'Olive the Other Reindeer' leads list of underrated holiday specials

Tampa Bay TimesDecember 5, 2013 

There are plenty of must-see (and see-again) holiday specials, but what about those never-seen gems? We've compiled some of our favorites that you've probably never seen but should put on your DVR, Netflix queue, Amazon Instant Video watch list or whatever right now.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Olive, the Other Reindeer: This charming 1999 animated tale is about a dog named Olive, voiced by Drew Barrymore, who thinks she's being called to help Santa when he needs "all of the other reindeer" — which she hears as "Olive the other reindeer" — to sub for an injured Blitzen. There's great animation (The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is an executive producer) and an offbeat cast that includes Olive's con-artist penguin pal (Joe Pantoliano), the evil postman who is tired of carrying heavy bags at Christmas (Dan Castellaneta) and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. in a fun cameo as a rough reindeer-barfly.

Considering that Barrymore named her new baby girl Olive, maybe she loves this one as much as we do. It aired on Fox for its first couple of years, then was dropped from many holiday programming schedules, so this might be one you have to buy, but you won't be sorry.

Where to find it: Amazon.com has the DVD for less than $8 .

The Ref: This 1994 Denis Leary comedy flopped because Disney released it around St. Patrick's Day. What were they thinking? This is a hilarious Christmas movie full of gleeful irreverence and dark wit. A burglar (Leary) holds a wealthy and bitter married couple hostage on Christmas Eve and ends up getting stuck in epic family squabbles between the couple (played with glorious acidity by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) and their obnoxious in-laws. Christine Baranski sums up every stupid present you've ever received from an old relative with her delivery of the word "Slippersocks!"

The highlight is a hilarious Scandinavian Christmas dinner scene in which Davis' character shows off her Swedish cooking class. As the caper progresses, it just gets funnier, as when Spacey instructs his niece to help the burglar: "Mary, gag your grandma." This might be a Disney film, but it's not for kids. It has an R rating, and the language will curdle your eggnog.

Where to find it: It's available on Amazon Instant Video and on DVD from Netflix. The movie also pops up a lot on cable .

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas: This gem from Jim Henson was a 1977 special based on a 1971 children's book by Russell Hoban. It follows the story of a poor-but-happy young otter and his widowed mother, who scratch out a living doing odd jobs up and down the close-knit river community of Frogtown Hollow. It first aired on HBO in 1977 and was a perennial for those with premium-cable subscriptions well into the '80s. The look of the show, with extensive sets, all created with great attention to detail, gives it an authentic feel. The holiday aspects of this O. Henry-style story carry the message just fine without Christmas songs.

Longtime fans have hoarded their VHS copies because Emmet Otter has never been available on home video in its complete form. The original special was hosted by Kermit the Frog, but the 25th anniversary DVD that came out last year edited out the frog because the Muppets are now owned by Walt Disney Co. Some purists have taken to online trading sites to get dubs of the show's original, complete broadcast.

Where to find it: Available to rent on Amazon Instant Video for $2.99 or YouTube for $2.98, or to buy on iTunes for $9.99.

Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special: Campy and completely over the top, the special is a testament to exactly how much Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) understood what Christmas is truly about: overindulgence. The list of guest stars was pretty incredible for 1986: Oprah Winfrey, Dinah Shore, Joan Rivers, Little Richard, k.d. Lang, Grace Jones, Magic Johnson, Whoopi Goldberg, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon (together again!), Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Del Rubio Triplets and Charo. It's so magically ridiculous that it's hard not to love (Then why don't you marry it?).

Where to find it: Available to buy on iTunes for $4.99, or the DVD is for sale online.

A Christmas Carol: This story gets told to death this time of year but if you see only one Christmas Carol, it has to be the 1984 made-for-TV film adaptation of Charles Dickens' famous 1843 novella starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. Novelist and essayist Louis Bayard, writing for Salon.com, described this adaptation as "the definitive version of a beloved literary classic" both for its fidelity to Dickens' original story and especially Scott's performance as Scrooge.

The movie wasn't released to VHS until 1995 and to DVD in 1999 because Scott himself owned the rights to this film. In 2007, AMC secured it for television — the first time since its debut — and the network continues to broadcast it each December.

Where to find it: AMC has multiple showings scheduled starting Dec. 16, but it is also available to rent on Netflix, or the DVD is for sale online.

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