by Zack Smith
Peter Jackson’s new film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit might have broken box-office records despite mixed (and in the case of this paper, excoriating) reviews, but I myself am still reluctant to see it and weigh in. Why devote nearly three hours to a film adapting 1/3 of a book that you could read in less time — and why try to improve on the 75-minute version by Rankin-Bass Productions?
The Rankin-Bass Hobbit was a mainstay of my childhood. Made for TV in 1977, it was rebroadcast a few times in my youth, but I knew it the most from the book-and-tape based on the special that my family would listen to on long car trips as a way to temporarily pacify my brother and myself (things were different in those days before DVD players in cars).
For me, Gandalf the Wizard will always be the stentorian tones of John Huston, and while I’ve nothing but love for Andy Serkis, there’s little that can replace the salamander-like Gollum voiced by monologist and regular David Letterman guest Brother Theodore.
(I’ll admit, though, that I’ve never seen Rankin-Bass’ version of The Return of the King, which awkwardly completed Ralph Bakshi’s dead-serious Lord of the Rings animated movie with a disco number about whip-loving trolls. A few of my friends have admitted they’re fans.)
It’s only appropriate that this new Hobbit turns my thoughts to Rankin-Bass, as Christmas has long been their season. From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, Rankin-Bass was the king of Christmas specials, regularly turning out some new effort either in stop-motion or traditional animation that still air on networks and on cable.
While some of the Rankin-Bass specials are still mainstays of the major networks, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Frosty the Snowman (and its dreadful 1990s follow-up Frosty Returns), my fondness for Rankin-Bass comes in part from the stranger and more obscure specials they produced over the years that often find themselves relegated to “bonus features” on DVD, or on such cable networks as ABC Family.
Rankin-Bass’ specialty (usually through the scripting of the late Romeo Muller, who wrote something like two dozen holiday specials in his lifetime) was finding a way to stitch a half-hour-to-an-hour storyline around every possible Christmas song imaginable, somehow finding a way to organically weave the lyrics throughout the storyline, or to build to that triumphant moment where, after 3-4 original songs, the storyline would climax with that number you already knew, presenting the young audience with the scene of “Ta da! And that’s how it really happened!”
For instant, when Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem that came to be known as “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” I somehow doubt he intended St. Nicholas’ visit to be a great relief to the residents of Junctionville after an intellectual young mouse caused him to send back their letters after publishing a Santa-denying editorial and almost ruining the clock that played a pro-Santa message.
As a kid, I found Santa’s need for validation somewhat suspect, but I always loved the Joel Grey-performed “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” which is so catchy that even South Park hommaged it.
Indeed, South Park has made no bones about its debt to Rankin-Bass, particularly in its Christmas episodes, which have featured everything from the credit “Blankin-Rass Presents” to characters morphing into stop-motion-style figures.
Perhaps I related too much to the young bespectacled mouse, for I often found myself applying intellectual, even existential questions to the nonexistent mythology of these specials.
For example, was Jessica, the lovely young townsperson who married Kris Kringle in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town…
…the same aged, grandmotherly Mrs. Claus who tried to save Christmas with help from Snow Miser and Heat Miser in The Year Without a Santa Claus?
For that matter, how could Santa, himself a victim of persecution in Comin’ to Town, be so cruel to the outcast Rudolph in the mutant reindeer’s own special? Could he have lost his way, as so many mortals have themselves?
It was even more problematic when the worlds of stop-motion Rankin-Bass and animated Rankin-Bass collided. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year converted the stop-motion Rudolph into animation when he re-told his tale in flashback to the big-eared Baby New Year, aka “Happy.”
Subsequently, the animated Frosty the Snowman was converted into stop-motion to team with Rudolph for Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (which nonetheless still gets rerun at Christmas). The previous Frosty animated special had featured Jack Frost as the villain…
...only to have him leap to stop-motion and become the hero for his own eponymous Rankin-Bass special.
Rankin-Bass was capable of lovely, even touching moments in their lesser-known Christmas specials — The Little Drummer Boy and The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow are quite moving, and even the oddball Drummer Boy/Rudolph mashup Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is touching as well — and they re-use many of the same stop-motion figures from previous specials, including the Mrs. Claus from Year Without a Santa Claus and some camels from The Little Drummer Boy. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Little Drummer Boy was standing just off to the side in the manger.
But there was a definite sense of running out of steam; The Little Drummer Boy, Book II isn’t bad, but when it opens with narration explaining that the Little Drummer Boy felt he hadn’t done enough for Jesus, you feel a bit gypped — that negates the whole point of the Christmas carol!
And there was a sense they were scraping the bottom of the barrel with specials such as The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold, which is even more of a mixed holiday than Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July.
(Still worth watching, though: The hilarious and underrated Halloween feature Mad Monster Party, which is on DVD and Netflix Instant.)
Rankin-Bass mostly shut down after the 1980s, though they still produced some fondly-remembered material — there was the feature film The Last Unicorn, and the TV cartoon Thundercats, which showed off their ability to combine limited animation with memorable, illustrative character designs. Another favorite of mine was the animated TV-movie The Flight of Dragons, which recently became available on DVD through the Warner Archive.
Their last Christmas special during their heyday — at least until an adaptation of “Santa, Baby” in the early 2000s — was also one of their weirdest, an adaptation of Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, an alternate telling of Santa’s origin where a group of immortals review his life to decide whether he shall join their number or, well, die.
Aside from that dark, bizarre plot, it seems that Rankin-Bass was still infatuated with the fantasy action from The Hobbit and their other later productions, and the whole thing climaxes with a battle between Santa’s helpers and a bunch of demonic monsters. It’s a far cry from Rudolph on the Island of Misfit Toys.
It’s funny, the mythology I tried to apply to these — as though Santa, Rudolph, Frosty and company were all part of some sort of yuletide League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But that was the joy of Rankin-Bass, their ability to tie every little Christmas carol to some sort of epic story, or to condense something like The Hobbit to a shortened, song-filled TV-movie. When one of their specials aired on TV, it was truly “special” — filled with silly songs and sights, but also a sense of a world that you couldn’t see in everyday life, that perhaps only came around in the holiday season.
Don’t ask me to explain their roles in the Jackson 5 and Hammerman (starring MC Hammer!) Saturday morning cartoons, though. I can only intellectualize so much.
Next: Great Non-Rankin-Bass Christmas Specials!