(Editor’s note: This item dates to 2017. I’ve written an update to this post that reflects Will Vinton’s 2018 passing over this way.)
The strange thing about holiday classics, whether TV or film, is the way that they get drilled into the canon of nostalgia, a mush of themed entertainment along the lines of A Charlie Brown Christmas or A Christmas Story. These pieces of entertainment get repeated in part because we build memories around them. I wrote a piece about this phenomenon a couple of years ago.
But what happens if you create a piece of art that seems destined for the Christmas nostalgia ringer, and … for whatever reason, it just doesn’t happen?
That happens to a lot of content, of course, but it perhaps stings hardest in the case of Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration, a 24-minute showcase of how awesome Vinton was at molding clay into a holiday yarn. The special turns 30 this year, making now as good a time as ever to dig into the “why” of that question.
The special, featuring a series of vignettes built around Christmas carols that leaned closer to “merry Christmas” over “happy holidays,” highlights the brilliance that is Vinton’s fluid clay-driven animation style.
That style, better known as Claymation, was already award-winning and at the peak of its cultural currency—thanks in no small part to one of Vinton Studios’ greatest creations, The California Raisins, which were featured in the Christmas special. (The studio, smartly, minimized the use of the marquee stars, using the special as a showcase of its animation instead.)
In a 2011 A.V. Club review, reviewer Erik Adams noted that the special had a sense of “agelessness” to it that often did not define the work of Vinton’s studio as a whole.
“It may be a product of its time, produced by a studio that never really transcended its ties to one of the ’80s quickest (though bizarre) crazes, but A Claymation Christmas Celebration manages to tap into that quality multiple times during its runtime,” Adams writes.
The special, due to this agelessness, arguably should have gained status as a holiday mainstay, if not on its original channel CBS, then at least on cable. And it was successful enough that Vinton’s studio later created Halloween and Easter versions of the special.
But by the late 1990s, it disappeared from the channel cycle, never to repeat again. The special is on DVD, but it’s not available for streaming, unlike other notable specials of the era, like Christmas at Pee Wee’s Playhouse, which aired on CBS the next year and has gained currency as an impressive time capsule of major stars circa 1988.
So why not the California Raisins and the rest of the creations from Will Vinton’s studio? Part of the issue may be that Vinton Studios moved on, embracing CGI in part to keep up with the era’s trends. (Notably, the studio later came up with the 3D-rendered M&M mascots.)
Part of it may be the horrible, incredibly sad tale that took the studio from Vinton’s hands and put it in the hands of the son of Nike founder Phil Knight—and made Vinton’s share of the business basically worthless in the process. (The studio lives on under the name Laika, which is best known for the 2009 film Coraline, though it has no affiliation with Vinton at this juncture.)
Vinton, who at age 70 is still with us, is an unsung hero of animation, and one who may soon get a cultural reconsideration as the subject of a documentary currently in the works called Welcome To My Daydream, which was successfully funded on Kickstarter a few months ago.
But I think, before that documentary comes to life, we need to push to bring Vinton’s holiday specials to Netflix or Hulu, to give kids the chance to embrace them. Claymation deserves to be part of the holiday canon just as much as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.