We’ve covered a wide variety of Christmas specials in the past, from the endearing to the terrifying. This year we review one of my all time favorites: Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration, a playdoh extravaganza from the creator of the California Raisins (and apparently the Domino’s pizza short lived mascot, The Noid!) This special was creative and bizarre and had a ton of heart, taking time to explain and celebrate Christmas traditions from around the world. It also re-imagined many old standards with contemporary musical styles such as doo-wop and motown. It’s a shame that it is so hard to come by in its original format, though you can find many of the segments online.
Will Vinton’s A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)
Two talking dinosaurs, a snooty and cultured Tyrannosaurus and an energetic but foolish Triceratops (both loosely modeled upon film critics Siskel and Ebert) narrate a Christmas special, where they present and explain traditional holiday songs from a variety of cultures, while also providing light-hearted criticism of the performers of each piece. Between each short, the pair attempt to find out the words and meaning behind the old carol “Here We Come a-Wassailing” with increasing frustration as various carolers try to sing alternate versions like “Here We Come a-Waffling.” They finally find the correct words, and end with a rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with all of the characters from the shorts.
The shorts themselves run the gamut from silly to soulful, and are all entertaining. Will Vinton leaves his stamp on every song by either embroidering the original tunes with new styles or by providing outrageous visual interpretations of traditionally performed songs. While the comedy is fantastic (my favorite being “Carol of the Bells, where Quasimodo is attempting to conduct an orchestra of living church bells who must hit themselves with hammers in time to the music,) there are several segments which convey wonder as well, such as a choir version of “O, Christmas Tree” where each tree is surrounded by celebrants who hang a special ornament which in turn opens into a miniature world inside where another Christmas tree is likewise being decorated. It’s rare for a Christmas special to actually capture the spirit of the season, and it’s even more rare for that to happen while also being suffused with humor.
Around the World
Revisiting this special, it is heartening to see how multicultural and inclusive this show is, organically and without pandering. There is a beautifully illustrated segment where “Joy to the World” draws artistic and musical inspiration from African American traditions from blues to calypso, each adding layers of complexity to the song. “We Three Kings” counter-points traditionally performed verses with playful doo-wop renditions of the chorus. From a french bell choir to The California Raisins covering The Temptations version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” we see Vinton blending old and new and inviting everyone to the table to celebrate.
If you never experienced this production (or any else of Vinton’s Claymation specials which were all the rage for several years during the late eighties) you should definitely pick this one up. I would recommend picking up the DVD, even though it is easy to find in segments online, since it keeps the flow of the original intact and keeps the unifying commentary from the hosts between the songs. It assembles many of the best songs from the holiday season and presents them with laughter and heart, and is a welcome break from the cloying nature of many of these Christmas specials. I wish I could say all of Will Vinton’s specials where this uniformly great, but that’s a story for another day…