Rankin-Bass: Kings of the Christmas Special
It’s Christmas time! I love Christmas time. The decorations, the holiday-only items in the stores and toys. Can’t have Christmas without kick-ass toys. However, I especially love flipping through the TV channels during the holiday season. All of the TV logos are juiced up for the holidays and our old Christmas Special favorites are dusted off and traipsed out in front of us like a former beauty queen, well past her prime. There are plenty to catch. Endless remakes of A Christmas Carol, TV shows centering their activities around Christmas parties, beloved cartoon characters meeting Santa Claus and learning that “to give is better than to receive”. You’ve seen them, you know them. But the undisputed king of television holiday specials has got to be the studios of Rankin-Bass. Rankin-Bass consistently made the most treasured and beloved holiday specials of all time. Their track record is undeniable. Their influence on the holiday is unmistakable. Let’s take a look back at the animation studios of Rankin-Bass and some of their most famous specials; most you’ve no doubt seen dozens of times, but many you probably didn’t realize they created.
Rankin-Bass was established in the early ’60s by Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass. Originally named Videocraft International, they independently produced several animation series including Pinocchio in 1960 and Tales of the Wizard of Oz in 1961. Pinocchio was animated in the “ani-magic” style of animation using puppets and stop motion photography (which would later become a Rankin-Bass trademark), while Tales of the Wizard of Oz was animated in traditional 2-D animation. The Oz series would be popular enough to adapt into a TV movie in 1964. This TV movie would air on the popular GE Fantasy Hour. Then, in December of 1964, the GE Fantasy Hour would air the first Rankin-Bass Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which would go on to become one of the most popular and longest running specials in TV history.
Rankin-Bass animated the special using “ani-magic” the same way they did Pinocchio a few years earlier. The special was based on the popular Christmas song written by Johnny Marks in 1949. Johnny Marks also composed the orchestral score to the Rankin-Bass Rudolph special.
Rankin-Bass would next tackle a few Thanksgiving specials, one being an adaptation of the Dickens holiday novella The Cricket on the Hearth in 1967. Then, in 1969, they would produce a Halloween “ani-magic” movie named Mad Monster Party featuring one of the last performances of Boris Karloff. This Halloween movie would become a cult-favorite years later.
In 1969, Rankin-Bass would create another special based on a popular Christmas song, Frosty the Snowman. This special would use traditional 2-D animation and cast Jimmy Durante as the narrator and Jackie Vernon as Frosty. In it, Frosty would mistakenly yell “Happy Birthday!” every time he gets brought to life by the magic hat. In my head, every time I tell someone “Merry Christmas”, I hear “Happy Birthday” in the same sing-song voice in which Frosty used to do it. I don’t know why. I actually have to think about it when I say “Merry Christmas”, otherwise I’d start unconsciously saying “Happy Birthday” and sound like an idiot.
One year after the huge success of the Frosty cartoon, Rankin-Bass animated their next special, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. This special featured Fred Astaire as a mailman answering kid’s questions about Santa Claus, which included his early days as a youngster before he became Santa. This special is the originator of such popular characters as the Miser Brothers, Heat and Snow, Old Man Winter (who looked an awful lot like Gandalf) and Mother Nature. This special became so popular that it was remade as a live action movie in 2006 with John Goodman as Santa, Delta Burke as Mrs Claus, Carol Kane as Mother Nature and Michael McKean and Harvey Firestein as the Miser Brothers (as bug-nuts insane as that sounds, it’s true). The Heat Miser/Snow Miser song is still one of my all time favorites.
“I’m mister white Christmas, I’m mister snow…”
“I’m mister green Christmas, I’m mister sun…”
Update 12/12/2008 - I just watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town on ABC Family. Apparently I was huffin’ shrooms or something, but Heat Miser/Snow Miser are NOT in that movie. Their first appearance was in The Year Without a Santa Claus below. Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit licking toads.
In 1974, Rankin-Bass would create a semi-sequel to Santa Claus is Coming to Town called A Year Without A Santa Claus. This special told of the Christmas where Santa had a cold and was a big old fat baby and didn’t want to make his rounds on Christmas Eve. Mrs Claus had to convince him to change his mind. Mickey Rooney would return as the voice of Santa and the characters of Heat Miser and Snow Miser would also return as the main antagonists. Mrs Claus was voiced by Shirley Booth.
These specials would go on to become some of the most beloved Christmas specials ever filmed. And they were all done by Rankin-Bass. After 1974, Rankin-Bass made sequels to many of these specials, including several more for Rudolph and Frosty, but none would be as popular as the originals.
Rankin-Bass’ final stop-motion Christmas special was The Life & Times of Santa Claus, based on the book of the same name by Wizard of Oz author L Frank Baum. Released in 1985, it told how Santa became an immortal after being found as a child in the magical forest and being adopted and raised by fairies. Unfortunately, this special was never released on DVD, but ABC Family shows it every year during their 25 Days of Christmas.
In case you haven’t ever watched it, ABC Family’s annual 25 Days of Christmas is BAD ASS. I was aware of it, but I never realized how much good vintage material they actually show. They show all my favorite Christmas specials as well as classic Christmas movies. Just last night I watched Mickey’s Christmas Carol, one of my favorite adaptations of Dickens’ novel. They also show A Christmas Story, A Garfield Christmas as well as all of the popular Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. Pretty awesome considering the rest of the year all they show are Hallmark movies and re-runs of Seventh Heaven. Check it out if you get the chance.
Rankin-Bass would also go on to animate a few very popular mainstream animated shows and movies not having to do with Christmas. Two of the more popular kids cartoons were ThunderCats and Silver Hawks.
Rankin/Bass also produced the animated movie adaptations The Hobbit and Return of the King. Speaking of the ’70s Hobbit cartoon, check out one of the most horrible songs ever recorded, Leonard Nimoy singing Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. My poor ears haven’t heard anything that bad since William Shatner crooned Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Or Rocket Man. Or Mr Tamborine Man.
As for the influence Rankin-Bass has had on today’s Christmas specials, you can find homages to Rankin-Bass’ “ani-magic” everywhere.
MadTV did a parody of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer called Raging Rudolph. The narrator is a version of Sam the Snowman from the original, but he sounds like Joe Pesci. It follows Rudolph and Hermi as they exact a bloody Christmas justice on those that made fun of them. This skit even provided two sequels including Reinfather (parody of Godfather) and A Pile of Gifts Now (parody of Apocolypse Now).
The entire beginning of the Will Ferrell movie, Elf, including the credit sequence, is an homage to the Rankin-Bass specials.
Apple Computer just released a new animated version of their popular “I’m a PC and I’m a Mac” commercials with an obvious visual homage to the Rankin-Bass “ani-magic” specials. Click the image to see the commercial on Apple’s website.
As you can see, Rankin-Bass has greatly influenced our views of the holidays and how TV celebrates and visualizes Christmas. I know I try to watch these every year because it helps to put me in the mood.
Update 12/12/2008 – The live action Year Without a Santa Claus starring John Goodman and Delta Burke is on ABC Family this weekend!!! I am so DVR’ing that train wreck. I haven’t seen it all the way through. Oh, the sweet insanity.
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