I watched the new Muppet Christmas special with the whole clan the other night, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. It was silly, hokey, and unabashedly sentimental, and A-list stars like Nathan Lane and Uma Thurman showed up and cheerfully made fools out of themselves. (Actually, are they considered A-list? I can never tell anymore. And I’ve never thought Uma Thurman was attractive. But I’ve never thought Nathan Lane was attractive, either.)
It got me thinking about the Christmas specials of yore that I enjoyed so much every season, and I’m surprised that the same ones that were popular when I was a kid are still the only ones my kids enjoy. We have most of them on DVD, and the ones with the crummiest animation are the ones we love the most. A Charlie Brown Christmas is so clumsily delightful after all these years, because of its flaws, not in spite of them. The children who are voicing the characters have no idea what they’re saying half the time. Watch as Sally says “All I want is what’s coming to me. All I want is my fair share,” and you’ll realize that the little girl probably learned the lined phonetically. If that’s the best take they have, I’d be interested in seeing what they left on the cutting room floor.
Of course, Linus’ recitation of the Luke chapter 2 is by the far the most moving moment in all Christmaspecialdom, and the kid who played Linus, now a man in his late forties, admits it all went over his head when he recorded the part, and now it moves him to tears every time he sees it. The special was considered very innovative for its time – no laugh track, a jazz music soundtrack, and real kids doing the voices instead of Caillou-style adult abominations. This one shows its age more than any of the the others, and yet it never gets old.
I’d say that Charlie Brown is my favorite special, except we just watched The Grinch Who Stole Christmas for the first time this year – the Boris Karloff masterpiece, not the Jim Carrey nightmare – and the thing is flawless. Absolutely flawless. The narration, the animation, Max the kind-hearted, put-upon dog who gets whipped mercilessly – imagine doing THAT in today’s PC world – and, above all, the music.
“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,” makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it. The lines are subversively brilliant: “You have termites in your smile,” “Your heart is full of unwashed socks/Your soul is full of gunk” and, of course, “I wouldn’t touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.” This special also manages to be with religious without really being religious. Christ is never mentioned or even implied – all it says is that Christmas doesn’t come from a store, and that it’s “a little bit more.” It’s up to the viewer to decide what that little bit more is, but the story of redemption and forgiveness fits perfectly with the Christian tradition wthout offending the nonreligious. It’s the most spiritual secular Christmas story of them all.
I have a soft spot in my heart for all the Rankin/Bass stop motion specials, although for reasons other than they were intended. Watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer again and marvel at what a racist Santa is in the very beginning when he discovers Rudolph’s unique schnozz. Gay characters abound in these pieces – Rudolph‘s Herbie the Dentist, the Burgermeister Meisterburger’s faux Smithers character in Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and the squabbling elf lovers Jingle and Jangle Bells from The Year Without a Santa Claus, which also has dueling gay stepbrothers Snow Miser and Heat Miser, which implies that their mommy, Mother Nature herself, is a swinging divorcee.
Anyway, I’m out of time and I’ve got to go. Merry Christmas – more tomorrow, hopefully.