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Netflix’s Alien Xmas is a reskinned Grinch movie for stop-motion nostalgists

With a fair bit of Invader Zim and Rankin-Bass thrown in, too

The little grey alien X, dressed as Santa Claus, sneaks down a colorful pile of presents in Alien Xmas Image: Netflix

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Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Alarmist conservative commentators and holiday specials have one big thing in common: they always seem to think Christmas is under attack. Whether it’s grinches, Wile E. Coyote-style holiday-stealing wolves, a well-meaning Halloween avatar, or Santa Claus’ own illness and grouchiness, something’s always coming along to interfere with the holiday. At this point, rescuing Christmas from various thieves and calamities is almost as reliable a tradition as decorating trees and giving gifts.

So it’s no big surprise that Netflix’s new stop-motion movie Alien Xmas is similarly about a group of extraterrestrials coming along to steal Christmas from its rightful owners. In fact, there aren’t a lot of surprises in Alien Xmas in general. It’s a throwback special, seemingly aimed even more at nostalgic parents than at the current round of kids who still believe in Santa.

Anyone who grew up in the pre-streaming era will immediately recognize the look of Alien Xmas, a 42-minute stop-motion special visually inspired by the Rankin-Bass “Animagic” classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus. Modern audiences could be forgiven for thinking this is a new company approximating the old Animagic style in CG, but Alien Xmas is actually the work of the Chiodo brothers, a collective that’s been creating stop-motion and animatronic effects since the 1980s. (Most notably, they did the stop-motion sequences for the Will Ferrell movie Elf — sequences which again directly referenced the old Rankin-Bass classic TV specials.)

A stop-motion Santa Claus tells an audience of child elves a story in Alien Xmas Image: Netflix

That gives Alien Xmas a familiar feeling of handmade charm, but it doesn’t entirely have the familiar quirk level or innocent sincerity of the old Rankin-Bass specials. If anything, it feels calculated to a fault, with plenty of wide-eyed declarations about the power of love and Christmas cheer. Based on the 2006 book by director Stephen Chiodo and Jim Strain, Alien Xmas is one of those stories that expands 40 pages of pictures into 40 minutes of action, and winds up feeling thin as a result.

Some of the setup feels inspired by the much weirder, more twisted action in Invader Zim. An alien race called the Klepts has become greedy, decadent, and joyless after exhausting its own planet’s resources. So they roam across the universe in a huge armada, raiding other planets. When they arrive at Earth, their supreme leader Z (Barbara Goodson, in the special’s only really fun vocal performance) is delighted to see how much “stuff” the planet has, and she launches a plan to turn off Earth’s gravity so all its “stuff” will float away into space. “We will stuff their stuff into our stuff chambers, and then their stuff will be our stuff!” she exults.

Alien Xmas could use more of Goodson’s over-the-top commitment, and more of the sheer lunacy of this plan. When no one else volunteers go to to Earth and set up the anti-gravity device, the littlest alien, X, heads down to the North Pole with the device and a cantankerous robot helper, hoping both to prove his worth and to snatch up everything he can get for himself before the rest of the Klepts get involved. Instead, to no one’s surprise, he learns a lesson about what makes Christmas special, and about the value of giving and generosity.

The special’s short runtime doesn’t leave much room for nuance in all of this. X’s education comes from a little elf girl, Holly, who’s sad because her inventor dad is hard at work on a new super-sleigh for Santa and isn’t spending much of the holiday with her. The riff on the “neglectful father who spends too much time at work and is missing out on family time” stereotype doesn’t do anything new for the cliché, apart from adding some sympathy for the dad. (He’s gone for two days! He’s making Christmas happen! It’s important!) And when X meets Holly, his conversion is so instantaneous and complete that it barely makes an impact — think “the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day” if it came in the middle of the story, and with minimal fanfare.

Elf-girl Holly looks on while little alien X sits in her father’s new Santa super-sleigh in Alien Xmas Image: Netflix

There’s a lot of How the Grinch Stole Christmas DNA at work in Alien Xmas, along with the Invader Zim feel (Z even rags on X for being so short, which feels like a callback to Zim’s hilariously silly heightocracy) and the Rankin-Bass look. These are all good, solid referents, enough to make Alien Xmas feel like a cozy, familiar place to be. It’s a harmless holiday distraction, short and cute and speedbump-free. But it’s lacking any real verve or signature of its own. Most noticeably, X is a non-verbal character who communicates entirely in little “Ooo! Hnn. Ahh!” noises supplied by Dee Bradley Baker. In a story that’s entirely about his emotional revelations and how they lead him to alter everything about his being, that feels like a misstep — it’s up to a narrator (Santa, voiced by Keythe Farley, who’s telling the whole story) to explain what X is experiencing.

And that may connect with Alien Xmas’ tiniest viewers, who may relate to X’s smallness and the way bigger aliens underestimate him. It may also connect with adults who are just seeing all of this as a reskinned Grinch story, complete with a pure-hearted little girl who represents the meaning of Christmas, and a good-hearted community that backs her up by living a warm, greed-free life. But it leaves the whole film feeling a little removed from its own central character and its central focus. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Alien Xmas, a cute supplement to a long canon of Christmas-in-peril stories. But there’s nothing here that would make it a classic worthy of inspiring future canon entries, either.

Alien Xmas is streaming on Netflix now.

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