An interesting little book came out about five years ago called The Man Who Invented Christmas, about how Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol played a crucial role in formulating our modern conception of the holiday. So does that make the animation team of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass “The Duo Who Invented Television Christmas”? You could easily make the case. Their first seasonal special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, hit the airwaves in 1964 (two years after the seminal Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and a year before the sublime A Charlie Brown Christmas) and quickly became a perennial favorite. By the end of the decade, the Rankin-Bass team had also produced the classics Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969) and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970). They would continue cranking out specials, TV series and theatrical films until Rankin-Bass Productions ceased operations in 1987 (the pair have occasionally collaborated since then).
Although they sometimes worked in traditional cel animation (as in Frosty), Rankin and Bass will be forever associated with their innovative use of a figurine-based stop-motion process they called “Animagic.” Their trademark production touches are many and memorable. The friendly narrator/singer who addressed the viewer directly and who in real life was usually a big name like Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante or Burl Ives. The lively, clever musical numbers served up even during treacherous situations. The strong underdog ethos (the defiant anthem “We’re a Couple of Misfits” was a highlight of Rudolph) that usually yielded a message stressing tolerance and courage. All rendered with the handmade visual effects and odd perambulations of doll-like characters that gave these works their slightly trippy appeal.
Although the above-mentioned Rankin-Bass productions could constitute their “Big Four”, the team dropped some fifteen Yuletide-related TV specials in a two-decade span. Here are five others worthy of discovery or re-acquaintance:
Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)
This one has a title that is hard to resist but first a heads-up for moms and dads of very young children: Rankin and Bass had this tendency to depict subjugated populations in situations that could result in the death of parents. So screen things like Little Drummer Boy to decide if the tots can handle the trauma that precedes the heart-warming conclusion. The journey of the embittered LDB is echoed in the biblical wanderings of the naïve Nestor, also suddenly orphaned. This extremely floppy-eared young donkey struggles with ostracization until a good deed earns him a front-row spot at the Nativity. Like with his glow-nose forebear Rudolph, this one is a victory for the differently-abled. With narration and songs by Roger “King of the Road” Miller.
The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
A sequel of sorts to the classic Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, this second-tier gem finds our hero feeling overworked and under-appreciated, his existential crisis compounded by a nasty head cold. With Christmas called off, Mrs. Claus hatches a scheme to change her huband’s mind (Mickey Rooney and Shirley Booth voice the couple). A pair of Vixen-riding elves are sent to snowless Southtown to investigate the big guy’s drop in the believability polls and complications follow on schedule. Santa arrives in street clothes (a fuchsia topcoat and matching derby) to smooth things over and many songs are sung. These St. Nick-centric specials are light on their feet, a brutality-free all ages zone where verbalizing and vocalizing win the day. Even the centerpiece villains, the Snow Miser and his cult-figure brother Heat Miser, are more irascible than threatening. The visual and musical highpoint is their wacky vaudeville sing-off, each assisted by a team of minions. In a gratifying twist, Mrs. Claus swings into action for once, rocking an airborne sleigh of her own and cleverly playing the Misers off one another, precipitating (as it were) the necessary weather event to restore the holiday.
The Cricket on the Hearth (1967)
More visitations from the Ghosts of Celebrity Past as Danny Thomas introduces this traditionally animated version of one of Charles Dickens’ five holiday novellas. This is a rare such Dickens adaptation that is not the ubiquitous Christmas Carol and for that it merits attention, but otherwise Cricket is a mistletoe misfire. There’s too much sugar and not enough spice and the production values rarely rise above the level of an average Saturday morning cartoon. Thomas plays Caleb the poor toymaker and the blind daughter is voiced by his real-life offspring, Marlo “That Girl” Thomas. Roddy MacDowall portrays the good-luck cricket. Worth a look if found bundled on a DVD with other R-B Christmas fare.
Jack Frost (1979)
This special came out some fifteen years after their television debut, and advances in animation technology are readily apparent when watching Jack Frost. It’s sumptuous look, especially in the scenes set in the silver-blue domain of the Kingdom of the Winter Clouds, earns its recommendation but it also works as a star-crossed romance. The titular sprite is the kingdom’s earthly liaison, felt but not seen as he nips at noses and facilitates winter fun. But Jack wants something more and after being granted human qualities on a trial basis he falls hard for Elisa, January Junction’s most eligible bachelorette. Jack’s courtship chances are complicated when he needs his old powers to take on Kubla Kraus, the Cossack tyrant who dominates the town with his steampunk iron horse and mechanical army. Master voice actor Paul Frees, reprising the voice he used for Rocky & Bullwinkle nemesis Boris Badenov, plays Kraus.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
This adaptation of the 1902 book by Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum, is the last holiday special that Rankin and Bass produced, and their last work in the beloved Animagic form. It opens with a beautiful set piece, a procession of supernaturals called The Immortals. Convened by the Great Ak (the authoritative voice of Alfred Drake), they are asked to grant Claus the “Mantle of Immortality”. Baum’s imaginative origin story has Santa as an abandoned human baby found by denizens of Ak’s magical Berzee Forest. In montage scenes he advances from a sheltered boyhood to become a young man indignant at the harsh world of adult mortals who “inhabit the open spaces of the earth”— and who grows determined to do something about it. This production, by the duo’s usual Japanese animation team led by Nasaki Iizuka, is full of wind demons, wood nymphs and horned, nose-ringed monsters and is one of Rankin and Bass’ finer achievements, though one with a spotty history on home video. Well worth seeking out.
For those constitutionally unable to appreciate Christmas programming or for those who want to further explore the world of Rankin/Bass, may I suggest the brilliantly eccentric 1967 feature, Mad Monster Party, in which the duo work their Animagic with the creative input of Mad magazine founders Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis. While everyone will want to move on after the 25th, there’s never a bad time to enjoy the Halloween aesthetic.
About the Author
Rick Ouellette is the author of Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film. A review of his personal favorite among the millions of Christmas films, the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott, is now on his blogsite: http://rickouellettereelandrock.wordpress.com/