Happy-go-lucky, pint-sized, pooch Olive (voiced by Drew Barrymore) loves everything about Christmas. Which is why she is heartbroken when a radio broadcast announces Santa Claus’ (Edward Asner) Christmas trip is in peril, because of an injured reindeer. “I’m sure we’ll be okay, so long as we have all of the other reindeer”, mumbles Santa, optimistically, which Olive mishears as a call for “Olive, the Other Reindeer.” Saying goodbye to her pet flea Fido (Ally McBeal’s Peter MacNicol), and depressed owner Tim (Jay Mohr), she embarks on an eventful journey to the North Pole. Olive’s noble quest is hindered by a psychotic Mailman (Dan Castellaneta, a.k.a. Homer Simpson), determined to stop Christmas because he’s sick of delivering heavy parcels, but a number of colourful characters help her along the way.
Produced by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, this delightfully quirky Christmas fable is the best seasonal TV special since the heyday of Rankin-Bass. As with classic holiday fare like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), this counterbalances the sentimentality typical of Christmas cartoons with some really oddball humour and lovably weird characters. In addition to Castellaneta’s irate mail carrier (“Christmas?! Bah, bug and hum!”), we also have Joe Pantoliano as Martini the streetwise penguin. Kicked out of the zoo for smuggling counterfeit Rolexes and dirty magazines (!), he scuttles around with a briefcase full of dodgy merchandise and gets Olive out of a scrape or two. Later on the pair visit the Top of the World bar, populated by rambunctious elves, a violent Easter Bunny and some angry reindeer, including R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe as Schnitzel, Blitzen’s flightless cousin. And yes he does get to sing.
The cartoon adaptation retains the witty wordplay found in the original children’s book by J. Otto Seybold and Vivian Walsh, and sprinkles some adult-oriented gags like a typically Groening dig at their parent network (“Tonight on Fox, the world’s wildest mistletoe accidents!”), and the mailman’s dastardly scheme to send Santa bogus hate mail from children (“Dear Santa, lose some weight and get a real job!”). However, this wisely doesn’t lapse into cynicism and stays true to the spirit of Christmas, weaving in an admirable message that it’s a two way street. You have to work to earn the good things that come your way. Especially good at conveying this message is co-producer/vocal star Drew Barrymore, whose warm tones and plucky demeanour make Olive such a likeable heroine. She may not have the most tuneful singing voice, but her girlish enthusiasm is disarming and most endearing.
Olive’s odyssey wraps up with a gift-giving flight around the world, with celebrity recipients including the Pope (he gets a monogrammed baseball cap), Quasimodo (a backscratcher!), and a Godzilla and Ultraman clone singing along in Tokyo. Surprisingly, this is nearly ten years old and surely set to leap from cult oddity to Christmas classic.