Christmas in July adventures: Prep & Landing / Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice (review)

(image courtesy Walt Disney Company)

One of the great mysteries of our time, or any time really, is how Santa manages to get to every boy and boy in the world in just one night on Christmas Eve.

Granted, thanks to time differences, he has more than the average 8-9 hours to get the job done, but even so, it’s a big ask, and even allowing for a considerable degree of magic, some dedicated, much sung-about reindeer and an army of dedicated elves, you have to wonder how he gets all those presents under all those trees in time.

The answer according to Prep & Landing (2009) and Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice (2011) is an elite team of elves, known as, you guessed it, Prep & Landing, who go ahead of Santa and get each and every house ready for his arrival and speedy departure.

As ideas go, it’s pretty inventive one, and the team behind these two specials, and some shorter associated films – Operation: Secret Santa (2010) and Tiny’s BIG Adventure (2009) – make the absolute best use of it, delivering a fantastically imaginative world that beats with a great big and generous heart.

The key, of course, is that they commit to the extravagant world building from the word go.

To be fair, it’s helped by the fact that not a lot of exposition is needed to establish the basic facts of this world – we know about Santa, the elves, the North Pole, naughty and nice etc – but even with that big narrative assist, the Prep & Landing specials are a every clever undertaking indeed.

Weaving into lyrics from carols, songs, stories and poems, the Prep & Landing specials are awash with clever fun little references and a gleeful attachment to the kinds of gadgetry you would expect Santa to be using in the 21st century.

After all, he might dress like a 1930s Coca-Cola festive season icon but that doesn’t mean he stuck in the age of clay tablets and passenger pigeons.

In fact, if we are to believe these adorably lighthearted specials, Santa has fully-committed to a tech overhaul that sees the naughty and nice lists administered from a giant central computer where everything is rendered, naturally enough, in red and green – it’s a great idea unless one tech savvy kid on the naught list decides to hack the whole operation in Naughty vs. Nice – houses scouted out ahead of time with an array of items that would make a Star trek captain envious (gingerbread man-shaped scanners anyone?), some nifty sparkly compound that puts kids (and one poor elf) to sleep in no time and a control tower that runs with military precision.

It is in every way possible a slick operation with everyone from Santa (“Partridge in the pear tree”) and the eight reindeers (“Eight maids a-milking”) and even aborted present deliveries (“Figgy pudding”) given cute Christmas-y codenames, and nothing left to chance.

The sheer fun of watching this world come alive is given extra zest and tinsel – that last word is the one used whenever anyone is good or wonderful – by characters who spring fully-formed onto the screen in ways that delight you at pretty much every turn.

Take the hero, and at one rather low point (or really points; he is the narrative linchpin after all), Wayne (Dave Foley) who is variously upbeat and ebullient – he is the star Prep and Lander of the group, at it for over 200 years, who is excited about a likely promotion – morose, bored and careless (which leads to some BIG problems with one child who catches him chomping cookies and watching festive TV) – and full of the angst of sibling rivalry and joy of being a member of a family.

In other words, he’s a beautifully well-rounded character who manages to rise and fall and rise again through some rather lovely emotional arcs in two stories that are just sitcom episode-length long, a tight amount of time that usually results in one-note characterisations and too quickly-executed storylines in most cartoons.

Not in Prep & Landing where Wayne, and his brother Noel (Rob Riggle), partner Lanny (Derek Richardson) and Magee (Sarah Chalke), to name but four of the characters who populate these heartfelt, comedically-manic episodes, all feel well-rounded, entertaining, and importantly for a series that invests a Pixar-level of humanity into its storytelling, and worth caring about.

There’s none of this “just enough to do the job” ethos about the characters, the stories, which are tight and elegantly-told, the messages which are meaningful without being overdone or cloying, or the humour which is actually mostly adult-level funny while still serving just the requisite amount of silliness and pratfalls to keep the littlies entertained.

Stuffed full like the stockings that the Prep and Landers puff out ready for the gifts to come when Santa pops down the chimney of witty oneliners, quirky character interactions and the kind of lush Christmas-y imagery that makes you wish could live in a Christmas cartoon – a similar dynamic struck yours truly during last Christmas’s The Grinch which was kinds of candy cane fabulously attractive – the Prep & Landing episodes are a pick-me-up pleasure, a festive animation treat that leaves you smiling, not just simply because it’s all so damn Christmas-y, but because it’s done so very well.

Don’t be surprised if this gorgeously fun and richly-told series stands the test of time – it’s a festively-beguiling mix of heartfelt messages, vivid animation, imaginative world-building and pitch-perfect characterisation that makes escaping into the most wonderful time of year every bit as sublimely lovely as you hope it might be.

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