Watching animated Christmas TV specials and movies is part of the holiday tradition of stocking stuffers and watching how creepy some of those mall Santas look. We all have our favorites, but what are the Top 10 most celebrated animated Christmas TV specials and movies?
Fortunately, I had a little free time on my hands (early holiday shopper here), so I researched certain qualifiers – soundtrack, ratings or ticket sales, rankings on IMDB or other critic lists, and the substantial pop culture impact. That and a tinge of subjectivity because my fellow geeks at GVN love each of these.
Here are the Top 10 animated Christmas TV specials and movies.
10. Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Who does not sing this song every holiday season at least 15 times? If you say you do not like country music, this treat makes you a fibber because the original chorus is great among animated Christmas TV specials and movies. And the noted western balladeer, Gene Autry, singe it. (Yes, as in the guy with the folksy fringe and rides a horse named Trigger).
Still not satisfied? Jimmy Durante narrates it. How does Frosty come to life? It’s in the song. What is so remarkable about Frosty? It is in that song. How does this TV special bring make all the feels? Again, that song. And this classic Rankin/Bass 2D animation (not stop-motion, their usual) captures all of it with style and grace.
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
9. Arthur Christmas (2011)
This is one of the most inventive takes on the Yuletide story among all animated Christmas TV specials and movies. Instead of elvish carpenters and making toy trains surrounded by sawdust, the festive operation looks more like an Amazon clearinghouse full of AI and robots. That is the secret of how Santa visits so many homes in so little time.
We learn gifts can be missed during the movie, so it’s Santa’s youngest son – Arthur (played by James McAvoy) – to the rescue. Only one catch, he must do it old school with reindeer. But no one is going to steal the Christmas spirit from Arthur. This movie is full of holiday hijinks that even adults learn to love.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
8. Klaus (2019)
If there was ever a need for a St. Nick with machismo, J.K. Simmons creates that persona in “Klaus.” The first animated feature for Netflix was undoubtedly one of its best. As told by the postal worker of Smeerensburg (Jason Schwartzman), the story, who lives in the “unhappiest place on Earth.”
This tale involves a burly man with this “Duck Dynasty” facial treatment who has a real knack for making children’s toys. Of course, everyone in this miserable sweat-hole town discovers the authentic charm and joy of the holidays once Klaus bellows out his laugh. It is a surprising watch that even earned an Oscar in 2020 for Best Animated Feature.
Even some die-hard Netflix fans may not have seen this, but if you have, you know how much this had to be on this list.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
7. The Polar Express (2004)
Although we have already shared our thoughts on this beautiful film, it bears repeating because this story and Tom Hanks are that good. The movie was revolutionary in its production by creating a part of animation called “performance capture.”
Did you know director Robert Zemeckis was so committed to stretching the magic of this film with performance capture that it made the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s first-ever all performance capture (digital) film? Tom Hanks as the conductor and Santa is anything short of Kris Kringle alchemy.
This film has so many messages—obvious and a slew of hidden messages. Above all: Look hard enough, wherever you are, and you will find the spirit of the holidays everywhere.
IMDB: 6.6 (Seriously?!)
Rotten Tomatoes: 56% (Again, who are these cold-hearted Festivus fools?!)
6. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
If you have children or have a connection to one, you know this is usually the foray into Charles Dickens’ classic story. Scrooge McDuck is the perfect balance of tightwad misanthrope and lovable cartoon character. You know the story of each ghost of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, but to this day, it has never been done as innocent and charming as it has with Mickey and the classic Disney touch.
The creativity Disney is known for drawing out of thin air and a couple of charcoal pencils. And it earned an Oscar nomination for the best animated short film. This is necessary for only 26 minutes of holiday joy for every holiday season and kids of all ages.
Rotten Tomatoes 100%
5. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
This answers the question of what happens when you mix Halloween and Christmas. And who knew the lovable Jack Skellington would become so memorable? The touching and creepy film all begins with, of course, Tim Burton. If you like movie scores and soundtracks, this is a classic. Wherever Danny Elfman has a movie, Tim Burton has a few twisted melodies to create.
This movie was beloved so much that it was re-released in theaters five times since 1993. Despite having some dark overtones, thanks to its director and his normal avant-garde curiosity, Danny Elfman is a surprising, refreshing Santa. This movie creates an open door to celebrate the holidays beginning in October.
Rotten Tomatoes 95%
4. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)
Unlike many of the excellent Saturday-morning cartoons, these animated Christmas TV specials have not vanished into thin air. The classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion shows of Yuletide wooden figurines are iconic. Where do you begin?
Mickey Rooney voices Santa Claus perfectly. His joy and kindness are contagious. Sure, he may have spiked his eggnog to the hilt, but it is effective. Then, the great Fred Astaire is the narrator of the show (yes, that is how he looked). His voice dances as well as his feet. And, if that’s not enough, the celebrated title track is sung by the husky Burl Ives, whose voice “is” Christmas.
These animated and timeless specials are as much a part of the holidays as reindeer, mistletoe, and calling the bank for bounced checks in January. Ho-Ho-Ho!
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Another Rankin/Bass classic and another spot on this austere list of animated Christmas TV specials and movies. If anything, put some “respeck” on the names of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass who are on, like, 32 different Halls-of-Fame lists in Hollywood. Stop motion was their bread and butter and the holidays wouldn’t be complete without them.
This movie was used in the 1980s to instruct kids about prejudice, bullying, and being different (i.e., The Island of Misfit Toys, anyone). A Christmas TV special about some ruby-snotted reindeer! That is more than a stamp on the holiday binge list, but a legacy for generations to enjoy (and already have). Not bad for something sung and memorized about an animal and a foggy Christmas eve.
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
Everyone loves a cantankerous old fart, don’t they? The Grinch is easily Dr. Seuss’ magnum opus. Jim Carrey tried to take over Whoville superbly. Benedict Cumberbatch was okay. Yet, this animated Christmas TV special is the best. So, was the cast.
Boris Karloff (aka. the original Frankenstein’s Monster) is The Grinch. The preeminent Chuck Jones of “Looney Tunes” fame—both as an artist and voice actor—directed this special. And there is the enigmatically named “Thurl Ravenscroft.” His rumbling bass voice sang the famed “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.” Wonderful, but fun fact: He was more famous for being Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame. So, there’s that.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
1. It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
For a kid with one curly hair on his head and a dog who is immensely smarter than him, no one quite gets people in the mood for the holidays than Charlie Brown. Despite his twisted flirtatious relationship with Lucy, Marcie, and Peppermint Patty (G’head, Chuck, you ladies’ man), his best friend who still needs his wooby, and that dog thinks he is a German war pilot.
And then Charlie Brown becomes the director of a Christmas play and gets the most homely, malnourished tree on the planet. From there, we get the most iconic soundtrack on any animated Christmas TV special or movie. Before you say a word, it has been more than 55 years and is still celebrated unlike much music ever made.
Since we are on that topic, Vince Guaraldi is one of the unspoken jazz legends of any generation, and that guy decided to offer his jazz trio to create the hymns that walk us into the holidays every year since. That’s called “an impact” in the biz. A definitive impact for sure.
Rotten Tomatoes: 83% (The hell are these people thinking?!)
Since he saw ‘Dune’ in the $1 movie theater as a kid, this guy has been a lover of geek culture. It wasn’t until he became a professional copywriter, ghostwriter, and speechwriter that he began to write about it (a lot).
From the gravitas of the Sith, the genius of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, or the gluttony of today’s comic fan, SPW digs intelligent debate about entertainment. He’s also addicted to listicles, storytelling, useless trivia, and the Oxford comma. And, he prefers his puns intended.