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Ralph Bakshi’s “Christmas in Tattertown”: 25 Years Later

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.

  • Roberto Severino

    I had thought about watching this the other day when I stumbled upon the YouTube clip and thanks to this excellent analysis (main reason I still visit Cartoon Brew), I’m even more inclined to check it out due to all the talent who worked on it. I can see why the project was a failure in the end on an entertainment basis.

  • By chance, does anyone know where in the production that short (“last days of coney island”) that raised almost 200k is in production? CartoonBrew seems to promote his stuff a lot, anyone happen to have info on that? looked promising

  • Bill the Splut

    I saw this when it was first broadcast and loved it! The next time I saw it, I found it incomprehensible. The third time, loved it; the fourth, hated it. And wondered why I had such differing opinions about it.

    Oh, right–the times I liked it, I was stoned. I think that’s the only way to watch his work. Spider-Man in “Dementia 5,” anybody?

    Alternate theory: Was it conceived as an hour long cartoon? There sure seems to be a half hour’s worth of plot missing from the “finished” version.

    • Tom Minton

      “Christmas in Tattertown” was indeed written as per Ralph by Jim Reardon and me, as a 90 minute feature script of around 120 pages. No shorter draft was ever done, once it sold a few months later as a half hour television special. No time! Ralph did the entire storyboard himself and he cut the feature length script ‘on the board,’ as he put it. That storyboard took up an entire wall and was a thing to behold. There’s some good animation in the five minutes of “Christmas in Tattertown” that were animated in America, some of it by golden age greats Virgil Ross and Irv Spence. Later Disney voice Keith David (so prominent vocally in “The Princess and the Frog” as Dr. Facilier) cut his teeth in animation as the narrator of “Christmas in Tattertown,” years before the mainstream animation industry knew who the heck he was. Ralph always had an eye and an ear for new talent.

      • Barrett

        The first I’d ever heard of Keith David was as Goliath in ‘Gargoyles.” He’s great as a narrator, and I have enjoyed a lot of his performances since (and before) Gargoyles as I’ve discovered them. Funny to see him in “They Live.” Seems to do a fair amount of commercials these days, though many prominent voice actors do as well, but are less noticeable. If you listen real carefully, The Brain is hawking Lexuses (Lexi?) these days.

  • Dave H

    LINK to that L.A. Times “Christmas in Tattertown” review:

  • Funkybat

    I loved Nick during the Dangermouse/Duckula era, and somehow I missed this entirely. Seeing it today is certainly interesting, it’s almost like a collision of John K.’s early aesthetic with Tiny Toons, with some Fleischer fan art thrown in.

  • Elana Pritchard

    I really like that concept drawing of the machine guys.

    • Funkybat

      They look more like concept art for some really kooky-cool toys than they do for animated characters. The bottom one in particular looks like fun!

      • Tom Minton

        Those concept drawings were done by Thom Enriquez (better known for his longtime excellent pre-biz character design and feature workbook work with Disney and DreamWorks) for Ralph several months earlier, when “Christmas in Tattertown” was being developed under the title “Junktown.” (“Junktown” was the high school comic strip created by Ralph on which the concept was based.) Some of Enriquez’s art also appears in the “Christmas in Tattertown” opening credit sequence, mixed in with art done specifically for the special by the late Louise Zingarelli. The Enriquez drawings are readily identifiable by their thick and thin ink line. Zingarelli’s are colored pencil renderings. The central ‘toy shop’ pencil background was done by Michael Hodgson (a Disney feature artist in that era) and colored by Zingarelli, with either multi-hued pencil graphite or wet media. For some reason, only Zingarelli got credit for the opening sequence art at the end.

        • Elana Pritchard

          You should write a book Tom Minton

          • Tom Minton

            Not yet.

          • Chris Sobieniak

            Take your time.

          • Barrett

            Just as long as you do before you die. So much animation history is lost when the people who’ve “seen it all” pass away without writing their memoirs. We don’t want to rely entirely on Chas. Solomon and Michael Barrier for future generations’ knowledge of the industry!

  • Eman

    I only very very vaguely remember this.

    A story that’s clumsy, awkward, poorly paced, and poorly explained. Something that seems to have plagued poor Ralph for most of his career.

    Animation seems to suffer from a lack of budget for inbetweens but is otherwise very nice. Especially the designs.

  • JetMechRadio

    3:14 I’m sure people saw it, but if that isn’t Yakko Warner 4 years prior to the Animaniacs, I’d like to know what is.

    • Barrett

      Yakko with whiskers….weird. It’s all the more funny because the early drafts of the Animaniacs were the little green ducklings, kind of like the popular “Baby Plucky” from Tiny Toons. At some point early in development they ditched ducks (possibly because of Disney TV’s contemporary prevalence of them) and turned them into retro species-nonspecific toons. I’m sure this guy from Tattertown was bouncing around in someone’s head!

  • Kevin Martinez

    There’s also a very brief cameo by Ignatz Mouse at one point. Since the characters pilfered weren’t big name stars like Mickey or Bugs, I guess someone assumed the cameos would slip under the radar.

    This special is unusual because it lists both American animators and an overseas service studio (Wang Film, in this case).

    • Jackson

      Both domestic and overseas animators are listed because about 5 or 6 minutes of the special were animated in the USA, by the people credited at the end. The rest was animated by Wang, under the supervision of David Marshall. All of “Christmas in Tattertown” was fully laid out here. There was not enough in the budget to animate all of it in America.

      • Chris Sobieniak

        Well at least they tried, I’ll give them credit there.

  • George

    I have a soft spot for Bakshi, so thanks for this article.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    “The network had aired the british Cosgrove-Hall cartoon shows Danger Mouse and Count Duckula for a few years prior — and liberally sprinkled brief (pre-existing, mostly european) animated snippets in its daytime Pinwheel block”

    Let’s not forget the Japanese stuff like “Belle & Sebastian”, “The Adventures of the Little Koala” or even French classics like “Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea”! Arguably Nick in the 80’s pretty much had to buy it’s programming cheap and it showed, but what they did get more than made up for in the long run I felt before becoming the original powerhouse they were in the 90’s.

  • Tres Swygert

    Christmas in Tattertown was the very introduction to the genius that is Ralph Bakshi, as I was a little kid when it came on. The concept and storytelling was not only interesting, but the characters made me want to rewatch it over again and again! I was hoping that they would expand more on the Tattertown world and these characters, as I thought it was very special and it could provide more content.

    Twenty five years later and to me it’s still a treasure and a gem. Way better than Cool World, that’s for sure!