Alvin and the Chipmunks is one of the oldest, family-owned, pieces of intellectual property left in the world. And it might not be for much longer as the franchise is reportedly up-for-sale and has been since last year, but as-of this writing nothing has been agreed upon. The Chipmunks date back to the 1958 novelty song “Witch Doctor” written and recorded by Ross Bagdasarian. Technically not the first Chipmunks song, but it did feature the same high-pitched, squeaky voiced characters the franchise would become known for. The true, real, debut of the trio came in the song “The Chipmunk Song” later in 1958 which is also titled “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” That song is when the chipmunks were given names and Bagdasarian also assumed the persona of David Seville, who would come to be known as the group’s manager and adoptive father.
Following the success of that song came a media empire. The Chipmunks recorded additional novelty songs and would be featured in comics, television, and even movies. The Alvin Show, which premiered in 1961, basically established, or confirmed, that Alvin was the alpha chipmunk of the group and the one the franchise would center around. And thanks to that show as well as the 80’s revival is why a whole generation of people (like myself) actually think of the franchise as Alvin and the Chipmunks as opposed to just The Chipmunks.
In 1972, Bagdasarian passed away suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 52. His son, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., eventually took over recording duties for the group, but their star had waned by then. Thanks in part to reruns of The Alvin Show, the group never completely faded away and come the end of the decade NBC was ready to do something new with Bagdasarian which is how we got A Chipmunk Christmas. For the trio’s return to television, Bagdasarian went back to their roots and produced a special that incorporated the classic song where it all started. The special isn’t an adaptation of the song in the same sense that Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is, but it does feature the “recording” of it and it’s certainly an easy thing to leverage. Given how the Christmas special took off as a thing in the 60s, it’s actually surprising that we didn’t see this special until 1981 given the popularity of the song.
A Chipmunk Christmas is a joint venture between Bagdasarian Productions and Chuck Jones Enterprises with direction by Phil Monroe. The newly married Bagdasarian and wife Janice Karman would serve as producers and voice actors for the show with Jones handling direction and design work. Marvel Productions was also onboard as producers with NBC set to broadcast for Christmas 1981. A Chipmunk Christmas, as well as the album Chipmunk Punk released the previous year, was a re-introduction of the franchise to a whole, new, audience. In 1983, Alvin and The Chipmunks would debut as an animated series which would air on Saturday morning and eventually in syndication with the franchise’s first film arriving in 1987. It was a big decade for the franchise and it would continue into the 90s before waning a bit, but a lot of people my age know this franchise because of A Chipmunk Christmas and the media it spawned.
A Chipmunk Christmas basically carries forward the designs of the characters established in The Alvin Show. The chipmunks are presented as anthropomorphized creatures that are basically the size of a normal, human, child of the same age. It’s not explained how these chipmunks came to be. There’s no ooze, radiation, or toxic waste involved, they just simply are. Given that show was produced in the 60s for television, the designs were rather simple with Alvin looking almost like a red triangle with a head. For this special, and in the hands of Chuck Jones, the chipmunks were given much softer features. Their cheeks are more defined, they have freckles, and big eyes. Their clothing looks like actual clothing and they were able to animate better than they ever had. They still have the same general aesthetic as the old show; Simon is the tallest, Theodore the chubbiest, and Alvin wears a hat and has a big “A” on his shirt, but they just look much nicer. They would never look exactly like this again as the 1983 series had its own aesthetic which is what was carried forward for the next two decades, but for my money the chipmunks never looked as good as they do here.
The special begins with a lovely look at what I believe is supposed to be New York City, or a city center of a nearby suburb, all decorated for Christmas while an instrumental rendition of “Deck the Halls” chimes in the background. The background designs for this special are just gorgeous. They’re so textured and intricate, especially the interiors. The camera pans to an apartment building and inside we find a doctor (Frank Welker) and a woman (June Foray) having a discussion. It would seem the woman, Mrs. Waterford, has a very ill child on her hands. Tommy is shown laying in bed asleep. On the wall is a picture of Alvin so we know the Chipmunks are stars in this world. The doctor indicates that he’s done all he can, but they just don’t have a solution for what ails Tommy. His mother says he’s lost interest in his music, which is apparently something that normally interests him, and he has almost no reaction to his sister’s nightly readings. Speaking of, Tommy’s sister Angela (Janice Karman) sits down to read to him to no reaction from Tommy. Sounds like he has a severe case of plot flu.
The soundtrack switches to “Here Comes Santa Claus” as the camera pans across the city and comes to rest on a large house somewhere outside the city. It’s the home of our favorite rodents, Alvin (Bagdasarian), Simon (also Bagdasarian), and Theodore (Karman in her first time voicing the chipmunk). We find the three getting excited for Christmas, and given the darkness, it would appear to be very early in the morning. The three want to go Christmas shopping, but first must wake up their father, David (Bagdasarian), who seems uninterested in rising at this hour and really doesn’t appreciate being woken up by his kids skateboarding through the house.
The chipmunks bounce on David’s bed which gets him to bounce in the air, his face still heavy with sleep. As he bounces, the three sing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and each time David bounces one of the chipmunks follows with an article of clothing. Eventually, David rises from the bed and walks over to a full-length mirror to take-in this new look. He has a pillow on his head, socks on his hands, and a coat on for pants. An irritated look overtakes his face as he recites the boys’ names, “Theodore. Simon. ALVIN,” rising with intensity for each until he practically yells Alvin. It’s essentially his catchphrase.
David then reminds them that he knows how many days there are until Christmas as he stomps around. The three boys are shown just laying in David’s bed with their eyes closed the whole tirade feeling quite a bit routine. When they grow tired of David’s ranting, Alvin whips out his harmonica and plays a note which is the signal for the other two to start singing. It’s an original composition, but I don’t know what it’s called or who wrote it as it isn’t featured on the soundtrack. Chris Caswell is credited with the music for this special, but that might not extend to anything with lyrics. As the chipmunks sing David continues his ranting, but eventually he takes note of the song and comes to rest in his lounge chair. In the distance, we can see the sun is now rising as David sinks into the chair and remarks that the song sounds pretty. The song ends with a line about gifts under the tree and Alvin adds a solo embellishment of, “…and I hope the rest are for me!” Fade to title card.
After the title card, we cut to the boys sharing a skateboard and David strolling behind them as they head into town. Alvin is angry with Dave for making them work on their Christmas vacation, but David insists it’s just a short recording session. Alvin rightly retorts with “It’s work!” Remember kids, no matter how much you love your job in the future, work is still work. Is this exploitive on Dave’s part? Hard to say. They are, after all, chipmunks which normally would live outside in trees so having a nice, warm, house and all they need is certainly a good gig. On the other hand, as we’ll see later, they live in a pretty large house and yet all three share one bedroom. What the hell, Dave? Yeah, I think he might suck. Anyway, during the course of the conversation Alvin is reminded he left his precious harmonica at home, so he turns his legs into an airplane propeller and flies home, grabs it, and flies back. It’s this weird running animation that we’ll return to more than once.
As a solution to their problem, Alvin proposes that while David gets the studio ready that he and his brother do some window shopping, which Dave agrees to. As they speed away he reminds them, “Don’t be late!” The boys skate into town singing their own version of “Jingle Bells” that’s at least a bit charming, if not exactly an improvement over the standard version. We pan to a mall and dissolve on an image of a display for the Golden Echo Harmonica. Have you ever seen a gaudy store display for a harmonica before? I certainly have not. Alvin stops to look at it and whips out his own version of the harmonica, so it would seem this won’t be a story about Alvin desiring one of these. As he “shows” his harmonica to its brother, Alvin hears a voice calling out about it. He ducks, for some reason, behind the display as we see the voice belongs to Angela Waterford. She’s shopping with her mother and points out the harmonica and says it’s the thing Tommy wants more than anything. She begs her mom to buy it for him, but she reminds the child they can’t afford it. The girl wails that “Tommy will just die without it!” Her mother tells her not to talk like that and then says it will take all that they have to make sure that Tommy makes it through Christmas.
We then cut to the pair walking on the city streets and it’s already getting dark by the looks of it. Angela is asking her mother what she meant about that comment regarding Tommy making it through Christmas, but her mom is non-responsive. Alvin is lurking in the background as he’s apparently stalking the pair. As we zoom in on his sullen expression, the background dissolves to the recording studio. The chipmunks are performing their signature song, but Alvin is too sad to sing. Dave stops the recording to tell Alvin he’s a little flat, who proposes they take a break. When David sarcastically responds, “Take a break,” Alvin takes this as an agreement and runs out. As he does, his feet spin like a propeller once again and that whistling run animation from earlier returns.
Alvin races over to the home of the Waterfords, the weird run animation is utilized the whole way which makes him look like he’s floating over the streets as opposed to running on them. He arrives and Mrs. Waterford wakes Tommy to tell him he has a visitor. When Alvin is introduced, Tommy sits up and says, “Oh, hi Alvin!” like they’re buddies and not like this is an impromptu visit from a celebrity. Alvin somewhat clumsily explains to Tommy that he’s here as a delivery boy and says someone entered his name into a contest and he won. His prize? A Golden Echo Harmonica! Tommy is overjoyed to receive such a gift and his mother gives her daughter this side-eyed look with a sly smile. I don’t think this is the conclusion I’m supposed to draw, but it almost looks like she’s saying to her kid, “Hah, see? Our plan to get the chipmunk to gift him the harmonica worked, now we don’t have to buy it!”
With his delivery completed, Alvin informs Tommy that he has to run and he resumes his odd, whirling, run animation. We cut back to the studio and a voice can be heard informing David that his time is just about up. David reluctantly decides to proceed with the recording and indicates they’ll dub Alvin later, but as the boys start to sing Alvin comes running in and nails it. David throws his hand up in the air with exasperation, but then settles into a smile as the boys perform. The song is allowed to linger for a bit, not ending until the boys actually since the line, “Please Christmas don’t be late.”
At the Seville house, it would appear to be the next day. Dave is then shown answering the phone and remarks to the man on the other end that “It’s not too late to talk business,” so I have no idea when this is supposed to take place. It’s not even dark out. The boys are decorating the tree and Simon and Theodore can’t believe Alvin gave away his harmonica. When they ask him if he told Dave, Alvin indicates he has not as he thinks it would break his heart since he gave Alvin the harmonica. He says he has a plan to use his Christmas money to buy a new one before Dave finds out, but of course that’s not going to work. Dave enters the room right after to tell the boys they’ll be performing at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve! And best of all, they want Alvin to perform a harmonica solo! I know I always expect a harmonica solo when I head to an event.
Now suddenly burdened with a need for money and before Christmas, Alvin starts scheming. The sound of the neighbor’s dogs barking gives him an idea and he whispers it to his brothers. Soon we see Simon and Theodore enthusiastically carrying a chair outside. Theodore and Alvin are then shown in the attic pulling some clothes out of a trunk and it becomes obvious it’s a Santa suit. We then cut to a hastily painted sign that reads: Have your picture taken with Santa Claus and his reindeer – only 25 cents. The dogs are all lined up in a row and playing the role of the reindeer, which none are fit for, but the boys at least put antlers on them. Blitzen looks rather cheeky about something, maybe he farted? Alvin is playing the role of Santa, and Theodore is his elf, while Simon works the camera. When a kid comes over, Theodore uses a rope and pully to lift Alvin up out of the way for the kid to have a seat in the chair and he’s then lowered onto the kid’s lap, which seems backwards. It’s at that point Simon takes the picture. It looks like there’s a design, or animation, error with Santa Alvin as his moustache is drawn coming out of his mouth, but will be fixed in a later shot.
David is reading a newspaper in his chair when he hears the dogs barking. He goes outside to investigate and immediately looks irritated. He asks Simon what’s going on, who says they’re helping Alvin make money. He probably could have softened that explanation some, and I thought he was the smart one. Dave then calls for Alvin, who has to remind him that he’s to be addressed as Santa. David tells him he’d like a word and now the moustache on Alvin has been moved to under his nose. Alvin doesn’t have time to explain things though and moves over to his seat which is now occupied by a girl, Cindy Lou, who does bare a small resemblance to Cindy Lou Who and I have to believe that was intentional on the part of Chuck Jones. Cindy Lou is not alone though as she brought her cat. When Alvin realizes this, so do the dogs, and they chase the cat. There’s an animation error where one dog just disappears from the shot. Carnage ensues, leaving David covered in snow which Alvin casually flicks from his nose. The moustache continues to move all over the place on Alvin throughout.
That night, David leans upon the mantle and tells the boys it’s time they all be reminded about how lucky they have it. He asks if they remember a poem he wrote, “The Spirit of Christmas,” and the boys moan about having to endure it once again. As David recites it, the boys finish certain lines and it’s pretty bland as it’s all about being generous at Christmas. Dave works up to a big finish and says the line, “So let’s all give a big cheer for…” and the boys respond in unison with “Money!” They immediately clutch at their own mouths to indicate that they didn’t intend to say that and it causes David to probe the boys for more information following their stunt earlier that day. When Dave asks why they suddenly need money, Theodore is the one to say that Alvin needs it so he can buy a present – for himself. David is disgusted at the idea that Alvin is thinking about himself at Christmas and sends the boys to bed. He takes a seat in his chair once more and Alvin approaches cautiously from behind. He asks Dave if he’s mad at him and gets the response every kid hates, “No, I’m just very disappointed.”
We’re then shown the chipmunks asleep in their beds. Alvin’s is decorated with Christmas lights, and given this was in the era before LED lights, this strikes me as super dangerous. Alvin is tossing and turning as we hear him thinking aloud about his problem. We then enter the special’s oddest moment, Alvin’s dream in which he meets a character from The Alvin Show: Clyde Craschup (Charles Berendt). Alvin is shown entering a lab where both he and the hapless inventor confuse each other for a loan officer. Craschcup is a man who enjoys puns and when Alvin tells him he needs a loan, he remarks “Well, of course you’re alone!”
Crashcup leads Alvin inside. Clyde explains that he’s busy working on the spirit of Christmas and leads Alvin to a door labeled Santi and his Reindeer. He explains Santi as a man with a beard and a hat, but when he opens the door to reveal his creation, we see it’s Abraham Lincoln in a Santa hat riding in a pumpkin. The date is also February 12th and the reindeer are pink elephants. One such elephant apparently dislikes being portrayed as a reindeer and grabs Crashcup with its trunk and flings him into a wall. The now likely concussed inventor sits up and declares his invention a success.
Alvin then tries to explain to the inventor that he hasn’t lost the spirit of Christmas, he just needs money to buy a harmonica. Crashcup seems irritated, then a bit confused as he ponders what money is. Alvin tries to explain it, but Crashcup is rather dense. He think it sounds wonderful though and declares that he’ll just have to invent it adding that it will go rather well with his other invention: the I.O.U. He whips out a canvas and easel and gets to work. He paints an image of an inverted magician’s hat and out jumps a green bunny – “munny,” get it? When Alvin objects, the “munny” makes an annoyed face and jumps back in the hat, flips it over, and with its feet poking out of the bottom runs off. Alvin then says that he needs “Money!” and he repeats the word over and over as the dream apparently ends.
Dave is then shown coming up the stairs remarking to himself that maybe he was a bit too hard on Alvin. He enters the room and finds the boy crying for money, throws up his hands, and walks out. The next morning, we begin with an exterior shot and then find the boys inside. Theodore and Simon are lending Alvin all of the money they have, which isn’t much considering Theodore spent most of his on cookies. Alvin graciously accepts and heads off to the store, but Simon remarks to Theodore that Alvin doesn’t have nearly enough cash to buy that harmonica. Dave then enters the room and asks the boys if they’re ready to head to Carnegie Hall and immediately becomes irritated when he finds out Alvin isn’t here. Before he can ask further questions, he’s interrupted by a phone call. It’s Mrs. Waterford, and she was just calling to tell Alvin that the harmonica worked wonders for Tommy! Dave is delighted and gestures for the boys to come closer. He then tells them it’s time they tell him the whole story.
We then find Alvin by the display for the Golden Echo Harmonica. Just as Simon predicted, he doesn’t have enough money to buy it. The special is also pretty smart to never let us know how much this thing costs which helps to insulate it from inflation. He’s without his hat for some reason, but his moping is soon interrupted by an old woman (June Foray). She approaches in need of help and has identified Alvin as someone who can help her. Only, she has an unusual request in that she would like to buy Alvin a Christmas present. Why? We don’t know, she just refers to herself as a lonely old woman far from home. Alvin is basically speechless as she purchases the harmonica and immediately gifts it to Alvin. He unwraps it and the thing practically glows in his hands. He thanks her, but she refuses his thanks and instead asks him to play her something. Alvin is happy to oblige as he plays a slow rendition of “Silent Night” which attracts a small crowd.
As Alvin plays, the camera zooms out and we see Dave and the boys watching from a balcony. The camera pans up to the sky to focus on the North Star as a choir is introduced to sing a few lines of the song. When it’s over, Dave scoops up Alvin and apologizes for how he reacted to Alvin earlier. Alvin is completely unphased as he just wants to find the old woman who gave him the harmonica. She’s gone though, and Theodore soon reminds Dave that they need to go if they want to make it to Carnegie Hall on time. David then tells Alvin they have a surprise for him when they get there and we cut to a horse-drawn carriage apparently taking the chipmunks to their destination as the trio sing “Sleigh Ride.”
At Carnegie Hall, Alvin is shown finishing his rendition of “Silent Night” on his harmonica before their sold out crowd. He exits the stage to applause and bumps into a kid backstage – Tommy! Alvin is shocked to see Tommy (R.J. Williams), who just responds by complimenting Alvin on his solo. Dave then tells Alvin this is the surprise he was telling him about and we see Tommy’s mom and sister are there as well. He’s all better, and best of all he brought his harmonica. Alvin pulls him onstage in the spirit of celebration!
Alvin introduces Tommy to the audience as the curtain lifts to reveal a model of Santa in a sleigh with Theodore and Simon positioned behind it. Alvin takes his place beside his brothers as Tommy plays “Deck the Halls.” The chipmunks sing their own version, like they did with “Jingle Bells” earlier, only this one is a bit more lame as it begins with “Deck the world with smiling faces.” Dave is shown with his arms around Tommy’s mom and sister, then the scene cuts back to the performance, then back to Dave who is now standing with his arms at his sides. He then reaches out and wraps them around the Waterfords and it makes me think the shots were ordered wrong as it doesn’t make much sense. Alvin then concludes the verse with a line directed at the Santa display, “And don’t forget your gifts for me!” Dave covers his face with his hand indicating this was an ad-lib on Alvin’s part and scowls in Alvin’s direction, but Mrs. Waterford seems amused by it.
We then cut to a familiar face soaring high in the sky above Carnegie Hall – Santa Claus! He’s looking down and can apparently hear the performance. We pan over the city and it’s just a still image. It looks nice, but awkward, because the cars on the streets aren’t moving. It cuts to a silhouette shot of Santa and his reindeer as they fly through the city and eventually into a less inhabited area. These shots are the easiest Santa shots since you only need to animate 4 reindeer when it’s from the side. He never passes in front of a moon though.
We’re taken to the North Pole and a tired Santa is shown stretching as he enters a cozy, little, home. There’s a roaring fire and a big sandwich by a lounge chair waiting for him. He greets his wife who we can’t quite see as she’s seated in a chair doing some knitting and is presented from behind, but her voice sure sounds familiar. Santa (Welker) then collapses into his chair and tells his wife she should get out of the house some Christmas and see how the world celebrates. We pan over to her and can see her now. It’s the old woman from the store and she dismisses Santa’s suggestion and remarks that making children happy is his “thing.” Santa doesn’t even hear her as he’s already snoring away in his chair. Mrs. Claus then looks to the camera and makes a “shush” gesture. She blows us a kiss as the special ends. A sweet ending for a sweet special.
A Chipmunk Christmas is a Christmas special that’s very easy to poke holes in and have a little fun with. Tommy is apparently a devious child who made himself sick so he could get a harmonica for Christmas that his apparently single mother couldn’t afford and it worked. They got a harmonica out of Alvin who then made the unwise decision not to tell his own father about and instead set out on what should have been an impossible task only for a little divine intervention to take place and set things right. Obviously, that’s not how we’re supposed to interpret things, just as we shouldn’t interpret that mental manipulation Mrs. Waterford engaged in to get that harmonica from Alvin, but so much is left unexplained that there’s room for the viewer to fill in the gaps with whatever they please. And since Santa exists in this world, why couldn’t he just bring Tommy the harmonica he wanted so badly? Plus I still maintain that glance Mrs. Waterford gives her daughter is bizarre and out of place.
If I allow myself to drop the cynicism and think back on this special as I did when I was young, then it works much better. Tommy is just sick, with what we don’t know, and it’s the Christmas Spirit that saves him. Or residual chipmunk saliva in the harmonica. Alvin has to keep it a secret so we can have some Alvin-type hijinks and it all works out in the end. We get a nice dose of the chipmunks, plenty of singing, and Mrs. Claus gets to be the hero for a change. I think it’s her inclusion that puts this one over-the-top for me as it’s a clever way to deus ex machina Alvin out of his predicament without taking back the harmonica or just having a rather simple reveal that ends with David buying him a new one. Because that’s probably what would have normally happened. Logic even suggests that Alvin just find the new one under the tree, and that’s likely where most headspaces go with this one until we find out Alvin needs the harmonica for a performance on Christmas Eve! Whoops, Santa can’t help you there, little buddy!
The plot, which just highlights the spirit of giving at this time of year and does it through a normally selfish character, works well enough and the reveal is a fun one. We get a lot of songs throughout this one, but it is a bit light on Simon and Theodore. I suppose that’s nothing new for the duo as Alvin absorbs a lot of the spotlight frequently, but it would have been nice to see them more involved somehow. Instead, they’re just needed to cover for Alvin and serve as extra hands. Maybe we could have cut out the dream sequence, which feels out of place, in favor of another scheme involving those two. Perhaps Simon could have taken on a bigger role in said scheme or something. I just know I would much prefer more of the chipmunks in favor of a Clyde Crashcup cameo.
That’s really the special’s only weak spot and it’s not exactly a big one. The dream has some decent jokes in it, so it’s not as if I groan when it gets to that mark. Mostly, I’m just charmed by the chipmunks. They look cute, they’re mostly well-voiced (Simon is a bit robotic at times), and have never looked better. There are some animation gaffes here and there, but not enough for me to render this one problematic from a visual perspective. The characters animate well (aside from when Alvin is running) and I love the backgrounds. The other character designs are fairly basic, but still look fine. I like the Chuck Jones Santa who has more of a “dad bod” than an obese one. It would have been nice to see a full reindeer design, but that whole sequence works well as-is so I can’t say I miss it.
If you want to check out A Chipmunk Christmas this year, your best bet is to just track down the DVD release Christmas with the Chipmunks. It’s pretty inexpensive and contains some holiday themed episodes of the 1980s series. The only downer is that those episodes omit the theme song, which must be a rights thing. Currently, this special isn’t streaming as part of a service anywhere as everything Chipmunks-related seems to be in limbo given the franchise is up for sale. There are sometimes rights issues as well since the Bagdasarians are always partnering with someone to make these things. Again, I say just grab the DVD. As one of the best specials of all time, it’s well worth the purchase.
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