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Festive toons: Five cracking Christmas animations

20 December 2016

Christmas is a time for children, so why not let your inner child run free? Fight your grumpy Grinch and embrace The Snowman as NATALIE BUSHE picks out some animated festive classics.

1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Skellington Productions, 1993)

The Nightmare Before Christmas

In this feature-length stop-motion film, you get two festivities for the price of one: all the horror and creepiness of Halloween, and the jollity and splendour of Christmas.

It’s a cult classic from the stable of Tim Burton. Although not actually directed by him - Henry Selick took on that role - it is based on a Burton poem.

Jack Skellington is the King of Halloweenland. He’s successful in his own world, but it’s a world that he’s bored of and feels it lacks meaning. While out walking he accidentally drops in to Christmastown.

There he sees a world of joy, a holiday that’s taken seriously, and he develops a fiendish plan with the rest of Halloweenland to take control of Christmas by kidnapping Santa and assuming his guise. However, some of his gifts are worth a cautious second look.

The stop-motion animation of Nightmare is layered with detail - so much so it’s worth revisiting time and again to capture every element. The musical influences from Danny Elfman’s score range from Kurt Weill to Gilbert and Sullivan.

2. Arthur Christmas (Aardman Animations and Sony Pictures, 2011)

Arthur Christmas

This is a British-American feature-length collaboration, directed by Sarah Smith and co-written by Peter Baynham, best known for his work with Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris and Steve Coogan.

It’s an attempt to answer that oft-asked question - how does Santa manage to deliver all of those presents in one night? Sheer elfin military precision, choreographed (Mission Impossible-style) by Steve, Santa’s eldest son. Or at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

But this year the system has slipped up and one little girl hasn’t received her gift. It’s up to Santa’s hapless yet eager younger son Arthur to try and save the day with his Grandsanta, an old sleigh and the enthusiastic assistance of Elf super-wrapper Bryony.

Pin-sharp 3D computer animation offers clean lines and detailed depth, with a wonderfully bright Christmas palette, and it doesn’t skimp on voice talent either, with James McAvoy as Arthur, Hugh Laurie as uptight Steve and Bill Nighy as gobby Grandsanta.

It’s a fresh approach to what could be a cliched idea, and it’s undertaken with intelligence, humour and empathy.

3. A Charlie Brown Christmas (CBS, 1965)

A Charlie Brown Christmas

This was the second animated musical special made for US television; the first was Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol made for NBC in 1962. It was, however, the first and probably the best known of the many Peanuts-inspired holiday specials, and it’s certainly the most repeated.

Charlie Brown is depressed while all around are full of festive cheer. He doesn’t understand what it means. Lucy suggests that Charlie get more involved and direct the Christmas play to feel more connected to the seasonal feeling.

At the core of the film is a condemnation of the commercialisation of the season, and the need to embrace the ethos of goodwill to all men, a theme that Peanuts creator Charles Shultz was at pains to highlight with Linus’s minute-long recitation of the annunciation to the shepherds.

Odd, then that the film was actually the idea of Coca-Cola execs and sponsored by them. The characters are voiced by children, some of whom were professional actors and some from the director’s local neighbourhood. This is the animation whose success established the annual animated special, and Vince Guaraldi’s jazz soundtrack for the film was just as popular.

Though sometimes melancholic, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a wry look at a festive theme that reoccurs year after year.

4. The Snowman (Channel 4, 1982)

The Snowman

Based on the picture book by Raymond Briggs about a young boy who builds a snowman that comes to life, this Academy-nominated film has no words.

The story is realised through a sweeping orchestral score by Howard Blake and by the beautiful crayon and pencil illustration style originally used by Briggs in the book.

The boy invites the curious Snowman in to take a tour around his home and in the living room he sits in the chair by the fire - a little too close to the fire - a portent of things to come!

Outside the Snowman takes the boy’s hand and they fly off to meet Santa Claus at the North Pole (although we're not quite sure where the penguins have come from), and at a party the boy is gifted a snowman scarf. On their return the Snowman stands sentinel outside the house while the boy sleeps.

When the boy wakes to find the sun shining and a pile of melting snow where the Snowman stood, all he has are his memories and the scarf he finds in his pocket.

Both heartbreaking and uplifting, it’s a tale of friendship won and lost and of the potential joy that both the holiday and snow can bring.

5. Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (CBS, 1966)

Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas

From the top of Mt Crumpit, the tiny-hearted Grinch - a singular being, joyless and isolated except for his dog Max - watches the townspeople of Whoville down below enjoy their Christmas preparations.

Bitter at their happiness, the Grinch wants to end Christmas and all the delight it seems to bring the Whos, and he decides to steal all of their gifts and decorations on Christmas Eve.

Returning to the top of the mountain he waits with his bounty on the sleigh to hear the wails of unhappiness. But he soon realises the Whos are unaffected by the loss, and they continue to celebrate the holiday, embrace their friends and sing carols.

Their positive attitude swells the Grinch’s heart and he gives in to the love, returning the Whos' gifts and joining them for dinner.

Directed by animation god Chuck Jones, this TV special erupts with a psychedelic colour scheme and utilises the drawing skills of Ted Geisel (Dr Seuss) himself, it also makes great use of the voice talents of Universal Studios monster Boris Karloff as Grinch and narrator - the Grinch appears to have his eyebrows, too.

But it’s not Karloff that sings the memorable song penned by Geisel, You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch - that was sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, who also voiced Tony the Tiger on the Frosties ads.

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