Given the glut of holiday-related specials old and new, it’s notable how rarely anyone tries something different. So give NBC credit for style points, if not quite execution, with “How Murray Saved Christmas,” a one-hour animated special adapted by “The Simpsons” producer Mike Reiss from his bestselling children’s book. Presented entirely in verse and cheekily punctuated by original songs from Reiss and Walter Murphy (“Family Guy”), the whole exercise begins with snarky promise and, with its unrelenting tone, gradually feels about as fresh as mistletoe three days after all the presents are opened.
Jerry Stiller provides the voice of Murray, a cranky deli owner enlisted to deliver Santa’s goodies after the latest crackpot invention from the cheerful Edison Elf (Sean Hayes) accidentally knocks St. Nick silly.
The action is set in the town of Stinky Cigars, an awful name intended to keep visitors away, obscuring the fact that all the various “holidays” (Lincoln, Washington, Columbus, St. Patrick) live there. Of course, Santa turns out to be a bit of a jerk, and Murray’s sour demeanor can be traced in part to his shadowy past.
Playfully irreverent (Dennis Haysbert provides the narration) and clearly pitched to tickle adults along with kids, “Murray” features such moments as a sprightly elf ditty with the lyrics: “We never miss a day of work, ’cause we don’t have health insurance.” Nor are the tots likely to get throwaway gags like a store named Salvador’s Dollies.
Ultimately, though, it all feels a bit more clever on the page than the screen, and the music becomes too much of a good thing, given its ubiquity. Frankly, many of the parents who found the book a welcome respite from reading the same cloying children’s stories time and again might not be quite as enamored with the project in this form, especially since the book’s distinctive illustrations (by David Catrow) have been homogenized in the process.
For all that, it’s easy to root for a network trying to establish a new holiday special — especially one stripped of the sap that characterizes most of them. And NBC should have a good day-before platform to promote “Murray,” thanks to “Peter Pan Live!”
Reiss has talked about bringing a “Simpsons” sensibility to Christmas specials, and in that sense: mission accomplished. But at the risk of sounding like a Grinch, while Murray gets the sleigh off the ground, “How Murray Saved Christmas” doesn’t manage to stay airborne.