20th century fox, 2D animation, adventure, animated, animated special, animation, artwork, cgi, cgi animation, children’s book, Christmas, Christmas cartoon, christmas elves, Christmas review, christmas special, computer animation, dan castellaneta, drew barrymore, ed asner, elf, fox animation, futurama, j. otto seibold, jack russell terrier, james otto seibold, joe pantoliano, Matt Groening, michael stipe, north pole, olive, olive the other reindeer, penguin, reindeer, santa, santa claus, Simpsons, television animation, television review, television special, tv, tv review, tv special, underrated, vivian walsh
While I remember the hype for the FOX Christmas special Olive The Other Reindeer back in 1999 –
…Excuse me, I was suddenly struck by the realization that I’m old.
Anyway, while I remember the promotions for it before it premiered, I’m ashamed to say I never got around to watching it until several years ago. Shame, really, because it’s been among my personal favorites since. Olive The Other Reindeer is loosely based on a children’s book by Vivian Walsh and award-winning artist J. Otto Seibold, the main conceit being “Hey, doesn’t that one line from the Rudolph song sound like they’re saying Olive The Other Reindeer instead of ‘all of the other reindeer’? Wouldn’t it be funny if someone named Olive got confused over it and tried to become a reindeer?” The book is fairly straightforward with little-to-no stakes, though it has some wonderfully stylized and colorful artwork. Naturally the leap from page to screen meant the story had to be significantly fleshed out, but who could possibly step up to the task?
Eh, how about the guy behind the biggest animated adult show of all time?
To this day I have no idea why Matt Groening took the job but I sure as hell am grateful for it. He, along with Futurama co-creator David X. Cohen, took what could have been another simple Christmas special and injected it with the sly modern wit and cheeky sense of humor they’re known for (the fact that Olive premiered on the same night Futurama did couldn’t have been a coincidence either). They spice up the proceedings with wonderful touches exclusive to this adaptation: the other characters with mondegreen names; the snappy dialogue; the background sight gags that you have to watch multiple times to catch; the running joke with the cordless drill; the self-depreciating jabs at Fox, and more. The smart writing in addition to the unique animation gives this outing a strong sense of identity without losing the heart and charm that’s inherent to the story. It also marks Olive as the only “family-friendly” thing Groening’s made to date; an interesting designation to have, but not a bad one at all.
We follow our protagonist, a cheerful little Jack Russell Terrier named Olive (Drew Barrymore) as she skips around town the day before Christmas singing how excited she is that the holiday season is upon them. She also demonstrates her kind, charitable nature by helping a family of mice find the perfect-sized Christmas tree for them.
Oh silly me, how could I forget to talk about the animation itself? The characters are modeled and animated in two-dimensional CGI and placed in three-dimensional environments, making the special look like a pop-up book come to life (or if PaRappa The Rapper got a holiday-themed makeover). It’s an acquired taste, but lively and distinct. I couldn’t think of a better way to remain faithful to the original illustration style while making it come alive. John A. Davis and Keith Alcorn, the creators of Jimmy Neutron, worked on the animation, so it’s safe to say we’re in good hands.
Olive meets a penguin out on the streets named Martini (Joe Pantoliano) who’s hustling counterfeit Rolex watches and zoo-themed office supplies. Martini is a great foil to Olive: sarcastic, slightly bitter and selfish, and not above a little trickery to get what he wants, but with a good heart that slowly comes out as opposed to Olive wearing hers on her sleeve. And I just realized the brilliance behind this pair’s names because you can’t have a martini without the olive. Martini reveals that he was the zoo’s go-to guy for contraband until he was ratted out by a stool pigeon (“An ACTUAL stool pigeon!”) and kicked to the curb. Olive helps cover for him when the fuzz gets up in his business and earns his friendship.
Shortly after, Olive returns home to her owner Tim (Jay Mohr), who’s taking down the decorations – he’s not taking them down from the attic to put them up, no no no, I mean he’s removing the lights that are already on display and all that. Tim seems upset about something and takes it out on Olive when she admits she didn’t complete her “dog chores” (chasing cars, digging up flowerbeds, etc.) He complains that she’s not a real dog but come on, a sweet, loyal anthropomorphic dog who refuses to do all the stereotypical destructive canine activities? He doesn’t know how lucky he’s got it. Olive apologizes and says she doesn’t want to fight on Christmas, but Tim mutters “There’s no Christmas this year” and skulks off.
Olive commiserates with her pet flea Fido (Peter MacNicol) as they wrap presents in her doghouse. They flip through the radio to find some Christmas tunes to lighten the mood, and we get snippets of satirical commercials that wouldn’t feel out of place in Groening’s other works. It also establishes that Olive’s hearing is good enough that she can pick up nigh-imperceptible sounds off the frequencies (remember that now). Olive and Fido find out why Tim is in a tizzy when they catch some bad news – it seems as though Santa may have to cancel his Christmas Eve flight because Blitzen the reindeer broke his leg. Santa (voiced by the legendary Ed Asner) says that they’ll have to make do with all of the other reindeer or Christmas will be called off. Fido mishears it as “Olive The Other Reindeer” and tells her she has to get to the North Pole at once to help Santa, though Olive doubts he was referring to her specifically.
Tim shows up to to tell Olive he’s sorry for earlier, but she hides because she’s scared of being yelled at again. Tim apologizes through the window, and even though this scene established Olive has exceptional hearing just moments ago, she can’t make out what he says and relies on Fido…who cruelly twists Tim’s words so that Olive thinks he hates her and is getting a new dog, all so she can go along with Fido’s idea of saving Christmas.
I know Fido exists to help get the plot rolling, but he’s the only thing about this special I don’t particularly care for. The squeaky voice MacNicol gives him makes the character a tad grating as is, but the emotional manipulation on top of it is the kicker. Even when he’s singing the last verse of “Rudolph” with Olive’s name slipped in during her moment of triumph, it sounds more sinister than joyful. And before you give him the benefit of the doubt, I must point out that he should have even less trouble understanding Tim that Olive does as he remains out in the open during his apology, so there’s no way he could have mistaken what he said for anything else. Olive was already going through a bit of an identity crisis due to Tim’s criticism, but Fido’s words push her into thinking that she doesn’t act like an ordinary dog because she’s really a reindeer. She decides to go help Santa and hopefully change Tim’s mind about replacing her, leaving Fido to finish wrapping the comparatively giant-sized gifts alone. On an unrelated note, isn’t it great when karma kicks in right away?
Olive bumps into an unusually chipper Postman (Dan Castellaneta) on her way to the bus depot. I say unusually chipper because based on Olive’s apology and his background appearances beforehand, he seems like the grouchy, dog-hating type. The Postman’s thrilled because Christmas being cancelled means less deliveries and thus less work and pain for him, so much so that he hopes this skip in the calendar will lead to Christmas ending permanently. Though Castellaneta seems a shoo-in for the cast considering his history with Groening, the character is as far from Homer Simpson as you could get: crafty, determined, and fun in that classic mustache-twirling villainous way. Fittingly, Castellaneta uses a voice near-identical to Futurama’s Robot Devil; in fact his big musical number is highly reminiscent of the “Robot Hell” song from his introductory episode.
Olive insists that she can still save Christmas, and the Postman makes it his mission to stop her. At the bus depot, Olive meets Martini again. He convinces her to buy him a ticket north as well but the Postman shows up to arrest her on a phony mail fraud charge. After a little prodding from Olive, Martini repays her kindness by tripping up the Postman and the two catch their bus just in time.
During the ride, Olive explains why she’s going to the North Pole. Martini, some Inuit tourists and the friendly bus driver Richard Stands (Tim Meadows) try to let her down gently, but it does nothing to dampen her optimism. Olive goes into an inspirational speech, the first of a few she gives throughout the special, that reinforces her positive outlook on the world and her hopes of saving Christmas in spite of the odds stacked against her. It’s like listening to Sean Astin give a motivational speech, it’s so sincere and emotion-filled that you just can’t hate it when it happens.
After Olive and Martini prevent the Postman from running them off the road, the bus reaches the Arctic Junction rest stop. Everyone grabs a bite to eat at the diner. Olive reassures the depressed patrons that she’s Santa’s other reindeer, though she’s met with as much faith as she found on the bus. The Postman disguises himself as a waitress and tells Olive that Santa’s waiting out back to give her a flying test. He then sneaks up when she’s alone and kidnaps her.
So Olive is trapped in the back of a mail truck heading further from her destination by the second. It would take a deus ex machina of massive proportions to help her escape.
The package holds a metal file which Olive uses to saw her way out, but she still misses her connecting bus to the North Pole. Martini was kind enough to stick around the rest stop to look for her, though. Richard can’t take them any further since he’ll lose his job, but suggests that someone in the local bar could help. Said bar is home to a rowdy bunch of biker elves and a flightless reindeer named Schnitzel played by…Michael Stipe of REM?!
Huh. Well, I’ve heard of more random casting choices.
Schnitzel and his friend Round Jon Virgin harass Olive and Martini when they learn of their mission and rough them up a little. Olive chews them out over their callousness, giving a big heartfelt speech about what Christmas means and asking them if they think they deserve the good things the holidays bring them. Thoroughly shamed, Schnitzel and the gang apologize in song form.
I’m pretty split on Schnitzel’s song. It starts out nice and slow and melancholy (and by a staggering coincidence like REM’s “Everybody Hurts”), but the lyrics fall flat once the tempo picks up. A majority of the verses are just “we’re not so bad” on repeat. I get the feeling the songwriters used that as a placeholder until they could think of something better but couldn’t. Lyrical quality aside, Olive, Martini and the ruffians are now buddies. Round Jon gives them a lift to the North Pole in his snowmobile. The only thing standing in their way is a rude guard elf who refuses to let Olive through the gates.
But Martini’s come too far to see his friend lose hope at the last minute. He passes off one of his phony watches as a present from Santa to the elf, then poses as a watch repairman so he can turn off the alarms surrounding the compound. Once Olive digs her way in she finds Santa conferring with Mrs. Claus and the reindeer; some mean letters he received in addition to the reindeers’ lack of confidence have him leaning towards cancelling the sleigh ride. Olive recognizes that the hate mail was written by the Postman since she found them in his truck earlier and sets Santa straight. She introduces herself as the replacement reindeer he asked for.
If it were any other special or film, this or the elf guard scene would be the low point where Olive loses faith in herself after hearing she’s not wanted or a proper reindeer one too many times. I’m grateful that they don’t go that route for the sake of having that low point or to pad out the runtime. The pacing is light and brisk enough as it is. Santa is dubious about Olive’s claims at first, but her conviction and desire to spread the Christmas spirit moves him to proceed with the flight after all. He tasks Comet with helping Olive get harnessed up with the reindeer. Olive asks him where Rudolph is, but Comet tells her “He’s just one of those urban legends”.
With Olive prepped and raring to go, Santa and the reindeer just manage to clear the runaway and Olive…
They make it to the first house, but oh no! Someone switched the presents with a bag full of junk mail! Olive’s nose leads them right to the Postman, who also kidnapped Martini when he got too close to his plans. It turns out the Postman is motivated not just by holiday-induced sciatica, but because he never got the toy train he wanted after going on Santa’s naughty list. Now he’s getting his revenge by keeping all the world’s toys (and a cordless drill) to himself. It’s not everyday you see a high-speed chase on the highway involving Santa’s sleigh, and it’s pretty exciting. As Olive and the Postman tussle with each other, Martini gets his flippers on a jack-in-the-box and scares the Postman, making him crash into a snowbank.
With the right bag secured and the Postman defeated, Olive makes a pair cardboard wings out of some spare envelopes so she can fly properly. The worldwide deliveries go off without a hitch, and Olive leads Santa and the reindeer (who have the singing voices of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) in the jazziest of all the songs in the special – and that’s saying something – “Merry Christmas After All”. Like most of the music here, it really is a jam.
Martini, meanwhile, takes charge of the Postman’s truck and drives to the zoo. The animals are impressed that he helped save Christmas and offer him his job back. Martini thanks them, but he’s decided to go straight and become the city’s first mail penguin. He drops off the Postman, who’s tied up to resemble a penguin, at the enclosure instead.
As for Olive, she and the team return to the North Pole. Santa gives out presents to the staff, including a pair of antlers for Olive, officially declaring her an honorary reindeer.
Olive acknowledges that she’s not a real reindeer, but was just happy to do her part in saving Christmas. She bids everyone a fond farewell and Comet flies her home. There she finds Tim has been up all night searching for her. The two happily reunite and our special ends on a montage of all the characters celebrating Christmas in their own special way. Whether it’s opening presents with loved ones like Olive and Tim, sleeping in after a busy night like Santa, or using your latest gift to plot your next escape like the zoo monkeys, you gotta love the holidays.
As someone who harbors virtually no nostalgia towards this special, I can confidently say Olive The Other Reindeer is one of the most fun Christmas stories to come out in the past twenty-odd years and one that deserves more attention. The animation and humor hold up remarkably well, especially when it taps into the self-aware silliness like the Deus Ex Machina joke to help move the plot along. The cast is a splendid mix of veteran voice actors and perfectly-cast big names, and the characters are endearing without falling into the saccharine trap that many Christmas special characters do.
Really though, the heart of this special is the main character herself. Olive’s unwavering optimism and good will balances out the cynicism and skepticism of those around her, and her indefatigability makes it impossible to not root for her. She embodies the spirit of the holidays just as much as beloved icons like Santa, The Grinch or Charlie Brown and should be on the same level as they. Drew Barrymore’s voice acting plays a big part in Olive’s charm. I had my initial reservations when it came to hearing her familiar voice come from such a cute little dog, but there’s so much joy, enthusiasm and emotion in every line she gives, and now I can’t picture anyone else in the role. The fact that Barrymore helped produce this special and would later name her daughter Olive shows that she holds this pretty close to her heart.
While Olive The Other Reindeer used to be aired with some frequency on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon during the holidays, it sadly hasn’t been shown on TV in a long time. Maybe now that Disney owns Fox they can put this up on one of their streaming platforms and finally get more people to see it. At the very least it’s still available on DVD and Youtube as of writing this. I don’t need to say it but I’ll say it anyway: give Olive The Other Reindeer watch this season. It’s a doggone good Christmas special.
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th each month while film reviews are posted on the 20th. Special thanks to my patrons Amelia Jones, Tyler Green and Sam Flemming for their contributions. Those who join the Patreon party get special perks such as sneak previews of reviews, requests and more!
This year’s Christmas Shelf Reviews comes to a close on December 20th…ish, when I look at a recent animated film that’s already become a Christmas classic, Klaus. Yeah, yeah, it looks like this review might not be posted on time again but trust me, I have a lot to say about this movie – and it’s all good.