Tuesday, November 28, 2017

In My Opinion: The 12 Greatest Christmas Specials of All Time

In addition to the wide-eyed wonder of children and the good music, one of my favorite things about this time of year is watching the Christmas TV specials and movies. I ranked my top 12 essentials, not counting my own scripts. Why top 12? Well, 12 days of Christmas...so here goes, with types (see my July post on types of Christmas specials) enclosed.

12. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1965 TV Special, Type 4)
Upside: The fight against prejudice wasn't a common topic in family shows in 1965 and it's one of the reasons this special has stood the test of time. This classic shows that prejudice doesn't have to be based on gender or race - it can be as simple as choice of career. The message resonates well with me, because I have faced prejudice (mostly from myself, though) my entire life.
Downside: The songs can be too catchy at times, and it utilizes the old cancel/save Christmas trope too clearly. Santa (Paul Frees) is grumpy and not at all what a good Santa should be. He's more like a Macy's Santa who's underpaid. The stop-motion Rankin/Bass animation is not their best and looks artificial. Sometimes it looks as if it were just too obviously made in 1965 (which it was).

11. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1967 TV Special, Type 2)
Upside: The Grinch is a character a 16-year-old who feels alone can relate to well. The animation is well done and there are some funny moments. A cartoon allows for Dr. Seuss's original book to be truly extravagant on TV, and this one is certainly a faithful adaptation.
Downside: The story is a little too hard on consumerism, and I am a little shaken by how much it strikes back against commercial retailers that are pushing people to buy, buy, and buy some more Thanksgiving weekend, mostly because the ways they push people to buy are what I adapt some of my scripts from.

10. "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (1972 TV Special, Type 3)
Upside: The hilarious Miser Brothers are definitely a highlight, but I'll leave the rest of the upside to Rick Goldschmidt, Rankin/Bass historian: "The story of The Year Without a Santa Claus basically says that you are never too old to believe. It emphasizes the fact that in today's world, the spirit of Christmas seems to be lost. Santa is given the luxury of a personal day off by the children of the world, but is much too kind to accept."
Downside: Like Rudolph, it utilizes the cancel/save Christmas trope. Santa and Mrs. Claus (Mickey Rooney and Shirley Booth) give excellent performances but they're too often glanced over, because all people remember is the Misers.

9. "Elf" (2004 Theatrical Feature, Type ?)
Upside: Will Ferrell, Will Ferrell, and Will Ferrell. He is one hilarious man. His Buddy the Elf isn't as good as his Alex Trebek, but it's still good. The supporting cast is top notch, but for me, Charlotte (the news reporter who "wants her boyfriend to stop butting his nose into her business") steals the show. That performance is underrated but strong.
Downside: It's very conspicuous that Jon Favreau is trying to make a fantasy, but it isn't working. The story just feels too real and too heavy-duty for Christmas. It's a little dark at times, and I don't like the way they make the Central Park Rangers, in real life trustworthy guardians of New York's public playground, look genuinely evil.

8. "Frosty the Snowman" (1967 TV Special, Type ?)
Upside: Jackie Vernon is a wonderful Frosty. The story has fantasy that's rooted in reality, which I always like. Jimmy Durante nails the narration. There are lines you love to repeat in your room at night.
The animation is classic and everything feels like a good cartoon should.
Downside: Parts of it seem dated, the cartoon medium exaggerates even the reality, and if ever a sequel cheapened the original, Frosty Returns did. Really, John Goodman as Frosty?

7. "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946 Theatrical Feature, Type 2)
Upside: Great performances by the whole cast, black-and-white, old movie charm, and an inspirational message. Even facial expressions, such as that when George sees that he has no house if he were never born, are well done.
Downside: It lacks one good thing every Christmas show needs: music. It's a Wonderful Life would be better as a musical. Of that I am sure. Also, many people, myself included, have wondered what the story would be like if, rather than wishing he never had a life, George wishes he had a different life.

6. Toss-up between two stories with many, many adaptations: "A Christmas Carol" (Type 2) and "The Nutcracker" (Type 5)
Upside: Both stories have a certain charm to them that always makes you feel warm inside. Christmas  Carol is a heartwarming story about one man's change of heart in one night, and how he left his penny-pinching ways. The Nutcracker is a different thing in each incarnation, but its popularity in America scores it major points.
Downside: A Christmas Carol is too widely interpreted when one interpretation was clearly intended, and The Nutcracker is too filled with the past and generalizations. I think we should look more to the future for our holiday staple shows, because in my opinion, you're nothing without hope of a brighter future.

5. "A Christmas Story" (1983 Theatrical Feature, Type 5)
Upside: There are hilarious moments, such as the tongue scene and the decoder ring scene, and the running gag involving Ralphie being told he'll "shoot his eye out" if he receives the Red Ryder BB gun is hilarious every time. I've only seen it once, and it was a heartwarming tale about family - as I experienced it initially.
Downside: Dated gender and racial stereotypes, in addition to some other dated stuff and some scenes where it's hard to distinguish between imagination and reality. The lamp that the father puts up in the window and the mother subsequently breaks is a little raunchy. If this movie were set in the 2010s rather than the 1940s, which would mean fewer gender or racial stereotypes and no dated feeling, and if Ralphie's ideal gift was something other than a gun, it might be my #1.

4. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1968 TV Special, Type 1)
Upside: This special is the only one on this list in which Jesus is mentioned. It communicates its message well and has its share of hilarious moments, and as many heartwarming moments to balance them out. Charlie Brown's devotion to his friends through emotional upheaval is inspiring, and that last shot will stay with you.
Downside: Again, striking back against commercialism when commercials are such an inspiration to me can be unsettling at times, similar to the downside of the Grinch special. The piano music is well done but can be annoying and/or make you skittish when it's not there to underscore a good scene.

3. "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" (1970 TV Special, Type 2)
Upside: Of the Christmas specials with a "better to give than to receive" sentiment, this one does it best, through truly magical stop-motion animation, the best song-and-dance numbers of any show on this list, Paul Frees as ten different characters, and, of course, the classic title song. Fred Astaire's original rendition is a fitting end to this 48 minutes of bliss.
Downside: "One Foot in Front of the Other" is either a really good song or a really obnoxious one, and the mythology surrounding how Santa came to be can cause debate. Otherwise, this is Rankin/Bass's best work.

2. "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947 Theatrical Feature, Type 3)
Upside: The classic actors showcased in this 1947 black-and-white film are a spectacle, and Edmund Gwenn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Santa. The "believe" message sent Macy's on its way to become the department store most frequently associated with Christmas, and I think it's safe to say I'd have a much smaller portfolio if this film was never made.
Downside: Some things, though, are never quite explained, and the story is taken mostly at face value. Also, it takes some understanding to "get" the climactic scene in the courtroom, but other than that, it's a fantastic film.

1. "Home Alone" (1989 Theatrical Feature, Type 5)
Upside: Burglars. Booby traps. An escapade of a hilarious family that forgot its most hilarious member. And, of course, the magnificent music of John Williams. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is a memorable character that stays with you, and he's the closest thing to a real kid in anything on this list. I also especially like how loving and careful his mother (Catherine O'Hara) is, and their reunion is, in its own way, as good a scene as any slapstick this movie deals you.
Downside: There is none. Nothing wrong with this film at all when it comes to being a good Christmas show. It nails the concept. Unlike the fantasy installments you see on the list, this one is real and comedic at the same time and doesn't have any downsides to how real or fantastic it is.

So closes my list, and if this were a video, cue me falling over after getting hit in the head with a can of paint.


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