SANTA AND THE THREE BEARS (no specific network, 1970)

Why was it such a misfit?
Someone keeps requesting this one every year, and after watching it, I still don't know why.

This special is about as bare-bones as a Christmas special can get. It's the template for a thousand others just like it, reduced to its simplest form and dragged out as long as possible. It's so cookie-cutter that it should be sold in the Kitchen Utensils department, not in Electronics.

The simple animation looks a lot like a Yogi Bear episode, has a forest ranger as one of its lead characters, and even takes place in Jellystone -- I mean, Yellowstone. Wow, if they got to use the actual name, why couldn't Hanna-Barbera?

There are these two bears, Nikomi (female) and Chinook (male). The third bear is their mother Nana, voiced by Wilma Flintstone, who's preparing to hibernate for the winter season, and trying to get her children to do the same. They might have, but they gain some outsider knowledge that changes their mind.

The ranger thinks he'll check on the bears that fall, and pokes his head into the cave. The cubs run out at full speed, knocking hin into the air, where he rotates for a few seconds before crashing down in typical cartoon fashion. REEROOREEROOREE----BOWWWWWNK!!

After rubbing his head, Ranger tells Nana he hopes she has a peaceful sleep this year. "I hope so," replies Nana, "as long as my lumbago doesn't act up again." By the way, the bears can talk.

Fade in and fade out, and it's become winter, and the first snowfall of the season. The ranger hammers a holly wreath onto his wall, then heads out with his chopping axe to cut down a Christmas tree. Then we cut to Chinook and Nakomi, who are still awake and playing in the snow. Nana has been inexplicably trying to get them to go to bed for at least three months, and there is no apparent change in her tone of voice. I mean, I'd be ticked royal.

The cubs spot Ranger and wonder to themselves what he's doing. "It's almost Christmas, so I'm cutting down a Christmas tree," he answers.
"What's a Christmas tree?"
"And what's a Christmas?"

"Well, Christmas is a time for good cheer," the Ranger explains. "Decorations, and Christmas presents, and...."
"How come we've never heard of Christmas?" asks Chinook.
"Well, you bears are usually asleep through the whole thing." Except for Ted E. Bear.

"Maybe Mama knows more about Christmas," ponders Nikomi. How could she, if she's been as zonked out as they are this time of year? Expectedly, she doesn't know a thing, and once more orders them to get to freaking sleep.

The next day, they're still up. Ranger notices them nosing around his log cabin and invites them in. They want to know more about Christmas. "If I tell you everything, will you promise to then go home and hibernate?" "WE PROMISE!" the bears lie.

Ranger sits by the fireplace, Chinook and Nikomi crawl into his lap, and he starts telling them that 2000 years ago, a special baby was born in the town of Bethlehem, and every year we honor His birthday by acting kind and giving presents to one another. (Jesus was actually born around April, but no one really cares.) "And over the years, many traditions and legends were built around the story of Santa Claus."

"What's a Santa Claus?" asks Chinook.
"Can we eat it?" asks Nakomi.

"No, no no," the Ranger explains. "Let me try to explain it with this piece of paper." He reaches for a paper and pencil, and draws an arc. "This is THE WORLD." Uncanny artisan, this guy.

"At the top is the NORTH POLE. And this is where a fat old man whose belly shakes like a bowlful of jelly lives all year long. But once a year, for the good children of the world, he rides his flying sleigh down to their houses and leaves each of them stockings full of goodies!"

That's a thing that happens? There's no WAY they're going to sleep NOW. Think about all the loot they've missed! Well, not this time!

Chinook and Nakomi return to the cave as promised, but then tell their ma all about Santa Claus and what he's going to leave them, and how they're never going to sleep until he comes. They dance around their own Christmas tree and sing "Jingle Bells" repeatedly, making it impossible for HER to sleep. Nana is steamed about what the Ranger has now filled their heads with.

"When does he come, though?" wonders Chinook. They forgot to ask.
"Maybe it's in July? We should go back and ask him!"
"Oh, no you don't -- I'm going back and asking him for you!" insists Nana. "Let's see what's up with this Christmas nonsense."

Nana tells the Ranger what's been going on in the cave now, and demands she know who this Santa character is. Ranger stammers nervously, "Well, ehh heh heh, it's sort of this old legend."
"YOU MEAN IT'S NOT TRUE? Have you been lying to my kids?" Mellow out, Nana -- everybody does it this time of year.

"Look, look -- I'll tell you what. I used to play Santa at the department store, and I still have my costume. Tonight I'll slip down to your cave, posing as Santa, and leave your children stockings! That way they won't be disappointed."

The plan pacifies Nana, and she heads back to the cave. Only one more night of this.....

Unfortunately, Mother Nature throws a wrench into that plan, and unleashes a Christmas Eve storm so wicked that the Ranger can't make the trip. He has to stop and seek shelter when he's only halfway there. And the cubs start to notice Santa's tardiness.

Nana notes the storm, and realizes the Ranger won't be able to make it. She'll have to break the cruel news.

She gathers the cubs together and says, "I'm sorry, children, but....there is no Santa Claus. The ranger was just telling a story."
The cubs start bawling, and Nana can't help but shed a tear herself. If only this was one of those TV shows where it turns out Santa was real! Like on Smallville! But I guess there's no hope for that, is there?

Oh, I guess the ranger made it anyway? He leaves the stockings, then disappears in a cloud of sparkly dust. Wait, how'd he learn to teleport? That's a talent of his I haven't seen yet. I guess if we can swallow talking bears, we can believe disappearing fat men.

The next morning the Ranger arrives in costume with the stockings, only to find there are already stockings there. He's positively bewildered. And so am I -- this is quite a twist ending, there being two Rangers. Is the other one an evil twin? Is he just trying to win the bears' confidence so he can trap and skin them later? I guess we'll never know, because the cartoon ends here.

This was intended to be a TV special first, but no network was interested in it due to it "having no villain." (They must have missed the second Ranger.) It premiered in theaters instead, and was then repeated on local stations for many years. It now belongs to the public domain, so go ahead and copy it if you want -- Congress can't stop you.

BONUS SCENE! It would have interrupted the flow of the review if I'd put it where it happened, but I can't leave without mentioning this: there's a song in the middle of the special, a very slow song played out over scenes of snow falling, the bears waiting in the cave, the ranger relaxing by the fire, etc. In the middle of the song, the ranger glances at the fire, does a double take, rubs his eyes and realizes....the flames in his fireplace are singing the song. There is no reason for this to happen, and it's never mentioned again. The expression on his face mirrored mine.

There are even more scenes that I can't bring you, because my copy was edited down to a half-hour. The theatrical release had some live-action scenes, though of what I don't know.

Why didn't it fit in?
Santa and the Three Bears is, like I've been saying, a very cookie-cutter cartoon....but I'm willing to cut it a little slack due to how early it was made in TV history. That said, the groundbreaking Charlie Brown and Grinch specials had already happened, so there's not much excuse for ignorance.