Tag Archives: rankin/bass

Dec. 1 – Frosty the Snowman

Original air date December 7, 1969

Welcome back, lovers of Christmas, to the 7th edition of The Christmas Spot! If you missed the introduction a few days ago, we’re doing things a little differently this year. Yes, you’re still getting a dedicated write-up each day through Christmas about a beloved or not-so-beloved holiday special, but this year we’re also going retro by this blog’s standards. In order to shine a brighter light on the best of the best in the field of televised Christmas specials, we’re revisiting some of the 25 best as laid out in 2015 and reaffirmed just a year ago on this blog. When the subject was first discussed, the format for The Christmas Spot was to do a mini review of each special as opposed to the full-on walkthrough it has turned into. It didn’t make sense that so few words were reserved for the best the holiday had to offer, so we’re going to start rectifying that this year. Not every one of those inaugural 25 are being rehashed this year, just a select few of my choosing. Maybe next year we’ll look at some more, maybe we won’t, it’s all rather fluid.

Today, we’re kicking things off with a lookback to one of those 25: Frosty the Snowman. The Rankin/Bass classic was originally ranked at number 15, but was dropped down to 19 last year. Being in the top 20 is still nothing to sneeze at as Frosty is here to stay.

The 1969 classic is now one of the longest running Christmas specials on television today. For the past several years it has been the unofficial start of the holiday special season as CBS has chosen to air it the day after Thanksgiving for quite awhile now. As streaming services continue to take over, the days of the event special may be coming to an end. Last year saw Charlie Brown and the gang get axed from a network timeslot all because Amazon scooped the property up and intended to put an end to the tradition. What happened was people were so pissed about missing out on annual viewings of the Peanuts holiday specials that Amazon rethought its position and made the Thanksgiving and Christmas special available for one night only each on PBS. They aired at 7 EST and were barely in prime time, but I suppose it’s better than nothing. ABC also seemed to reduce their holiday output since it now has Disney+ to stash its specials on. It’s likely we’ll continue to see massive corporations hoard these valuable pieces of television history and what was once a shared, viewing, experience each year is just another thing to binge at your leisure.

For now, we still have Frosty. The special, which is obviously adapted from the song written by Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson, was written by Romeo Muller and directed by the tandem of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. It’s narrated by comedian Jimmy Durante and features voice work from Jackie Vernon, Paul Frees, Billy De Wolfe, and June Foray. It’s a special that always stood out to me as a kid because, unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it was a cel-animated production from Rankin/Bass instead of stop-motion. I feel like everyone associates Rankin/Bass with stop-motion, but their more traditional animated works are pretty noteworthy as well. When it came time to animate the special, Rankin/Bass turned to Mushi Productions, the animation studio based in Japan founded by the legendary Osamu Tezuka. Yes, Frosty the Snowman is basically anime. It would be more obvious if Rankin/Bass had not hired Paul Coker Jr. to first design the characters for the special, but you can certainly see the Japanese influence in several places.

Jimmy Durante will be our guide through the story, and song, of Frosty the Snowman.

Frosty the Snowman opens in idyllic fashion. Snow is falling and the people of this small community are busying themselves getting ready for Christmas. Our narrator, Jimmy Durante who is animated to resemble himself, explains that this is the first snow of the season and that it’s actually a Christmas snow. Why is that important? Apparently, when the first snow of the season happens to fall on Christmas Eve, something wonderful is bound to happen!

Our attention then shifts to a small school house. The kids are restless as they want to go play in the snow and their teacher (voiced by June Foray) has organized a Christmas party. Yeah, those days were always long even if they weren’t filled with education as no one wants to be in school so close to the holiday (and basically no one goes to school on Christmas Eve these days). The teacher informs the students that she’s hired a magician to entertain them. Considering the teacher had to pay out of pocket to bring this guy in, you can probably guess just what kind of magician a teacher’s salary can afford.

Behold! The worst magician in the world!

Professor Hinkle (Billy De Wolfe) is introduced by the narrator as probably the worst magician in the world. He begins his routine by tossing some eggs into his “magic” hat, says some traditional magic words, and then turns the hat upside down only for the eggs to fall out and smash on the floor. The kids are disappointed, which is perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of this special about a snowman coming to life as any group of kids I know would have laughed at a trick going so poorly. Hinkle then tries to retrieve a rabbit out of the same hat, which is going about as well as the egg trick. Declaring the hat is only fit for the trash can, he chucks it towards the waste basket only for the rabbit to finally pop out. Before the kids can react to the reveal of Hocus Pocus, the bell rings and they storm out of there basically trampling the magician in the process.

Once outside, the kids race through the snow. Most apparently did not consult a weather report earlier in the day as several are wearing shorts. One girl is sporting short sleeves and a pink skirt with suspenders which really can’t be comfortable. Some of the boys immediately start building a snowman, and it’s during this process we really get to meet Karen (who was voiced by Foray in the original, now lost, airing and re-dubbed by Suzanne Davidson) as she volunteers to build the head for the snowman. She declares it’s the most difficult part of snowman construction, and even challenges the boys to ask anyone on the subject for confirmation. Well Karen, I’ve built a few snowmen in my day and I have to strongly disagree. The head is quite possibly the easiest part, especially if you’re building a snowman like Frosty who has actual legs! Seriously, that’s damn near impossible.

Never in my life have I been able to make a snowman half as good as what’s present in cartoons.

Once the snowman is assembled, the kids gather around to choose a name. After some truly wretched suggestions, including an unintelligible suggestion from one kid who apparently just speaks in sound effects, Karen proposes Frosty and the kids all seem to agree this is a fine name. They then clasp hands and spontaneously break-out into song. Either they’re all amazing at improv, or they’re just as unoriginal as most kids and they named their snowman after a song that already exists in their world. While they’re singing, the rabbit Hocus Pocus comes bounding out of the school house in the discarded hat which Karen tosses on Frosty’s head to complete his ensemble. Much to everyone’s shock, the hat brings Frosty to life as his lifeless, coal, eyes become whole and he greets everyone with a “Happy birthday!” Considering it is essentially his birth day, it’s an appropriate greeting, if a bit unexpected.

Professor Hinkle is there to witness the whole thing as he had been chasing Hocus. When Karen declares the hat must be magic, Hinkle decides he wants it back as a fortuitous wind blows it off Frosty’s head and into his waiting arms. When the children protest, Hinkle plays dumb and claims he didn’t witness any such nonsense. He admonishes the children informing them that when they’re grown up they’ll understand snowmen can’t come to life. As he takes off with his hat and rabbit, the kids turn forlornly towards Frosty and reassure the snowman that they did see him come to life. Durante then comes back in to sing a jolly rendition of “Frosty the Snowman” as we’re finally shown the opening credits for the special and the major network gets to toss some commercials our way.

Get a load of this asshole.

When we return from the festivities, our informative narrator makes it clear that Professor Hinkle was wrong to take Frosty’s hat. He doesn’t elaborate, but I guess we’re to hold him to his momentary anger at the hat when he tossed it at the garbage. That seems a bit extreme, but it’s important the viewer hates this guy (and denying life to a snowman is a pretty shitty thing to do) as Hocus Pocus is about to take action. As the magician walks past people on the street greeting them happily, Hocus quickly swaps the hat with a wreath and bounds off.

When Hocus returns to the site of Frosty’s awakening, the kids are still just standing around accepting defeat. Karen notes the hat is back, seemingly oblivious that it was the rabbit who returned it, and she places it back on Frosty’s head. He once again greets the children with a “Happy Birthday!” and then begins to question his existence. Rather than be burdened by some truly out of this world thoughts on who he is and why he’s here, he just humbly accepts that life has been granted to him and then begins to test out his bodily functions. No, nothing weird or gross, mainly just juggling and checking if he’s ticklish. Okay, that does sound a little odd. His right hand also sprouts an extra finger so he can count to five (like most cartoon characters, Frosty only has four digits normally), but that’s just one of many odd animation quirks we’ll endure.

Frosty admiring his own rump.

Once Frosty is satisfied that he’s alive, the dancing can commence! We get a little more of the song as sung by Jimmy Durante as we’re basically just going to hear a verse here and there until the special is over and the song concluded. Once they seem to get over the thrill of life, Frosty wipes some “sweat” off of his head and takes note of a nearby thermometer. I question its accuracy, as it appears to be pushing past 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but the point is made and that’s snow is destined to melt, which means Frosty is destined to melt. This is where the special takes a hard pivot from the song. The lyrics make it sound like Frosty accepts his fate as all snowmen must melt and resigns himself to have a good time until the moist, dripping, splash of death consumes him. In the special, he immediately decides death is quite a bummer and a thing to be avoided. Where can a snowman cheat death? Why, the North Pole of course! When Frosty shares this bit of info the children decide they have to help him get to the North Pole, so they have a parade! All right, that part is a little weird, but I guess if you need to head to a train depot you might as well make a parade of it.

We deserve a sequel that explains if this guy ever got his whistle back.

As Durante sings more of the song, we see Frosty lead the children through town (with Hocus in tow) which contains some visual gags of people reacting with shock at the sight of a walking, talking, snowman. The parade comes to a halt when they encounter the traffic cop the song makes mention of. He’s directing pedestrian and automobile traffic and has to scream at Frosty in order to get him to stop. This begins a 1920s-esque bit of shtick as the cop questions Frosty on the various signs and signals all around him, never once seeming to realize he’s speaking with a snowman. Frosty is ignorant of basically all things, and Karen has to explain he just came to life and the cop then backs off. After instructing the gang to move along, he remarks to himself that snowmen are so stupid when they first come to life. Only then does he realize how absurd the whole situation was as he exclaims to himself “Come to life?!” and swallows his own whistle.

The parade finally reaches its destination, a train depot. The clerk (Paul Frees) working the ticket counter is fast asleep when the kids approach requesting a ticket to the North Pole. He then springs into action as he stamps a whole sleeve of tickets remarking how their journey will take them through the Klondike and for some reason mentions aurora borealis. He’s clearly lost in his work. He returns with a stack of tickets, as this journey is going to require quite a few trains, and then requests payment: three-thousand dollars and four cents (including tax). When Karen sheepishly responds that they don’t have any money, the enraged clerk slams his fist on the table causing the whole pile of tickets to spring up and wrap around him. He then utters perhaps the most quotable line in the entire special, “No money, no ticket!”

He’s so angry that he just closes up shop and quits the business right here and now.

Well, if you can’t buy a ticket to the North Pole, just do like the old hobos do – stow away! One of the kids takes note of a refrigerated box car on a train apparently heading north. That’s good enough for Frosty as they inspect the car. It’s full of ice cream and frozen Christmas cakes, which we’ll find out is a splendid way to travel for a snowman. Frosty climbs aboard, and so does Karen. All of the other kids have sense enough not to attempt to travel to the North Pole on Christmas Eve, and Frosty is too dumb himself to point out that Karen climbing aboard is a bad idea. She seems to think she can get there and back before supper which begs the question how old is Karen supposed to be? Hocus Pocus also climbs into the car as I guess he would prefer the North Pole to whatever town they’re currently in. As the train speeds off, we see there’s another stow away on board – Hinkle!

After the break, we take a look inside the box car to find a contented snowman and relaxed rabbit, but a freezing girl. It takes Frosty a few seconds to realize that this is a bad situation for a little girl. Proving he’s not some selfish jerk, he elects to scoop Karen up in his arms and leave the frozen confines when the train has to stop at a crossing (the animation makes no sense as the train goes past the junction, then stops, and an express train goes past behind it). Hinkle, still clinging to the caboose, sees the trio hop off as the train starts to leave and thinks they’re trying to ditch him. As he shouts at them “No fair!” it’s hard to tell if Frosty actually takes note of him or not. Hinkle is then forced to jump from a moving train if he has any hope of getting his hat back. He hits the ground and stats flopping down a snow-covered embankment before finally crashing into a tree. As he falls, the person doing the sound effects just goes nuts as there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the sounds we’re hearing, but it certainly sounds painful for Hinkle!

He deserved that.

Frosty, Karen, and Hocus wander through the cold, darkening, woods as Frosty frets about finding warmth for Karen. Hocus, through pantomime, suggests he build her a fire, but that’s not something a snowman can do. They press on and eventually come across a bunch of animals. They’re slightly personified, sort of like Hocus, and they’re decorating the forest for Santa’s arrival that night. It’s a bit preposterous, but I suppose not out of character for a Christmas special. Frosty asks Hocus to communicate with the animals about building Karen a fire. He does as he’s told, and soon the deer, squirrels, and such get a roaring fire going for Karen to get warm by. It’s pretty damn goofy to behold.

As Karen warms herself by the fire, Frosty stays far away. With Hocus by his side, he contemplates how he can get Karen home and himself to the North Pole. Hocus acts out some suggestions including the marines and President of the United States. Hocus then covers his face in snow like a beard and struts suggesting Frosty seek the aide of Santa Claus. Frosty thinks that’s a great idea and smiles at the camera apparently happy with himself. Hocus is ordered to be a Santa look-out, and once the guy flies overhead, he’s expected to somehow get his attention even though he’s a fluffy white rabbit standing amongst a bunch of snow.

It’s belly-whopping time!

Unfortunately though, a roaring fire in a dark forest is quite visible and Hinkle soon stumbles upon Karen. He taunts her before laughing then demonstrates he has some amazing lungs as he literally blows the fire out. Frosty comes running over and Hinkle demands he hand over the hat. He makes an empty threat, which Frosty calls him on, and Hinkle just stamps his feet like a toddler screaming to get his hat back! When he makes a lunge for it, Frosty deftly sidesteps him and drops down onto all fours. Frosty tells Karen to jump on his shoulders and our narrator interjects that Frosty, being made of snow, is the fastest belly-whopper in the world! He basically shoots off like a rocket across the snow, down a small hill, up another, and down again leaving Hinkle far off in the distance.

This is where Hinkle goes from annoying to evil.

The ride comes to an end at a random green house in the middle of no where filled with poinsettia. Karen is pretty cold from the ride, and also likely because she’s currently being cradled in the arms of living snow, so Frosty decides to bring her inside. She reminds him he’ll melt in there, but he suggests he’ll only stay in to melt a little and makes a joke about losing weight. Hinkle then arrives, suggesting he not only has tremendous lung capacity, but he’s also really damn fast. Honestly, I feel a little betrayed by the narrator who said he was left far off in the distance just seconds ago. Anyway, Hinkle sees the snowman in the green house and promptly slams the door shot. It must lock from the outside, or Frosty just isn’t very confrontational, because they’re trapped. Hinkle laughs devilishly proclaiming the hat will soon be his as Frosty looks on with horror.

Up in the sky, Santa passes by! Maybe he’s just out for a quick preflight check or something, because he only has four reindeer and no sack of presents. He comes across the woodland critter celebration where he is informed by Hocus what’s going on with Frosty, Karen, and the magician. Hocus leads the big guy to the green house, but when they arrive they’re met with a terrible sight. Karen, on her knees sobbing, is beside a puddle and Frosty’s “parts” are floating in it. I feel like there’s a darker cut of Frosty the Snowman where we watch the poor snowman melt and Karen is forced to look-on helplessly. That girl has seen some shit and Hinkle, who presumably watched it all unfold too, is quite an evil soul.

She’s going to need some therapy.

The narrator tells us that Santa is too late, but he breaks the fourth wall to correct him. With a big, booming, voice, Santa (Paul Frees) shouts “Nonsense,” at the suggestion of being too late and then sets to comforting Karen. He tells her that Frosty, being made of Christmas snow, can never disappear completely. This does little to cheer up Karen since her friend is still a puddle, but Santa just chuckles and opens the green house door. He commands Frosty to basically pull himself together as a cold wind enters the green house, scoops up Frosty’s parts, and recreates the snowman outside the green house. The only thing left to do is return the hat to Frosty, but now Hinkle makes his presence known demanding the hat be returned to him.

Santa, who almost looks ready to throw-down, instructs Hinkle not to lay a finger on the hat. Rather than threaten him with the violence he so richly deserves, Santa just tells him he’ll never bring him another Christmas present so long as he lives. Earlier, Hinkle seemed to think a magic hat would make him a millionaire magician so I don’t know why he places any value on future Christmas presents, but he’s not the sharpest guy. He immediately begins to pout and kicks a can that mysteriously appeared in the snow before remarking, “We evil magicians deserve to make a living too.” Santa then tells him that if he goes home right now and writes one-hundred-zillion times that he’s sorry for what he did to Frosty, then maybe he’ll get a new hat for Christmas. Despite being handed an impossible task, Hinkle seems pretty happy with this arrangement as he starts hopping up and down with excitement. In probably my other favorite quote from this special, he hollers “Sorry to lose and run, but I’ve got to get busy writing! Busy! Busy! Busy!”

Santa will make everything right!

Santa slips in a little chuckle as Hinkle disappears into the night, then turns his attention back to Frosty. He returns the hat, and once again Frosty greets everyone with a “Happy birthday!” I guess it still is his birthday, after all. We then slip into a bit of a montage as the song returns. The group celebrates a bit before getting back to business. Santa, after all, has a long night ahead of him, but he still finds time to return Karen home. Maybe he’s a little ticked off though about the extra work on Christmas Eve since he leaves her stranded on her roof before taking off with Frosty. The narrator then pops in to let us know that Frosty would return every year after that and the whole town would have a big celebration in his honor. The song gets into full swing now and we basically see everyone from the special in Frosty’s parade, including Professor Hinkle in a new hat. Jimmy breaks from the song again to wish us all a very, merry, Christmas as Santa swoops down in his sleigh (again, only four reindeer) to retrieve Frosty as the song ends. Frosty gets the last word in as he alters the closing line of the song, “I’ll be back on Christmas Day!”

Santa finds time to fly past the moon, now how the hell is Karen getting off of that roof?

Frosty the Snowman is sort of like the Christmas special baseline. It’s cheerful, charming, magical and it has some memorable characters. It helps that it’s anchored by the classic song, which is catchy enough and isn’t as overplayed (or annoying) as other Christmas songs. It might not be anyone’s favorite Christmas special, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who hated it. There’s definitely some goofy logic at times, and the animation is merely adequate. This is from the 60s so I think most of the animation warts are only really apparent with modern eyes. I don’t think it’s as good looking as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but it’s definitely better looking than A Charlie Brown Christmas. And it has character with the design of Frosty being simple, but pleasant, and Hinkle looking quite memorable. About the only thing I don’t like when it comes to the visuals are the deer. They just look stupid, but not offensively so.

Rankin/Bass seemed intent on transforming Frosty from a character that was just a wintertime creation to a Christmas icon. As much as the old song is associated with the holidays, it doesn’t make mention of Christmas at all. Maybe that’s why when Rankin/Bass did return to the character with Frosty’s Winter Wonderland they left Christmas out. They did produce Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, one of the lesser stop-motion efforts from the studio, but otherwise Frosty has mostly left Christmas behind. Today this special is almost always joined by the non-Rankin/Bass production Frosty Returns every year, even though that special has nothing to do with Christmas. In 2005, Classic Media produced another pseudo-sequel titled The Legend of Frosty the Snowman. That one features a Frosty that looks identical to the one presented here (and that’s because Classic Media bought up the Rankin/Bass library), but otherwise tells a new story and also has nothing to do with Christmas.

He says he’ll be back on Christmas Day, but it’s an empty promise.

This Frosty the Snowman is truly the only worthwhile one. I don’t particularly care for the other animated specials, and the feature with Rudolph is a tremendous slog that shouldn’t be viewed by anyone. This one though is an annual tradition and no Christmas season goes by without at least a viewing of Frosty the Snowman in my house. It’s become a favorite of my kids, so I actually am subjected to it a lot each year and I’m totally fine with that. If you’re hoping to catch it on television this year, check cable and keep an eye on CBS. They already did the first airing, but often will re-air it later in the month. It’s one of the harder ones to miss.


Dec. 4 – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

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‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

Rankin/Bass is almost synonymous with Christmas because of the many television specials the company produced in the 60’s and 70’s. Most people associate them with the stop-motion process used to create Rudolf, but the studio also did traditional animation as well. Most famously, “Frosty the Snowman” was done in this style and the next most popular is the subject of today’s post:  “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

For hand-drawn animation, Rankin/Bass relied on Topcraft out of Japan, which would eventually become a part of Studio Ghibli. If you’re expecting Ghibli level quality though, you’ll be pretty disappointed in “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The characters do have a very slight anime look to them, but otherwise there’s not much here that gives away where the animation originated or what the studio would go on to produce.

“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” is loosely based on the 1832 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” which opens with that line. That poem focuses on what is essentially the last three minutes or so of this special, so the folks at Rankin/Bass had to come up with a plot to lead up to that and make it interesting. This isn’t an unfamiliar position for the writers there as basically all of their specials had to do the same. In this case, the story they came up with isn’t too bad, though it’s pretty odd that they felt the need to include a family of mice as part of the protagonists. And they also felt that waiting for Santa to arrive needed to be more suspenseful, so we get a thin-skinned and vengeful Santa as a result.

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Father Mouse and Joshua have some kind of relationship with one another that really isn’t explored.

The story takes place around the turn of the century in a fictitious town called Junctionville. The story follows the Trundles, a family of four who’s patriarch Joshua is a clock maker, and the mouse family that dwells in their home. It unfolds as a flashback, with the special opening on Christmas Eve with narrators Joshua and Father Mouse nervously waiting to see if Santa will arrive. And that anxiety is born from a letter that appeared in the town paper claiming Santa Claus isn’t real. Apparently the paper receives distribution in The North Pole because Santa sees it and, furious it calls his very existence into question, returns the town’s Christmas letters. Father Mouse is able to figure out his own son Albert is the one behind the letter and confronts him with the rest of his family. Albert is a brainy kid who can’t possibly allow himself to believe in Santa (even though he himself is a talking, clothes-wearing mouse) and owns up to writing the letter with his friends. Father Mouse is upset and scolds his son ordering him to write another letter and apologize, but Albert won’t go against his own convictions, which is rather noble in a way.

Meanwhile, Joshua Trundle devizes a plan to create a clock tower on town hall that will play a song welcoming Santa on Christmas Eve, as as sort of mea culpa. The mayor and town council are welcoming of the idea and Trundle gets right to work. When the big unveiling occurs ahead of the holiday (and judging by the setting, it would appear it took place during the fall, but still well in advance of Christmas), the clock malfunctions and the mayor is embarrassed. So embarrassed is he that he won’t even allow Trundle to attempt a repair opting instead to just let the broken clock exist in perpetuity (I really hope this guy didn’t get re-elected). The public failing on the part of Trundle means no one trusts him with their own time pieces and his business takes a severe dive. He and his family are plunged into poverty with their pathetic looking Christmas tree serving as the most obvious statement of their present condition. The Mouse family feels the pinch too as few crumbs are making it to them forcing them into a sort of starvation as well.

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The Mouse family.

It’s soon revealed that the reason for the clock’s malfunction was Albert poking around inside the clock. Father Mouse is apparently a clock maker himself, I guess, and his son has an interest in it. When he learns this he tells Albert he can’t sit around feeling sorry, he has to own up to what he did and solve the problem. Since Trundle can’t get in there it falls to Albert to repair it (I guess it’s a bit of hard parenting that his dad doesn’t go with him, but it sure feels like he should have) which is what he sets out to do. On Christmas Eve.

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Stupid looking reindeer.

The Trundles and all of the people of Junctionville are forced to wait and hope, not all realizing they’re depending on a mouse, that the song will play and Santa will come. Of course it does, or else we would never get to that poem, precisely a minute after midnight. Santa was on his way past Junctionville, but hearing the song, he turns around and heads for the Trundle residence. The family gets to watch the little fat elf do his thing, with broadcast standards in the 1974 allowing Santa to puff on his pipe the whole while. He’s a short little bulbous thing, with read cheeks and a red nose that are illustrated in such a way that they look like sunken in welts on his face. He is kind of elf-like, which isn’t a common depiction, and he lacks a mustache to pair with his beard. They clearly were trying to make him look as the poem describes, but I always kind of hated how this Santa looked even as a kid, mostly due to the red welts. If they weren’t solid red splotches and instead were just light reddening of the cheeks he’d probably look fine.

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Smoking on the job. Between his bad habit and tendency to go down chimneys I’m betting he’s got quite the set of black lungs.

The special is some-what compelling for an adolescent, not so much for an older viewer since we know there’s no way Santa is skipping town. There are a few musical numbers that are admittedly catchy, and I would go so far as to say that “Christmas Chimes are Calling Santa” is actually pretty good for a Christmas song. The rest of the special has an odd feel though. Why is Santa so easily hurt by one letter? It was signed “All of Us” as a way of explaining why Santa would take his anger out on the whole town, but I thought this guy was a bit more omniscient than that? It feels rather cruel. I also must point out that this special features perhaps the worst reindeer of any special. They’re tiny and look like mice. Once more, I understand they have a poem to work from that does indeed call them eight tiny reindeer, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them. At least there are indeed eight.

dfd3148e39819b2bd7f18bf8e8e1308d--the-night-before-christmas-christmas-loveThe rest of the cast of characters in this one are either bland or unlikable. Father Mouse comes across as a kind and understanding father, but Trundle is a push-over. The rest of the respective families, besides Albert, are basically ignored. I’m guessing the people who really like this special enjoy it mostly for the music or they find the plot interesting when compared with other holiday specials. It’s not terrible, and there was a time when I really liked it as a kid, but as an adult I’m not really into it. I’ll watch it once and that’s enough, which is how I feel about most of the Rankin/Bass stuff.

 


12 Films of Christmas #2: Elf

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Elf (2003)

It’s pretty hard to come into an established industry with something new and find success.  And when it comes to holiday films and television specials, it seems like it’s especially hard. Sure, sometimes you get a Prep & Landing that really surprises, but mostly you get Shrek the Halls…

Jon Favreau is mostly known these days for directing the Iron Man films. In 2003, people may have mostly known him for his short-stint on the sitcom Friends when he played the boyfriend of Courtney Cox who wanted to be an ultimate fighting champion. He certainly wasn’t known for holiday films, but who knew he was about to preside over one of the best?

Elf, in some ways, follows one of my favorite Christmas formulas by adding to the legend of Santa Claus. It doesn’t add much, but gives us another look at how Santa goes about his business. It definitely gives us a peek at elf life. We learn their dietary habits, toy output, and that they actually make those toys that show up in department stores themselves (though I don’t know if we’re supposed to assume that all Etch-A-Sketch toys are made by elves). Mostly though, it tells the story of one elf:  Buddy. The twist is that Buddy is not actually an elf, but a human adopted by elves after he snuck into Santa’s sack one Christmas while Santa was visiting an orphanage.

Before getting to the meat of the story, I must say I definitely approve of the decision to model the elves and the North Pole after the look both have in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Even the decor is that pale violet color that everything seemed to be cast in for that famous Christmas special. As a kid, it always annoyed me there was so little continuity between Christmas specials, even ones produced by Rankin/Bass. If I had seen this film as a six-year old I would have been even more delighted than I am as an adult.

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Ferrell is at his best when Favreau just lets him go nuts in a scene.

Now Buddy (Will Ferrell), is oblivious to the fact that he’s an elf even though he’s a lot bigger than his peers and can’t keep up with them in the toy-making field. It bums him out, and when he overhears the head elf (A Christmas Story’s Peter Billingsly) speaking with another about how Buddy will probably never realizes he’s human, he goes running to Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) to find out if it’s true. Upon doing so, he decides to set out to find his real father, who impregnated his biological mother unknowingly and has since passed away. All of the elves, including Santa (Ed Asner) wish him well, but Santa also has a revelation to reveal: Buddy’s dad is on the naughty list!

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I’m digging the Rudolph inspired look of the film.

If you have not guessed by now, Elf is a pretty silly movie. After Buddy leaves the North Pole, it becomes a fish-out-of-water tale as he journeys to New York City to find his dad. Turns out his dad is the head of a children’s book publishing firm, and right away we see how he values profits above doing the right thing when he approves a book with no ending for publishing. Walter Hobbs (James Caan) is naturally shocked to find out he has a son he never knew about, and wants nothing to do with an adult who thinks he’s a Christmas elf. He also has a wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and a young son, Michael (Daniel Tay), who are equally dubious. Emily is the most receptive of Buddy, though Michael is more in-line with his dad in thinking the guy is nuts. Buddy also winds up in a department store where he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), and mistakes her for someone into elf culture since she has to dress-up as one for work.

Buddy has a hard time adjusting to life in New York and makes things difficult for those around him. He gradually gets people to come around to him, starting with Michael, then Jovie, and eventually even his old man. There’s of course a big blow-up scene between him and his father that has to be resolved before Buddy can then help Santa save Christmas. It’s all rather conventional, but the film always straddles the line between cheese and just plain good fun, and one gets the impression it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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Given her get-up, it’s not hard to see why Buddy gets a little excited when he sees Jovie.

Will Ferrell is very charismatic as Buddy. He’s annoying, as most characters played by Ferrell are, but still charming due to his child-like and honest persona. I know many people who dislike Ferrell but are charmed by his Buddy character. Maybe it’s the Christmas factor, I’m not sure, but Buddy seems to be his most-liked role. Asner’s gruff take on Santa Claus works really well in the film’s climax. He feels authentic, even when spouting nonsense about needing more Christmas spirit to get his sleigh off the ground. He’s so matter-of-fact about it that it helps the audience to buy-into what the film is selling. Caan is prickly as Hobbs, but understandably so given what his character has to deal with. He possesses some Scrooge-like qualities in the sense that he’s a workaholic who clearly doesn’t spend enough time with his family (as illustrated by Michael’s lack of respect for him). He has to come around to Buddy, and see the importance of family. He does so in semi-believable way, but considering this film exists mostly for laughs, he doesn’t need to go through a Scrooge-like transformation that unfolds over entire acts.

Elf works so exceptionally well because it’s just a joyful film. There’s plenty of humor, and enough heart to give it purpose and provide that emotional pay-off most expect of a Christmas movie. It’s a movie that I return to every year, and every time I watch it I wonder to myself if this is my favorite Christmas movie. So few are able to handle comedy and sentimentality as deftly as Elf does. The Santa Clause has some laughs, but becomes cloyingly sweet at the end. Bad Santa is plenty hilarious, but doesn’t have really much of an emotional payoff. The Miracle on 34th Street has some chuckle-worthy moments, but is hardly a comedy. Elf is able to be both, which makes it the rare modern Christmas movie that is contention for being one of the best.


#13 – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The Rankin/Bass produced Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is often referred to as the original Christmas special. It’s not, but of the most popular Christmas specials it is the oldest. It was originally produced in conjunction with General Electric. During its original broadcast the characters would appear in GE ads during the commercial breaks because everyone wants a new vacuum or refrigerator for Christmas. Now it’s obviously broadcast without those inserts, which have mostly been lost to time because who could predict this special would be so popular over fifty years later? Also lost, most of the original puppets used to make the show and some of the stock footage because, again, who would have known there would be a market for any of this stuff?

Rudolph is obviously a Christmas classic. It’s shown multiple times every year on CBS and for many families it’s appointment viewing. The characters are not above appearing in modern commercials either (this year they want you to switch cell phone providers) and there’s more toys, ornaments, and decorations with their likeness than you can count. What I’m getting at is that this one is so popular that it’s probably considered an upset that I’m ranking it outside my top ten. Had I ordered my favorite specials as an eight year old, sure this would have ranked a lot higher, but it’s not really one of my favorites today.

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Is there any doubt Rudolf would end up in this position by the end of the show?

By now everyone is familiar with the story of Rudolph, so it makes little sense to summarize it, but I will because that’s who I am. Rudolph is a reindeer born to Donner (spelled as Donder and Dunder in other sources) and his unnamed wife (often referred to as Mrs. Donner). He has a peculiar nose that’s essentially a red light bulb and everyone thinks it sucks and makes fun of him. So he runs off with an elf who doesn’t want to make toys and they join-up with an eccentric prospector and wind up on the Island of Misfit Toys. Rudolph sees he doesn’t have it so bad once he meets the depressing toys and decides to head back to Christmas Town. There he has to save his family from the Abominable Snowman and save Christmas with his wonderful nose.

The animation is stop-motion and the puppets, particularly the reindeer, look great. When they’re not moving. The animation itself is rather primitive and awkward, but it’s been over fifty years so we should be used to it by now. I think the story is solid, though it feels a little dragged out. The music is what drives me nuts. Sure the main theme is fine and I can get down with “Holly, Jolly Christmas” but nothing else does it for me. I always feel song fatigue by the time the Island of Misfit Toys rolls around and the rejected toys start singing.

So yeah, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is fine, I just don’t think it’s great. I rank it as highly as I do out of obligation as much as personal enjoyment. I’ll watch it this year, and probably start fiddling with my phone fifteen minutes into it.


#15 – Frosty the Snowman

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Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Frosty the Snowman is a Christmas special that everybody knows. It’s been airing on CBS every year since 1969 and will likely continue to do so for as long as there’s a Christmas. Starring comedian Jackie Vernon as the voice of the titular snowman, Frosty the Snowman is the rare Rankin/Bass production done in traditional animation as opposed to stop-motion and is based on the song of the same name.

Because the special is so well-known, there’s not a lot that can be said about it that hasn’t been said before. I could strike a more snarky tone and point out that, for some reason, a bunch of the children at the beginning are wearing shorts in the winter time. And what is going on with the voice of that kid in the gray sweater with the bowl cut? It’s almost as if they didn’t want to hire another voice actor so they just made some weird sound effect. Maybe he’s a robot? It’s also easy to question the wisdom of the kind-hearted Karen who opts to climb into a giant refrigerator when she’s not even wearing pants. And why does Santa only have four reindeer? That one has bothered me for years.

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Only four reindeer for Santa? Was it too much of a financial burden to give him four more? Was food so scarce at the North Pole that Santa and Mrs. Claus had to butcher the other four for meat?

Yeah, there’s some weird stuff in this one but there’s also some genuine humor. Frosty being rather dim is funny and a surprisingly logical move for a children’s program. It’s also incredibly quotable with lines sticking with me through the years such as “No money, no ticket!” and “We evil magicians have to make a living too.” Frosty may be the star, but I do think Professor Hinkle is the MVP. He’s easy to dislike, just inept enough to stay one step behind, and a constant source of humor. He has that truly wicked moment during the special’s climax as well that adds legitimacy to his character. Really, how often do we actually see the villains in these various Christmas specials do something truly evil?

For a Rankin/Bass production, this cast is pretty star-studded. I already mentioned Vernon but they also opened up the checkbook for comedian Jimmy Durante who serves as the special’s narrator. The first lady of voice overs, June Foray, lends her voice to Karen. Billy De Wolfe voices Hinkle and Paul Frees has a small role as the traffic cop. Woven throughout the special is, of course, the song “Frosty the Snowman” and they actually do a pretty good job bringing the song to life without it feeling forced (though I suppose striking up a random parade is a little odd) or overplaying it. There’s also the emotional pay-off towards the end that gives the special an added punch.

Frosty the Snowman is a nice little Christmas special that virtually everyone knows. It gets enough right for it to earn a spot on pretty much every list of this type. The only thing that really holds it back for me is that it is a little corny and a little dated. There’s probably some exhaustion bias at work here too since I’ve just seen it so many times. Still, I don’t think being the 15th best Christmas special, considering just how many there are, is anything to be ashamed of. And it’s also ten times better than any of the sequels and spin-offs that have been made after this special.


#19 – It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

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It’s a SpongeBob Christmas (2012)

Here’s a tip for any would-be designers of future Christmas specials looking for a quick and easy way to my heart: add plenty of nostalgic value that harkens back to the classic Christmas specials of Rankin/Bass and the like. Think South Park’s episode “A Very Crappy Christmas” which basically parodies Twas the Night Before Christmas. Or, just watch special #19 on my list, “It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!”

SpongeBob came after my time. He’s a character that I understand has been rather popular with the generation that followed mine. He’s been on television for what feels like forever and has added a few feature films to his resume as well. He’s been so pervasive that I’ve obviously seen an episode here and there and I can see why kids would enjoy him but I don’t have any particular affinity for the character or show.

“It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!”, on the other hand, appeals to me because it seeks to emulate the look of the classic stop-motion specials like Rudolph and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And to the credit of Nickelodeon and the producers involved, the show really was done with stop-motion puppets as opposed to being computer generated to simulate the stop-motion look. The result is striking and it almost looks like an aquarium come to life, just minus actual fish.

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SpongeBob confronts his evil robot doppelganger, who may or may not be a nazi.

The story for the special is that Plankton invents a fruitcake (laced with Jerktonium) that turns nice people into naughty ones when they eat it and he tricks SpongeBob into driving around some cart and firing off hunks of fruitcake into the mouths of his victims. There’s also an imposter SpongeBob roaming around to turn everyone against him by making him look like a jerk. Plankton’s ingenious plan is intended to make everyone look worse than he so that he’ll end up on Santa’s nice list, and it works! Of course, things end up working out for SpongeBob and the citizens of Bikini Bottom in the end and the result is a pretty delightful little holiday special.

“It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!” was a big enough deal when it was first released that it actually debuted on CBS before airing again on Nickelodeon. It also introduces a new catchy holiday tune in the form of “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas)” which always seems to add to a Christmas special’s longevity. And because it’s so recent, it’s still shown quite frequently on television during the holiday season, though I don’t know that CBS will show it again but Nickelodeon certainly will. If you can’t be bothered to find it, there’s also a stand-alone DVD available that usually sells for less than ten dollars.


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