"Rudolph? He's an urban legend."
Olive is a small dog living with Tim, her owner. She has a pet flea and a penguin friend who just lost his job at the zoo. While wrapping Christmas gifts, Olive and Flea overhear a radio announcement that one of Santa's reindeers is sick and that the jolly old elf may have to cancel the holiday. "We'll have to rely on all of our other reindeer" he says. But Flea and Olive instantly misinterpret this sentence and the mighty mini mutt makes a beeline for the North Pole. She takes the penguin, Martini, along with her and it looks like smooth sailing…that is, until the evil mailman, known ominously as The Postman (non-Kevin Costner variety), finds out what is going on. He wants to stop Christmas (because of the damaging "physical" effects it causes him every year) and he sees Olive's attempts at helping Kris Kringle as unwanted interference. Along the way, Olive and Martini meet a helpful, sympathetic bus driver, a dive bar filled with Christmas Town outcasts, and a bevy of anxiety-filled elves. So it's a battle to see who will get to St. Nick first: our plucky pup or the letter-carrying louse. Everyone's holiday wishes are resting on the antler-less head of Olive, the Other Reindeer.
When was the last time you can recall a misunderstood line in a traditional holiday carol becoming the basis for a completely contemporary classic Christmas special? "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" doesn't count because (a) it's not something "misheard" but is instead just miserably miscreant and (b) the TV special spawned from that abominable snow dung is about as classic as Charlie Callas' calluses. Indeed, in recent years, there have been very few examples of the modern mentality mixing with mistletoe to make a truly joyous yuletide experience. Sure, you can point to over-commercialized crap like The Santa Clause or super sappy slop like Prancer, but when it comes right down to it, unless it's in animagic or has Charles Schulz's pencil lines all over it, we'll call it coal and shove it back into our stockings.
Olive the Other Reindeer changes all that. It's a wonderfully inventive and evocative story of determination and spirit. It sports some of the best, sincerest vocal talent work by several superstars in the business and marks a departure, of sort, for The Simpsons creator Matt Groening. As executive producer, there is a slightly sarcastic bent to this happy saga of a perky pup that wants to help Santa and save the spirit of the season. Once it settles down—the beginning is a little rushed—it really turns magical.
What makes Olive unique is that it doesn't necessarily rely on the same tired old premises to work its winter wonderland storyline. Olive's adventure is the result of a misunderstanding, a wrongly deciphered newsflash and a "flea" induced delusion about how unwelcome she is in her own home. Her traveling companion is a wisecracking, street-smart out of work penguin that hawks fake designer watches on sidewalks and bus depots. The evil nemesis (a must in any Christmas carol, be it Scut Farkus or The Winter Warlock) is an insane postal worker (how post-modern) with Frank Nelson's voice and physical vitriol for Santa and all he stands for. And Kris Kringle's workshop isn't some magical place decorated in candied fruit and sugary sweets, but a viable business with management and worker issues. At first glance, this all seems very mundane and purposefully odd, as if the story and its statement are trying to hard. But Olive the Other Reindeer is effortless, a winsome throwback to the days when stories of seasonal cheer were not politically correct paragons of multi-cultural commentary. There is nothing sentimentalized or homogenized about this story or the characters. There is merely an earnest desire to spread some yuletide fun and to tell a straightforward story of devotion, determination, and delight.
Olive the Other Reindeer is also unlike anything else you'll see in animated holiday fare. Based on the drawings of J. Otto Seibold, which have a cubist, retro 1950s feel to them, the material has been rendered in 3D, but kept two dimensional in appearance to give the illusion of illustrations come to life. The effect is surreal, part painting, part pop-up book, and it makes the film feel that much more exciting. Like a quirky cocktail napkin come to life, Olive the Other Reindeer reinvents the holiday special by taking a gentle tale of whimsy and processing through a technological as well as cynical, nostalgic mindset. About the only unsuccessful aspect—and it's a very minimal failure—is the music. Following the forced formula of feeling the need to create original pseudo-traditional tunes for any new holiday film, Oliver introduces five rather flat songs that don't really register, even after repeat listens. Only the title theme provides any hall decking, but the mailman's rant (The Simpson's Dan Castellaneta in full vamp) and rude reindeer rejoinder (sung with heart but very little soul by REM's Michael Stipe) are more meandering than memorable. Still, one can forgive the hurried introduction and unsuccessful songs for what is destined to be another gem in the collective crown of Xmas merriment.
Fox gives this visual feast an equally vibrant DVD release. The image here is pushed almost to the flaring point, but we never once witness any video issues in the 1.33:1 transfer. The contrast is clearly defined and the animation really comes to life. On the sound side, Olive is offered in Dolby Digital Surround and we get a couple of immersion moments (during a bus/postal truck chase and Santa's Christmas Eve sleigh ride), but most of the time we merely witness distortion free, professional sound. As for extras, there are a couple offered here and both make for interesting additions to the disc. Anyone interested in revisiting the songs can call them up under a separate menu that links directly to each interlude (or you can play them all at once, back to back, for God knows what reason). The best bonus is the "making of" documentary, which eventually devolves into a publicity filled puff piece (Groening going on and on about the "new classic Christmas songs…".huh?) but not before we get some real insight into how this movie was made. The CGI information is very compelling (odd that no one else has tried this technique for their cartoons) and the vocal actors all sound very sincere as they discuss their efforts here (even Jay Mohr, not known as Mr. Warmth).
So the next time you're cringing as an overpaid superstar slaughters traditional seasonal standards on what looks like the set of one of Bob Mackie's winter wonderland nightmares, wander over to the DVD cupboard and pull out your well worn copy of Olive the Other Reindeer. It's guaranteed to put some fuel in your Yule and swell in your Noel.
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• Olive: The Songs
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