It’s not often that an animated children’s special answers a question of broad religious import, but Fox’s Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, debuting Thanksgiving night, pulls it off. Santa Claus, it turns out, came before Jesus. At least that’s the implication of setting a holiday special, overtly about Christmas and involving a visit to the jolly one’s workshop, in a geological era thousands of years before the birth of the guy for whom the holiday is named. How does a group of Pleistocene mammals know to celebrate the birth of a human who will not exist for millennia? What does it mean, for that matter, that in a series whose first movie involved saving a Stone Age human baby, that Santa turns out to be a fully evolved homo sapiens with modern dress and tools? Was time travel involved? What did he do to the Neanderthals?
A Mammoth Christmas, as you have probably guessed, is not actually too concerned with these questions, biological or theological. (I suppose someone could argue that it’s a subtle reminder that Christmas was actually grafted on to pre-existing pagan winter festivals.) It’s a Christmas special with talking animals, one of whom is a sabre-toothed tiger who for some reason does not try to eat all his companions, and that’s the level of realism it’s happy at.
Fans of the movies who want to see their favorite characters getting ready for their favorite holiday will probably be happy enough with that—though, if you compare the special with other holiday classics coming back on air around this time of year, it’s too bad it didn’t try to something a little more novel with its premise. When Ice Age debuted in 2002, it was a welcome surprise in the burgeoning CGI-movie field, somewhere between the melancholy whimsy of Pixar movies and the hyper-savvy, pop-referential agitation of Dreamworks. The series had plenty of slapstick, but it tried to stay grounded in something real, and there was something recognizably burdened and hangdog in Ray Romano’s mammoth, Manny.
A Mammoth Christmas, like many new holiday specials lately, places familiar commercial-licensed characters in an obligatory Christmas-cartoon setup. (Friday, CBS debuts Hoops and Yoyo Ruin Christmas, a special built around two characters from animated Hallmark e-cards that are considerably funnier than the surprisingly earnest special.) Here, there are holiday decorations—acorns on a string for Scrat to steal, a Christmas tree bedecked with worms—a holiday tradition (Manny’s family-heirloom “Christmas rock”), and, of course, lessons about the meaning of the holiday. After mischievous sloth Sid fears he landed on Santa’s naughty list, the clan of animals hooks up with a flying reindeer and visit the old guy for absolution.
The way it plays out is pleasant enough, though for real deep feeling you’re better off waiting for an annual rerun of A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Fox is pairing Mammoth Christmas, by the way, with Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, a post–Charles Schulz Peanuts special based on old strips.) Although parents with the holiday season ahead of them might appreciate the story’s emphasis on the naughty list. Leveraging children’s hunger for toys to coerce a month’s good behavior out of them—isn’t that what Christmas is all about?