1990's, 90's, 90's cartoons, Angelica, Christmas, Christmas cartoon, christmas episode, christmas special, Chuckie Finster, Grandpa Lou, kidnap the sandy claws, Klasky-Csupo, naughty list, naughty or nice, nice list, nickelodeon, Nickelodeon Christmas, Nicktoon, nicktoons, Phil and Lil, Rugrats, santa claus, Spike, The Santa Experience, Tommy Pickles
For a very brief couple of seconds on October 9th of this year some of you may have noticed that this review went up all of a sudden just to disappear as quickly. I’ve said before it was due to some issues trying to reschedule the review for another date in December and had to give away the surprise that I’d be looking at more holiday shorts. Well, here’s the actual review. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappoint as I review at another nostalgic staple from my childhood, Rugrats.
An animated show that takes place from the point of view of a baby doesn’t sound like a particularly risky idea, but back when it was among the first crop of original Nicktoons to be pitched to Nickelodeon, it was. Suffice it to say that the gamble paid off and up until Spongebob dethroned it Rugrats was Nickelodeon’s golden child. I was very young when Rugrats came out and it was the very first show I remember being obsessed with; dolls, toys, books, clothes, you name it and I had it. The movies actually hold up pretty well too (except Rugrats Go Wild, that can burn in the deepest recesses of Hades). I even went to the live show. The freaking cheesy as hell live show. I mean the premise of the entire series was actually relatable though the main characters were about 4-5 years younger than me; they had a great deal to learn about the world around them and often got lost in fantastic adventures using their imaginations while the yuppie parents went about being completely oblivious 80% of the time. That was my bread and butter when I was in my single digits.
The characters were also basic but likable and cute to boot; you got Tommy the intrepid leader always looking to explore everything, his best friend Chuckie the fraidycat who always had some sort of new phobia to conquer (and was my favorite by the way), the gross-loving twins Phil and Lil, and Tommy’s bratty cousin Angelica whom everyone loved to hate, myself included. More characters were added along the way like the badass Susie, Tommy’s infant brother Dil, and Chuckie’s stepsister Kimi, each one bringing something new and diverse to the show.
I’m not gonna say that it was the perfect animated show or the standard all kids shows should emulate though; I mean for one thing if this took place in the real world the babies would have been taken away by child services now because it surprises me just how wrapped up in their own problems the adults could be. Most of the time they neglect the kids long enough for them to get out of the playpen or stroller and wander around a strange area and nearly endanger themselves. That and the usual foray into poo-poo humor you’d expect when dealing with characters that are barely 2 years old. Some of the toilet jokes I remember would make Shrek gag in disgust. But hey, sometimes you gotta appeal to the lowest common denominator for kids. It doesn’t completely take away the fact that at its best it was a very cute show that played a major part in building Nickelodeon’s identity.
So how does their take on the most wonderful time of the year hold up? And why is it called The Santa Experience anyway? Let’s take a look.
The episode begins at a mall where Tommy, Chuckie and Angelica are with their dads waiting on line to meet Santa. Chuckie is suspicious of how happy everything gets around Christmastime and relates his fear of Santa and his NSA-levels of spying to Tommy. Tommy doesn’t believe there’s anything scary about a jolly old man who gives out presents, however, but Chuckie says that’s what he wants you to think.
Sick of waiting, Angelica pushes her way to the front and on Santa’s lap where she gives him a list of presents as long as the list of reasons for a certain suit-wearing orangutan to be impeached. When Santa tries to give her the old “he can only deliver so much to one person” lecture, she immediately grows suspicious and yanks off his beard, reveals he’s a fraud and causes a riot among the kids (though unfortunately it’s not as big or destructive as the one in ELF).
Angelica’s father Drew believes his poor little angel is crushed at thinking Santa isn’t real, but she’s too busy enjoying a box full of toys the mall gave her as compensatioWHAT THE CRAP ON A CRUCIFIX?!
She exposed a mall Santa to a group of children, shattered their belief in him, and cost the store untold hundreds in Christmas photos as a result, and yet THEY’RE the ones apologizing to HER?! I thought for pulling that kind of shit you could get banned from the toy store, not have it handed to you in a brightly wrapped box! I mean, what kind of monster would do something so unspeakably selfish and cruel and succeed in turning it around so it looks like they’re not the ones at fault and ok you all know where I’m going with this.
Like Drew, Charles is also worried that his son Chuckie will have a disappointing Christmas. Both want to do something special for their kids and they come up with a similar idea – get “Santa” to appear for the kids and set it up so they witness him delivering the presents. Charles wants to play Santa himself though Drew feels that a hired professional could pull it off better. It leads to one of my favorite dialogue exchanges in the episode where Charles tries to get him to reconsider:
Charles: I’m a good actor! Remember our fourth grade play? I got the title role in Wind in the Willows!
Drew: Chaz, you were a tree.
Charles: I was the willow!
Meanwhile Angelica’s disappointed when none of the “junk” isn’t what she asked for for Christmas, but quickly finds a way to turn it to her advantage, while, of course, being a huge bitch at the same time. She tricks Phil and Lil into a Gift Of The Magi scenario with one trading their most prized toy for an accessory that would complete the other (in this case Phil’s Reptar doll for crayons for Lil, and Lil’s coloring book for a space helmet accessory). Before Angelica’s fully free to wallow in her crapulence, Grandpa Lou gathers the kids to tell them a bit about Santa that the malls tend to leave out – that the part where he knows if you’re good or bad isn’t just there to mess with you. When Santa comes to visit the house of a naughty child, he gives them coal instead presents. This of course is enough to put Angelica on edge, but if her confidante Cynthia can remain cool about this, then she can.
Angelica wakes up on Christmas Day to find a mountain of presents for her under the tree. But every single one contains nothing but coal. Santa himself appears (voiced by the late great Tony Jay) and tells her that all kids get what they deserve before burying her alive in heaps of coal.
And as pretty terrifying as this scene is, if you absolutely loathe Angelica and love Tony Jay, I guarantee this will be your reaction:
Angelica wakes up screaming because it turns out it was all a dream. She realizes she has to fix what she’s done before it’s too late.
As for the grownups, they decide to have an old-fashioned Christmas at a cabin near the woods and take the kids with them. It’s there that Tommy and Chuckie devise a plan to capture Santa to find if he really is naughty or nice.
Angelica tries to spill the beans about her trick to Phil and Lil but is blocked at every turn. Though it is funny to see her come so close only to be met with some physical comedy like crashing on a sled, there’s an innocent desperation that mounts throughout the second half of the episode and pulls a real Christmas miracle – making me feel for Angelica and the situation she’s in. I like to think I was a relatively good kid and I’m sure my parents would back me up on this, but when you’re that age you’re left wondering up until the very last minute if you’re good enough to be given presents on Christmas morning. She clearly regrets what she’s done and worries that it wasn’t enough to try to be good, that she’s ruined her own Christmas through her selfish actions. If you’re not convinced, read what happens next.
Angelica sees a commercial offering a phone line for professional help and gets the idea to call Santa’s workshop to see if she’s on the naughty or nice list. She winds up dialing a warehouse with one solitary worker who’s clearly not happy to be stuck there on Christmas Eve. When Angelica asks if Santa’s judged her to be naughty, the worker, who is well aware that this is a four year old child he’s never met before who’s looking for a little reassurance, plays along and then has the balls to tell her that she’s on the naughty list. Dude, that’s just evil!
When the babies fall asleep at the dinner table, their mothers and fathers put them to bed. Then they go downstairs and loudly sing Christmas carols around the tree. Um, I admit I don’t have kids of my own so maybe I just don’t know any better, but wouldn’t you WANT your hyperactive babies to go to sleep right away instead of waking them up with your caroling, especially on the night of the year most kids are prone to staying up late? Then again, the grownups on Rugrats have never exactly been Parents of the Year, so this is virtually par the course for them.
Meanwhile, Charles dons a Santa costume and tries to climb down the chimney but gets stuck in the fireplace, scaring the babies when they come downstairs to check if Santa’s been caught. Thankfully this doesn’t go the Gremlins route and Charles is freed alive and well. The kids are all relieved, none more so than Angelica. But one knock at the door later and there’s Santa standing on the doorstep. He hands out gifts to the kids, Chuckie overcomes his fear of Santa when he proves Tommy was right about having no ulterior motives (that we know of), and Angelica opens her gift to find it’s the deluxe Cynthia beach house she wanted and not coal like she feared. Santa delivers a very heartwarming message: that sometimes trying to be good is as important as being good in the first place. Phil and Lil open their presents to each other and are moved by the sacrifice their sibling made. And Angelica finally gets to completely redeem herself as as she gives them back their toys.
After Santa departs, Drew gets a phone call from the Santa that he hired for the evening from The Santa Experience (ohhhhhh…) saying he won’t be able to make it. That leaves Drew and Charles to wonder who was it that just came to the cabin…
Meanwhile Angelica is enjoying her dream house when she discovers something in the toy garage – a single tiny lump of coal.
“The Santa Experience”, like Rugrats itself, isn’t as spectacular as I remember it being when I was six, but it’s still a fine special and one of the best episodes of the show. I’m surprised how much Angelica’s story arc resonated with me over Chuckie and Tommy’s considering I loathed Angelica as much as every fan of the show did. There’s also some witty banter with the grownups which now that I’m older I can appreciate. Similar to “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” it captures the feeling of the little things that go into preparing for the holidays; visiting the mall, making a big family dinner, singing carols and opening presents by the tree which you trekked out for hours to find only to settle for a plastic one. Ah, memories. “The Santa Experience” isn’t the only foray Rugrats made into the winter holidays. There was an hour-long Christmas special made some years later, the Emmy Award-winning Hanukkah episode which I remember enjoying and a Kwanzaa special starring Susie, another favorite character of mine who does not get enough attention. If you haven’t seen them, I’d say give them a watch, and if you’re already a Rugrats fan, then go watch them again. What better way to recapture the “meanie” of the holidays.
Next week it’s finally Christmas, and I’m saving one of the best Nicktoons specials for last…