When we think of Christmas, we think TV.
Not to be shallow, but for many of us, it’s true. Yes, the day’s about celebrating Christ’s birthday. But for many families, Christmas wouldn’t be complete without plopping down on the couch and watching a classic Christmas special on television: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Frosty the Snowman.
Why, when Apple TV+ bought the rights to A Charlie Brown Christmas—keeping it off network television for about the first time since its 1965 inception—fans practically stormed Apple headquarters with torches and pitchforks. The outcry was so massive that Apple quickly made a deal with PBS to show it (and a couple of other Peanuts specials, too). A Charlie Brown Christmas will now air on public television on Dec. 13.
But most of our most beloved specials are decades old now. And while Charlie Brown contains Linus’ famous retelling of the Nativity story, most have about the same amount of Christian content as a tin of sugar cookies. Sure, we’ve seen some newer, more Christian holiday fare come down the pipe (a new VeggieTales Christmas episode dropped last year), many families are always looking for more.
If you’re one of them, you’re in luck: Emmy-winning animators Yarrow and Carrie Cheney have you covered with their new holiday special, The Three Wise Men.
The husband-and-wife animation team met while studying character animation at the California Institute of the Arts, and they worked side-by-side for years before the two of them decided to get hitched. Both worked together at various animation studios, and the couple shared an Emmy award for their work on the Dilbert TV series (for Outstanding Main Title Design). Yarrow went on to serve as production designer for some blockbuster animated movies, including Despicable Me and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, and he codirected 2016’s The Secret Life of Pets and 2018’s delightful (and subtly spiritual) animated remake of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch.
But through all those successes, Yarrow and Carrie were plotting to tell a more deeply Christian story.
And so came about The Three Wise Men, a gently whimsical take on the Christmas story that takes 23 minutes to watch but which took nearly 20 years to unveil.
It seems many a classic Christmas special features an iconic voice to move things along, be it Burl Ives in Rudolph or Boris Karloff for The Grinch, and The Three Wise Men follows that tradition: The legendary Andy Griffith lent his voice to the narration before his 2012 passing. (The Cheneys say that he was just as kind and as professional as you’d expect him to be.) The animated show has its own unique style, too. Produced by the Reel F/X animation studio and distributed by Aspiration Entertainment, The Three Wise Men blends Carrie’s poetic verse with a soft, toy-like animation palate—feeling at times like a touchable, huggable playset.
As you might expect, the story focuses on the traditional three wise men (the exact number isn’t actually specified in the Bible). Melchior (voiced by Griffith) is the first guy we meet, who describes himself as “part astrologer and half a cup of magician; just a touch of doctor, and a fraction mathematician.” He tells us that he could always find the answers to pretty much everything on his “charts,” until a strange star pops up that leaves him puzzled.
He sets off to discover the star’s secret, and along the way he runs into big, burly Balthazar and the small, thin Caspar, both who clearly come from distant lands (reflecting, of course, the universal importance of Christ himself). They decide to join forces and march across colorful, almost balloon-like landscapes.
It makes for a lovely, albeit slightly perilous, journey until they run into the sharp, pointy King Herod, who we’re told was “one grade-A super creep.” Spoiler warning: the guy’s up to no good.
The Three Wise Men tells the story from Mary and Joseph’s point of view, too, making for a kid-friendly look at the whole Nativity story. Indeed, The Three Wise Men feels a bit like the whole Advent season condensed, what with a handful of traditional Christmas carols (which have added zip by Hawaiian musicians Robert and Roland Cazimero) giving the story a little bit of song. Grammy-award-winning artist Jonas Myrin also supplied a new song, “Just a Breath Away (Noel)”, for the the show, too.
The Three Wise Men reminds us that while Rudolph and Frosty and the Grinch are just fine, Christmas is really about Jesus. The special tells us that the stars themselves serve as “millions of reminders of a birthday long ago. … that glorious first Christmas. That’s the reason for them all.” You can watch The Three Wisemen for free, right now, on Amazon Prime. Or, if you don’t, you can always rent it from Amazon for $2.99 or buy it for $9.99.