Retro Review: Rankin and Bass – Christmas Animagic


Retro Review:  Rankin and Bass Stop-Motion Christmas

December is here, which can only mean one thing: unremitting horror and soul-paralyzing terror.  Or Christmas.  If you’ve seen A Christmas Story as many times as I have, the line between the two is fleetingly thin.

Nightmare fuel.
Nightmare fuel.

One yuletide tradition that apparently will never die is the annual dusting-off of television specials by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass.  Every year we are treated to the pinnacle of 1960’s stop motion animation, Animagic as the company branded it (showing that our elders were indeed correct:  all magic is evil and the sorcerers behind it should be hunted down…with fire.)


Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas Rudolph the red nose Reindeer
Makes a better Ice-Man, you have to admit.

These specials are improbably trotted out every year to delight and entertain youngsters, since cable companies (connoisseurs of pop culture that they are) seem to think that children these days are just itching to pause their latest racist tirade on Call of Honor: Nazi Barrel-Shoot Edition and figure out who the hell Burl Ives was and why he is now encased in ice armor and singing about a reindeer with mutant powers.  I just hope Bryan Singer includes him in the latest X-Men movie.  Hell, they’re putting everyone else in at this point…

The Horror…the horror.

Rankin and Bass Christmas specials have been terrorizing tots since time immemorial.  Like most other monsters, the Animagic creations hale from Japan, where Rankin and Bass enslaved animators for decades before Hayao Miyazaki liberated them and allowed them to terrify their own children with fractured fairy tales like Spirited Away and Mr Dough and the Egg Princess.  Seriously, those poor men and women, forced into a ghoulish existence of scaring the piss out of children the world round.  Must be satisfying work.

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas Rudolph the red nose Reindeer
Tentacles in a Japanese movie…abandon all hope.

The Dirty Dozen.

Anyone with too much time on their hands is probably familiar with the heavy hitters in the line up:  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (I personally like the missing G.  Makes it sound like an amateur porn flick), and The Year Without a Santa Claus .  Like that would be allowed to happen.  Department stores would round up fat men with white beards so fast the ice in your creepy uncles scotch would still be cold when you found his apartment empty.

You don’t need me to recap these gems for you.  But you do need me to show you how awful they truly are.  So, I will volunteer to re-watch the most popular Christmas Animagic specials, and give you the skinny on how these malevolent movies endanger your vulnerable family.  I ask no compensation, but if you find me with candy canes shoved into my eye-sockets, please tell my family I loved them.  And don’t let my brother have my stuff.  I’m taking that shit to the grave.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas Rudolph the red nose Reindeer
Speaking of having a scotch…

You know Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Cupid.  But do you recall, the most wonderful story of woe and horrendous social bigotry of all?  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is so full of anti-social elements, it’s a wonder that it made it onto the air.

Rudolph was the creation of department store giant Marshall Ward in 1939, who were looking to make Christmas coloring books on the cheap by writing their own phony holiday stories.  From this humble origin, a hit song was recorded by Gene Autry (I’ll wait while you google him….and you’re back) and Rudolph became a Christmas staple, starring in a Fleischer cartoon in 1944.  It wasn’t until 1964 that Rudolph hit his lowest mark in a television special, much like a depraved pop-star in a VH-1 Behind the Music biopic.

Veering wildly away from a story that had already veered wildly away from Christmas cannon, Rudolph is shown to be the shame-faced child of one of Santa’s established reindeer.  His genetic deformity, a glowing red nose (which was originally a sticking point with Marshall Ward, because red noses were notably associated with alcoholics) causes his parents to hide his face under make-up and prosthetics, and he is admonished not to show his nose in public.  One day, at the reindeer games, he makes friends and discovers true love…shortly before loosing his nose cap and recieving a brutal shunning from the horrified reindeer.  Even Santa piles on.  If they guy who tots up naughty and nice lists discriminates against one of his own reindeer, what hope do you have, kid?

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas Rudolph the red nose Reindeer
Oh God, that came out of ME! Kill it! Kill it quick!

Rudolph makes an excellent decision to run away.  Because run-away children is heart-warming.  I’m sure they don’t end up in child armies or as sex slaves in the 1960’s…it was a simpler time.  A simpler, bigoted time.  He is joined by another outcast, an elf dentist name Hermey (are they digging at hermaphrodites in this special too? We can only assume in the affirmative) who is harassed in the work place for wanting to escape the soul crushing grind of creating toys nobody wants.  C’mon, a wooden train?  A rocking horse?  It was 1960, not 1860.  Nobody wanted that crap.

Speaking of unwanted toys.  Just to make the point clear, the foolish duo end up on the Island of Misfit toys, where toys suffering from horrendous ailments that resemble a medieval doctor’s conception of malady are all tossed to live a life of privation.  They let the pair stay…for one night.  In return for bringing their grievances before Santa.  Who has shown himself to be a pitiless jerk.  Good luck there, dolly with psychological issues and boat that can’t float.  At least the polka-dot elephant can hope for work as a drunk’s fever dream.

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas Rudolph the red nose Reindeer
Not pictured, the curdling screams of having all your teeth yanked by a demented elf.

Long story short, the pair wind up back in Santa’s secret lair, after having performed dental surgery on a snow-monster without anesthesia, and then watching it plummet to it’s supposed death with another one of their companions, like Gandalf and the Balrog.  Santa hasn’t mended his ways, but a storm is threatening to jam up the works and he notices Rudolph sulking with a big red shiny nose.  Rudolph is pressed into service, and his worries are over!  He just has to take his life into his own hands whenever there is bad weather and pull a fat man’s sleigh every time he gets the urge for the drive thru at Taco Bell.  See, dreams can come true!

The Charges:  Able-ism, Alcoholism, Child Endangerment, Body Issues, Torture, Conscripted Labor, Drudgery.

The Verdict: Christmas with Kony.

Funny, all of the presents are shaped like AK-47's...
Funny, all of the presents were shaped like AK-47’s…


Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas Santa Claus is coming To Town
The warlock looks absolutely hammered.

As far as fictitious histories of a fictitious characters are concerned, this one is actually pretty enjoyable.  An orphan boy with the surname Claus is abandoned in a dreary village called Sombertown and is sentenced to a life of selling newspapers and eating gruel (now with the taste orphan’s love!) by the town’s leading asshole, the Burgermeister Meisterburger.  Something goes amiss, and the child is cradle robbed by wild-life and smuggled past a snow-bound warlock into the house of the Kringles, former imperial toy makers now under virtual house arrest because of the aforementioned warlock.  The boy grows up to be a muscular and brooding lad, longing to taste the sweet nectar of vengeance by decapitating the warlock and seeing the people of Sombertown driven like cattle before his conquering armies.

Yes, Conan, that is best.
Yes, Conan, that is best.


That didn’t happen in the movie?  Hold on.

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas Santa Claus is coming To Town
Your standards are a tad low, miss.

So Kris Kringle grows up with the dream of delivering his adoptive family’s toys to the children of town.   He avoids the warlock and brings toys to Sombertown, which has outlawed them.  So smuggling contraband.  A frigid school teacher tells him off, but softens when he presents her with a toy.  The Burgermeister is likewise swayed, until regaining his senses and ordering Kringle captured.  He barely escapes, but is caught outside town by the warlock.  Who Kris gives a toy to.  And it makes him a good guy.  Getting the theme here?

The Burgermeister cracks down on the toy trade, notably by burning the toys in front of weeping children.  When Kringle continues to deliver, he even institutes a curfew, but Kris slips in by the chimneys and places his illicit wares into filthy socks hung by the mantle-places.  Finally, in a daring raid, Kringle is caught, but is rescued by the dark arts when the reformed warlock makes reindeer fly.  It makes no sense to me, either.

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas Santa Claus is coming To Town
What in the name of all that is holy is this!!!

Time passes, and Kringle goes on the lam, grows a bitching beard, and changes his name back to Claus.  He marries the schoolteacher with a gift fetish, and the two continue smuggling toys from a new artic fortification, Santa’s Castle, hoping to dodge local taxes and the reach of international law.  Life still sucks in Sombertown, but eventually the Burgermeister dies.  No showdown.  No change of heart.  Just dead of natural causes.

The legend of a toy-bootlegging scoundrel spreads, and Kris continues to meet all the demands for his wares.  Just kidding.  He tells the kids to calm the hell down, cause he’s only delivering once a year now.  See, he has a monopoly on this racket, and they’ll take his shipments when he damn-well pleases.  There’s no Toys-R-Us in Sombertown, so they quickly knuckle-under to his harsh demands.  Everyone lives happily every after, and the terrifying likeness of Fred Astaire sings us a song.  Nice choice, choosing a man known for his dancing to just sit in a mail truck and waste tax-payer dollars jaw-boning about a rebel and smuggler.

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas Santa Claus is coming To Town
Kiss my singing-and-dancing ass, I’m union.

The Charges:  Lawlessness, Smuggling, Criminal Trespassing, Breaking and Entering, Arson, Crass Materialism, Trade Union-ism.

The Verdict:  Christmas with Manuel Noriega.

Lot of war criminals on this list. Yup.
Lot of war criminals on this list. Yup.

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas the Little Drummer Boy

The Charges:  Child Exploitation, Religious Fanaticism, Animal Cruelty, Misanthropy.  And creepy.  Very creepy.

The Verdict:  Christmas with Cthulhu.

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas the Little Drummer Boy
R’lyeh! Make it stop!

A Year without a Santa Claus (1974)

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas A year Without Santa Claus
Hate to see what the un-deluxe version was.

An overworked and under-appreciated Santa decides to take some vacation time, despite only working one day a year.  He is constantly chided by his harpy of a wife to eat, fueling further body issues at the North Pole, which we’ve already seen is pretty thin-skinned.  Two peons must travel abroad with an underage reindeer in order to get Santa enough of an ego boost that he’ll haul his butt around the globe delivering the toys he forces said peons to make year-round.  Why?  Because common sense is the one gift Santa refuses to give each year.

The two luckless sods happen into a war zone between the Heat and Snow Misers, two petty elementals who wreak havoc on the global weather patterns in a never ending pissing match for dominance.  Al Gore would weep, if wooden boys had tears.

The incidental fire between the Misers down the pair in a rural town in the American south, where a cranky cop books them for riding a reindeer incorrectly.  The deer is dressed as a dog…and impounded, where she falls deathly ill from heat exhaustion.  Couldn’t have thought about that before you removed the animal from it’s natural habitat, you witless ninny-hammers?  The heartless mayor sets an impossible task of making snow in the deep south (cause that NEVER happens…) before he’ll agree to release the dying animal.

Mrs. Claus tries to get the dueling weather jerks to cooperate to save a life, but they recommence the shooting match.  Finally, Mother Nature herself is called in to settle the conflict.  Which, I guess she could have done at any time.  Just saying.

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas A year Without Santa Claus
There are no innocents in war! Keep firing!

It all ends up being a wasted effort, since Santa himself goes to get the damn reindeer, and with his on the job training as a smuggler and lock-breaker, there’s not a jail built he can’t crack.  Makes for a better story than Escape Plan, if you ask me.  Along the way, he hears some encouragement from the the local children, and decides one day a year of thankless toil is bearable, if only to give terrible presents to children, most of which live in deplorable conditions.  Although since only christian kids get toys, most of the neediest are S.O.L.  Feels good, celebrating the holidays, right?

The Charges:  Absenteeism, Internecine Civil War, More Animal Cruelty, More Body Image Issues, Regionalism, Passive-Aggressive Ego Stroking, Laissez-Faire Parenting.

The Verdict:  Christmas with the Kranks.  Forever.

Retro Review: Rankin and Bass - Christmas A year Without Santa Claus




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