Every Christmas season, the TV specials start to congregate. The stop-action animation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with Burl Ives singing the soundtrack... A Charlie Brown Christmas, which, although a beloved piece of pop Americana, is really pretty weird... even the cult-classic The Christmas Without a Santa Claus is never quite as good as we remember it. We need newer holiday specials!
Hollywood's answer is to make films for grown-ups and call it good enough. Stuff like The Santa Clause or Elf.
But is it possible to have a holiday show really made for kids without the sensibility of Bart Simpson behind it all? (Not in Elf, apparently, as the trailer delights in showing Will Ferrell letting out a massive belch -- that's hi-larious, and Christmasy, to boot!)
The answer, finally, is yes, but you'll have to go out to your local IMAX theater to see something original that is really for kids. Brought to you by Steve Oedekerk, the twisted mind behind Nickelodeon's Jimmy Neutron, it's Santa vs. the Snowman. These two characters, who epitomize the holidays but surprisingly have never shared the screen, need little introduction. The Snowman is as pure as the... well you know, and Santa is every kid's best friend come December 25. It's like King Kong vs. Godzilla: Which one are you supposed to root for when they're both so great?
When we first meet the Snowman (who doesn't speak), he's lonely. After following what looks like a shooting star overhead, he discovers he's not the only one living at the North Pole. Seeing the cute little elves at work, he's bewitched enough to help himself to one of the toys they're producing. Bad move. The elves quickly show their true colors, dropping the cutesy act and looking more like the Delta Force as they chase the Snowman off, and recover the toy.
Santa (voiced by Jonathan Winters) has a good side, as we all know, but Santa vs. the Snowman shows that you really don't want to get on his bad side. But the Snowman isn't quite as simple as he appears, either. Soon enough, it gets personal. The Snowman figures that if he can just become Santa, everybody would love him -- right? You might say things grow chilly between them.
But it's a pretty good gig, and Santa's not giving it up without a fight, which is the best part of the whole cartoon. With Christmas fast approaching, Santa's elves prepare to defend their leader; the Snowman produces minions of his own, and the battle is joined. With every kind of holiday reference, from hot cocoa to nutcrackers, and with a big nod to the second Star Wars movie, I can guarantee that you will love this scene.
Christmas is jeopardized, of course, but the Snowman finally comes to realize that no one else can wear that big black, shiny belt.
Coming in at just over 30 minutes, the film's action is fast and furious, with some hilarious characters -- especially the Ben Stein-voiced tour guide. The computer animation isn't quite Pixar-good, but it looks great up on the giant screen. And the screenwriters dug deep into the book of Christmas carols, riffing on just about every one of them.
Even our kids live in a postmodern world, and maybe they've heard all the jokes before -- certainly, they know that big, long burps are really funny. In Santa vs. the Snowman, all the parts are derivative of past entertainments, to be sure, but the final product is 100 percent original.