Heathcliff, despite being a cat, shares a similarity to a certain cookie. And that cookie is Hydrox, the chocolate and cream sandwhich style cookie often mistaken for an Oreo. When I was a kid, Hydrox was the inferior Oreo, the knock-off, and I suspect that was true for a lot of people. The funny thing is, Hydrox predates Oreo. Nabisco essentially stole the concept and mass-produced its own version which eventually became more popular than the original. And how does this apply to Heathcliff? Well, most seem to view him as the Garfield knock-off even though he predates Garfield by a solid three years.
Heathcliff debuted in 1973 as a comic strip by George Gately. He became popular enough that he made the jump to animation in 1980 where he was given a voice by the late, great, Mel Blanc. Heathcliff, the cartoon series, consisted of two seasons of 13 episodes each. Heathcliff was paired up with some characters called The Ding-bats and later fellow comic character Marmaduke. The show was still shown for much of the 80s, but in 1984 a new cartoon was created by DiC also titled Heathcliff. This is the show I remember most from the 80s due in large part to the catchy theme song performed by Noam Kaniel. For this show, Heathcliff was paired up with some new characters called the Catillac Cats which is why this show is often referred to as Heathcliff & the Catillac Cats to differentiate it from the series that came before it. Each episode was organized into two segments, one Heathcliff and one Catillac Cats with the two rarely crossing over. The show produced 86 episodes and was shown in syndication into the 90s.
The final episode of the series is the one we’re going to talk about today. “North Pole Cat” is the lone Christmas segment and it stars Heathcliff. Wikipedia claims it originally aired on October 7, 1985 though IMDB simply lists it as airing in 1986. The plot borrows slightly from the much more viewed ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in which letters to Santa are returned and someone needs to figure out why. That someone is Heathcliff and he’s dragging his adversary Spike(Derek McGrath) along for the ride as the two make their way to the North Pole to figure out what’s going on.
The episode opens with Spike training with Muggsy (McGrath) so he can become a better bully, or “bull” as Muggsy calls him. He looks to test out his new skills on the unsuspecting mailman making his rounds who jumps with terror at the approach of the massive mut. Heathcliff watches from his stoop disapprovingly. He decides to get involved, and utilizing the mail carrier’s satchel like a matador does his red curtain, he tricks Spike into crashing into a number of obstacles before finally falling into an open manhole.
The mailman thanks Heathcliff and then hands over the mail. It seems both he and his owner, Iggy, have had their letters to Santa returned. I’m not sure what time of year it is as everything looks sunny and lovely, but I guess we can assume it’s sometime close to Christmas. The mailman adds this is the tenth such letter he’s had to deliver today and wonders if Santa has called it quits. Heathcliff wonders the same, but decides he needs to take action. Putting on a parka and some earmuffs, Heathcliff is ready to set off for the North Pole, but he needs a dog sled to get there. He decides to enlist Spike, and when he makes a crack about needing a red nose to pull Heathcliff’s sleigh the orange cat slaps one on him. He then produces a whip, and Spike is forced to go along with this plot.
Heathcliff and Spike make tremendous time in getting to the North Pole. There they encounter a blizzard and the scene almost immediately shifts to Santa’s workshop. It looks like something designed by Dr. Seuss and inside an assembly line of toys is running. A cranky elf named Tuck seems intent on breaking toys rather than assembling them. An older elf calls him aside and wants to know why some of Santa’s letters were sent back. Tuck basically confesses and he’s proud to do it. He hates Christmas and thinks it’s a sham to get kids to behave all year to receive presents on one day. Well, this attitude has not gone unnoticed as the older elf informs Tuck that Santa has given him the order to let him go. Channeling another elf, Tuck declares he can’t be fired, for he quits, and takes his leave.
Out in the snow, Heathcliff is rather mercilessly whipping Spike to get him to go faster until Spike decides he’s had enough. He stops and declares he won’t move another inch. Heathcliff just looks at him with an expression of bewilderment as he stands on the sleigh, which slowly starts to slide backwards. As it takes off down an incline, Spike gets pulled along with it smashing his head into a giant ice spike sticking up from the ground. Heathcliff declares this ice formation is the actual North Pole (I guess it doesn’t always need to resemble a candy cane) and congratulates Spike for finding it, who is looking a bit shell-shocked.
Tuck has taken notice of the cat and dog duo and decides to make a little mischief. He rolls a giant snowball at the pair which knocks them both out onto some ice. Heathcliff warns Spike the ice won’t hold forever (you’re at the North Pole, Heathcliff, it’s probably pretty safe) as the two slowly crawl back to land. Tuck is apparently intent on murdering them as he starts smashing the ice with a mallet. The ice beneath the pair splits open and Spike is left dancing on a small, floating, chunk while Heathcliff climbs all over him. Tuck then pelts the two with snowballs until they fall in. He tells them to have a nice day and squeezes a bicycle horn he has affixed to his belt for punctuation, I guess that’s his “thing.”
Heathcliff paddles a frozen Spike back to land and then kindly wraps Spike in his parka (which magically grows in size to fit Spike) and earmuffs before taking off after Tuck. Tuck continues to pelt him with snowballs forcing Heathcliff to build a giant snow fort for protection. Tuck apparently does the same as the two are now behind castle-like fortifications made of snow which of course makes me think of the classic Disney short Donald’s Snow Fight. Heathcliff quickly assembles a seesaw and puts a giant snowball on one end before smacking the other with a mallet he apparently keeps in his back pocket. The snowball smashes into Tuck’s wall forcing the elf to run away in terror as the ball of snow rolls after him.
Heathcliff, satisfied with himself for taking care of the elf, turns when he hears a loud growl. Poor Spike is being set on by a polar bear and Heathcliff dashes off to help his sometimes adversary. Spike is frozen with fear as the bear sniffs him. A scream from Tuck, who’s still being chased by a rolling ball of snow, causes Spike to yell which in turn causes the bear to rise to its hind legs and do the same. As Tuck runs by, the snowball finally gets him and the bear sending the two into a cave. Heathcliff and Spike look on as Tuck screams for help. Reasoning that Santa might be watching, Heathcliff decides to help the elf out by tossing a snowball at the cave entrance causing a bunch of icicles to drop down forming a cage which prevents the polar bear from leaving the cave.
Heathcliff and Spike then approach Tuck who is trying to catch his breath. He thanks them for the help, but Heathcliff is still pretty salty about all of the stuff Tuck tried before the rescue. Tuck apologizes, claiming he’s going through “some stuff” at the moment, before declaring he’ll help them see Santa. Heathcliff and Spike are amazed at the workshop while Tuck acts nonchalantly about the whole thing. The old elf from earlier doesn’t seem surprised to see Tuck return so soon. He remarks it’s a jungle out there, but Tuck corrects him by saying “Actually, it’s a blizzard,” honking that horn again (this guy sucks). Tuck then starts begging for his job back, but the old elf instructs him he’ll have to take his plea to the big boss man and gestures towards a door at the top of some stairs.
The trio enter and find Santa sitting at his desk. He’s a pretty warm and friendly sort of Santa who may or may not be voiced by Peter Cullen. He asks what they want and Tuck asks Heathcliff to explain it for him. Heathcliff holds up the letters and explains they were sent back. Tuck immediately fesses up to sending them back, then starts begging for his job back. Santa is a pretty generous guy and does indeed restore Tuck’s employment. He then thanks Heathcliff and Spike for returning the letters to him. Then he goes into his whole “Have you been good this year?” routine and Heathcliff and Spike both claim that they have. Each time one starts to make that claim, the other stomps on their foot. Santa gives a chuckle seemingly amused by their petty violence and tells them returning the letters essentially undoes whatever bad deeds they committed. He then points out they need a ride home and orders Tuck to saddle-up his team as the duo dance happily about going for a ride on Santa’s sleigh.
Santa’s sleigh is apparently to be pulled by two shoddy looking reindeer, with one being blue for some reason. I don’t think it’s Christmas Eve, so I guess that explains why the full team isn’t needed. Before they depart, Santa asks Tuck if he wants to go for a ride too and the little, blue, elf perks up and climbs in excitedly. They whiz past the moon, as is customary, and Heathcliff points out his house to Santa. The town is now covered in snow and Santa deposits the two in the street. As Heathcliff turns to head home, Spike mentions how they’re supposed to be nice to each other and stuff. Heathcliff then gets nailed by a snowball. He turns to find Spike preparing to hurl another in his direction. A halo forms above his head, and quickly falls down around his neck as Heathcliff decides they don’t need to start being nice right away. The two then engage in a snowball fight as the episode comes to an end.
“North Pole Cat” is a fairly run-of-the-mill Christmas special of a pretty run-of-the-mill 80s cartoon. My most enduring memory of this show was the theme song, and with good reason. It’s a catchy little number, and the cartoon that follows is largely unremarkable. The intro promises a character in Heathcliff who plays pranks, but he seems like more of a righteous character in this episode. There are attempts at one-liners, but they all fall flat. It’s also a bit odd the plot is essentially a homicidal elf who hates Christmas tries to kill Heathcliff for no reason, but then is in turn saved by the cat and returns to his old post. Why would Santa employ an attempted murderer? Is it because the life of a dog and cat mean nothing to him? For shame, Santa.
Mel Blanc’s performance is actually the best aspect of the show as it’s unique enough amongst his many performances to stand-out. The rest of the voice cast is fine, though like many shows of this era it’s really hard to figure out who is voicing who outside of the main characters. The role of Tuck sounds similar to Charlie Adler, but I could not find any indication that he did work on this show. It’s not unheard of for actors to go uncredited, but usually that stuff is revealed leaving me to believe whoever did the voice for Tuck (as well as the other one-off characters like Santa, the mailman, and head elf) is someone in the main cast. Which, for the record, included Danny Mann, Peter Cullen, Stanley Jones, Ted Zeigler, Derek McGrath, Danny Wells, Donna Christie, Jeannie Elias, and Marilyn Lightstone.
As a Christmas special, this one doesn’t try to do too much. It has one character in Tuck sort of come to appreciate the spirit of the holiday, but not really. Heathcliff and Spike don’t learn anything and Santa confirms you can undo a year of naughtiness with a single act at the last second. Visually, the look of Santa’s workshop is interesting, but we barely see anything. Santa himself looks fine and so do the elves, except Tuck who’s a bit odd looking. The overall animation is pretty much what you would expect of a DiC program. It’s better than what Hanna-Barbera were doing in the 70s, but not as good as what would follow. Both Spike and Heathcliff have a white rectangle on their nose that’s supposed to create the illusion of a round, shiny, nose, but often has no curve to it and really annoyed me. And the reindeer looked terrible, like malnourished donkeys with horns stapled to their heads.
If you wish to watch this one yourself this holiday season, and I don’t really recommend that you do, the easiest way is to simply plug it into YouTube. Heathcliff is not a bankable star these days so his cartoons are rather easy to find. You can pay for digital copies if you want to, though I don’t know why you would. After receiving sparse, partial, releases on DVD the entire series was released as a set in 2016 by Mill Creek Entertainment. It retails for about 12 bucks brand new so if Heathcliff is your kind of cat then why not get the whole show? Though if you really are into Heathcliff then you probably already own it and disagree with my take on this episode entirely. Either way, merry Christmas!