In the 80s, if you had any connection to a successful animation production unit you could probably get a shot at creating your own series. Such was the case for former Hanna-Barbera animators Bill Hutten and Tony Love. They left that famous cartoon factory to create a series of holiday specials that would eventually lead to a cartoon series: Chucklewood Critters. The show centers round a Fox named Rusty and a Bear cub named Buttons. If it sounds sweet that’s because it is. This is a very sincere show that just tries to be a nice little cartoon. In some ways, it’s the type of show that just doesn’t get made anymore. The 90s were all about gross humor and characters so it’s kind of crazy these specials were turned into a series in 1998. The first special was released in 1983, “The Christmass Tree Train,” and the last in 1994. We’re not talking about that inaugural special from ’83 though, because it’s currently December 24th, better known as Christmas Eve, and it’s the day before Christmas so lets talk about “T’was the Day Before Christmas.”
The special opens with some really corny Christmas music, remember this special is ultra-sincere, and a duck in search of his flock flies by. His wings flapping sound like plastic tarps wafting in the wind and there’s very little animation. Something tells me this thing didn’t receive a large budget. We soon see our protagonists, Rusty and Buttons, as Rusty rouses Buttons from his hibernation to go sledding in the snow. They crash their sled into a snowbank and and a female fox and bear happen to walk by. Buttons seems pretty into the she-bear (I think he calls her Bear Bear, or something equally unimaginative). Moving along, they see the Christmas Tree Train in the distance and Rusty asks Buttons if he wants to hitch a ride prompting him to question Rusty’s sanity. Nice call-back. They also notice some large footprints in the snow and are creeped out.
Scared off by the prints in the snow, Buttons and Rusty go running to Buttons’ dad, Abner, and find him operating a giant wooden snow plow. They’re immediately taken by the giant machinery and seem to forget about the footprints. Abner is called away by his wife, and Buttons and Rusty decide to hop on the plow thinking they can make a nice sledding track with it. Instead the thing proves hard for the diminutive duo to control and they end crashing into some weird creature in a long fur coat (possibly the originator of the footprints?). The two kids are frightened by what they deem a monster as the creature runs off leaving them to survey the damage of the ruined plow.
As one would expect, Abner is pretty pissed when he sees his wrecked plow. His son insists it was the cause of a monster, but he seems pretty skeptical. The mothers of Rusty and Buttons seem to find this whole thing amusing and think nothing of their claim. Surprisingly, the two are allowed to go off sledding in search of Ranger Jones. I would have expected some kind of punishment for destroying the snowplow. When they get to the cabin of Ranger Jones, they find a note on the door informing them he’s left to visit his family for Christmas. The mailbox is overflowing with Christmas cards and Buttons and Rusty look at the festive images and wish they had a critter Christmas of their very own. Somehow, I don’t think this is going to lead to a blood orgy.
The two walk off still openly griping about the lack of Christmas for critters. A bald eagle observes them and tells them its nonsense to desire a Christmas for its beneath critters. Are the animators suggesting Christmas is un-American? The eagle does little to put a damper on things and Buttons and Rusty decide to create their very own Critter Christmas. Buttons doesn’t notice a hole in the ground and falls in leading to a rabbit den. There Skipper and Bluebell live and they’re surprised to see Buttons is awake and not hibernating. Rusty pops in and the two are happy to inform the bunnies that they’re throwing a Critter Christmas. The bunnies, apparently feeling this doesn’t infringe upon Easter, seem excited by the prospect. The four go off in search of a Christmas tree while, unknown to them, menacing music is playing in the background as it’s revealed the fur-coated monster from earlier is pursuing them!
The group find a tree, and that duck from earlier pops in for a second for some reason before flying off, only to find its inhabited by a rodent of some kind named Skeeter. Skeeter sounds like he’s from Brooklyn and is hiding from a monster. When he sees that the others are clearly not monsters he becomes more concerned with the fact that they want to dig up his home for their Christmas tree. He convinces them to use a different tree and leads them to one by a frozen creek. There he asks Buttons and Rusty just what is Critter Christmas? Buttons just says it’s a bunch of fun, basically, and mentions treats which is apparently what interests Skeeter most (he is a bit paunchy). Meanwhile, Skipper was left to dig out the tree while Bluebell just looks on to tell him he’s a sour-puss for complaining about doing all of the work. The fur-clad monster then pops in and scares them off. He pauses to question why everyone is so scared of him (he clearly can’t hear the music) and says he’s just the alligator friend of Buttons and Rusty – Lester. So I guess this isn’t going to be a mystery that takes us through the episode.
Skipper and Bluebell run into Buttons, Rusty, and Skeeter to inform them of the monster. They’re getting out of there, leaving the others to ponder what to do about the monster, and their tree. Rusty suggests they go check it out thinking the monster may have left. Skeeter is not impressed, but when Buttons agrees he’s kind of stuck going along. Sure enough, no monster, but now they need to finish uprooting the tree without the help of the rabbits. Buttons casually leans on the tree to think, and of course this causes it to fall landing on the frozen creek. It shoots off on the ice and the trio has to pursue in their sled. Rusty is able to lasso the tree, but that just means they’re stuck going for a ride with it. Things only get worse when a water fall appears and the sled goes flying through the air. They whiz by that duck once again from earlier, still searching for his flock, and come crashing down to earth in a giant snowbank. The tree lands upright and the spot is apparently as good as any as Rusty remarks they need to now enlist the help of the other critters to decorate it. Skeeter, meanwhile, is still pretty ticked about the near-death experience he just had and rightfully so.
Up next, a musical montage! The staple of the Hanna-Barbera Christmas special lives on in the works of Hutten and Love. The critters are creating decorations and ornaments for the tree while a really annoying song plays to the scenes. The rabbits even returned to operate the toy assembly line (they really got that up and running fast) and someone thought it was a good idea to put a skunk in charge of the perfume. The song mercifully comes to an end after a brief amount of time to find Buttons and Rusty waking their turtle friend Turner up to help out. They basically order him to make decorations and give him no guidance, even though he’d rather stay in his nice warm shell. He doesn’t protest though and runs off to gather materials, I guess, and runs into Lester. As the others did before him, he mistakes Lester for a monster and immediately runs the other way passing Rusty and Buttons. They don’t understand how Turner could let a little thing like a monster come between him and their Christmas celebration. They decide not to work on convincing him otherwise as they need to focus on their new task – finding a star for the tree.
Rusty and Buttons’ search for a star leads them to the work shop of Ranger Jones. There with Skeeter, they finish making ornaments and their star, but by the time they’re done the sun is setting. Buttons and Rusty are eager to get going while Skeeter has little interest in heading out after dark with a monster on the loose. He doesn’t voice his concerns to his friends, and instead offers to stay behind to dry the ornaments while they fetch the sled. Of course, after Rusty and Buttons take off Lester strolls in and Skeeter predictably freaks out. He races up a tree and screams for help as Lester approaches. I’m not sure why the cartoon is trying to drum up some tension here as we already know Lester isn’t a monster. When Rusty and Buttons return to the work shop with their sled, they see the tracks in the snow and assume Skeeter is in trouble. They race off after him and just as Skeeter was falling out of the tree into Lester’s waiting arms Rusty and Buttons crash into him with their sled.
Rusty and Buttons soon realize they were mistaken and the monster is no monster, but their friend Lester who came up from the bayou to visit. Apparently he had an open invitation following an appearance in a previous special (“The Honeybunch”). He explains his clothes because of the cold and tells them how he rode the Christmas Tree Train up to see them. Now that they’ve sorted everything out, Rusty and Buttons invite Lester to their Critter Christmas. They all gather around the newly decorated tree to bask in its Christmas-goodness, only for Lester to notice it needs lights. Just then, that stupid duck drops in again and Rusty and Buttons say what we’re all thinking, “Not again!” Lester has some info for the duck this time though as he saw his flock a few days ago. He offers to give him directions, in return for a favor – he’s to bring some friends back from the bayou for Lester. I think I know where this is going.
The critters pile onto the sled, with Lester serving as a reindeer to pull it, and they start reciting “A Visit From St. Nicholas” but with all of the words changed to reflect their Critter Christmas basically just recounting the events of the day. They zoom past most of the characters from before, and arrive at the tree as night falls. The duck returns with a bunch of fireflies in tow (called it!) and they serve as the lights for the tree. All of the adult critters remark how wonderful a job Buttons and Rusty did, and they point out they couldn’t have done it without Lester (apparently no one wants to thank the fireflies who are willing to just chill out on the tree so they can enjoy an illuminated Christmas tree). Ranger Jones then shows up with a big sack of goodies, and even the duck’s flock (his name is apparently Quackers, I should have guessed) goes flying by so he can join them. The special ends with Rusty and Butters wishing Quackers a merry Christmas as he struggles to catch up with the flock.
“T’was the Day Before Christmas” is a by-the-numbers old school Christmas special. It tells a story and stars some cute animals, but doesn’t have anything to say or even lessons to teach. I will say it’s pretty cool that it acknowledges the events of past specials, since often cartoons exist in a vacuum. It’s pretty clear that this mindless special is what inspired South Park’s “Woodland Critter Christmas,” which was featured earlier in this year’s list. The animation is probably below contemporary Hanna-Barbera standards and the original music is brutally sweet. The orchestral parts are fine though and the voice cast does the best it can with the script they were given. The Lester mystery being revealed so early is kind of weird, as it seems like the show was trying to build tension with the monster in the snow. Since his head is covered until his true reveal, I wonder if his dialogue confirming his identity was added in later because someone felt it was too scary for kids or something. Surprisingly, no visit from Santa at the end. I guess he cares about Critter Christmas as much as I do.
If after reading all of that you still wish to view “T’was the Day Before Christmas” then you’re best bet is to probably just google it. No one cares about the Chucklewood Critters brand in 2017 so it’s not hard to find a free stream. All of the specials were released on VHS individually and the entire series was also released on DVD once upon a time, but is out of print. Despite that, the various DVDs are still pretty cheap if you must have them, probably because no one wants them.