• Director: Will Vinton
  • Writer: Ralph Liddle
  • Starring: Tim Conner and Johnny Counterfit
  • Where to Watch: Not officially available on streaming anywhere, I found it in parts on YouTube, or you can buy the DVD

We all have our family Holiday traditions, and I feel like mine keep multiplying. This makes sense, given that as we go one we mostly gain families instead of losing them. Plenty of people watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman with their families every Christmas. I, on the other hand, have basically watched those once or twice each, and have instead, nearly every year, watched Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration, which very few people today seem to know is a thing, and does not appear to be available for streaming anywhere (I own the DVD). The copy I watched as a kid had been taped off of the television, I think from the original airing on CBS on December 21, 1987. I don’t know why my parents decided to tape this thing when I had just turned three, but they were right. I think part of what does it for me is that there’s no plot to pick apart or anything. The animation is great, the jokes are funny, and it’s just a series of cute vignettes set to Christmas carols of varying degrees of religiosity. Plus there are dinosaurs (which were the initial draw for me) and the California Raisins (which were supposed to be the original draw for most people).

When I was a teenager, “claymation” always seemed to be the version of animation we could do ourselves if we really put our minds to it. It’s not like it isn’t very difficult or anything, but the concept of moving some clay a tiny bit, then taking a picture, then moving it a tiny bit, then taking a picture, seemed accessible, like something that made intuitive sense. There are stop-motion dinosaurs in the 1925 The Lost World, and they work great (I don’t think they’re actually made out of clay but it’s the same principal). It requires patience and artistry, not high technology. It also has the advantage of tangibility and seeming more “there,” at a time when computer animation was not really a thing.

Will Vinton was probably the most famous claymation artist of his era, even winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short, for 1974’s Closed Mondays, the first clay-animated film to win any Oscar. Despite this honor, he didn’t really become famous until he made a series of commercials for Sun-Maid raisins. The story goes that a frustrated advertising executive, out of ideas for raisin commercials, exclaimed, “We’ve tried everything but dancing raisins singing ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’” With Vinton doing the animation, the California Raisins became a very surprising cultural smash, putting out four studio albums and starring in a Saturday morning cartoon (sadly with just regular animation). It is basically raisins with arms, legs, and sunglasses dancing around and singing Motown songs. During their appearance in the Claymation Christmas Celebration (in the headlining slot at the end), one Raisin says to another, “Call me a cab!” “Hey man, you’re a cab!” the other replies. That is about the level of humor here.

While it likely exists because of the Raisins, this special mostly features other Vinton creations, especially the two hosting dinosaurs. Rex (Johnny Counterfit) is described by Wikipedia as “an erudite Tyrannosaurus Rex,” while Herb (Tim Conner) is a “dimwitted and bespectacled Styracosaurus with a gluttonous appetite.” The two of them mostly banter about how uncouth Herb is, and debate the meaning of the word “Wassail” as various visitors get the lyrics to “Here We Come a-Wassailing” wrong (Herb’s favorite is “Here We Come a Waffle-ing”). They then introduce a series of claymation renditions of Christmas carols, some of which sort of take themselves seriously but most of which do not.

In addition to the Raisins covering the Temptations version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” we have the biblical Magi singing “We Three Kings” (while frequently being interrupted by their doo-wop-ing camels) and the “Paris Bell-Harmonic” (a bunch of anthropmorphized bells) doing a version of “Carol of the Bells” that keeps getting disrupted by the one stupid bell. My personal favorite segment involves two very large walruses attempting to figure skate to a bassoon-heavy instrumental version of “Angels We Have Heard On High,” all while terrorizing a hapless bunch of penguins through a combination of enormity and oblivious clumsiness (this is also the part that would always crack up my Dad). Probably the most “serious” segment is a gospel-tinged version of “Joy to the World,” which uses a “clay painting” technique Vinton had invented in order to do a series of beautiful animations meant to evoke a moving stained glass window.

The entirety of Claymation Christmas Celebration is 24 minutes long, and I will not keep you much longer, even though I could basically quote most of the dinosaur dialogue if you would like. I have no idea what someone who did not grow up with this thing will think of it, though I have a feeling it will be pleasant but not particularly memorable. If you would prefer a more “mainstream” Christmas animated special, well, we’ll get there soon. In the meantime, I will sign off with the immortal final words of this program: Rex: “Say good night, Herb.” Herb: “Good night, Herb!”

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