17 Christmas films and TV specials that we love to watch

Den Of Geek writers choose some of their favourite festive movie and TV treats. Ho ho ho...

Whether you’re a devoted fan of the festive season, or sit firmly in the bah humbug category, there’s a chance that there’s a film or TV programme that you like to watch at this time of the year. It might not be a Christmas movie per se, but it could be the DVD that you reach for when the Yuletide lights go up and the seasonal music starts to play.

We asked our writers to tell us the one that tops their own list every year. And without further ado, here are 17 of our favourite movies and TV specials that we love to watch at this time of the year…

Trading Places Aaron Birch

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This is just such a good film on so many levels that I had to choose it as my Christmas favourite. The story is the kind of wacky premise that could only be produced in the 80s, when commercialism and material gain was rife, and it showcases excellent performances from both Dan Aykroyd (Louis Wainthorpe III) and Eddie Murphy (Billy Ray Valentine).

Aykroyd was perfectly cast as the snobbish “Like he went to Harvard” Wainthrope, and Eddie Murphy was in his prime as a comedy megastar. The supporting cast was also excellent, especially Denholm Elliot’s perfect take on Wainthrope’s long suffering butler.

John Landis’ twisted rags to riches story was penned with such skill and packed with fantastic one-liners and stand out moments that it simply doesn’t ever get tiresome. Even with some of the obvious racial connotations that writers would get raked over the coals for today, the movie never dips into cheap laughs, something films these days often struggle to achieve.

Later scenes do lose some of the focused writing, such as the borderline ridiculous train journey, but it’s all good fun, and the movie doesn’t really suffer because of it.

Watching Trading Places always makes me want orange juice and belly pork, too…

Knowing Me, Knowing Yule With Alan PartridgeMark Oakley

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Christmas is all about comedy specials for me: The Two Ronnies, The Royle Family, Only Fools And Horses. King of all, though, is Steve Coogan’s ode to the festive daytime chat show, Knowing Me, Knowing Yule With Alan Partridge, or KMKYWAP for short. That does sound rather like a moist toilet tissue, however.

Alan Partridge is, for my money, the best comedy creation of the past twenty years. Since appearing on Radio 4 back in 1992, it was clear that there was a new chat in town and when the show was brought to television we were given a fresh insight into how this one-man disaster zone operated. We didn’t, however, know that much about his private life – Linton Travel Tavern and all – until the Christmas special.

For what the programme did, and brilliantly so, was provide the odd glimpse into how Alan filled his days outside of broadcasting. So we witness him delivering presents to children in hospital (the presents are in the boot of Alan’s trusty Rover, of course), we get to see him running through Norwich Cathedral’s cloisters making business deals along the way, and we get to hear him commenting on just how nice the action of a CD player is in his favourite Tandy store.

In essence, the Christmas special is a bridge between the chat show Alan Partridge and the man we were yet to see: the Bond-loving, lonely middle-aged man who is never too far away from losing it. This is showcased brilliantly in Knowing Me, Knowing Yule as the many mistakes and problems with the show begin to mount up, taking the final straw as Alan punches Commissioning Editor for BBC television Tony Hayers with a stuffed partridge on his hand.

It’s broad comedy, of that there’s no doubt, but it’s so well executed it marks a highlight for Coogan’s character. As does the entire programme. It’s arguably the finest slice of Partridge we’ve ever been presented with and it’s a staple of my Christmas TV viewing.

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The Lion, The Witch And The WardrobeBarry Donovan

Despite the heavy-handed religious analogies I’m a complete sucker for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia in all formats, including the 1980s BBC adaptations. Aged seven I gave a presentation to my class in school on how I’d converted my bedroom into a miniature Narnian vista. Strewn with white blankets representing snow and Lego versions of all the characters, it was an impressive sight spoilt only by my poorly conceived idea to feature He-Man’s mount, Battle Cat, in the role of Aslan. However much I could put his massive relative size down to perspective there was simply no getting away from his green tiger nature.

With the recent film, I have no issue with the screenplay or Andrew Adamson’s direction taking liberties with the source material, especially when it serves to make the film better paced, less of a Christian allegory, and more exciting. I don’t remember Aslan biting the Witch’s face off in the novel and I’m fine with the removal of thinly disguised anti-Muslim sentiment.

If, like me, you have a rolling production line of cousins, the DVD is an easy guaranteed Christmas treat.

An ex-girlfriend of mine is a big fan of realism in films. Suffice it to say that when I dragged her along to see The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe she liked it up until the children walked through the wardrobe. I, meanwhile, left the cinema wide-eyed and full of childlike wonder. I couldn’t wait to get home, gorge myself on Turkish Delight, and thoroughly investigate furniture under the guise of ‘tidying up’. Our differing opinions on the film’s actual quality were merely a contributory reason for our subsequent break-up.Blackadder’s Christmas CarolAlex Westthorp

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I can instantly get into the festive spirit by watching Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. A wonderful piss take of Dickensian England, produced for Christmas 1988, Carol has many things to recommend it.

Robbie Coltrane is superb as the Spirit of Christmas. When offered a cup of tea by Blackadder, the Spirit asks for something “…a wee bit more, medicinal”. Blackadder, apologetically, states he only has “Nurse MacCready’s surgical bruise lotion” to which the delighted Spirit replies, “Nothing but the best in this house, eh?!”  

In a wonderful reversal, the saintly Ebeneezer Blackadder becomes the cynical, icy Blackadder we all know and love. Immediately he is abusing Baldrick (“I’ve made you… a fist!”) and delivering a series of hilarious insults to the spongers (“Mrs Scratchit, I’ve always found you foul… and more than a little.”).

Amongst this cornucopia of crawlers is Denis Lill’s mutton-chopped beadle in charge of a bunch of obese orphans (Erkan “Roland Browning” Mustafa amongst them) and a bonneted former Doctor Who girl, Nicola Bryant, as Blackadder’s goddaughter Millicent, with her eardrum shattering laugh. Jim Broadbent as Prince Albert, is on fine form, especially when pretending to be from “Glars-gow”. Blackadder notes “A fine city, I love the Gorbals” to which a confused Albert replies “Ah yes, the Gorbals, I love them too, a lovely couple, lots of fun!”

Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Miranda Richardson sparkle in the fabulous sci-fi inspired “Christmas Future” scenes: “Did you vanquish the Nibblepibbillies?” asks Hugh Laurie as Lord Pigmot, to which Blackadder replies, “No, my Lord Pigmot, I did not ‘vanquish the Nibblepibblies’ as you’ve just made them up!”

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I only watch this episode once a year and what a treat it is. Its magic is best encapsulated by Blackadder’s satisfied observation “… up and down the country, from the highest to the lowest, to those charming plump folk somewhere in the middle, everyone is enjoying Christmas.” 

A very messy Christmas to you all!

A Christmassy TedSeb Patrick

Most ‘watch every year’ Christmas traditions tend to be something that dates back to your childhood – the likes of The Snowman here in the UK, or The Grinch and A Charlie Brown Christmas in the States.

But every so often, something will pop up and establish itself as something that you just have to watch each Christmas before it can really feel complete. In my case, for some reason, I can’t get through Christmas Eve (and it has to be the 24th rather than any other day) without watching the Father Ted Christmas special, A Christmassy Ted.

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It’s far from writers Linehan and Mathews’ favourite of their own episodes, but I think they do it a disservice. It’s true that it does essentially feel like two episodes glued together, and the first – featuring the absolutely classic ‘eight priests trapped in the lingerie section of a department store’ sequence – is both funnier, and far more ‘Christmassy’.

But while the second half is a little problematic (just why would the Golden Cleric award be given on Christmas day? Don’t all those priests and nuns have more important things to do?), there’s still some quality material, and the double-length nature of the episode (and it’s not as if there isn’t a consistent plot thread across the two, even though it does still essentially feel like a two-parter without a gap in the middle) does go some way towards making it feel ‘special’.

And from the sleigh bells added to the title music, to all the stuff about Dougal’s advent calendar (“Ruud Gullit sitting on a shed”), it really does feel an integral part of the Christmas atmosphere.

TwinsLuke Savage

Twins is pretty much my perfect Christmas movie: lightweight, absurd, ultimately heart-warming, and with nothing even remotely approaching a plot to concentrate on. So if people are talking over it, or you have to do the polite thing and mingle with any relatives over for the day, you can slip back into it seamlessly without losing a thing.

You shouldn’t have to rent or buy it either. It’s always on TV. Although this being an Arnie family film from the 80s, you’re going to lose most of the naughty language and gratuitous violence when it gets broadcast at about 5pm. But you should still get the good stuff, like Arnie trying to discern his family tree: “You’re my farder, dis is my mudder.”

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If I don’t watch it I’ll get a bit twitchy, reach for Kindergarten Cop as a temporary fix, but then come back for the real thing.

Ivan Reitman and James Cameron are the only directors who’ve managed to harness the comedic potential of Arnie to full effect. Twins is Schwarzenegger’s Annie Hall. And it makes me all warm and fuzzy every time I watch it.  That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?

GremlinsGlen Chapman

 Nothing gets me in the festive mood more than Gremlins. Sure, there are other films I watch every year in the lead up to Christmas (Scrooged, Home Alone, A Nightmare Before Christmas etc) but it never feels like Christmas until I’ve watched Gremlins.

I’ve had numerous conversations with family, friends and work colleagues over the years about my belief of Gremlins being the ultimate Christmas movie and, alarmingly ,I’m often faced with the response that it isn’t a Christmas movie. Clearly this is utter nonsense! Look at that picture and tell me it’s not a Christmas movie!

The film has got Santa hats, snow, a father buying an awesome present for his son, it’s set at Christmas and it references It’s A Wonderful Life a few times. There’s no way that Gremlins couldn’t be considered a Christmas movie.

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25 years after it was originally released, it still stands up as a great watch. It has it all: superb direction by Joe Dante, great script by Chris Columbus, satire on consumerism, dark humor, numerous film references, good action, great story and a sad finale – a Mogwai isn’t for life, it’s just for Christmas.

So if you want to get in the Christmas spirit get some mulled wine and pop Gremlins on. It’s enough to give even the biggest scrooge some Christmas cheer.

Bernard And The GenieRobert McLaughlin

While not a showy as some Christmas movies or shows, this charming little Richard Curtis written gem from the 1990s is always something my family and I sit down to watch over the festive season.

Starring Alan Cumming, Rowan Atkinson and Lenny Henry, the story involves a forlorn loser (Cumming) who works in an antiques dealership for Atkinson, who steals the show as being the slimy and repellent boss from hell.

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Being conned out of work for having a sense of morals and left penniless and friendless (and girlfriend less, as she is having an affair with his friend), Bernard stumbles across a magic lamp containing Lenny Henry as an over the top Genie. Together the two share a bond, with Bernard showing the Genie around modern day (well mid-90s) London and Josephus the Genie granting Bernard all the wishes he wants, which are all nice things, really, like making it snow at Christmas and for people he likes to win the pools and other such things.

Silly, feel-good and full of Christmas cheer, Bernard And The Genie has become, for my family, a Christmas treat, and seeing Lenny Henry recounting knocking about with Jesus, washing his dreads in the toilet and seeing a department store Santa’s grotto giving out ‘real’ toys like ponies and Ninja Turtles, this little BBC gem always makes me smile. 

ElfRupert de Paula

Those regular readers of this site may have caught my semi-rant about the dubious virtues of the Christmas movie during my recent review of Nativity! If you didn’t, it was basically a bit of a bah humbug moment. This doesn’t mean I have no time at all of the festive film, just that I prefer my sugar with a pinch of salt.

It may come as a surprise then that my vote goes to one of the most overtly saccharine entries into the genre, Will Ferrell’s Elf.

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To be honest, I don’t even know myself why this film raises up a rosy glow inside me. The obvious visual gag of seeing a six-foot-plus, middle aged, fuzzy-haired goon dressed up as an elf is a good start. As is Ferrell’s poker-straight face, constant throughout.

Buddy represents the child within, whose infantile excitement always surfaces in the holiday season, however hard we try and deny this to ourselves. This is the true spirit of Christmas: that it’s fun! Yeah, it’s a chore sometimes and crassly over-commercialised. But, dangnamit, if it ain’t half worth the fuss when it all comes together.

And that’s the Elf message…I think.

It is also a hilarious film, and Buddy one of Ferrell’s three great comic creations, before he settled into a lazy groove of ploughing out the same shit ad infinitum, with countless side splitting one-liners. For example: “You’re not Santa. You smell like beef and cheese!”

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Santa Claus: The MovieCarley Tauchert

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Every Christmas Eve there is a ritual that I follow without fail. About 3pm after all the rushing around is done, I will sit down with a hot drink and a gingerbread cookie (seasonally shaped, of course) and watch Santa Claus: The Movie.

My obsession with this film can be traced back many a year ago to when it was first released on video and my mum rented it for me. She also told me Santa Claus in the movie was, in fact, the real Santa Claus and they only changed his name in the credits so nobody would know (I could have probed further, but I was only five).

This, mixed in with the fact that the film is just so magical, keeps pulling me back.

Produced by Ilya Salkind who was behind the Superman movies, it didn’t skimp on special effects, sets and costumes, making the world of Santa and his elves real. Sure some of the effects have aged over time, but this just adds to the nostalgia.

With Dudley Moore as Patch an elf and John Lithgow as baddie B.Z., Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without this movie and nothing by Tim Allen could touch it!

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The Muppet Christmas Carol Nick Smith

Muppet creator Jim Henson was dead. Dead as a doornail. But 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol proved that the little felt stars could live on under the guidance of his son Brian.

This was the first Muppet movie to take a classic novel and turn it into a cavalcade of corny jokes, cloth-eared puns, slapstick and charming characters. Michael Caine played Ebeneezer Scrooge, the grim businessman shown the error of his ways by three Christmas spirits. Kermit is Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy is his wife and Robin the Frog is Tiny Tim. Statler and Waldorf are a rattling good replacement for Jacob Marley. Fozzie Bear is Scrooge’s old employer, Fozziwig.

Amongst the silliness, the script stays true to Dickens’ original tale (Dickens is played by the accident-prone Gonzo). Thanks to Caine’s performance we care about Scrooge’s fate, even though the plot is so well-known. His theme song is incredibly catchy (“There Goes Mr. Humbug…”).

There’s a level of sophistication that makes this Christmas movie watchable when most others descend into schmaltz. Okay, Cain’s singing is schmaltzy. But the double act of Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat always bring the fanciful goings-on back to earth with their self-referential wit.

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While it wasn’t a megahit during its theatrical release, Muppet Christmas Carol found its niche on VHS and is now a seasonal viewing staple. And quite rightly so, because it understands its source text, doing justice to Dickens in a way that subsequent versions don’t.

Sherlock Holmes: The Blue CarbuncleElliot Thorpe

 Christmas just isn’t the same anymore.

Remember the days when the schedules were crammed full of movies that we’d never otherwise see? It’d be the only time we’d ever get to watch Star Wars for a start…

Now we’re spoilt, what with multi-channel TV broadcasting the ‘big’ movies every week of the year and stores (online and in the real world) permanently selling whatever we visually desire.

So, to be asked what, for me, constitutes a seasonal viewing pleasure I found to actually be harder than I thought.

After long deliberation, I surprised myself by realising that every year I sit down and watch the Granada Sherlock Holmes episode The Blue Carbuncle. There’s a mystery about a big blue jewel that Holmes solves, of course, with the ease of a genius. But it’s the setting that draws me in – romantically Victorian, the proper version of Christmas! All in 50 minutes and with Jeremy Brett, too.

Traders selling roasted chestnuts, Holmes’ roaring open fire in his rooms in Baker Street, the goose club, the barrel organ grinding out a carol as the snow settles around Hansoms, the urchins on the street darting out of the way of the bobby on his beat, mufflers, top hats and canes, people scurrying excitedly home through the foggy London streets, presents wrapped in brown paper clutched under the arm, the clip-clop of hooves on cobbles.

Christmas just isn’t the same anymore!

Doctor Who: The Christmas InvasionJulian Whitley

The annual Doctor Who Christmas Special has become as much a festive televisual tradition as Morecambe And Wise and the inevitable rebroadcasting of The Great Escape. With episodes featuring the Doctor facing off a revenge hungry Racnoss in the bowels of the Thames Barrier, preventing the Titanic from colliding with Earth, and averting the destruction of Victorian London by the CyberKing, it’s testament to Russell T Davies’ vision that something so bold, smart and downright ambitious has become as much a Christmas institution as crackers and turkey.

However, it’s The Christmas Invasion, the first of these yearly specials, and David Tennant’s full debut as the Tenth Doctor, that is arguably top of the (Christmas) tree.

Bravely holding Tennant’s now-iconic eccentric portrayal back until the end, The Christmas Invasion finds the Doctor weak after regeneration, as Earth is brought to the brink by the threat of invasion by the Sycorax. Featuring swashbuckling action, genuine threat, and a complex moral core, The Christmas Invasion set the standard for all that followed.

This year’s two-parter, the ominously titled The End Of The World, sees Tennant’s tenure come to a poignant end, as millions of tears will undoubtedly be wept into Christmas puddings throughout the county.

In The Bleak Midwinter (aka A Midwinter’s Tale)Simon Brew

You’d think that by now, every film in the world would have had at least one DVD release somewhere on the planet. Kenneth Branagh’s gut-bustingly hilarious Christmas movie, In The Bleak Midwinter (known as A Midwinter’s Tale in the US), is the exception to the rule. It was a film I managed to catch on its original cinema release, and have since relied on an increasingly aged VHS of, and it’s a wonderful send up of luvvie-dom.

The basic premise of the film is that a bunch of thesps are putting on a production of Hamlet on Christmas Eve. But that’s the basis for some superb comedy performances, chiefly from the wonderful Richard Briers. But there’s also Julia Sawalha’s short-sighted Ophelia, John Sessions as Queen Gertrude and Celia Imrie in one of her very best performances (and that’s saying something) as Fadge.

It’s a brutally hard film to track down, which is a real pity, as for me it’s up there with anything Branagh has done to date. Filmed in black and white, it goes a little sentimental by the end (it is Christmas, to be fair), but it’s genuinely one of the funniest comedies of the 1990s, and a Christmas movie that’s aching to be discovered.

The Office: Christmas SpecialsPete Dillon-Trenchard

I love Christmas telly. Once a year, I put aside my natural cynicism as I let my inner five-year-old out to bask in a sea of heart-warming morals, elderly bearded actors getting work, and, of course, happily ever afters.

For me, the happy ending that never fails to make me collapse into a quivering wreck on the sofa has to be 2003’s Office Christmas Specials.

The story of slightly hapless paper salesman Tim Canterbury and receptionist Dawn Tinsley will likely be familiar to many a geek (itcertainly is to me): boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl is already in a relationship with someone who is clearly wrong for her, boy and girl don’t get together, boy sulks.

This was as far as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had taken the characters in the series proper, and for a while it seemed as though Tim and Dawn would never get their happily ever after.

But the minute we meet Dawn in the special, unhappily babysitting for Lee’s sister in America rather than following her dreams, we know the stage is set for a reunion. What makes it so brilliant is that Gervais and Merchant build up to it slowly, teasing the audience by keeping the pair apart for as long as possible. And when they do meet, it’s about as sweetly awkward as you’d expect. They share a bit of the old banter, before saying pained goodbyes; it’s heartbreaking. We see Dawn being driven away as Tim tells the camera he doesn’t know what a happy ending is. They think it’s all over.

Tim’s sharing a joke with Brent and Gareth… Dawn appears in the background… They kiss! A nation cheers. And I reach for the tissues.

It’s A Wonderful LifeGemma Cartwright

It’s A Wonderful Life was made in 1946, is on TV at Christmas time every year, and is loved by millions. So it makes it even more ridiculous that I didn’t watch it until I was 22 years old.

On discovering I’d never seen it, my shocked and appalled housemate sat me down and made me watch it. Coincidentally, that same year my parents gave me the DVD for Christmas, and I’ve watched it every year since. Usually to fill the time before Doctor Who.

Much of the film’s charm can be put down the casting of the ridiculously charismatic and watchable Jimmy Stewart as protagonist George Bailey (they definitely don’t make ‘em like they used to).

Plot-wise, the film borrows a lot from A Christmas Carol, but manages to put a fresh spin on an old idea. Even now, it seems quite modern and current in terms of theme, and this is one film that has a moral we can all appreciate.

For the three of you who’ve yet to see it, I won’t ruin it for you. But suffice to say it’s worth going through the lows to get to the highs.  Ignore Phoebe from Friends‘ accusation that it should be called ‘It’s a Sucky Life’. This film really is wonderful!

Mark Pickavance

There are plenty of movies I associate with Christmas. Curiously many of them are war movies as that’s what they put on each year when I was a child, so each festive season I was confident in seeing the vast majority of The Heroes Of Telemark, The Longest Day, Tobruk, The Great Escape and 633 Squadron, to name just a few.

But only one movie to really stuck in my mind for it’s encapsulation of all things Christmas was the Capra Classic, It’s A Wonderful Life.

I’ve been fascinated by this film since I first saw it on TV, and my interest is no less dulled these days. It was the first time I considered the implications of how removing a single person from the timeline might have dramatic consequences. But in later years I also got an appreciation for the production on an entirely different level.

A careful analysis of some scenes, or rather what’s happening in the background, reveals a subtly different version of George Bailey’s evening, one that was scripted and then radically altered in the editing room.

Truly wonderful performances by Henry Travers as Clarence the Angel and James Stewart as the hapless George add strong resonance to proceedings, which, to my mind, are a showcase of Capra’s directorial skills, the editing ability of William Hornbeck, and the cooperative writing abilities of Capra, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.

Old movies don’t get much better than this one, and it’s a perfect tonic to anyone who finds Christmas overly stressful.

Invader Zim: The Most Horrible Christmas EverGaye Birch

In our lifetimes what we watch and listen to are part of Christmas traditions as much as what we cook, hang or wrap for the holiday.

As customs vary by country, region and families, growing up in the States my annual Christmas viewing ritual included The Wizard Of Oz, Laurel and Hardy in The March Of The Wooden Soldiers, It’s A Wonderful Life and TV specials with Rudolph, The Snowman, The Grinch, Frosty, Charlie Brown, Ziggy, Jim Henson’s Christmas Toy and Christmas Carols starring George C Scott, Patrick Stewart, The Muppets, Bill Murray and even Mr Magoo.

When I moved to the UK, I welcomed new shows and Scrooges into the TV festivities with other annual film airings (The Great Escape) and the Christmas specials of UK TV, new (Hogfather, Robbie The Reindeer), and old (Father Ted, Blackadder, The Box Of Delights and Bernard And The Genie). 

With two countries’ worth of telly tidings under my tightening belt, I now reach Christmas saturation point faster than leftover turkey rots on faulty fridge shelves. When I’ve had all the Tiny Tims I can tolerate, and the artificial sweetener of Christmas telly threatens to make my veins go candy-caned, I need Zim.

Invader Zim‘s Most Horrible Christmas Ever gives me a Christmas of the future with a murderous Santa, Bitey the headless vampire doll, GIR as an adorable robot elf, and Mini Moose.

Zim’s unseasoned plot to teleport all Earth monkeys (that’s us, folks) to their doom using a crazed jollified Santa suit is right up there with any classic in my personal Yuletide TV Guide.

A Zimmy Christmas restores my faith in black comedy cartoons and the fine art of comic mockery for all mankind. And moose make any holiday better. That’s fact.