Come the 1990s, the cartoon juggernaut known as Hanna-Barbera was fading. It’s said the company once had control of approximately 80% of the children’s programming on television and even come 1990 it was still around 20%. The studio’s last big hit had been The Smurfs which set all kinds of Saturday morning records despite few animation buffs finding cause to celebrate. There were several spin-offs and specials, some stuck and some which did not, but the name was still fairly prominent on both broadcast and cable.
In 1991, Turner Broadcasting acquired Hanna-Barbera marking a major turning point for the studio. Less legacy properties would be developed as David Kirschner took over. This was the era that brought in more action cartoons like The Pirates of Dark Water and eventually SWAT Kats. Turner would launch Cartoon Network which in its early days was basically a dumping ground for Hanna-Barbera content, both old and new. A swath of new creative directors would be hired like Pat Ventura, Genndy Tartakovsky, and even Seth MacFarlane. Those individuals, along with several others, were the creative minds around the What a Cartoon! series of shorts that would come to define Cartoon Network in the late 90s and beyond.
Even though Turner was working on creating a cartoon channel to rival Nickelodeon, Hanna-Barbera still had its hands in broadcast animation. We talked about one of the 90s broadcast Christmas specials last year with A Flintstone Family Christmas, and in 1993 Hanna-Barbera produced The Town Santa Forgot. The animated special starred Dick Van Dyke and aired in prime time on NBC that year. Following 93, it would become a holiday staple on Cartoon Network for a few years before being retired to Boomerang with pretty much all of the other Hanna-Barbera properties.
The Town Santa Forgot is based on a poem called Jeremy Creek written by Charmaine Severson. Severson wrote several rhyming poems that were carried by numerous print outlets in the 70s and 80s. Jeremy Creek appears to have first seen publication in 1985 and it tells the tale of a greedy little kid who accidentally brings happiness to a neglected town at Christmas. It was a major hit for Severson and she would follow it up with an annual Christmas rhyme each year into the 90s, though none have risen to the level of popularity enjoyed by Jeremy Creek.
The special was produced by Hanna-Barbera with animation by Wang Film Productions. Wang Film had done work for Hanna-Barbera in the past, most notably with The Jetsons Movie, but it wasn’t handed many Hanna-Barbera originals. As a result, The Town Santa Forgot doesn’t really look like a Hanna-Barbera production. I’d argue it looks better than a lot of the content the company was responsible for at that time. The character designs have a vague hint of Rankin/Bass too, which could be just me or it could be intentional since that company is basically synonymous with Christmas specials. While Hanna-Barbera doesn’t have the greatest reputation, at least this special is an original story with a unique look so I’m already more excited for it than I was with A Christmas Story from a few days ago.
The special begins with a grandfather and his two grandchildren. Dick Van Dyke provides the voice of the grandfather who will serve as narrator. The kids aren’t named, but one is a boy (Troy Davidson) and one a girl (Ashley Johnson). It’s the grandfather who is giving me the Rankin/Bass vibes as he looks like he could fit in with one of the animated Frosty the Snowman specials. The kids are a bit more generic with black, soulless, eyes.
The kids are both talking about all of the stuff they want for Christmas, which prompts Grandpa to sit ’em down and tell them a story about the greediest kid who ever lived: Jeremy Creek.
Jeremy Creek (Miko Hughes) is a little red-headed child with enough toys for over 400 boys. He has toys of all variety, and he doesn’t like to share. Worse, he always wants more. He can’t possibly have enough toys and when he sees something he wants, he lets his parents know. And if his parents say “No,” then he screams and wails until they give-in. We see Jeremy spy a cowboy doll outside a store and go purple with rage until his parents buy it for him. When he’s home later that night watching television, he sees a commercial for a better version of the same doll and goes into a rage. For once, his parents put their foot down, but that just incites the neighbors who complain about the noise. Eventually, dad (Philip Proctor) lays down the law and tells Jeremy he wants to hear nothing further from the boy and he retreats to his room.
Once in his room, we get to see Jeremy survey his toys while perched like a vulture on his bedpost. He then starts playing with all that he has as the narrator goes into detail on the sheer volume of what’s in there. There’s army men, baseballs, vampire costumes, and more. He even has toys for boys much older than he, like remote-controlled airplanes, which he uses to harass the neighborhood. While it’s clear to see this kid is spoiled rotten, it’s at least admirable to see him actually playing with and enjoying the toys as opposed to acting like a dragon and simply hoarding them, which is what my kids seem to do.
Eventually, Jeremy gets the idea that if his parents won’t buy him what he wants then he’ll have to turn to Santa. The problem is it’s currently June, but that doesn’t stop Jeremy from drafting a list. He has to tape sheets of paper together to accommodate his vast array of wants and the list stretches for miles. After he has listed every possible toy under the sun, he signs the list with a simple Jeremy Creek – no thanks or nothing. He bundles it up like a roll of wall insulation and drops it onto a mailman’s back to send it to Santa way up at the North Pole.
Santa Claus (Hal Smith) is then shown flying his sleigh (with 8 reindeer!) up north and comes to land in the garage of his workshop. This Santa has a plump appearance, basically being shaped like a bell, and he enters his workshop where some elves are hard at work. They’re small and a bit conventional looking with pointed ears and hats. Santa is excited to show them that the first Christmas letters have started to come in, and one of them is particularly massive. The list dominates the room and Santa and his elves can scarcely believe someone wrote this thing. When Santa sees the name at the bottom, Jeremy Creek, it never crosses his mind this could be the list of one person and assumes it refers to an actual place.
Santa and his elves get out the map and look all over for a place called Jeremy Creek. Sure enough, they find one only to discover it’s not on their usual route. It’s a town with approximately 4,000 kids which matches up with the number of gifts requested and Santa assumes this is a letter from the town alerting him to their plight. Santa, realizing he’s passed this town over for years, decides he needs to make up for it by fulfilling this request.
Back at his own home, we see Jeremy counting down the days until Christmas while Santa and the elves get busy at the North Pole. The elves sing a simple little song accompanied by a montage of Jeremy pulling down calendar pages. Eventually, the day arrives and Jeremy is eager to receive all of the gifts on his monstrous list. He climbs out onto his roof armed with a net and some binoculars. It seems as the months have gone by, Jeremy has decided he doesn’t just want what was on his list, but everything Santa has in his sleigh! Santa soon appears and Jeremy watches as Santa goes from house to house slipping inside through various ways. His body is like gelatin as he slides down chimneys and exhaust pipes, beating The Santa Clause to that idea, before climbing back into his sleigh and taking off. Oddly, the narration refers to his sleigh as a “green, glowing, sleigh” but it’s colored red. There’s a slight hue with a greenish tint to it, but it reads like the sleigh itself should have been green. Santa completely bypasses Jeremy’s house which confuses and enrages the young boy. He returns to his bedroom and assaults his pillow before despair starts to sink in.
The next morning, Jeremy arises to see all of the neighborhood kids playing happily with their new toys. He allows himself to be hopeful for a moment and reasons that maybe Santa entered through the window or something and he missed it. He races downstairs and, sure enough, the underside of the tree is just floor. His mom (Melinda Peterson) enters the room and remarks “That’s too bad,” when she sees the empty tree. She then explains that Santa must have noticed that Jeremy couldn’t possibly have more room for toys and passed him over.
Jeremy storms off to the livingroom where his dad is watching television in his new Christmas socks. The program is detailing the story of an impoverished swamp town that woke up to a wonderful surprise. A pile of toys was left in the center of town for the girls and boys after years of receiving nothing at all. It’s soon revealed this was the work of Santa Claus and the town is none other than Jeremy Creek. Jeremy’s parents are shocked to see a town with the same name as their son, who soon puts two and two together and realizes his massive list of presents was given to the kids of Jeremy Creek.
Jeremy is initially angry that his presents went to these kids. Then the news woman reads a letter from Santa which states someone brought this town to his attention, but chose to remain anonymous. Jeremy finally starts to feel something as his mom explains that people who do a kindness like that don’t need the adulation that comes with it. Jeremy is moved to tears, but he doesn’t want his parents to see, so he races back into the den and retreats to the underside of the Christmas tree.
There Jeremy smiles as he looks up at the brightly decorated tree. He’s finally happy, but much to his surprise he spies a small Santa inside the tree. Only it isn’t an ornament, but Santa himself! Santa explains he figured out what happened, and that the kids of Jeremy Creek want the person who wrote them the letter to be properly thanked. Santa makes a sack appear and asks Jeremy what he would like for Christmas. Jeremy tells Santa that he wouldn’t know what to ask for and that he’s finally figured out that giving is better than receiving. Santa is overjoyed to hear this and tells Jeremy that from now on he will be his gift-giving assistant.
Jeremy, feeling inspired, changes from then on. He gives away all of the toys he couldn’t possibly find time for which is a callback to some of the scenes we saw earlier of him being mean to other kids in the neighborhood. And come Christmas every year, Jeremy helps Santa deliver presents. He climbs out onto his roof on Christmas Eve with a pair of binoculars and waits for Santa. When Santa arrives, he hops in his sleigh and helps deliver all of the toys. As the years go by we see Jeremy get older until eventually he’s too tall to fit in the sleigh. Santa sadly informs him that his time as his assistant must now come to an end. Jeremy is visibly sad, but he gives Santa a warm hug and hands over his binoculars for Santa to give to the next lucky boy or girl.
Back in the present, the story is done and the little boy and girl are feeling less selfish. They remark they don’t care what Santa brings them, even if he brings nothing at all! They both also aspire to be the next boy or girl that Santa makes his assistant. The grandfather says it could be either one, or both, and he also breaks the fourth wall to tell the viewer it could be them too. The special ends with an external shot of the house with the mailbox covered in snow. The snow soon slides off revealing the name J. Creek.
The Town Santa Forgot is a charming little Christmas special. It has a conventional message in that giving is better than receiving, but it’s a message that surprisingly isn’t often relied upon to anchor a Christmas special. Young Jeremy is easy to dislike, as who hasn’t encountered a spoiled little brat in their life and actually enjoyed that kid? The poem origin of the special is retained, though maybe not word for word, as Dick Van Dyke narrates it. He is well cast in this role as he’s not asked to do any embellishment and to just use his natural speaking voice.
I’m a bit embarrassed to say I didn’t see the twist ending coming. Not that I was surprised by it, I just gave it no thought. It wasn’t until then it became obvious that the story the grandfather was telling took place before the present. The toys are a bit older and the television in Jeremy’s house is in black and white. It’s a fun little reveal though to find out Jeremy had been telling us his story the whole time. It’s also a fun twist on the Santa myth for him to select a selfless girl or boy to help him each year. I suppose it’s not a popular addition though since kids would certainly become suspicious when they couldn’t find a single person who received that honor. In that though it makes the act of selflessness become something that is perhaps unattainable, but still worth aspiring to.
As I mentioned in the lead-in, the look of this cartoon is actually quite nice. Early 90s Hanna-Barbera productions should probably get more love than they do as I remember enjoying the look of several of the cartoons from that era. The animation is smooth and distinct and the character designs have some personality, which is harder than you think when it comes to Christmas. There aren’t any animation gaffes I noticed, nor is a bunch of animation recycled as often would happen with older Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The music is pleasant, and there’s only one song of sorts when the elves are shown getting the gifts ready for Christmas. I went into this one with the aim of just finishing off the big Hanna-Barbera Christmas specials, but I may have stumbled upon the best one from the venerable production company.
The Town Santa Forgot is no longer shown on broadcast or cable television, which is too bad because it’s a lot better than some of the specials that still show up on broadcast networks today. My understanding is it’s available on Boomerang, but I’m not a Boomerang subscriber so I can’t confirm that. It is available on DVD for a very reasonable price. It’s included on the same release that features A Christmas Story and Casper’s First Christmas. If you’re like me and you still cling to physical media and like to stockpile Christmas specials, it’s a DVD worth owning for The Town Santa Forgot alone. Consider the other two as bonus features.