After yesterday’s entry ran 3,000 words, it seems like a nice time to slip in one of the shorter specials we’ll be looking at this year. This one comes from the Cartoon Network original Dexter’s Laboratory. Created by Genndy Tartakovsky, Dexter’s Laboratory was one of the inaugural series to be spun-off from the Cartoon Cartoon/What A Cartoon! show which was basically an elaborate testing ground for cartoon pilots. Cartoon Network, which at the time mostly consisted of old Hanna-Barbera shows, would package together three cartoon shorts and air them over a half hour of television. Viewers could call into a hotline and vote for the short they liked best. At the end of the year, Cartoon Network would have a big New Year’s countdown ranking all of the shows in order of what was most beloved and what was not. The network wasn’t beholden to do anything with the results so for all we know they decided on what to promote and what not to, but Dexter’s Laboratory was one of the most well-received and it was the first to get a full production order.
The show is about the title character, Dexter (Christine Cavanaugh), a boy-genius with an elaborate and high-tech laboratory hidden under his parents’ house. They’re unaware of their son’s impressive intellect, but sister Dee Dee (Kathryn Cressida) is not. Despite Dexter’s best efforts, Dee Dee often finds a way into his lab and drives him crazy often times ruining whatever his latest invention is. He also has a rivalry with another boy genius, Mandark, and one of his laboratory monkeys also got to star in his own series of shorts. An episode was usually broken out into three short segments and I have mostly fond memories of it.
“Dexter vs. Santa’s Claws” was the third segment of episode 37 of season 2 which first aired on April 29, 1998. Why did a Christmas episode air in April? I do not know. The show did have some issues with production delays, but that’s not out of the ordinary for a cartoon series. Often when that happens networks will just sit on a holiday episode and air it the next time that holiday comes around, but Cartoon Network apparently didn’t want to do that. The network didn’t even want to wait for Christmas in July. In looking over the episodes from season 2, a Halloween one premiered the prior month so I’m guessing this was supposed to air in 97 or something, or Cartoon Network just didn’t care.
The episode begins with Dee Dee using Dexter’s super computer to make her Christmas list. Dexter is irritated she would be utilizing his computer for such a foolish task and reprimands her. He explains she’s wasting her time for Santa Claus is just make-believe. When Dee Dee counters with a question of who puts the toys under the tree, Dexter explains, through rap, that their father does that. The humor is in how far Dexter thinks his parents carry the ruse insisting that their dad not only dresses up as Santa, but he disguises the car as a sleigh and puts it on the roof. Their mother, dressed as a reindeer, greases him up and sends him down the chimney with all of the toys. Dee Dee insists that’s not what happens, cutting his very poor rap off in the process, and gives the more conventional explanation of elves and magic. Dexter vows to prove her wrong.
That night, while everyone sleeps, Dexter sits in front of his monitors fighting off sleep hoping to catch their father in the act. When a sleigh and some reindeer go whirling past he thinks he’s got him. He emerges from his lab to find Santa in the living room getting down to business. The Santa model looks almost exactly like the one from A Flintstone Christmas only he seems incapable of speech and just keeps saying “Ho ho.” Dexter accuses him of being his dad in disguise, forcing Santa to magically flee up the chimney. Still not convinced, Dexter heads for the roof as well and confronts Santa once again as he climbs into his sleigh. He manhandles a reindeer, thinking it’s an elaborate costume worn by his mother, and even snaps its antlers off. Santa then takes off leaving Dexter stuck in the chimney.
Dexter was apparently prepared for such a development as the chimney morphs into a high-tech spaceship and detaches from the house. In doing so it takes the side of the house with it leaving Dee Dee’s room without a wall. She awakens due to the frigid air and goes to shut her already closed window when she catches sight of Santa. She watches as her brother pursues him firing missiles which Santa intercepts with gifts (“Those better not be my presents!”). Dexter resorts to laser-fire and eventually he hits Santa causing him to crash into their home.
Now with Santa incapacitated in the ruined livingroom, Dexter approaches armed with an electric razor. As he shaves off Santa’s beard his father (Jess Bennett) enters the room demanding to know what Dexter is doing. His mom (Kath Soucie) follows, still wearing her rubber cleaning gloves that she always wears, and is horrified to see the Christmas tree and everything else in ruin. Dee Dee then follows and scolds Dexter further demanding to know where her presents are. Dexter is forced to apologize for ruining Christmas, again, and apparently realizing he’s in a Christmas special, implores his family to treasure that they’re together and not fret over the destroyed gifts and decorations. He breaks into a rendition of “Oh Christmas Tree” and Dee Dee puts a stop to that telling him he’s wrong and calling him a block-head. When he asks what Christmas is about then, a beard-less Santa let’s him know, “The presents.”
“Dexter vs. Santa’s Claws” is a pretty odd entry in the world of Christmas specials. We’ve seen plenty of cynical specials, and some that are just bizarre, but this one has an all-together different feel. Dexter basically beats up Santa Claus. He’s relentless and cruel. Unlike network-mate Johnny Bravo, he didn’t mistake Santa for an intruder or something he’s just trying to beat a confession out of him. And possibly worse, he assaults a reindeer and breaks its antlers off, which just sounds painful. The only really cute aspect of the episode is Dexter’s hypothesis on what really happens on Christmas Eve. Even though he’s super-smart, he’s still a kid and isn’t capable of just assuming his parents stick presents under the tree, they have to make it elaborate. The ending of the episode with the message being that Christmas is about the presents is pretty much the cynical 90s cartoon take. A lot of the comedy shows delighted in upending norms and that’s a pretty logical point for this one to make.
Revisiting this series reminded me how flat the design is. The characters are about as flat as those on South Park and they practically slide across the screen rather than trying to create the illusion that they exist in three dimensions. It’s a stylistic choice more than a budget one, I think, but it’s not unique to this show as basically all of the Genndy Tartakovsky shows were animated in this fashion. I really enjoy Christine Cavanaugh (RIP) as Dexter. He’s one part Chuckie from Rugrats (who Cavanaugh also voiced) with an accent that kind of sounds like Ren from Ren & Stimpy, with perhaps a slight Swedish twist? It’s an accent that doesn’t exist in the real world and it’s a funny quirk of Dexter. The show is also very bright and the characters change attires even in this brief little short which is kind of neat. I also definitely liked the homage to the Flintstones Christmas special. I wouldn’t think they were able to actually re-use the model from that special, but this Santa was definitely drawn to look almost exactly like it.
“Dexter vs. Santa’s Claws” is not going to make you feel good about Christmas. It might make you uncomfortable to see Santa get his ass handed to him, but it also might make you laugh. It’s certainly different and I don’t regret watching it or anything, but it’s more dark than funny so ultimately I suppose it comes up a bit short. If you’re looking to check it out this year, Dexter’s Laboratory can be found on Hulu and iTunes. The entire series is also available on DVD, but it’s out of print and kind of pricey. This specific episode can also be found on The Powerpuff Girls: ‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas DVD and also on the Cartoon Network: Christmas Rocks DVD and both are cheaper than getting the entire series. And as usual, if you’re not picky about quality you can probably find this one streaming for free somewhere on the world wide web.