By Bruce C. Steele
Live-action comedy classics. Star-studded variety programs. Beloved hand-drawn cartoons. Christmas entertainment comes in many forms… but there’s just something especially joyful about stop-motion-animated stories at the holidays. The history of these beloved shows—created by posing small puppets on scale-model sets—stretches back to television specials from the 1960s and runs through the genre’s pinnacle in 1993 with the Disney feature film Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now Mickey Mouse and friends have their own stop-motion special, Mickey Saves Christmas. The all-new, half-hour show debuts Sunday, November 27, at 7 p.m. ET/PT with a simulcast on ABC, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, and Disney XD, followed by a streaming debut on Disney+ and Hulu on Monday, November 28.
Mickey Saves Christmas plugs right in to the stop-motion holiday tradition, with its storybook locations—a quaint village, a snowy forest, the North Pole, Santa’s workshop—and its Christmas Eve story line. When the lights on the roof of Mickey’s cabin go out just as Santa tries to land, a mishap leaves the jolly old elf with no toys for the children of Hot Dog Hill. So, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, Goofy, and Pluto all hop aboard Santa’s sleigh to get to the North Pole in time to make and wrap a new batch of gifts. With the elves having clocked out, it’s up to Mickey and friends to save Christmas.
The gang has never looked so distinctly dimensional. “There’s something magical to [stop-motion animation],” says David H. Brooks, the director of the special, animated at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, which has done stop-motion sequences for The Simpsons. It takes almost infinite patience for the animators to pose a puppet—sometimes a whole crowd of puppets—then move parts of that puppet a fraction of an inch, step back to let the camera capture one frame, then carefully move everything another fraction of an inch, for the next frame, and the next. Every minute of story takes many hundreds of frames, just as in 2D animation. But with stop-motion, there’s more than pencils, paper, ink, and paint. There’s also the fabrication of the puppets and the sets, the sewing of the tiny costumes, the careful planning of camera moves, and the real-world mechanics of figuring out how to make actual models of Santa and his reindeer appear to fly through the air or crash land on the rooftop runway above Mickey’s wintery cabin.
All that effort may be largely invisible in the perfected final product, “but I think one can appreciate how difficult it is just by looking at it,” Brooks says. “Like, ‘Wow, did they have to build all those little sets? And how did they get that [character] to do that? That’s the really fun thing: seeing the fingerprint of the artist, seeing the performance of the stop-motion puppet [created] through an animator’s hands. Stop-motion creates something invisible and magical and tangible that I don’t know that we can really put our fingers on.”
The Mickey puppet for Mickey Saves Christmas was just five or six inches tall—Goofy, nine or 10 inches—so viewers can just imagine how much care went into crafting all the tiny details that surround them, from the miniature Christmas tree ornaments to Mrs. Claus’ high-tech binoculars to the toy robot that Goofy builds in Santa’s workshop. “He turns the robot on, and it starts dancing and Goofy mimics it,” Brooks explains. “It’s such a silly little thing, but it’s the robot I wanted as a kid!”
Where there’s dancing, there has to be festive music, and Mickey Saves Christmas is full of fresh and catchy songs by composer Ben Zeadman and lyricist Laura Schein. “They really brought so much to this project,” Brooks says. “These are sing-along songs. You should have seen me singing along on the set, and singing through the halls of the studio, just repeating these songs over and over.”
“We can’t wait for audiences to see Mickey and his beloved friends celebrating the holidays together in this heartfelt and warm new special,” says Alyssa Sapire, senior vice president, Development, Series and Strategy, Disney Junior. “We hope it will become a yearly must-watch tradition for kids and families. Stoopid Buddy Stoodios has once again rung in the cheer with their beautiful stop-motion animation, and we’re delighted that so many different audiences will be able to watch Mickey Saves Christmas across a variety of platforms this holiday season.”
As with the best family holiday specials, Mickey Saves Christmas will appeal to the young and the young at heart. “We wanted to make sure this is something everybody can enjoy,” Brooks said. “It’s more than just a solo viewing experience. It should be a whole family enjoying it.” Grownups in particular should keep their eyes peeled for visual references to all those animated holiday shows from their own childhoods—including at least one Nightmare Before Christmas Easter egg.
Kids will no doubt gravitate not only to Mickey and friends—and the Clauses—but also to a couple adorable new characters, young reindeer named Jingle and Jolly. The little deer started with tiny roles, but the creative team quickly became so enamored of the duo that they got more and more screen time. “They’re going to be a thing,” Brooks says with a smile. “We can’t wait for the Jingle and Jolly spinoff!”
Mickey and the gang also get new looks, at one point donning elf costumes, which Brooks believes is a first. The story is all new, but the voices are not, as the main characters are voiced by their well-known counterparts. They include Bret Iwan as Mickey Mouse, Kaitlyn Robrock as Minnie Mouse, Disney Legend Bill Farmer as Goofy (and Pluto), and Disney Legend Tony Anselmo as Donald Duck. “Listening to these guys perform their characters so seamlessly gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling—like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re doing Mickey Mouse! This is the real deal!” Brooks says. “It’s just so authentic.”
It’s also a milestone—the longest stop-motion Mickey Mouse production to date. “And what a great way to do it,” Brooks says, “carrying on that holiday tradition. It’s a dream come true to be able to bring Mickey to life in stop-motion.”