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A Very Merry Cricket

The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn't sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we're having a good time. We've found a way to combine those things with our love of television, and we're hoping you'll join us every day through December 25 to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday special or holiday-themed episode we're covering that day. We've got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we're hoping you'll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit.

The four Christmas specials that have endured, the ones that have aired non-stop since they first hit the air, all first appeared in one half-decade. Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer first aired in 1964, followed by A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas! in 1966. Frosty The Snowman came along a few years later, in 1969. By and large, these specials have made up the foundation of what we think of as the TV holiday season.

That’s not to say that others haven’t tried to make specials designed to join the ranks of those four. Every so often, a special will hang on for a few years—as A Garfield Christmas did in the ’80s and ’90s—or someone will resurrect one of the old Rankin-Bass hours—as ABC has done with Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town in recent years—but nothing has stuck quite as well as those four.

All of this is to say that there’s a mountain of largely forgotten holiday specials. The advent of DVD and cable has been a good thing for these specials, letting many of them see the light of day for the first time in decades. And in most cases, these specials force the maudlin or grow too treacly or seem too tied to the time in which they were produced. (A Claymation Christmas Celebration, roundly acclaimed as the best new special in years when it debuted in the late ’80s, now seems almost impossibly quaint.) The four specials that have endured come by their sentiment honestly; the ones that have disappeared often graft it on clumsily.

Yet there are those that aren’t perfect, but, nonetheless, shouldn’t have been forgotten. Chuck Jones’ A Very Merry Cricket is one of those specials. It’s a loose, almost impressionistic little half-hour of TV that relies on the audience having a certain familiarity with and sympathy for characters who are nowhere near as well-known as the heroes of popular Christmas songs or Charlie Brown. The story is virtually non-existent, with Jones picking up on some of the themes leftover from his work on Grinch. But the animation is gorgeous, the conclusion is powerful, and the whole thing has a decidedly ’70s feel that resonates today. There’s a sense throughout that America is falling apart, that everything is going to pieces. But if we stop long enough to listen—to a piece of beautiful music, perhaps—it just might be enough to save us.

Produced in 1973, Cricket is a sequel to Jones’ animated adaptation of George Selden’s The Cricket In Times Square, one of the most acclaimed children’s books of the 1960s. Jones is hampered, in some ways, by the fact that his central three characters—Tucker the mouse (voiced by Mel Blanc in great wise-ass mode), Harry the cat, and Chester the cricket—are nowhere near as well-known as even the Grinch was. He throws in a lengthy, somewhat unnecessary recap of what happened in the initial Cricket special near the top, and it kills the whole story’s momentum. Of course, that story isn’t too much to write home about to begin with: Perhaps inspired by the beginning of Grinch, Jones once again delves into the idea that Christmas is filled with cacophonous noise that drives everyone to distraction and, ultimately, cruelty. The special’s opening moments are among its strongest, as Jones depicts a New York City that’s being torn apart by the Christmas season, not brought together.

Naturally, the refined Harry and streetwise Tucker (who live in the sewer beneath the city noise) decide it’s time to bring a little peace to the city in a season that demands it. Chester can replicate any piece of music perfectly once he hears it, by using his wings to create the sound of a violin (offered here by Israel Baker, whose playing is lovely). Because Chester’s playing for the whole city worked once before—insert flashback to original special—well, why shouldn’t it work again? And so the two are off to Connecticut to retrieve their friend, who lives there at a music store and is something of a local celebrity. The sojourn in Connecticut is nothing more than a stalling tactic and a way to distract from the fact that Jones’ big climax is going to be essentially the same one from the earlier special: Chester plays, the city listens, and all is quiet. But it’s fun, and it’s marked by some nice animation in the characters of a cat who longs to gobble up Tucker and a dog that chases Harry.

It’s that climax that bumps this one to the level of a special that should be remembered more fondly than it is—or remembered at all. (I don’t think it’s turned up on cable in recent years, and its DVD releases have had it slapped onto the margins of DVDs featuring other, more popular specials.) Jones knows he’s working with the same basic conclusion as he had the last time around, so he varies it a bit. Chester’s playing—which once quieted a massive crowd all by itself—isn’t enough to rise above the din of people hurrying about on Christmas Eve. Jones portrays the city as a kind of hellish dystopia, where everything’s about to fall into mass chaos. (The train journey back into the city is, in particular, like something out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Valley Of Ashes, as the idyllic countryside gradually gives way to litter and rusted hulks that were once machinery.) People seem ready to snap, cars race about in every direction, and store windows are filled with electronic Santas asking passersby to buy, buy, buy. It’s a deliberately terrifying place to be, and Jones plays well off then-current fears about New York’s placement as a cesspool of humanity.

And then comes a miracle.

There’s always a miracle in a special like this, something that happens that shouldn’t but allows the piercing clarity of the idea that at the end of the year, what we need most is to band together and remember we have something special in this world we live in and this species we belong to. Fittingly, the miracle in Cricket arrives via the very people who are creating the all-pervasive and hellish noise to begin with: The Christmas commotion overloads the circuits. New York is plunged into a blackout, but this blackout isn’t treated as a terror, as the 1968 one was. It’s treated as an interlude, a time when men might come together over candles and sing carols.

And so Chester steps up on Harry’s tail, and Tucker leans in to conduct, and he launches into “Silent Night.” The animation turns to still paintings that move only slightly, the better to convey how things freeze at a moment like this. The coloring grows more and more impressionistic, until Times Square is united by the sound of beautiful music and the way everything looks when faces are lit by candles in the middle of pure darkness. It’s as if the world has transformed into a series of stained-glass windows that move in small increments. There are few things I love more about singing Christmas songs than that moment before a carol begins, when everybody stops to take a breath and inhales as one. A Very Merry Cricket may not be perfect, but in its final moments, it captures that feeling of humanity gathered together by something small and wonderful. And for that, it deserves to be remembered.

Tomorrow: The many festive moods of one of the best comedies of the last decade.