‘Yogi’s First Christmas’ (1980): A smarter-than-the-average holiday special

Last week, in a rather desperate bid to fend off my irate editor (his is a simple process:  no review from me…no booze for me), I fobbed off a quick look at 1982’s Hanna-Barbera animated holiday TV special, Yogi Bear’s All Star Comedy Christmas Caper.  Well, imagine our collective shock when 100s and 100s of readers clicked on it.  A veritable bonanza of eyeballs!  So…in an unashamedly naked, crass attempt to repeat that fluke, we’re offering up even more Jellystone Christmas cheer, this time with 1980’s syndicated romp, Yogi’s First Christmas!  

By Paul Mavis

A few years back, Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection released Yogi’s First Christmas, the 1980 syndicated feature starring Yogi, Boo Boo, and Ranger Smith, with some special guest stars including Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss (even), Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy, and Cindy Bear (and let’s not forget the fat man himself, Santy Claus). Almost critic-proof, Yogi’s First Christmas ain’t rocket science: it puts some H-B superstars together in a Yuletide-themed story filled with a lot of gags, and the Christmas-minded tykes―even if they’ve never heard of these characters―will respond favorably.  It’s a good-enough Hanna-Barbera late entry for the smarter-than-the-average type bear.

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Christmas-time in Yellystone Park (they, um…actually misspell the iconic “Jellystone Park” here). Pic-a-nic-stealin’ bear Yogi (voice talent of Daws Butler), and his little buddy, Boo Boo (voice talent of Don Messick) have never had a Christmas celebration before, because they always hibernate right through the holiday time. This year, however, their slumber is disturbed by friends Snagglepuss, Huckleberry Hound, Augie Doggie (voice talents of Daws Butler), and Doggie Daddy (voice talent of John Stephenson), when Ranger Smith (voice talent of Don Messick) drives the gang over to Jellystone’s Winter Lodge, where the beginnings of a music-filled, loud Winter Carnival stir the sleepy Yogi and Boo Boo from their den.

The scarcely-frequented Lodge, owned by Mrs. Throckmorton (voice talent of Janet Waldo), is about to be closed due to the tourist-scaring, Christmas-hating antics of Herman the Hermit (voice talent of Don Messick), who lives in the mountains above the Lodge. Yogi, desperate to have his first Christmas, decides to help entertain Mrs. Throckmorton, falling *ss-backwards into clover, as usual, as he unwittingly battles Herman and Mrs. Throckmorton’s snotty little nephew, Snively (voice talent of Marilyn Schreffler).

RELATED | More 1980s TV reviews

If I caught Yogi’s First Christmas when it premiered in first-run syndication back in November, 1980, I don’t remember doing so (I was 14-years-old…so I may have watched it on the sly, so the old man wouldn’t call me a little girl).  Having my own family, I’m sure I’ve watched it at least ten times or more over the decades (there’s gotta be a dusty VHS of it stuck in a box somewhere). But even if I was seeing it for the first time this year, it would seem familiar, probably because Yogi’s First Christmas has elements of at least a half-a-dozen other Christmas movies and specials incorporated into its storyline, from Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Disney’s The Snowball Express, to Der Bingle’s White Christmas.

Older fans of H-B who grew up on holiday-dial offerings like this aren’t going to find too much to complain about here―they already have a nostalgic soft spot for vintage TV specials like Yogi’s First Christmas. In those pre-cable, pre-VCR days, being home for Christmas break (yaaaasss, “Christmas break”―screw your “Winter break” crap) meant being bored out of your skull and watching a lot of TV while waiting for Santa.  In addition to catching up on regular primetime series (extra cool if they had a Christmas-themed episode), it was fun to scan the newspaper TV listings to spot the surprise network or syndicated one-offs that would hit the Big Three and your local stations (for Yogi’s First Christmas, H-B released it through the Operation Prime Time syndication network).

Now, with streaming and physical home video, as well as a plethora of production history on the internet, the random pleasures of spinning that dial and “discovering” a one-and-done TV special you previously knew nothing about, are sadly, long gone. As for the little kids today who might watch Yogi’s First Christmas, they’re not going to care one bit about any of that ancient TV-watching history (they probably don’t even know who “Yogi Bear” is), nor that the story is derivative as hell. All they’ll care about is whether or not it will make them laugh and keep their interest for 90 minutes. Which Yogi’s First Christmas does quite nicely.

Surprisingly, some heavyweight talents are behind the scenes here, including veteran animator/director Ray Patterson (Dumbo, Fantasia, Tom and Jerry shorts, Spider-Man), and Tony Award-winning (for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) scripter Willie Gilbert. That kind of professionalism doesn’t save Yogi’s First Christmas from the usual (and at least in this particular effort, frankly embarrassing) continuity flubs that dogged the quickly and cheaply-made H-B product from this time period. However, it does ensure that the product moves surely through its admittedly thin story, with a modicum of gags that work well within the story’s framework.

Even though a few of Yogi’s First Christmas’ songs are recycled from other H-B efforts, they’re innocuous and sometimes even a little fun (Boo Boo’s Hope is a sweet effort, and Cindy Bear’s tune about kissing Yogi under the mistletoe was an up-tempo charmer), and the accompanying montages are frequently quite clever (I particularly liked the one where Yogi turns into a star constellation and then a snowflake).

Animation isn’t all Fantasias and Pixar “triumphs,” you know. It’s also the meat-and-potatoes sked-fillers like Yogi’s First Christmas, a syndicated romp that may look skimpy to some, but which made a whole bunch of kids back in 1980 very happy to be sitting in front of their Curtis-Mathes and Sony Trinitron sets. And it plays just fine, 41 years (!) later, for today’s small fry set. It’s just a shame, though, that they’ll probably light on Yogi’s First Christmas by having Mom or Dad put a disc in a machine…rather than on their own, flipping that dial, with that indescribable feeling of anticipation and discovery. That magic of not knowing what, exactly, was going to pop up next on the tube.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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