Earlier this year, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This month we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Ralph Bakshi’s holiday special Christmas in Tattertown, which premiered December 21, 1988 on Nickelodeon. The two projects are not entirely unrelated. Bakshi credited the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit as the reason that he was able to get Tattertown greenlit for production.
Loosely based on a comic idea that Bakshi developed in the 1960s called Junktown, Christmas in Tattertown is rooted in Bakshi’s nostalgia for early-20th century cartooning. “Tattertown is a strange world,” he told Animato! magazine in 1988. “What I wanted to do was make something where old and new animation could clash head on, viusally, stylistically, and in attitude. Tattertown is where old cartoon characters live side by side with new cartoon characters, and they have a hell of a time relating. The old characters go all the way back to Paul Terry’s Farmer Alfalfa. Oswald the Rabbit is there and Bosko. And they’re right up against characters who are modern and can’t move very well and have superior attitudes.”
Concept-wise, the idea sounds like a lot of fun. Execution-wise, it is a trainwreck. Aiming for classic cartoon energy, Tattertown ends up monotonously loud and mentally draining with only the barest hints of story structure, narrative pacing, and characterization. The grating vocal performances, clunky dialogue, and obscure character motivations don’t advance the cause. It won’t spoil the film to reveal that the day is saved by Bing Crosby singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a ticky-tack ending given that the denizens of Tattertown have just discovered Christmas and lack any kind of connection to the sentimental core of the song.
The show’s saving grace is the art and animation, which looks above average compared to the low standards of the Eighties. In addition to Bakshi, an impressive roster of names, both veterans and future stars, worked on Tattertown: Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore did character color design; Pixar story artist Jeff Pidgeon drew character designs; Incredibles animator Tony Fucile worked on layout; Shrek co-director Vicky Jenson provided background design; Golden Age animation legends Irv Spence, Charlie Downs and Virgil Ross animated; and Simspons director and WALL·E screenplay writer Jim Reardon served as the screenwriter along with Tom Minton (Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs).
As an entertainment experience, Christmas in Tattertown is questionable, but as a historical work, it’s definitely worth a look. It was produced during a key transitional period in TV animation and remains important as one of the earliest (if not first) pieces of original animation commissioned by Nickelodeon.