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Rankin & Bass’ Christmas Specials are Still Mandatory Holiday Viewing

People will argue about what Christmas should be essential holiday viewing, from the obvious choices like A Christmas Story, Elf, or the A Christmas Carol of your preference, to the dark horse candidates like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, or Gremlins. But while we can argue the merits until our faces are as red as Rudolph’s, there is no arguing that the animated TV specials from the ’60s and ’70s are mandatory for anyone looking for Yuletide cheer. Almost all of the great ones were produced by Rankin/Bass Productions, and have become a genre in and of themselves.

The company was founded in 1960 as Videocraft International before officially becoming Rankin/Bass Productions in 1968. It eventually folded 19 years later in 1987, and was absorbed by Warner Bros. Those nineteen years feel a lot shorter, considering the period gave us J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, The Flight of Dragons, and TV series like The King Kong Show, The Jackson 5, and even ThunderCats (and its similar follow-us SilverHawks and TigerSharks). And unquestionably, the company’s biggest lasting successes were its holiday specials, and specifically the Chrismas ones, of which they produced 18.

The first and still most famous is 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, based on the 1949 song by Johnny L. Marks. Using stop-motion animation (which would become the company’s trademark), the special simply expanded upon the themes of being a misfit who can end up doing great things. It included very weird humor and some memorable characters, like Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, a prospector who is terrible at prospecting. And who can forget the Island of Misfit Toys — populated by a water pistol that shoots jelly, a bird that swims, and a cowboy who rides an ostrich.

Rudolph was an unprecedented hit and gave Burl Ives — narrating the film as Sam the Snowman — several chart hits, specifically “Silver and Gold” and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and so naturally Rankin and Bass sought to replicate that success. It would, however, take them three years to put out their next special, which ended up being the forgettable traditionally animated special Cricket on the Hearth. In 1968, they took another Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy”, and again used stop-motion to give us easily the darkest special they ever made. It involves murder, child endangerment, and animal abuse. You guys. It’s rough.

Then, in 1969, another massive hit came in the form of a cel animated Frosty the Snowman (yet another special based on a hit Christmas song). This special revolved around a snowman made by school children who comes alive when the inexplicably magical top hat belonging to a terrible, greedy magician lands on his head. The special was narrated by Jimmy Durante — who also sang the theme — and followed Frosty (who always says “Happy Birthday!” when he comes to life) and a girl named Karen as they tried to make it to the North Pole before Frosty melted. Naturally, Santa helped a little bit.

The very next year, another stop-motion effort gave us Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Fred Astaire narrates and sing as the North Pole mailman Special Delivery Kluger, answering the questions of children curious about Santa Claus’ life. Since there has never really been a canonical answer, Rankin and Bass, and longtime writer Romeo Muller concocted one. Santa was an orphan left on the doorstep of the Kringle family of elves, who make toys for no one since the outlawing of toys by the buffoonishly evil Burgermeister Meisterburger. Mickey Rooney plays the adult Kris Kringle who becomes an enemy of the state for giving children in Sombertown (yes, really) toys. Rooney’s performance is so very weird, but that just adds to the charm.

The above represent what I’d call the Golden Age of Rankin/Bass specials. As the company branched out to new and different things, their specials became less and less essential, though often still very fun. In 1974 (a full four years since Comin’ to Town), Rankin/Bass produced two specials, Twas the Night Before Christmas done in traditional animation, and The Year Without a Santa Claus using stop-motion. While I have a soft spot for Twas due to repeated viewings as a kid, The Year Without a Santa Claus is the true classic, following Mrs. Claus’ attempt to save Christmas when Santa has taken ill. This special of course gave us the iconic characters of Snow Miser and Heat Miser, immortalized with their own ridiculous song and dance numbers.

From here, I’m sad to say, the specials stopped being essential — they ran out of ideas. Families were treated to sequels like Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, and The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (was Jesus born a second time?), and weird offshoots like Pinocchio’s Christmas and The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold.

The last of their specials aired in 1985, and would be much more in keeping with their feature animated fantasy output than the original comedic musicals they’d done. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was based on a book by The Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum, and feels like a mix of Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga and Norse mythology, though it does boast some of the best visuals and most intricate stop-motion puppetry the company had ever produced.

Sequels to these specials have been made in recent years, but not by Rankin/Bass or anyone involved, and it shows. Most of the genuine Rankin/Bass specials are shown each year somewhere (usually Freeform if not on the major networks) and are all a fun way to spend 25 or 50 minutes. But it’s those first few specials that truly gave the company its clout and remain classics for a reason. They’re joyous, thoughtful, idiosyncratic, and wholly of their era, but that’s what Christmas feels like to me anyway. A year without Rudolph and Frosty is like a year without John McClane; it wouldn’t be Christmas.

Images: Rankin/Bass Productions, Warner Bros

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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