It was the best of Christmas television programming, and it was the worst of Christmas television programming. For over forty years Rankin and Bass Productions under various names and owners brought some of the the most memorable Christmas specials to the small screen. While they are known for their stop motion animation, Rankin and Bass also had several traditionally animated features over the years including the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
They say that there are three things that only God knows: how many hairs are on your head, how many orders of Franciscans have been founded and how many Christmas specials were made by Rankin and Bass Productions. As of 2001’s Santa Baby, we’ve been able to track down 23 Christmas and Christmas season specials. For the purposes of “Research” we commandeered the editor’s office and 60-inch television and watched every single one of them back-to-back to pinpoint the best and the worst of the Rankin and Bass catalogue.
5. Frosty the Snowman
Happy Birthday! Using a traditional animation style, Frosty the Snowman follows the story told by the 1950 song of the same name originally performed by Gene Autry. While attending class on Christmas Eve, Karen and her friends are entertained, more or less, by the Snidely Whiplash-esque Professor Hinkle and his magical hat. While Professor Hinkle turns out to be a sorry magician, his hat proves to be filled to the brim with Christmas miracles, including bringing snowmen to life. The story continues through multiple commercial breaks to tell the tale of a girl and her snowman pursued across the countryside with a crazed magician in hot pursuit.
4. T’was the Night Before Christmas
This is the heart-warming tale of an eggnogg-stic mouse who nearly ruins Christmas for the entire town of Junctionville first by insulting Santa with his non-belief in a letter printed in the town newspaper, then by accidentally ruining the town’s peace offering to Santa. Realizing his mistake, he apologizes, fixes the musical clock intended by the town to be an apology to ol’ Saint Nick and saves the day. T’was the Night Before Christmas was animated by Topcraft studios, which is now part of Disney’s Studio Ghibli.
3. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
In this most recognizable of the Rankin and Bass Christmas specials, tell the story of Rudolph, a reindeer born with a seemingly incandescent red nose. Based off of the Gene Autry song of the same name from 1949, Rankin and Bass introduce us to an incredible cast of characters including Hermey, a dentally oriented elf, prospector Yukon Cornelius who is seeking out his fortune in silver and gold, a bumble, and Donner who knows that looking for runaway children is “Mans work”. The most interesting character, however may just be the Dolly for Sue on the Island of Misfit Toys. She seems like a normal doll, not a misfit at all. Perhaps there is something more sinister going on. Could she be a young Annabelle?
2. A Year Without a Santa Claus
I worry about the overall health of Rankin and Bass’s Santa Claus. He is prone to massive fluctuations in weight, illnesses and mood swings. In A Year Without a Santa Claus, Kris Kringle is sidelined with a cold and on the advice of his doctor who thinks no one believes in Santa, cancels his Christmas rounds. Mrs. Claus sends out a couple of elves, Jingle and Jangle, on a fact finding mission along with Vixen the reindeer who are shot down in the civil war between Heat and Cold Misers. Both Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus go on rescue missions to save their stranded elves and free their impounded reindeer. Thanks to the intervention of Mother Nature, the civil war is quelled, Santa, Mrs. Claus, Vixen and the elves are returned home and Christmas is restored during a musical number of Blue Christmas.
1. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
Every hero has an origin story, and while Kris Kringle was no “billionaire playboy philanthropist”, as Baby Claus, he was raised as an orphan, left on the steps of Burgermeister Meisterburger and sent to the town orphanage. On the way, Baby Claus is lost, and saved from the Winter Warlock by elves who become his surrogate parents.
Baby Claus becomes Kris Kringle and fights the injustice of the tyrannical Burgermeister Meisterburger, and attempts to elude the shadowy Winter Warlock until his capture. Through the power of love, and a toy train, Kris turns the Winter Warlock from mortal enemy to devoted friend and together they save the town from Burgermeister Meisterburger while building the lore that surrounds Santa Claus as you know him.
5. Pinocchio’s Christmas
If you rely too much on the Disney movie for back story, you’re going to have a hard time keeping up with this one. Its a mess. You can tell early on that Geppetto is new to being a dad because his first Christmas gift to Pinocchio is a math book. Pinocchio sells the math book to buy a present for Geppetto, but has the money stolen by some poorly chosen friends, Fox and Cat. He then decides to try his hand at dancing for money, steals a marionette and runs into the blue fairy. This one is entirely skip-able. It is hard to follow but not so incredibly bad that you have to watch it just to say that you did.
4. Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold
This is a Saint Patricks day story that really tries hard to convince you that its a Christmas special. It tells the story of an Irish sailor, Dinty O’Doyle, stranded on an island of leprechauns after he digs up a tree and sets free a banshee, Mag the Hag. Mag stirs up a storm that blows away Dinty’s ship stranding him, and forcing him to seek cover in a cave where he meets the leprechaun, Blarney Kilakilarney. He discovers that Mag the Hag is cursed to turn into tears if she doesn’t come up with freely given gold by Christmas. The highlight of this special is the song Christmas in Killarney.
3. Santa, Baby!
Santa, Baby! Answers the oft asked question, “what would I wish for if granted a single wish by a magical partridge”. It turns out that the answer is that you should wish for your struggling father to write a hit song.
In 2001’s Santa, Baby!, Rankin and Bass tries to get with the times, prove that they are hip and offer up a modern Christmas tale. But the problem is that exactly what their audience has never wanted. Featuring a cast including Patti Labelle, Vanessa Williams and Eartha Kitt, Santa Baby! has a better than average soundtrack, but that didn’t translate into a watchable movie.
2. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July
An ancient evil sleeps beneath the North Pole. Before there was Santa Claus, there was Winterbolt the Wizard. Ice wizard to be precise. And after years of lying dormant beneath the feet of our holiday heroes, Winterbolt awakens to retake his home by means of general mischief. He tries to extinguish Rudolphs nose and steal Frosty’s magical hat but soon realizes that they are untouchable under the northern lights.
Winterbolt enlists the aid of a genie to lure Rudolph and Frosty to a failing circus where he has a better shot at extinguishing the reindeer’s nose. This entry feels like it is six seasons into what should have been a three season show. Not even the music, which is largely reprisals of hits from previous Christmas specials does anything to redeem this show.
1. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year
If you are going to watch any of these last five, THIS is the one. Rudolph is tasked with rescuing a pterodactyl riding baby New Year from a giant time-vulture. That is the most insane sentence I have ever written. There is time travel. There are Medieval fairy tales. There is Benjamin Franklin, a clockwork sperm whale and a caveman.
Of course Rudolph, summoning the same courage that helped him face the Bumble in his own original movie, not only defeats the giant time-vulture, but also makes a friend at the same time and saves the time-space continuum from being stuck forever on December 31st.