Christmas loves a franchise — any already beloved thing that it can dress in tinsel and holly or wrap itself around like mistletoe. This year, as every year, it will be especially (and extra-specially) Christmas on television, where most every sitcom and cartoon — and even the odd drama or two — will nod in sincerity or in irony toward the season and its rites and sentiments.
And then there are the Christmas specials, which aim to be so especially extra-special that they will be asked perpetually to return in Christmases future. Since Charles Schultz put his indelible stamp on the holiday with the perfection of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," back in 1965 — initiating a cartoon franchise of his own — characters from the comic pages and the animated talking pictures have tried on the Yuletide for size. (Yes, Garfield, I mean you.) This year, Fox has tied a bow around its "Ice Age" property for "Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas," premiering Thanksgiving night — the first night of Christmas, the way we live now.
"The Ice Age" films, which began in 2002, with a fourth feature slated for 2012, have been increasingly successful in spite of being increasingly less good, and the middling quality of "A Mammoth Christmas" will likely matter to many fans less than the chance to spend more time with Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano), his mate Ellie (Queen Latifah) and "little girl" Peaches (Ciara Bravo); Diego the Smilodon (Denis Leary), Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) and opossums Crash and Eddie (Seann William Scott and Josh Peck).
But Christmas has been strapped on to "Ice Age" like antlers on a dog. It feels at times as if someone had merely made a list of things associated with the holiday and threaded a script through them as if they were so many popcorn balls, with little thought to sense or consistency. Anyone familiar with the relative dates of the Pleistocene and Christian/Common eras might also reasonably wonder how any of this could happen at all, but the Flintstones had their Christmases, too, and animals can't really talk.
It is, in a hurried way, an origin story: the birth of the Christmas tree, Santa's reindeer, his sleigh, his elves, his naughty list and the mistletoe tradition. But it's also a Christmas Must Be Saved story, and a You Must Believe story, and a Lost Child story, and like the "Ice Age" films, involves a dangerous journey. There is also time found, as is the custom of the franchise, to torture the poor little saber-toothed squirrel, Scrat, which I have always found a bit distressing and which is not at all in the Christmas spirit.
Still, there is Leguizamo's cockeyed Sid, the series' most likable character, for his silliness and enthusiasm and usefully comical shape, and its best realized. (It helps that he's not required to do any of the heavy lifting.) Whatever else is happening, Leguizamo and the animators make Sid reliably funny. "It's wildly irresponsible and impulsive," he says when Peaches suggests they go find Santa. "Let's do it."