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The Christmas Special Day 12: Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

nestor-the-long-eared-christmas-donkeyDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writer: Romeo Muller

Cast: Roger Miller, Brenda Vaccaro, Paul Frees, Don Messnick, Linda Gary, Iris Rainer, Shelly Hines, Eric Stern

Plot: As Santa and his reindeer fly out for their Christmas Eve rounds, Santa’s donkey Speiltoe (Roger Miller) prepares for his annual rest, after a long year of pulling work carts and plows. As he observes Santa’s nativity scene, he sadly tells us the donkey doesn’t at all resemble the original, his ancestor. Breaking into song, Speiltoe begins telling us the tale of Nestor, the long-eared Christmas donkey.

Many years ago, a young donkey named Nestor (Shelly Hines) is mocked and dismissed due to his enormously long ears. On the winter solstice, the animals in the barn celebrate with gifts and goodwill, even to Nestor, who is given a pair of stockings to cover his ears. The joyful evening is ruined when a Roman soldier comes into the barn to buy donkeys for the emperor. They snag all of the donkeys except Nestor’s mother (Linda Gary), but when Nestor’s ears are uncovered they throw him into the snow and make off with the donkeys without paying. His mother breaks free and rushes into the winter night, finding her son buried in a snowbank. She covers Nestor with her own body, and perishes in the storm.

Nestor survives the winter, and as spring comes he meets a cherub named Tilly (Brenda Vaccaro), who informs him that his ears will allow him to do wondrous things some day. He is skeptical, but agrees to join Tilly on her way to Bethlehem. Eventually, Tilly has to leave him and he’s taken in by a merchant. A couple named Joseph and Mary try to bargain for him, but when the merchant realizes Mary is great with child, he gives them the donkey for nothing. Nestor, who had been sad and bone-weary, suddenly finds the strength to carry the young woman. When a sandstorm strikes, Tilly’s words ring through Nestor’s memory, and he hears his mother’s voice telling him to follow the singing of angels in the sky. He wraps his ears around Mary and leads them through the sandstorm, coming finally to Bethlehem. He finds a manger for them, and Mary bears a child. Nestor leaves them in safety, finding his way back home, where his friends celebrate him and his magnificent ears.

Thoughts: It’s back to Rankin and Bass land again, friends, for another tale of Biblical times… kind of. It’s also a return to a Gene Autry song as the inspiration, he who gave us both Rudolph and Frosty, and Nestor is the sort of character that would fit in nicely with the other two and their jolly band of misfits… although his story goes to dark places the others didn’t dream of. The threats Rudolph and Frosty face are more of the comical sort – a giant, bumbling snowman, an inept magician. Nestor’s threats are the Roman legion and nature itself. It comes upon us quickly as well, taking a shift from joy to sorrow faster than a Joss Whedon movie. Even as I was typing this paragraph, while watching the special over again, I was halfway through a sentence when I remembered what was going to happen to Nestor’s mother, and it was only through sheer force of will I managed to avoid turning it into an incoherent rant against the legionnaires and the Roman emperor and Rankin and Bass and Godfather’s Pizza. Because I was upset.

The plot itself is an odd one, bringing together elements of the Nativity story and mingling it with a character who, in many ways, apes Rudolph’s story a little too closely. Once again, we see an outcast born with some sort of deformity, driven away from home, forced into a situation where the deformity becomes his greatest advantage, and finally celebrated as special rather than dismissed as a freak. It’s certainly a positive message, but it gets repetitive after a while. If not for the last bit, these two could be X-Men. The story plays fast and loose with the Bible, of course, but not in a way that seems wrong or exploitive. Pretty much every account depicts Mary being carried on a donkey, and expanding that donkey’s story is a perfectly acceptable storytelling avenue.

Of all the Rankin and Bass specials I’ve covered, this one is probably the weakest from a musical standpoint. Roger Miller makes for a fine narrator and his voice is perfectly suited for the songs that accompany the special. The problem is that none of the songs are particularly catchy or memorable. After Rudolph and Frosty’s respective specials, you’re left singing their anthems. Nestor, not so much. If anything, it makes me want to sift through my iPod to find “Dominic the Christmas Donkey,” which I’m realizing now I haven’t actually heard yet this Christmas season, and I’d better rectify that.

My favorite bit in the special, however, comes at the end, when Santa and his reindeer return to the North Pole and join Speiltoe in celebrating the legendary Nestor. Again, the song itself is no great shakes, but the Rankin and Bass guys fill the scene with their all-stars. In the Biblical flashback scene we see the Magi and several other characters from Little Drummer Boy. When we come back to the present we see Santa, Mrs. Claus, Jingle and Jangle from Year Without a Santa Claus, and even Rudolph himself (who makes a rare appearance outside of one of his own specials). Again, this is the nerd in me, but it reminds me of when every Marvel superhero turned up for Reed and Sue Richards’ wedding in Fantastic Four, when all of the Tenth Doctor’s companions showed up together in Doctor Who, when Urkel did that guest appearance on Full House. There are certain characters you know all belong in the same family, even though you don’t usually see them together, and there’s an inexplicable sort of satisfaction that comes when you finally get them all in the same place. This is by no means a bad special, but it probably tells you something that the most memorable part is when all of the characters whose names are not in the title get together at the end.

The Christmas Special Day 4: The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

little-drummer-boyDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writer: Romeo Muller

Cast: Jose Ferrer, Paul Frees, June Foray, Ted Eccles, Greer Garson, music by the Vienna Boys Choir

Plot: Aaron, an orphaned drummer boy (Ted Eccles), has grown up with a disdain for all humanity after his family was killed by bandits. His hatred grows even more intense when he and his few animal friends are abducted by a travelling salesman, Ben Haramed (Jose Ferrer). Ben Haramed paints Aaron’s face and forces him to perform at the marketplace for donations. He grows angry and lashes out at the people around him, and Ben Haramed’s troupe is driven from town. As they cross the desert, they encounter a group of three kings (all voiced by the great Paul Frees, who also voices Aaron’s father) who are breaking camp on a long journey to follow a star in the heavens. One of their camels has collapsed under the weight of his pack, and Ben Haramed sells them Aaron’s camel Joshua to replace it. Enraged, Aaron takes his remaining animals and sets out to find his missing friend.

He follows the same star as the Magi, finally arriving at the town of Bethlehem. Dozens of shepherds arrive as well, all following the same star. He tracks them to a stable, where they are bowing before a manger. Aaron and his animals rush to their missing friend, but his sheep Baba is struck by a Roman chariot in the streets. Aaron takes the dying sheep to the Magi, where he finds them presenting a baby in the manger with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. When one of the Magi tells him he cannot save Baba, he suggests Aaron take Baba to the newborn king in the manger. With no gift to present the baby, Aaron begins to play his drum. As he finishes, Baba comes back to him, miraculously healed. Aaron’s angry heart melts, as the star shines brilliantly over the little town of Bethlehem.

Thoughts: I don’t typically get religious in my writing, but it would be somewhat negligent to do a project like this one, examining the all-time great Christmas specials, without touching upon a few of them that actually deal with the true meaning of Christmas. Take this 1968 special by our friends at Rankin and Bass (oh, we’re just getting started with them, folks), which dramatizes the old favorite of the Little Drummer Boy.

Rankin and Bass took the classic song and greatly expanded upon it, giving the little drummer boy a backstory, a reason for being in Bethlehem, and a name. For the most part, the additions to the song work very well. The add-ons make Aaron a very different kind of character than the cipher who arrives in the song to humbly play his drum for Jesus. Instead, we’re introduced to a child who has shut himself off from the world, keeping his affection only for his animals. Aaron turns to Jesus to save his friend, but viewed through a spiritual prism, it’s clear that Aaron himself is the one who truly needs salvation. In a very real way, this special makes the Little Drummer Boy the first soul to be saved by the Son of God. It’s a very clever angle to take, rooting the story very strongly with the Bible tales and making Aaron a far more significant character than he was described as previously. It doesn’t change anybody’s religion, of course, but taken from a narrative standpoint, writer Romeo Muller came up with a really good way to make this cartoon matter in a way the original song really didn’t.

The music here is strong, if not quite as iconic as many of the other Rankin and Bass specials. The original “Little Drummer Boy” is the only one that really stays with you after the show is over, and that’s mostly because it’s a piece that virtually everybody who watches this will know already.

More so than some of the other films we’ve looked at (or will look at) this short does express some of the limitations of early stop motion animation, especially in terms of precision. As Aaron plays his drum, the beat doesn’t match the movement of his hands. When we get to the line where “the ox and lamb kept time,” the camera pans across them nodding rhythmically, but not in the same rhythm as the song. You feel a little bad for chuckling at this, as it is supposed to be a wonderfully somber moment, but fortunately the emotion of Baba’s rejuvenation sweeps in as the song ends to save the day.

This isn’t the greatest religious-themed Christmas special, but it’s one of the earliest greats. Other films would later tread over some of the same ground, and one imagines director Don Bluth was drawing on this ten years later when he created his last short for Disney before striking out on his own, The Small One. Were this a project about Christmas films in general and not just television specials, you can rest assured, Small One would have a place of honor. As far as the TV spots goes, if you’re looking for one that actually features the nativity, this is as good as it gets.