10 entry points to Rankin/Bass’ enchanted holiday world

10 entry points to Rankin/Bass’ enchanted holiday world

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Of the five vintage TV Christmas specials that still command an annual network airing—Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty The Snowman, and Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town—three resulted from the creative partnership between Arthur Rankin Jr., and Jules Bass. Originally working under the auspices of Videocraft International, Ltd., Rankin/Bass Productions effectively owned the holiday TV season from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, averaging one new Christmas special per year, often drawing from the same pool of talent: composer Maury Laws (who teamed with Bass for the programs’ music), screenwriter Romeo Muller, voice actor Paul Frees, and production designer Paul Coker. Bearing a handmade style that grew more polished with each passing year, the Rankin/Bass specials made fantastical additions to Christmas lore, crafting origin stories for Rudolph and the like while cannily filling in the spaces between the measures of treasured carols.

But it wasn’t all snowflakes and candy canes for Rankin and Bass: While its outsourced animation elves were putting the finishing touches on the studio’s latest Christmas offering, the Rankin/Bass brain trust dreamed up programming to fill out TV schedules during the other 11 months of the year. Still, with their celebrity narrators and distinctive visual flourishes, specials like The Mouse On The Mayflower and Here Comes Peter Cottontail project a basic Rankin/Bass-ness, even if they never earned the cachet or perennial airtime of their Yuletide contemporaries.

Yet, for their abundant imagination and astounding creative efficiency, Rankin and Bass remained one of television’s consummate partnerships until it sundered amid the post He-Man glut of Rankin/Bass action cartoons like ThunderCats, SilverHawks, and TigerSharks. The studio’s legacy is a tricky one, built on ideas and concepts that had already proven successful in song, literature, or film. Rankin/Bass productions possessed a childlike desire to extend a favored story beyond the original author’s “happily ever after,” populating other creatives’ fictional worlds with Yukon Corneliuses and Miser Brothers. 

That playing-in-someone-else’s-sandbox approach puts the studio’s faithful (if condensed by necessity) pair of made-for-TV J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations—The Hobbit and The Return Of The King—in stark contrast. In their years as collaborators, Rankin and Bass put Johnny Marks and Phyllis McGinley on an equal plane with Tolkien and L. Frank Baum; any additions they brought to the table should be viewed less as “improvements” and more as acts of translation. Maturing alongside the medium itself, Rankin/Bass’ television efforts trace a brief history of updating traditions—holiday and non-holiday alike—for a new mode of storytelling. No wonder the strongest of those efforts still find a way to come back every December.

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964): Here’s the special that staked Rankin/Bass’ claim over the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. There’s a nostalgia factor at play in Rudolph’s primetime persistence, but timeless themes of tolerance and—to quote Donner—self-respect help the special retain its potency. It’s also a whole lot of fun, providing an introduction to a weird, fantastical Northern world peopled by an elf who longs to be a dentist, a terrifying behemoth of fur and teeth, a snowman with the voice and banjo skills of Burl Ives, and other assorted misfits who demonstrate that Christmas is a day when everyone fits in—even a cowboy who rides… an ostrich! 

The Little Drummer Boy (1968): Most Rankin/Bass works feature a foil who’s eventually reformed by the actions of a kindhearted protagonist; in The Little Drummer Boy, those qualities and story arc belong to the same character. At the beginning of Romeo Muller’s Little Drummer Boy script, the pint-sized percussionist expresses a disdain for all mankind, a grudge held over from a brutal (for an animated holiday special) flashback that leaves him orphaned and homeless. The story takes on the beats of a classic Disney film from there—particularly the Honest John interlude of Pinocchio—as a crooked showman (voiced by José Ferrer) and the whole of Bethlehem reinforce young Aaron’s decision to live among the beasts of the desert. A poignant third act restores his faith in humanity, all the while making up for some of the roughest animation work in the Videocraft catalogue.

Frosty The Snowman (1969): In the waning days of the ’60s, Rankin and Bass completed their personal Mount Rushmore, slotting a frozen caricature of comedian Jackie Vernon alongside fellow recurring players Rudolph, Santa, and Aaron the drummer boy. Vernon’s droll onstage persona conveniently translates to the special’s guileless conception of its main character, who declares “Happy birthday!” each time he springs to life. While boasting expressive character designs from MAD magazine illustrator Paul Coker, Frosty The Snowman can lay claim to being the most distinctive sounding of the classic Rankin/Bass Christmas shows, thanks to Vernon’s work as Frosty and Jimmy Durante’s gravelly narration. You’ll never be able to hear the “thumpity thump thump” part of the song without thinking of Durante’s sprechgesang “over the hills of snow” again.

The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians (1970): An unsold pilot that received a single airing prior to ABC’s presentation of the 42nd Academy Awards, The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians predates other attempts at illustrating stand-up comedy—such as Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Shorties Watchin’ Shorties, and The A.V. Club’s own Stand Down—by a good two decades. Pulling once more from the MAD bullpen, Rankin/Bass relied here on the design talents of Bruce Stark, who dialed down the photorealistic elements of his MAD and TV Guide caricatures to present lively, recognizable likenesses of the brothers Marx and Smothers, Flip Wilson, Phyllis Diller, and other comic icons of the day. To that end, The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians has one foot planted in ’70s-era stand-up and the other in vaudeville—the latter of which requires a tremendous amount of heavy lifting from Paul Frees, who voices the entirety of the W.C. Fields segment in addition to half of the Marx Brothers.

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (1970): After several years of taking supporting roles in the likes of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty The Snowman, Santa Claus takes center stage in this origin story that also began Mickey Rooney’s long run as Rankin/Bass’ go-to jolly old elf. At the time of its première, Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town marked significant achievements for its producers in terms of voice talent—Fred Astaire narrates as friendly mail carrier S.D. Kluger—as well as animation quality. Some herky-jerkiness remains in the stop-motion choreography, but the characters of the special—particularly Muller inventions like The Winter Warlock and Burgermeister Meisterburger—are imbued with a vivacity that foreshadows the smooth, uncannily lifelike animation of later-period Rankin/Bass works like The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold and The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus

’Twas The Night Before Christmas (1974): Befitting scriptwriter Jerome Coopersmith’s Tony-nominated bona fides, his adaptation of Clement Moore’s Yuletide poem is supplemented by some of the stickiest of Maury Laws and Jules Bass’ musical compositions. As sung by Joel Grey (who fills the celebrity-narrator role here, even if that merely requires him to recite Moore’s verse), the special’s musical focal point, “Even A Miracle Needs A Hand,” is one of few non-seasonal Laws-Bass tunes to transcend its original context. A tidy, catchy summation of the cel-animated special’s themes of faith and community, the song clearly caught the show-tune-prone ears of Matt Parker and Trey Stone, who eventually worked it and a visual allusion to ’Twas The Night Before Christmas into South Park’s fourth-season holiday effort, “A Very Crappy Christmas.” 

The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974): Rankin/Bass’ interpretation of Santa is perpetual cranky; maybe it’s because he’s forever being overshadowed by the background characters. For example, the Miser Brothers, Heat and Snow, run away with The Year Without A Santa Claus via the crowning achievement of the Laws-Bass songbook: the ivory-tickling, horn-flecked companion pieces “The Snow Miser Song” and “The Heat Miser Song.” Those two numbers may be the twin highlights of The Year Without A Santa Claus, but they account for a mere fraction of the special, which melds the big heart and “true Christmas spirit” of previous specials with the bonkers, hallucinatory imagery of those to come—leaving behind only the slightest hint of treacle.

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976): Speaking of which: Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is a, er, shining example of Rankin and Bass’ inability to grapple with holidays that don’t fall on December 25. However, it’s also one of Muller’s most inventive scripts, a gloriously cracked attempt at grafting a mythology to the seasonal imagery of “Baby New Year,” putting good ol’ Rudy in contact with several historical allies (including Ben Franklin!) and an L. Frank Baum-esque assortment of clockwork creations. It all adds up to a largely nonsensical wintertime fairy tale, but with Rankin/Bass’ seasonal powers in the process of diminishing, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year represents a last-ditch effort to synthesize a number of imaginative concepts into a single story.

The Hobbit (1977): With a reported budget of $3 million, The Hobbit debuted as the most expensive animated program in television history—a superlative befitting the scope and scale of Rankin/Bass’ first pass at J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga. The Peabody Award-winning telefilm faced a unique challenge among Rankin/Bass productions, as timeslot constraints put Muller in a position of writing from a source that contained too much material for a primetime presentation. As such, the storytelling is rushed, but the visuals are spectacularly lush, sporting a heavily shadowed, lived-in look unlike anything made for American TV at the time. Credit the animation work of anime house Topcraft, which contributed to several Rankin/Bass projects prior to its rebirth as Studio Ghibli, the studio responsible for My Neighbor Totoro, Grave Of The Fireflies, Ponyo, and other masterpieces of Japanese animation.

Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977): The most successful of Rankin/Bass’ overtly religious specials gives equal attention to the sacred and the profane. Nestor’s framing sequences are set at the North Pole of The Year Without A Santa Claus and Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, but it tells a story that sidles up to The Little Drummer Boy. In turn, the trials of Nestor and his unusually long ears recall those of Rudolph and his particular nonconformity—yet to highlight what Nestor cherry-picks from its predecessors is to reduce the impact of its emotional punch. This is the best way to tell the Christmas story in Animagic: with the proper amount of pathos and levity—and fun character design, too.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: The Cricket On The Hearth (1967), The Mouse On The Mayflower (1968), Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), The First Christmas: The Story Of The First Christmas Snow (1975), Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976), The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976), The Return Of The King (1980), The Coneheads (1983), The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus (1985), The Wind In The Willows (1987)

Availability: DreamWorks currently owns the rights to the pre-1974 Rankin/Bass catalog, while post-1974 works are owned by Warner Bros. Both studios keep the more famed Christmas specials in circulation; even those that aren’t typically aired sometimes find their way onto ABC Family’s 25 Days Of Christmas slate. (Also, YouTube’s a good place to look. Yeah, YouTube…)

Next time: TV Club 10 will take a break for the holidays but return January 2, 2013, as Ryan McGee tells you the 10 most representative episodes of Cougar Town.

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