Christmas television is usually pretty inspirational stuff.
It makes sense – if you’re going to set a story at the most, magical time of the year, it’s almost impossible for it not to be uplifting in some fashion.
Comes with the territory right?
So it stands to reason that Nickelodeon’s first festive animated feature, first screened in 2016, goes full tilt on the inspirational angle, especially given that the titular hero of the story, Albert (voiced by Bobby Moynihan), is a very small Douglas fir tree who wants to be the very big (think Rockefeller Centre-sized tree) for Empire City.
It’s a big deal to be chosen to be the tree of the season, and usually the lucky recipient – all the trees, plants, bushes and even weeds in this Christmas special are delightfully sentient and ridiculously nimble – is a massive, sky-hugging fir tree chosen under a blanket of hyped-up media coverage.
The idea that Albert would ever be chosen is hilarious but then this is one young Douglas fir tree who has enough self-confidence for a forest of his bigger kin, and any humility that might be lurking beneath his bauble-bedecked, lit-up fronds is lost when the other plants in the nursery he calls home, Earth Mama’s (the owner is voiced by Mary Pat Gleason), egg him on to seek his fame and glory in the big city.
Chief cheerleader for his very sweet but overweening festive ambitions, and honestly at first Albert comes across as more than a little annoyingly full of himself, is Maisie (Sasheer Zamata), a super upbeat palm tree who also happens to be Albert’s girlfriend.
So full marks to her for supporting her, er, significant other Douglas fir tree, and kudos to all the other plants, including a weed named Gene (Judah Friedlander) who is Albert’s best friend and a resident in his pot (no one else wanted to have him so hurrah for Albert’s unconditional love and support), for convincing to follow his dream.
That’s what you want your friends to do, right? Especially at Christmas.
But considering Earth Mama’s is in a small town and the only way for Albert and Maisie to get to the tree selection ceremony is to hitch a ride in the back of the truck that Earth Mama’s son and granddaughter are transporting some seedlings in – they are so cute and a little scared of where they’re headed so Albert rather nicely reassures them that like him, they are small plants who can do BIG things if they just believe (the theme of the show) – and hope they make it in time.
Now, if you’ve ever wondered, and frankly who hasn’t, whether a potted Douglas fir tree and a palm can fend off bad psychotic plants, leap onto a roof and off again and survive being sent along a conveyor belt in a paper mill, Albert is your definitive proof that your potted plants, sitting quietly and unassumingly in the corner of your living room, are capable of near Marvel superhero levels of derring-do.
In fact, as Albert and Maisie battle to escape the clutches of Cactus Pete/Roy (Rob Riggle), who is more than a little put out that for one month of the year he loses his prime position in the restaurant he’s the mascot to the temporarily resident Christmas tree, they are so agile that they put we mere multi-limbed bipedal humans to shame.
It’s impressive stuff in a special that has more than a few hilarious OTT touches.
Apart from Cactus Pete/Roy who, until his final act epiphany (which we all know is coming; this is a Christmas tale of redemption after all) is a raving loony out for branch-maiming revenge, there’s some serious plant-based violence on display when Albert and Maisie have to fight off his goons.
Throw in some manically-hungry rabbits who pursue Albert and Maisie through the forest in search of their soft and tender, non-covered in snow leaves like zombies after living flesh – they don’t succeed and the scene where they’re marooned, sliding mercilessly on the ice is a gem of visual comedy – and Albert has a distinctly twisted, near demented vibe running gloriously through it.
It’s not always a consistently great watch, let down by some fairly ordinary dialogue, uneven characterisation and rather predictable plotting but it excels when it comes to telling a story that inspires without being ridiculously, sugary sweet.
There is, as mentioned, an uplifting ending (of course there is; this is not a spoiler if you’ve seen even one Christmas animated story) but it is tempered by some weirdly, manic touches and a self-effacing (finally!) protagonist who does the right thing by everyone including himself when the wood chips are down.
Albert is, on the whole, a delight; not perfect enough to become a real classic but good enough that it’s worth adding to your Christmas viewing roster if only to be reminded that rabbits sliding across ice without no self-control is one of the funniest ever, festive tale or not.