The Christmas Special Day 8: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)
Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin, Jr.
Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the poem by Clement Clarke Moore
Cast: George Gobel, Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes, Bob McFadden, John McGiver, Alan Swift
Plot: Two months before Christmas, in the little town of Junctionville, NY, both the human and mouse populations found themselves getting their letters from Santa Claus returned unopened. Father Mouse (George Gobel) discovers an anonymous letter in the newspaper calling Santa a myth and a lie, signed “All of us.” Father Mouse’s son, Albert (Tammy Grimes), is revealed as the author of the letter. Albert, a brainy sort, refuses to believe in things he can’t see or touch. Meanwhile, Father Mouse’s human clockmaking partner, Joshua Trundle (Joel Grey) convinces the town to construct a huge clock to play a song in praise of Santa in the hopes of getting back in his good graces. Father shows Albert around town, pointing out children heartbroken by Santa’s rejection, but Albert remarks that grown-ups don’t care about such things. Father tries to show him how wrong he is by taking him to Trundle’s clock.
On the day Trundle’s clock is unveiled, it mysteriously malfunctions, and the town gives in to despair. By Christmas Eve, the Trundle children don’t even want to hang their stockings or decorate the tree. The mice are in similar desperation, and Father stumbles upon a sobbing Albert, who confesses he broke the clock when trying to study the machinery. Albert vows to repair the clock before midnight, finally understanding that he has a lot left to learn. As the town sits up on what they’re certain will be a sad Christmas Eve, the clock strikes midnight and begins chiming Trundle’s Santa song. In the sky, a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer swoop down, and the Trundle and Mouse families watch as St. Nicholas makes his annual visit, right on schedule.
Thoughts: Like the many Rankin and Bass specials based on songs, Jerome Coopersmith had the task of expanding upon a rather thin plot. The original poem, of course, is simply about Santa popping in, getting caught by Dad, and popping back out again. No drama, no antagonist, and the mice that aren’t stirring also aren’t talking. Thank goodness the Rankin and Bass folks were here to fix that. Oddly, the result is an almost completely original story – the poem really only factors into the very beginning and very end narration, with everything in-between existing in a little world of its own.
Albert is an interesting character – someone who refuses to believe in anything abstract or esoteric. At the time, marking such a character as the misguided one in need of a lesson was standard operating procedure. Watching this cartoon today, however, I have to marvel at how different things are. In today’s culture, Albert would far too often be the one dealing out the lesson, ridiculing characters who draw upon faith. I rather prefer this version of the paradigm. The song “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” is perhaps one of my favorites in all of the Rankin and Bass universe – something sweet and hopeful, but at the same time recognizing the need for good people to step up and work towards their dreams. As messages go, it’s a timeless one that more and more I feel like the modern world is forgetting.
It’s also interesting that this is one of the few Rankin and Bass cartoons – either stop-motion or traditionally-animated – that is presented as a period piece. Most of the Santa-centric cartoons that touch upon the real world – Frosty, for instance, or The Year Without a Santa Claus – all took place in the present day, with only Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town going into the past for the origin. This cartoon, though, seems to take place in a turn of the century sort of community. The story probably would have worked just well if set in 1974, but something about the more old-fashioned setting sets it apart a bit, giving it a slightly different flavor from the rest of the Rankin and Bass catalogue.
If the story has a weakness, it comes in Albert’s redemption. Like so many Rankin and Bass antagonists, we see someone who is more misguided than evil, and in his case, works frantically to fix his mistake. This is all well and good, but Albert’s actual transformation falls short. This half-hour short (25 minutes without commercials) simply doesn’t give us enough time to really watch Albert evolve as a character. Father Mouse’s song and the visit to the clock don’t seem nearly powerful enough to cause the sort of change of heart we see in Albert just in the nick of time. The ending is still very good, but it feels unearned.
What’s really odd, though, is how off-model Santa and his reindeer are in this film. The Rankin and Bass cartoons have a certain style whether they’re stop motion or cell animation, and even Frosty the Snowman sticks fairly close to style. While the human and mice characters easily look like they could pop into any other R&B production and be perfectly welcome, Santa… Santa. The “right jolly old elf” himself looks more like Alfred E. Neuman wearing a Santa suit than anything else. (Either that or he was a test model for the Hobbits in the Rankin and Bass adaptation of that novel, which came out in 1977.) Then, Santa speaks in a booming, deep (and uncredited) voice. It’s a good Santa voice, again one which would feel at home in any of these films, but feels completely alien to the Santa design in this cartoon.
These things take me out of the cartoon briefly, but only briefly. Despite being based on one of the most famous Christmas verses ever written, it’s actually one of the most original cartoon Rankin and Bass ever produced, and in and of itself, that’s enough to make it one of the better ones from any studio, ever.