Once upon a time, Hanna-Barbera ruled the cartoon television universe. The company was one of the first to prioritize television over film when it came to cartoons, and it was a strategy that worked quite well. Come the 80s, cartoons were a Saturday morning staple and were taking over the weekday afternoon as well. Hanna-Barbera had been challenged by other companies, but was still holding strong. Then along came a little French company called DiC. DiC had a few shows airing in France, but wanted to expand to the US. In order to do so, it would hire ex-Hanna-Barbera story writer Andy Heyward, who would go on to create the character Inspector Gadget.
Inspector Gadget was DiC’s break-out hit in America. The cartoon was about a cyborg detective tasked with stopping the nefarious M.A.D. which was lead by the villainous Dr. Claw. The catch was that Inspector Gadget was an idiot completely oblivious to what was going on around him. His gadgets, while neat, were prone to malfunction and Gadget would find himself in perilous situations he would either rescue himself from via dumb luck, or with the help of his niece Penny and her dog Brain. Penny is a smart kid who comes with a lot of tech while Brain is apparently a super-smart dog capable of everything a human is save for speech. Brain would basically shadow Gadget to keep him safe while Penny did a lot of the real sleuthing. Gadget would inevitably spy Brain in one of his disguises, mistake him for the real crook, and somehow Dr. Claw’s plots would be foiled. Every episode would end the same way with Gadget getting the credit and Dr. Claw flying away in his car screaming “I’ll get you next time, Gadget! Next time!”
The show is basically Get Smart for kids, with Gadget even sounding a lot like Maxwell Smart. That’s because he pretty much is! Don Adams played Smart on Get Smart and is also the voice of Inspector Gadget. Since this happens to be a cartoon, Gadget’s spy tech gets to be a lot more extravagant than what Smart had. The old shoe phone is now a phone embedded in Gadget’s glove, for example. It also looks pretty great for an 80s TV cartoon since DiC had the fortune of partnering with Tokyo Movie Shinsa for the animation. TMS would utilize its connections to outsource the animation to various satellite studios, but it means Inspector Gadget looks better than pretty much everything Hanna-Barbera was doing. DiC would eventually take over animation in an effort to cut costs (those in the business often referred to the company as Do It Cheap) so the era of TMS DiC cartoons on US television was brief.
Inspector Gadget was a direct-to-syndication show that only produced new episodes from 1983 to 1986. It was quite popular though so it remained on television in various markets for pretty much the entire duration of the 1990s. When I was a kid, the show felt inescapable. I watched a lot of Inspector Gadget as a result, though it was never one of my favorites. It was just on. Well after the show ended production, DiC went back to the well and produced a Christmas special for 1992. Titled Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas, DiC was able to get Adams back to voice the title character as well as the other mainstays Frank Welker and Maurice LaMarche. Hung Long Animation Company was contracted to produce the animation and was likely fed a bigger budget than a typical episode. It premiered in prime time on NBC on December 4, 1992 before heading to VHS were it was probably sold for an obscene amount (television shows and Christmas specials were often 25 bucks an episode in 1990 dollars) and then eventually forgotten. I don’t recall seeing this re-aired much at all after 1992 as the Inspector Gadget craze was apparently over. At least until a movie was made in 1999.
The special begins up at the north pole. It’s early in the morning, and Santa Claus (Frank Welker) is seated in his control tower as he rouses the elves awake. He’s a pretty traditional looking Santa; short, fat, big beard, kind eyes. The elves are roused from their slumber and they’re also pretty typical looking. They’re not little old men, save for at least one, but instead look quite young, and they all pretty much look the same. There’s a lot of inbreeding up there. They have mostly green outfits with tall hats that curl like a candy cane and end with a bell. They wake up quite happy and sing their own version of “Jingle Bells” with the lyrics altered to just describe what they’re doing.
Unbeknownst to them all, Dr. Claw (Welker) has infiltrated the work shop and he’s up to no good. His trusty M.A.D. Cat (Welker) is at his side looking a little off model from what I remember, as he dawns a Santa outfit of his own. This is quite possibly the most we’ve ever seen of Dr. Claw as he rather famously avoided the camera during the show. We get to see his fully body with only his face obscured. He whips out a little device that when turned on activates a hidden, mind control, device in the bells of the elf hats. The elves enter a zombie like state and cease their wretched singing. Santa is confused, and then even more confused when a mechanical claw on the ceiling grabs him, pulls him from the command tower, and dumps him into a frozen dungeon. Why does Santa have a dungeon?
Dr. Claw then enters the command tower and begins taking over. His plan is to sabotage the toys of Christmas and ruin Santa’s reputation. The elves start dismantling the toys on Claw’s orders and reassemble some into horrible toy abominations. As Dr. Claw enjoys the view and strokes his cat, he informs us only one man can stop him, and he’s deployed his highly ineffective M.A.D. Agents to stop him!
We then head to the home of Inspector Gadget (Don Adams). He and niece Penny (Erica Horn) and dog Brain (Welker) are busy decorating their home for Christmas. As they do, a corny Inspector Gadget theme plays that just sounds like a parody of other spy properties. Why they didn’t just use the catchy theme from the main series, I do not know. While the song plays though, we see Claw’s agents attempt to take down Inspector Gadget, only every one that tries gets tossed aside by a completely aloof Gadget. One bounces off of his springs, another gets accidentally gift-wrapped, and we also see the classic ice gag of an agent cutting a hole around Gadget as he ice skates only for the rest of the ice to fall away freezing the bumbling henchman. It ends with Gadget getting launched into his own logo as we get a second title card.
Off to the mall, the most sacred place at Christmas time, where Gadget is seated on Santa’s lap reading him an exceptionally long list of Christmas wants. Only, this Santa isn’t the real Santa, but Gadget’s boss, Chief Quimby (Maurice LaMarche), in disguise. He tries to tell Gadget who he is, but Gadget is an idiot so Quimby calls him instead to relay the ruse. Gadget is then confused why Quimby called when he’s presently seated on his lap and I have no idea how Quimby hasn’t just snapped and murdered Gadget at this point. He hands Gadget a note, that will self-destruct, and details to Gadget how Dr. Claw has kidnapped Santa and dispatched M.A.D. agents to take him out. Gadget is confused why the agents never came for him, but declares he’s always on duty and tosses the note aside before heading out. As is always the case, the note finds a way back to Quimby, this time bouncing off of the trash can and landing on his pipe, where it explodes. Serves him right for smoking around children.
Gadget, Penny, and Brain then head for the north pole. They take some giant airplane that can carry the Gadget mobile, or whatever it’s called, and also flies itself. Gadget informs the plane it can drop them where they are, and the A.I. takes Gadget literally and drops the car. Gadget tries to summon the Gadget Plane, but his Gadget Copter activates instead and whirling propellers pop out his hat and remove him from the car. A calamity of errors follow, with Gadget deploying his parachute, then the copter again, which just cuts up the chute. Penny is the one who saves the day activating the plane function of the car. Gadget plummets through the roof no worse for ware, though he declares there’s a lump in the seat. That’s just Brain though, whom Gadget landed on. He doesn’t seem concerned, and now I’m wondering if Gadget has just been playing dumb all of these years and really harbors a secret hostility towards the dog.
The trio then enter Santa’s work shop, and Dr. Claw is understandably irritated to see Gadget is still alive (though really he should expect it). Gadget uses his extendable legs to approach the control tower where he introduces himself to Santa Claws. Gadget is, again, a moron so he doesn’t see through Dr. Claw’s disguise. He’s so dumb that he’s even fooled by M.A.D. Cat’s antlers and thinks he’s a tiny reindeer who does a mean cat impression. While Gadget and Claw exchange pleasantries, Penny and Brain take note of how odd the elves are acting. She soon realizes that something is off, and then spies Dr. Claw in his Santa suit. Gadget informs Santa he’s going to inspect the work shop to make sure everything is operating smoothly. Penny approaches and tries to tell him what’s up, but before she can the ceiling hook grabs Gadget and takes him away.
Penny tells Brain to keep an eye on Gadget, while she investigates what’s going on with the elves. Meanwhile, Gadget thinks he’s on a tour of the facilities and begins his inspection. Unfortunately, this is set to a rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” LaMarche takes over as Gadget’s singing voice and the audio quality dips. Maybe this was recorded last and on the cheap? LaMarche is a fantastic voice actor, but he can’t save this horrible song. It mercifully ends after five days with Gadget dumped into the same dungeon as Santa. Upon seeing the real Santa, Gadget does what you would expect: he arrests him.
Brain dresses up as an elf to take a look around while Penny hides in a giant jack-in-the-box to observe what’s going on. She realizes the elves are sabotaging the toys and figures out what Dr. Claw is up to pretty quickly. She radios Brain with her Apple Watch (not really, but the similarities are pretty insane) to relay her findings, while he informs her that her uncle has been imprisoned with the real Santa, and has arrested him. She takes the news well as she’s apparently used to this sort of thing. Unfortunately for her, the elves take notice of her and slam the lid the shut on the jack-in-the-box. They’re just as inept as Dr. Claw’s usual minions though and fail to alert him of what they found.
The elves place the box in a warehouse with the real toys. Penny radios to Brain that she’ll be fine, but he needs to get the key to the cell to free Gadget and Santa. And that key is currently dangling off of the antler of of M.A.D. Cat. Dr. Claw watches the presents getting sabotaged and relays the predictable news to the audience (via talking to his cat) that he wants to ruin Santa’s reputation because he didn’t get the toy he wanted as a kid. It’s always that. As he revels in his own villainy, we see Brain lurking in the rafters.
In the cell, Gadget continues to interrogate Santa. He has a long list of qualifications he expects Santa to possess, but they’re unreasonable demands as, for instance, he wants Santa to descend a chimney, but there’s no chimney present. There are reindeer, which just look like a palette swap of Brain with antlers, but Gadget remains unconvinced. He then declares it’s time to get rough, but don’t worry kids, he just deploys a bird from his hat which supplies a feather for cartoon torture: tickling. Santa is apparently exceptionally ticklish as Gadget doesn’t even remove a boot and just tickles the jolly, old, man’s beard and achieves the desired effect.
Dr. Claw enjoys watching the torture via his monitor which provides the perfect distraction for Brain. As he hangs from the ceiling by his feet, he extends a candy cane to try and slip the key ring off of M.A.D. Cat’s antlers. Instead, he hooks the elastic portion of the antlers which is around the cat’s neck. As he tugs, the cat gets strangled. Dr. Claw is completely oblivious though as Brain continues to yank on it. Brain bites the candy cane in half freeing the cat and also letting him snatch the key. M.A.D. Cat winds up on Claw’s face, and when he removes the cat he also removes his beard and hat which end up on the cat. How cute? Claw notices Brain though and orders…someone…to go after that elf. As he bangs the terminal, poor M.A.D. Cat gets knocked off.
Back in the cell, Gadget has now begun trying to remove Santa’s beard. He’s got a foot in the poor guy’s belly while he tugs all the while taunting him for not actually being Santa. This is pretty damn cruel. Brain arrives dressed as a guard and unlocks the cell. Gadget is happy to finally see some security around here, but when Brain grabs Santa and takes off, he assumes he’s just an accomplice to Santa’s crimes. Gadget deploys his lasso, which actually works perfectly and entangles both Brain and Santa. Gadget then leaves the two bound together to go tell the “real” Santa he’s cracked the case.
Gadget then helps Dr. Claw load his sleigh. He’s confused that no reindeer are hooked up to the sleigh, and even names a few using incorrect names (the real Santa must have supplied the real names to no effect earlier). Dr. Claw tells him he’s taking care of things himself this year to make sure nothing goes wrong. Back in the jack-in-the-box, Penny has figured out how Dr. Claw is controlling the elves. She did so by looking in her computer book thing that’s basically magic. She then deploys the creepy “jack” she’s been stuck with which pops the box open and sends her sailing into a pile of teddy bears.
Back in the cell, Brain is trying in vain to free he and Santa. He disappears into a classic cartoon cloud complete with whirling sounds only to emerge each time in a different sort of knot. Penny radios him to relay the info and Santa is initially confused to hear a little girl’s voice coming from the dog. They then realize Brain has actually untied the knot. Santa then summons his first four reindeer (I’m guessing they didn’t want to draw all eight) as they head for Dr. Claw hoping to catch him before he takes flight.
Topside, Gadget has finished loading the sleigh and is trying to convince Dr. Claw to let him come with. Claw is finished with Gadget though and he orders the elves to seize him. True to his character, as the elves ineffectively grab him he just assumes they’ve grown attached to him. Meanwhile, Penny storms the warehouse alongside Brain. They’re being pursued by elves, which are pretty slow. The ones who have Gadget though are basically pulling him apart now like a torture rack, though he still isn’t bothered. Penny slips into the command tower and finds Dr. Claw’s mind control device and disables it. Immediately, the elves resume their stupid rendition of “Jingle Bells,” but at least they stop dismantling Gadget. Actually, I wish they had been successful.
It’s too late though, as Dr. Claw is in his M.A.D. Mobile ready to take off. That is, until Santa appears! He deploys the reindeer with a “Go-go-Santa’s reindeer!” As Claw speeds away with Santa’s sleigh hooked up, Santa jumps into the sleigh and disconnects the cable. Gadget sees the cable go by and connects it to a giant candy cane pole (perhaps THE north pole) in a bid to help Santa keep his odd looking car from getting away. Santa then orders the reindeer to “bash away all!” since Claw’s vehicle is resting on ice. The reindeer use their antlers to smash the ice allowing for Dr. Claw to simply drift away. They basically just let him go for no good reason. Claw calls out as he often does that he’ll get Gadget, only he drops the “next time” since this is evidently the end for this series.
Santa then thanks Gadget for his help. Why? I have no idea. Surely the old man remembers how awful Gadget treated him in the cell, and he should be aware of how he didn’t really contribute anything to take down Claw. Chief Quimby parachutes in to congratulate Gadget on solving the case and to declare that Inspector Gadget has indeed saved Christmas, as the title of the cartoon promised. Gadget has no time for congrats though as he instructs the reindeer to take off with a “Go-go-eight-tiny-reindeer!” Santa takes to the sky with Penny and Brain in the sleigh with him. Gadget soon joins them and we’re treated to an accurate depiction of Santa’s sleigh, complete with 8 reindeer, as he passes by a full moon. We return to the sleigh itself for one final shot of the whole gang wishing us a merry Christmas as we say goodbye to Inspector Gadget.
Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas is essentially a holiday themed exclamation point for the old cartoon series. It stays true to the spirit of that show with Gadget being comically inept while Penny and Brain save the day, with some help from the real Santa Claus. And in keeping with most Christmas specials, the writers and animators happily turn to song to kill some time and basically keep it in the public domain so there are no significant added costs. The story is super basic and adds nothing to the Santa legend, but at least it doesn’t contribute with ugly elf designs or something.
The animation is noticeably different from the main series, but is largely acceptable. Some characters appear slightly off-model when compared with the old show, and Gadget’s coat looks slightly “off” to me, but for the most part I have no complaints. Gadget gets to deploy his most popular and recognizable gadgets, even if most are crammed into the one segment of Gadget falling from the sky, though it also doesn’t get to add any fun ones. At least they didn’t give him a love interest for a “Go-Go-Gadget-mistletoe” sequence. The special is so true to the spirit of the show that it’s even super familiar for someone like me who hasn’t watched an episode of Inspector Gadget in probably 30 years.
And that’s basically the crux of Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas. If you have fond memories of the old cartoon, then you’ll probably be okay with this. All of the old voices, save for Penny, are here and the special follows the usual beats. Few will probably enjoy the musical moments, but at least there’s some slapstick involved with them. Even if the slapstick isn’t particularly inventive. For me, this special mostly reminded me how annoying I found the character of Inspector Gadget. He’s so impossibly dumb, but also dangerously arrogant, that I actively root against him and wonder why any of the characters around him actually enjoy him. At least we get to see the elves attempt to dismantle him, though he unfortunately seems impervious to pain.
If you wish to set aside 20 minutes or so for Inspector Gadget this Christmas, this special has been released a few times on DVD. The first version contains some bonus episodes of the original series while a stand-alone version also followed. It’s cheap too and shouldn’t even run you ten bucks, should you wish to own it. It’s also available to stream for free online without any need for piracy. Sometimes, just being easy to watch is enough reason to take in a Christmas special if you have the time.