One of the best-ever names for a holiday special (sure as hell beats Frosty Returns) hits home video a year after its TV premiere, in this animated production from Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Based on a book by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, Olive's a hip dash of Christmas humor and fun amidst specials that have just made little kids cry all these years.
See, Olive's not really a reindeer - she's a dog. A strange dog. Voiced by Drew Barrymore, she speaks English to her owner Tim (Jay Mohr), doesn't dig for bones, and won't chase cars. While listening to the radio on Christmas Eve, she hears that Santa may cancel his delivery, as Blitzen is injured. He announces (in a 90s soundbite), that he'll just have to rely on "all of the other reindeer."
Olive is so caught up in the holidays, she thinks Santa is talking about her. Even her pet flea can't believe it.
Once it's set that she's really a lonely misfit -- a holiday story staple -- she's off to the North Pole with a shifty penguin named Martini (The Matrix's Joe Pantoliano). They catch a "Mauvehound Bus" driven by a weirdo named Richard Stands (SNL's Tim Meadows), who once thought the Pledge of Allegiance was for him (say it out loud). But it's not just an easy bus trip that'll get Olive to Santaland.
Our villain is a demented mailman (Simpsons veteran Dan Castellaneta) who just goes postal during the holiday season due to the weight of the all his deliveries. He'd love for Santa's cancellation to hold up, so he's on his own quest to stop Olive and company.
As with any good Simpsons episode, Groening's writer -- Simpsons and David Letterman staffer Steve Young -- fills the story and landscape with bad puns and inside visuals that welcome the adults into the action just as much as the kids. The laughs don't have the stinging irony of The Simpsons, but they are certainly playful enough to hold most viewers' interest.
As is the animation, a freaky mix of multi-dimensional backgrounds and flat characters. It looks like a strange combination of a kid's video game and a set of Colorforms, giving it a splashy, original look.
There are a few musical numbers that whiz by, most notably The Postman's lament about delivering the mail (the best lyrics in the feature), and a ditty headed by REM's Michael Stipe, singing as Schnitzel the Reindeer.
Just a few minutes into Olive, I wondered why Drew Barrymore was voicing our hero. She's not really a voice actor, and doesn't sound too expressive. Then I read that she and partner Nancy Juvonen are also executive producers on this special. Drew may want to audition a few others next time.
But, like most of Olive, Drew's voice grew on me. This is a special that's hard not to enjoy, and it thankfully avoids any sappy finale. It may not enter the pantheon of holiday classics, but it's just too damn cute not to watch once a year. Especially when Olive wags that little tail. That's great.