The holiday season is here and it’s a great time for animation. Any TV channel with any kind of children’s or family program has a seemingly endless supply of animated specials old and new for viewers to enjoy. Animated specials often become part of our holiday traditions. We wrap presents, eat whatever traditional foods we enjoy, and watch the same specials we’ve been watching since we were kids.
But maybe you’re looking for a change of pace? Maybe you could use some fresh viewing material to accompany Rudolph and Charlie Brown? Perhaps something with a distinctive animation style? I’ve got you covered. Here are three Christmas specials that will delight you with new animated visuals and fresh (and familiar) tales of the season.
A Christmas Carol
This time of year, you can’t flip through three TV channels without encountering a story about a selfish individual who meets three spirits and learns the true meaning of Christmas. Do we really need yet one more?
We do when it’s this one. Directed by renowned animator Richard Williams – best known for directing the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, this is an animated Christmas Carol like no other. The special features a star studded voice cast headed up by Alistair Sim, who played Scrooge in a 1951 adaptation of the Dickens classic. Like many animated Christmas Carols, the story is condensed, though the cuts Williams makes are somewhat unique. The whirlwind retelling spends little time on the saintly, suffering Cratchitt family and the life and possible death of Tiny Tim, lingering instead on often omitted details such as Christmas being observed in various remote locations, and the children Ignorance and Want.
The real reason to watch this one is the animation. Inspired by 19th century engravings, it fits perfectly with both scenes of nostalgic Victorian Christmastime and the tale’s darker and more supernatural elements. The ghosts of Christmas and Jacob Marley are all inventively designed, the latter portrayed with his jaw permanently slack well beyond what living tissue would allow. It may be darker than the average Christmas special, but it’s also one of the most stunning.
Rights issues have prevented A Christmas Carol from getting a home viewing release since the days of VHS, so YouTube it is!
A Claymation Christmas Celebration
You may know Will Vinton and his former studio as the creators of the once wildly popular California Raisins, the Domino’s Noid, or the criminally underrated film The Adventures of Mark Twain. Or perhaps you remember their work on this Christmas special, done in their signature Claymation style. This is mostly an anthology of various Christmas songs, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sung by the aforementioned Raisins and a “Joy to the World” sequence done with the oil paint on glass animation technique. There’s also a framing story where an anthropomorphic tyrannosaurus and styracosaurus – characters from a previous Vinton project – discuss Christmas traditions and songs while they try to sort out the correct lyrics to the traditional carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”
Talking dinosaurs and singing raisins may not sound like a formula for a great Christmas special, but the framing story is charming and the animation is a fun change of pace from the ubiquitous Rankin-Bass holiday fare (which is also fine and dandy, but there is a lot of it). Plus, the first time I ever saw this particular special was when my husband brought up beat up VHS copy over for us to watch back when we were still dating. So for me, it’s got a sentimental component as well.
You can get this one on DVD (no Blu-Ray yet, as far as I can tell), along with some other Vinton holiday specials. Get a taste of what it’s like with the above clip.
I saw Claymation Christmas Celebration for the first time in my late teens. The Richard Williams Christmas Carol I dug up on YouTube sometime after college. That means The Snowman is the only special on this list that I saw when I was a kid. It may also be the best known special on my list, but it’s still a worthy addition.
The Snowman was directed by British animation director Dianne Jackson and based on a children’s book by author and illustrator Raymond Briggs. The story – about a snowman that comes to life and takes the boy who built him on an adventure – is slightly modified to be more Christmas related, but the visuals perfectly capture the look and warmth of Briggs’s colored pencil illustrations. The special is mostly wordless and relatively plotless. It’s mostly a series of loosely connected events and wintertime activities. But the simplicity is part of its charm and the stunning animation more than compensates for the lack of a complex storyline.
DVD or Blu-Ray copies of The Snowman are available, so I’ve just included a clip of the most famous scene. I know not everyone is a fan of the song, so if that includes you, just turn down the volume and enjoy the gorgeous animation.
Share your own favorite lesser known holiday specials in the comments!