Shortly, I am due one of my annual traditions; to watch my favourite Christmas Special. Now, you would be right in thinking ‘oh you’re about to watch Muppets Christmas Carol?’ Sadly, I have a loophole, so there might be a slight conflict. Muppets Christmas Carol is easily my favourite Christmas movie, but my favourite special is Olive, the Other Reindeer. It’s based on a children’s book of the same name by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, and it is a wonderous and vastly unrated adventure, and all of what I’m about to describe and explore takes place within 45 minutes of joy.
Produced by Matt Greoning and broadcast in 1999, it is a one-off… err… special, not film, (okay its a film), about a dog called Olive who mishears a radio broadcast from Santa and decides that her canaine identity crisis can be ended if she joins him to save Christmas, as Olive, the other reindeer (Santa’s broadcast is actually about Blitzen being in an accident and pondering whether they ‘can make do with all of the other reindeer’). Along the way, Olive, voiced by Drew Barrymore, must stop an evil (unnamed) postman, voiced by Dan Castellaneta, from stopping Christmas. She is assisted by a penguin con-artist, Martini, voiced by Joe Pantoliano, and Edward Answer (the same one from Up!) is Santa.
Has that plot outline not sold it to you?
1999 is when the film debuted and I remember my sisters and I catching it in probably 2001, and a year later, we made sure to videotape it. I think it was 2006 when we found a functional real-life DVD version of it. It’s a rarity and its broadcasts are sporadic. For last few years, Channel 4 shoved it on early in the morning.
It might be dated, but the special deserves a lot of love.
The animation in the special is truly unique. It features papercut-like characters interacting in a 3D environment. It is used to great effect, for example, in a highway chase scene involving a paper airplane as a weapon, the three dimensions of the world that is explored and its limits are pushed. The characters are colourful and gleeful.
Before I get onto praising the extremely sharp script, I should probably explain that the entire thing is part-musical. The musical numbers are joyous and downright all over the place. Drew Barrymore is good, but the ensemble casts in the reindeer’s song and the bar fight song really bring the thing to life without the special ever getting overly cutesy or over the top in its sentimentality for simple Christmas wishes of love, effort and rewards. It even has Michael Stripe from R.E.M as an alcoholic reindeer. Dan Castelleneta’s singing is reminiscent of the Robot Devil from Futurama which is definitely good news.
Maybe the special’s failings are a result of the script being more like Futurama than The Simpsons. We all know which of those has lasted longer, and its fair to say that Futurama‘s intelligent and thinking-man approach lost in the ratings to the quick-fire toilet humour from Family Guy. There is a wonderful fusion of content and context, as the animation leads to clever Matt Greoning esque background gags. In the opening number, behold an impossible tree. The bus station scene’s easter eggs are downright weird. Martini appears to be trying to behave like a satirist against the evils of Zoos. Olive is rescued at one point by Dues Ex Machina. Literally. The jokes might not make you bellow laughter but they come fast and thick, with layers and there’s several layers to unwrap and enjoy.
Maybe we aren’t good enough for Olive the Other Reindeer and that’s why it’s in bargain bins in Mattalan rather than sitting proudly alongside repeats of various incarnations of A Christmas Carol (and let’s face it, there’s only one of those that matters). The Christmas propaganda Olive the Other Reindeer throws at you is about the importance of earning your presents, and earning the respect of those around you. Its about giving and sharing, not about receiving, and saving Christmas is merely a matter of goodwill. I won’t spoil too much of it, as there’s so much to enjoy and I assure you, 15 years on, it definitely has replay value and I hope it becomes retro really soon so that it can do better than a random Saturday afternoon E4 repeat. There is wit, love, and not a condescending beat in the whole film and if you don’t get some of the gags, well don’t worry, they’ve cancelled Futurama a few times as well and keep mind-numbing Family Guy repeats going to balance out the universe in your favour. At least it has outlasted the hideous films depicting Rudolph, and Robbie the Reindeer just does not stand the test of time.
For reasons such as disagreeing with video piracy, I won’t link you to it, but you can find the whole thing on YouTube, so delight yourself with it and rediscover the meaning of Christmas from a more anarchic and paper-cut array of characters…