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Gut Reaction: Paranorman (2012)

ParanormanDirectors: Chris Butler & Sam Fell

Writer: Chris Butler

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempest Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman, Hannah Noyes, Jodelle Ferland

Plot: Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was born with a terrible gift – the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. The problem is, nobody believes him, except for his mysterious Uncle Prendergast (John Goodman), who has the same power. Prendergast warns Norman that a witch’s curse is about to overwhelm his small town unless he can stop it… but the spirits of the undead may not even be the worst danger – first Norman has to navigate a sea of school bullies, unbelieving townspeople, and parents who think something is wrong with him.

As always, this Reel to Reel is not simply a review, but a study of the themes and tropes of the movie. So fair warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.

Thoughts: Last fall we got hit by not one, but three stop-motion films that seemed to be grasping for the young Halloween-lover’s moviegoing dollars: this, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. I wanted to see all three, so naturally, circumstances conspired to keep me from seeing any of them. Now that they’re rolling out on DVD, I’m making up for lost time.

From the basic description, it’s impossible not to see Paranorman as taking some of its lead from The Sixth Sense – both films are about young boys with the ability to talk to the dead and the earlier film is far too large a cultural milestone to imagine writer Chris Butler could have been unaware of it. It’s even less likely when you realize just how culturally aware this movie is – it’s full of tiny little jokes, tidbits and Easter Eggs that link us to the great horror movies of the past — gags about zombie movies, Norman’s friend Neil showing up in a hockey mask, and Norman’s phone having John Carpenter’s Halloween theme as his ringtone being some of the most prominent examples.

That said, this isn’t a problem for the movie at all. In fact, you could almost look at Paranorman as a sort of thematic sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film. At the end of that movie, Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear character had started to make peace with his ability to talk to the dead and was attempting to use his ability to help spirits in need. Norman Babcock is at that point when this movie begins, but an unbelieving family and the fact that the town is aware of – but doesn’t believe in – his power helps make him a real outcast, perfectly positioning him to be the hero when the zombies hit the fan.

Chris Butler and Sam Fell are clearly drawing from the Tim Burton/Henry Sellick school of filmmaking. Although parents frequently forget, a lot of kids love the creepy and the macabre. It’s why Roald Dahl is still popular, why the Universal Monsters will never die, and why The Nightmare Before Christmas is still the most popular thing Tim Burton’s name has ever been associated with. Kids, however, don’t really want to be legitimately scared the way adults sometimes do. Kids want the trappings of horror around them, because it makes them feel older, like they can take it. Plus, that line between terror and laughter is really very slim. (I may have mentioned it before.)

The interesting thing about Paranorman is that it treads the line between an all-ages movie and an adult film very carefully, but not only in terms of the horror content. When Mitch (Casey Affleck) drop-kicks a zombie’s head, that’s a little gross… but part of my brain was still processing the moment a few minutes before when he was joking about his little brother Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) freeze-framing their mother’s aerobics DVDs, with a screenshot that leaves no room for interpretation as to what he’s looking for.

Like the horror, the comedy in this movie draws heavily from classic sources. Zombie hands chasing after people feel like they could have been dragged out of a Three Stooges short or an episode of The Addams Family. The mob violence calls to mind Frankenstein in the campier moments of the franchise, and the script even drops in a shout-out to Scooby-Doo. The action, on the other hand, evokes some of the great kids’ adventures movies of the 80s. We used to get movies like Explorers, like Monster Squad, like the greatest kids’ adventure of all time, Goonies, in which the young have to come together to fight the bad guy or save the day. I grew up in this mythical fairyland – it was called the 80s. Halfway through the movie, Paranorman takes a turn in this direction, when Norman and Neil are joined by their older siblings and the school bully, none of whom can afford to remain skeptical anymore, what with the actual hordes of the undead coming after them.

The way those characters come together, though, is pretty realistic. Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) turns against him, even after they’ve all fought the monsters and know for a fact he isn’t just crazy. Alvin the Bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still a jerk. Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is still a bonehead. In a lot of movies, these lesser antagonistic characters turn on a dime and join the heroes in the face of a greater threat (such as in the legendary Shakespearean drama Ernest Goes to Camp.) Things don’t go nearly so well for Norman, who really has only one stalwart in his corner, and when the story begins, it’s Norman who tries to reject Neil. The characters do come around eventually, of course, because that’s the sort of story this is, but it doesn’t come easily. They need real convincing, an idea that becomes more important at the climax when Norman confronts the witch and tries to talk her down from the monster she’s become to the little girl she once was.

The big moment for the film, the one where we really start to understand we’re in a complex world where nothing is black and white, is when Norman gets a pensieve-style glimpse into the sentencing of the witch Agatha Prendergast (Jodelle Ferland), who started all this in the first place when she cursed the people who condemned her. At this point, after an hour of running from the monsters, everything becomes clear. Agatha was a child when she was condemned – we’re not seeing a spell cast by a bloodthirsty witch, we’re seeing a tantrum being thrown by a scared, powerful child. Then the next domino falls – the zombies beg Norman to complete the ritual to put Agatha asleep again for another year… they aren’t out for blood, they just want the curse to end.

In truth, it takes a bullied, misunderstood child to comprehend what a bullied misunderstood child actually needs, and that’s as true in this movie as it is in real life.

Although rated PG, I would be hesitant to show this movie to some kids. The mass numbers of double entendre aside, a lot of the monsters and violence – although played for laughs – are perhaps a little too realistic for the littlest of them. If you’ve got a kid under 10, I’d recommend watching the movie yourself first to decide if you think your kid can handle it. If you’re older, though – if you’re from that demographic that loves Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, The Munsters, this really is an excellent movie.

Don’t forget the first Reel to Reel movie study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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The Christmas Special Day 22: Hooves of Fire (1999)

hooves-of-fireDirector: Richard Goleszowski

Writers: Andy Riley, Kevin Cecil, Richard Curtis

Cast: UK VERSION-Robbie Williams, Ardal O’Hanlon, Paul Whitehouse, Jane Horrocks, Steve Coogan, Caroline Quentin, Jean Alexander, Ricky Tomlinson, Rhys Ifans, Harry Enfield; US Version-Ben Stiller, Britney Spears, James Woods, Brad Garrett, Hugh Grant, Leah Remini, James Belushi, Jerry Stiller, Rob Paulsen

Plot: The red-nosedRobbie the Reindeer (Ardal O’Hanlon/Ben Stiller) has long dreamed of winning a spot as the navigator on Santa’s sleigh team, and it looks like he’s finally being given a chance.  He reports to the sleigh team, run by a taskmaster-lke Blitzen (Steve Coogan/Hugh Grant). As Donner (Jane Horrocks/Britney Spears) shows him to his room, Blitzen begins plotting… he’s been jealous of Robbie’s father ever since the day that (unnamed) most famous reindeer of all saved Christmas, and now he can take revenge on that reindeer’s son. Donner quickly develops a crush on Robbie, but he’s oblivious, only having eyes for Vixen (Caroline Quentin/Leah Remini). Robbie meets Santa Claus (Ricky Tomlinson/James Belushi) for the first time at a party the boss is throwing for the elves, where Santa gushes over Robbie’s father and Vixen rebuffs his advances. Santa has a surprise for the party as well: he unveils the Sleigh Mark II, a new high-tech vehicle full of bells, whistles, and a computer navigation system. Robbie suddenly realizes that, to keep his spot on the sleigh team, he has to be physically fit… which will be hard, as Blitzen has been sabotaging his fitness training. Disheartened, Robbie wanders out into the snow to walk south. He winds up frozen solid and would be lost if he wasn’t found and thawed out by a group of elves. He joins them working in their toy factory, but a series of mishaps bumps him lower and lower on the totem pole until he’s stuck using his antlers for a forklift – which is where he is when Donner finds him. She tells him he’s still got a chance to make the sleigh team, if he can compete in and win the upcoming Reindeer Games. She also convinces him Blitzen has been his enemy all along, and they turn to a legendary reindeer named Old Jingle (Harry Enfield/Jerry Stiller) for help.

They find Old Jingle in his house, precariously perched at the top of Pointy Mountain, and Robbie asks him to help him train. Jingle tells him his best shot at winning is the Steeplechase event, and Robbie begins training. On the day of the games, Robbie suddenly becomes a crowd favorite by saving a baby from a fall. Vixen tries to use Robbie’s crush on her to force him out of the games, but he’s fallen for Donner instead. He leaves the stadium, however, when he learns that Jingle has been trapped under his house. He rushes off and saves the old reindeer, but misses the start of the race, and Blitzen gets an enormous lead. Amazingly, Robbie makes up ground quickly, and one of Blitzen’s cronies has him stumble into a steeple. Robbie uses his special “Nose Jump” to vault to the finish line, but the photo finish reveals Blitzen to be the winner. Donner kisses him, and in his glee Robbie rushes off and performs in every event, breaking all the records, albeit unofficially. As Robbie’s dad sends a congratulatory blimp over the stadium, Blitzen is carted off for drug testing and Santa gives Robbie the keys to the sleigh for the night. He takes Donner out for a romantic evening on the moon, where together they watch the Earth come up.

Thoughts: It’s always nice to see a tweak to a Christmas classic, and this BBC special from 1999 definitely qualifies. While they’re always careful to avoid mentioning Robbie’s famous father by name, there can be no doubt who he is or what made him so famous.

Hooves of Fire picks up on Rudolph, creating a bizarre semi-sequel by way of sports story. Robbie’s tale echoes his father’s in certain ways – picking up on the Reindeer Games, for example. His journey is not just a copy of his father’s however. Although his own nose does some weird things, it never becomes the center of the storyline the way Rudolph’s does. Robbie is made an outcast not because he’s different, but because Blitzen holds an old grudge against his family. Even when Robbie pulls out his nose’s special abilities at the end, they don’t directly contribute to his success. Remember, he loses the games. He wins in the end because he’s made everyone love him for reasons that don’t have anything to do with his nose. Also because Blitzen is a jerk who, evidently, was ‘roided up.

The plot with the Reindeer Games is a mirror of cheesy 80s sports movies… particularly, and appropriately, films like Ski School. We have the jerk jock and the Yoda-style mentor there to help win the day, the goofy protagonist who focuses on the sexpot without realizing the cute girl next door type is in love with him. The writers load up the tropes, and it’s usually for the purposes of ridicule. That’s kind of the weird thing about the comedy, actually – half of it is straight-up parody of Christmas movies, of sports movies, of romantic comedies and so forth. In the other half, though, the BBC gives the show a really sharp, unmistakably British sense of humor, full of cutway gags and non sequiturs that feel almost Monty Python-esque in their scope.

The stop motion used here feels a step beyond Will Vinton, closer to the sort of thing Aardman Animation puts out on their best days. Something about the character design is really bizarre, but in a funny way. The reindeer, for example, are actually weird 2-D designs, with eyes and a mouth that all go on the same side of the head like a character in Peanuts. The designers keep that feel when they plump the characters out for their animated forms, resulting in a set of reindeer heads that obviously don’t work in the real world, but work perfectly in the quirky version of the North Pole director Richard Goleszowski puts forth. The costuming is cute as well: Jingle walks around with briefs on over his clothing, the elves have several diverse designs that range from the traditional to the mini-biker. The steeples in the steeplechase are actual steeples, looking like they were ripped right off the houses.

And Mrs. Claus had a beard. What else is there to say?

If there’s any major complaint, it’s that for some reason they re-dubbed all of the voices with American actors for the stateside presentation of the film. (Except for Blitzen. In his case, they replaced British actor Steve Coogan with… more widely-known-in-the-US British actor Hugh Grant.) I can only assume this was some sort of effort at marketability. In the 13 years since this film was first made, of course, British pop culture has become much more popular here in the US of A – I imagine if this cartoon was released for the first time today, they probably wouldn’t have bothered with the American voices.

Robbie has returned in two other cartoons – Legends of the Lost Tribe in 2002, and 2007’s Close Encounters of the Herd Kind, the latter of which I was actually unaware of until I did the research for this article. I’ve got an older DVD, with the first two cartoons on it, but now I’ve got a quest. I’ve got to see the 2007 film, because Robbie rocks.

The Christmas Special Day 20: Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1988)

christmas-at-pee-wees-playhouseDirectors: Wayne Orr, Paul Reubens

Writer: John Paragon, Paul Reubens

Cast: Paul Reubens, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Dinah Shore, Little Richard, Cher, Magic Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Joan Rivers, Charo, Kevin Carlson, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Fletcher, Darin Grimes, Rick Heitzman, Suzanne Kent, William Marsha, George McGrath, S. Epatha Merkerson, Alison Mork, John Paragon, Lynne Marie Stewart, Vic Trevino, Wayne White & the Del Rubio Triplets

Plot: As Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) makes out his list for Santa Claus, he gets a visit from his friend Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), who has strategically placed mistletoe into her hairdo to get kisses from everyone. She’s brought Pee-Wee his Christmas present: her own homemade fruitcake. Less than enthused, Pee-Wee gives her a bottle of homemade perfume that smells just like him. As he continues his preparations, he gets a call from Whoopi Goldberg, asking to be on his Christmas special, but he’s booked solid for the next two years. When he’s reminded that he forgot to get decorations for the Christmas party, he wishes he hadn’t been so selfish, getting the attention of Jambi the Genie (John Paragon). Pee-Wee uses Christmas to con an extra wish out of Jambi (he usually only gets one a day) and has the Playhouse quickly decorated, planning to use his other wish for “something special” later. Mail Lady Reba (S. Epatha Merkerson) arrives and Pee-Wee gives her a set of press-on toenails and an enormous letter to Santa. She gives him another fruitcake, and a huge box containing singer Grace Jones, who was supposed to be shipped to the White House. She sings her own rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” before she’s reboxed and sent off to Washington (where I’m sure President Reagan was highly appreciative). Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello stop by to make Christmas Cards, and Cher drops in to get today’s Secret Word. (It’s “Year.” So whenever anyone says “Year,” you scream real loud. You know where this is going.)

The King of Cartoons (William Marshall) drops in with a gift for Pee-Wee (two fruitcakes), and Annette starts the cartoon, preceded by a Christmas message from Joan Rivers on the set of Hollywood Squares. The excitement is heightened when a snowfall sends Pee-Wee out to play (after telling Frankie and Annette they can’t join him until they finish making their cards). As he plays, his friend Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne) stops by, and the two of them listen while the Del Rubio Triplets perform “Winter Wonderland.” Little Richard joins the gang as they go ice skating, but he’s not that good on skates, and has to watch as Pee-Wee demonstrates his own prowess, courtesy of his stunt double, Hans. Everyone goes in for hot chocolate to warm up and listen to a song by special guest k.d. lang, backed up by the Puppet Band. As night falls, Pee-Wee hangs up his giant Christmas stocking(s) amidst those of his friends, then tosses Frankie and Annette bread and water to sustain them as they toil away on the cards. Pee-Wee gets more visitors, more well-wishers, and more fruitcake… even, courtesy of Charo, one in Spanish. Pee-Wee’s friend Mrs. Rene (Susanne Kent) stops in to teach him about Hanukkah and gives him eight days of fruitcakes. Finally, Frankie and Annette finish making the 1000 cards, and are allowed to join the party. Randy, Pee-Wee’s Marionette buddy, seems to have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, so the Magic Screen shows him a video of a Nativity Play and tells him the story of the first Christmas. “Touched,” Randy gives Pee-Wee a fruitcake. Finally, Pee-Wee leads them to a new wing of the Playhouse where he has a couple of construction workers building walls using the fruitcakes for bricks. As the gang begins caroling, Pee-Wee hears sleigh bells – Santa Claus has arrived! Santa (Aaron Fletcher) pops in and tells Pee-Wee his list was so big that he didn’t have any presents for the other children. Pee-Wee’s friends, with the help of his flashback to Randy, convince him to sacrifice his presents so the other children can have Christmas, and Santa rewards him by inviting him to join him on his sleigh to deliver the presents. Before he goes, Jambi reminds Pee-Wee of his special wish, which he uses to wish for Peace on Earth, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

And everybody screams real loud.

 Thoughts: If you were around in the late 80s, and were just at the right age, you might remember Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as something of a phenomenon. It was an odd sort of show. To kids, it was a bizarre, surreal blend of puppetry, animation and sketch comedy that tapped into a primal source of humor for us all, a sort of subversive answer to Sesame Street that seemed to want to use the same tricks, but instead of teaching us to spell and count, taught us to scream real loud. To adults, it was a weird production that was half parody and half celebration of the sort of kid-centered variety show that existed in the 50s and 60s, but was largely extinct by that point. To everybody, it was something that would prove impossible to forget even after Paul Reubens was forced to retire the character in disgrace. (We won’t go there, this is a family countdown.)

As an adult, it’s hard not to look at this and immediately understand that Pee-Wee creator (and performer) Paul Reubens was in this more to entertain himself and the older audience, and any kids who really got into it were just a little extra credit. If you doubt that, look at the guest list for this special. Find one seven-year-old circa 1988 who either knew or cared who Dinah Shore, Charo, or the Del Rubio Triplets were. Come on. I’ll wait. Most of the older guests seem to be wallowing in their own irony – particularly Frankie and Annette, who were riding an irony-fused wave of nostalgia popularity at the time. Only k.d. lang really seems to get into it, performing a wild and ridiculous rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” that clearly demonstrates that she realizes how crazy what she’s doing is and has decided to just roll with it.

Pee-Wee himself, as a character, is hardly the role model of a Charlie Brown or a Rudolph… or even a Fat Albert. He’s kind of rude at times, openly disdainful of the gifts his friends give him, engages in a weirdly antagonistic back-and-forth with the viewers, and comes across as rather self-centered even at his best. It’s actually part of the reason kids liked him so much, I think – he was a more cynical character and, as a result, a slightly more honest one.

Even the bits that you usually get in a children’s show have a weird sort of twist. The scene where Frankie and Annette make Christmas Cards, for example, is the kind of quasi-education craft segment you’d get in any kids’ show… so why does Pee-Wee look at the former supercouple as if they’ve fallen from another planet? (Because that’s what most kids would do when some grown-up starts rambling about trying to make Christmas Cards with a potato, that’s why.) Perhaps the best “tip,” though, comes when Pee-Wee plays in the snow, and tells the kids at home that they can substitute 20 pounds of coconut shavings if they don’t have any snow at home. You’ve got to wonder how many kids tried to convince their parents to let them give that one a try.

Although this is billed as its own standalone special, even more than many of the others we’ve watched, it feels very much like a longer episode of the TV show. Reubens and his guests engage in most of the once-an-episode bits that we’re all used to from the weekly series, like his journey through the magic screen or his daily wish from Jambi the Genie. As was true for most episodes of the TV show, the plot is loose at best, with Reubens and company instead pinwheeling from one segment to another with no real logic or connectivity beyond the need to discuss Christmas and keep up the running gag about Pee-Wee getting fruitcake after fruitcake instead of real gifts.

It’s entertaining, at least, but perhaps not as much as a lot of the other Christmas specials we’ve watched this month. It has its charm, but Pee-Wee doesn’t really age as well as a lot of the other characters who’ve come together to make our Yuletide merry. Ah well. Perhaps the next cast of misfits will do better.

The Christmas Special Day 17: A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)

will-vintons-claymation-christmas-celebrationDirector: Will Vinton

Writer: Ralph Liddle

Cast: Tim Conner, Johnny Counterfit, Greg Black, Ron Tinsley, Patric Miller (Musical Director)

Plot: Unlike most of the Christmas specials we’ve covered this month, A Claymation Christmas Celebration doesn’t exactly have a “plot.” This film instead features a pair of dinosaurs named Herb (Tim Conner) and Rex (Johnny Counterfit) as they host a revue of classic Christmas songs starring Will Vinton’s animated characters, including the California Raisins. In London, Herb and Rex try to give us some background into the first song, but are interrupted as a set of dogs come by singing “Here We Come A-Waffleing.” As Rex tries to correct them, he realizes he has no idea what “Wassailing” actually is, and sends us into “We Three Kings.” Herb then tells us that bell-ringing ceremonies have their roots in attempts to ward off evil, which takes us into “Carol of the Bells.” As the dinosaurs go into their next, a group of geese begin to sing “Here We Come A-Waddling,” Rex throws us to “O Christmas Tree.” When we return, the dinosaurs are looking up “Wassail,” tossing us into an ice ballet for “Angels We Have Heard on High.” A cart of hungry, hedonistic pigs gives their version of “Here We Come A-Wallowing,” tempting Herb away as Rex tries to introduce “Joy to the World.” The various wassailers begin arguing as the dinosaurs send us to the real stars of the special, the California Raisins performing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Finally, a load of cider-guzzling elves arrive and explain the meaning of “Wassailing” – going around the neighborhood, singing carols, and sharing treats and drinks. The dinosaurs and the rest of the cast join in to sing the proper version of the song, dovetailing into “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as they all say farewell.

Thoughts: This special is such a product of its time. In the 80s, the California Raisins turned up for a series of ads, were rock stars for a while, provided parents with the cheapest Halloween costume imaginable, and then faded from the public consciousness. It’s a shame too, because I really do love Will Vinton’s work. This special shows off his considerable talents as an animator, not just with the clay figures of the Raisins and other characters, but on other forms of animation as well. During “We Three Kings,” for example, as the Magi sing, we drift into different styles of animation that look like oil paintings. Later, in “Joy to the World,” the style mimics the look of stained glass, while still having a very lively, evocative feel to it. It’s the most unique visual in the entire special, and a wonderful showcase of the potential inherent in this kind of animation.

“O Christmas Tree” is another display piece for Vinton’s skill, beginning in a simple setting with a pair of children decorating their tree. The camera zooms in on an ornament on their tree, taking us to a scene in a candyland, then repeats the process. We go through Santa’s workshop, then into Santa and Mrs. Claus’s own home. Each scene has a similar composition, but a distinctly unique decorating style that shows off the different sorts of stories Claymation can be used to depict.

Vinton also has real skill at comedic animation. In “Carol of the Bells,” we see several different bells (each with distinct faces that reveal a lot of personality) engage in a head-bonging chorus that would have made Jim Henson himself proud. The scene also has a good punchline, delivering the final note in a Chuck Jones fashion. The ice ballet has a bit of Disney’s Fantasia and a bit of Disney’s Donald Duck (the cartoon where he engages in an ice battle with his nephews comes distinctly to mind).  Vinton is a smart writer as well, dropping in nice little literary Easter Eggs like making Quasimodo the director of the Bell Choir.

The music is also phenomenal in this special. This is one of my all-time favorite renditions of “We Three Kings,” in which the Magi sing a quiet, respectful, traditional version, which then spins into a peppy, jazzy chorus provided by the camels. “Joy to the World” has a sort of bluesy feel, while the California Raisins cover of “Rudolph” is right up there with Burl Ives as one of the best versions of the song.

Sadly, Vinton’s studio has been gone for some time now, and with CGI ruling the animation roost there aren’t too many people left doing this sort of thing. Even the final few stalwarts of stop-motion – Aardman, Henry Selick, Tim Burton – don’t do the sort of wild, experimental stuff Vinton tried to bring to the table. We don’t see the likes of this anymore, and that’s a real shame. As of this writing, the DVD (which also includes Vinton’s Halloween and Easter specials) is still available from Amazon. It’s definitely worth getting.

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.

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 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.

The Christmas Special Day 6: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

santa-claus-is-comin-to-town-copyDirectors: 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, but 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’s home, and Kris, the Kringles and Winter are all captured and arrested. Jessica tries to break Winter out of prison, but the only remnant 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 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.

The Christmas Special Day 1: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerDirector: Larry Roemer

Writers: Robert May, Romeo Muller

Cast: Burl Ives, Billie Mae Richards, Paul Soles, Larry D. Mann, Stan Francis, Paul Kligman, Janis Orenstein, Alfie Scopp

Plot: On a cold winter’s day Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) invites us to listen to the story of the most tumultuous Christmas of all time. The reindeer Donner (Paul Kligman) is shocked when his wife gives birth to a fawn with a glowing red nose. Naming the child Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards), Donner attempts to hide the strange nose from the rest of the reindeer, afraid the boy will never be accepted enough to join Santa’s sleigh team. Rudolph joins in the reindeer games, and his attempt to impress a doe named Clarice (Janis Orenstein) goes off brilliantly… until, in his joy, he exposes his nose. The rest of the reindeer mock him and drive him away, but Clarice follows, trying to convince him his nose is something to be proud of.

In Santa’s workshop, meanwhile, an elf named Hermey (Paul Soles) is feeling trapped in his toymaking tasks… he really wants to be a dentist. He encounters Rudolph, who has just been warned off by Clarice’s father, and the two outcasts strike up a friendship, deciding to become “independent together.” They set off from the North Pole, hoping to find a place where they fit in, but find themselves tracked by the Abominable Snowman. They get stuck in ice, but are rescued by a prospector named Yukon Cornelius (Larry D. Mann), who is determined to mine for silver and gold in the great white north. The three of them are attacked by Abominable, and Yukon breaks them off onto an ice floe to escape. Eventually they arrive at the Island of Misfit Toys, a land populated entirely by playthings that are flawed in some way: a Jack-in-the-Box named Charlie, a train with square wheels, a water pistol that only shoots jelly, and other such manufacturer’s defects. They’re taken to the island’s king, Moonracer (Stan Francis, who also voices Santa), who offers to give them shelter for a night if Rudolph agrees to ask Santa to deliver the misfit toys to children so they can finally be happy. That night, however, Rudolph realizes the Abominable Snowman is tracking them via his nose, so he leaves his friends behind.

As time passes, Rudolph grows up and returns to the North Pole two days before Christmas Eve, where he finds that his parents and Clarice are missing, having spent months searching for him. Before he can set out to look for them, an incredible snowstorm strikes. Rudolph manages to find the missing reindeer in a cave, trapped by the Abominable Snowman. He saves them as Hermey and Yukon arrive. Hermey extracts the Snowman’s teeth, but he traps them all before Yukon plunges off a cliff with the monster and is lost. The misfits return to the North Pole, where Santa agrees to deliver the Misfit Toys and Hermey is given permission to set up his dentist’s practice. As apologies are made, Yukon Cornelius appears with the bound and reformed snowman, now called “Bumble,” who cheerfully joins in the celebration by placing the star atop the Christmas tree. All may still be lost, though, because the storm isn’t letting up… until Santa realizes Rudolph’s brilliant nose is just the thing to guide his sleigh.

Thoughts: As far as beloved symbols of the holiday season go, Rudolph didn’t get the most auspicious start… and I’m not talking about the whole “Reindeer Games” thing. Rudolph began life not because someone had a vision, not because of an abiding thirst to add something to the Christmas pantheon, but because a department store wanted to save money. Montgomery Ward had been giving away coloring books to children for a few years and decided it would be cheaper if they made their own instead of just buying them from others, so in 1939 the company assigned copyrighter Robert May to come up with a story. The resulting poem, about an outcast reindeer with a red nose, became a hit. In 1944 Max Fleisher’s studio made an animated short starring the character, in 1949 songwriter Johnny Marks adapted the poem into a song made legendary by Gene Autry, and throughout the 1950s and 60s he starred in an annual comic book special published by DC. But the most enduring (and, I’d argue, most endearing) version of the character is this one, the one who raced onto NBC and 1964 and brought with him not only the hope for the Christmas season, but also the beginning of a golden age of animated specials by Rankin/Bass Productions.

Rudolph’s tale has a good, positive message even in the original poem: it’s a story about accepting who you are and finding your utmost potential. But the added dimension this special gives to a relatively simple story is a big part of what makes it so memorable. When Hermey first shows up, wanting to practice dentistry, it feels like a throwaway joke at first. And it’s a funny joke, don’t misunderstand. The notion of an elf tossing away his heritage to do something so decidedly un-elflike is silly on the face of it. But Hermey’s character arc parallel’s Rudolph’s in a very interesting way. Rudolph is separated from the other reindeer by something physical that he can’t change; Hermey is separated from the other elves by something spiritual that he wants to change. The friendship the two of them strike up is undeniably heartwarming.

Although the rest of the cast hasn’t become as famous as Rudolph himself, Hermey, Yukon Cornelius and Bumble have most definitely ascended to the level of B-list players on the Christmas scene. Yukon is goofy enough to be fun in any context, and in most company you need only say “I want to be a dentist!” in Hermey’s intonation to get across the point that you feel like a square peg being forced into a round hole. But Bumble is my favorite of the trio. Although Rankin/Bass are best known for their Christmas specials (and for their later 80s animation), they did occasionally swerve into other seasons. Bumble was their first great monster, and the sensibility that went into his design would turn up three years later, when they produced the feature film Mad Monster Party, including versions of all the great Universal monsters.

The Misfit Toys, likewise, have become classics, but I’ve always felt like the writers were stretching just a bit with this section. Some of the “defects” seem almost too silly to accept (the Charlie-in-the-Box, for example… doesn’t it occur to anybody he could just change his name?). Still, the charm of the characters is enough to deflate these more practical notions, and the idea that a toy needs the love of a child to be complete is the sort of beautiful thing that Jim Henson and the boys at Pixar would pick up on in years to come. I’m not saying that Toy Story never would have happened if it weren’t for Rudolph, but I guarantee you the people who made that movie were fans of this one.

Although the original Johnny Marks song is the hallmark of the special’s musical numbers, it would be practically criminal to ignore the rest of the music he composed to accompany it. “We’re a Couple of Misfits,” the song Rudolph and Hermey each sing solo before coming together for a brilliant duet, is almost an anthem for outcasts, and deservedly so. It’s quick, it’s catchy, and it’s infinitely adaptable. Burl Ives is at his all-time best turning out “Silver and Gold” and “Holly Jolly Christmas,” both songs that have become perennials in their own right – and with all due respect to Gene Autry, it’s the Ives version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” I hear whenever the music begins playing in my head (usually a few days before Thanksgiving, at which point I attempt to force it back until the turkey and stuffing are digested… or at least eaten).

Having Rudolph grow up during the course of this cartoon was an interesting choice. This was, if you’ll recall, Rankin/Bass’s first big Christmas hit, and they probably didn’t expect it to become the trademark of their brand. They’d bring Rudolph back for other specials over the years, when he would save the New Year and, along with Frosty, the Fourth of July, but whenever he turned up after this, he was the young Rudolph again. And that’s as it should be. That is, after all, the way he went down in history.