Yes, Virginia (NR, 2009, New Video)
Santa Claus (allegedly) is not real, and newspapers should never, ever print assertions they know to be untrue. But for one special day in 1897 New York City, both rules bowed down to a greater good. The story of Virginia O’Hanlon — who, in the face of growing doubt about Santa’s existence, sent a letter to the editor of the venerably trustworthy New York Sun and asked him to set the record straight — is a true story, and the spirited response the editor printed alongside her letter in the paper is a cherished piece of American history. Like the children’s book, which provided the inspiration for the character designs, the computer-animated “Yes, Virginia” lets the true story be the star. Some creative liberty is taken, but the film leaves the central tale, and the real people who made it really happen, as it found them. “Virginia’s” design, animation and voice acting are handled with terrific care, and the chord it strikes between cynicism and sweetness gives it an likable authenticity most Christmas specials try but fail to achieve. Beatrice Miller, Neil Patrick Harris, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alfred Molina and Michael Buscemi, among others, lend their voices.
Extras: A making-of feature that should not be overlooked. The story of how the filmmakers found Miller, the voice of Virginia, arguably rivals the true story behind the film itself. Also: Director commentary, kid cast commentary.
Spot’s Magical Christmas (NR, 1995, BBC)
It’s doesn’t get much purer than this. In “Spot’s Magical Christmas,” Spot (a talking dog) and his parents (also talking dogs) are getting ready for Christmas when they’re visited by two of Santa’s reindeers, who took Santa’s sleigh out for a test drive and subsequently lost it. Never one not to be helpful, Spot enlists his animal friends and, in between the occasional sled ride and snowball fight, sets out to find the sleigh and save Christmas for all. The outcome of “Christmas” is never in peril, because everything about Spot, his friends and his adventure is pleasantly even-keeled and sweet. And because that sweetness never veers into preachiness or any other form of messaging, the pleasantness is contagious. “Christmas” looks like a watercolored children’s storybook in motion — no surprise, because it’s also a book — and the quaint presentation and straightforward storytelling make no bones about this being a sweet Christmas story for kids. But if you’re in need of some no-strings-attached holiday escapism, there’s no age restriction for enjoying this.
Extras: Animated short “Spot’s Winter Sports,” two DVD games.
The Search for Santa Paws (G, 2010, Disney)
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Disney has continually parlayed “Air Bud’s” talking live action dog technology into 13 years of movies about dogs becoming sports stars, astronauts and, now, Santa’s best friend. In “The Search for Santa Paws,” Santa (Richard Riehle) visits New York to pay respect to a toy shop owner who passed away and left the shop to grandson James (John Ducey), an accountant from Los Angeles who isn’t ready to drop everything and move. A turn of events leaves Santa with amnesia, Paws the dog gets separated from him, and the task of gluing everything back together falls to two orphans (Kaitlyn Maher and Madison Pettis) who are fleeing their own version of Miss Hannigan (Wendi McLendon-Covey). On paper, it sounds like a dreary mess. But among a few other surprising displays of savvy, “Paws” avoids the kid movie mistake of reducing all the adults to rotten imbeciles. (Even James, whom a lazier movie would immediately relegate to soulless jerk duty, comes off as a good person with understandable reservations.) All of this may not matter to “Paws'” intended audience, who may only care about rooting for Paws and his friends to save Christmas. But if you’re a parent who must endure the glut of insultingly simplistic kids movies that reduce every character to a stereotype, take solace in knowing that “Paws,” hit-you-over-the-head transparent though it often is, tries a little harder. It’s silly, completely unbelievable and terribly cloying, but the sweetness at least feels genuine.
Extras: Interactive pop-up storybook, sing-along track, deleted scenes, music video.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas (NR, 2009, Fox)
Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: If you’re easily offended or cannot find humor in humanity’s darkly childish, selfish and/or stupid side “A Very Sunny Christmas” is every bit as ill a fit for your DVD player as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is for your television. But a funny thing happens when “Philadelphia’s” cast of imbeciles (Danny DeVito, Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Rob McElhenney) and its appetite for absurd storylines and reckless self-disregard in the name of comedy collides with the Christmas spirit: It feels strangely right. “Christmas” is developed like (and, at 43 minutes, runs no longer than) a typical episode of the show, and the prospect of paying full DVD price for one episode and a few extras doesn’t scream “value” no matter how good that episode is. But as special Christmas episodes go, “Christmas” — which finds the gang amending for Christmas traditions that, in some cases, weren’t so much traditions as criminal lies told by awful parents — is very funny, tailored perfectly to its cast, and, in its own juvenile way, surprisingly in tune with the holiday spirit. And if there’s any doubt about “Philadelphia’s” understanding of its audience, a great scene starring the Simon toy and Omnibot should put it firmly to rest.
Extras: Four Paddy’s Irish Pub coasters, deleted scenes featuring Young Charlie and Young Mac, behind-the-scenes feature, a Sunny Christmas Sing-along.
It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (NR, 2002, Universal)
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” — or even “The Muppets Take Manhattan” — this is not. The premise of “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie” is an obvious play on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Kermit, facing the loss of the Muppet Theater to slimy creditors and developers, imagining what the lives of his fellow Muppets would be like without him. The inclusion of developers and talk of lawyers isn’t exactly out of left field in a “Muppets” movie, which has never shied away from painting less-than-idyllic pictures of whatever plight the Muppets face. But even with this taken into account, there is a depressing level of calculated cynicism in “Christmas.” The Muppets occasionally get brief opportunities to be their silly selves, and some of the offhand send-ups of other Christmas movies are great. But when it isn’t wasting time shoehorning pop culture references (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, reality TV, a mock Crocodile Hunter) that completely rob it of any sense of timelessness, “Christmas” paints the world with strokes so completely soulless that even the inevitable happy ending can’t wash them away. Jim Henson put the Muppets in similarly dire straits without losing sight of what makes their universe its own creation, and unless your idea of a good Muppets Christmas special includes Muppet go-go dancers, criminals and “Fear Factor” characters, skip this and hope the heirs of Henson’s imagination never fumble it this badly again.
Extras: Deleted scenes, bloopers, nine-song Christmas soundtrack CD.
Surviving the Holidays with Lewis Black (NR, 2009, History Channel)
The formerly edgy act of bad-mouthing the holidays has been practiced so frequently in recent years that it’s practically as quaint as the act of enjoying them. The stale odor is especially pungent in “Surviving the Holidays with Lewis Black,” which purports to be a primer on how to enjoy the month-plus-long season without going insane in the process. But “Holidays” doesn’t attempt to r
ationalize with the holiday juggernaut so much as give a group of celebrities and comedians a forum in which to complain about every facet — even the mostly harmless ones — of its existence. What did dreidels, Thanksgiving dinner and sitting on Santa’s lap (the mockery of which “A Christmas Story” perfected with far more subtlety 27 years ago) do to deserve this? “Holidays” slightly redeems itself (and slightly justifies its distinction as a History Channel product) by opening the panel to some authors and historians, who explain the origins and myths behind many of the traditions. But their time is sorely limited by the overwhelming train of spoiled, miserable people trying to convert their dislike of everything into jokes you’ve heard a thousand times already. If you want to survive the holidays, don’t put yourself in a hole by watching this first.
Extra: Unaired footage.