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Dec. 22 – Alvinnn!!! and the Chipmunks – “A Very Merry Chipmunk”

Original air date December 12, 2020.

One of the franchises I have great admiration for is The Chipmunks, or Alvin and The Chipmunks. It’s been around since 1958 when Ross Bagdasarian Sr. came up with a novelty song called “The Witch Doctor.” Realizing he could make funny sounds by speeding up his voice, a tactic cartoon makers had been utilizing for years already, he came up with the Witch Doctor character for the song, but soon decided the voice would be better suited for chipmunks. Other songs followed and so did television. Eventually the characters gained their own personalities, with Alvin becoming the dominant one. This isn’t a franchise I respect because of the quality, but just the longevity and the fact that Bagdasarian never sold out. This has to be one of the longest running, family-owned, franchises in American history. Bagdasarian’s son, Ross Jr., took over following his dad’s death in 1972 and he, along with his wife, Janice Karmen, have retained control over the property ever since. Although as I write this there are rumors that the Bagdasarians are finally looking to offload the franchise for a cool 300 million. They’ve had it for a long time at this point and I don’t really blame them for wanting to cash out and retire, but the franchise will definitely lose a lot of its charm when that happens.

Janice Karma is getting all of the credit this time, but don’t be fooled, these chipmunks should be pretty familiar still.

My chipmunks growing up was the 1980s television show Alvin and the Chipmunks. My sister and I loved the theme song probably more than the actual show, but we were regular viewers. We even had some books on tape and rented the animated movie, and when we had grown out of it we moved on. The property went into a semi-dormant state in the 90s as it was mostly relegated to direct-to-video films before coming back as the live-action film property. Now, the license exists on Nickelodeon as Alvinnn!!! and the Chipmunks. It’s a spiritual successor to that 80s show that has been predictably retooled to fit a modern aesthetic. The Chipmunks wear pants now and are presented much smaller than they were in the 80s cartoon (when they were just unexplainably as large as most kids), but still much larger than an ordinary chipmunk. They’re also still shacking up with David Seville who makes music and has the Chipmunks perform his songs. They live in a giant house, but the three brothers are forced to share a bedroom. The dude is making money off of these kid and won’t even grant them their own bedrooms? Something stinks.

Simon, Theodore, and Alvin haven’t changed much over the years, they just now where pants and have tails.

The show premiered in 2015 and is presently in its fifth, 26 episode, season. That’s impressive for a Nickelodeon show not named Sponge-Bob, though I feel like this show doesn’t have much reach. My kids have watched it here and there, but it’s not like I see a ton of merch for it. It’s credited mostly to Karman who is given the “Created by” credit and is also the credited director. Other Bagdasarians are still involved as her children are credited as producers and have writing credits, but obviously Ross has stepped back some. He’s still onboard though to voice Dave and the Chipmunks Alvin and Simon, while Karman voices two of the Chipettes and Theodore. The Season 4 finale was dedicated to Christmas, and it’s the only Christmas episode I’m aware of from this show. It didn’t air as the finale though so that it could be timely. How will it measure up to the classic A Chipmunk Christmas? I dubbed that 1981 special the fifth best Christmas special of all time as recently as last year. I don’t expect this one to match that, but in celebration of that one’s 40th anniversary it felt appropriate to look at a modern interpretation of these rodents.

This may come as a surprise, but what Alvin is willing to do to get that game is arguably worse than what Eric Cartman did to get a Nintendo Wii.

The episode begins in a downtown setting where people are walking around and getting ready for the incoming Christmas holiday. An oversized candy cane is positioned outside a window pining for a video game behind the glass. The candy cane is Alvin (Ross Bagdasarian Jr.) in a costume that appears to be quite difficult to maneuver in. Theodore (Janice Karman), dressed as a Christmas elf, comes strolling up to ask Alvin what he’s doing. Alvin wants this video game (Masters of Zelinda, an obvious Zelda parody), but can’t afford it, and will probably get it for Christmas because this is a Christmas special. As the two walk and talk, we find out this is the first day of their winter recess from school and their surrogate father, Dave, has mandated they spend some of their break helping others. That would apparently mean helping out with some Christmas thing thus explaining the costumes of which Alvin seems resentful of his brother’s more conventional trappings as he falls over in his candy cane one.

Well, I suppose it can’t be worse than that play Charlie Brown was working on.

In a theater, Dave (Bagdasarian Jr) is watching some kid (I think his name is Kevin and he’s voiced by Karman) dressed as a dancing Christmas tree auditioning for a show. Dave doesn’t seem impressed. Two cops then approach him to basically just gush about Dave overseeing the production, since he is a hit song writer of some renown. They’re hopeful he’ll craft a new hit (hmm, I wonder what it could be…) and he responds in kind that he’s working on one. This just feels like window dressing for a closing musical number, doesn’t it?

As a general rule, I would advise children not to converse with men claiming to be Christmas elves on the street.

Back in town, Alvin has resumed his candy cane duties while Theodore is trying to raise funds or something. A gentleman dressed like an elf (I don’t know who voices him as they just credit the main cast, but I assume it’s someone from the main cast) approaches and inquires what Theodore is doing. It would seem there’s a labor shortage up north and it’s an all hands on deck situation. Theodore laughs him off nervously and resumes his duties, while the elf dude sets his sights on Alvin. He asks about taking his “elf” up north to help Santa. Alvin doesn’t deny guardianship of his little elf, but he does point out that Theodore is already helping Santa by gesturing to some kid dressed as Santa. The elf corrects him by saying Theodore will help the REAL Santa. Alvin seems confused, but never one to miss an opportunity, tells the elf to ask Santa why he still hasn’t received the game he’s been requesting for the past three years? The elf asks if he’s been naughty, and Alvin gets a bit evasive. The elf tells him he’ll be right back and dashes away while Alvin falls on his face again. He returns in the blink of an eye with the game Alvin wanted and proposes a deal: Alvin gets the game if he can take Theodore to the North Pole.

Watching Alvin fall down is oddly satisfying.

Alvin is a bit hesitant, but calls out to Theodore asking him if he wants to go to the North Pole. Theodore, possibly maintaining the illusion he’s an elf, basically responds by saying, “Who wouldn’t want to go to the North Pole?” That’s all the elf needs to hear as he frantically tries to find a contract on his person to have Alvin sign. He just grabs a scrap of paper and uses Alvin’s back to write on it knocking him over again. He helps Alvin up and just lays it out: sign this if you want the game, or don’t. He’ll come for the game at the end of the night if he chooses not to let Theodore go north.

They’re going to try to play this off like a misunderstanding, but really there is no need for this elf to literally abduct Theodore. He is totally just forcing him to do this and that’s criminal behavior.

Alvin and Theodore head home and Theodore is quite surprised to see Alvin with the game he has so coveted. He tells his brother the elf just gave it to him and Theodore basically just thinks that’s nice. Inside their bedroom, Alvin reasons to himself that kid could not have been a real elf so he signs his name on the “contract.” Instantly, the elf appears in the window and uses a magic wand to basically grab Theodore and toss him in this fancy looking sleigh. Dave comes bursting in to witness the child abduction and the elf screams and uses his wand to put him to sleep. Simon then enters the fray, but he’s too late as the elf whisks Theodore away.

One of the few times this show made me think, “That looks nice.”

In the sleigh, the elf tells Theodore what’s going on and we’ll soon learn that his name is Chestnut. There’s a massive labor shortage this year where it concerns the elves (I can’t imagine it’s any better this year) and Chestnut has been out looking for any help he can find. Theodore seems rather receptive to the idea of helping Santa and not particularly concerned with the whole kidnapping that has taken place. Back at the house, Alvin informs Simon what happened, leaving out his own involvement. When Simon asks about the game, he says he won it in a contest. Simon then grabs the phone and calls the police, but he just gets yelled at by the dispatcher for playing a prank. Theodore and Chestnut arrive at the North Pole and we meet another elf named Peppermint. Theodore gets setup in front of some monitors and has to parse out the naughty and nice kids, or maybe just note what kids want for Christmas (isn’t there a whole letter mechanism for that?), and he seems game.

Simon and Alvin have no success when it comes to waking Dave.

At the Seville house, Alvin and Simon are consulting a globe as they try to figure out what to do. Dave won’t wake up, and we head into a musical montage! During the montage, Theodore gets super tired watching the monitors while Alvin and Simon go to great lengths to try to wake Dave including trying to lift him with a drone and tying him to a motorized vacuum or something. He ends up going for a ride and the boys leave him asleep on the stairs. His back is going to be in rough shape whenever he does wake up. When the song is over, Theodore is sleepy and has left his station. Chestnut is confused as to how Theodore could be tired for apparently elves never tire at Christmas. Theodore then decides to come clean about not being a real elf and the guy doesn’t believe him. When he removes a false ear he freaks out and uses his wand to put it back in place.

Despite their reputation as magical creatures, elves apparently cannot remove their own ears.

Chestnut ushers Theodore into another room claiming he has no idea how he did that with his ear but orders him not to do it again. Theodore tries to explain and removes the other ear causing the elf to freak out again. This must be some body horror imagery for him since he seems to think Theodore is literally ripping his own ears off. Theodore is finally able to explain he’s not a real elf, but Chestnut still seems confused and questions why his guardian would let him come to the North Pole then. Now it’s Theodore’s turn to be confused as he finds out that Alvin posed as his guardian for a game and in turn let this guy abduct him. Legally. Sort of. Theodore explains that Alvin is just his brother and it’s quite clear that Theodore is a bit hurt by the realization that his brother sold him out for a game. We also find out that Dave has been magically put to sleep and won’t wake until Christmas and that Santa is no where to be found because he’s out looking for more elves. Theodore asks if he can go home, but Chestnut is a bit reluctant to do so. He says once word gets out that Theodore isn’t an elf he’s likely to be banished by his superiors forever. Harsh, but fair.

That is quite the outfit, general.

With nothing else to do, Chestnut takes Theodore to see General Eggnog. The general is an oversized elf in a loud blue suit and seems like a man (elf) in a panic. It’s clear our abductor elf is reluctant to tell him what’s going on, but the general is very enthused about meeting their newest recruit. As Chestnut starts to explain what happened, Theodore interrupts to confirm he’s eager to get to work. The general is pleased and takes his leave. Chestnut asks Theodore why he did that and Theodore explains he feels more wanted here than he is at home, obviously thanks to Alvin’s actions.

It would seem they’re not cut out for Whose Line is it Anyway?

At the Seville residence, it would appear to be the next day. Alvin has returned from doing something and Simon seems irritated at how long he was gone. Alvin informs him he’s been out doing good deeds all over town in the hope of getting Santa’s attention (or to make up for the bad deed he committed of letting Theodore go north?). Before Simon can get mad at him there’s a knock at the door. It’s Officer Dangus (Michael Bagdasarian) from earlier and he’s looking for Dave, who missed that morning’s rehearsal. He just lets himself in because he’s an ass and Alvin and Simon try to play coy, but Dave was left sleeping on the stairs and Dangus can see him. They try to cover for him by saying Dave has been up all night writing his new song and he’s super tired. They also add in that they’re personally sick of hearing it which was a bad move because Dangus asks them to sing it for him. They ad-lib some terrible Christmas song which just ends with Dangus storming out in a panic declaring nothing can save that song. At least he’s gone.

That is some pretty serious vandalism on Alvin’s part. Something tells me this won’t be addressed before the episode ends.

We get a quick look at a tired Theodore once again before going back to the antics at home. Simon has rigged up a remote-controlled gurney with some crazy tech that’s supposed to get Dave off of the stairs and into his bed. Apparently Simon is some kind of super genius in this show. He’s distracted by a scream though as Alvin is now resorting to bad deeds to get Santa’s attention and can be seen chasing a kid while wearing a snowman costume. Simon gets him to stop allowing Alvin to explain his new plan suggesting if this can’t get Santa’s attention then nothing will. He gestures broadly to the neighborhood and it looks like a tornado went through town. Reindeer are hanging from trees and there’s lights and wrappings all over the streets while “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” plays somewhat sarcastically. Alvin then gets a phone call and is hopeful it’s Santa, but it’s just Britney (Karman) looking for Dave. It’s been a day since the incident with Dangus, and the cops are having an argument about the missing Dave. Dangus then gets radioed about a vandalism in progress and heads to the scene.

This idiot is going to split his head open and still get a hero’s funeral, despite being a terrible cop.

The perp is Alvin who is now stealing Christmas lights. Dangus quickly apprehends him and takes him to Dave, who is now strapped to the gurney. Simon gets startled by Dangus storming in swinging Alvin around like a wolf with a rabbit in its mouth which causes him to drop the remote to the gurney. It breaks causing the gurney to rise up on one end portraying Dave like that girl from The Ring. The gurney rumbles down the stairs towards a terrified Dangus and Alvin, collides with them, and starts rolling around through the house at a high rate of speed. It takes out the Christmas tree before flying out the front door with Alvin and Dangus still atop tangled in Christmas lights. As the gurney zooms through town narrowly avoiding pedestrians and cars, Alvin starts calling out to Santa about just wanting Theodore back, which is witnessed by Chestnut at the North Pole. He quickly shuts the monitor off as Theodore approaches inquiring if there’s any word from his family. The elf plays coy and Theodore miserably shuffles off back to work.

Look who finally showed up.

Back in town, Simon gets control over the gurney at last via his hastily reassembled remote control and it comes to a stop amidst a bunch of cops who don’t look too happy for before this they went for a bit of a ride on an ice skating rink. Up north, Chestnut checks on Theodore who looks pretty worse for ware. He proposes taking him home, but Theodore doesn’t want to leave the elves high and dry, and he doesn’t want to go where he’s not wanted, but it’s clear he’s not going to last much longer up here. He then faints and we cut to Theodore in bed and some old elf is telling Chestnut he probably can’t survive the trip back home. A not-so-commanding voice disagrees and we finally get to see Santa. He seems to know what’s going on and declares he’s taking Theodore home. He also has more good news as he’s recruited a shitload of elves to help out, so I guess we don’t have to worry about Christmas getting cancelled or anything. Santa scoops up Theodore and Chestnut gives him a snow globe which shows Alvin begging to have his brother returned to him. This puts a smile on the weary chipmunk’s face as he curls up in the sleigh ready to go home.

I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think his badge permits him to abduct children and force them to perform.

At the Seville house, Alvin and Simon are basically in full lockdown mode at this point. Britney keeps calling Alvin to get them to come to the show and he’s insistent on it not happening. Until Dangus shows up again declaring otherwise and we awkwardly cut to him yelling at everyone at the theater. He instructs the Chipettes that they’re to sing backup for the boys while Dave continues to snooze in a prop sleigh (why haven’t they brought him to a hospital at this point?). The only problem is, no one knows what they’re singing! Dangus just tells them to sing something good, which is hardly helping the situation.

This should go well.

The curtain then opens abruptly forcing Dangus to introduce the rodents. The girls roll sleeping Dave out as Dangus wants to make sure everyone knows who is responsible for this performance to come. He then departs leaving Alvin and Simon to awkwardly start into their lame song. Before they get too far into things, Santa comes flying in to set things right. He wakes Dave up and returns Theodore to his arms. He also puts the audience to sleep, for some reason, even though they already saw him enter. Alvin is able to apologize to Theodore while Dave seems confused. Santa confirms for Theodore that Chestnut will be sentenced to death for his kidnapping. Actually he assures Theodore that Chestnut will be fine and not banished claiming it was an “honest mistake.” Never mind the kid totally broke protocol with that bogus contract. Dave then starts to fret about not having a song and Santa just magics one up for him. He wakes the audience and makes a grand exit leaving everyone to enjoy the new song…

Thank goodness Santa showed up to make sure this very low stakes Christmas pageant has an original song.

It’s not what I expected. This whole time I was ready for this thing to end with “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t be Late),” but instead we get some generic, pop, piece that’s played really fast and sounds like ass. Seriously, this was such an easy layup and a way to bring in parents who have been watching this junk with their kids and instead they roll with this crap? And to make it worse, we get dumb cuts of people dancing and the cop doing the moonwalk.

Simon always struck me as more of a bass player.

Mercifully, it ends back at the Seville house with Alvin tucking his brother into bed. He then creeps over to the window and starts trying to bargain with Santa, because this is Alvin, after all. He says that even though he told Santa he just wanted his brother back, he also wouldn’t mind a few other things. He then produces a giant list and starts to explain it. We cut to Santa in his sleigh watching this all unfold on his snow globe. He shouts out, “Alvinnn!!!” and the chipmunk can clearly hear him as he drops the list and slinks back to bed. Then, finally, the classic Chipmunk song cuts in to serenade Santa as he flies through the snowy skies and, yes, passes in front of the full moon. It feels like it’s been a minute since we got one of those.

He’s always watching…

Well, that was a mixed bag. If we’re doing an Alvin Christmas story then we need Alvin to do something selfish and learn something in the end, and Janice Karman and company certainly came up with an interesting setup. Sure, it’s preposterous, but in a believable way for a Christmas special. We get to feel angry with Alvin and sad for Theodore, though the whole unwanted angle is a tad forced. Plus, it requires Chestnut to act in a rather selfish manner as well. They’re careful to make sure Chestnut never outright lies to Theodore, instead he just doesn’t really answer any difficult questions and gets constantly interrupted. The mix-up works well enough, but then Chestnut is basically an unintentional dick, but all is forgiven in the end by Santa despite him having some pretty harsh ground rules.

Six reindeer – what a fraud!

The stuff that takes place back in town is equally mixed. I was good with the physical comedy, though less so with the bumbling cop, Dangus. He’s more annoying than funny and impossibly incompetent when it comes to his job. It was hard to care about the Christmas show that Dave was supposed to oversee, even knowing everything would turn out fine in the end because it’s, you know, Christmas. That ending though did suck. We gloss over Alvin’s comeuppance in favor of a trash song. Inserting “The Chipmunk Song” in the end does not make up for it either, it arguably makes it worse! I thought maybe there were some rights issues with it that I was not aware of, but no, they just opted to do something else. Which is an okay decision in a vacuum, but you better put together a good song if you’re going to tease a song at the end of the episode and not have it be the one everyone wants to hear.

Officer Dangus sucks and I hate him.

Aside from the song, the audio portion of the episode is okay. The Chipmunks and Chipettes sound like they’re supposed to because the same people have been voicing them for decades, but the other voices were a bit annoying. Dangus irritated me in basically every way while Santa just lacked presence in his voice. And visually this show is pretty disappointing. Regardless of what you think of the character designs, the textures and animation are just lacking. Everything looks wooden and too clean, even when the show is trying to present a mess like Alvin’s rampage. It’s colorful, at least, and there’s plenty of Christmas items in the background, but ugh, it’s just unappealing to look at. I’m sure the budget isn’t very high given this is just a television show, one not backed by a giant studio too, but this is the type of CG show I’m happy to say is starting to die out in favor of 2D computer animation.

This one isn’t great, but at least it looks the part.

“A Very Merry Chipmunk” is, despite some of my ranting, not terrible. It likely pleases the main audience it’s shooting for: modern kids. If your kids like Alvin and the gang, then they’re probably happy with this. It’s just a shame when creators take a modern interpretation of a classic franchise and do little to try and bring in the older fans. I’m not asking them to write different jokes or style the characters like it’s 1985, but just do something to make this interesting for an adult like me who is watching with his children. Seriously, if they just stuck that damn song in where it was supposed to go I’d feel 50% better about this show and would probably give it a solid recommendation. Instead, I say pass and just stick with the classic cartoon from 1981.

If, after all that, you still want to watch this then just tune to Nickelodeon if you have cable. It’s possible it’s even on-demand, and also possible that at this stage of the season you missed your chance. The show is streaming on Paramount+ and available to purchase digitally from other places as well though, so all hope is not lost.

Dec. 10 – It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

Original air date November 23, 2012.

For December 10, we are returning to the theme of this year which is to revisit the best of the best. When I originally ranked my favorite Christmas specials, I had the recently released It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! ranked at #19. The years have been kind to this throwback Christmas special as last year I bumped SpongeBob and the residents of Bikini Bottom all the way up to #11! And from where I sit, it’s not in any danger of dropping back to 19, if anything, it’s a threat to move up into the Top 10 because this is a pretty fantastic way to celebrate Christmas.

Christmas returns to Bikini Bottom, but in a cool, new, old, way!

SpongeBob Squarepants is a show, and character, that I missed. I wasn’t watching Nickelodeon when he premiered and I’ve never made it a point in my life to see what all the fuss is about. I’ve seen episodes here and there, enough to know how the show works, but the only appointment viewing this show has ever produced for me is this Christmas special. When I saw the promos for this special I immediately was interested because the show had made the decision to produce a stop-motion Christmas special in the same vein as the old Rankin/Bass specials. If you’re going to enter the crowded world of Christmas specials and you’re looking to stand out, nostalgia is a recipe for success! Now, not everyone can just up and decide they want to do something like this and it helps that SpongeBob appeared to have the backing of Nickelodeon and the Viacom company since this sucker was ticketed for a CBS premiere. Sadly, CBS hasn’t turned this one into an annual tradition, but at least for one night there was an air of importance attached.

SpongeBob has the right DNA for a Christmas protagonist.

The animation for this episode was produced by Screen Novelties and directed by two of the studio’s founders: Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh. Screen Novelties is a modern producer of stop-motion and has worked with yesterday’s feature, Robot Chicken, as well as famed visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, so SpongeBob found himself in good company for this one. Screen Novelties also participated in the restoration of some of the puppets from the original special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, so they have significant Christmas cred. A collective of writers worked on this story, and it was partially inspired by the song featured in the episode, “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas),” which was recorded by Tom Kenny and Andy Paley in 2009. It’s a semi-conventional plot, where a bad guy and naughty list regular tries to trick Santa into giving him a present for Christmas. The unconventional part is the method utilized to get on Santa’s famed nice list.

Patchy and Potty are back for another Christmas episode!

The special begins with old friend Patchy the Pirate (Tom Kenny) and his parrot sidekick, Potty (Paul Tibbitt). We met both in the original Christmas special from SpongeBob Squarepants, and when we catch up with them here we find Patchy driving a mail truck. It’s design, and Patchy’s, is reminiscent of Special Delivery from Santa Claus is Coming to Town, though it has conventional tires. Patchy informs us he’s giving the mailman some time off, by tying him up in the back of the truck. He wants to get to Santa so he can ask him to introduce him to his hero, SpongeBob, and Potty seems to be just along for the ride. Unfortunately, they’re about to hit a literal fork in the road which causes the vehicle to spin out of control. While the truck is spinning, Patchy suggests we peek in on old SpongeBob and see what he’s up to this Christmas.

SpongeBob has a rather festive pineapple.

We then head under the sea, after a modestly festive rendition of the credits, and the stop-motion set looks gorgeous. SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) emerges from his bed singing a festive tune, “Santa Has His Eye on Me,” as he decorates his home. He spins his entire pineapple house to wrap lights around it, and there is an animation cheat when it’s done as the lights that wrapped around his door have vanished. He sprouts a Santa hat and hops his way over to Squidward’s (Rodger Bumpass) house to find his crotchety neighbor decorating as well. This seems like a change of heart since we last saw Squidward at Christmas, but he lets us know his decorations serve a purpose: to tell Santa to go away! SpongeBob then checks in on his buddy Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) who appears to be setting up a traditional box trap. It’s baited with a Christmas cookie, and Patrick explains to the tune of “The Nutcracker Suite” that he intends to catch Santa so he can have Christmas every day! He then sees his cookie and promptly traps himself. Also, an image of Santa dominates the “sky” momentarily while SpongeBob sings about Santa having his eye on him and it’s super creepy. Santa is some sort of sea elf. He looks like an old doll that was left to soak in the ocean and then dried out.

Squidward’s home is considerably less festive.

SpongeBob then pays a visit to his pal Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence) in her dome. She’s deconstructing the Christmas spirit or something via alchemy and seems to be having a good time. At the Krusty Krab, Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) is decorating the restaurant in anticipation of the “Season of getting.” When SpongeBob tries to correct him, he further corrects SpongeBob because he’s a greedy prick.

Plankton has a plan to get on Santa’s nice list.

At the Chum Bucket, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) continues our song as he sings about Santa watching him too. He punctuates the song by announcing that every year he gets a stocking full of coal! His computer A.I., Karen (Jill Talley), chimes in that he’d probably get presents if he wasn’t the biggest jerk in Bikini Bottom, and that’s when we find out Plankton has a plan. Since it would be too hard for him to just be nice, he’s going to make everyone in Bikini Bottom a bigger jerk than even he so that he looks nice by comparison. And just how is he going to do that? By lacing the most innocent of holiday treats, the fruit cake, with the substance Jerktonium. Apparently, just one speck of the stuff will turn an ordinary person into a colossal jerk!

Fruit Cake jokes are a pet peeve of mine when it comes to Christmas specials. Here, it works because the special has you bracing for such a joke, but it never comes. Instead, everyone loves the stuff, especially SpongeBob.

Plankton prepares his fruit cake and then loads up a special dispenser he created that’s part oven and part go-kart. He takes it for a spin outside and immediately encounters SpongeBob. Upon seeing the little fruit cake cart, SpongeBob gets excited and asks if he can try some of his fruit cake. Plankton is happy to oblige and SpongeBob devours a slice. When Plankton inquires to see how SpongeBob is feeling, he finds he’s his usual cheerful, annoying, self and won’t stop raving about the fruit cake. Plankton gives him some more, but the result remains the same. Plankton then goes into a mini rage and starts firing fruit cake at SpongeBob who continues to devour it. Defeated, Plankton decides to retreat into the Chum Bucket, but before he does he hands SpongeBob the keys to his fruit cake cart since he’s so eager to share it with the rest of the town.

This idyllic Christmas setting is about to be poisoned by fruit cake.

SpongeBob pilots the cart over to a trio of carolers (Kenny, Fagerbakke, Lawrence) and offers them some fruit cake. They’re all happy to be offered the most foul of holiday “treats” and eat a slice each as SpongeBob looks on. After they’re done eating, a change comes over the carolers and each ends up with angry eyes and a five-o-clock shadow. They bicker about what song to sing and argue over which “bells” song is superior: “Jingle Bells” or “Silver Bells.” The third chimes in about wanting to sing “Randolph the Red-Nosed Seahorse” and they start to fight. SpongeBob drives away content that they enjoyed the fruit cake, seemingly oblivious to the violence that has commenced, while Plankton emerges from the Chum Bucket pleased to see the Jerktonium working on these “jerks.”

SpongeBob is so hopped-up on Christmas spirit that he’s oblivious to the chaos all around him.

SpongeBob then happens upon a festive, Christmas, parade. He decides that this would be a wonderful place to spread Christmas joy via Plankton’s fruit cake and hops right into the fray. SpongeBob goes into a new song about spreading holiday cheer as he fires off volley after volley of fruit cake towards the onlookers. They all eat their fruit cake and immediately turn into jerks. We see some minor stuff like a kid popping a balloon and another smashing a present. We also get to see Mr. Krab’s whale daughter, Pearl, get angry and start blasting others with her blowhole (that’s a weird sentence to type). Soon the town is in flames as fish grapple in the street while a kid (Carolyn Lawrence) seated on a fake Santa (Brown) details the stuff he wants for Christmas. SpongeBob gives him some fruit cake and the Santa turns into a jerk and tells the kid to get a job. SpongeBob then gives the driver of the float some fruit cake causing him to abandon his responsibilities sending the float to drive off a cliff. The kid seems happy about it though as he starts bouncing on the semi-conscious Santa like a trampoline.

Plankton has a pretty solid Plan B.

Plankton then returns to the Chum Bucket pleased with how things are going. He just has one problem: SpongeBob. Karen refers to the sponge as a fatal flaw pointing out that he’s immune to the effects of Jerktonium. Plankton assures her he has an answer to that problem and unveils his latest creation: Robot SpongeBob! The robot looks just like SpongeBob, only he’s all steel and probably twice as big. A reasonable person wouldn’t confuse the two, but that’s the joke! Plankton winds him up and commands his creation to go ruin SpongeBob’s good name as it blasts a stream of fire from its nose. He then heads for the Krusty Krab, smashing a boat along the way. Mr. Krabs meets the mechanical sponge at the door and immediately mistakes him for SpongeBob, but seems to assume he’s not the one responsible for the commotion since he’s SpongeBob and all. The robot then knocks over the Krusty Krab sign which lands on the restauranteur while Plankton looks on with glee.

It’s so cold Patchy’s signature eyewear is cracking.

We then hop back to check-in on Patchy and Potty. Their mail truck is still spinning but it eventually crashes into a snowbank allowing the mailman to escape. The hogtied mail carrier hops away while Patchy inspects the damaged tire which still has the fork stuck in it. He tells the viewers to go make some coco while Potty builds him a fire. When we return, the duo are freezing around a fire in the middle of the night. Patchy laments he hasn’t eaten anything for 20 minutes and could really go for a plate of Buffalo wings. He then hallucinates Potty as a plate of just that and tries to eat the bird, but gets a mouth full of log instead. When he comes to his senses, he apologizes to Potty who then in turn hallucinates Patchy as some sort of pizza slice covered in bird seed. He hops onto Patchy’s head and starts pecking at him as we dissolve back into the undersea world.

Squidward, a regular jerk, is about to have a splitting headache.

SpongeBob is driving around in Plankton’s fruit cake buggy and is surprised to find everyone acting like jerks. Mr. Krabs sees him and lets him know he’ll be garnishing his wages to pay for repairs to the restaurant. SpongeBob then comes across Patrick who is setting up a more elaborate trap for Santa. He’s also stuffing his face with fruit cake and acts like a jerk towards SpongeBob. Dismayed, SpongeBob heads home in confusion. He wakes up the next morning, Christmas Eve morning, hopeful things will be better, but when he heads out the door he sees two fish fighting in the street. He decides to check-in with Squidward who won’t even answer the door. He tells him to go bother Sandy and SpongeBob remarks he’ll have to thank Squidward for the advice when Squidward gets home – stupid sponge. As he bounds away, robo-SpongeBob shows up and knocks on the door. When Squidward won’t answer, the robot simply rips the door off of its hinges. Squidward shows up now, and I feel like I should point out he isn’t under the effects of Jerktonium – he’s just a regular jerk, and demands SpongeBob put his door down. The robot does as it’s told by smashing it over Squidward’s head and leaves.

SpongeBob makes an important discovery!

SpongeBob then goes to bother Sandy, as Squidward instructed, about how everyone is acting like jerks. He then finds the squirrel also under the effects of Jerktonium, but she’s at least lucid. Still, she’s a jerk towards SpongeBob and he frets he needs to go find someone who isn’t a raging jerk. As he goes to leave, he slips on an acorn and a piece of fruit cake he was holding goes flying into Sandy’s Christmas analyzer thing-a-ma-jig. She gets pissed at him for getting fruit cake in the machine, but then pauses her anger when the machine reveals the cake is laced with Jerktonium. She then asks where SpongeBob got the cake, and he says from Plankton. When she questions in an incredulous manner that he fed everyone fruit cake made by Plankton he just blankly says “uh huh,” prompting her to call him an idiot. SpongeBob then panics for a moment because he’s eaten a ton of the fruit cake, but Sandy points out the combination of SpongeBob’s pure heart and tiny brain have rendered him immune. She then turns to her machine for an antidote and it spits out sheet music. Sandy gets angry, but SpongeBob (rather surprisingly) recognizes the tune for what it is and can even read it. As he hums it aloud, the Jerktonium affecting Sandy wares off leaving SpongeBob overjoyed. He then sets out to spread the antidote around town.

Just sit back and enjoy the song.

SpongeBob arrives with an “Ahoy everybody!” and goes into the flagship song of the special: “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas).” It’s a plenty delightful little song that will definitely stow away in your brain and pop up at the drop of a hat. It’s a real banger in my household. As SpongeBob sings, he does good deeds around town and and we see everyone shaking off the Jerktonium. By the end of it, the whole town is singing and dancing along!

That is one unpleasant looking Santa.

Sandy congratulates SpongeBob for saving the town from Plankton, and just in time, because Santa is here! Despite being under the sea, he arrives via conventional means though only sporting six reindeer. As SpongeBob races over to welcome him to Bikini Bottom he finds a rather sullen Santa. He has the unfortunate responsibility of informing everyone they’re getting coal this year because they’ve all been a bunch of jerks. And much to his surprise, only Plankton is on the nice list! Plankton shows up to get his gift: the secret formula for the Krabby Patty. Delighted, he takes his prize while Mr. Krabs asks Santa how he got that. When he informs the crab that he has his ways, we see an ugly little elf pick his pocket.

I don’t think this is going to be an even match-up.

SpongeBob then pleads their case with Santa, but he’s not interested in hearing an explanation from the naughtiest person in town. He then points out that SpongeBob is being naughty right now and gestures to the robot which is wreaking havoc still. It smashes through a crowd of people then begins to target Santa. SpongeBob jumps in front of his hero willing to defend him with his life, which he may need to expend. The robot SpongeBob doubles in size, apparently going into assault mode or something, and karate chops SpongeBob right between the eyes. The dazed and disfigured SpongeBob still stands ready and the robot picks him up and flings him off into the distance.

Who will save Santa?!

Santa then beats a hasty retreat, but rather than fly away, he tries hiding in the Krusty Krab. The robot simply lifts the restaurant up and pulls Santa out. When all hope appears lost, SpongeBob returns! Now driving the fruit cake cart once again, he whirls and fires away at the robot with sticky fruit cake. It appears to gum up the exhaust ports and the robot soon explodes!

It’s SpongeBob! With a cool, motion-blurring, background!

Santa shakes SpongeBob’s hand and thanks him for saving his hide. He’s now convinced that SpongeBob is indeed a very good boy, but frets over how his list could be so wrong. The elves then bring something to his attention: the wind-up crank leftover from the exploding SpongeBob robot. Santa inspects it and finds a message stamped onto it, “If found please return to the Chum Bucket.” He then shouts out for Plankton in an angry tone, who sheepishly tries to duck away still clutching onto the bottle that contains the secret formula. Mr. Krabs gets to him and orders him to hand it over. When he initially refuses, Mr. Krabs pinches his head with his claws and takes it away then flings him up against the Chum Bucket like a freshly picked booger.

SpongeBob just got onto the nice list for life.

Back in his sleigh, Santa is ready to take off. He wishes everyone in Bikini Bottom a merry Christmas as the reindeer take flight, or swim, or whatever. As Santa flies off, we see Patrick has stowed away on the back of the sleigh armed with a net. As they fly in front of the full moon, Patrick strikes! If he is successful at catching Santa, we don’t know, but he sure gave it a good try.

Stupid Plankton.

We then check-in with Patchy and Potty once again. Patchy appears to have stumbled onto Santa’s workshop which is in a snowy cave. He races inside to find the fat man seated on a throne. Patchy immediately whips out a list and tells Santa that what he wants for Christmas is to meet his hero: SpongeBob Squarepants! When he finishes his request, he finds Santa is pouring salt over his head. The screen then dissolves and we find out that Patchy is hallucinating again and the creature gently salting him isn’t Santa, but a very hungry polar bear! He runs out of the cave with the polar bear chasing after him The real Santa and Potty are standing outside the real workshop while Santa checks his list. Noting that stealing a mail truck definitely counts as naughty, he adds Patchy to his list as he and Potty share a laugh. They then turn to the camera and wave wishing us all a merry Christmas!

Even under the sea, we still get a moon shot!

And so ends the very special It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! Many Christmas episodes feel just like that, an episode that just happens to feature Christmas. Few are worthy of the term Christmas Special, and this one certainly qualifies. The music and festive scenery go a long way in conveying that special Christmas magic, but it’s the animation that really takes this one to another level. Stop-motion lends itself very well to Bikini Bottom. When your main character is an actual sponge, that certainly helps because it’s wonderful to see this character have actual texture. It works for the other characters as well and the ones who shouldn’t be squishy or furry are done in a different style. Mr. Krabs is a good example there as he has a smooth texture befitting an actual crab and the robot SpongeBob looks like an actual wind-up toy. The only character I wasn’t enamored with is Santa himself, who just features a weird design. He looks like he’s falling apart or something and is kind of gross, but he’s not in it that much in the end.

Patchy probably getting what he deserved.

The interesting thing about this special is if you strip away what makes it so special it would still work. If this were traditionally animated and without songs it would be a fun Christmas episode. It works as just a soundtrack, and I would totally buy a set of figurines made to look like the puppets in this special and make a Christmas display out of them. It’s a rare example of a show going all-out for Christmas and totally nailing it. It’s one I recommend to fans of SpongeBob and to people who have never watched a second of the show. It’s easily one of the best Christmas specials of the past decade and deserves to stand alongside the classics as well.

Is Patchy responsible for all of those infractions on Santa’s list? No wonder why they’re apparently letting the polar bear have his way.

If you want to catch It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! this year, and I obviously recommend that you do, then tune into Nickelodeon and its various offshoot channels all month long as it’s guaranteed to air multiple times. The entire show is also streaming on Paramount’s streaming platform and this episode can be found in Season 8. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if a special holiday channel is also featured on the network that makes finding this one even easier. If neither option works for you, then you can also buy the special on physical media or rent it via other streaming platforms. However you choose to view it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

#9 Best in TV Animation: The Ren & Stimpy Show

renstimpylogoThe thumping bass line leads into a frantic percussion section punctuated with a quick strike of a guitar and The Ren & Stimpy Show is on! The third and most unique of Nickelodeon’s early 90’s Nicktoons, the show was a throwback to the Golden Era of cartoons embodied by directors such as Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. This was a show for animators, for cartoon lovers, for people that wanted a show to just make them laugh. The process of creating an episode, from start to finish, was handled by one director and just a few writers who bounced ideas off one another. There was no rigid, segmented process where every aspect of the show had to be overseen by a specialist and there was no nefarious merchandizing gimmick turning the program into an extended commercial. The Ren & Stimpy Show simply existed for the love of it.

The early days of Nickeldeon consisted of live-action programming mixed in with educational programming for young children. The animation came from outside sources with the most notable being the Looney Tunes package program featuring classic cartoons. As the network grew, the desire to produce its own cartoons naturally arose and thus the Nicktoons were born. Consisting originally of Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show, the block first began airing on Sunday morning in 1991 and were so successful that they ended up being just the first in a long line of cartoons. While Doug and Rugrats were fairly tame in their approach to entertainment, Ren & Stimpy stood out for their crass, gross-out style of humor that would eventually land them on Nick’s late-night block of Saturday night programming and even a handful of MTV appearances.

Ren's rotting teeth, as seen here, are an example of the highly detailed (and often gross) still images the show would make use of.

Ren’s rotting teeth, as seen here, are an example of the highly detailed (and often gross) still images the show would make use of.

Conceived primarily by animator John Kricfalusi, Ren and Stimpy were atypical characters existing in a fairly typical format. They were a natural odd couple, being a dog and cat, but broke the mold in a sense by being rather unappealing to look at. Ren, gangly and liver-spotted, resembled a mosquito more than a chihuahua at times while Stimpy was a cat in name only. Rotund with a big, blue nose, he had no worries of being mistaken for Sylvester or Tom. The show was a half-hour program but mostly consisted of two shorts that would drop Ren and Stimpy into completely new environments with no continuity from one episode to the next. In fact, several episodes ended with the characters in hopeless situations or even implied death

The show’s intention was to make the viewer laugh. There were some bits of sentimentality tossed in to appease the network, but mostly the show wanted to be funny in the most obnoxious way possible. The characters often screamed with Ren in particular prone to violent tirades. Stimpy was the dumb one with a good heart while Ren often abused him both physically and emotionally. The show was able to retain its humor because Ren usually got what was coming to him making the show feel like it earned the laughs that came at Stimpy’s expense. The show often resorted to gross imagery for its humor. Stimpy would frequently cough up a lumpy hairball or show viewers his collection of snot he kept under a coffee table. Kitty littler featured prominently in multiple episodes with characters even eating the stuff right out of the litter box. By far, the show’s most memorable gross gag was the long-running extreme and highly detailed close-up shots of characters. These still images usually depicted characters at their worst with bloodshot eyes and hairy moles. The most memorable may have been when Ren revealed a mouth full of rotting teeth in response to Stimpy’s proper dental hygiene.

Because of its penchant for violence and toilet humor, Kricfalusi often found himself battling with standards and practices at Nickelodeon. One very memorable episode featured the characters playing a board game called “Don’t Wiz on the Electric Fence” climaxing with Ren doing just as the box suggested he not do and all the characters being sent to Hell. Another episode, “Man’s Best Friend,” climaxes with Ren violently beating a man with an oar. The animation goes into slow-motion as Ren strikes the man and his head violently squishes and twists with each strike of the oar. It’s the episode often cited as being the last straw for Kricfalusi, who was fired by Nickelodeon in 1992, barely a year after the first episode aired.

Nickelodeon would turn to co-creator Bob Camp to head up the show for the remainder of its run through 1995. Voice acting dynamo Billy West, originally hired to voice Stimpy, took over as Ren and added to his impressive resume (though one wonders what lasting damage all of the screaming from this show did to his vocal chords). Still, without Kricfalusi the show was doomed. It was still capable of making people laugh at times but it often felt directionless, even pointless.

The background was often used as a tool to heighten the emotion and intensity of the onscreen action as opposed to merely being a set piece.

The background was often used as a tool to heighten the emotion and intensity of the onscreen action as opposed to merely being a set piece.

From an animated perspective, the show was quite excellent. Everything was hand-drawn and the backgrounds often popped with detail. The show was not afraid to borrow from several styles of art, even abstract. In addition to the detailed still shot the show was known for, there was also frequent use of emotive backgrounds, usually when a character screamed or was frightened. Instead of the standard background being present, it might be a splatter effect or just splotches of color. Music was a big part of the show as well. The jazzy theme song was unmistakeable, and some of the show’s most iconic scenes include song such as the “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy” segment from “Stimpy’s Invention” or the theme for the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen. The music and visual effects all came together to help give the show it’s off the wall vibe.

The Ren & Stimpy Show could be described as one of those programs, or events, that burned too hot for it to last long. It may have remained in production until 1995, but the show’s creative output was only at its peak for a year or so. For that reason, it’s inclusion on such a list as this one could be debated, but it left such a mark on the 1990’s that it felt too hard to exclude. Many shows would follow and try to imitate what The Ren & Stimpy Show started but virtually none of them succeeded. Even Kricfalusi tried reviving the show in 2003 as an adult-oriented comedy program but the magic was long gone. It’s possible Ren and his pal Stimpy were simply not meant to last as long as Bugs or Daffy, but for the short while they were around they made an impact and their cartoons stand the test of time.

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