WILL VINTON’S CLAYMATION CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION
Original Air Date: December 21, 1987
The California Raisins and their Claymation brethren present the smartest, funniest, most creative and clayiest Christmas TRL you could ever ask for.
Will Vinton didn’t invent claymation, but he does own the trademark. No, really. And he also lays claim to the creation of the California Raisins, which can come in handy if, say, you want to produce an animated Christmas special during the height of Raisinmania. (He also created The Noid, whom you should avoid, FYI.)
All that clay are belong to him
Not to imply that Vinton is some kind of proprietary asshole. He’s done more than just about anyone to further the medium of clay animation (o.k., his words, not mine), including coining and trademarking the term “ClaymationTM,” which rolls off the tongue so much more easily than “clay animation,” don’t you think?
The famously canceled NES game developed by Capcom
Vinton created the California Raisins in 1987, as the stars of a commercial for the most boring-sounding agency on earth, the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB). And for those of you who weren’t around at the time (or were living under a rock), let me tell you: America went California-nuts for the California Raisins.
We were a nation obsessed with those wrinkly little hunks of doo-wopping Model Magic. We plastered them all over our pillowcases, Trapper Keepers, footie pajamas, cereal boxes, Hardees cinnamon raisin buns – basically anywhere you could put a raisin without getting slapped.
Love your raisin, hate yourself
On top of that, they had four studio albums, an animated TV series, and a couple of feature films, making them more successful than all the winners of American Idol combined.
So it should come as no surprise that when Vinton made A Claymation Christmas Celebration later that year, he decided to close it out with the marketing gold that was the California Raisins and their R&B rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Perhaps the faded popularity of the Raisins is part of the reason this feature has faded from the public eye. It originally aired on CBS, but by the early 1990s had been relegated to cable and is now no longer shown anywhere. Which is a shame, because it’s one my all-time favorite specials – funny, original, and wonderfully animated (sorry – claymated).
A Claymation Christmas Celebration is essentially a series of Christmas carol music videos hosted by the Mesozoic Odd Couple: straight-man Rex, an erudite, red Tyrannosaurus Jeff Goldblum; and foil Herb, a bulbous, lisping garbage disposal of a stegosaurus who proves that yes, Virginia, vegetarians can be fat.
Our prehistoric Felix and Oscar
As Rex dryly lays it out, “thematically speaking, we’ll be looking at Christmas carols as they relate to specific traditions.” Snore. It’s no wonder Herb feels a need to comfort eat…
First under the microscope is “We Three Kings,” but before Rex can finish his introductory discourse, along come a group of hound dogs singing “here we come a waffling,” and pushing a cart full of…WAFFLES!
It’s a little something for everyone, as Herb gets to stuff his face with Belgian deliciousness…
“As usual, Herb, there you go letting history take a back seat to your stomach”
…and Rex gets to digress, interjecting, “pardon me, but you’re making a lyrical error in that fine old Christmas carol…”
But Rex is vexed – while he can successfully identify the true term as “wassailing,” no one, himself included, knows what it means. Thus begins one of the special’s running gags, as a whole cast of characters parade in on the action with their own variations on “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” But I’m getting ahead of myself…
“We Three Kings” is preformed by clay versions of the Three Wise Men themselves – Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar – with an interjected chorus courtesy of some doo-wop camels whose vocal style bears more than a little resemblance to those yet-unseen dried fruits.
Close your eyes and picture…raisins!
The trios trade turns at the mic in a sound-off that leaves the wise guys eating camel dust.
“I hate you.”
“We love you!”
Luckily, they can all agree on one thing: their destination – Jesus’ birthplace, illuminated by the Star of Bethlehem©.
My gift for Jesus: not-crack
Even more than twenty years later, the jazzy swing of the camels’ “star of wonder, star of night,” cheesy as it is, takes me straight back to the Christmases of my childhood – basking in the glow of the Christmas lights while I was sung to sleep by three pachyderms.
Jesus…better than GPS
Herb and Rex return to introduce my favorite clip: the Paris Bellharmonic performing “Carol of the Bells.”
“One of the ways to drive evil off was by making a great deal of noise…”
“This isn’t driving you off!”
Conductor Quasimodo has put together a fine ensemble of anthropomorphic bells, with the exception of one particularly unfocused member who gets distracted, plays some air guitar, hits himself in the face trying to swat a fly, and loses his mallet.
Someone I would probably date if I were a bell
The whole sketch is so clever that I don’t want to give away the punch line (you should really watch it yourself, HINT HINT), but I’ll just say that Quasi ultimately saves the day with a move that would leave Bart Simpson green with envy.
After being pulled briefly off track to deal with a flock of ducks come a-waddling, our prehistoric hosts present “Oh Christmas Tree,” which, while the claymating is stellar, is frankly not the most exciting tool in the shed. So we’ll move on…
Yeah, it’s kinda like that
We’re next introduced to two physics-defying ice-skating walruses: the world-famous prima ballerina Margot Pontoon and her partner, Rudolf Nerves-on-Edge.
It’s a testament to the quality of the animation that Margot and Rudolf move exactly how you imagine a pair of ice-dancing walrus ballerinas would.
A majestic-y creature
They’re fluid (relatively speaking) and graceful(-ish), but they collide one too many times with the friendly neighborhood penguins…
Don’t get too attached…
…and when the walruses’ final salchow leaves them three feet underwater, the aggrieved penguins waste no time sealing up the hole.
Sorta like David and Goliath, except not at all
Too bad no one bothered to tell them that walruses are semi-aquatic animals.
Can’t nobody hold me down
We return to find Herb and Rex mired in reference books, trying to determine the true meaning of the term “wassailing,” when who should appear but a slew of swine come a-wallowing. No, no, no, no, no! It’s all Rex can do to keep us, dear viewers, on the straight and narrow while trying to restrain Herb from joining the pig-out.
Better distract us by cutting to the trippy African Pride Jesus-montage…
o.k., sure, a baby’s ass…why not?
The “Joy to the World” sequence is, in a word, weirdasballs. I’m sure the animation is a marvel of modern plasticine, but this thing is like taking a baaaaaad trip soundtracked by Luther Vandross covering Manheim Steamroller. Which I guess isn’t all bad, since synth-rock was my second-favorite childhood Christmas tradition, but still.
Here’s just a sampling of the crazy-ass shit that happens in the 2:30 that it takes to sing “Joy to the World.” For the rest of the collection, please see my nightmares from the past twenty-two years.
So far, so…so.
I don’t remember anything like this in “Rudolph”…
Boobs! All is forgiven, Vinton.
Finally we get to some damn Raisin action, introduced by ultimate CALRAB fan-boy Herb…
Sunglasses are how you knew something was cool in the ‘80s.
In a classic case of “slow food,” A.C., Bebop, Red, and Zoot spent so long shooting the shit that they missed the last bus home on Christmas Eve. So what do they do? Deliver the finest Motown “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to ever grace our ears, of course!
And at the same time, they learn a hard lesson in acceptance when it turns out that one of their own is also a shiner.
Not really – they spend the whole song making fun of his nose…
“There’s no possible way they can mock me if I’m hiding behind this snowman”
…then rope him to the front of a ghetto-fabulous sleigh and make him pull them home.
A little holiday oppression to warm your cockles
Fruits can be so cruel.
The special ends with Rex, Herb (who’s put on a good 3 packs of Sculpey) and all of their waffling, waddling, and wallowing compadres enjoying a full mug of Christmas spirit, courtesy of some singing leprechauns who pull up a-drinking – no, wait – a-wassailing!
Leave it to the Irish to show up wasted at the end
They’re carting a frat’s-worth of “Cyril’s Cider” (Really? Not wassail? Whatevs.), and they’re not a moment too soon because Rex is about to pop a vein.
“Fuck all y’all!”
Luckily, everyone finally gets what they wanted for Christmas – Rex gets validation, Herb gets enough clay snacks to feed a herd of bulimic elephants, and all of the claytastic characters get to make one last appearance.
What really killed the dinosaurs
Or rather, almost all of them. In a much-appreciated nod to what I, and probably everyone with eyes, wanted for Christmas, those creepy-ass “Joy to the World” fuckers are nowhere to be seen.
While I wouldn’t call this a religious special (thank God!), and there’s certainly no molded Jesus anywhere, A Claymation Christmas does seem to have a little more savior-presence than most of the specials we’ve seen so far.
For one thing, it’s based around a series of carols that, whether we’re wont to admit it or not, sing the praises of Jesus’ big day. Then, of course, there are the aforementioned manger-moseying Wise Men, and while I didn’t really want to have to bring it up again, the “Joy to the World” segment has more than a few images that could probably garner a cool sum on eBay if they were to show up on a piece of toast.
The face of Mary in…a program about Christmas!
Old Saint Nick makes just one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance, (understandably) dozing in his rocking chair during the soporific “Oh Christmas Tree.” But Herb does don an ever-strained Santa suit during the entire special, so we’ll give ’em kudos for that, too.
A Claymation Christmas certainly doesn’t have a heartwarming moral, (too much) religious iconography, or a tidy resolution, but the melding of classic carols with ambulatory clay, quirky humor, Christmas treats, and those quintessentially 80’s spokes-raisins perfectly encapsulates everything that I loved about the holidays when I was growing up. So while this may be the last nail in the coffin of the Christmas-spirit scale’s validity, I’m giving it 5 balls. Cuz I love it.
PRODUCT INFORMATION (Support the Site!)
Contrary to popular belief, Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration is available on DVD… and isn’t it time you upgraded from that VHS you recorded twenty years ago? (I know I probably should!) It contains the uncut special we all know and love, as well as Halloween and Easter specials you’ve likely never seen.
If you’re still in the mood for some vintage Vinton, I can easily recommend his full-length movie The Adventures of Mark Twain (which contains the notoriously frightening “Satan scene”), but if you’re simply hunting for something under the criteria of “stop-motion” and “Christmas,” you could do a helluva lot worse than the newly remastered The Nightmare Before Christmas.