The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn’t sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we’re having a good time. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of television, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day through December 25 to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday special or holiday-themed episode we’re covering that day. We’ve got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit.
When one sees or hears the words “Rankin-Bass,” the mind tends to wander toward their holiday specials, as well it should. Not that the names of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass haven’t been attached to numerous other projects during their lengthy careers. They were behind the animated adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return Of The King, they brought us Mad Monster Party and The Last Unicorn, and it was their studio that first introduced the world to Thundercats. But it’s invariably their holiday-themed material that’s remained stuck in the most memories and, in turn, has maintained the most replay value over the years.
You can blame some of that continued success on the instant nostalgia inspired by the sight of stop-motion animation, but for the most part, there are two big reasons the Rankin-Bass specials have kept viewers coming back over the years: Either they were inspired by existing Christmas classics—be it a song, a story, or even a poem—that provide them with a perpetual high profile (the eternal trifecta being Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty The Snowman, and Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town), or they feature music that’s so damned catchy that, even 40-plus years later, you still can’t get their pop hooks out of your head, a la “The Heat Miser Song” and “The Cold Miser Song” in The Year Without A Santa Claus.
Over the past several years, however, I’ve noticed that the Rankin-Bass adaptation of Clement Moore’s classic ’Twas The Night Before Christmas has slowly but surely begun to fall out of favor as a must-air special. At first, I found this surprising, given that I can’t imagine anyone questioning the designation of Moore’s poem as a classic. Gradually, however, as I started to express my dismay over the fact that it wasn’t earning as much airplay, what I began to discover was that, despite the near-ubiquitous nature of the poem on and during the weeks leading up to December 24, a surprising number of people can’t actually place the animated special it inspired… not even when I break into the special’s signature song.
Still doesn’t ring a bell? Well, in that case, as Father Mouse says when approaching a tall piece of cheddar, better start from the top.
As one might expect, ’Twas The Night Before Christmas begins with the recitation of the poem that inspired it, courtesy of Joel Grey. Grey—a mere two years past winning his Oscar for playing the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret—provides the voice of clockmaker Joshua Trundle, who is indeed in his cap. Yes, the children are snug in their beds. Yes, his wife’s sporting her kerchief. But Mr. Trundle’s brain is a far cry from settled, and it’s immediately apparent that he’s a long way from a long winter’s nap. Shifting out of poem-reading mode, he sighs and says, “If only I knew…”
At this point, we discover that at least one mouse is still stirring in the Trundle house: the aforementioned Father Mouse, voiced by George Gobel, who’s having just as much trouble sleeping as his human counterpart. Breaking the fourth wall, he begins to explain what’s keeping them both awake, but after establishing the time—my God, it’s only three minutes ’til midnight!—he decides it’s easier to instigate a flashback than just tell us the situation outright.
In watching ’Twas the Night Before Christmas as an adult, it becomes a little bit easier to see why the special hasn’t stuck in the memories of as many kids as its peers. For starters, it’s possible that some of them have made a concerted effort to put it out of their mind because it spends the majority of its 24-minute running time painting a picture of an Old Testament Santa Claus, if you will, a holiday deity who, despite well-recognized assurances elsewhere that “he sees you when you’re sleeping,” “knows when you’re awake,” and “knows if you’ve been bad or good,” is nonetheless unafraid to unleash his wrath upon an entire town simply because one person—or mouse, as is the case here—denies his existence.
Y’see, there’s this letter that runs in The Junctionville Register that says that he’s “a fraudulent myth rooted in unconscious fantasies and emerging as a deceitful lie,” and if that isn’t bad enough, it doesn’t help matters that the postscript claims that his reindeer are phony, too. Seeing that the letter is signed “All Of Us,” Santa’s so pissed that he can’t be bothered to check the facts on the situation and, instead, just stamps “Not Accepted By Addressee” on every single letter he’s received from a child in Junctionville and sends them right back.
Merry fucking Christmas, right?
Thing is, the only ones who know why Santa isn’t coming to Junctionville are Father Mouse and his clan, and that’s only because they call the North Pole Substation to get the skinny on the situation. Father Mouse gets tipped to check out the Register, and after seeing the size of the words used in the letter, he realizes that there can only be one possible culprit: his über-smart son, Albert (Tammy Grimes), who claims to have written the letter with his friends, even though we never see any evidence—either around him or in his personality—to suggest that he actually has any friends. No, this is clearly a one-man operation, and Albert is utterly unrepentant, leading Father Mouse to plead to his son in song, begging him to “let up a little on the ‘wonder why’ and give your heart a try.” (This is not a Christmas special for non-believers, clearly.)
Even Albert can appreciate the catchy hooks of the musical numbers, but Father Mouse can’t leave it at that. No, he has to upgrade to the next step, first maximizing his son’s guilt by showing him a hospital full of sick kids who are destined to die without ever seeing another Christmas (this isn’t actually said outright, but it’s clearly the subtext of the scene), then creeps up on a weeping young artist who’s tossing his drawing of Santa into the sea, clearly his small way of giving a “fuck you” to the fat man. Surely, Albert has seen the error of his way after witnessing the heartbreak his actions have inspired.
Well, no, actually. Believe it or not, things actually get darker from here.
Without knowing why Santa has decided to ignore Junctionville, Joshua Trundle has decided to put his gifts as a clockmaker to work, building a model of a clock that will offer special Christmas chimes for Mr. Claus as he passes within earshot. Surely even the black-hearted devil known as Kris Kringle will find his heart melted by the sound of a children’s choir singing, “Christmas chimes are calling ‘Santa, Santa,’” no? At the very least, the town council is sold on the idea, somehow coming up with the budget to let Mr. Trundle build a full-sized version of his clock. When the time comes for a test run, however, the whole thing goes kerblooey, leaving Trundle mystified at what’s gone wrong. He offers to try and figure out the problem, but as the people of Junctionville are already angry to begin with, they grow further embittered and take it out on Trundle. Not only is he refused the opportunity to fix the situation, but he’s refused the opportunity to fix any of their clocks, resulting first in a sad scene where the townspeople actually come to Trundle’s shop and take back their property, then in the realization that the Trundle family now has no income whatsoever. There’s no food on the table, their Christmas tree is little more than a twig, and, as Father Mouse’s family maintains a symbiotic relationship with the Trundles, they’re slowly starving to death as well.
It’s bleak as all hell, but Trundle’s a man with an indomitable spirit, and he’s just not going to let it get him down. As such, he serves up the performance of the song that’s stuck in my head for more than 35 years, the aforementioned “Even A Miracle Needs A Hand.” It’s so catchy and relentlessly upbeat that even the guys from South Park couldn’t bring themselves to change it very much.
As it turns out, the issue with Trundle’s clock was nothing to do with him. Once again, Albert has fucked over Junctionville, having tried to understand how it worked, only to screw it up completely. Finally succumbing to the guilt that his father’s been hitting him over the head with, he dives headlong into his efforts to fix the clock… and, as is de rigueur for these sorts of specials, he manages to get it working just in time for Santa to hear the Christmas chimes.
Do the chimes change Santa’s tune? Of course they do. It’s a complete 180 from how he’s been acting since the beginning of the special, but no matter: As a result, we finally get to hear the rest of the poem that started this whole thing in the first place. We also see the special’s strange Santa design—the jolly old elf is ’stache-less!—which is yet another possible reason why the special has fallen out of favor over the years. But as you can now see, it’s only one of many.
But damned if the songs don’t still hold up, something you can attribute to the efforts of Maury Laws, the man responsible for either composing or conducting the music for all of your favorite Rankin-Bass holiday specials. ’Twas the Night Before Christmas may not be as happy-go-lucky as its peers—in fact, it’s downright dour at times—but that doesn’t make it any less of a classic. In fact, if anything, it’s even more of a classic because of that strange sadness. So when you do see the special make one of its relatively unheralded appearances on your TV dial, be sure to tune in. After all, given today’s utterly airbrushed children’s television, it’s kind of a miracle that a cartoon with such a depressing tone still gets shown at all, and for it to keep being shown… well, you know how the song goes.
Tomorrow: The original bad Santa.