The joyous, handmade spirit of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas specials from the ’60s (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) returns in “Alien Xmas,” a warmhearted, sci-fi variation on the gift of giving from the Chiodo brothers (“Killer Klowns from Outer Space”) and executive producer Jon Favreau. And its arrival on Netflix today couldn’t be timelier.
“Alien Xmas” concerns a kleptomaniac alien who tries to steal earth’s gravity during the Christmas season in the North Pole to grab every available object to possess. That is, until the gray-looking, mischievous X gets mistaken for a doll by a young elf named Holly (voiced by Kaliayh Rhambo), who helps reform the selfish alien, recalling how Cindy Lou Who transforms the Grinch.
“Holiday memories revolve around Rankin & Bass and stop-motion is synonymous with the season because of ‘Rudolph’ and the subsequent specials,” said director Stephen Chiodo, who partners with brothers Edward and Charles out of their studio in San Fernando, California. “In fact, the concept of the Klepts [aliens] came from Black Friday sales. It’s frantic, maniacal, rush for things, and the whole concept of Christmas is forgotten. They want to take and don’t know how to give. It has nothing to do with earth and that’s why the sci-fi concept works so well.”
“Alien Xmas” first began as an illustrated book more than a decade ago (finally published in 2015), and the Chiodos initially pitched Favreau to collaborate on an animated adaptation, having previously worked on the stop-motion portion of his “Elf” feature in 2003. (In fact, “Elf’s” Baby Walrus and Arctic Puffin make a surprise cameo in the special.) Favreau was immediately hooked, but there was never time once his directing career took off with the first two “Iron Man” movies, followed by “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King.” It wasn’t until a brief window prior to “The Mandalorian” series that Favreau was able to shepherd “Alien Xmas” as a holiday special at Netflix.
“It’s so nice to be working with the Chiodo brothers again, we’ve been working to collaborate on something like this since we worked on ‘Elf,'” Favreau said by email. “Ironically, technology has given this art form new life. It had seemed like stop-motion was going to be replaced by new technologies, but in fact streaming services and short form social media have created a new boon for this medium. In addition, lessons that I’ve learned from working with real-time backgrounds and interactive light on ‘The Mandalorian’ have offered some opportunities and approaches that can upgrade the technical aspects of this handmade art form.”
On “Alien Xmas,” that tech upgrade took the form of shooting the gyrotron anti-gravity machine as a light painting effect. “So we did time-lapse and we hooked LEDs to the machine and shot at different frame rates to get the light painting blur,” said Chiodo.
But, other than some Christmas ornament-shaped spaceships made in CG, the rest of “Alien Xmas” was very old school. All of the puppets and sets were done at the Chiodo brothers studio and then shot in a much larger space nearby. The trick was capturing the Rankin/Bass charm without appearing cheap and rickety.
“The level of performance that I wanted to get across needed to be more refined,” Chiodo said. “We animated mostly on 2s while maintaining the hand-made quality of Rankin & Bass. But we gave it a 21st century value. It was achieved through a lack of detail. But we had to find that balance where we gave it enough detail in the art direction to make it look good by today’s standards.”
Santa was a breakout: a big, burly puppet that was difficult to maneuver. He was very physical, pushing other characters, but somewhat annoying, like a friendly bully. The hardest puppet to make, though, was the robot companion to X, SAMTU (Semi Automatic Multi Tasking Unit), because of its Swiss Army knife-like accessories.
But where Favreau came in handy was in his story suggestions. “In the beginning, I wanted X and SAMTU to have more of a contentious relationship like Laurel and Hardy, and Jon suggested X be more like Buster Keaton, the Everyman,” Chiodo said. “He convinced me that was a stronger way to go. It was simpler, more elegant, and then he threw in the idea of X and SAMPTU not talking. I thought it would be hard, but he was right: It was more visual and compelling.”