Why was it such a misfit?

To put the times in perspective, the late 80's were the peak of animator Will Vinton's career. Anything he made was instantly popular -- the California Raisins, the Noid, a trippy movie about Mark Twain that didn't get a wide release -- well, almost everything. He was heavily in demand. If you needed clay movement, there was one man to call first. He made Return to Oz even more nightmarish. He even animated a short clay sequence for Moonlighting.

So when he got his own entire prime-time Christmas special, everyone had to tune in to find out what he came up with. The answer was more of the same thing...weird, funny short subjects animated from clay. Vinton owned a copyright on the word "claymation," though I think he no longer does. In fact he no longer owns anything. The big clay elephant in the room is that Vinton's company was eventually taken over by the CEO of Nike, who then fired him.

This was somewhere around the time The PJs finished, the biggest and last production Vinton Studios would ever do. What happened was a double-edged sword. Bad in that if Phil Knight wanted into the animation business, he should have founded his own company instead of greedily taking someone else's -- but that goes without saying. Good in that the new company brought us Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls, all things Vinton would have never done.

Vinton was content to do shorts and commercials, and probably would have his entire life. One critic said, "We know he can do anything, so when is he going to do SOMETHING?" Eventually Aardman Animation was founded in England and blew Vinton Studios away with great clay movement mixed with great stories. Companies started calling up Aardman instead -- Chevron's talking car commercials were first animated there. Then Phil showed up, usurped Vinton's throne and put his own kid on it. That was rude. But the kid turned out to be wise for the position, despite the unfair circumstances. Travis Knight was very into animation, knew what would stand out, and demanded the new Laika Studios blaze its own trail instead of copying other guys. This was good! Also, when he was a teenager, Travis released a white rap album. This was really, really bad.

But we're going back to 1987, when Vinton was the king of the world. And he had his own Christmas special.

Tonight's hosts, Rex and Herb, are two dinosaurs who previously appeared in a different Vinton short, where they were parodies of Siskel & Ebert. They're less so here, but keep the mannerisms more or less. Rex is obsessed with high-class sophistication, while Herb just likes what he likes (and he also likes to eat).

"Our first composition is We Three Kings, a beautiful melody composed in 18...57..." Rex stops himself because some third party is approaching the town square, singing an entirely different song.

"HERE WE GO A-WAFFLING ALONG THE LEAVES SO GREEN...." sing a wagon full of dogs carrying waffles. Herb starts licking his lips.
Rex steps in front of the wagon. "Pardon me, but you are making a lyrical ERROR! The keyword here is WASSLING, not WAFFLING."

"Well, uh....what the heck's 'wassling'?"
"Well, it's, uh, it's....." Rex changes the subject. "As I was saying, We Three Kings."

It turns out everything the public believes about the Three Wise Men is wrong. They weren't kings, records show no specified number of them, and they might not have even visited baby Christ until an entire year after His birth. Everything else was added later, 'cause it's just more romantic a notion for three ethnically diverse kings to visit the manger night-of. Vinton's addition to the Nativity, a trio of smooth-singing camels, never caught on, but maybe it should have.

"Hey Rex, what if 'wassle' is an old word that means 'waffle'? After all, what could be more Christmassy than a big stack of syrup-drenched waffles...."

"Hm, yes. The ringing of bells is a holdover from ancient midwinter traditions. When the nights got longer and colder, one way to drive off evil spirits was by making a lot of NOISE."
"And one way to make noise was by ringing a lot of BELLS!" Herb adds while jingling his own.
"Here, then, is Carol of the Bells."

This is most definitely Vinton-y if I ever saw it: here all the Bells in the chorus are alive and ring themselves with comical hammers. And their conductor is Quasimodo for unexplained reasons. One particular buck-toothed bell in the back is really bad at this. He loses his hammer and tries various substitutes. He's supposed to make the final chime of the song, but Quasimodo helps him out in the end by slingshotting a rock into his face.

As Rex and Herb are about to introduce the next song, they're interrupted by another group of carolers. This time it's geese, who think the word is "waddling." After sighing and facepalming (which Rex can do because he is an anatomically incorrect T-Rex), he introduces the "O Christmas Tree" sketch. It's the kind of thing that's hard to illustrate with screenshots, so I'll do it with text: there's a Christmas tree in a family's living room; the camera zooms into an ornament of a house, and into the window, where another family (this one made of gingerbread) is decorating their tree; zoom in on an ornament THERE to reveal another tree at Santa's workshop, with busy elves surrounding it...eventually they zoom in so far, into so many trees, that they go back to the first family again, creating an infinite loop.

Rex and Herb have brought out a dictionary to settle this.

"Wassle comes from the Anglo-Saxon wassail, which means 'be in health,' SO--"
Herb has already lost interest and starts in on the next song introduction ahead of him. "NEXT ON THE SHOW, my own favorite, INTERPRETIVE ICE BALLET! We are more than honored to have the primo ballerina, Demargo Pontoon, and her world-renowned partner, Rudolph Nervesonedge, interpret 'Angels We Have Heard On High'!"

They're two walruses, who skate around a pond as gracefully as their rotund bodies will allow, which is not very graceful at all. A gang of unfortunate penguins is frequently in their crossfire, and they never seem to notice. After Rudolph attempts his big finish by lifting Demargo into the air, they both sink into the lake...and then the penguins roll a giant boulder over the hole, then high-five. The celebration is short-lived as the boulder explodes and the walruses burst out for their final pose.

No sooner do Rex and Herb come back from break when the next group of carolers comes stampeding through: this time it's pigs, who think the lyrics are "HERE WE COME A-WALLOWING, A-WALLOWING SO FREE..." Herb dives right into this one. Rex just ignores hin and introduces the next song, "Joy To The World."

Now this is very cool: for a change of pace, the song is illustrated by oil paintings, not clay. 12 oil paintings a second, in fact. I appreciate the effort. It looks awesome.

It's disorder and chaos back at the town square, where everybody has their own definition of one particular carol and Rex is fretting, muttering "It's wassling, I know it's wassling." While he's deep in thought, Herb introduces the final song: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, sung by the California Raisins!

The Raisins were billed as the star attraction of this special in all the advertising. It was the first time they were ever going to be seen outside of a 30-second commercial and the first time they would have actual speaking lines. Naturally Vinton waited until the end to spring them on the audience, just to make sure they sat through the camel and walrus stuff he worked so hard on.

The Raisins have just finished a gig, but the last bus out of town just left, leaving the shriveled grapes stranded on the street. Vinton's crew had to think for a while on which song they should sing while waiting for transportation. It had to be bendable into a "soulful" version, and "Rudolph" seemed to fit. We never see them find a way out of the city, but...they're the Raisins, they can do anything.

Everything's gone wrong; Rex is sitting on a street corner depressed while pigs and geese cackle behind him. Then, suddenly, he hears one last row of carolers approaching....elves bringing cider, and miracle of miracles, they got the lyrics right!

"Do you know what wassle means?" Herb asks an elf with an Irish accent. (Irish? Are they leprechauns instead? My guess is they aren't, since there's no reason for that kind of creature to appear in a Chistmas special...)
"It means celebrating! Partying with your friends! Chowing down on waffles and cider!"

It turns out, in a way, Herb has been getting it right all along. "Now THAT I can get behind! LET'S WASSLE!!"

When the final break ends, the entire cast, walruses, camels and all have assembled in the town square. Rex thanks everyone for tuning in and Herb wishes all the viewers a merry Christmas. They take us out with a crowd-wide rendition of "HERE WE GO A-WASSLING....."

Why didn't it fit in?
It was a good night for premieres: Claymation Christmas Celebration aired December 21, 1987 right after A Garfield Christmas, which was also appearing for the first time. Don't forget there was NO computer assistance available in 1987 -- all the eye candy you see in these 23 minutes was painstakingly hand-crafted.

Does Mary Lou Retton like it?

Oh, good -- we finally found something she likes. Or maybe she's just amused right now by the light-up nose. Hard to tell.