit the villain he can be.
8. Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952)
This short is simplicity unto itself. Mickey and Pluto get a tree, not realizing Chip and Dale live in it. They take it home to decorate, and the chipmunks inadvertently start trouble. Mickey’s oblivious, but Pluto frantically tries to chase them off/get Mickey’s attention. Shenanigans ensue, because of course.
The artistry is gorgeous here. The intro of a calendar, the glistening of the tree and its decorations from inside, even the brief scene of Minnie, Goofy, and Donald caroling is evocative and splendid, even if they are on screen for short periods of time.
7. Refrigerator Day (1991)
Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs TV series was head and shoulders above its contemporaries when it came to social issues. Through allegory, much like Zootopia, it was able to effectively communicate all sorts of societal problems, ones I can’t wait to discuss at a later date. Their one one holiday special, titled “Refrigerator Day”, exemplifies this.
For starters, the reason they celebrate refrigerators is because it is the invention in dinosaur culture (Just go with it) that allowed them to stop living nomadically and live in civilizations. But in “recent” years, the holiday has become inundated with crass commercialism that take away the true meaning of the holiday. However, the holiday is thrown off when Earl, depending on his Refrigerator Day bonus, is shocked to discover not only is he not getting one, but the company is repossessing the fridge, too. And I’m delving a bit into spoiler territory here, but the family decides to make it up to him and return all the gifts to buy back the fridge. The wrinkle here? The greed of the Wesayso corporation means that full refunds have never been done before. Ever. The bewilderment of the two sales floor reps is refreshingly entertaining.
What makes this allegory work is the thought it takes to establish Refrigerator Day as its own holiday, celebrating gluttony in and of itself as its own festivity. There’s a remarkable brilliance in that. It’s not just another cynical look at the holiday, but a more thought-provoking one.
6. A Very Possible Christmas (2003)
Even though I was well into my teens when Kim Possible was on, I still loved it. It was such a departure from the usual Disney Afternoon fare I grew up on by being wittier and snappier than what I was used to. And thankfully, the Christmas special delivers as well.
Kim Possible and her family are getting ready for their annual Christmas agenda, and of course, buddy Ron Stoppable is there. He’s touched deeply by Kim’s gift, but his gift is hopelessly inadequate. Ron decides to step it up and stop Dr. Drakken on his own as his gift to Kim (Much to Wade and Rufus’ concern). Ron succeeds…sorta. He and Drakken crash in the North Pole with little hope of outside rescue, and it’s up to Kim and her family to save them.
First, the dynamic between these two bicker like petty children is wonderful. Both Drakken and Ron are essentially man-children and in true jeopardy, so they’re FAR from above some petulant sniping before they get around to problem-solving. And what they choose to finally bond over is too funny for words. Also, there are homages to Grinch, Charlie Brown, and Rudolph in the show, and it does carry a hefty Christmas message that delivers, even if it’s a bit corny.
5. Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999)
Back when Mickey Mouse was little more than a corporate logo, this little Christmas special made its way into Disney’s home video and newly-burgeoning DVD market. I was earnestly surprised, considering Mickey and friends rarely had new material to appear in that wasn’t theme park appearances or rehashed vintage cartoons.
There’s three stories here: Stuck on Christmas is about Huey, Dewey, and Louie getting Groundhog Day‘d, and all sorts on shenanigans ensue. A Very Goofy Christmas deals with Max and his dad, as he wonders if Santa Claus exists. The third special, in homage to O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi, is about Mickey and Minnie struggling to get the perfect gifts for each other for Christmas.
Each story has their own nugget of sweetness. Watching Donald’s reaction to the nephews pranking Christmas is gut-wrenching. Seeing Goofy cooking for a less fortunate family is incredible. And Mickey and Minnie…well, aside from the spoilers, it’s Mickey and Minnie Mouse. ‘Nuff said. The animation’s good, the voice acting is wonderful, the writing is lovely, it’s just glorious. And Kelsey Grammer’s narration is a lovely bow on this gift.
4. Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation (2009)
I’ve always loved the exploits of Phineas and Ferb. Perfect balance of wit, heart, and slapstick. And their Christmas special is one for the books.
Phineas decides to make his town of Danville a rest stop for Santa. But suddenly, all of town is written off as Naughty. Why? Because Dr. Doofenshmirtz unleashed his Naughty-Inator. Even though he firmly establishes he has nothing but pure ambivalence for Christmas, unlike all the other mad scientists. Also, Candace is freaking out (As per usual) that her gift to boyfriend Jeremy won’t be good enough.
There’s no clichés here. Phineas and the crew go through a troublesome revelation concerning their summer adventures. Doof’s attitude to Christmas is a hilarious take on the usual “villain tries to destroy Christmas” trope. Candace’s struggles have always been the more emotionally-wrought plots of the episodes, and all three mesh beautifully, as the show usually does.
The best parts are the songs. Most of the real good ones are left on the holiday soundtrack (Now on iTunes!), there’s some great ones. “Winter Vacation” is a great parody to the show’s regular intro. “What Does He Want” is silly, but still sad. “I Really Don’t Hate Christmas” is everything you want it to be. “Where Did We Go Wrong” is mournfully somber. “Danville for Niceness” is upbeat and inspiring. And my personal favorite is “Thank You Santa Claus”, a sincere show of gratitude to the great Saint Nick.
3. Mickey’s Good Deed (1932)
This classic black-and-white short is a powerful story of compassion and kindness during the Christmas season, even in the heart of the Great Depression.
Mickey is homeless with nothing but his pal Pluto and his bull fiddle (Cello? I don’t know musical instruments) on Christmas Eve. A rich man wants to buy Pluto to placate his bratty son, but in the fracas, Mickey breaks his giant violin-thing. When Mickey finds a house full of poor kids who won’t be getting Christmas, he gets an idea, and it involves…selling Pluto?!
Okay, before you go crazy, it has a happy ending, and its message is timeless and squarely in the heart of Christmas spirit. Never let a season go by without watching at least one black-and-White Mickey short, and this one I can’t recommend enough.
2. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Folks…what can I say? It’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol.
It was the first time we heard Alan Young as Scrooge and Wayne Allwine as Mickey. It was the last time Clarence Nash voiced Donald Duck. It has great animation, great voice acting, and is paced beautifully for its 30-minute runtime. The casting of the Disney characters? Spot on in every regard. It’s one of the few that doesn’t quote Dickens every few minutes, but its message is clear and profound. Even that theme song has a loaded charm to it.
1. One Hour in Wonderland (1950)
If you’re a Disney fan, you have to watch this every year. Seriously, you have to. No excuses. Even if you drink Pepsi.
Legendary ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (And his “friends”, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd) head to the Walt Disney Studio to spend Christmas Day with – who else? – Walt Disney. But not just Walt: Kathryn Beaumont is there, dressed as her character Alice, as well as pre-Peter Pan Bobby Driscoll. Even Walt’s daughters get a cameo. And…say, is that Hans Confried pre-Captain Hook as the Magic Mirror? I think it is!
Walt uses the magic mirror to conjure up clips of various Disney cartoons, from Snow White’s “Silly Song” to “Clock Cleaners”. “Bone Trouble” to the Running Away segment of Song of the South (Yes, seriously!). Eventually, the mirror shows off Walt’s animators as the band Firehouse Five Plus Two plating their Dixieland version of “Jingle Bells”, which leads to the real reason why this special aired in the first place: it’s a promo piece for Alice in Wonderland, which wouldn’t premiere for another eight months. It can be easy to write this off as a lazy promotional special, padded with vintage cartoons, constantly product placing Coca-Cola at every given moment, all to plug Alice in Wonderland…and you’d be right. That is all it is, but there’s more: not just seeing a Song of the South clip or seeing Conried, Driscoll, or Beaumont. You also get to see Walt himself being a ham when he conjures up the mirror. You get to see a master ventriloquist like Bergen doing some great comedy with Charlie with whimsical ease. You get to see the Firehouse Five being playful, and remember, those guys were animators at the studio.
Much like Christmas Day itself, it starts out as an honest-to-God celebration of Christmas, but eases up to a more all-seasonal theme as the special goes on. Even if you don’t see this as a true blue special to celebrate the holidays, it’s a treasured piece of Disney history that’s going to give you the feels.
Happy holidays, you Disnerds.