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.