The countdown of my favorite Christmas movies/specials continues with a story filmed in a style that would become synonymous with holiday specials. Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass (Rankin and Bass) brought a song to life and created one of the most beloved shows to ever hit the airwaves. An annual staple, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is usually the first Christmas special to air each year – typically on Dec. 1.
Filmed in what I affectionately call super marionation (think Stingray and Thunderbirds, or um, Team America: World Police), Rudolph is one of the most endearing holiday specials ever made because of the animation style, the music, the voice performances, and the characters.
Johnny Marks originally wrote the song and Gene Autry turned it into a No. 1 hit in 1949. Burl Ives lent his voice to the TV special as Sam the Snowman and he also sings Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Silver and Gold and A Holly Jolly Christmas.
We all know the story. Rudolph is born with a birth defect and rather than cherish his son, Donner decides to hide the affliction. Eventually Rudolph’s honker is discovered and the other reindeer proceed to discriminate against him. They bully and exclud him because he is different. Even Santa Claus is guilty here.
One doe, Clarice, accepts Rudolph for who he is but it’s not enough to keep Rudolph from striking out with Hermie, an elf who’d rather be a dentist. They end up on the Island of Misfit Toys. Eventually, they make their way back to Christmastown and Rudolph’s affliction turns out to be just what everyone needs as the storm of the century threatens to cause the cancellation of Christmas. Santa asks Rudolph to guide his sleigh through the storm.
So, the lesson here is we have no use for you if you’re different – make yourself useful and we have a place for you?!? The older I get, the more of a humanist I become. Politically, the more to the center I drift. Don’t read into that – I am no humanitarian. But you know what? We are all the same. We should all be treated equally. I think that’s the overarching message here, it’s just a little ham-handed.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the show. I watch it every year. It wouldn’t be on this list if I didn’t. The characters are endearing – Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius, Hermie, Clarice, even the Abominable Snowman. The music is wonderful and many of the songs have become beloved Christmas classics that stand on their own apart from the show.
I continue my countdown of my 10 favorite Christmas movies/specials with another supermarionation classic. Rankin and Bass finally created a cohesive North Pole world with recurring voice actors reprising their roles. That began with…
9. Santa Claus is Coming to Town – 1970
Fred Astaire plays your friendly neighborhood mail carrier and he narrates the story of Santa Claus’ origins. Mickey Rooney begins his run as Kris Kringle/St. Nicholas/Santa Claus.
This special gives us Burgermeister Meisterburger, a despotic ruler who hates toys and fun in general. A clan of toy makers raises Kris Kringle, an orphan left on their doorstep in a basket as a baby. Eventually, Kris decides to become the deliverer of toys to the children of Somber Town, which is ruled by Burgermeister.
Kris is branded as an outlaw even as he falls in love with the local schoolmistress. The story also explains how it came to be that reindeer can fly as the Winter Warlock provides the magic feed corn for this central element to the legend.
When he was dropped off with the Kringles, he wore a name tag that said “Claus.” It was a short walk to Santa Claus.
I enjoy this one for numerous reasons. I look at it as the origin story of Santa Claus, but it also tells the tale of how Jessica, Somber Town’s school marm, became Mrs. Claus. Kris’ outlaw status drives our merry band of toy distributing fugitives all the way to the North Pole.
I don’t recall noticing any odd overtones or subtext with this other than maybe a shot at Eastern Bloc and Iron Curtain-type governments (hmmm, kind of appropriate given today’s current political climate). Of course, the Christmas classic song Santa Claus is Coming to Town is included, a great tune that has been covered and recorded more times than I can count. The song dates back to 1934, and it wouldn’t bother me any if of every copy of the Bruce Springsteen version was destroyed.
Stay tuned kiddies, more supermarionation on the way.