Day 21: Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July

Hello everyone! I didn’t forget about the Advent Calendar countdown; rather, it was important to attend to some academic priorities as they wrapped up, and so I still intend to finish up the countdown, albeit slightly condensed. (Speaking of which, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup isn’t a bad pick for lunch this time of year.)

As Christmas draws ever closer, we enter yet another leg of the Rudolph sequel saga- and this time, it’s a full-blown movie with a big time crossover. So is it more of a Rudolph followup again or a Frosty continuation? Let’s find out.

The Lowdown:

Movie: Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July

Studio/year released: Rankin-Bass, 1979

AniB’s thoughts: The red-nosed reindeer’s saga continued on after Rudolph’s Shiny New Year with this ambitious feature-length crossover film with fellow Christmas star Frosty the Snowman. Yes, this film finally crossed the pair in Rankin-Bass lore, and technically counted as the trilogy piece for both characters, considering Frosty also recieved a sequel in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (which I haven’t covered on this countdown, but it explains in this film why he has a wife and kids.)

This film actually does a fair bit of tweaking and expansion on Rudolph’s origin, while continuing to keep and change equally odd bits of continuity throughout its runtime. While Rudolph’s red nose is simply explained as an odd anomaly in the original special, this film lets us know it was a divine blessing from the aurora borealis. No, I’m not making this up- Lady Boreal is a character in this film, and before she just merely became the northern lights, she carried on her power via Rudolph’s shiny honker. Of course, this begs the question why the aurora borealis needed to be in this film or pass on her powers, and of course, Rankin-Bass brought us another villain equal to this task: Winterbolt.

This wizened old mage of icy heart and evil constitutions was the archenemy of Lady Boreal (as the story expositions), and once the ruler of the North Pole until he was sealed away for centuries. During that point, Santa came into the area, set up shop, and now for plot-specific reasons, this guy wakes up, intent on reclaiming his throne. While conniving, he’s true to the framework of Rankin’s usual Christmas baddies: prone to monologues, quite a bit of bumbling and scheming with precious little in the way of permanent results, and with a fatal weakness. (Not that I assume many of you will seek out this movie with fervor, but this might be the film’s biggest spoiler, no joke.)

The other bizarre major plot point is that somehow all this winds up involving a circus down on its luck at some generic beachside, but man, they must be hiding money somewhere to purchase all the high rent animals and performers they have. Seriously, this circus by the sea has everything you can think of when it comes to circuses, which might suggest they need a better promoter or something…which comes in the form of Rudolph and Frosty. And how might you ask did they wind up here? Milton the ice cream man, of course!….who’s he? Well, this affable fellow has a romance plot going on with the star acrobat of the circus in question, and just so happened to show up at the North Pole when this film takes place, running into Rudolph and Frosty, to talk about his problems. Winterbolt then does some mind manipulation magic and things proceed from there.

Again, in the realm of Rudolph specials (or even Frosty), expecting the unexpected seems to be the rule of thumb. Big Ben, the whale from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year makes a cameo; the “We’re a Couple of Misfits” makes its first reprise since the original Rudolph special, and Winterbolt has some interesting…ideas, such as creating a rival team of flying cobras in contrast to Santa’s reindeer. A weird, quirky film for sure- but still kitschy and charming when it’s all said and done. It’s probably become more obscure in the public eye as time has gone on, but it ties in nicely to the animated history of thes character as established by the studio in question.


Animation Quality: Stop-motion puppetry; Rankin-Bass’s so-called “Animagic” process. If nothing else, the smoothness of how things were executed in this method were much cleaner than in earlier specials featuring it, and this was the most ambitious undertaking at the time using the process, given the length of this film. 4/5 points.

Characterization: Most of the characters are self-explanatory at this point, such as Rudolph and Frosty, and in my thoughts I talked a bit about the film’s villain, Winterbolt, but there’s at least two more characters worth mentioning:

Scratcher is an anemic-looking reindeer with buckteeth, noted for being a reject from Santa’s team due to his habit of “stealing presents and candy canes.” While he serves as a secondary antagonist in this film, he mysteriously disappears after he pulls some dirty work, and it’s never quite explained at all what happened to him- a curious plot hole, for sure.

Lily Lorraine is the eccentric, energetic ringmaster of the circus by the sea. She’s noted for her cowgirl getup, complete with a ten-gallon hat and a pair of six-shooters, and naturally, she’s overjoyed to meet Rudolph and Frosty at a critical time in her buisness ventures. Her rival in the buisness is Sam Spangles- a generic underhanded carny who will use any means necessary to take the circus out from underneath her.

Also of note: Santa reappears here, but curiously enough, this is the Santa from the Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town continuity (Day 5 of this countdown), which means certain references, such as magical feed corn and the seemingly odd change from elves to “little Kringles” helping him out makes a lot more sense if you’ve seen that particular special. It’s worth noting though, because otherwise it seems very strange. 3/5 points.

Story: I already delved into this narrative a bit, but it’s certainly strange and unusual, for sure. I wouldn’t call this a good story, but it’s strangely entertaining in its own right despite being weird and unexpected in a lot of ways. 2.25/5 points.

Themes: Like most Rankin specials, this is more pure entertainment than it is any sort of rich moral tapestry, or complex thematic paragon. The main villain has flying, laughin’ snakes, among other things. Perhaps that should tell you how seriously you ought to take this. 1.5/5 points.

Don’t Insult the Viewer: On the flip side, it’s fairly easy entertainment to swallow, family friendly, charming in its own way and brings back a lot of songs from other specials. General story holes that seem odd though, make you question how anyone over the age of 12 wouldn’t notice them. 4.5/5 points.

 

Overall: 15.25/25 (61%): Ambitious for its time, with some famed characters and a patently silly plot, this film is a bit of an anomaly, and a curious one at that. Still, it’s worth mentioning within the world of Rankin-Bass’s Christmas-themed productions, even if its cherished leads let it have far more staying power than it otherwise would have had.


Like what you see? Eager to see the rest of the countdown as it finished up? Leave a comment!

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Day 16: Jack Frost

The mischievous winter sprite got his own stop-motion special.

Day 16! Although a day late, this piece is still here as promised, and along with it comes yet another winter legend.  In perhaps the least surprising news for anyone who’s been following the Advent Calendar countdown, Rankin-Bass made several other specials outside of the ones you might know…and this was one of them, about that old wintry trickster himself, Jack Frost.

The Lowdown:

Special: Jack Frost

Studio/years released: Rankin-Bass, 1979

AniB’s thoughts: Yet again, the company remembered for its Christmas specials released one that was decidedly more “winter themed” in December of 1979 with this production, which actually is narrated by Punxsutawney Phil, known as “Pardon-Me-Pete” through this special. In a sense, this special has to do with Groundhog Day and general winter as opposed to the actual holiday season, but it still had its debut during Advent of its release year- go figure.

Interestingly, this was not Jack’s first role in a Rankin-Bass picture. The frosty pixie made his debut in 1976’s Frosty Winter Wonderland, where he serves as the main antagonist, a a decidedly grumpy on at that (feeling underappreciated), while playing up the impish nature of the character. Frost’s debut as a puppet though, would be in Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, a feature length film released roughly a half year before his solo outing here. In that movie, Jack makes a late cameo to resuscitate a melted Frosty and family, clearly reconciled over previous differences from the other special.

While there have been several different spins on the character of Jack Frost over the years, this special mostly forgoes his role as the impish trickster of winter, instead opting for a love story of sorts- and Jack’s recasting as a hero when he falls head over heels for a human girl. And in the grandest of Rankin-Bass traditions, there’s a big supernatural entity guiding Jack along in Father Winter. After Jack rescues the girl, Elisa and dreams of marriage enter his head, Winter grants him a chance to become human and have the girl of this dreams- provided he met very specific conditions, such as obtaining a house, gold, a horse and of course, marriage itself. In this way, Jack takes on a fully human form- “Jack Snip,” and starts a tailor’s shop in the small locale of choice, aptly named “January Junction.”

Of course, none of these specials would be complete without an eccentric and completely silly villain, and the role here is filled by Kubla Kraus- an evil Cossack king who lives on the self-explained Miserable Mountain alone with his ventriloquist dummy and his army of mechanical soldiers (called “Keh-Nights. No, I’m not making this up.) Between Jack’s goal of wooing Elisa and Kubla’s involvement in making life thoroughly unpleasant for January Junction, the two come into conflict inevitably over the girl…though things turn out both as you might expect and not expect all at the same time.

Now I will give a lot of credit in this special because as far as building any sort of mythical lore for Jack Frost, Rankin and Bass had a lot of creative license on this film, in part because Frost didn’t have a hugely defined role in the general cultural ethos of the holiday. He wasn’t Santa Claus, or even Rudolph, whom I discussed already a bit at length about in some other pieces, or even Frosty who had his own number of sequels as well. It’s a little easier to swallow some of the usual absurdity because of Jack Frost’s supernatural origins, and it really feels in some ways like a fairy tail type of backstory for the titular lead. For an enjoyable, different experience, this one still airs seasonally on Freeform (formerly ABC Family), so if you’ve got the channel still, you’re likely to be able to see it if you’re just scrolling around for a watch.


Animation Quality: Rankin-Bass returns yet again with the “Animagic” stop-motion style. One thing is evident; the animators in Tokyo who did the actual work with the puppets had improved over the years, and everything seems a bit smoother and cleaner, especially when compared to an earlier special like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (which was back in 1964!) Here, the same sort of charm is preserved, as this style of stop-motion helped preserve the unique character of all the company’s specials that used it. 4.25/5 points.

Characters: Jack Frost is the lead and pretty self-explanatory. He’s both carefree and energetic, both as a sprite and a human, but he also shows a good heart to go with it.

Aside from Jack, there’s a bunch of other supporting characters, chiefly narrator “Pardon-Me Pete,” the famous groundhog who enjoys his winter slumbers thoroughly, Elisa as the love interest (she’s a pleasant girl but there’s not a lot more to say about her), Sir Ravenal Rightfellow- a heroic knight who is Jack’s main competition for the girl’s heart and hand in marriage (but not an antagonist), and Kubla Kraus as previously mentioned- a thoroughly evil king who enjoys his solitude and greed along with being a terrible ruler. Jack is also joined by two other sprites in his human endeavors- Snip and Holly, who assist Father Winter normally, and this comprises most of it. Simple cast, simple but effective lead, self explanatory protagonist. Perfectly adequate. 3.25/5 points.

Story: This is both a legendary story (about Jack Frost) and a love story as well considering the contents. Not terribly complicated, but decently entertaining. 3/5 points.

Themes: This special is really meant more for enjoyment than any strong moral tale, although I suppose opposing an evil king is a righteous thing to do. Doesn’t quite have the Christmas pull either with the more general “winter theming.” 2/5 points.

Don’t Insult the Viewer: A variety of original songs, family friendly entertainment and a lasting shelf-life that has kept it in the seasonal rotation of a network are all some nice points in its favor. 5/5 points.

 Overall: 17.5/25 (70%): While Rankin and Bass certainly made a lot of these holiday specials, this was solid, creative work on a character they had a bit more license to do what they wanted with. No, it doesn’t get as crazy as something like Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, but that’s just as well; this one might be worth a look not only during December but for a quick watch at any point in the winter.


Like what you see? Enjoying the many specials and shows covered here? Leave a comment!

Day 5: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

You better watch out, you better not cry…

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.

(Previous days: 1  2  3  4 )

The Lowdown:

Special: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

Studio/year released: Rankin-Bass Productions, 1970

AniB’s thoughts:

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!

AniB’s Advent Calendar: Day 1: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

“You know Dasher and Dancer…” The iconic reindeer’s Christmas special.

Hi everyone,

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.

The Lowdown:

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!