Did Christmas specials always used to air this early? And by “always,” I mean “back when I was a kid,” which is clearly the only appropriate measurement by which to judge the past. I can’t really remember. Back then, the weeks between Thanksgiving and December 25 were a vast, terrifying wasteland of anxiety, bright lights, and the tepid thrill of Advent calendars. (We had one about the birth of Jesus, despite no one in my family attending church services with any regularity. To be honest, we didn’t care about Jesus. We were just slaves to the narrative.) There seemed more time to fill, and the spaces between holiday shopping and frantic last-minute schoolwork were punctuated by occasional appearances from Rudolph, the Grinch, and the whole sick Peanuts crew. Now, I blink after I finish my last bit of turkey, and the whole thing is nearly over but the wrapping paper and car rides. There are so many more specials now, too, all fighting for primetime air space before getting crammed into endless weekend syndication, grinning manic grins and pitching peace on earth and goodwill between fast-forwarded ads for future garage-sale fodder. (Do people do garage sales anymore? I don’t know. Maybe it’s all eBay now. Or maybe everyone holds onto their toys for life on the off chance they’ll show up on TV someday.)
To be fair, it’s probably not much worse now than it ever was, and while It’s A SpongeBob Christmas! doesn’t rank up with the classics of the Christmas-special genre (or with the best episodes of the series proper), it’s not a terrible way to ring in the season. SpongeBob Squarepants’ chirpy, unflagging enthusiasm is a perfect fit for holiday cheer, and the show’s ability to blend manic goodwill with surreal sight gags and meta tomfoolery makes for kid-friendly programing that doesn’t grate too much on adult ears. In fact, this is far from the first Christmas-centric SpongeBob story; the first, “Christmas Who?”, aired all the way back in 2000, and told the story of Spongebob’s efforts to bring holly jollity to the good folk of Bikini Bottom. There have been similar episode since then, so it’s not a huge surprise that this half hour, at its worst, feels a little tired. It’s never actively bad, and if you’re a fan of the character, you won’t begrudge the time spent, but It’s A SpongeBob Christmas! never quite earns the exclamation point in its title.
The big draw here is the format: Instead of the show’s traditional animation style, the special is done entirely (apart from the credit sequence) in stop-motion. It looks nifty, and serves to distinguish the episode from a more typical SpongeBob entry. And of course, stop-motion has its share of holiday associations, given the Rankin & Bass chestnuts which still end up on the rotation even now, decades after their original release. This special even makes it a point to reference the classics, with its framing story nodding toward Fred Astaire’s friendly postman narrator in Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Said nods involve Patchy the Pirate stealing a post-office van (and kidnapping the postman) in his desperation to meet Santa Claus, but that’s really as dark as this ever gets—which is fitting. SpongeBob, on the whole, is not a dark show. It can be spooky or suspenseful, but the cheerfulness and optimism of the title character defines the series’ tone. Sincere absurdity has always been one of the best approaches for all-ages entertainment, and this is no exception.
The plot is—well, come on. It’s a Christmas special; you could probably trace this one out in your sleep. Plankton, determined to find a loophole in Santa’s “coal for the naughty” program, discovers the most awful element in the universe: Jerktonium. (It turns people into jerks.) By feeding the citizens of Bikini Bottom with fruitcake loaded with Jerktonium, the villainous pipsqueak looks to raise the local naughty levels until his own perfidy looks decent by comparison. SpongeBob gets involved, there’s calamity, a robot double, and, inevitably, a happy ending. Spoiler alert, I guess. It’s all done quickly, efficiently, and with some decent jokes, and a few new Christmas songs.
The songs aren’t all that great, actually. They’re definitely not bad, but they lack the catchiness or triumph of, say, “I’m A Goofy Goober.” (We’re all goofy goobers.) There’s a certain perfunctory quality to the special overall, which isn’t surprising for a show that’s been on the air for 13 years. The plot lacks the sort of cathartic zing that defines the great Christmas shows; there’s a problem, and someone figures out how to solve it, but no one learns any lessons, and there’s never any real tension or much in the way of feelings. Which isn’t to say every special needs a good cry, but this is really just an average episode of SpongeBob Squarepants with a nifty gimmick. Oh, and John Goodman does the voice of Santa; sadly, he doesn’t try to murder everyone for not living up to his high standards of behavior (see: Futurama), but he’s fairly odd, and seems to take great pleasure in his draconian rules, which fits in nicely with the show’s aesthetic. The only problem with any of this is that it’s not exactly special. There’s no inspiration or real passion, or particular view on the holiday. But then, that’s how Christmas shows work these days. We got the quantity part down cold.
Still, it’s cute, and goofy, and doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. It's not a bad show to eat pie in front of.