I just love the holidays. That special time of year when as the weather outside gets colder, we become more charitable, and celebrate a kinship we rarely feel the rest of the year. Because the month of December has an intrinsic magic to it, Disney isn't shy about making their holiday specials. I'm not a Christmas Story or Elf kind of guy, and even The Santa Clause doesn't do much for me. But there are a few worth mentioning. So after sifting through my DVD and Blu-Ray collection, I was able to find my favorite Disney holiday-themed specials, from shorts and full movies to holiday-themed episodes.
10. Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas (1999)
Stories with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy are more prevalent now than they were back in the late '90s, early '00s. But thanks to Mickey Mouse Works and its subsequent spinoff, House of Mouse, Mickey and his friends got a little more exposure thanks to several more animated shorts. This Christmas special had better quality animation than either TV show, and told stories with a deeper emotion than most of the other shorts at the time.
This movie isn't a full-length film, but rather 3 shorts strung together without a cohesive narrative. The first short, Stuck on Christmas stars Huey, Dewey, and Louie in a Groundhog Day-type story where they repeat Christmas Day over and over until they learn the meaning of Christmas in a way that feels sincere, genuine and touching, even with temperamental old Donald Duck. Goofy and Max's story, A Very Goofy Christmas grapples with young Max's emotional struggle to grow out of the Santa mythos, even if his dad hasn't grown out of it himself. Easily the best part here is watching Goofy cooking a Christmas meal for a less fortunate family, something we rarely see in animation. It's a greatly appreciated touch for the holiday season. And finally, a retelling of O. Henry's Gift of the Magi with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. It's a sweet story of two humble mice in their attempts to get each other the best present. It's a bit cliché, but it's still cute and well-executed. All 3 are great stories that put the best faces forward for our Disney friends, and really, that's all I ask for.
Some of you may be wondering what I think of its sequel, Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas. Frankly, it does extremely little for me. The animation works better in the first one, and the stories are much better told.
9. A Very Possible Christmas (2003)
In high school, I was very much a fan of Kim Possible, mostly because Ron Stoppable was me and I was Ron.
In this holiday special, Ron stresses about not getting Kim the right gift, and decides to stop Dr. Drakken's latest scheme solo in lieu of a traditional gift. What ends up happening is he and Drakken crash land in the Arctic with little hope of outside rescue. Kim is forced to abandon her family's Christmas schedule to find Ron, but with surprising results.
Again, it feels as though there are genuine emotions at play here that feel appropriate to each character. Ron feels shocked when his favorite holiday special is canceled and emotional when he sees the gift Kim got him for Hanukkah. Drakken's tirade against Christmas is to be expected, and the interaction between him and Ron feels appropriate: Two vexed man-children trapped in the Arctic bickering like little kids, and the one thing that unites them in Christmas spirit is uniquely funny and heartwarming, in the best of both worlds. A brilliantly written episode with some great homages to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and even How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
8. The Little Match Girl (2006)
This short was intended to be in Fantasia 2000, but for one reason or another, it was dropped and included on the Platinum Edition of The Little Mermaid and the Short Films Collection released in 2015. But I'm not gonna lie, it's a heart breaker.
Based off the story written by Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson, whose work has also seen Disney adaptations with The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, and Frozen, the story is that of, what else, a little match girl. Homeless and without a cent to her name on the streets of Moscow, the girl strives in vain to sell her matches on a bitter cold Christmas Eve. But when the streets empty out for the night, she finds herself alone and in need of warmth. With every strike of one of her precious few matches, she visits Christmas memories that fill her with comfort and glee.
The music is that of 'Nocturne', the third movement from String Quartet No. 2 by Alexander Borodin. It's an immaculate blend of tender and haunting, and the animation is, of course, stellar. This was directed by Roger Allers, co-director of The Lion King, so there's little here anyone can find not up to typical Disney animation standards. Just have a box of tissues handy.
7. Prep and Landing: Naughty Versus Nice (2011)
One of the biggest challenges any writer faces when writing a Christmas special these days is drafting how to approach Santa's operation. What was once just a guy in sleigh using reindeer as transportation and elves as his engineers, became a multi-faceted operation using the latest in state-of-the-art technology to help Santa and Co. build the toys and deliver them worldwide. Specials like The Santa Clause and Arthur Christmas take full advantage of this, but the Prep and Landing handles this perhaps the best.
The first special, which aired on ABC in 2009, was pretty good. It dealt with Wayne, a jaded and cynical elf, and overzealous new recruit Lanny. The second one, Naughty Versus Nice handled a different issue: sibling rivalry. Wayne and Lanny have to recover stolen North Pole technology from a kid, but are forced to bring along Wayne's overbearingly enthusiastic coal miner brother, Noel. Lanny sadly takes a back seat to allow the dynamic between Noel and Wayne thrive, and that's where the heart of the short lies.
The technology and the stealth aspect of the series is downplayed here to its benefit, acknowledging that the story is about two estranged brothers. It has plenty of humorous moments and the animation is superb.
6. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Whether it's Jim Carrey playing most of the roles of Mickey and friends playing themselves, Charles Dickens's classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption is one of the most adapted and most loved. Following in the footsteps of Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer, George C. Scott, Jim Carrey, Reginald Owen, Bill Murray, and Alastair Slim, Michael Caine dons the robe and nightcap of Scrooge. But in this version, his fellow cast members are only waist-tall.
It's pointless to recap the events, considering it follows the narrative of Dickens's timeless and renowned story. It quotes the book on several occasions and Gonzo (who plays Dickens himself) even recommends to Rizzo the Rat that he should read the book. Kermit as Cratchit with Robin as Tiny Tim is pitch perfect, with equal amounts humor and emotional sincerity.
There's too much to like. Fans of A Christmas Carol will see how well the source material is honored, and the Muppet's trademark wit and humor is in full force.
5. Refrigerator Day (1991)
Jim Henson's Dinosaurs was one of the finest shows in the early nineties, mostly for its satire on modern society. Episodes regularly focused on issues from feminism to politics to religion to even sex education, if you can believe that. Thanks to its stellar writing, each scenario was a cleverly-disguised look into modern problems.
In the case of 'Refrigerator Day', dinosaurs celebrate the invention of the kitchen appliance, crediting it as the foundation to civilization, eliminating the need to be nomadic. Earl Sinclair, the Archie Bunker archetype father/husband, spends most of their money on holiday decorations, anticipating a Christmas bonus. But when his boss, B. P. Richfield, announces no bonuses this year, the company is forced to repossess the fridge. How Earl deals with the loss of his most valued household item when its respected holiday is right around the corner is the stuff comedy is made of.
Arguably the best part is when wife Fran, daughter Charlene, and son Robbie try to return the holiday gifts back to the store in an attempt to use the refund to buy Earl a new fridge. The twist here is such a concept has never been tried before, much less with a corporation as inherently corrupt as Wesayso. The dialogue between two sale associates and Fran is perfect, as they grapple with the concept of a return, and the satire of a holiday so commercialized is biting.
4. Phineas and Ferb's Christmas Vacation (2009)
Phineas and Ferb may have been repetitive in its execution, but its comedy was sharp, its writing masterful, its characters vibrant, and its messages profound. It's easily up there with DuckTales, Kim Possible and Gargoyles as one of the best animated TV shows Disney ever produced.
Like every other episode, 1. Phineas and Ferb are set to do the next big project. In this case, build Santa a rest stop. 2. Perry, as Agent P, must stop Dr. Doofenshmirtz. In this case, a naughty-inator, which renders all of Danville on Santa's naughty list. And 3. Candace comes up with yet another harebrained scheme to attract Jeremy Johnson. In this case, trying to get him to write to Santa so she can check to make sure she got him the right gift for Christmas.
Various bits and jokes greatly enhance this special. Phineas and Ferb help Santa out by wishing for a genuine way to thank him far beyond mere cookies and milk. This was one of my favorite aspects of the show, watching Phineas being a kind, empathetic kid, both realistic and relatable character and a role model. Doofenshmirtz's scheme is expected from a cartoon villain, in wanting to destroy Christmas, but the twist here is that he is actually totally apathetic toward the holiday. He only wants to ruin Christmas because that's what villains are supposed to do.
Even the music is spot on, par for the course when it comes to Phineas and Ferb. The best are Doofenshmirtz's patter song 'I Really Don't Hate Christmas' and the gently sincere 'Thank You Santa Claus'. The other holiday songs from the show's holiday album are great, which were also used in the Season 3 episode 'A Phineas and Ferb Family Christmas'. Check it out on iTunes.
3. Mickey's Good Deed (1929)
In this black and white short, Mickey and Pluto are poor and on the street, with Mickey's cello their only means of earning money playing Christmas carols. When it gets broken, and Mickey wants to make Christmas happen for another poor family who may not be getting Christmas, our favorite mouse is left to do only one thing: Sell his beloved Pluto to a spoiled rich kid.
Uh... hold on. What?
Yeah. After seeing a house full of sleeping children, Mickey wants to bring them Christmas. But of course, to make that happen, he needs money to buy them the toys. Since a rich kid's butler offers to buy Pluto to quell the brat's squalling, Mickey accepts the money and plays Santa. The short seems to end on a downer note, but it's actually pretty sweet-natured. It's sure to make you feel something.
2. Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)
This half-hour special has been part of my Christmas traditions as far back as I can remember, alongside the Rankin-Bass specials and the animated Grinch.
Alan Young, who is best known as Wilbur from TVs Mr. Ed, was a English/Scottish/Canadian actor, had co-written the script, and was hired to play Scrooge. It was his first time playing the miserly duck, but certainly not the last: He'd continue being the voice throughout DuckTales and even as recent as the Disney Channel Mickey Mouse short, Goofy's First Love in 2015 at the age of 95. It was also Wayne Allwine's first go as Mickey, and Clarence Nash's last time as Donald Duck (he'd been doing it since 1934!). It was also the first Mickey Mouse cartoon since 1953's The Simple Things.
It's simple and unlike most other Christmas Carol adaptations, the characters don't quote the book. It doesn't need drawn-out speeches or monologues to drive its point home. Scrooge as... well, Scrooge... is a likable enough character that you empathize with both his cynicism on Christmas Eve and his joy on Christmas morning. You understand his point of view, even if it's skewed and corrupt. And the use of all the other Disney characters from Wind in the Willows and Robin Hood is a treat for this Disnerd.
1. One Hour in Wonderland (1950)
Oh, this is a good one. For genuine Disney buffs, this is a treasure trove.
Legendary ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and friends Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd head over to the Walt Disney Studio to join Walt's Christmas party. Other guests of honor include Walt's daughters Diane and Sharon, actress Kathryn Beaumont dressed as her alter ego Alice, and even a teenage Bobby Driscoll. Walt reveals he also got for Christmas: a magic mirror (played by soon-to-be Captain Hook Hans Conried), who shows them various cartoons like Clock Cleaners, Bone Trouble, and segments from Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, and even Song of the South. Yes, you read that right: Song of the South.
It can get dull at times, and the shameless plugs for its sponsor Coca-Cola can be a bit grating, but if that's the worst I can come up with for a Christmas special involving Walt Disney himself, a clip from Song of the South, watching Edgar Bergen work his magic, watching the band Firehouse Five plus Two playing 'Jingle Bells', and of course, watching come classic Disney cartoons, then I have it great. Of course, it was meant to be merely a promotional show for the then-upcoming Alice in Wonderland (hence the title), with Coca-Cola as its sponsor, but it's all worth it. It's my favorite Christmas special of all, and its available on most Alice in Wonderland DVDs and Blu-Rays.
Happy holidays, everyone!