It's A Spongebob Christmas! (2012)
For those of us with wicked cool parents, Ray Harryhausen’s jaw-dropping work on Clash of the Titans (1981) was probably our first introduction to the magic of stop-motion animation. For an older generation, particularly a wide range of filmmakers, Willis O’Brien’s King Kong was the gateway drug of choice for the artistry of the simple, yet complex act of moving an inanimate object frame by frame to mimic movement. Many artists came before and after, including George Pal, Jan Svankmejer, and the crack team behind Robot Chicken, but Harryhausen often stands above the rest thanks to his innovative techniques and wonderful creations, such as the skeletons and Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts and the Cyclops in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Stop-motion animation wasn’t confined to the big screen. In fact, one of the most popular and enduring Christmas specials of all time is the Rankin/Bass production of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Beautiful to look at and singularly bizarre, it’s frustrating since a more cynical generation, myself included, have deemed it ridiculous that Rudolph would be willing to help Santa and the other reindeer after they ridiculed and ostracized him. The program has been highly influential, inspiring countless other shows to mimic its look, both intentionally and unintentionally, while even providing SNL with a fabulous sketch in which Sam the Snowman quits narrating and visits Ground Zero in New York: “My left nutsack’s more talented than Jerry Stiller.”
When children tuned in to CBS on November 3rd, 2012, the home of Rudolph and the equally important Frosty the Snowman, then later Nickelodeon on December 6, the traditional opening title sequence for It’s A SpongeBob Christmas! gives no indication of the wildly different style the late creator/executive producer (he technically wouldn’t rejoin the show until 2014), Stephen Hillenburg and his team had in store. Made to look intentionally cheap, the famous titles come up with hastily-inserted Christmas-themed touches, then we find ourselves in a Bikini Bottom we’ve never seen before.
The SpongeBob team hired Screen Novelties, whose credits include sequences on Family Guy, Robot Chicken, and Adventure Time, to bring the underwater community to life. Taking nearly five months to complete, the animators and sculptors worked diligently to create stop-motion versions of these world-famous characters that would work in a 3D environment but remain lovably 2D like their more traditional animated appearance. Like Rudolph, which Screen Novelties would work on the restoration of, It’s A Sponge Christmas is a musical. SpongeBob (Tom Kenny, one of the most important members of the Mr. Show ensemble), unsurprisingly, loves Christmas and naturally sings about it. Neighbor Squidward (Rodger Bumpass, Toxie on Toxic Avengers and Dr. Light on Teen Titans), also unsurprisingly, wants everyone to ‘GO AWAY,’ which he expresses through decorations. SpongeBob’s best friend Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke, Karl Metzger on Oz, Mamma Aiuto Gang member in Porco Rosso ‘English Version’) is busy setting a trap for Santa. Santa, incidentally, is terrifying to behold, seen looking over the town like a demonic puppet master and appearing to be old and piggish in appearance. Despite being voiced by the jolly John Goodman (one of the greatest character actors of all time, let’s say...C.H.U.D.), Santa is depicted as being tired and worn-out, with Bikini Bottom being the very last stop on his annual world-wide trip.
While Patrick wants to capture Santa to force him to make Christmas last all year, SpongeBob’s squirrel friend Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence, Jimmy Neutron, Moral Orel) is busy with her alchemy machine. Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown, another brilliant character actor. I’ll go with...Pet Sematary 2) is more interested in the ‘getting’ part of Christmas than the ‘giving.’ As expected, arch villain Plankton (writer Mr. Lawrence, Filburt on the classic Rocko’s Modern Life) gets nothing but coal for Christmas due to his constant pursuit of the Krabby Patty secret formula. This year, he’s got a plan, although he always has a plan and said plan always fails, but never mind.
Using an element I don’t recall from the Periodic Table, he imbues fruitcake, one of the most despised holiday treats but loved here in an ironic twist, with the element Jt, more commonly known as Jerktonium. He shreds the green Kryptonite-looking substance onto the fruitcake and heads out in a fruitcake mobile. Testing it out on SpongeBob, he’s dismayed to find it has no effect on him. He inquires: “How’s your dander? Is it up?” What’s terrifying about this scene is that we get to see SpongeBob’s tastebuds, represented by dozens of tiny lumps on his tongue, each with their own individual eyes and gaping mouths.
Plankton gives up and lets SpongeBob have the fruitcake mobile, which he happily uses to spread the tainted fruitcake all around town. Later, Sandy confirms that due to SpongeBob’s innocent heart, the effects of Jerktonium simply can’t penetrate SpongeBob’s overall positive outlook. However, everyone else who tastes the fruitcake does indeed become a jerk. Even the phony Santa at the Christmas parade informs a child: “Get a job and buy all that junk yourself!” Another citizen tells another to “Go stuff a stocking!” Sandy is “as ornery as a sidewinder on a driveway.”
Plankton, believing he’s failed, tells his appropriately-named computer Karen (Jill Talley, the MVP of Mr. Show) to bring out his “automated engine of naughtiness.” It’s a robotic SpongeBob, who looks very much like a robot, but somehow fools everyone into thinking that it’s the genuine article. It goes around town destroying everything left and right.
SpongBob realizes his song, “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas)” is an antidote to the Jerktonium and a big production number ensues. It’s wonderfully silly and inventive. Even after everyone is cured, Santa arrives and is just as surprised as everyone else when he finds they’ve all ended up on his naughty list. Everyone except Plankton, who is given the Krabby Patty secret recipe. The robot SpongeBob shows up to “destroy Santa,” and SpongeBob heroically climbs into the fruitcake mobile and pummels the robot with the Jerktonium-laced treats. “Hot from the oven, full of LOVE!” With the robot destroyed, Plankton tries to slink away, but he just has to label everything and they discover the toy key-style crank with his name on it. All’s well that ends well.
As a standalone episode, it’s a real joy to watch. The added bonus is the masterstroke of making it stop-motion, paying homage to the classic Rankin/Bass shows of the past. Both a critical and ratings hit, It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! continues to air every Christmas to the delight of both adults and their naïve little children, who’d better be cool with watching Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. I don’t care if it’s weird. You’ll watch it and like it because I said so!