Herbie J Pilato: My Top Ten Animated Christmas Specials of All Time

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by Herbie J Pilato

1]  A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (CBS, 1965): Directed by Bill Melendez. Written by Charles Schulz.

Young voice-over talent Peter Robbins made his indelible mark as Charlie Brown in this poignant holiday classic that spawned a series of similar specials for every holiday. Here, Charlie Brown searches for the true meaning of Christmas and the perfect tree. While directing a school play, he ultimately finds both, though not before our young low-acheiver is confronted by a number of obstacles. None the least of these conflicts is presented by his own dog Snoopy’s obsession with winning first prize for a local decorations competition, or by his mean-spirited peers who mock his choice of a tiny sickly tree.

Through it all, Charlie continues to struggle for peace of mind in his December time, when he is forced to visit with his pseudo-psycholgoist friend (and foe) Lucy, who offers him a 5 cents therapy session. Following a desperate plea (during which he screams, “Can’t anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?!”), CB finally hears the real deal – from Lucy’s young brother Linus, of all people. “I can tell you,” Linus reveals. And in one of the most uniquely animated moments in the history of the genre, Linus goes on to quote the Biblical story of the first Christmas.

In a matter of moments, CB’s misguided pals realize their inconsideration and, with the help and reconfiguration of Snoopy’s prize-winning decorations, breathe life into a once-listless tree – further uncovering and “illuminating” the true meaning of Christmas. “Hark the herald” these young animated angels then all sing.

2]  RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (CBS, 1964): Directed by Kizo Nagashima and Larry Roemer. Written by Robert May and Romeo Miller.

A “true love” story. Lessons about maturity, responsibility, pride, prejduice, ambition and acceptance; deciphering “deer pressure” from “elf-improvement.” Dispelling the fear surrounding a visit to the dentist? Learning that no toy is happy unless it is truly loved by a child? Some of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever written (“There’s Always Tomorrow”; “Silver and Gold”), and one of the happiest (“Holly Jolly Christmas”).  What else could anyone want in a Christmas TV special?

This classic always signals the commencement of the holiday season – and reminds me so much to slow my pace and shine on until the morning – and beyond. Featuring the awesome talents of Burl Ives, who we first meet in the North Pole midst of a field of Christmas trees (“Yep – this is where we grow ’em?).

3]  SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (ABC, 1969): Directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. Written by Romeo Miller.

Taking it’s cue from Rudolph, this smart Christmas tale expands on the popularity of a Christmas song and threads a charming tale about the origins of St. Nick – here voiced by Mickey Rooney. Also along for the ride: Fred Astaire (serving the narrator purpose, alla Burl Ives on Rudolph) as the Christmas Mailman. Also featuring the vocal talents of Keenan Wynn, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner and Robie Lester.

4]  THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (ABC, 1974): Directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. Written by William Keenan and based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley.

Mickey Rooney returns as Santa, this time joined by Shirley Hazel Booth as Mrs. Claus in smart take that may be sub-coded, Santa Takes A Holiday – as the jolly one gets sick and decides to take a break from Christmas. As such, a quite sophisticated animated tale is delivered, along with an astounding message and pristine dialogue. In fact, this cartoon was so impressive, it spawned a life-action TV-movie (starring John Goodman) in 2006.

5]  A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Syndicated, 1970): Directed by Zoran Janjic. Written by Michael Robinson and based on the classic novel by Charles Dickens.

Who says television isn’t educational? This was my introduction to the great mind of Charles Dickens. Up until then, I thought cartoons only meant Scooby Doo, Where Are You? – not to mention, great literature. Starring the voiceover talents of Alistair Duncan, Ron Haddick (as Scrooge), John Llewellyn, Bruce Montague, Brenda Senders and many others.

6]  THE NIGHT THE ANIMALS TALKED (CBS, 1970): Directed by Shamus Culhane. Written by Peter Fernandez, Jan Hartman and others.

Just about his far away from Dr. Doolittle as you can get, we learn here what the animals were thinking at the birth of Christ. They are granted the gift of gab – and we are granted the gift of insight. Mind-boggling – and aeons ahead of its time. Starring the vocal gymnastics of Pat Bright, Ruth Franklin, Bob Kaliban, Len Maxwell, Joe Silver, Frank Porella and others.

7]  ‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (CBS, 1974): Directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. Written by Jerome Coopersmith and based on the poem by Clement Moore.

Producers/directors Bass and Rankin steered away from stop-action animation (Rudolph, Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town) and headed into the then-more traditional animatrics of the era. What’s more, it’s also told in a 30-minute format (as opposed to the aforementioned 60-minutes, though first completed a few years before with Frosty the Snowman in 1969).

But their style is still evident especially drawn in the eyes and “heart” of each character. A sweet narrative delivery of a perfect holiday ryhme. Feauturing the voices of Patricia Bright, Scott Firestone, George Gobel (Hollywood Squares), Broadway giant and film legend Joel Grey, and Tammy Grimes (the original choice for Samantha on TV’s Bewitched; but she said no; thank the Good Lord).

8]  THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY (NBC, 1968): Directed by Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr. and others. Written by Romeo Muller.

Two years after CBS got heavy with A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Peacock network delivered this equally-deep and spiritual take on an animated Christmas TV special. Based on the classic song (that was later historically duetted by Bing Crosby and David Bowie on one of BC’s traditional NBC Holiday specials). Starring the vocal prowess of Jose Ferrer, Paul Frees, June Foray, and narrated by Greer Garson.

9]  HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (CBS, 1966): Directed by Chuck Jones and Ben Washam. Written by Bob Ogle and based on the book by Dr. Seuss.

Director Ron Howard and actor Jim Carrey made a valiant attempt to bring Whoville to the live big-screen a few years back, but ain’t nothing like the original unreal thing – especially due to the vocal brilliance of Boris Karloff.

10]  FROSTY THE SNOWMAN (CBS, 1969): Directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin. Written by Romeo Miller.

Here, Jimmy Durrante (like his compadres Burl Ives and Fred Astaire before) serves as narrator to yet another Christmas carol come to life – along with Frosty. A sequel (Frosty Returns) later followed (with John Goodman, years before he donned the live action edition of The Year Without A Santa Claus – stepped in for Jackie Vernon). But it wasn’t the same.

Also starring the voices of the great Billie De Wolfe (The Doris Day Show), and Bass/Rankin/Miller stalwarts Paul Frees and June Foray.

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About Herbie J Pilato

Writer, Author, Producer, Actor, Singer/Songwriter, Lover of Life