The Christmas Raccoons (1980)

Animated Christmas specials serving as stealth pilots is something of a tradition in its own right. The most successful example, of course, was The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, but a number of other properties attempted to use the format, as well, including the one we're looking at today. Astonishingly, this one seems to have been successful, as it spawned a number of additional specials and eventually a series that lasted for five years.

Lindsay grew up watching said series - I did not. She assures me that the kids who appear in the frame story of this special would be dropped pretty fast, with the world defaulting to one entirely occupied by anthropomorphic animals. That premise does sound at least marginally better than what we just watched.

Let's start there. We're introduced to a park ranger, his two kids, and their dog, Schaeffer. The forest they're living in (and that the ranger is looking after) is being mysteriously cut down, so he goes to investigate while the kids go to sleep. It's the evening of December 23rd, incidentally.

This kicks off a dream sequence that comprises almost the entirety of the special. Also, it's definitely really happening. But also it's definitely not. This isn't ambiguous or unclear - both these contradictory facts are confirmed true at the end. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First we need to talk about the raccoons and aardvarks.

The raccoons first, since they're the protagonists. I should probably be capitalizing "Raccoons," since it seems to be their family name. But also they're raccoons. Their names are Ralph, Melissa, and Burt. Ralph and Melissa are married; Burt is crashing on their couch.

Anthropomorphic raccoons, to be specific. And they live in a tree that gets cut down by greedy mill owner named Cyril Sneer, a similarly anthropomorphic aardvark smoking a cigar. Also worth noting is Cyril's college-educated son, Cedric, who does his father's bidding but spends the whole special trying to convince him to switch to legal, sustainable practices.

Before long, they cut down the Raccoons' home, but fail to collect it when dragging away the other trees they've illegally harvested. The kids and their dog meanwhile come across the downed tree and take it home as a Christmas tree. The Raccoons see them, mistake them for the ones cutting down the forest, and follow them home in order to steal back their Christmas stockings from the full-sized apartment hidden inside the tree.

The kids head to town, leaving their dog to guard the house while the Raccoons break in. The dog chases them outside, over a frozen river, and eventually they all stumble upon the mill.  Schaeffer, who hasn't spoken up until this point, reveals he actually can speak, and the Raccoons quickly explain the confusion. Schaeffer and the Raccoons apologize for the misunderstanding and become friends. They then look in the window and spy on Cyril and Cedric, and learn the former intends to cut down every tree in the forest.

They then wait for him to come outside, jump him, beat him up, and - with the surprise help of his son's college education - convince him to adopt sustainable forestry practices that will net him higher profits in the long term.

No, for real, that's what happens. It's like they just forgot to make a third act.

Okay, there is sort of a third act, because we still haven't dealt with the Raccoons being homeless and sad at Christmas. Cue the pop ballad montage (not the first in the special, I'll add), as they follow Schaeffer to his cabin. They wait outside while he goes in. The kids locate the Raccoons' stockings, Schaeffer takes them to the window and shows them the animals in the snow, and the kids deduce the rest.

I was a little surprised they didn't have the kids invite the Raccoons to stay in their Christmas tree, but I guess the writers decided that would be too unrealistic. Instead, they went with the equally unrealistic ending of having the kids promise their father will find a new home for the Raccoons.

Only that can't happen, because the kids wake up first - this is all a dream, after all. Only they had the same dream, and when they ask their dad about the mysterious tree thefts, he reveals that it all stopped and replacement saplings were planted overnight.

Also the kids look outside, and the three anthropomorphic Raccoons are there. The narrator (voiced by Rich Little) then informs us that the forest will never be in danger again, because it's under the protection of three raccoons and a dog, which... I mean... I'm not feeling entirely convinced here.

The story is a mess, of course - I can't begin to convey how bizarre it was to see the heroes jump the villain a minute after learning of his existence and coerce him to reverse course two-thirds of the way through the special. I wouldn't call the pacing or structure inspired prior to that point, but I'm having a hard time thinking of another example where a story was derailed to this extent.

Likewise, the starting premise was clearly a work in progress. As I said earlier, this would be heavily reworked as the series was being produced, but at this point the tonal imbalance is glaring. The human characters are fairly grounded, while the animals feel like they're operating in a different universe. The attempt to bridge the gap through the prism of a dream fell flat, as well.

The good news is there are a couple areas where this fares quite a bit better, starting with the animation. There are some intricate sequences, involving elaborate, fluid character designs. There are also a couple sequences involving an illusion of three-dimensional movement through a landscape. For the time, both techniques were pretty unusual - this is the era of Hanna-Barbera, after all. The special also utilized several shortcuts, but the fact any scenes were more advanced is impressive.

The music also deserves praise. This features original songs by Rita Coolidge and Rupert Holmes, both of whom also voice characters in the specials. '70s pop isn't exactly my favorite musical genre, but it's clear these are a lot better than what you'd expect.

Thematically, the environmental and anti-capitalist message is undercut by the insistence that law-abiding forestry is fundamentally good. My suspicion is this was something the producers demanded in an attempt to avoid offending conservatives - it feels tacked on. I should also note the practice of creating entertainment with any environmental message was a fairly new phenomenon when this came out, so my criticism should be taken with a grain of salt. But regardless of how it was intended or even received in 1980, at this point, the themes come off as muddled.

Like a lot of what we dig up, this one's more interesting as an artifact of its time than a story in its own right. Unless you grew up with this, there's no real reason to track it down. If you did watch this as a kid and want to revisit it, the special is pretty easy to find online.