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The Christmas Special Day 15: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

life-and-adventures-of-santa-claus-movieDirector: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writer: Jules Bass, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Earl Hammond, Earle Hyman, Larry Kenney, Lynne Lipton, Bob McFadden, Lesley Miller, Peter Newman, Joey Grasso, J.D. Roth, Alfred Drake

Plot: In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak (Alfred Drake) summons a council of the immortals. As dozens of fairies, nooks, and other fantastic creatures come together, the Great Ak tells them the mortal named Santa Claus is about to be visited by the Spirit of Death. This mortal, Ak says, has earned possession of the world’s one and only Mantle of Immortality. To convince them, the Great Ak tells them his story, the tale of the life and adventures of Santa Claus.

Sixty years prior, the Great Ak found a mortal baby abandoned in the snow. He gives the child to a lioness to rear, but the fairy Necile (Lesley Miller) is curious about what a “child” is. She observes the lioness and decides she wants to care for the baby herself. She begs the Great Ak permission, which he grants, assigning the lioness to remain with the baby as its protector. Necile names the baby Claus, “little one” in her language. Claus doesn’t remain little for long, though. In the view of the immortals, he begins to grow up in the blink of an eye, and young Claus (voiced by J.D. Roth) begins his education in the ways of the forest. Ak decides Claus should see his own people, and takes him on a magical tour of the world of Man, where Claus sees terrible misery, violence, and suffering. He also begins to understand that he is mortal, unlike Necile and his friends, and one day he will die and become just a memory to his loved ones. Claus decides to live in the world of mortals, hoping to make it better, and he takes his lioness protector and teacher Tingler (Bob McFadden) with him. As he grows older, he begins to visit the nearby settlements of mankind, taking particular care in being a friend to the children. (His voice also changes, just like real life! Adult Claus is voiced by Earl Hammond.)

One winter night, as Claus carves a cat out of wood, he finds a child outside his home, nearly frozen. He brings the boy inside to warm up, and the child quickly takes a liking to Claus’s cat, Blinky. As the child sleeps, he finishes carving the cat, paints it, and gives it to the boy when he wakes up. When the other children in town learn of the wooden cat, they all want one of their own. He starts making cats, then other animals and dolls for the children… he has invented the toy. He brings his friends the Nooks to his home to help make toys in bulk, but soon receives a threat from a beast called King Awgwa (Earle Hyman), lord of the dark creatures who convince children to misbehave. King Awgwa abducts Claus, but the immortals easily rescue him. The Awgwa realize they cannot capture him easily, but they can prevent him from delivering his toys. They attack him the next day as he travels, stealing all the toys he’s made and taking them to their caves. The attacks continue, over and over. Finally, the Great Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, takes out his Silver Axe and leads the fairies and nooks into battle with the Awgwa and a mighty dragon. The Great Ak and his forces defeat the Awgwa, and Claus is free to deliver toys again. His sled is now so heavy with toys he can’t pull it, and his friend Peter Nook (Peter Newman) offers to allow Claus to use some of his reindeer to pull the sleigh, provided he can return them to their forest home by daybreak. The reindeer are impossibly fast, eventually finding the ability to fly through the air. Claus begins making regular trips to deliver toys, and is soon beloved by children everywhere, who call him “Santa Claus.” He returns home too late, though, and Peter is angry. Claus asks him to allow him to use the reindeer again, and Peter finally agrees, but only for one night a year… Christmas Eve. With just ten days, Claus won’t have enough toys to make the trip and will have to skip an entire year, unless he can find the toys stolen by the Awgwa. He goes to bed on Christmas Eve, convinced he’ll lose a year, but Peter Nook arrives with the reindeer and the sleigh full of recovered toys.

Years later, Santa Claus has won the love of all the world, and now stands on the brink of death. He decorates a tree with small toys as a symbol of his good work, and Tingler vows to decorate the tree every year. In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak petitions the rest of the immortals to give Claus the Mantle of Immortality. In all the world there is only one, and can only be given to one mortal. Touched by his story, the immortals agree to present it to Claus. Just before he dies, Necile delivers the golden shroud to her son. Revitalized, he thanks Ak, pledging to prove himself worthy of the mantle for all time to come.

Thoughts: It had to happen sooner or later, my friends. This, I’m sorry to say, is the last Rankin and Bass special in our Reel to Reel countdown. It’s not one of the best-known specials either, but it’s one of my favorites. Based on the novel by The Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum, this is a version of Santa Claus’s origin that doesn’t quite jive with any of the others we’ve seen, doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Rankin and Bass “universe,” but stands on its own as a lovely fairy tale version of this holiday icon’s story.

The Baum touch is one of my favorite things about this special, I admit. I am an unabashed fan of all things Oz and I love to see different takes on the Oz mythos. While Baum never directly linked this book to his Oz novels, there are enough of his magical creatures common to the different books for me to accept this as a part of the Oz Universe. Which I know is something only a nerd of my particular stripe cares about, but as I can say that for roughly 87 percent of the observations I’ve made this month, I feel perfectly justified in doing so again.

Children may find parts of this special a bit odd. Although it was made in 1985, it’s a faithful adaptation of a novel written in 1902, before many of the elements now considered part of Santa Claus lore became standard. He’s still a plump, jolly man who enters through the chimney, who rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. But kids will ask why his toy shop is in the Laughing Valley instead of the North Pole, why his toys are made by nooks instead of elves. My nerd response will be to tell them this is the Santa Claus of Earth-2. Of course, then you’ll have to explain that, so maybe you’d better just find a way to explain it that suits your own children.

Most of the Rankin and Bass specials are more or less timeless. If there’s anything that links them to their era it is a tendency to model their narrators after the stars who voice them (Fred Astaire in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Andy Griffith in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland being prime examples). This one is a little different, with the nook (or fairy or gnome – I’m not sure) named Tingler being clearly inspired by Chico Marx, of call people. Which would have made a lot more sense in an early Rankin and Bass special – this was made in 1985. It’s an odd choice, one that most kids watching this won’t even notice, but older viewers will see it quickly.

This special doesn’t have as much music as most Rankin and Bass specials either. The “Big Surprise” number the children sing to Claus is the centerpiece, coming almost exactly halfway through the film and helping Claus realize exactly what his mission will be. It works pretty well as far as providing the character with motivation, but it isn’t as great a musical number as we’d like from Rankin and Bass. The special also isn’t as funny as we’ve come to expect from Rankin and Bass. Except for the Biblical specials, most of their cartoons at least had an element of comedy to them. This has almost nothing. Claus is motivated by seeing true darkness in the world, and although the battle sequences aren’t gory or bloody, they’re fairly intense for a film of this nature. The violence is real, not played in a cartoonish nature.

These elements are all perfectly good, though. This isn’t another cookie-cutter Santa movie like so many of them are. (To fully understand what I’m talking about, just turn it on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime whenever you’re reading this. If it’s still December, there’s a 90 percent chance they’re showing a Christmas movie starring washed-up stars that is virtually indistinguishable from all of the other Christmas movies starring washed-up stars they show this time of year.) If you’re looking for something a little different – something that still has the charm and joy that comes with the names of Rankin and Bass but that is totally unique from every other version of the Santa Claus myth you’ve seen this year, this is the special for you.

NOTE: This story was remade as a traditionally animated direct-to-video movie in 2000 starring Robby Benson of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Don’t get the two confused. While the Benson version is… okay… the Rankin and Bass version is great.

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The Christmas Special Day 8: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

twas-the-night-before-christmasDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin, Jr.

Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the poem by Clement Clarke Moore

Cast: George Gobel, Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes, Bob McFadden, John McGiver, Alan Swift

Plot: Two months before Christmas, in the little town of Junctionville, NY, both the human and mouse populations found themselves getting their letters from Santa Claus returned unopened.  Father Mouse (George Gobel) discovers an anonymous letter in the newspaper calling Santa a myth and a lie, signed “All of us.” Father Mouse’s son, Albert (Tammy Grimes), is revealed as the author of the letter. Albert, a brainy sort, refuses to believe in things he can’t see or touch. Meanwhile, Father Mouse’s human clockmaking partner, Joshua Trundle (Joel Grey) convinces the town to construct a huge clock to play a song in praise of Santa in the hopes of getting back in his good graces. Father shows Albert around town, pointing out children heartbroken by Santa’s rejection, but Albert remarks that grown-ups don’t care about such things. Father tries to show him how wrong he is by taking him to Trundle’s clock.

On the day Trundle’s clock is unveiled, it mysteriously malfunctions, and the town gives in to despair. By Christmas Eve, the Trundle children don’t even want to hang their stockings or decorate the tree. The mice are in similar desperation, and Father stumbles upon a sobbing Albert, who confesses he broke the clock when trying to study the machinery. Albert vows to repair the clock before midnight, finally understanding that he has a lot left to learn. As the town sits up on what they’re certain will be a sad Christmas Eve, the clock strikes midnight and begins chiming Trundle’s Santa song. In the sky, a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer swoop down, and the Trundle and Mouse families watch as St. Nicholas makes his annual visit, right on schedule.

Thoughts: Like the many Rankin and Bass specials based on songs, Jerome Coopersmith had the task of expanding upon a rather thin plot. The original poem, of course, is simply about Santa popping in, getting caught by Dad, and popping back out again. No drama, no antagonist, and the mice that aren’t stirring also aren’t talking. Thank goodness the Rankin and Bass folks were here to fix that. Oddly, the result is an almost completely original story – the poem really only factors into the very beginning and very end narration, with everything in-between existing in a little world of its own.

Albert is an interesting character – someone who refuses to believe in anything abstract or esoteric. At the time, marking such a character as the misguided one in need of a lesson was standard operating procedure. Watching this cartoon today, however, I have to marvel at how different things are. In today’s culture, Albert would far too often be the one dealing out the lesson, ridiculing characters who draw upon faith. I rather prefer this version of the paradigm. The song “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” is perhaps one of my favorites in all of the Rankin and Bass universe – something sweet and hopeful, but at the same time recognizing the need for good people to step up and work towards their dreams. As messages go, it’s a timeless one that more and more I feel like the modern world is forgetting.

It’s also interesting that this is one of the few Rankin and Bass cartoons – either stop-motion or traditionally-animated – that is presented as a period piece. Most of the Santa-centric cartoons that touch upon the real world – Frosty, for instance, or The Year Without a Santa Claus – all took place in the present day, with only Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town going into the past for the origin. This cartoon, though, seems to take place in a turn of the century sort of community. The story probably would have worked just well if set in 1974, but something about the more old-fashioned setting sets it apart a bit, giving it a slightly different flavor from the rest of the Rankin and Bass catalogue.

If the story has a weakness, it comes in Albert’s redemption. Like so many Rankin and Bass antagonists, we see someone who is more misguided than evil, and in his case, works frantically to fix his mistake. This is all well and good, but Albert’s actual transformation falls short. This half-hour short (25 minutes without commercials) simply doesn’t give us enough time to really watch Albert evolve as a character. Father Mouse’s song and the visit to the clock don’t seem nearly powerful enough to cause the sort of change of heart we see in Albert just in the nick of time. The ending is still very good, but it feels unearned.

twas-santaWhat’s really odd, though, is how off-model Santa and his reindeer are in this film. The Rankin and Bass cartoons have a certain style whether they’re stop motion or cell animation, and even Frosty the Snowman sticks fairly close to style. While the human and mice characters easily look like they could pop into any other R&B production and be perfectly welcome, Santa… Santa. The “right jolly old elf” himself looks more like Alfred E. Neuman wearing a Santa suit than anything else. (Either that or he was a test model for the Hobbits in the Rankin and Bass adaptation of that novel, which came out in 1977.) Then, Santa speaks in a booming, deep (and uncredited) voice. It’s a good Santa voice, again one which would feel at home in any of these films, but feels completely alien to the Santa design in this cartoon.

These things take me out of the cartoon briefly, but only briefly. Despite being based on one of the most famous Christmas verses ever written, it’s actually one of the most original cartoon Rankin and Bass ever produced, and in and of itself, that’s enough to make it one of the better ones from any studio, ever.

The Christmas Special Day 7: The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

year-without-a-santa-claus-br-copyDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin, Jr.

Writer: William J. Keenan, based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley

Cast: Mickey Rooney,Shirley Booth, Dick Shawn, George S. Irving, Bob McFadden, Rhoda Mann, Bradley Bolke, Colin Duffy

Plot: One year Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney) comes down with a terrible cold. His elfin doctor tells him people don’t care about Christmas anymore anyway, and the sad Santa cancels Christmas this year. With everyone distraught, Mrs. Santa Claus (Shirley Booth) sends elves Jingle and Jangle (Bob McFadden and Bradley Bolke, respectively) — with the reindeer Vixen — south to try to find some leftover Christmas spirit from the year before to convince Santa to get back on his feet. When Santa finds out they’ve left, he gets out of bed to try to fetch them, fearing they’ll run afoul of “the Miser Brothers.”

The elves, as it turn out, are heading right between the kingdoms of the warring Snow Miser (Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (George S. Irving). Vixen barely escapes the Misers, and the trio land in nearby Southtown, U.S.A. They begin their search for Christmas spirit, but run into one person after another who doesn’t care… even children ambivalent about Santa Claus skipping his annual visit. They leave the children when Vixen – disguised as a dog – is taken away by the dogcatcher. One of the children, Ignatius Thistlewhite  (Colin Duffy) is later approached by Santa Claus. Ignatius directs Santa to the dog pound and he leaps upon Donner to fly to the rescue. Ignatius and his parents see the flying reindeer, and he realizes his mistake. The elves and Ignatius arrive at town hall at the same time, trying to plead to the mayor for Vixen’s freedom. The mayor doesn’t believe them, and jokingly offers to free Vixen if they can make it snow in Southtown. Meeting up with Mrs. Claus, the elves visit Snow Miser who – after one of the most rousing and memorable musical numbers Rankin and Bass ever produced – they ask to bring snow to Southtown. As it turns out he’d love to do that very thing, but his brother the Heat Miser won’t allow it. When they turn to Heat Miser, he agrees to allow snow in the south, but only if Snow Miser will cede to him the North Pole for a day. Realizing the brothers will never come to terms, Mrs. Claus goes over their heads to their mother… the notoriously reclusive Mother Nature herself (Rhoda Mann). Mother forces them to cooperate.

Unbeknownst to them, Santa has taken Vixen – sick from the heat – back home to the North Pole. Santa, still feeling ill himself, sits down for a nap, unaware snow is falling in Southtown. Mrs. Claus returns with newspapers proclaiming an official holiday in celebration of Santa Claus. All over the world, children come together to visit the North Pole and give gifts to Santa for a change. On Christmas Eve however, Santa receives a letter from a child who proclaims she’ll have a blue Christmas without him. Santa, touched despite the blatant plagiarism from an Elvis Presley hit, demands his sleigh be prepared for his traditional Christmas rounds. He makes a special journey to Southtown, appearing in public (I told you guys he constantly breaks that rule in the Rankin-Bass universe) to thank the children who taught him his lesson. He leaves to perform his duty, taking off from the newly-renamed Santa Claus Lane.

Thoughts: I was almost reluctant to include this one, based on my “one-per-franchise” rule. This film is considered by some to be a sequel to Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, mostly due to the fact that Mickey Rooney returns as Santa Claus. But then I decided screw it – it would be easy to link together most of the Rankin-Bass specials and just as easy to declare that each one exists in a totally separate reality from all the others, so I’m just going to do the ones I want to. It’s my project, after all.

If I did want to think of it as a sequel (which I don’t), this is the Superman II of the franchise. The origin stuff is out of the way, so we can tell a solid, self-contained story without worrying about wasting time placing the pieces on the board. The cast is expanded and the threat is considerably greater than in the first film. Also like Superman II, this film features the hero deciding to eschew his responsibilities and struggle with questions of his own relevance, only to learn a harsh lesson about just how needed he truly is. In both films, our hero is rendered ill, wounded, and is eventually prodded forward by the urging of an outside party (Santa’s letter to the little girl, Superman given a plea by the President of the United States). Even the villains in each film take the opportunity to screw each other, setting up circumstances that directly lead to the solution to the threat. This movie, it should be noted, has 100 percent fewer Super Roofie Kisses than Superman II, so the metaphor isn’t a perfect one.

I honestly like this much more than Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, mostly because – although it suffers from an unforgivable lack of Topper the Penguin (something else it has in common with Superman II) — it more than makes up for it with the introduction of the Miser Brothers. These are characters that have really become cultural hallmarks, at least for my generation. Their respective Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs have been covered by pop groups and rock bands, and even the most ardent Scrooge will find themselves singing along if that particular tune starts piping in through the mall sound system. Of all the characters created by the Rankin-Bass people from whole cloth (as opposed to being based on a preexisting tune or legend), these are the two that have most fully acclimated into American pop culture. They are the perfect example of a Rankin and Bass creep-to-be-redeemed. They aren’t evil, they’re just childish, and the ire they’ve directed at one another for such a long time has contributed directly to the lack of Christmas spirit in the world around them. It’s not a question of turning them away from being bad, it’s just a case of making them realize it will be better for everyone if they would simply cooperate with one another, a lesson similar to that learned by General Zod and Lex Luthor, and I swear to Krampus himself that’s the last Superman II reference. Today.

On a more personal note, the notion of snow in the south being the hallmark of real magic is something else that helps this special resonate with me. I’m from Louisiana, friends. White Christmases aren’t exactly common here. Neither are white New Years, white Valentine’s Days, or white Martin Luther King Days. It doesn’t snow down here much, is the point I’m making. So the idea of a little snow hitting specifically on Christmas really does carry magic in the south that those of you in colder climes may not realize. I offer the following evidence: a few years ago, against all odds, it actually got cold enough to snow in New Orleans on Christmas Day. It wasn’t much snow, just a dusting really, and my Yankee now-fiancé Erin just laughed when she saw how excited we were… but on that day, people flooded the streets. Everybody in the neighborhood was outside, kids who hadn’t taken their eyes off their X-Boxes in years were playing in the sun, throwing snowballs at each other and embracing the sudden burst of joy that was falling down as surely as the ice. My sister, who was 23 at the time, actually pulled the doorknob out of the door in her rush to get outside. It doesn’t happen here, friends. So I know how the folks of Southtown feel.

Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, this special proves that the fear of waning Christmas spirit isn’t a new problem at all. It’s actually kind of encouraging to realize people were afraid of these same problems forty and fifty years ago – if we’ve made it this far, maybe it’s just one of those things that never really goes away. But that’s okay, because there are people like Mrs. Claus, people of goodwill like you and me (admit it, you love Christmas, you wouldn’t have made it this far if you didn’t), and through our own small efforts and acts of kindness and acts of will, we’ll help the holiday persevere.