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Disney's Prep & Landing

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Disney's Prep & Landing debuts tonight at 8:30 p.m. EDT on ABC.

The name above the title of the surprisingly charming new holiday special Prep & Landing is Disney, but the little things in the show all point the way toward the company's subsidiary, Pixar. Indeed, the half-hour special rather feels like the early Pixar - the one obsessed with the secret, behind-the-scenes working of imaginary worlds - made a movie about the North Pole, then somehow fit it into a half-hour time slot. To that end, some of it feels a little rushed, and some of the emotional core ends up aimed more at adults than kids, but it's still a fun special and a worthy follow-up to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which precedes it.

Prep & Landing takes as its central idea the thought that Santa has a team of elves who visit houses shortly before his arrival on Christmas Eve to make sure everything is in order. The children are all confirmed to be snug in their beds, the milk and cookies are given nutritional content analysis, and the dog - if awake - is neutralized. One of the top elves in this division is Wayne (voiced by a nicely laconic Dave Foley), who's been at this so long and done it so well that he treats a promotion as something he's assured of receiving. Naturally, of course, he doesn't receive said promotion, and when Christmas Eve rolls around the next year, he's back on the prep and landing team, where he's paired with Lanny (Derek Richardson), who was top of his class at the Kringle Academy. Sadly, it wasn't a very bright class, and Lanny's kind of a dolt. Will this unlikely couple come through for little Timmy and get everything ready for Santa's arrival? Or will Wayne let his career anxieties get in the way of feeling the Christmas spirit?

Now, you can probably answer that question just from having seen any other Christmas special ever. And it feels a little weird that in an attempt to make a holiday special ostensibly aimed at kids, the Disney folks decided to focus their storyline on an elf who feels trapped in a go-nowhere career. While kids' entertainment that also speaks to adults on a whole different level is ideal and admirable, usually it has some level where it speaks to the kids as well. It's just hard to see a lot of kids really getting Wayne's sadness over the fact that he's not getting the job of his dreams and is, instead, forced to work at a job he no longer really likes for yet another year. (Though, to be honest, I'd be perfectly fine with working the one day per year. I'd be more than happy to send Santa a resume, if he's hiring.) So when this special is regarded in terms of its emotional content, it probably comes up just a little lacking, particularly for kids, I'd imagine.

Emotional content, however, ends up being mostly beside the point. Pixar chief John Lasseter, who now heads up most creative projects at Disney proper, was one of the driving inspirations behind this special, and it shows. Lasseter was the primary creative force behind Pixar for many years, and the first four Pixar films - two Toy Storys, A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc. - all have the same fascination with secret sub-societies beneath our society. The toys live in a bedroom that's much like a workplace, the bugs have to deal with constant agrarian impulses, and the monsters are constantly trying to cut their way through red tape. In all of these films, the emotional content is still pitched at kids, but the element of satire in how the films portray the worlds is very much for their parents.

It's the same here, as the team behind the creation of the special (which, again, was based entirely at Disney) finds ways of enlivening the old cliches about how the North Pole really works. Central command elf Magee (Sarah Chalke) is more like a high-wired air traffic controller than anything else, while the reindeer are goofy jocks who just love to hit the air (and, for that matter, have a secret cousin reindeer, who's big and mean and takes the prep and landing people everywhere). Half the fun of this special is seeing the way Disney uses the high-tech iconography of the spy movie in the context of the fairly rote holiday special. Sure, this is the same old story about rediscovering the Christmas spirit after you've lost it, but when all of the characters are carrying around little remote sensors made out of gingerbread men, it makes the edges of the special more appealing to look at than they normally would be. That attention to detail is a hallmark of the films Lasseter produces, and it's nice to see it lurking in every frame here. (Also nice? When the elves get hit in the head, they see little Christmas lights floating around their noggins. If you don't like that, then this may not be for you.)

The voice cast is also nicely deployed. Foley and Chalke are the only "stars" here, notable in an age where it seems like every new holiday special features a gamut of celebrity voices. (Even CBS' new entry in the Christmas special sweepstakes - Friday's Yes, Virginia - has Jennifer Love Hewitt in it.) Foley does his usual riff on the everyman stuck in a world that doesn't understand his value, while Chalke plays type-A personality well, and both end up making their characters a lot of fun, nicely delineating them in the short amount of time they have. But all of the other voices are well chosen, too, from the little-known Richardson doing a nice dumb guy voice as Lanny to William Morgan Sheppard turning in a nicely dignified performance as Santa, who makes perfect sense as a Brit. The voices work because they're cast for their performance ability, not for how easy it is to recognize them.

There are a surprising number of new Christmas specials on TV this year, from this to NBC's Merry Madagascar to the aforementioned Yes, Virginia. While none of them is an all-time classic, this is the one that stands the best shot at still being shown on some obscure cable channel decades from now, and it's the one that's most worth your time if you have kids who are getting hyped up for the big day or if you're just an aficionado of the form (as I am). Prep & Landing isn't perfect, but it succeeds where it most counts: in getting kids even more excited for the big day.

Stray observations:

  • Also nice is that the special isn't a de facto toy commercial. The presents the kids get are nicely generic, like a ball or a bike. That should also improve the special's timelessness.
  • Another hallmark of Pixar production design that makes its way over here: the use of mid-20th century American iconography. The North Pole is sleekly modern, but it's also filled with promotional posters that wouldn't be out of place in a World War II era propaganda film.
  • Finally, I thought I was only imagining things with the oddly sexual placement of Magee's helper elf, Tiny (and, indeed, this is something no one under the age of 16 would ever pick up on ever), but then the special helpfully confirmed that, yeah, my suspicions were founded. Thanks, special.

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