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SYFY WIRE Animation

From the Grinch to Shrek: The best animated holiday specials, ranked

Is your favorite animated special on the list?

By Tara Bennett
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966); Merry Madagascar (2009); Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas (2014)

The start of December (or earlier, if you're overflowing with holiday spirit) officially means it's time for animated holiday specials to cajole us into the spirit of the season. Back in our kid days, the primetime viewing of the holiday special was an event to break up the monotony of the school week, and inch us one step closer to Christmas, Chanukah and/or Kwanzaa. 

Nowadays, kids don't have to sit in front of a television and call dibs to make sure they can watch the holiday special — one that might not air again until next December — in peace. Today, it's a lot easier to fire things up on demand, but even so, a few beloved specials still aren't quite so easy to stream or watch. That got SYFY WIRE thinking about some of the best animated holiday specials that have become synonymous with celebrating the seasons.

Just like we did with Halloween animated specials, SYFY WIRE dove into the treasure trove of animated specials specifically made for primetime viewing consumption (not themed episodes from a series) and ranked them according to their quality, longevity, and resonance existing within that sweet spot between the end of Thanksgiving and New Years Day. 

19. Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas (2013)

Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas (2015)

This fully animated version of Jon Favreau's live-action Elf is a weird endeavor. It truncates the movie narrative down to 43 minutes, which is fine. But it doesn't out-funny, or out-charm the Will Ferrell movie in any way. But we do give it points because the animation is distinctive and to its credit, it doesn't try to copy the stop-animation aesthetic from the theatrical movie. And while Jim Parsons and Mark Hamill try their vocal best (including Ed Asner who returns to voice Santa), this one still pales in comparison to the original.

18. Shrek the Halls (2007)

Shrek 2

This special, which takes place after Shrek the Third, finds Shrek promising his wife, Princess Fiona, a special Christmas surprise. But, he's got no clue what the holiday is all about. As it turns out, the season isn't big in the swamp. Featuring the voice work of the entire theatrical cast, including Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, this special basically allows the characters to riff and share what the holiday means to them. It looks good and sounds good, but doesn't have the depth of story to make it a new-era classic. 

17. Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas (2011)

Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas (2011)

Produced by the now-shuttered Blue Sky Studios, this story takes place after the events of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs when most of the main characters in the franchise have families and kids of their own. It's best not to get too caught up in how exactly Paleolithic mammals would know about Santa or Christmas because it doesn't make sense — just go with it. The special's main story is about Manny introducing his family to an heirloom known as the Christmas Rock. While the entire theatrical voice cast is back, the most successful aspect of this special is the side-plot: Scrat's ongoing chase for acorns, now thwarted by Christmas decorations. 

16. Merry Madagascar (2009)

DreamWorks Merry Madagascar (2009)

The charm of this special comes from its nutty script which finds the gang of animals trying to get back to New York City via hot air balloon. Unfortunately, the lemurs mistake them for the "Marauding Red Night Goblin" (a.k.a. Santa Claus and his sleigh) and shoots them — and the real Santa — down. The penguins try to take up Santa's route, and Julien and Santa bond over toy-making. It's weird and pretty funny, especially based on the comedic timing of the returning voice cast. 

15. Kung Fu Panda Holiday (2010)

Kung Fu Panda: Holiday (2017)

This non-denominational special finds Po in charge of the annual Winter Feast at the Jade Palace. He enlists the help of the Furious Five to make the preparations perfect for the arrival of all of the Kung Fu masters of China. Jack Black leads the returning theatrical voice cast, including Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie, in a fun and frenetic story about the relatable chaos of getting caught up in trying to make the perfect holiday and losing sight of what's important: family.  And there are some great father/son moments between Mr. Ping (James Hong) and Po.

14. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special (2020)

LEGO Holiday Special Star Wars

A new special on the list, The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special takes place during the sequel trilogy time period, after the events of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The events are canon(-ish, maybe?) as Rey is frustrated with her lack of experience and knowledge to teach Finn the ways of the Jedi. So, she and BB-8 head off to Kordoku where they find a key that lets her go back in time to see previous Life Days in time. She ends up crossing paths with Palpatine, Darth Vader, and young Kylo Ren before she gets the counsel she needs from Yoda. As always, the humor and satire of LEGO specials are their core charm. And for fans of the sequel characters, this is the only place to see them (albeit with mostly non-movie voice actors) continue their adventures together.

13. A Rugrats Kwanzaa (2001) 

A Rugrats Kwanzaa (2001)

Kudos to Nickelodeon and the Rugrats creative team for always going the extra mile when it came to celebrating all cultures, and exposing audiences to traditions they might never have known about. Plus, until this special, there weren't any other major mainstream animated franchises celebrating the African harvest festival. Susie Carmichael's Aunt T. is our guide into the holiday, teaching the babies (and audience) what it means and explaining all the symbols of the six-day festival that comes at the end of December. The story weaves together culture, history, and the beloved characters of the franchise in a memorable and illuminating way.

12. Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)

A favorite of Boomer and Gen X kids, Mr. Magoo, as a character, hasn't really carried through with modern kids. But the easy comparison is that he's kinda like the animated version of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean. The bald, bumbling, vision-impaired Magoo is voiced by Jim Backus (Gilligan's Island) and constantly creates chaos all around him. If you love the character, this quasi-comedic version ranks high on the nostalgia scale. 

11. A Rugrats Chanukah (1996)

A Rugrats Chanukah (1996)

Again, Nickelodeon and the Rugrats crew comes through when it comes to explaining the Jewish holiday Chanukah. During the "Festival of Lights" celebration, Grandma Minka reads the story of the holiday to the babies and they imagine themselves as the characters in the ancient tale. There's also a plot about Grandpa Boris' rival from childhood known as the "Meanie of Chanukah." Funny, insightful, and poignant, this is a special that allows Jewish kids to see their celebration given a mainstream spotlight and teaches Gentiles what the holiday is all about. 

10. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

This Rankin/Bass animated special is ostensibly based on Clement Clarke Moore's poem about Santa's trip around the world on Christmas Eve, but the story is really about a clockmaker (Joel Grey) and his mouse neighbors who try to save Christmas by building a singing clock tower. When Pa Mouse's brainy kid Albert (Tammy Grimes) decides to send a letter insulting Santa on behalf of their town, the whole town goes up in arms. But they come up with a plan to serenade their way back into Santa's good graces. Featuring some truly earworm-worthy songs ("Even a Miracle Needs a Hand") and the Broadway-worthy singing of Grey, the special has a weird wit and an original story before it gets to the traditional poem at the very end.

9. A Pinky and the Brain Christmas (1995)

Pinky And The Brain

The lab mice of Pinky and the Brain return (with the voice work of Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche) to try and "take over the world!" once more, but this time via Santa and his elves. Brain wants to enlist the elves to make dolls that will hypnotize the world's population into accepting him as their ruler. His "Noodle Noggin" plan ends up hilariously going off the rails, per usual, but the insanity that ensues set against a holiday backdrop makes this one a comedy classic. One to watch when you need to decompress from holiday stress.

8. Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Frosty The Snowman (1969)

Another Rankin/Bass animated classic, this one based on the "Frosty the Snowman" song created by Walter E. Rollins and Steve Nelson. The special expands upon the song's story by adding in an evil magician whose hat becomes the conduit to Frosty coming alive with the winter snow. There's also Karen, the school girl, who tries to bring Frosty back to the North Pole, a canny rabbit called Hocus Pocus, and even Santa Claus. A vibrant musical with lots of great songs, the gentle voice work of Jackie Vernon as Frosty and narration by Jimmy Durante, this joyful and slightly daft special remains a timeless watch.

7. A Garfield Christmas Special (1987)

A Garfield Christmas Special (1987)

Who knew that A Garfield Christmas Special would have the power to reduce viewers to a sobbing mess? You go in expecting diet and lasagna jokes from the wise-cracking cat, which you get, with an added helping of waterworks involving the story of Jon's grandma and the loss of her beloved husband. A really poignant piece that makes Garfield especially endearing because of his special bond with Grandma (Pat Carroll). It's easily the very best of the Garfield holiday specials and remains an emotional corker 30+ years later.

6. Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town (1970)


Rankin/Bass's stop-motion animated classic gives us the entire origin story of Kris Kringle. From his birth to his youth and then into the white-bearded icon of today. Narrated by Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney voices Kris from his teen years forward. The story charts how the traditions and visual symbols of Santa Claus came to be through the story of Sombertown and the antagonist, Burgermeister Meisterburger. The songs and the musical sequences are the best parts of this special, with the story getting bogged down a bit in the complicated narrative. But there's a lot of charm to be had, and plenty of singing along for fun.

5. Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014)

Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014)

Toy Story That Time Forgot introduces new toys received during Christmas into Bonnie's playroom. In particular, The Cleric of the Battlesaurs (Steve Purcell) proves to be not such a great fit with Woody, Buzz,, and the others because he doesn't know that he's a toy because he's never been played with. The Cleric and his crew end up creating what is essentially a gladiator's battleground that the toys have to win. It's a crazy story that's funny, bizarre, and a clever addition to the ongoing "rules" of the toy world. 

4. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Or the one that introduces the battling siblings of Mother Nature, Heat Miser, and Snow Miser. The singing brothers responsible for weather around the globe become key players in getting a sick Santa back in the sleight delivering toys to the children of the world. One of the more complex stories in a Rankin/Bass stop-motion special, this one addresses Santa's depression over kids believing in him less. It takes the help of his reindeer, elves and children who come to believe in him again to get Santa back on track. The great songs, including the saddest version of "Blue Christmas," and the return of Mickey Rooney as Santa make this one a standout story worth watching annually. 

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Featuring the perfect creative collaboration of Theodor Seuss Geisel's words, director Chuck Jones' singular animation style, and Boris Karloff's perfect narration, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is arguably the very best adaptation of a Dr. Seuss story into another medium. With its vibrant colors, incredible character animation, and excellent music, there's always something new to catch or enjoy with this special as it plays out the Grinch's arc from venal grump to holiday hero. Plus, the singing of Thurl Ravenscroft remains iconic to this day.

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Without this special, society wouldn't have an outlet to celebrate the specialness of the janky fresh Christmas tree, the annual spot-on satire of holiday commercialism, or the now ubiquitous holiday soundtrack of Vince Guaraldi's jazz tones playing in our homes, cars, and malls. The script has Charlie Brown conscripted into directing the community Christmas play to counter his seasonal ennui. What he gets for his time is a bunch of rambunctious kids who prefer dancing to running lines, Lucy plaguing him, Snoopy blinging out his dog house, and Linus reminding us what the true meaning of Christmas is very year. Sweet with a sour edge to it, A Charlie Brown Christmas is for everyone who needs a dose of realism in their holiday cheer. 

1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The crown jewel of the Rankin/Bass stop-animation library, this special plays out like a well-written movie. We get the origin of Rudolph's shiny nose, the darkness of his lack of acceptance by everyone in his life and then his hero's journey along with Hermey the dentist elf and prospector, Yukon Cornelius. Along the way, he'll run into the terrifying Abominable Snow Monster, an Island of Misfit Toys, and get the opportunity to save Christmas. Narrated by Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) and featuring some of the best Christmas tunes ever written by Johnny Marks, Rudolph is a whole meal of a story that has sly wit, stakes, heartbreak, absurdism and heart. 

Stream tons of great holiday movies, specials, and shows on Peacock.