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The Gift of "Knishmas": At Least It's Better Than Socks

After fifty years of Christmas specials (and forty years after the “Peanuts” gang gave them a definitive form), is it possible to make a holiday special that is fresh, unpredictable, and yet as inevitable in its meaning as the unavoidable fruitcake?

More to the point—because I’m egocentric this way—is it possible to review the modestly charming but rather dull Chowder holiday special without sounding like Scrooge?

The story in “Hey, Hey It’s Knishmas” doesn’t break any new ground, and probably no one would really want it to. Boy (in this case Chowder) wants an impossible-to-get present; adult figure (Mung Daal) sells his soul (or a symbol thereof) to get it; boy realizes the true meaning of the holiday but gets his heart’s desire anyway. This much is solid and right, and if it goes off with all the subtlety of a five-alarm blaze at a Christmas-tree lot, well, even the usually understated A Charlie Brown Christmas wasn’t above stopping things cold with a recitation from the Gospels.

Christmas stories are highly stylized, so once the creators have dutifully checked the box next to “captures the intent of the season,” there is little for them to do but try to present it entertainingly and with their own special twist.

Unfortunately, in “It’s Knishmas,” this seems to involve having most of the characters shout their dialogue at the top of their lungs. I’ve never watched Chowder before, so I can’t say if this one is par for the series. I will say that viewers who check out this special because they’ve finally tired of the Rankin-Bass and Grinch shows may wonder if everyone in Chowder’s home town is supposed to be hard of hearing. But these overemphatic performances are emblematic of much else that’s off-putting in the episode. The characters are each given a mallet and a one-note xylophone, and are asked to make music; it’s no surprise, then, that they can only play their parts by hitting their one note louder or loudlier. So Chowder, with his single-minded lust for an “electric broccoli trimmer with detachable non-electric cauliflower trimmer,” is like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, but shorn of the latter’s vivid imagination, mood swings, and revelatory side-adventures. Mung concentrates on fiddling with his “feckless” dial; Ms. Endive does the same with her “haughty” setting. Supporting characters contribute their own one-note themes, but they might as well be playing off-stage for all the attention anyone else pays to them. This is the kind of story where everyone talks but nobody really listens, and so they never break out of themselves; they play their notes, but they never harmonize. This takes all the air out of a story that is supposedly about shedding one’s selfish desires and doing something for others.

There are some witty lines, and even a sly subversion of the stated theme when Mung, in attempting to concede his errors, accidentally concludes that he got so caught up trying to do right by Chowder that he forgot to do right by himself. This would be a mordant moral to a story about a gift-giver who had wrecked himself and everyone around him in an attempt to fashion a happy holiday for everyone else. Here, though, it’s just another writerly conceit that goes completely unnoticed by the people he is supposed to be talking to.

The adventures and incidents themselves are also disappointingly pedestrian in their presentation. There is something larger-than-life about Christmas, no matter your age. For the child, it is the sense of anticipation, of dread; every moment and every incident and every action is fraught with implications for how it will effect Christmas morning. For the adult who takes gift-giving seriously, there is the desperation to give satisfaction, and the terror of causing disappointment. Even for those who reject Christmas and its contemporary trappings (whether out of religious or anti-religious beliefs), there is something about the season that is deranging; there is nothing like a crèche to drive a certain kind of atheist absolutely bonkers. But “Knishmas” mostly just wanders from plot point to plot point without giving these moments and their emotional meaning any visual oomph. There is one sequence in “Knishmas” when Mung has to take a humiliating trip to visit Ms. Endive, and, briefly, it feels like we’re going to get a powerfully illustrated moment of spiritual despair—a slog through the wet snow of personal failure. But it vanishes with a jokey, throwaway reference to It’s a Wonderful Life. If an animated special, especially one with the pleasantly off-kilter designs of Chowder, can’t make the trees seem taller, the snow drifts deeper, the shmingerbread houses more mouthwatering, or the blue tinge of a desolate Knishmas Eve night sadder, what is it for?

The show is very handsome with its storybook designs, though the characters’ expressions are resolutely nailed to their dialogue, so that even when they pull some clever takes it only has the effect of putting an exclamation point on what they are saying instead of adding a dimension or twist. There is some nicely effective and affecting use of color in the backgrounds, as with the muted blues and purples that, for a few seconds, close in on the despairing Mung. The special is also bookended by some wonderfully crackpot “3D” model work that lovingly tips its hat to Rankin-Bass.

I dislike muttering “Bah, humbug!” over an episode whose intent is plainly good-hearted, and whose sins are those of a lot of contemporary comedy writing (both in animation and live-action). There’s nothing cynical about “Hey, Hey It’s Knishmas,” but there’s nothing very special about it either. Chowder fans will likely take and enjoy what it serves up, but I don’t see it speaking to anyone else.

But probably that’s too much to ask of it. The Christmas theme has already received its classic expression in other animated specials, and so the Chowder special can be taken as just another ornament on an overloaded tree. As that, I suppose, it does just fine, and deserves our gratitude.

“Hey, Hey It’s Knishmas” airs on Cartoon Network on Thursday, December 4, at 8:00pm (ET/PT)

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