Happy December! We’ve finally reached the final month of 2018, and it’s one of my favorites, as Christmastime and the holidays unfold. So, as a treat, I’ll be looking to do an AniB-style “Advent Calendar” for the next 25 days, leading into Christmas Day itself. As a kid, I loved these calendars- they were usually sold with either chocolates in them, or for a line of toys, like LEGO. So for each day, a different “surprise” per se, will be awaiting you. Will it be a Christmas special? A character piece? Who know? Day 1 though, is a bit of a spoiler from this title- the Rankin-Bass classic that CBS airs every year, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Special: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Studio/year released: Rankin-Bass Productions, 1964
AniB’s thoughts: We’re going way back for a staple of Christmas programming as we start these 25 days, and in a way, this isn’t my typical review- given the content and the format of the special in question- but Rudolph is one of those seasonal figures that has a powerful imprint on people, stop-motion special aside. Of course, the holiday classic that airs isn’t the origin point of Rudolph; that would be Robert Louis May’s booklet that he wrote for Montgomery Ward- a department store chain, back in 1939. Of course, the deer gained further notoriety with the famous song from Johnny Marks, which was recorded a decade later, in 1949.
As for the year Rudolph made his small-screen debut, 1964 was many things- the origins of the Vietnam war, the so-called “British Invasion” in the music industry, spearheaded by the Beatles- and also the release of the now-iconic Rudolph TV series. In a sense, this thing is “anime”- since all the actual scenes were shot in Tokyo, Japan- using the self-labeled process known as “Animagic,” which simply referred to the stop-motion photography with puppets that they used to put together this special and a slew of other ones that would come after it.
I’m not sure I need to recap such a well-known special on TV, but did you know the familiar tale involving Rudolph along with his pals Hermey and Yukon Cornelius was actually all an original adaptation? As it turns out, the producers couldn’t find the original story script of May’s, so they had some artistic liberties to take, working mostly off the framework of the famous song. Another curious fact is how everything came together for the finished product- Burl Ives, the famous narrator who plays Sam the Snowman, was the only American voice actor, while the rest were Canadian, recorded in Toronto, and with the animation being produced overseas as mentioned, it was truly an international effort. You might even say in that regard, it was truly in the spirit of Christmas…
Facts and history aside, Rudolph has to be one of my own personal favorites from growing up. I always liked the character from when I was young; the song is simple and iconic, and the special always captivated me, not the least of which was the kitschy charm of the old-school puppetry and stop-motion, along with the interesting backdrops for the story, from Santa’s castle to the Island of Misfit Toys. And of course, there was the musical numbers, most of which were made original for this special, outside of the titular theme song- perhaps most famously “Holly Jolly Christmas,” performed by Ives, but written also by Marks in 1962.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is by any measures, one of the most successful specials in the history of television, continuing its annual appearances to solid ratings even today. Airing continuously since 1964, it’s the longest running Christmas special in history, and as it has now for the past several years, it airs multiple times through the season on CBS. Of course, you could find it easily on the Internet, but there’s some old-school charm to sit down and watch it the way generations of Americans have now enjoyed it.
Now, you might be thinking “is he going to grade this?” Well, it’s hard to grade something that’s a holiday classic, let alone both a special and a period piece as well. Most people have experienced it at some point, and it’s more a slice of animation history that has gained historical and cultural importance far beyond any sort of serious critical insight from me or someone else over 50 years after it debuted. However, if I must put numbers on it, a brief synopsis, AniB style…
Animation: Relatively unique for its time, these stop-motion graphics still hold plenty of charm, albeit lacking the polish of modern-day works. 4.5/5 points
Characters: Not like this needs much detail, but Rudolph and friends are fairly iconic. Within the special though, Santa has a rather minor role, there’s a lot of jerks who give Rudolph grief over his nose, and the misfit toys, who are a sorry bunch with a happy ending. It’s a Christmas special, so asking for complex character development, and from 1964, is a bit of an ask. Yukon Cornelius and the Bumble are fun, Hermey’s goal as a dentist is rather amusing, and Rudolph himself is a fairly typical coming of age character. 4/5 points.
Story: Based loosely on the lyrics of the song, this is about how Rudolph grows up from a social outcast with his unusual red nose to a hero, leading Santa’s team of reindeer. It’s silly and rather simple, but charming all the same, and fair or not, has some nostalgia value as well. 3.75/5 points.
Themes: Fairly simple moral tale about how you can’t run from your problems forever, but rather, you’ve got to face them head on in order to grow and prosper. It’s a decent bit of morality for the young ones, but simplistic for the older crowd. 2.5/5 points.
Don’t Insult the Viewer: It’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer… a Christmas classic for generations. It’s a family-friendly experience. 5/5 points.
Overall: 19.75/25 (79%). Well, there’s a score for those who might want it, but Rudolph isn’t so much the property of the critic’s realm as it the cultural realm it has become an indispensable part of. And what kind of Rudolph encapsulation would be complete without the song?
He’s gone down in history, I think. Mission accomplished!
Like what you see? Excited for what might come next? Have fond memories of Rudolph? Leave a comment!