Tag Archives: rankin/bass

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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