Madison Avenue creates much of our folklore now: the fat ol' boys of Bartles & Jaymes, the brew-swilling Spuds of Budweiser beer and, of course, the California Raisins of California Raisins. Perhaps all will get their own TV specials in time, but the Raisins did it first. "A Claymation Christmas Celebration" airs at 8:30 tonight on Channel 9.
Those cool and groovy little fruits don't actually appear until what might be called the finale of the CBS special. They sing and dance to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Having completed this task, one member says to the rest of the group, "Excellent gig, guys."
There aren't as many of them as one sees in the now-famous raisin commercials, the ones in which they sing "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Deraisination has set in. The reason is perhaps that budgets for 30-second commercials are proportionately enormous, whereas budgets for the TV shows they interrupt are less lavish.
"A Claymation Christmas Celebration" celebrates Claymation more than it does Christmas. Will Vinton, who produced and directed, perfected the process in which clay figures are animated through stop-motion photography, an update of work done by such pioneers as the late George Pal.
And indeed, in terms of craftsmanship, the special offers much to admire, not only in the ingenious workings of the models but also during interludes of more traditional animation. But the commercial origins of the work show through -- the raisin d'e~tre, as it were. The little creatures may have soul, after a fashion, but they don't have heart.
None of the vignettes strung together for the special has any real warmth. Maybe the absence of gloppy holiday sentimentality, so prevalent elsewhere around the dial, will strike some people as refreshing, but "Celebration" never seems much more than a workshop's demo film, a facile flaunting of technique.
Each sequence illustrates a Christmas carol or song, but not really. "Angels We Have Heard on High" is interpreted as a dance for squat penguins and bulbous walruses. The secularization of Christmas happened too long ago to remember, but it does seem unfair to secularize even the religious songs that are a link to the true origins of the event.
"Joy to the World" becomes a boppy jazz tune when Claymated ("Talkin' 'bout joy") and "Carol of the Bells" is a slapstick piece starring a cartoonish Quasimodo. The sequences are introduced by two hideous dinosaur characters, one of whom talks like Jim Backus as Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island."
At times visually clever and imaginative, at other times looking like the output of a really grievous hangover, "A Claymation Christmas Celebration" is, to get right to the point (at last), sour grapes.