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.
Remember the mid-’90s, when computer animation was new? Video stores could pay their rent with nothing but a backroom of porn and a few copies of The Mind’s Eye. We would watch anything with that creepy-smooshy fluidity. Story? Characters? Who needed ’em? We were hooked on the visuals all by themselves. Aliens visiting North America would have seen a continent full of spiral-eyed stoners tripping out on the wild, slow-motion novelty of it all.
So when anybody bothered to spend time on writing for a computer-animated project—like Pixar—it was cause for rejoicing. That’s the way I felt when I turned on my television on Dec. 13, 1997, and saw Santa Vs. The Snowman as half of a new Christmas-special double bill with the eminently ephemeral Online Adventures Of Ozzie The Elf.
It’s not that that the animation was technically impressive. It wasn’t even good for 1997. Characters glide weightlessly through landscapes they never appear to touch. Their surfaces are oddly polished and reflective—even the titular Snowman, whose melting-marshmallow appearance recalls an early Stay Puft Marshmallow Man screen test. Children might have had nightmares about the Snowman’s rubber mask expressions, which range from gradual vapid grin to gradual evil smirk. You can almost hear the stretchy-silicone creak whenever his face moves.
But unlike other Christmas specials that skate by on sentiment or holiday references, Santa Vs. The Snowman has actual imagination. I fell in love midway through the big battle scene in which the lonely Snowman, wishing to be as beloved as Santa and jealous that the big guy hogs all the adulation for himself, assembles an army of smaller snowmen (with the aid of a book called “Minions Made Easy”), sews “Santa” on his hat, and lays siege to the North Pole. As the elves fight back, creator Steve Oedekerk (of Jimmy Neutron fame) deploys a rapid-fire series of visual gags based on the premise that the Santa operation features an elite security force. Elves whip out Cocoa Squirter 4000S, stretch their hair-dryer extension cords to the limit, and—the moment that delighted me like no other—open portable oven doors like landing-boat gangways, releasing piping-hot gingerbread men who rush up to the snow-minions and hug them into puddles of meltwater. Cute meets deadly.
Then there’s the voice cast. Any holiday half-hour can hire Jonathan Winters and Ben Stein to provide voices, but how many give them something funny to say? As Santa, Winters gets to bark orders at his elves in the field from a high-tech war room, replacing “over and out” with a curt “Merry Christmas.” Stein drones a deadpan spiel as the leader of a Universal Studios-esque “Wonderful World Of Christmas” ride-through tour of Santa’s workshop. (The parody is pointed, since Universal produced the special.) And when Victoria Jackson as a Uhura-like communications elf receives a transmission, she pipes up “Hark! Incoming message!” before delivering the bad news that the Snowman is prevailing: “Hypothermia, sniffles, coughs due to cold—we can’t last much longer!”
Yeah, the Snowman learns that it takes Santa’s special magic to delight children when his toys—made out of ice—melt in their hands, and yeah, he gets the flute that he tried to steal and should have just waited until Christmas for, and yeah, he and Santa become best buds by the end. But the premise isn’t what makes Santa Vs. The Snowman solid holiday entertainment. Nor is it the gee-whiz gimcrackery of the 3D and IMAX formats in which the special was released from 2002 on. (The original TV special was 22 minutes, but the 3D version stretches to a full half hour with a framing device in which Santa gets a blue screen of death on his computer, then, in order to make the “naughty quota,” covers his eyes and points at the coal-deserving children in the audience. Spoiler alert: It’s you! Also, he’s just kidding.)
What’s made this technologically immature film last for almost 15 years, becoming a December tradition for families within sleighing distance of a science museum with a large-format theater, is cleverness. “I love you more than my own head!” squeaks an elf when face-to-face with Santa—a fitting coda to the preceding song of Santa-worship with the earworm chorus “Baby baby baby, love love love, Christmas Christmas Christmas…” When Santa brings hot cocoa to his hard-working elves, they respond, in unison, “Gee, thanks, Santa! You’re extremely considerate!” During the running gag where the two command-center elves bitch about their lady elves to each other, one reports: “She totally surprised me, just came right in. I told her I was just trying it on for a few minutes.”
The cleverness extends beyond the dialogue to visual gags as well. Igloo-topped AT-AT walkers on snowshoes, which can be defeated by self-hammering icepicks, support the snow minions. Snow minions are vulnerable to mistletoe missiles, which make them kiss each other and allow time for them to be surrounded. (As an aficionado of Cold War weaponry, I feel Oedekerk missed a big opportunity by not calling them mistle-TOW missiles.) And in the obligatory blooper reel after the short, an incompletely rendered elf is embarrassed to discover that his wireframes are showing.
Santa Vs. The Snowman was far from state of the art when it first aired, and it’s only gotten cruddier-looking through red-blue cellophane glasses and on three-story screens. But imagination has no expiration date. And isn’t that the real magic of Christmas? (Well—that and the spending power to temporarily buoy a torpedoed economy. We’re still waiting for the animated holiday special on that theme.)
Tomorrow: Your second recommended dosage of Rankin-Bass.