Sunday, December 19th, 1999
So I’m trying to put myself into the mind of my seven and a half year old niece. Would she be captivated with Olive: The Other Reindeer, the “contemporary” holiday offering from the nice people at Fox? Honestly, that’s what was going through my mind as I watched last week.
I was trying to get back to that elusive place where holiday offerings from the 1960s had their chance to make a lifetime impression on me. A Charlie Brown Christmas. Mr. Magoo in A Christmas Carol (the inspiration, I’m sure, for Patrick Stewart’s recent bravura TNT performance.) And even the bizarre Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a musical filled with stop-animated dolls and puppets (one of whom resembled Burl Ives.) These framed my childhood Christmases, and their regular reappearance on our TV was as much a signal of the season as the first snow.
So that’s the role I was looking for Olive to play. Would the tale of a slightly baffled dog who gets the idea that she’s needed as a backup reindeer for Santa be one that kids will be showing to their kids 20 or 30 years down the road?
Yeah, I think so. It’s cute. It works. It’s fun. I smiled.
I didn’t realize the story was actually adapted from a book by Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold until I did some web-surfing to back up my viewing impressions. Walsh and Seibold are husband-and-wife writer/designers who have a distinctive visual style that’s best described as a cross between kid’s construction paper cutouts and those bizarre early 1960s cartoons where the characters eyes’ kept to the same side of their noses. Some designers might also characterize it as “Adobe Illustrator run amuck.” It’s also, in this special, quite charming and affecting, despite my best efforts not to like it. (Avid surfers can check out this interview for the story of Seibold and Walsh’s success, entertainingly told in their own words.)
Part of the reason Olive works, of course, is the all-star cast of voices—everyone from Drew Barrymore in her first canine role to Ed Asner as Santa to Michael Stipe—Stipe!—as Schnitzel the reindeer to the man of a million animated voices, Dan Castellaneta as some sort of deranged, evil postman. Drew’s California articulation sets some type of tone for this extravaganza (just this side of “like, whatever”) which, combined with the “abstract, neo-cubist” quality of the book’s original illustrations makes it a challenge for anyone to pull together.
I’ve always appreciated the efforts of the behind the scenes production companies who make animated works like this work. Animation pioneer Lee Melendez and jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi brought the “Peanuts” specials to life—solving the tough questions of how you make those two dimensional drawings move.
In the case of Olive, Matt Groening’s The Curiosity Company turned to Dallas-based DNA Productions, who took on the task of computer-animating these complex-looking characters in a flat sort of 3D. The end result is vivid, dimensional, offbeat, and visually quite engaging.
Will it look silly in 30 years? I’ll check with my niece.