A Christmas Story (1972)

Not to be confused with the overrated 1983 movie of the same name, this 30-minute Hanna-Barbera special from 1972 tells the story of a dog and mouse attempting to deliver a boy's letter to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Like most Hanna-Barbera specials from this era, this has been mostly forgotten, which feels right to me. That's not to say it's particularly bad; it's just not particularly anything. It's relatively early, as far as Christmas specials go, so I assume it was a welcome deviation from the ones already in rotation. But fifty years later, it's not quite old enough to be "one of the first," so it's hard to overlook its shortcomings and aspects that aged poorly.

The one aspect I did find interesting was the voice cast. This features two voice actors from Disney's Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Paul Winchell and Hal Smith), and the father's voice is instantly recognizable as Dr. Benton Quest (Don Messick). The whole cast is comprised of famous voice actors from the era, and I had some fun trying to place them.

Let's get to the story. It opens with the father reading his son, Timmy, A Visit from Saint Nicholas on Christmas Eve while the family's dog, Goober, and a mouse named Gumdrop listen in. After the humans are asleep, Gumdrop finds Timmy's letter to Santa under a table. Reasoning it must have fallen off and becoming scared Timmy might stop believing in Santa if the matter isn't rectified, the two animals head out in search of the Jolly Old Elf. 

They're soon separated, and Gumdrop is surrounded by a street gang of cats who try and eat him. After a chase, he calls on Goober, who easily scares the cats away. To its credit, this sequence struck me as a little more menacing than I'd typically expect from this studio.

Back on the case, they spot Santa leaving one house but are too late to catch him. They head to another house where a bunch of kids live and try to get on the roof. Just before Santa arrives, Goober falls off the ladder and gets picked up by a friendly mailman who locks him in his truck before leaving to deliver last-minute packages. Gumdrop tries to get Goober out, but in the process they accidentally disengage the brake and crash the mail truck into a tree. I assume that guy's definitely losing his job, but it's all in the service of a greater cause: getting one kid's letter to Santa.

After a song about hope, the animals remember the Twilight Barking from 101 Dalmatians exists. Then Hanna-Barbera remembers Disney's lawyers exist, so they don't call it the Twilight Barking, despite being a virtual carbon copy. The only difference is it extends further than just dogs and incorporates all animals in town, including the cats who tried to eat Gumdrop. For what it's worth, I did chuckle when they showed all the animals casually breaking out of the pet shop to participate in the Santa-hunt.

Then there's a song about trying to determine which Santa is real among all the department store employees/charity collectors dressed as Saint Nick. It makes no sense in context, but a 30-minute runtime ain't going to kill itself.

One of the cats spots Santa's sleigh, and Gumdrop turns the letter into a paper airplane and throws it. It comes close, but winds up in a snowdrift as Santa flies away. Disheartened, the two animals retrieve the letter and return home. They fall asleep, and Santa shows up and finds the letter, because of course he does.

The next day, Timmy wakes up, and finds everything he asked for, including a racist-as-hell Indian headdress. He asks his parents if they asked for anything, and dad says, "Peace on Earth." They head to the window and see Santa fly away, as his sleigh writes in the sky, "Peace an Earth."

I'm assuming they meant "ON Earth," but either they chose a really bad font or there was some sort of typo at some stage, because it really, really looks like "Peace an Earth."

Let's talk animation. You can definitely spot elements indicative of Hanna-Barbera: characters and vehicles mostly change direction by running off screen then going back the other way, the gang of cats are stylistically similar to other characters they've made, and so on. It looks generally cheap and underwhelming. That said, because these aren't established characters, the animators aren't as beholden to existing models. They're free to experiment with a slightly wider variety of angles and scales than you typically see from the studio.

You also get a weird situation where the character designs are essentially a mix of various styles. The humans look more or less like what you'd expect to see in Johnny Quest, while some of the animals (the cats, in particular) look like something out of Tom and Jerry. The two main characters are harder to pin down - honestly, it almost looks like Hanna-Barbera was trying to ape Disney but didn't have the budget to pull it off.

The closest this has to a legacy comes in the form of its original songs, which the company would recycle in future Christmas specials. A Flintstones Christmas and Yogi's First Christmas aren't exactly classics, but I'm betting more people have seen those than this. As for the songs themselves, they're simplistic and childish, but it's not like I expected anything else.

This is one of those cases where the special's quality is secondary to its interest as an artifact. In the years following this, Hanna-Barbera would make numerous Christmas specials, but the vast majority revolved around existing IP. That makes this a bit of an anomaly, with the studio competing against Rudolph, Frosty, and Peanuts. It doesn't measure up, but I find the effort itself interesting.