Last year I offered my top 10 Christmas cartoons for the first time. As an animation art gallery owner of 25 years, and an animation historian, I have been studying and enjoying them a long time.
What an uproar I caused! I got a veritable avalanche of emails about the cartoons I "couldn't possibly overlook." While I stand by all last year's excellent offerings, I do have some amendments this year. Here is the list with some considered additions and subtractions.
The cartoons listed below are all classics and are wonderful opportunities for holiday viewing with friends and family. You can enjoy them while chomping down highly caloric peppermint bark, or swilling down highly spiked eggnog!
#10. Arthur Christmas - 2011
Such a new movie on a list of classics? Yes! Because of its recent release, I place the charming and delightful Arthur Christmas at #10. This Aardman Studios release is an extremely inventive take on Santa and his dysfunctional family, including his eternally optimistic and quirky son Arthur, who winds up on a mission to save the holiday. With as many fine English actors as you'd see in any Harry Potter film, Arthur Christmas features the voice talents of James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Robby Coltrane and Imelda Staunton, just to name a few. (Wait, aren't three of those actors in Harry Potter?) While it might seem on the surface to be a bit less about the romance of the holiday, it has a huge heart that celebrates the meaning of Christmas as well as many of the sappier entries on the list.
#9. A Year Without Santa Claus - 1974
This is the "Mystic Pizza" of holiday cartoons: 1988's Mystic Pizza is a slightly dated second-tier indie live action release that continues to be watched for its then little-known stars Julia Roberts and Lili Taylor. A Year Without Santa Claus remains known for Heat Miser and Snow Miser, two of the best characters to come out of the Rankin Bass collection of stop-motion animation. I would include this cartoon based on the sheer volume of fan mail I got for it after my last list, but I actually love this movie almost as much as Bass Rankin's The Little Drummer Boy (which I love mostly because it is narrated by the luminous Greer Garson). If you love stop motion, consider getting the whole collection of holiday movies by Rankin Bass. You won't be sorry!
#8. The Night Before Christmas - 1941:
This Tom and Jerry cartoon directed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera for MGM was nominated for an Oscar, and was released the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. These earlier cartoons, while quite violent, have a level of kindness to them absent from later Tom and Jerry cartoons. The backgrounds are exquisite, and there's a great deal of playful experimentation with animation visible throughout the cartoon, as is a very sweet and wonderful representation of friendship. There's good reason the HB team won seven Oscars between 1943 and 1952!
#7. The Night Before Christmas - 1933:
This Silly Symphonies tidbit of lovely vintage sweetness was like a test lab for artistic experimentation for Disney greats like Hamilton Luske, Les Clark and Ben Sharpsteen (all of whom went on to amazing work on Disney feature films of the Golden Age of Animation). The bright vintage color palate, the backgrounds created are like a candy store of visual creativity! When Santa continually finds his job as bringer of cheer worthy of a belly laugh, it's infectious! It is the joy and innocence of the holidays captured in cartoon, and in the style of early animation. An honorable mention goes to the later 1938 Fleischer short Christmas Comes But Once A Year, which also has a lovely vintage look and feel.
#6. Peace on Earth - 1939:
This cartoon from MGM is a story in a post-apocalyptic world populated only by animals, and takes place after a violent end to humanity. Creepy and beautiful, it somehow finds a way to be a warm Christmas cartoon and a cautionary tale about war at the same time. While the Nobel Peace prize nomination remains unconfirmed, it was most certainly nominated for an Oscar, and was redone as Goodwill Towards Men in 1955 by Hanna & Barbera, which was also Oscar-nominated.
#5. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer - 1964:
Another Rankin-Bass: Burl Ives narrates this stop-motion TV special of the misfit reindeer and the Island of Toys, his friend Hermey who wants to be a dentist, and the abominable snow monster (a.k.a. Bumble), all of whom we now know and love. This was the first great success for the studio and inspired many other great classics of stop motion like Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (narrated by Fred Astaire), the aforementioned The Little Drummer Boy and A Year Without Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman. It has been telecast every year since its release. (Rudolph airs Tuesday, Dec. 4 on CBS.)
#4. Fantasia - 1940:
There's something about the intensity and grandeur of Fantasia, originally called Concert Feature, which includes sequences featuring the Nutcracker Suite, Ave Maria, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, that places it on many favorites lists for holiday viewing. The movie as a whole featured more than 500 characters and over 1,000 artists, and was Disney's grand statement about animation being equal in artistry to other popular art forms. Famed animator Freddie Moore redesigned Mickey for the Apprentice cartoon by adding pupils in his eyes for more expression, re-popularizing him as a character. It is considered by some to be the best of all Disney animated features. It is only ranked fourth because it has only become a Christmas favorite, but it's strictly speaking about Christmas. If we were talking sheer artistry alone, it would be #1.
#3. The Nightmare Before Christmas - 1993
Cinema Siren is extremely biased about this movie. I have had a love affair with it since I saw it repeatedly in theaters during its original release. I rushed out and bought promotional ties, boxers, T-shirts and anything else I could get my hands on, and the movie promptly sank into obscurity. It is in the nearly 20 years since then that a rabid fan base has found and embraced it, making it cool for goths everywhere to safely celebrate Christmas. It is the story of Jack the pumpkin king in Halloween-town, who wants to bring joy instead of fear to those around him and discovers Christmas is the perfect vehicle with which to do it. The great diversity of inventive and memorable characters, Jack and Sally's romance, the great singable songs, and the gorgeous visual palette created by director Henry Selick and creator Tim Burton, are what make this quirky movie so lovable.
#2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas - 1966:
We should all be eternally thankful for the determination and passion of director Chuck Jones getting this story interpreted into cartoon. He had worked with Theodore Geisel on Private SNAFU during WWII and had fallen in love with the Grinch story at its release. No one wanted to make it. They didn't believe it would be seen as a classic, nor that it'd make any money. Millions of dollars and fans later, Grinch, Max and Cindy Lou, and the voices of Boris Karloff and June Foray, all help us get into the holiday spirit like few other movies, whether live action or animation, can. Thanks, Chuck!
#1. A Charlie Brown Christmas - 1965:
Need I say anything about this classic? The music. The blanket. The tree... We've all seen this Peabody- and Emmy-award winning special, and will see it again. There are charming scenes of skating, Snoopy playing just a dog, Linus telling the story of Bethlehem and a lesson about loving a sad, lopsided tree. Bill Melendez, who also provided the "voice" for Snoopy, does a wonderful job of interpreting Schulz's characters in cartoon form in his first Peanuts TV special. During its premiere in 1965, half the TVs in the nation were tuned to it! Many of the kids voicing characters in the show couldn't read yet, so they were fed their lines one at a time, giving rise to the now familiar Peanuts style of vocal delivery. (The program airs Tuesday, Dec. 18 on ABC.)
If you are looking to get in the spirit, watch any one or all of these, and before long you'll feel your heart grow to three times its size. Or perhaps you'll want to decorate a sad little tree with a friend's blue blanket. Whatever the case, we can all be grateful such great cartoons exist to enhance the joy of the holidays. Be safe and have a great one.