Writer: Ralph Liddle
Cast: Tim Conner, Johnny Counterfit, Greg Black, Ron Tinsley, Patric Miller (Musical Director)
Plot: Unlike most of the Christmas specials we’ve covered this month, A Claymation Christmas Celebration doesn’t exactly have a “plot.” This film instead features a pair of dinosaurs named Herb (Tim Conner) and Rex (Johnny Counterfit) as they host a revue of classic Christmas songs starring Will Vinton’s animated characters, including the California Raisins. In London, Herb and Rex try to give us some background into the first song, but are interrupted as a set of dogs come by singing “Here We Come A-Waffleing.” As Rex tries to correct them, he realizes he has no idea what “Wassailing” actually is, and sends us into “We Three Kings.” Herb then tells us that bell-ringing ceremonies have their roots in attempts to ward off evil, which takes us into “Carol of the Bells.” As the dinosaurs go into their next, a group of geese begin to sing “Here We Come A-Waddling,” Rex throws us to “O Christmas Tree.” When we return, the dinosaurs are looking up “Wassail,” tossing us into an ice ballet for “Angels We Have Heard on High.” A cart of hungry, hedonistic pigs gives their version of “Here We Come A-Wallowing,” tempting Herb away as Rex tries to introduce “Joy to the World.” The various wassailers begin arguing as the dinosaurs send us to the real stars of the special, the California Raisins performing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Finally, a load of cider-guzzling elves arrive and explain the meaning of “Wassailing” – going around the neighborhood, singing carols, and sharing treats and drinks. The dinosaurs and the rest of the cast join in to sing the proper version of the song, dovetailing into “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as they all say farewell.
Thoughts: This special is such a product of its time. In the 80s, the California Raisins turned up for a series of ads, were rock stars for a while, provided parents with the cheapest Halloween costume imaginable, and then faded from the public consciousness. It’s a shame too, because I really do love Will Vinton’s work. This special shows off his considerable talents as an animator, not just with the clay figures of the Raisins and other characters, but on other forms of animation as well. During “We Three Kings,” for example, as the Magi sing, we drift into different styles of animation that look like oil paintings. Later, in “Joy to the World,” the style mimics the look of stained glass, while still having a very lively, evocative feel to it. It’s the most unique visual in the entire special, and a wonderful showcase of the potential inherent in this kind of animation.
“O Christmas Tree” is another display piece for Vinton’s skill, beginning in a simple setting with a pair of children decorating their tree. The camera zooms in on an ornament on their tree, taking us to a scene in a candyland, then repeats the process. We go through Santa’s workshop, then into Santa and Mrs. Claus’s own home. Each scene has a similar composition, but a distinctly unique decorating style that shows off the different sorts of stories Claymation can be used to depict.
Vinton also has real skill at comedic animation. In “Carol of the Bells,” we see several different bells (each with distinct faces that reveal a lot of personality) engage in a head-bonging chorus that would have made Jim Henson himself proud. The scene also has a good punchline, delivering the final note in a Chuck Jones fashion. The ice ballet has a bit of Disney’s Fantasia and a bit of Disney’s Donald Duck (the cartoon where he engages in an ice battle with his nephews comes distinctly to mind). Vinton is a smart writer as well, dropping in nice little literary Easter Eggs like making Quasimodo the director of the Bell Choir.
The music is also phenomenal in this special. This is one of my all-time favorite renditions of “We Three Kings,” in which the Magi sing a quiet, respectful, traditional version, which then spins into a peppy, jazzy chorus provided by the camels. “Joy to the World” has a sort of bluesy feel, while the California Raisins cover of “Rudolph” is right up there with Burl Ives as one of the best versions of the song.
Sadly, Vinton’s studio has been gone for some time now, and with CGI ruling the animation roost there aren’t too many people left doing this sort of thing. Even the final few stalwarts of stop-motion – Aardman, Henry Selick, Tim Burton – don’t do the sort of wild, experimental stuff Vinton tried to bring to the table. We don’t see the likes of this anymore, and that’s a real shame. As of this writing, the DVD (which also includes Vinton’s Halloween and Easter specials) is still available from Amazon. It’s definitely worth getting.
Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!