Like tinsel and stale candy canes, animated specials have become a seasonal tradition. Three bland new programs with holiday themes air Sunday (with four more scheduled for the coming weeks). Sunday's three--" 'Tis the Season to Be Smurfy," "A Mouse, A Mystery and Me" and "The Little Troll Prince"--offer little in the way of originality.
"'Tis the Season to Be Smurfy" on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39 at 7 p.m. Sunday) is a standard holiday cartoon special. The little blue men are too busy preparing a celebration of their own to help Grandpapa Smurf and Sassette save the despondent wife of a poor old toy maker.
Wise Papa Smurf chastises the selfish group for ignoring the needs of the less fortunate. The whole gang surprises the old couple with a tree, decorations, presents, etc.--and teaches a pickpocket the error of his ways.
Only the holiday setting distinguishes " 'Tis the Season" from an episode of the Smurfs' Saturday morning show. Like a party with packaged cookies and commercial eggnog, it's hardly an experience to savor.
"A Mouse, a Mystery and Me," which follows the Smurfs on NBC Sunday at 7:30 p.m., has a clever premise: Teen-ager Jill Roberts (Darcy Marta) writes popular mystery stories with the help of an animated mouse named Alex (voice by Donald O'Connor). Naturally, people assume she can solve mysteries in real life, and the pair are soon on the trail of a kidnaped department store Santa Claus (Dick Van Patten).
As Alex can check for clues without being seen, he makes a valuable assistant detective. But Jill is no Nancy Drew. She gets locked in the store vault on Christmas Eve, and Alex has to extricate her and the missing Santa.
Director Randy Bradshaw paces "A Mouse" badly, and the mystery ends before it really begins--and before any suspense can build. Instead of showing the audience what's happening, he has the characters talk about what's already happened. And the surprise arrival of a lonely little boy's daddy comes across as a heavy-handed attempt to provide a "heart-warming," ending.
The animation, by Ruby-Spears, is adequate, but the artists had trouble matching the cartoon character to the live-action setting. Alex seems to slide on the level surface of a desk top instead of standing still.
" 'Tis the Season" and "A Mouse" reduce Christmas to a warmly secular holiday run by a jolly fat man. "The Little Troll Prince" (airing at 8 a.m. Sunday on KCOP Channel 13), which was produced in conjunction with the International Lutheran Laymen's League, emphasizes the religious aspect of Christmas, but it does so very clumsily.
To the horror of his nasty, godless fellow-trolls, Prince Bu tries to be nice. When his mean brothers lure him to the human village, Bu is converted to Christianity by two small girls (who just happen to use tiny, troll-size Bibles as Christmas tree ornaments). Bu loses his large ears, big nose and tail, and becomes a vapidly cute little gnome.
Since Bu was a wimpy, goody-two-paws before he got religion, his conversion doesn't seem like much of a revelation. The equation of Christianity (and virtue) with physical beauty seems to controvert the real message of Christmas. The evil trolls are ugly; the Christian girls and their parents are pretty. It's not enough for Bu to be transformed internally by God's love, he also has to become cute--a dubious lesson to offer children.
Parents in search of truly special holiday cartoons should stop by their local video store for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (both of which are on CBS tonight from 8-9, incidentally) or "Ziggy's Gift."