The Christmas Special Day 12: Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)
Directors: 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 6: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)
Directors: Jules Rankin & Arthur Bass
Writer: Romeo Muller
Cast: Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, Robie Lester, the Westminster Children’s Choir
Plot: Friendly mailman S.D. Kluger (Fred Astaire) has once again rounded up a cart full of letters about Santa Claus. To answer all the questions at once, he decides to share with us the story of Santa’s life. Years ago, in a vaguely Eastern European land called Sombertown, a baby is found. He’s brought to the town’s mayor, the Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees), who immediately sends the baby to the local orphanage. On the way, though, the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) sends up a terrific snowstorm that snatches the child away. The forest animals find him and hide him from the Warlock, taking him to a safe place – the home of an elf family named Kringle. The elves name him Kris, raising him as their own. As he grows up he learns all of their skills, including making toys. Sadly, the elves have mountains of toys that go undelivered thanks to the Burgermeister, even though they were once the royal toymakers to the king. Kris eventually grows into a strapping young man with the voice of Mickey Rooney. He vows to set out and begin delivering the toys, with an official red-and-white Kringle suit and a penguin named Topper. In Sombertown, though, the Burgermeister has outlawed toys entirely. Ignoring the decree, Kris hands out toys to children, and a schoolteacher named Jessica chastises him for breaking the law. The Burgermeister declares Kris a rebel and orders him arrested, but Kris distracts him with a yo-yo and escapes. Kris and Topper turn up in the lands of the Winter Warlock and are captured. Before he can destroy them, Kris gives him a wooden train, and Winter’s frozen heart melts away, restoring his humanity. Winter offers to use his magic to help Kris in exchange for toys once in a while, and he demonstrates his power by showing him a vision of Jessica, who is wandering the woods looking for him. She’s got a handful of letters from the children asking for toys to replace the ones the Burgermeister destroyed, and Kris begins using the Warlock’s tricks to watch over them, to be sure they’re being good, for goodness sake.
The next night Kris returns to Sombertown with a sleigh full of toys and a list of the good children (which, naturally, he checks twice), and the next morning the Burgermeister is again outraged at the proliferation of toys. He orders the doors and windows locked all over town, but Jessica and the animals continue to deliver letters to Kris. Refusing to disappoint a child with a special request, Topper suggests Kris try entering homes through the chimney, a task which quickly becomes standard operating procedure. The Burgermeister turns over all the houses looking for toys, so Kris starts hiding them in stockings hung to dry by the fireplace. The Burgermeister finally uses Jessica to track down the Kringles’ home, and Kris, the Kringles, and Winter are all captured and arrested. Jessica tries to break Winter out of prison, but the only remnants of his power are some magic kernels of corn. She feeds them to eight of Kris’s reindeer friends, who gain the ability to fly. They sweep into the prison and break out the inmates, taking them away. With the Kringle home destroyed by the Burgermeister, Kris and his family are now outlaws. Kris grows a beard to help disguise himself (doesn’t bother to change his bright red clothes, but, y’know, a beard… that should do the trick) and decides to use an alias. The eldest Kringle shows him a medal with his birth name on it: Claus. Taking back his real name, he asks Jessica to share it and the two are married in the woods on Christmas Eve while the Kringles decorate the pine trees and place their wedding gifts beneath the boughs. With his last burst of magic, Winter fills the trees with brilliant lights.
Kris and the Kringles march further north and build a home, where they continue to make toys for years. Eventually, the Meisterburgers die out, and Kris is able to make his journeys more freely. The letters from the children grow more and more frequent, though, and he decides to restrict his deliveries to one night a year, the holiest night, Christmas Eve.
Thoughts: Although, as we’ve seen, Rankin and Bass made a cottage industry out of turning Christmas songs into Christmas specials, this may be their crowning achievement of adaptation. The song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” has even less of a plot than Rudolph or Frosty’s titular claims to fame. It’s basically a reminder to kids not to act like jerks because Santa won’t give them any loot on Christmas morning, and as this is a one-hour special, they’re going to need a lot more to go on. Romeo Muller, who has earned a permanent spot in Christmas Heaven for writing so many of these, does an absolutely heroic job weaving the tale of Santa’s life. This is without a doubt the longest synopsis I’ve written yet in the Christmas project, and that’s due entirely to the complexity of the story and the number of important touchstones along the way.
Muller manages to work in most of the major points of the Santa legend – the elves, the toymaking, the reason Christmas Eve is so sacred to him. For the most part, he does it very organically, almost seamlessly. The only thing that breaks the spell, that reminds you that he’s going through a checklist of Santa Facts, is that every so often Fred Astaire and the children break in with some narration to point out that you just learned something important: “So that’s why he makes such wonderful toys!” Yeah kid, we got that. No need to call attention to it. Muller also gives Santa a Mrs. Claus, elves, flying reindeer and the charming voyeuristic powers that probably weren’t nearly as creepy in the pre-Internet days.
There are a few interesting trends in here that would later reach out and lay branches in future Rankin and Bass productions. We’ve got multiple antagonists, at least at first, in the Warlock and the Burgermeister. The Warlock’s menace ends quickly, though, and he reforms, becoming a friend to our heroes. We’d see this later in other cartoons, including Jack Frost in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and, to a lesser degree, the Miser Brothers in Year Without a Santa Claus. It’s a good way to work in themes of redemption into these cartoons without actually making an icon like Santa or Rudolph a jerk at any point in their respective careers. Not every villain can be redeemed, of course, but the way we see the Burgermeister waste away in self-imposed loneliness and misery says a lot for the power of having a winning personality.
The story is a tad anticlimactic – the Burgermeister never really gets his comeuppance, he just loses his prisoner, and it’s implied that he dies a pathetic wretch. But Fred Astaire comes in at the end of the special and delivers a speech of pure sincerity to rival “Yes Virginia.” It’s a beautiful moment and it leads right into the musical finale.
This isn’t my favorite of the Rankin and Bass specials, and none of the elements created for this show specifically have ever really caught on with the public at large the way some of the other Rankin and Bass creations have. (Not even Topper. What’s up with that? Topper is awesome.) But on the whole, it’s a fine origin for Santa Claus, one that is perfectly satisfying for any child who wants to know all of the things kids tend to ask about Santa. Even after all these years, it’s still a joy to watch.
The Christmas Special Day 5: Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Directors: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writer: Romeo Muller
Cast: Jimmy Durante, Billy DeWolfe, Jackie Vernon, Paul Frees, June Foray
Plot: Children’s entertainer Professor Hinkle (Billy DeWolfe) is perhaps the world’s worst performer, with tricks that won’t work and a rabbit named Hocus Pocus who won’t cooperate. After a failed show at an elementary school, the children race outside to build a snowman, whom they christen Frosty (Jackie Vernon). Hocus and Hinkle rush outside, where Hinkle throws his hat at the rabbit. It’s retrieved by one of the children, Karen (June Foray, again, proving that if there is a goddess of voice animation it’s her), who places it on Frosty’s head. The snowman snaps to life and bids everyone a happy birthday, but Hinkle snatches his hat back and leaves. Hocus steals the hat again and returns it to the children, who use it to bring Frosty to life again. He plays and dances with the children until he notices the temperature is rising, and he’s beginning to melt. Karen and the children promise to send him to the one place he’ll never melt: the North Pole. They parade through town to the train station to send him off (startling a traffic cop along the way) but are stumped when they realize they can’t possibly afford the ticket. At Hocus’s suggestion, Frosty and Karen hop into a refrigerated boxcar on a north-bound train. Hinkle, who realizes the hat has genuine magic power, hops on the same train, determined to steal it back.
When Frosty realizes the frozen car is making Karen sick, he and Hocus get off with her at the next stop. Hinkle jumps from the train so as not to lose them, crashing in the process. Karen is still in danger of freezing, so Hocus tries to rouse the local forest animals to build her a fire. Although Karen is safe for the moment, Frosty knows they need to find help soon, and Hocus suggests Santa Claus, who is scheduled to make his Christmas Eve rounds in mere hours. To keep her warm in the meantime, Frosty finds a greenhouse, but Hinkle manages to trap them both inside. When Santa arrives, Hocus brings him to the greenhouse, where Karen is safe, but in tears: Frosty has been reduced to a puddle with a corncob pipe and an old silk hat. Santa tells her that Frosty is made of magical Christmas snow, which can never go away forever. He uses his magic to rebuild Frosty, but before he places the hat upon his head, Hinkle shows up to demand its return. When Santa warns him he’ll never give him another Christmas present again if he hurts Frosty, Hinkle backs down and is sent away to write a massive apology. Santa places the hat back on Frosty’s head, restoring him to life. He takes Karen home and promises her that Frosty will return every year with the Christmas snow.
Thoughts: Frosty the Snowman gives us yet another case of Rankin and Bass magic, but this time, we’re going for traditional animation. This studio is much better known for their stop motion work, but they did several specials in this format, and later applied it to their version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and 80s TV shows like Thundercats.
Like Rudolph and Little Drummer Boy, this film takes a classic song and gives us an expanded storyline to fill out its half-hour running time. The song even shares DNA with Rudolph – Gene Autry commissioned the piece from Walter Rollins as a follow-up to his earlier Christmas hit. And a hit it was, but like Rudolph, it needs some work to succeed as a narrative. The original song, let’s be honest here, doesn’t exactly have a riveting plot: Snowman gets magic hat, snowman comes to life, snowman starts to melt, snowman leaves. Hard to get a full-length special, and what’s more, there’s no antagonist.
That, in fact, is what really makes this special: Professor Hinkle. He’s a really entertaining bad guy, very different from the usual Rankin/Bass assortment of monsters, evil wizards, and misers. Hinkle is kind of a pathetic figure, but in a funny way. He’s utterly failed at life, he’s a disaster as a magician, but he seems to have more greed than genuine evil in him (despite his own protests to the contrary). Even as he’s trailing Frosty and Karen he has to keep reminding himself to “think nasty… think nasty…”
Looking back on this as an adult, you start to realize that Hocus Pocus, the rabbit, is actually a pretty lousy influence on the children. His refusal to work with his partner in the first place is what costs Professor Hinkle his hat. Hocus steals the hat later (for a good cause, perhaps, but it’s still theft). He convinces an underage girl to illegally board a train with a man she’s known for all of seventeen minutes, without so much as a phone call home to tell her parents not to worry. Yes, he technically helps to save her life multiple times, but seeing as how she would never have been in danger if not for him, it’s hard to give him too much credit for that.
Christmas is almost an afterthought in this special. It’s not really mentioned at all in the original song, and you’ve only got a quarter of the special left when it’s even mentioned that this is all taking place on Christmas Eve. (What school is in session on Christmas Eve? Did they used to do it that way?) It works out for Karen, of course, because otherwise Santa Claus wouldn’t be around to save her and…
Wait a minute, this all happened on Christmas Eve? What did they even need the train ticket for? Why didn’t Frosty just wait around for Santa in town in the first place? They could have saved themselves all kinds of trouble! And don’t tell me it’s because Santa wouldn’t show up while the kids were awake, because this is a Rankin and Bass special and he breaks that rule all the time. He even breaks this rule in this very cartoon, because if he was waiting for all of the animals to be asleep before he shows up Hocus couldn’t even have flagged him down in the first place! Good grief, Romeo Muller, were you even trying?
Yet, this is a classic.
You see, out of all the great characters in the Rankin and Bass catalogue, there may be none as ridiculously endearing as Frosty. His sweetness, his heart that remains warm despite being encased in snow, the fact that he even apologizes to Hocus for some truly ridiculous suggestions for getting help… well, he’s a better snowman than I. This cartoon is the reason I can’t put on a top hat without getting the urge to wish everyone a happy birthday. It’s ludicrous! It’s incomprehensible!
And it’s a valued part of our collective childhood, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it.
Frosty returned twice more in the annals of Rankin and Bass – in 1976’s Frosty’s Winter Wonderland he’s given a snowwife, Crystal. In 1979, the Frosty family teamed up with Rudolph for the stop-motion feature length film Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. Both of these are worthy sequels. Less so is 1992’s Frosty Returns, a terrible, painfully preachy cartoon produced by CBS and unforgivably directed by Bill Melendez (of A Charlie Brown Christmas), and in 2005 there was the CGI Legend of Frosty the Snowman, which is more faithful to the original, but still merely okay. As usual with these characters, Rankin and Bass did it best. All others need not apply.
The Christmas Special Day 4: The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
Directors: 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.