Four animated holiday specials that debut this week play the traditional spirit of Christmas against the contemporary profit motive: They all center on license product characters. The better programs overcome their origins in merchandising to provide genuine entertainment; the worse ones are little more than thinly veiled commercials.
The best of the four is the charming "Santabear's High Flying Adventure" (CBS, Thursday at 8:30 p.m.). Santa Claus entrusts the pudgy little bruin with the special mission of delivering presents to the inhabitants of the South Pole. (They live too far from the North Pole to have much faith in Santa.)
There, Santabear meets Missy, an orphan aviatrix, who helps him overcome the schemes of the spiteful Bully Bear and fulfill his mission. Santa Claus adopts Missy, and all ends happily.
The excellent vocal performances provide a welcome relief from the shrill characterizations in many holiday cartoons. John Malkovitch is a wise, gentle Santa; Kelly McGillis makes Missy feminine without seeming weak or passive and jazz musician Bobby McFerrin deftly underplays as Santabear. Director Michael Sporn blends the sound and visuals skillfully and makes Santabear seem to come alive.
"Santabear's High Flying Adventure" should be a strong contender for an Emmy next year and deserves a regular place in CBS' holiday programming. Viewers would never guess that Santabear was a toy, created by the Dayton-Hudson department store chain.
"A Claymation Christmas Celebration" (CBS, tonight at 8:30 p.m.), showcases the amazing technical legerdemain of the Will Vinton studio, but suffers from weak writing. Herb and Rex, the clay dinosaur caricatures of Siskel and Ebert from "A Festival of Claymation," host this half-hour survey of popular Christmas carols.
The animators use streaks of colored clay on underlit plexiglass to create effects that resemble moving oil paintings and stained glass windows to "Joy to the World." The visuals are strikingly beautiful, but their effect is weakened by the jarring pseudo-Motown arrangement of the song.
A similar treatment of the chorus of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" (performed by a trio of hip camels) spoils the mood set by the handsomely sculpted kings. Naturally, the California Raisins (whose likeness now graces T-shirts and other products) are on hand, boogying their way through a soulful rendition of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Much of the humor in the various numbers is borrowed from other cartoons, and the labored banter between the hosts quickly wears thin. Vinton's artists deserve a vehicle more worthy of their talents.
Garfield, the most heavily merchandised cat in the world, vacillates between cynicism and maudlin sentimentality--for no apparent reason--in "A Garfield Christmas Special" (CBS, tonight at 8).
In one scene, he complains about having to go to the farm to spend the holiday with John's relatives; a few minutes later, he's envying the cats who've spent hours in grandma's lap. All the other characters behave with similar illogic, and the entire show seems pointless. When Garfield announces at the end, "Christmas: It's not the giving, it's not the getting; it's the loving," the viewer has no idea what brought him to that conclusion.
The blatant commercialism of "Candy Claus" (KHJ-TV Channel 9, Friday at 5 p.m.) is enough to provoke a "Bah, Humbug!" from Tiny Tim. This badly animated program amounts to little more than a 30-minute promotion for the Candy Claus character, a sort of Tundra Patch Kid, who also appears on T-shirts, bumper stickers and lollipops.
The American Lung Assn. has put her on its Christmas Seals for this year and 1988. A portion of all the merchandise sales is supposed to go to the association, although press releases fail to mention how large that portion is.
The plot of the special has holes you could fly a sleigh through. A well-intentioned family makes Candy and her brother as gifts for Santa Claus. When the doll arrives at the North Pole, she inexplicably comes to life. The brother is stolen by the nasty Ohno, who tries to sabotage Candy's relationship with Santa and his elves. The presence of this high-pitched villain in Santaville is also left unexplained.
When Candy learns from her wrist computer that Ohno has kidnaped (dollnaped?) her brother, she resolves to rescue him, and the program just stops. A sequel may be in the works for next Christmas, but Candy Claus will have been consigned to the rubbish heap of Forgotten Toy Crazes long before Santa returns.
Instead of using Christmas Seals and appearing to endorse the shoddy pandering of "Candy Claus," I'll decorate the envelopes of my holiday cards with a rubber stamp for the next two