In response to another recent, insightful posting at Bitch Flicks, Anika Guldstrand’s piece on women (or the lack thereof) in Christmas movies, I wanted to give a shout-out to a Christmas special I recently saw featuring a female protagonist, Olive, the Other Reindeer. Evidently, this one is over 10 years old, so I’m a little behind in my review, but I thought it was worth a mention.
The protagonist here is a girl dog named Olive (voiced by Drew Barrymore). Olive is not only a female, she is a nonconformist. Much to the exasperation of her owner, Tim, Olive shows little to no inclination to act like a dog. She shows little interest in digging up flower beds, likes fleas so much that she has one for a pet, and is actually quite nice to the mailman until he turns out to be a villain. While the Christmas misfit thing has arguably been done, I saw some important differences between Olive and, for example, the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. While the toys spend much of Rudolph lamenting their difference and wanting to be like “real” toys, Olive is very accepting of herself. She doesn’t want to chase cars, and she thinks that’s OK. What she laments is not the fact of her difference, but that her owner is not accepting of it. (Comments could be made here about the patriarchal nature of the master/dog relationship and Olive’s desire to please him, but as I’m sure anyone with a dog in their life will agree, it’s hard not to incorporate that into a dog story!)
Olive is inspired to leave town and head to the North Pole to save Christmas after a series of misunderstandings where she becomes convinced that Tim is replacing her and Santa is requesting her help to replace an ailing reindeer. (“Olive, the other reindeer” vs. “All of the other reindeer,” get it?) In helping Santa, Olive sees an opportunity to use her difference to help others. When she does save Christmas, it’s partly because she turns out to have some dog-like skills after all (namely super smell), but partly because she distinguishes herself through her brains, her can-do attitude, and other abilities above and beyond that of a normal dog.
This special does fall short in several ways. Olive’s penguin sidekick Martini is a bit of a grifter, possibly playing on some unfavorable stereotypes. The Picasso-eque animation grated on me at times, though Olive herself was adorable down to the perfectly-placed tail wags. The music is also a bit uninspired, which is disappointing since no less of a figure than Michael Stipe voices one of the supporting characters and sings a song. In fact, this is probably the only animated Christmas special with a musical number set in a trucker bar, and watching the (male) bar-goers menace and rough-up Olive upon her arrival is a bit disturbing and possibly scary for younger viewers. However, these misfits turn out to have hearts of gold as well, demonstrating another thing I loved about this special: Diversity. The folks behind this special seemed to go out of their way to ensure that every crowd scene includes folks of different skin tones. We also see African-American characters in supporting roles, as a police officer and as a bus driver who goes out of his way to help Olive. The inclusion of explicitly working-class characters is also a bit refreshing. I haven’t read the original book this was based on, so perhaps these elements appear in the original story as well, but nonetheless they are things too seldom seen in holiday tales. Olive, the Other Reindeer may never crack the list of top holiday specials, but for those looking for a more inclusive holiday story, it does the job in a way that is decently entertaining.