Thursday favorites: Rankin and Bass animation

When I was a kid, I didn’t care if television made us violent or contributed to bad grades or meant we had neglectful parents. I loved watching television. Television was what we did: after school, before bed, late on Friday night and two thirds of the day on Saturday. If we wanted to watch something, we watched it on TV. No DVDs, no videos, kid themed movies in the theater were limited to the Disney Dark Ages (i.e. post-101 Dalmatians, pre-Beauty and the Beast). We waited for TV Guide to come in the mail each week, small and fat like scriptures, the glossy articles for Mom and the newsprint schedules for us. Times, titles, channels, guest stars, repeats, advertisements, a map of our universe, our nightly destiny. I would circle my favorite shows with a felt tip marker, as if I would forget.

December was special. We waited for The Specials (8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central): A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We anticipated each week never knowing in what order they would appear. Cartoon animation we could watch all year round, the real plums in the holiday line-up were the stop-action animation shows by Rankin/Bass, a genre all its own. The style was Gumby-weird, a jerky hybrid of puppet, clay and craft project. We never questioned the way their mouths moved too much or how their hands didn’t move enough or the occasional string. We sang, we danced and when the credits rolled, we were that much closer to Christmas. The programs always felt fresh because we could only watch them once a year when the networks deemed it time. They were like presents that just materialized under the tree; a metaphor for all things kids and holiday. Specials just happened and the magic was in not knowing how it all worked.

Now I am grown up. I check what is on television by pushing a button on the remote and reading the bottom of the screen. I watch TV only now and then, I have so many viewing choices that I can show up and watch what I want when I want to watch it. I own the DVDs to all the Rankin/Bass holiday programs and although we still make time to watch them, my eyes are now opened to the fact that some are indeed better than others. I hate this awareness, it was better when Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey just showed up as a Tuesday Special and everyone was happy to see him again. But as we have all eaten the shiny red apples of choice and discernment – here is my adult assessment of the Rankin/Bass holiday shows.

I am judging them on five points:

  1. Cuteness of main character – voice, likability, flexibility for merchandising, would you buy the plush?
  2. Villain transformation – from wicked to tender-hearted, do we believe it? And do they really discover a new life or just run away into the desert?
  3. Interesting support characters – do we care if the protagonist is not on screen?
  4. Story – is it appealing, does it hold up over time, is there a Joseph Campbell factor, i.e. a connection to collective myth and the human condition?
  5. Music – can you hum or dance to it?
  6. Bizzaro twists – there is always something a bit odd in these shows, but is it distracting?

Here goes it. The list is not comprehensive and yes, I expect some controversy:

Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. I think this one is still the best. Main characters are all adorable and have been plastered on everything from towels to toothbrushes. The voices are perfect, especially when Rudolf wears the dirt nose. The villain transformation is a quick and rather gothic, but the Abominable Snowman is scary with all his teeth and I was always happy he had the tree decorating epilogue to give him purpose without them. A million fun support characters led by Yukon Cornelius. The story of finding yourself and your place in the world never gets old; the characters enact the hero’s journey with garland. Music, I defy you to not hum “Silver and Gold” until June. And somehow the very strange dentist thing works.  

Santa Claus is Coming to Town. An origin movie that rates high on a few counts. Kris Kringle is a hunky Santa, the elves are well dressed and the penguin sidekick is huggable. The Winter Warlock choo choo speech is touching although he loses some mojo when he becomes good. Magic corn? This show features a love story with red-haired, dewy-eyed Jessica and her vavoom figure. The plot revolves around Kris’s attempts to get toys to the kids in a toyless, joyless town. He is thwarted at every turn and yet prevails in the end. It holds up. Although “One foot in front of the other” is super catchy, most of the songs are forgettable. I never figured out why they chose to set the story in a Victorian/German/ Burger Meister, Meister Burger village, is seems to serve no narrative purpose except to show Jessica in a bustle. And there is a big modern-day cringe when Kris sings the song about children sitting on his lap.

The Year Without a Santa Claus. This one is spotty. The protagonist is unclear, maybe Santa, maybe the squeaky-voiced elves, maybe the plucky lad who accompanies Mrs. Claus to solve a weather dilemma. The plot is far too convoluted and bound to the world of the script, but everything picks up when the Snow-miser and Heat-miser hit the stage. These two brothers and their mini-me entourages are worth wading through depressed Santa, sick reindeer and dreary speeches on faith. There are more “blue” moments in this show than light and the resolution hinges on a whiny child and a scary Mother Nature. Best to just replay the brothers manic show stopping scenes over and over.  

The Little Drummer Boy. I loved this show as a kid but really don’t like it as an adult. It opens with the murder of Aaron’s parents and his subsequent hatred of people. He hangs out with animals which kids think is cool. But then he is taken hostage by an irredeemably greedy Fagin-esque character. The scene where this villain and his helper paint a smile on Aaron’s face is disturbing. OK so the lamb is cute, but he gets hit by a chariot. If not for the one song, the drum and the miracle, this one would be a real downer. And the message depends on religious redemption; do kids wonder how they too can play their recorder for the baby Jesus and save their puppy that was run over by the neighbor’s car? This one seems to open a can of theological worms and yet I considered none of this when I was ten, so does it matter? The bizzaro with this one is the juxtapostion of the very deep voice of the female narrator and the very high voices of the Vienna Boys Choir.  It make one long for Burl Ives or Mickey Rooney.

16 responses to “Thursday favorites: Rankin and Bass animation”

  1. ks says:

    Oh, what a delightful walk down memory lane. We seem to have had the same childhood connection to t.v., and to these (still) wonderful xmas programs. I saw the complete Rankin/Bass collection at Costco recently and nearly bought it, but then talked myself out of it. Perhaps ’tis not too late. A gift for my husband, who didn’t have a tellie until he was twelve (if you can imagine!). It won’t be quite as magical to watch them all on xmas day, but at least we’ll have them for future seasonal mood-making.

    The only problem with starting out my day with this post is that I’ll likely be hearing in my head all day long, “I’m Mr. Heat Meiser, I’m Mr. Sun; I’m Mister Heat Meiser, Mr. hundred-and-one!”

  2. Adriana says:

    I love those Rankin/Bass films. Here is another post on them:

  3. lane says:


    How cute to hear you refer to your husbands speech.

    He is British, no.

    Ah, life after the war . . . bleak times, bleak times.

  4. E&J's Papa says:

    I always found the Drummer Boy too creepy, and l liked Santa Claus is Coming to Town best. But even though I’m the same vintage as the Brewers, I don’t have any childhood memberies of Year Without a Santa Claus — is it really from the same era? Did I block it out, or was it embargoed from reaching Canada?

    Oh, and the Grinch is still best, folllowed by Charlie Brown.

  5. Scotty says:

    I always liked the villians and secondary characters much better than the protagonists. As a boy, I wondered why they didn’t just give the obviously more enjoyable Yukon Cornelius or Burger Meister their own programs — the way a kid wonders why desert can’t double as the main course as well.

    The Little Drummer Boy painted smile scene severely freaked me out as a young lad.

    Best Whatsit list post ever, by the way.

  6. Missy says:

    Pandora, what a great description of the centrality of TV Guide in the life of a 1970s child. I read it from cover to cover, circling all the Bette Davis movies, and planned my sick days by it. Did you tell time by the TV when you were a kid? As in, The Andy Griffith Show is on; it must be 5:30, almost time for dinner? Or, oh my gosh, daylight saving is WEIRD! Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is on and it’s still light outside!?

    Your Rankin/Bass rankings and descriptions are right on. Rudolph is for sure the most rewatchable. But why is the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys? What’s wrong with her?

    When I was a kid I thought The Little Drummer Boy was So. Special. but it’s really troubling now.

  7. E&J's Papa says:

    I love Rudolph too, but isn’t the Island of Misfit Toys really all about internalized homophobia?

  8. Jane says:

    ABC Family is playing all of the Rankin/Bass movies during their 25 Days of Christmas, and my TiVo is set to record all of them.

    I haven’t seen The Little Drummer Boy since I was little, and I had forgotten all of the horror in this crazy little film! Now I can’t wait to watch it this year with a new, and matured, outlook.

    Great post.

  9. Gary Smith says:

    I distinctly remember watching all of these shows as a little kid (The abominable snowman scared me shitless). We still watch them almost every year. Although it lacks the nostalgic Christmas clay animation of these other films, one I always remember watching and adoring Frosty the Snowman.

  10. LizardBreath says:

    the Island of Misfit Toys really all about internalized homophobia?

    I thought that was what the dentistry was about.

  11. Marleyfan says:

    Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was and is my favorite. His girlfriend doe is hot.

    9. What happened to Demosthenes, is he out sick?

  12. PB says:

    Missy – we spent endless hours as kids trying to ID what was wrong with the misfit toys (aside from the obvious square wheel). I think the doll had the wrong name or something. I am going to check it out. Maybe she was a girl doll who likes other girl dolls which would fit comment #7.

    And great question about “The Year w/o a Santa Claus” – it was 1974 – definitely within range of my kid-ness. We forget that Rudolf was 1964! A chunk of TGWs folk weren’t even born yet! Drummer Boy was 1968 and Santa coming to town was 1970. The really awful ones (Rudolf shiny new year and Peter – shudder – Rabbit) came later and were the dregs.

    and comment #10 – my vote for best comment of the year

    thank you to all – and to all a good night!

  13. Mark says:

    With a 2 year old and a 4 year old, we’ve been watching Rudolph pretty much nearly every day for a week now. The 2 year old loves the abominable snowman. I think he’d be scared of him if it weren’t for the fact that he becomes good at the end. Every time there’s a scene without the AS, Noah’s asking, “Where monster at, where monster?”. When it gets to the end and the AS is helping place the star on the tree, Noah gets excited and says, “Monster good, monster good!”.

    I don’t know if Lexi could really give a shit about it since it doesn’t have Strawberry Shortcake in it, but I keep hoping she’ll at least have the same nostalgia we all have for these shows one day in the future.

  14. Missy says:

    #10s got it totally right. It’s not so much a funny comment as the damn truth. He’s way fey.

  15. Mark says:

    #6. I’ve been watching Rudolph almost every night for the past week and couldn’t figure out why the doll is on the island. It was driving me crazy. Apparently I missed a line in the song, because my wife told me that her bows were falling out of her hair.

    Yeah, if you look closely her hair is pretty messy. Banishment for sure.

  16. James says:

    Re: #12 – I must confess to a perverse fascination with RUDOLPH’S SHINY NEW YEAR. It might be Morey Amsterdam as the caveman – but of the bad guys, I genuinely was frightened of Eon the Terrible when I was a kid.

    The one thing that I can’t avoid though (and YEAR WITHOUT being my fave) is admitting that the Archipelago of last Years is a direct influence on my Archipelago of mythical islands in my novels. I also really like the word “archipelago”.