In The New Christmas Canon, The A.V. Club looks beyond Rudolph’s nose and Zuzu’s petals to highlight entertainment from the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s that has become a seasonal staple—or deserves to.
What do we actually know about Santa Claus? Jolly dude, super-generous, likes reindeer. Runs a little elf commune up at the North Pole. That’s about all that’s stayed consistent across most of the Santa sagas—or at least the ones originating in the United States. The rest of the mythology has been built up piecemeal: one song, one bedtime story, and one TV special at a time. Not all of those attempts to pad out the Claus-ography have stuck.
Disney’s Prep & Landing cartoons have hung around though, becoming the rare 21st-century Christmas specials that have spawned sequels and ancillary merchandise, while remaining popular enough to merit an annual network rebroadcast. (This year’s is happening on Thursday December 17, on ABC.) A cynic could say that P&L has benefited from multiple not-so-great trends in the television business, from synergistic corporate partnerships—like the one between Disney and ABC—to the explosion of channels needing any kind of holiday programming to draw a few extra eyeballs. But that’d be unfair to the whole Prep & Landing experience, which Disney has crafted with care and ABC has treated as a genuine yearly event, akin to A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Besides, discounting the success of the specials means ignore the public’s enduring fascination with the secret world of Santa.
When Prep & Landing debuted on December 8, 2009, it was an unexpected treat: a computer-animated cartoon with the snap and polish of Disney’s best, overseen by Pixar guru John Lasseter and written and directed by studio stalwarts Kevin Deters (who’d been kicking around since 1998’s Mulan) and Stevie Wermers-Skelton (who got her first credit on 1995’s Pocahontas). Originally conceived as a short by Bolt co-director Chris Williams, the project was expanded into a special, in part to compete with DreamWorks Animation’s profitable conversions of its theatrical properties into Christmas cash. Prep & Landing though doesn’t have the mercenary undertones of Shrek The Halls or Merry Madagascar. It’s more original, more imaginative, and more heartfelt.
A lot of the credit for the success of the special belongs to actor Dave Foley, whose voice work as Wayne the elf encapsulates much of what Prep & Landing is all about. The story begins with Wayne expecting a promotion to a cushy North Pole desk job, after years of working on the front-lines as one of the elves assigned to make sure that children are sleeping and their houses secure before the big guy arrives. When he doesn’t get the plum gig—and instead gets stuck with a goofy, over-eager new partner, Lanny (Derek Richardson)—Wayne slacks his way through Christmas Eve, until he realizes that his petty rebellions may end up costing a kid his presents. Over the course of 22 minutes, the character evolves from smug to pouty to desperate (and then, finally, courageous), and Foley covers all of those bases well, making Wayne come across as selfish but sympathetic.
The actor pulls off the same trick in 2011’s sequel Prep & Landing: Naughty Vs. Nice, which starts with Wayne expecting to save Christmas again (and thus get named “Elf Of The Year”) before finding out that he and Lanny are going to have to share their mission with a big, brash “coal elf” named Noel—who happens to be Wayne’s estranged younger brother. Rob Riggle voices Noel, in a performance that initially comes across a little too much like Disney’s attempt to tap into the audience that loves the redneck tow-truck “Mater,” from Pixar’s Cars. But as the caper goes awry, and Wayne and Noel have to work together, the contrasts and complements between white collar and blue collar begin to make a lot more sense.
Naughty Vs. Nice isn’t as good as Prep & Landing, mainly because it does feel a little more calculated. There’s an inevitability about it, as there is to most sequels. It repeats, by rote, a lot of what had worked the first time around: opening with a classic carol before abruptly cutting it off; introducing an arcane subdivision of Santa’s massive operation; building to an action-packed set-piece, pumped-up by Michael Giacchino’s score; and so on. Deters and Wermers-Skelton returned as a writing-directing team, but seemed to be working under a corporate directive not to innovate too much. (Naughty Vs. Nice isn’t the Toy Story 2 to Prep & Landing’s Toy Story, in another words.)
What Naughty Vs. Nice does have going for it is an extension of the world-building in the first special. The sequel shows more of life at the North Pole, from the grubby cocoa bars to the system of aerial tramways that carry elves from place to place. There’s even a brief glimpse of a children’s TV show and comic book series that Wayne and Noel used to enjoy as kids (Captain Avalanche And Snowball!), introducing the tantalizing prospect that the North Pole has its own thriving entertainment industry, kept hidden from we mortals.
As pieces of storytelling, what mainly distinguishes the two Prep & Landing specials from the Christmas competition is that they’re fast-paced and funny, with Mission: Impossible-inspired operations that spin out of control entertainingly. Deters and Wermers-Skelton largely avoid the treacly qualities of most holiday programming and instead aim for something that’s genuinely exciting—like the climactic, literally cliffhanging sled sequence of How The Grinch Stole Christmas extended to double- or triple-length.
But the reason why Prep & Landing has inspired toys and comics and spin-off shorts—not to mention another sequel reportedly in the works—is that it creates such a full universe, with gadgets and rituals and slang and colorful characters like the officious Magee and her tiny assistant, Tiny. The North Pole in the P&L franchise is a fun place to visit, more than it is in Rudolph or Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town or The Year Without A Santa Claus.
Still, the very existence of those other specials—not to mention movies like Arthur Christmas, The Santa Clause, Elf, Fred Claus, and so many others—speaks to some deep-seated need to know more about Kris Kringle’s daily life. Again, it’s possible to take a cynical view on this, and say that Santa stories proliferate because they’re soft, non-denominational fantasies, capitalizing on “the Christmas spirit” without alienating the less religious. But maybe the real appeal here is born of the naive, childlike hope that we can keep the fun of yuletide anticipation alive for more than just a few days out of the year.
Confine the story of Santa to a one-night event, and it’s all over too fast. But imagine a year-round organization of observers and manufacturers—all living their own complicated lives, marked by petty jealousies and simple dreams—and suddenly Christmas sprawls out. Way up north—even in March and April—Wayne, Lanny, Noel, Magee, Tiny, and Santa are hard at work, thinking about us during the months when we’ve forgotten about them.