I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV last week, as millions of people have done for 55 years now. Immediately afterward, on the same channel, a new animated short premiered which its creators were obviously hyping to become a new holiday classic. It was called: Prep & Landing: Operation Secret Santa.
The contrast could not have been more dramatic. While Charlie Brown was a low-budget hand-drawn animated film from the 60s, Prep & Landing was a brand-new computer animated short that flashed all its no doubt millions of dollars in production costs in our face for its 10 minutes of running time. Charlie Brown had often seemed flawed to me before: its animation is so obviously quickly and cheaply done, with no depth or detail to the images and everyone moving from left to right. The dancing scenes are just made up of a bunch of repetitive little movements, obviously done on the cheap. The jokes are all simple and a bit awkward, without the usual rapid-fire delivery of modern cartoon gags. What could possibly be so special about a Christmas Special so flawed?
A Charlie Brown Christmas is special for exactly the reasons it looks so quaint next to Prep & Landing and others of its ilk. It is the antidote to the modern selfishness and materialism present in so much of the media at this time of year. Sure, things like Prep & Landing throw in a little moral at the end--Santa gets a sentimental gift from Mrs. Claus--but those morals are so obviously fake, underhanded, and unearned. They do not reflect the fact that these specials are made entirely for commercial reasons, and cater to our every contemporary whim, attempting to thrill us with bright colors and pop culture mash-ups. Because it embodies its message in itself, Charlie Brown Christmas avoids all that. Oh, I'm sure people make money off it every year, but who really cares about that? The film itself is what matters, and the motives on display there are entirely commendable. The Peanuts gang are voiced by actual children, many of whom obviously have no idea to act. Their comic timing may be off, but their sincerity shines through. The low key humor is human and compassionate, tragic and beautiful, in a way no manufactured Prep & Landing--or any normal cartoon, for that matter--ever is. When Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas--the birth of Christ--it is a rebellion against modern materialistic amnesia, an act of cultural recovery, and a proclamation of the Gospel on the most soul-sucking of all popular opiates: television. It may not be grand or complex, but it is important, and its purity of purpose is visible in every off-beat dance move and behind-the-beat punch-line its characters make.
Lots of TV Christmas specials claim to rail against commercialism and deliver the true meaning of Christmas; only one actually does it.