In the blink of an eye, it’s the 5th day of AniB’s Advent Calendar! Yours truly did not have the greatest amount of time today, but a promise is a promise, and so, today’s gift is yet another Rankin-Bass special, and one that might just be my favorite of the lot- Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town.
Special: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
Studio/year released: Rankin-Bass Productions, 1970
Of the Rankin-Bass specials I’ve covered so far during the countdown, this is the first one explicitly to deal with the big man in red as the main subject. We’ve dealt with magical reindeer and snowmen, but outside of Jesus Christ and the Holy Family, no one is more iconic to Christmas than Santa Claus- so what exactly is his story?
The tale of Santa Claus has been retold probably a thousand different ways. The historical figure of course is St. Nicholas of Myrna (270-343 AD), an early Christian bishop, and while he is the patron saint of many, such as sailors, repentant thieves, children, pawnbrokers, archers, and brewers, he of course was best known for his gift-giving to others. He also is noted in Church history as someone present at the Council of Nicaea and one who was imprisoned under the persecutions of Diocletian, only to be freed under Constantine. At any rate, in a very real sense there was a real “Santa Claus” in this holy and venerable man who obviously held a post which required great prudence, patience and sound guidance. Sound familar?
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town certainly is no retelling about St. Nicholas, but like all stories that have grown from the legend, it depicts a kind, warm hearted and deeply generous individual. Rankin-Bass’s retelling is much more of the legendary fairy-folk tale variety, starting in a vaguely German-esque village called Sombertown. As the plot goes, the infant Santa, named Claus, winds up on the doorstep of a very silly and stubborn leader who runs the town (the Burgermeister), and after ordering his chief of staff to get rid of the baby infant, Claus blows away in a winter storm, only to wind up flying over the mountains and into the care of a troop of toymakers- the Kringles.
Rechristened as “Kris Kringle,” the young boy grows up into a fine young man with superb kindness, toymaking skills and suprising agility thanks to numerous animal friends he makes. It’s once Kris decides to venture into Sombertown to relieved his toys things really take off, and the legend begins to grow…Along the way, he meets Topper, a South Pole penguin who mysteriously wound up in the far north; Miss Jessica, a schoolteacher who becomes his eventual romantic interest, and the Winter Warlock- a evil sorcerer thawed out by the young Kringle’s kindness.
The entire affair is narrated by Fred Astaire, who stars as a mailman delivering letters to Santa at the North Pole. As a kid, I always thought the mailtruck he used was the neatest thing- as instead of wheels, it had sled blades and treads to travel through snow and ice- which made sense, given his job. This special, while a fun fictional fantasy, is probably among the best Rankin-Bass did, as it phenomenally captured the essence of Santa Claus in a fun adventure with some surprisingly catchy music numbers. It was also yet another case of “Animagic” from the studio, and like Rudolph, I think that once again helped to capture the charm of what they were going for.
Animation: Stop-motion photography animation. Once again, Animagic was the process used, and like Rudolph and all other specials using said process, it was shot in Japan. A simple charm that felt both artsy and nostalgic and has held up in a special sort of way nearly 50 years later. 4.25/5 points.
Characters: I’ve mostly run through them all in my thoughts, but this story is entirely about one telling of Santa’s life. It’s got a fun little cast, albeit simple, with everyone playing a role, and Burgermeister Meisterburger might just be the most humorously memorable Rankin-Bass Christmas villain in many ways. Most importantly though, Santa feels like Santa here, and that’s very important. 4.5/5 points.
Story: As described already…it’s Santa’s show. Fun tale, good tale, simple tale. The characters make it, really. It plays out like a folk-fairy tale, with narration from Fred Astaire, a variety of fun explanations as to why Santa does different things (like stuff stocking, or jump down fireplaces). And it’s held up in the most wonderful of ways despite said simplicity. 4/5 points.
Themes: There’s a lot in here: perseverance, commitment, the willingness to change for the better, and even faithfulness to some extent. Good, clean morality is in the layers of this special without being preachy, which is always great for a family audience. 4/5 points.
Don’t Insult the Viewer: This is a Christmas classic, no doubt. With a reputation and the track record to back it up from generations of viewers, along with a familiar style, it’s like drinking a warm mug of cocoa. 5/5 points.
Overall: 21.75/25 (87%): Numbers again might pale in comparison to cultural impact, but in a very real sense, this remains one of Rankin-Bass’s best Christmas specials between both a stellar track record from nearly a half-century on ABC, and a rewatchable story featuring a whimsical cast with Santa at the center of it. He’s comin’ to town!
Like what you see? What do you think of Santa Claus or this special? (Did you put one foot in front of the other?) Leave a comment!