Reporter Joshua Fadare’s list of the top Rankin-Bass specials continues with the final top 8! Be sure to read his first half.
1. “Jack Frost.”
Jack Frost, one of the spirits of Christmas wants to be human and spend time with the people who enjoy the weather he brings. Father Winter decides to grant his wish, but only if he can get a home, a horse, a bag of gold and a wife.
Out of all the Rankin-Bass films “Jack Frost” feels the most like your typical folk story. Which is to say, I could actually see someone telling this story to their child. It even hits that same bittersweet tone a lot of older folktales have.
Though Jack Frost himself is delightful, a lot of the other supporting cast is about flat as Jack’s shadow which has a fair amount of character in this special so that’s saying something.
The real star of the show is Kubla Kraus. Hands down he is the coolest and most well thought out villains in the entire Rankin-Bass Filmography.
Kubla Kraus is the King of the Cossacks who was so hated by everyone around him, that they all abandoned him. Forcing him to create a mechanical army to do his bidding, a mechanical horse and even a mechanical ventriloquist dummy to be his only friend.
This movie is also a groundhog’s day special for some reason. It’s an important plot point and the groundhog is the narrator, but it makes up only a small fraction of the movie.
Stray Observations: Inflation simply doesn’t exist within the world of Jack Frost
2. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Born with a shiny nose – that some would even say glows – Rudolph, alongside other misfits such as Hermie the elf and Yukon Cornelius try to find their place in the world.
Who doesn’t know this story? It’s the movie that made Rankin-Bass a household name and the stop-motion style of Tadahito Mochinaga a Christmas staple.
It exudes charm and whimsy and the band of misfits we’re introduced to on Rudolph’s journey are all instantly likable. With a soundtrack that has me bopping my head to “We’re a Couple of Misfits” on a yearly basis you’d think this would be higher.
This is because, like with “Winter Wonderland” all that charm can’t help but bring up questions, and boy does Rudolph bring up some disturbing questions. Like the fact they tear out all the Bumble’s teeth quickly without anesthetic or how the group is only accepted back into the north pole after they save Donner, Clarice, and Rudolph’s mother.
It’s not that the movie’s lost any charm, I’m just now noticing more and more of rough and frankly uneven edges.
Stray Observations: Yukon Cornelius has a gun. Look it up.
3. “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.”
When the Baby New Year Happy goes missing, it’s up to Rudolph and a slew of new friends to find Happy before the New Year and before the villainous Eon can capture him.
If you want to see the themes of Rudolph without the morally questionable nature, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year provides. Rudolph, having learned about loving yourself and using your unique gifts to make the world a better place, empathizes with Happy who’s massive ears elicit laughter from everyone he meets.
None of the characters from the first film besides Rudolph and Santa make a reappearance in this special, but that also freed the special up to explore new and weirder ideas. The Archipelago of Last Years is one of my favorite concepts from these films and I wish the film was longer just so the characters could have explored more of them.
The songs are alright with “It’s Raining Sunshine” a standout. All-in-all a decent film.
Stray Observation: Rankin-Bass finds big ears really funny for some reason.
4. “Twas’ The Night Before Christmas.”
Annoyed by an opinion letter signed “from all of us” in a local paper, Santa Claus has apparently blacklisted the entire town of January Junction, returning all their letters to him. Now the town is pinning their hopes on a local clockmaker to show Kris Kringle they care.
A delightful 2D animated story, the film is split between the human clockmaker and the mouse family who lives in their house. It specifically centers on the mouse father who discovers that his eldest son is the one who sent the letter to begin with. Though the themes of blind faith are a bit messy, considering there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Santa is real in the film.
The animation reminds me of “Schoolhouse Rock!” and the song “Even a Miracle needs A Hand,” is one of the most infectious earworms Rankin-Bass ever devised.
The only major misstep is the end where the human father narrates the poem from the title. Instead of just him catching Old Saint Nick in the act like the original poem, it’s his entire family and the mouse family standing there watching Santa work. It’s really creepy.
Stray Observation: Santa would not survive twitter.
5. “Frosty the Snowman.”
Brought to life by a magical hat, Frosty the Snowman journeys to the North Pole to escape the heat and stop from melting. Meanwhile an Evil Magician plots to steal the hat back from Frosty.
Out of all the Rankin-Bass productions Frosty is the most simple.That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s not interested in setting some deep mythology or explaining how and why Frosty got his magic, and unlike every other special on this list it only uses the one song. Because of that it can focus on the story it’s telling, following the plot of the song the story is paced out better than most of the things on this list. I love Rankin songs but some of them pop up at the most awkward times.
Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass wanted the special to look like a greeting card, and because of that it has a timeless feel. Frosty himself, is wonderfully naive and well meaning, not really noticing when people are brisk or even wishing him harm.
Stray Observations: Does Frosty count as a Golem?
6. “The Little Drummer Boy.”
After the violent death of his parents, Aaron wanders the desert playing the drum for the remaining animals from his family’s farm. Captured by the entertainer Ben Haramed, he’s forced to play his drum to earn his freedom.
Though Rankin-Bass is known for their catchy tunes and memorable music in nearly every film on this list, there is at least one song I don’t remember. That isn’t the case for The Little Drummer Boy. Every song is instantly recognizable and memorable, with The Vienna Boys Choir providing vocals for the main theme it sounds amazing.
After the death of his parents, Aaron has closed himself off from people preferring the company of his animal companions. Being forced to reintegrate with society through the greedy schemes of Ben Haramed doesn’t help the situation. It’s only when one of his animal friends is hurt and Aaron has to rely on the kindness of other people – specifically baby Jesus – that he opens himself up.
It’s a beautiful story as well as one of Rankin-Bass’ darkest.
Stray Observations: The fact Aaron directs his animals dancing is adorable
7. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”
Raised by the Kringle family of elves, Kris Kringle grows up promising to deliver the elves toys to the children that live in the valley. When he’s finally old enough to make the journey he faces the peril of the winter warlock as well as the Burgermeister Meisterburger and his ban on toys.
I’ve said repeatedly that these films tend to crumble when they allow you to stop and think about what’s actually happening. Well, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” is the movie that heads you off at the pass. Acting as an origins for Santa Claus the movie attempts to answer each and every question you could have about Santa. From his flying Reindeer to just how he knows what you’ve been up to.
Mickey Rooney brings a certain warmth to Kris Kringle’s voice that makes him feel genuine and kind. The music is Rankin-Bass at some of their best. I have had “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” stuck in my head since I was five, and I don’t see it going anywhere anytime soon. The film is also amazingly creative in that weird Rankin-Bass way in answering Santa questions.
Santa learning to leap rooftop to rooftop from deer and laugh his signature laugh from seals is just the sweetest thing. This is a hard film to top.
Stray Observations: There’s an alternate universe where Kris was raised by the Burgermeister.
8. “The Year Without a Santa Claus.”
Tired and sick, an overworked Santa Claus decides to call off Christmas, believing that no one really cares about his yearly ride. It’s up to Mrs. Claus and the elves Jingle and Jangle to prove to Santa that people really do care about him.
While “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” might be great, “The Year Without a Santa Claus” is Rankin Bass at their absolute best. The story is heartwarming in a real Christmas way that’s hard to beat. I’m not lying when I say a real tear came to my eye near the climax of the film.
The characters are all lovable, and as for music while “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” might have been stuck in my head for years, I can sing both of the Miser brother songs word for word.
It’s a film that evokes that same feeling that the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” does. Seeing someone who gives so much to other people be rewarded and appreciated by the people around him. And even then Santa decides to keep giving.
Stray Observations: The Mayor of Southtown is quite possibly the most powerful politician in the history of America.