Revisiting the Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion Christmas Specials

I talked about Rankin/Bass Productions not too long ago, when I discussed their somewhat lesser-known stop-motion animation film Mad Monster Party?, but watching that classic feature made me nostalgic for all the stop-motion specials that aired around Christmastime in the 1970s and formed such a large part of my (and most other people of my generation’s) holiday experiences growing up. So I figured, what the hell; it had been a while since I’d seen the specials, and I wanted to check if they still held up.
I’ll note that although Rankin/Bass also made (among others) Frosty the Snowman, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and The Stingiest Man in Town (a retelling of A Christmas Carol), those were all traditional cel animation; so I thought to keep things simple, I’d stick with the three stop-motion specials I remembered the best from my childhood, which included Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from 1964, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town from 1970, and The Year Without a Santa Claus from 1974. Let’s get Christmasy!

Though it may be hard to believe now that Rudolph is such a ubiquitous holiday character, he’s not really all that traditional as far as holiday icons go; he was only invented in 1939, in a poem written by a man named Robert L. May. It so happened that May’s brother-in-law was a songwriter by the name of Johnny Marks, who despite being Jewish was best known for his Christmas songs which have since become holiday staples, like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Silver and Gold,” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Marks turned May’s poem into a song called “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949, and the rest is history. Until I started digging into the backstory of this animated special, by the way, I had no idea that all those holiday tunes were penned by the same guy, and I have to admit my mind is blown a little bit.

Anyway, as with the previously discussed Mad Monster Party? and all the other Rankin/Bass productions, the script and storyboards were done stateside, while the actual puppet animation was done by MOM Productions in Tokyo. Sadly, because obviously no one in 1964 could predict what a cultural touchstone this special would become for millions of people, most of the puppets were not preserved, though a damaged Santa and Rudolph turned up on Antiques Roadshow back in 2005, at which point they were appraised for about ten grand each. The puppets were restored by a company called Screen Novelties, at the behest of the puppets’ then-owner, a toy lover named Kevin Kriess, and were eventually auctioned off in 2020, bringing in a whopping $368,000. Such is the power of nostalgia.

Charmingly narrated by Burl Ives as an adorably rotund and mustachioed snowman named Sam, RTRNR is essentially Rudolph’s origin story, taking the straightforward tale from the poem/song and throwing in all kinds of fun details and adventures that include an elf who wants to be a dentist, a hardy prospector on the hunt for riches, a purgatorial island where all the unloved toys go (pretty grim, when you think about it), and a gigantic, razor-toothed snow monster intent on munching our intrepid heroes. There’s also a sweet love story, some fairly nasty bullying, and a positive message that even misfits are good at something and might be useful to have around once in a while. It’s a lot to process in a special that’s only about fifty-odd minutes long, but it never feels overstuffed at all, and the disparate elements all work together to weave a heartwarming and genuinely funny holiday experience that’s just as enjoyable today as it was back in the 60s.

Rudolph is born to OG reindeer Donner and his wife, who of course is just named Mrs. Donner. The parents are delighted and full of pride, sure their boy will grow up to pull Santa’s sleigh one day, but then that crazy red nose starts to glow, and Donner reacts as though the kid sprouted a second head or announced he wasn’t heterosexual. Even Santa isn’t having it, agreeing with Donner that the mutation ought to be a source of shame and thus hidden from the world. Donner initially scrapes up some mud with his hoof and blackens the kid’s nose, but later forces him wear a black prosthetic nose that makes him talk like he has an problem with his adenoids.

While the nose is under wraps, Rudolph seems to do okay with his peers, even attracting the attention of a lovely young doe named Clarice one day at flying practice. But while roughhousing with his friend Fireball, the fake nose pops off and everyone gathers around to point and laugh at the freak, even Fireball, who acts like Rudolph just shit in his mouth or something. The reindeer coach, Comet, kicks Rudolph off the team, even though he flew better than any of the other noobs. The only reindeer who’s cool with the weird nose is Clarice, who tells him the glowing red schnoz looks better than the fake one anyway, and besides, the fact that it’s different is what makes it so awesome. She’s a good egg, that Clarice.

Despite Clarice’s understanding, however, Rudolph still feels as though he doesn’t belong, and decides to run away. Meanwhile, at Santa’s workshop, a similar situation is unfolding for a darling little elf named Hermey, who in very un-elf-like fashion isn’t really down with making toys, and wants to be a dentist instead. The elf foreman barks incredulously at him, threatening to can his elfin ass if he doesn’t straighten up and get on the toy-making train, but a despondent Hermey, singing of his misfit status, also decides to take this job and shove it, and then lights out for the territories.

Rudolph and Hermey meet up, resolve to be independent together, and set out to find a place where they’re free to be weirdos. On their journey, they also come across another loner, a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, who’s out and about on his sledge searching for silver and gold. One of my favorite things in this special, by the way, is when Cornelius hits his pickaxe into the ground then lifts it up and licks the blade, as though he can taste whether there’s treasure beneath the snow. I don’t know why that always cracked me up so much, but it did, and still does; I think it’s the little licking sound effect.

Anyway, the trio doesn’t get too far before they’re menaced by the terrifying and yet painfully cute Bumble, an Abominable Snow Monster with massive fangs. Cornelius has encountered the creature before, so they’re able to escape by drifting away on an ice floe, since the Bumble can’t swim. They shore up on the Island of Misfit Toys, which true to its name, is the place where unwanted toys get sent when they don’t have a child that loves them, a conceit which really, really upset me when I was a little girl, especially because the toys themselves look perfectly fine. So the elephant has spots, and the Jack in the Box is named Charlie…big deal, right? Also, the little rag doll girl, who Wikipedia tells me is named Dolly for Sue—what’s wrong with her? She looks okay to me, cute as hell in fact, and because she doesn’t look like a misfit, there’s long been fan speculation about why exactly she ended up on the Island. Some people thought it was because she didn’t have a nose, or maybe she was just there because all the other toys were boys so she was the token girl toy, but in 2007, Arthur Rankin himself seemed to solve the mystery when he confirmed that Dolly for Sue was on the Island not because of her appearance, but for psychological reasons, mainly depression. Which…makes a lot of sense, actually.

Rudolph and Hermey in particular think they’ve found their place among the misfits, but the king of the island, a winged lion named Moonracer, tells them they can’t stay because technically they’re not toys, which is pretty damn harsh. Talk about kicking a misfit when he’s down. Moonracer does let them stay overnight, though, and Rudolph, who is moved by the plight of the toys, promises to go back and talk to Santa about finding all the toys homes with loving children. Which you’d think Santa would have done before now, but the Santa in this special strikes me as a little bit of a grump who’s not real up on the fine details of his operation. I think Mrs. Claus has been running the shit behind the scenes the whole time and never gets any credit, which is typical, really.

When Rudolph gets back to his home, however, he discovers that both his parents and Clarice are missing, having gone off into the wilds looking for him and then never returning. With the help of his friends, Rudolph sets out to find his lost family, and he discovers they’ve all been kidnapped by the Bumble, who is gonna snack on some reindeer meat this winter, if you catch my drift. Using a ruse, Cornelius is able to immobilize the Bumble, allowing Hermey to pull all his teeth out (!!!), which is really not cool because now the poor monster might starve to death. Bumbles gotta eat too, y’know. Shortly after, it seems like the lack of teeth becomes a moot point after Cornelius pushes the Bumble off a mountain before falling over himself, leading the gang to believe they’re both dead (!!!), but turns out they’re both okay, and not only that, but Cornelius has trained the toothless Bumble to be a nice monster, so I guess he’s a vegetarian now? He’s even tall enough to put the star on top of the tree without needing a stepladder! Not sure what they’re going to do with him the rest of the year, though; he’s a big fella and probably eats a lot, just saying.

So at this point we get to the actual story as laid out in the song; you know the drill, a horrible snowstorm (that’s evidently worldwide; must be in the midst of the Ice Age) is causing Santa to consider cancelling Christmas, but then he realizes that if Rudolph and his glowing nose leads the reindeer team, they’ll be able to see just dandy. I find it hard to believe that in all the years Santa has been delivering gifts to good girls and boys, he’s never thought to invest in a good set of high beams for the sleigh, but maybe he’s just really old school. So yeah, Rudolph is a hero, the misfit toys all get homes, and Hermey is allowed to open a dental clinic on the workshop premises, so everyone’s happy.

I have to say, I loved this special every bit as much as I did when I was a kid. All the songs and characters are delightful, and it’s just such a great adventure story, even featuring some scary elements with the addition of the Bumble. All the puppets are adorable, and the voice work is great; it’s easy to see why this one is still a classic all these years later.

Because this one was such a hit, Rankin/Bass decided to follow up with more holiday-themed output: in 1968, they released the stop-motion feature The Little Drummer Boy, which I sort of remember, though it didn’t stick with me as much because it was way too Jesusy for me, even as a kid. Then, in 1969, they produced another classic with Frosty the Snowman, which wasn’t stop-motion but is still one of the most beloved of all their animated specials.

And then, in 1970, they came out with Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, which basically took the same basic framework and all the winning elements of the Rudolph special and applied it to Santa; in other words, it told a fanciful origin story for the jolly fat man based on a popular Christmas song.

Like Rudolph, SCICTT begins with black and white newsreel footage, then segues into this special’s narrator, who is human this time and not a talking snowman. Special Delivery “S.D.” Kluger is a postman voiced by the legendary Fred Astaire, and it’s his job to deliver all the letters that children write to Santa. At the beginning of the story, he’s having a little mechanical trouble with his mail truck, so while he presumably waits for the North Pole equivalent of Triple A, he regales us with the saga of how Santa and various other Christmas traditions came to be, and no, it has nothing to do with Saint Nicholas or the winter solstice or Saturnalia or anything like you might be thinking.

Turns out there’s this dreary shithole called Sombertown, situated in some snow-choked corner of the world. The city is ruled over by a perpetually frowning tyrant named Burgermeister Meisterburger (voiced by Paul Frees, who actually does a bunch of voices in this) and his bevy of jackbooted thugs, who all talk with German accents and wear a variation on the Pickelhaube spiked helmet from World War I. Hmmm.

Though this is probably the last place you’d want to raise a child, someone leaves a baby on the doorstep of the Burgermeister’s house, a redheaded infant whose only identifying item is a note reading “Claus.” The BM, naturally, isn’t having it, and tells his right-hand man Grimley (also voiced by Paul Frees) to get rid of the brat by taking him to a faraway orphanage in the middle of a snowstorm.

The baby gets blown away in the blizzard, but is luckily rescued by some kindly woodland animals, who hide the child from this special’s Bumble equivalent, a scary wizard called the Winter Warlock (voiced by Keenan Wynn). Once the danger has passed, the critters leave the kid in a much more favorable situation, giving him to a family of elves called the Kringles, who name the baby Kris. Turns out that before the fascist takeover of Sombertown, the elves used to be the toymakers to the king. As a matter of fact, the elves still make toys constantly, because it seems they can’t help themselves, but because they don’t have anywhere to distribute them, the toys just kind of pile up in the yard, like on an episode of Hoarders.

Years later, when a grown Kris (voiced by Mickey Rooney) decides to see if he can jump-start the toymaking business again by delivering product to the nearest city of Sombertown, he runs into a bit of a snag. See, everyone in Sombertown is oppressed and miserable, forced to work day and night and never have any fun. Because the Burgermeister tripped on a toy once, he very rashly bans all toys, plastering posters everywhere declaring that anyone found with a toy will be thrown in the dungeon, which seems a mite draconian, to say the least.

Kris and his new sidekick, a penguin named Topper that he met on the way, come across two kids in the town square washing their stockings (because everyone must have spotless stockings at all times), and he gives them some toys (unaware of the new law), but before they can play with them, they’re stopped by their stern but smoking hot teacher, Miss Jessica (voiced by Robie Lester). Kris, undeterred, gives Miss Jessica one of the toys, a china doll, and she warms toward him, seduced by the power of toys.

But then, of course, the Burgermeister shows up to poop in everyone’s cornflakes, ordering that they all be arrested. Kris is able to momentarily distract him by giving him a yo-yo, which he happily plays with until Grimley reminds him about his own law, but by the time the BM comes back to his senses, Kris and the penguin have scarpered.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, it seems, because no sooner have the pair hightailed it into the wilderness than they’re captured by the Winter Warlock. His threat is almost immediately neutralized, however, when Kris gives him a toy train, completely dissolving a presumed lifetime of evil in one fell swoop. Wouldn’t it be nice if it really was that easy? Granted, the WW does admit that he’s a terrible person at heart and that this suddenly-nice-because-of-a-toy thing might be temporary, but still; at least he seems cognizant of his own limitations, which is a step in the right direction, I reckon. The only downside to losing his evil, though, is that most of his magic went with it, which doesn’t really seem like a fair trade-off, in my opinion.

Anyway, the WW brings Kris and Miss Jessica back together, and Jessica tells Kris that the Burgermeister actually burned all the toys in the town square in front of the children (GODDAMN), and now all the kids want new ones, because fuck the laws. Kris is totally down to subvert the man in Sombertown, but the BM attempts to thwart him by forcing everyone in the city to lock all their doors and windows, at which point Kris sneaks in through the chimneys and leaves toys in the stockings so that the BM doesn’t know what’s going on. See, didn’t you always wonder how that tradition started? Well, now you know.

Kris and Topper the penguin eventually get captured, though, and the spike-helmeted soldiers also haul in the Winter Warlock and the entire Kringle elf family, throwing them all in the pokey. Jessica tries to reason with the Burgermeister, but his power-mad ass isn’t budging, so Jessica decides to go be in prison, in solidarity with her friends. The Warlock laments that he can’t do more to help them, having lost his magic and all, but then he does remember that he does have a tiny bit left, a handful of magical seed corn that will allow reindeer to fly. Seems like a very specific magical ingredient to have hanging out in one’s pockets, but okay. Some reindeer eat the corn, and the gang all fly away.

Then, because Kris is now a fugitive, he decides to grow a beard and go back to his original foundling name of Claus in order to hide from the authorities. Who knew Santa’s backstory would involve so much crime? Not me. Anyhow, Claus and Jessica get married and hide out in the North Pole, where they begin construction on their home and toy manufacturing facility.

Time passes, Claus and Jessica get older, and though for a while they’d been delivering toys whenever they got a letter from a child asking for one, eventually it all became too much, and Claus had to limit his toy-distribution sojourns to once a year, on Arbor Day. Just kidding, it was on Christmas Eve. At some point, the Burgermeister in Sombertown dropped dead, probably of a rage stroke, and the residents overturned the stupid laws concerning toy ownership. No word on whether they changed the name of the city to Happytown, however, and painted the buildings a color other than gray. The Winter Warlock got his magic back somehow and vowed to give everyone a white Christmas (except for, y’know, the half of the world that’s in the Southern Hemisphere), while Claus’s legend spread far and wide, ultimately leading to him earning an informal saint status, hence the Santa. And there you have it: the true story of Santa Claus, with some artistic license for dramatic effect.

This is also a great special, but it doesn’t have quite the level of magic that the Rudolph one does, maybe because pretty much all the characters are humans and are therefore not as interesting as talking reindeer, elves, and snow monsters. The songs are also not quite as fun and memorable, though they’re still pretty good, if slightly more schmaltzy; unsurprisingly, the best one (other than the classic title song) is the one sung by the villains. One thing that made me simultaneously laugh and cringe was the tune that Kris sang at one point, which is actually called “Be Prepared to Pay” (which sounds a bit ominous), but is also known by an alternate title, “If You Sit on My Lap Today,” which sounds REALLY ominous.

Overall, though, this one is another holiday staple of my childhood, and watching it again really brought back a flood of memories, since I hadn’t seen it in many years (unlike the Rudolph special, which I watch almost every year).

The last of the big three stop-motion specials I fondly remember from Christmases past was first broadcast in 1974 and is called The Year Without a Santa Claus. It was always extra-special when I caught this one, because I feel like it didn’t get repeated as much, and I was especially delighted by the Snow Miser and Heat Miser characters. The addition of those two, and the inclusion of a few more laughs and upbeat songs also made this one a slightly more jolly experience than Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town was.

The Year Without a Santa Claus was based on a 1956 book by Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet and children’s author Phyllis McGinley, and is told as a sort of flashback by Mrs. Claus (voiced by Shirley Booth), who’s telling us about a real shitty Christmas season that took place years back, “before you were born.”

So basically, Santa (voiced by Mickey Rooney) wakes up a few days before Christmas, and he is just a grouchy, hypochondriac mess. His back hurts, he has gout, he’s exhausted, and he has a really bad cold that makes him reluctant to get out of bed. Mrs. Claus summons the doctor, a curmudgeonly fellow who advises Santa to stay in bed and skip all that Christmas nonsense for a change, because he’s wearing himself out. Santa initially protests, but the doctor assures him that nobody gives a shit about him or Christmas anymore anyway (nice bedside manner there, doc), and eventually Santa is persuaded to just slack in bed and say to hell with the holiday.

Mrs. Claus, who can’t rouse Santa from his grumpy self-pity, at first considers dressing up as Santa herself and doing his job for him, singing an entire song about it. Though she probably could have pulled it off, she ultimately decides against it, and proposes instead that a couple of the elves, Jingle and Jangle Bells (voiced by Bob McFadden and Bradley Bolke, respectively) fly with baby reindeer Vixen down to the world at large to try to find some remnants of Christmas spirit that will convince Santa that people still appreciate him and the holiday as a whole, thus giving him incentive to do his Christmas rounds as usual.

Well, the elves pretty much immediately run into trouble, getting on the wrong side of the Miser Brothers. The Snow Miser (voiced by Dick Shawn) is the winter guy, controlling the weather in the northern climes, while the Heat Miser (voiced by George S. Irving), obviously, likes to keep everything hot and sweltering. Because I grew up in Florida, where we usually had to run the AC on Christmas Day, I think I saw the Heat Miser as even more of a villain than he’s portrayed in the special, as I felt he was personally responsible for me sweating my ass off every Christmas instead of being bundled up in a sweater with a cup of hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire as snow fell outside, like in all the Christmas movies. I really felt cheated by having a hot Florida Christmas, in other words, and I’m still pretty bitter about it.

Anyway, the Misers try to shoot down the elves, but Vixen is able to save their bacon, and since they don’t really know where they are, they figure anywhere is fine; all they have to do, after all, is find someone somewhere who still believes in Santa and the magic of Christmas so they can go home.

They end up in a place called Southtown, and immediately get written up by a cop for wearing weird clothes and riding around on an unauthorized animal. To hide the fact that Vixen is a reindeer, they put socks over her antlers and pretend she’s a dog, but the hot weather isn’t doing the poor little critter any favors, and she gets noticeably sicker as the elves try to dispense their duties. I feel her pain; I feel that way in warm weather too. Unfortunately, due to her disguise, Vixen is picked up by the dog catcher.

Meanwhile, Santa has rolled his lazy ass out of bed and discovered that Jingle, Jangle, and Vixen are gone, and that lights a fire under his ass, because he’s worried they’ll get hurt down there in that horribly cruel world. He jumps on another reindeer and flies down there to find them.

Back in Southtown, the elves approach a group of kids, who seem nice enough, but claim they’re way too old to believe in Santa Claus. Not long afterward, Santa himself arrives in town, though he’s being incognito, telling everyone his name is Mr. Klaus. He approaches one of the children from earlier, a red-headed boy named Iggy, who tells him he saw the elves in question and that they had gone to the animal shelter to try to get Vixen back. Inside the boy’s house, Santa meets Iggy’s parents, who both say they do believe in Santa Claus, which cheers the old boy up considerably, and after he sings a song about it, a tearful Iggy is also convinced. Santa marches down to the animal shelter and springs Vixen, taking her back to the North Pole immediately because the heat has made her so ill.

In the meantime, Iggy and the elves go to see the mayor, who laughs at their ridiculous story about Santa being real. Because they’re so earnest, though, the mayor says that if they can use their elfin magic to make it snow in Southtown, then he’ll call all the other mayors in the country (which would take a while, damn) and get them to declare a national legal holiday for Santa. The elves readily agree.

They get Mrs. Claus on board, and she goes to see the Snow Miser to see what he can do about the white Christmas situation. He’s happy to help, but when they tell him they want snow in Southtown, he says no can do; that’s his step-brother the Heat Miser’s territory, so they’ll have to clear it with him. Not surprisingly, when they go see the Heat Miser, he flips the fuck out, not wanting to give an inch; he already feels as though he gets the short end of the stick because Santa prefers winter, which he sees as unfair. However, he will agree to let it snow in Southtown on Christmas Day on one condition: the Snow Miser lets him lay down some hot weather at the North Pole. Of course the Snow Miser doesn’t want to do that shit, so Mrs. Claus has to go over their heads—to their mom, Mother Nature—to arbitrate and reach a compromise. Finally they work it out where it can snow on the big day in Southtown, and the Heat Miser can make one warm day in the North Pole. Everyone’s happy, except for all the poor cold-adapted animals in the North Pole that will probably die of heatstroke. Merry Christmas! Just kidding, it’s only an animated special; none of the animals died. That we know of.

So because the elves made good on their promise to make it snow, the mayor calls everybody like he said, and a national holiday for Santa is established. Everybody in the world agrees to give Santa a day off and let him enjoy Christmas for a change, and all the kids actually make or buy presents for him, or just write letters telling him how much they love him if they cant afford to do anything more than that. Santa is so overwhelmed and invigorated by the outpouring of love and Christmas spirit that he shakes off his aches, pains, and illnesses, and hops back in the sleigh to fulfill his Christmas obligations, just like always. Christmas is saved! So technically, this wasn’t really the year without a Santa Claus at all; it was more like the year Santa guilted everyone into compliance by threatening to take his ball and go home. But I guess that title was too long.

I didn’t actually know this until I was doing research for this post, but there was a stop-motion sequel to this called A Miser Brothers Christmas that was released in 2008. Mickey Rooney and George S. Irving, both in their eighties, reprised their roles as Santa and the Heat Miser, respectively, though the other original voice actors had to be replaced because they had died in the ensuing years. I haven’t heard anything about whether this special is any good or not, but I did adore the Miser characters, both their voices and their general design, so maybe this is something I’d be interested in watching in the future.

I’ve always been a big fan of stop-motion animation as an art form, so these specials will always have a large place in my heart, even aside from all the warm feelings of nostalgia they inevitably invoke. They’re still just as charming and fun today as they were when they first came out, and it’s no surprise to me that they’ve remained in many people’s Christmas viewing rotations this many years later. Rudolph is still easily the best one, but they’re all worth watching, and it was a blast revisiting them for this post.

Happy holidays, everybody, and please keep it creepy.

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