Welcome to the Rotoscopers’ Twelve Days of Christmas!Every day until Christmas Eve, we’ll be taking a look at a holiday-themed piece of animation. Check back each day for a new review!
Bart: Dad, if TV has taught me anything, it’s that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs, and it’s gonna happen to us.
Homer: Who’s Tiny Tim?
-from “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”
If I had to sum up “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” in a hundred words or less, I’d probably use that exchange of dialogue. It sums up the essence of what I love about the episode: it embraces the conventions of classic Christmas stories while looking at them with a cynical eye. It says a lot about this episode of The Simpsons – and about Homer Simpson. He knows who Charlie Brown and Papa Smurf are, but he’s unfamiliar with A Christmas Carol.
Yes, even in its pilot episode, The Simpsons‘s unique streak of intelligent, biting, satirical humor was strong. However, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” also manages to tug at the ol’ heartstrings and make a powerful message about the commercialism of Christmas. In a way, the episode is the twisted, black sheep cousin of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” opens with the Simpson family getting ready for Christmas day. Homer doesn’t take home much money from the nuclear power plant, but he and Marge know that, with Homer’s Christmas bonus and Marge’s jar of holiday money, they’ll be able to provide a nice Christmas for Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. When the bonus and the holiday savings dry up, however, Homer finds himself without a way to provide gifts for his family. All hope seems lost until Homer and Bart take a fateful trip to Springfield Downs, the dog racing track. There, a very special Christmas miracle occurs.
The first thing that leaps out at me about “Simpsons Roasting” is how honest it is. Right off the bat, the episode takes potshots at some of the less exciting parts of the holiday season, like interminable elementary school pageants, the tragic moment when the Christmas lights don’t work properly, and seeing the relatives that we don’t want to see. These are the moments that gives the episode its sarcastic humor. These are foibles that are relatable, and that’s what makes them funny.
However, “Simpsons Roasting” saves its most vicious comedy for the most crassly commercial parts of the holidays, like overpriced Christmas trees and battling mobs at the mall. This is where the episode comes closest to A Charlie Brown Christmas. The two shows attack the same target, but they do it in wildly different ways. A Charlie Brown Christmas takes on commercialism by beautifully reminding us of the true reason for the season. “Simpsons Roasting,” on the other hand, attacks commercialism with a dagger, jabbing those commercial points and making us laugh even while it stings.
However, those cynical elements take a backseat to the emotional moments. After all, the Simpsons do get their Christmas miracle at the end of the episode. That miracle unfolds in a fantastically unique way. It doesn’t take place on a snow-covered bridge or in a warm living room; rather, it takes place at a dog race track. This miracle isn’t delivered by Santa Claus or smiling friends; rather, it’s “delivered” by the kick of a disgruntled dog owner. However, the miracle isn’t any less miraculous.
The miracle is a dog: Santa’s Little Helper! Oh my gosh, Santa’s Little Helper. I don’t know if he’s my favorite animated dog, but he’s definitely in my top five. He’s got big Puss in Boots eyes that make you want to scoop him up and take him home. He’s such a loyal dog; no matter what happens over the course of The Simpsons‘s twenty-plus year run, he’s always true to the Simpson family. He’s strangled by Homer, choke-collared by Bart, and almost given away a number of times, but he’s always there and always full of love and loyalty. I love that! (Aw, geez. Why am I crying?)
Anyway, much of Santa’s Little Helper’s awesomeness would come in the future. He’s still pretty great in “Simpsons Roasting” though, because he lends the episode its heart. Throughout the end of the episode, all I wanted was for Santa’s Little Helper to escape his cruel master and join the Simpson family. When it happens, I feel happy for both sides. Both dog and family find a miracle in each other.
In the end, it’s that special combination of sarcasm and sincerity that makes “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” a holiday classic. If you haven’t watched it during this holiday season, you should do so now!
Be sure to catch all the entries thus far in our 12 Days of Christmas Celebration:
AJ's love of movies began when his mom took him to see The Lion King on a warm California day in 1994. He left the theater with his mind blown and with a strong desire to become a filmmaker. AJ's fascinated with films of all kinds, but animated films have always held a special place in his heart, particularly Disney animation, the work of Chuck Jones, and Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson's Peanuts specials. His favorite animated films include (but aren't limited to) Frozen, Beauty And The Beast, Surf's Up, The Bugs Bunny/RoadRunner Movie, and Toy Story 3. Along with films, AJ also loves pop and rock music, hiking, the beach, comic books, traveling, writing, acting, and baseball.