Monday, December 6, 2010

"A Claymation Christmas Celebration"

Childhood memories are strange things. As kids, we take for granted what adults would find truly bizarre. So when I started remembering this old Christmas special from my youth where camels sang bebop, the California Raisins stood in for Santa's reindeer, and the whole thing was hosted by two dinosaurs for some reason, I knew I had to seek it out and make sure it wasn't just a figment of my sugar-addled young brain.

Sure enough, it was all real. "A Claymation Christmas Celebration" was produced by the Will Vinton Studios and was first aired on CBS in 1987. And thankfully, like most everything else, it's available on DVD.

The show is almost exactly as I remembered it. It’s indeed hosted by two dinosaurs, creatures not historically associated with the yuletide season. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I now know that these two characters -- Rex and Herb -- first appeared in a short film entirely about dinosaurs, then became recurring characters in various Vinton projects.

In the special, Rex and Herb debate the meaning of the word "wassail" while introducing individual, stand-alone music videos set to original renditions of Christmas standards. And all the bizarre imagery is just as I remember it: camels jazzing up the otherwise stodgy "We Three Kings;" animated wisps of sand forming various tableaux; figure skating walruses; and yes, the California Raisins guiding Santa's sleigh. Will Vinton Studios was responsible for the hugely popular California Raisins ad campaign of the '80s, and so deployed their star characters for the final number.

The "Carol of the Bells" video creeped me out when I was a kid, but now it's probably my favorite part of the show.

Now over 20 years old, does the "Claymation Christmas Celebration" hold up? Absolutely! Make no mistake, it looks 20 years old. Technology has progressed and animation techniques have changed. But by focusing on classic Christmas songs, the special achieves a timeless quality that works just as well now as it did back then. Of course, kids these days will have no context for the California Raisins and might wonder why the hell these things get an entire song to themselves. Then again, if talking dinosaurs can host a Christmas special, why can't singing fruit perform the grand finale?