'Rudolph,' 'Charlie Brown,' and 'The Grinch': Will the great American trilogy of Christmas specials work on a newcomer?

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Hillary: I, too, am embarrassed to admit that I’ve seen Taylor Momsen’s finger-in-a-light-socket Cindy Lou Who braids but couldn’t hum more than a few bars of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” And sorry about that dig at Vince Guaraldi (thank you, Google) — I said it mostly because I figured it’d get a rise out of you. Maybe I am a Grinch at heart.

So there’s more to the Rudolph story than Ben Affleck-free reindeer games and rhyming reindeer names — you don’t say! Honestly, I doubt I’ll come away from these specials filled with Christmas cheer; I figure nostalgia is the main reason anyone above Bar Mitzvah age still loves them. But since there has to be a solid foundation for that nostalgia, I’m not prepared to hate any of them. (Although if my grandpa’s Peanuts anthologies are any indication, Charlie Brown might be kind of boring.)

I’m especially looking forward to watching Rudolph, mostly because it’s the source material for all of modern TV’s stop-motion Rankin-Bass homages. It’ll be like that time I watched Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows after seeing Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, but with less melodrama. Or maybe more! I don’t know anything!

What about you, Darren — which of these specials do you think will hold up best to my overly-critical adult eyes? Which is your personal favorite? And generally speaking, why do you think these three shorts have endured for so long, despite our culture’s notoriously short attention span?

Darren: Charlie Brown, “kind of boring”! Now I know I’m going to enjoy watching these specials with you, since I grew up reading various Peanuts anthologies to tatters and spent most of my childhood feeling exactly like Charlie Brown, except not bald and much worse at baseball.

However, all teasing aside, I suspect that a hearty dose of cynicism will be extremely healthy when you’re watching these specials. Actually, you could say that all three specials are about cynicism, which is why I suspect they have had such a long shelf life. All three feature characters who think they know how things ought to be, but who are then confronted with situations that force them to rethink their ingrained prejudices. Generally speaking, every year I get more cynical, and every year, these Christmas specials challenge my cynicism. I think that’s why they’re a bit more iconic than, say, the Frosty the Snowman TV special, which dates from the same era, but which is much more of a goofy caper — it doesn’t have any themes, y’know? (Admittedly, some people like Frosty the Snowman. They are wrong.)

However, I have to admit that I’m a little bit nervous to watch these cartoons with someone who didn’t grow up with them. Perhaps your mere presence will remove the healing veneer of nostalgia, and I’ll realize they are secretly terrible, and thus finally lose my innocence. But no! I do believe in Christmas! Or anyhow, I do believe in Christmas Specials. And I think you will definitely like The Grinch, which is my personal fave. It’s is the funniest — all that Dr. Seuss wordplay! — and the darkest. Although, obviously, by “dark” I mean “less cute than Snoopy dancing in the snow.”

I’m guessing you won’t like Charlie Brown, if only because so much of it has been absorbed into parody at this point, and because it’s by far the slowest-moving of the three. (Again: Think Linklater, but without the swears.) I honestly don’t know what you’ll think about Rudolph. It’s positively dripping with sincerity. But it’s also the most fantastical and the fastest-moving — the only one of the three that’s kind of a real quest narrative. I’m surprised Peter Jackson hasn’t made it into a trilogy yet.

To be honest, I’m feeling very optimistic. I think after you see these specials, you’ll be chanting the theme songs, wearing comical Reindeer antlers, and buying a crappy little Christmas tree of your very own. Possibly ironically, but still.

Hillary: Whoa there, Professor Franich — I didn’t know there’d be themes.

But in all seriousness,  your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter. To the TV!


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