Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
Christmas stories have been told and adapted for many generations. We are familiar with tales of the birth of the Messiah, the dark yet emotional life story of a selfish man, and countless legends about iconic and beloved characters to this very day. Every now and then, we get a refreshing story that would evolve into classics: a man witnessing a life where he was never born, a grouchy hermit stealing Christmas, and a simple but troubling life of a boy who wants a BB gun. With the animation medium, there are bountiful and creative possibilities with these types of stories. Stop-motion specials have been a prime example, such as Rankin-Bass and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, during the middle of the 1990s, computer animation was becoming experimental and Toy Story made history as the first full-length computer animated feature. Two years later, a children’s illustration book called Olive, the Other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh was published. Two more years later, an animation television special based on the same book premiered on FOX and later aired annually on Cartoon Network. Technically speaking, this is the first computer-animated Christmas special and it made quite an impact.
On the surface, this special seems to be your average family adaptation. But upon discovery, the special was produced by Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and the new at-the-time Futurama. The special had some recognizable names, including Drew Barrymore, who was also an executive producer. What made Olive, the Other Reindeer unique among other Christmas specials?
After one of Santa (voiced by Ed Asner)’s reindeer was injured, a Christmas-loving dog (voiced by Drew Barrymore) is determined to save Christmas as Santa’s “new reindeer.”
With hearing a synopsis like that, this story would sound very ridiculous. “An average everyday dog mishearing and believing that she could help pull Santa’s sleigh?” Most people would easily get turned off after listening to this malarkey. However, in terms of execution, the story unpredictably works, thanks to the concept and captivating characters. For those that are unfamiliar with the book, Olive, the Other Reindeer would be characterized as a “satire” of Christmas tales with puns, word play, and misinterpretations based on phrases from poems and songs. In fact, “Olive, the Other Reindeer” is based on the lyric “all of the other reindeer” from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” There are also a couple of characters’ names based on phrases and lyrics: Richard Stans (“which it stands” from the Pledge of Allegiance) and Round John Virgin (“Round yon virgin” from “Silent Night”). So, in other words, the special itself is self-aware how silly this concept is, yet it works very effectively. Even the world-building is fascinating on how animals function and socialize with humans like semi-citizens, even there are some that want animals to act like animals. It is highly evident with Matt Groening’s involvement since his projects were well-known for lampooning society. Of course, the special also supplies the heart when it all leads to a positive message about believing yourself and anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
Since Matt Groening is attached, many wonder if the special is as funny as it sounds. Besides the self-awareness, most of the humor relies on the dialogue, such as one-liners, which are genuinely funny. My personal favorite is Olive getting free by “deus ex machina.” There are some minor slapstick moments but they are simple and toned down into the “harmless” category.
Immediately as the special begins, the art direction is visually spectacular like no other animated special during that decade. The medium used for the special is definitely computer animation provided by Groening’s The Curiosity Company and D.N.A. Productions. For the latter, that animation studio would later produce animation for Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Starting with the characters designs, they remain accurate to the works of the book’s illustrator J Otto Seibold, where both human and animal characters have a simple yet abstract look. Many ponder how is it computer animation where the backgrounds are 3D while the characters themselves look 2D? The answer is quite innovative. The character models are flat 3D models that give the illusion of a 2D paper-like appearance. Even their movements are very similar to how traditional animation is made. There will be moments where the character models would look completely 3-D. The most noticeable example is the scene where Olive, Santa and his reindeer prepare their take-off from the North Pole. Actually, the special also provided some traditional animation, but it occurs in the don’t-blink-you-can’t-miss-it moments.
The backgrounds are fascinatingly immersive throughout the special. The city where Olive lives may be basic, but there are a couple of stand-out locations. Olive’s doghouse is small, but nicely decorated like an average human home. The city zoo is strange yet intriguing with each sign of the exhibit is the sound that the animal makes rather than the animal‘s name itself (i.e. “ribbit” – frog exhibit, “ook-ook” – monkey cage). Once you head to the bus station, the journey to the North Pole looks and feels very authentic. If you make a pit stop, you would eat at the Arctic Junction diner or grab a drink at the Top of the World Bar. Just be careful when socializing with the bar patrons there. They may act rough, but they are actually nice once you get to know them. Even the North Pole itself has some creative liberties where the workshop has an active security gate with alarm-protected fences, a wide stable and runway for takeoff. During the “Merry Christmas After All” number, we also get a montage of famous landmarks like the Vatican with the Pope and Toyko with Godzilla and Ultraman. Plus, keep on a look-out for some destination signs in some background scenes that are so humorous, it adds subtlety to the special.
Besides the self-awareness and visuals, the characters themselves also bring compassion into the special itself. Olive is a naïve yet kind-hearted dog with a huge love of Christmas and determination whenever the situation gets dire. She lives with her concerning yet loving owner Tim and pet flea Fido. Martini is a con-artist penguin with a knack for selling counterfeit watches, but has a heart of gold every time danger is afoot. Richard Stans is the friendly and supportive bus driver. Santa Claus is the holly-jolly icon that many would expect. Comet is the skeptical yet loyal reindeer of Santa’s team. The flightless reindeer Schnitzel and bar owner Round John Virgin are the rowdy yet kind bar patrons. Did I forget to mention that Round John wanted a cordless, electric drill from Santa? And then, we have the main antagonist The Postman. He is a frustrated mail deliverer who plots to cancel Christmas after years of delivering around the holiday season. He is also grounded on reality and goes to extreme lengths to stop Olive’s journey. Rather be kidnapping her or switching all the toys from Santa’s sleigh with junk mail and fake angry letters from children, including one appropriate insult that a mean child would say to Santa. Again, subtle.
The voice acting is the key into strengthening these characters. Drew Barrymore’s voice is the sweetest you’ll ever hear and definitely knows how to bring out her inner-dog since she had a few of them at the time. Joe Pantoliano’s sarcastic and witty delivery helps make Martini a likable character. Ed Asner is a great choice of voicing Santa Claus. In fact, this won’t be the only time you’ll hear him as Saint Nick since he later plays Santa again in the 2003 film Elf. Some of the voice cast is veteran voice actors that are staples of Matt Groening’s works: Dan Castellaneta, Tress MacNeille and Billy West. Castellaneta stands out from the crowd as The Postman and gives out big laughs every time he gets angry and peeved after his attempts fail. We even get a cameo from Groening himself as an elf named Arturo that Olive accidentally bumps into.
As traditional as it sounds, the special is also considered a musical and it is comprised of four songs. Fresh off his work from Futurama, Christopher Tyng composed the musical score that breathes out a jovial atmosphere. In addition to writing the screenplay, Steve Young also wrote the songs that positively fit the purpose of a musical. “The Days Still Remaining 'Til Christmas” is a great first-impression of a number introducing Olive and her love for each holiday. “Christmas (Bah, Bug and Hum)” is a humorous yet cleverly written villain song that displays The Postman’s growing hatred for delivering mail to Santa. “We’re Not So Bad” performed by Michael Stipe of R.E.M. clearly highlights the moral of “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Finally, “Merry Christmas After All” is the best and most catchy song for its joyful, energetic music and vocals provided by both Barrymore and band Big Bad VooDoo Daddy. The musical number itself visually presents an entertaining montage trip around the world with the accompanied music. These songs alone are worth listening.
Overall, Olive, the Other Reindeer is an artistically and talented adaptation of a book turned holiday classic. At first, this story would sound meaningless to be taken seriously. In terms of execution however, it is a charming Christmas tale with a sensible nature, smartly crafted visuals, friendly characters, outstanding voice work, and unforgettable songs. This special is a must-watch for Matt Groening fans, animation fans, fans of the book and families that enjoy Christmas specials. Although, there are no plans for a follow-up or standalone specials, Olive will be the underdog that will go down in history.