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Mike's 2004 Christmas Extravaganza: The Wonderful World of Rankin/Bass!
Posted by 7th on December 15, 2004

Rankin/Bass. Two legendary names in television animation. From classics like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer to also-ran afternoon kiddie block crap like Thundercats and Silver Hawks, the duo of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass have run the gamut in what can, and shouldn't be done animation wise.

Rankin/Bass was started in the early 1960's as Videocraft International. Building upon the animation techniques used by George Pal's "puppetoons" and Art Clokey's Gumby series, they created a form of stop-motion animation they coined as "animagic." The first product of this process was a regular series called "The New Adventures Of Pinnochio," premiering in 1960. It lasted a year, and was then followed by an equally unsuccessful follow-up to the Wizard of Oz, which was done in traditional cel animation.

It wasn't until three years later, in 1964, that Rankin/Bass struck paydirt with Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, an animated special based on an old Gene Autry song. This began a history of holiday specials loved by generation after generation of children. Every Christmas season, they're dusted off and re-broadcast, loved even now by children brought up on the Pixar Animation Teat.
They parlayed this success into feature films, such as the Hobbit, Return of the King, The Last Unicorn, and the wonderful A Flight Of Dragons, which features the voices of James Earl Jones, Harry Morgan of MASH fame, and the late John Ritter (I adored this movie as a kid. One day, I'll give it the attention it deserves.) And of course, they can also be credited (or blamed, depending on how you look at it) with shows like the Thundercats, and their aviary clone, the Silver Hawks. Not to mention the animated renditions of the Jackson Five.

Suffice it to say, Rankin/Bass have not always been totally successful in their endeavors.

Check your local listings, and you'll find that ABC Family runs a different Christmas special up till Christmas Day every day around 7 PM. You will undoubtedly see something you've never seen, nor heard of. Why? Because as Disney has recently fought (without success) to disprove, not every animated film is a classic. Below is a list of some of Rankin/Bass's OTHER specials you may or may not have ever seen. Some for Christmas, some for other holidays, some still for no apparent reason at all.

1) A Cricket On The Hearth (1967)

This Emmy Award winner (it didn't really win anything. I'm being sarcastic) is based on a story by Charles Dickens. It concerns a toy maker and his daughter (played by Danny Thomas and his daughter Marlo) who barely manage to make ends meet due to a cruel, evil toy factory owner who's running them out of business. The daughter's fiance is lost at sea one dark night, and at one point she agrees to marry this vile successful entrepreneur (I love how the guy who actually makes money is always the bad guy. I kept hoping for a real "You've Got Mail" romance to blossom here, but alas, it wasn't to be) when the Cricket On The Hearth, voiced by Roddy Mcdowell and also the toy maker's best friend and good luck charm, steps in to make things right.

I can't say that I enjoyed this one. The songs are good, and Roddy Mcdowell is perfect as the cricket. It just doesn't have enough of a Christmasy feel for me. I just don't associate annoying insects with Christmas. After all, they're insects. They're annoying. It would be like Dreamworks making An Antz Christmas. Scratch that. It would be like Dreamworks making Antz.

2) The First Easter Rabbit (1976)

Like Frosty, this film is done in traditional hand drawn animation, and showcases the return of Burl Ives, who sings and narrates the story of Stuffy, a plush toy rabbit owned by a little girl, who is chosen for his good heart to be brought to life and made the living symbol of Easter. He's then moved into a new digs called Easter Valley, which is in a state of crisis from an evil foe. Just when it seems that Stuffy won't be able to pull out a surprise win, Santa appears and declares himself his tag team partner. Then, with the help of Jeff Hardy, Stuffy knocks Edge off the ladder and saves Easter Valley.

Again, this one doesn't thrill me that much. Rankin/Bass have two other "Easter Rabbit" specials that are much better than this one. Every time Stuffy came on-screen, I kept thinking of the magic rabbit in Frosty. Then I'd want to watch Frosty. But I couldn't, because it was freaking Easter. He was living up on the North Pole, waiting for Jack Frost to turn everything cold so he could come back and let us build him a Bride of Frostystein insta-wife.

3) The Year Without Santa Claus (1974)

This one's a sequel to the better known special Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. Mickey Rooney reprises his role as Santa. Apparently, He's suffering from the same malaise as the Santa in Elf. No one believes in him anymore. So Mrs. Santa sends Vixen, the smallest of the reindeer, and two elves to Southtown to find proof that the spirit of Christmas hasn't died out completely.

Unfortunately, all they find are a bunch of people who couldn't care less about the fact that Santa has retired. So they refuse to come home out of embarrassment. Worried about his friends, Santa heads south, in disguise, to rescue them. Upon arriving in Southtown, Santa befriends a buck-toothed dork named (I swear) Ignacius Thistlewhite, who still believes in him (amazing how he's there five minutes and finds someone with Christmas spirit when the other two couldn't do it after several weeks. I guess that's why he's Santa, and you aren't.) Emboldened by this one act of faith, Santa vows to save his friends and ensure that Christmas lives on.

If anyone remembers this sequel to a much better special, they remember it as the Heat and Snow Miser show, as the back and forth bickering of these two villains makes the whole movie. And when it comes to Christmas specials, if the villain is the best character, you've screwed up somewhere. Plus it has Mickey Rooney in it. I was willing to forgive it for the first one, as it was narrated by Fred Astaire. Not so with this one. It doesn't really offer anything new compared to the original. Even the villains are the same! And if you ask me, Ignacious is the worst part of the show. Santa should take him back to the North Pole and let
Hermey fix those amazingly deformed chompers.

4) Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail (1971)

Yet another Easter special. Danny Kaye, song and dance man and Hollywood prissy boy extraordinaire stars as the narrator, a guy named Seymour S. Sassafrass, who introduces us to April Valley (apparently a whole other magic valley entirely from Easter Valley) and shares the story (through his MAGIC EGG) of how Peter Cotton Tail just barely defied the odds to become Chief Easter Bunny. See, in this version, there are several Easter Bunnies, like mailmen. But there can be only ONE Master Chief, he who proves his worthiness, his valor, and his ability to single-handledly decimate the evil alien hordes.

Peter's a smart alleck, a liar, and a lay about. What a hero, eh? But somehow he finds within him the strength to rise above it and defeat his arch nemesis, the evil IRONTAIL. He wins the day, and in the end befriends Irontail, who returns the gesture by making a six course meal using a pack of bacon, three celery sticks, and a wok.

5) Nestor the Long-eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

Now here's a twist, a Rankin Christmas special that actually has something to do with Christmas. Unfortunately, it's also, at least in spirit, a huge rip-off of Rudolph.

Nestor's a donkey with gigantic ears who is well-versed in the life of a stable animal. But the other animals feel he doesn't deserve the warmth of shelter because of his ears. They decide they won't let him play any stable games and kick him to the curb.

But then, freezing and near death, Nestor meets Tilly, an angel who tells him to fear not, for he's about to embark on an adventure involving a baby, a star, and two nice people named Joseph and Mary.

Nestor faces hardship, both against the elements and against the dangers pursuing Joseph an Mary. In the end, Tilly tells him he doesn't need the magic feather, and Nestor uses his ears to fly the baby Jesus to safety. It's a touching, original tale.

All kidding aside this one is really cute, and gets ya right in the chest where you wish they wouldn't. I feel like a sap every time I watch it, 'cause I catch myself trying not to cry... I'MSTILLAMANTHOUGH!

6) Jack Frost

I actually loved this one when I was little. It saddens me somewhat that many don't remember it.

As with all Rankin/Bass holiday specials, this one has a special narrator. This time, it's Pardon-Me-Pete, a "wise groundhog" voiced by the ever jovial (and somehow less irritating than usual) Buddy Hackett.

He tells the story of Jack Frost, the elf who brings the winter frost with his magic breath. One day, Jack journeys to January Junction, and instantly falls in love with a girl named Elisa. This love melts his heart and turns him into a normal boy.

But just as he's free to pursue his love, tragedy strikes. Elisa is spirited away by the evil Kubla Kraus the Cossack. Lost for what to do, Jack turns to his elven friends, who help him reclaim his powers so he can do battle with Kraus' evil mechanical henchmen.

In the end, Jack prevails, but is stunned when Elisa rewards his efforts by falling into the arms of her true love, the golden kight. Jack keeps a stiff upper lip, and even attends their wedding.

Again, I loved this one when I was kid, but the ending bugs me now. He should've gotten the girl. A movie spent setting up a rescue and "girl's heart won after great peril" scene where the hero gets dumped on is just wrong, an unsatisfying. It's like a Vacation movie without Cousin Eddie.

7) The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold (1981)

This one boggles the mind. A young cabin boy named Dinty Doyl is sent to an uncharted Irish island in search of a Chistmas tree. During his search, he accidentally frees an evil banshee from her prison.

Now there's only one thing that can keep a banshee alive, and that's leprechaun gold. And she goes right after the most annoying, a short little squirt with the tongue-twisting name of Blarney Kilakilarney (voiced by Art Carney.) Dinty and Blarney (sounds like a nasty canned stew) beseech the help of Patrick, king of the wee folk, to help them protect the gold until Christmas Morning, when the banshee will disappear.

Rankin/Bass were really reaching with this one. I can't speak for anyone else, but when I think of the things that fill me with Christmas Spirit, Lucky Charms aren't one of them. Short of the aforementioned christmas tree hunt and the day the story falls on (Christmas Eve) this show has nothing to do with Chistmas. Nothing. It would be put to better use as an Irish drinking game on St. Patty's Day. Every time something green comes on screen, take a shot!

8) The Ballad of Smokey The Bear (1966)

There's not much I can say about this one, because I've only seen it once, and I was almost too young to remember it. It's basically a big long anti-forest fire special hosted by James Cagney, and tells the story of Smokey The Bear and his forest friends.

For the life of me, I don't know why this was made, unless it was produced under some government grant to teach kids about camping safety. It has little entertainment value, short of getting to hear James Cagney narrate such a sickeningly cute special. This one has yet to be released on video, so your chances of seeing it are slim. But somehow, I doubt the lack of this film being on video will cause the youth of America to turn to forest arson as a means of self-expression.

9) Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters (1972)

This is not to be mistaken with the vastly superior Mad Monster Party, of which this is a prequel of sorts. Done in traditional animation as opposed to its predecessor's animagic goodness, Mad, Mad Monsters is the story of the Frankenstein Monster's impending marriage to his newly created wife-to-be. Baron Von Frankenstein rents out an entire deluxe hotel to hold the festivities. And of course, the monsters take the place over and commence to wreak havoc in the pursuit of fun. Meanwhile, Igor is doing everything in his power to steal "the Monstress" away from Frank. Wacky hijinks ensue.

Enh. Ths has too much of a "monster mash" feel to it. And it's supposed to be a Halloween special, but makes not one mention of Halloween. Not one. There's no trick-or-treaters, no mention of October or Halloween Candy, no guys strolling around in a William Shatner mask, nothing. If the Great Pumpkin himself appeared during the wedding and said "I've FINALLY ARRIVED!" it would still not feel like a Halloween special. Even the old Raggedy Anne and Andy Halloween special was more Halloweeny than this.

10) Willie Mays And The Say Hey Kid (1972)

Like Mad, Mad, Monsters, this one originally aired as a feature on the ABC Saturday Superstar Movie. It stars Willie Mays himself, telling the REAL story behind how he clinched that impossible winning catch that won the Mets the National League Pennant. Apparently, an angel comes to Willie and promises to help the Mets win the pennant if he agrees to adopt a poor homeless girl named Veronica. Willie expresses his love for the child by dressing her in little league uniforms and renaming her Jon Bois.

If this sounds somehow familiar to you, it should. It steals its story completely from a 1951 Paul Douglas baseball comedy called Angels In The Outfield, which itself was remade by Disney in 1994 and starred Danny Glover as the angry, cursing baseball coach of the California Angels (conveniently bought by Disney around the same time) whose young friend Roger (played by a young Third Rock From The Sun star Joseph Gordon-Levvitt) is told by his loser Dad that they'll be a family again "when the Angels win the pennant." Roger prays to God to make this happen, and is then visited by "Al," an angel played by Christopher Lloyd (and oddly, one of my favorite Lloyd performances.) In the end, the Angels win, but Roger's dad doesn't come back. So Danny Glover pulls a Willie and adopts him. Case closed.

11) The Red Baron (1972)

Yet another ABC Saturday Superstar Movie. In this "film" the Red Baron is a famous bi-plane flying schnauzer (insert dogfight joke here) who comes out of retirement to fly again when the princess of Pretzelheim is kidnapped by the evil feline Putzi, a minion of the dark feline overlord, the evil Catahari.

Why was this made? Who thought it was a good idea for animals to be flying around committing acts of derring do? I tell ya, it's got my brain in a tail spin.

12) The Easter Bunny Is Comin' To Town (1977)

Rankin/Bass apparently decided that if a story's worth telling, it's worth telling three times. Fred Astaire reprises his role as the friendly mailman narrator from Santas Claus Is Coming To Town to tell the tale of Sunny, the friendly rabbit who one day grows up to be the Easter Bunny. This one follows the formula of its Santa predecessor to the note, explaining each Easter tradition and where it comes from.

With two other Easter specials already under their belt (and with one having been released just the year before) it's hard to understand why this was even made. It's my personal favorite of the three, but still was somewhat useless, considering that Peter Cotton Tail had already served well as an Easter Bunny origin story. I can name a thousand sequels that never should have been made (2010, Staying Alive, Inspector Gadget 2, every Disney direct-to-video film in the past ten years) and this is one of them. More entertaining than your average useless sequel by far, but useless nonetheless. This was a well they visited two times too many.

13) The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976)

Another sequel, and while mildly charming, equally useless. This one picks up right where the original left off. One of the wise men takes a liking to the kid's percussion skills and asks him to go see his friend Simeon, a bell maker who's been making bells of pure silver to celebrate Christ's birth.

But alas, poor Simeon spent all his money on the bells and can't pay his taxes.
So an evil, singing and dancing tax collector (what would the world be like if they all did that?) comes and takes his bells away. It's up to "the little drummer who could" to get them back!

Structurewise, this special is an episode of the Incredible Hulk, or the A-Team: Wandering hero comes to a small town to help a guy out against the government muscle. It has nothing to do with Christmas and seems like 23 minutes of deleted scenes from the first film. And it didn't help matters that they play The Little Drummer Boy 137 times in 23 minutes, but never play Silver Bells, when it's the focus of the whole darn story! Would YOU make a Lone Ranger movie without the William Tell Overture? I think not.

...Only notable because it's the only Christmas special to ever preach the message that God thinks it's okay to cheat on your taxes.

15) The First Christmas (1974)

This is quite possibly the most boring of the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. I fall asleep through it every time it comes on. I can't imagine why any current generation kid would sit through it.

Essentially, this is one huge heart-string puller. Lucas is a shepherd who was blinded by a bolt of lightning when he was little. Apparently his parents want nothing to do with raising a blind kid, so he's out on his own. He's finally taken in by the nuns of a nearby nunnery (for all your nunnery needs.)

Lucas's favorite (and surrogate mother) is Sister Catherine, played by Angela Lansbury. After failing to describe to Lucas what snow looks like, the nuns decide to have Lucas play an angel in the annual Christmas pageant. Yeah, made sense to me too.

That night, out of the blue, it begins to snow, and the snow falls down on the face of young Lucas, returning his sight to him in a Chistmas miracle.

So they're celebrating their annual Christmas pageant. An they tell this blind kid all about Christmas, and why he's going to play an angel... an angel who witnesses the birth of Christ... which is an old event that happened in the PAST(.com)...

So how in the hell is it the first Christmas? First VISIBLE Christmas, maybe... I'm just sayin'...

16) The Enchanted World Of Danny Kaye: The Emperor's New Clothes (1972)

This one is set apart from the other specials in that the host is filmed live, rather than providing the voice of an animated character. Danny Kaye appears, surronded by children in a rather Jacksonesque scene, and introduces us to the plot of the familiar tale, albeit with the usual Rankin/Bass tongue-in-cheek twists.

The Emperor Klockenblocker of the land of Bibbentucker (you can't imagine how much I hated typing that) sees himself as the snappiest dressed man alive. So he offers a reward of a million grinklens to a tailor who can make for him a suit worthy of his majesty.

Two down on their luckers named Musty and Marmaduke become tailors overnight trying to win the contest. Danny Kaye plays Marmaduke, and shares the story of how the Emperor is flim flammed into believing he's been made a special suit when in fact he's walking around bare ass naked.

Which is really what makes this special historically significant. It features the first and only fully nude Rankin/Bass character, strolling through town with his animagic butt visible for all the world to see. This alone makes it worth the watch, as it's a moment all too surreal to accurately describe.

17) The Mad Monster Party (1968)

The original monster film, done in gloriously glitchy "animagic." It's the story of The Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Frankenstein, and th Invisible Man (now there's an animation challenge!) and their zany misadventures.

Starring the voices of the unlikely duo of Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller, the story begins with good old Baron Von Frankenstein discovering the secret of ultimate doom. So of course, he decides to retire (???) as the president of the WWOM (World Wide Organization of Monsters.)

He chooses his human nephew Felix to replace him, and the baddies are pissed about it. Felix quickly demures, choosing not to carry on the proud family name, but that doesn't stop the idiot monsters from trying to stop him just the same (and double-crossing each other at every given opportunity.)

Now this one I can live with. It has a nice dark and dreary look, and the humor peaks juuuuust enough into the adult level to be enjoyed by parents as their kids laugh at the corny jokes and Three Stooges style shenanigans... Don't worry, parents... Diller's the only scary component of this show.

18) Pinnochio's Christmas (1980)

Pinnochio is havin his first Chistmas, and couldn't be more excited. He wants to get something special for Gipetto, so he joins a local puppet show to try and make some fast cash. He fails miserably, but does meet his first and one true love, a lifeless puppet named Julietta. So Pinnochio does the right thing and... steals her out from under the puppeteer's nose, and flees to the forest of enchantment hoping the magic there will bring her to life. All the while, Gipetto sits at home, thinking his son is dead.

Then, the Blue Fairy appears and makes Julietta a "REAL GIRL!" and the two of them return hope to have a happy Christmas with Gipetto, who doesn't seem at all angry over having been made to worry sick for days as Pinnochio frollicked around in the snow-covered forest with a nicely painted hunk of lumber.

Rankin and Bass must've been at the bottom of their barrel here, having revived their Pinnochio character from the 60's to do a Christmas Special. By 1980, no one remembered the TV show, and hence, no one remembers this special either. And after having seen it, I'd say that's a good thing.

Who would want their kid to see a special that promotes theft, running away from home, and the abandonment of the elderly?

19) Rudolph And Frosty's Christmas In July (1979)

Talk about a forgotten rehash, sheesh!

So the tale goes, the North Pole was once ruled by a fairy named Boreal. She fought constantly against her enemy, the evil wizard Winterbolt. To prevent Winterbolt from defeating Christmas with his evil fog, she casts a spell on the newborn Rudolph, giving him his glowing red nose to guide Santa through the murky night.

Now it's the present. Rudolph and his friend Frosty The Snowman are sent to rescue a failing circus during a special Independence Day performance to raise charity funds. But after all these years, wouldn't you know it? Winterbolt shows up, with plans to ruin Rudolph's nose and steal Frosty's magic hat! What a CAD!

I hate this movie. First of all, Frosty has to be done in "animagic" and it just doesn't look right. Secondly, there are some things that just simply should never be explained, and Rudolph's nose is one of them. The "secret" behind his nose is the Mitichlorians of the Rankin/Bass universe. And I hate them for it. They should've let it be. Which brings us to the most obscure, and arguably worst Rankin/Bass special of all:

20) The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus (1985)

Wait friends! You thought Santa Claus Is Coming To Town told the whole story of old Kris Kringle? Well you thought WRONG! His name wasn't even Kris Kringle at all! Nor does his gift giving have anything to do with Chistmas OR Christ's birth! Santas Claus isn't even a Christian! Oh no, he's a card-carrying, tree hugging, goddess worshipping PAGAN!

Based on a really BIZARRE story by Frank L. Baum, famous author of the Wizard of Oz books, our story begins in the mystrious Burzee Forest, where the Immortal Gods join to decide the fate of one Santa Claus.

Years before, when he was only a young baby, he was abandoned and found by the great Celtic wizard Ak (who looks for all the world like one of the Knights Who Say NIH!, dressed in a brown robe with antlers sticking out of his head.)

He names the boy Claus, for that is forest-speak for "little one." Gimme a break.

Claus spends his early years under the watchful eyes of the gods and goddesses, raised to know only truth, honesty, and goodness. So Ak takes him on a tour of the outside world, where he learns about treachery, evil, and distrust. With all that evil in the world, he vows to spend his life making children happy by bringing them toys once a year.

And so the story concludes with the gods deciding whether or not Claus has earned the gift of eternal life.

Ugh. To quote Frank Barone, what a pile of new age hippy crap. If it ain't broke, Rankin/Bass, don't fix it. You did the story justice with Santa's Coming To Town. There was no need to mess up the mythology any more by further removing Santa Claus from the holiday he symolizes. This is perfect for the adopted daughters of all you lesbian Wiccan couples out there. Otherwise, avoid this awful assault on the spirit of Christmas at all costs.

Most of these are avilable on video, which some might consider more of a curse than a blessing. But look at it this way. My personal favorite as a child was an animated special called "The Night The Animals Talked." But because it directly deals with Christ, it's deemed politically incorrect these days, and is never shown. Bootleg is the only way to see it.

Sure, these may not be the classics of your childhood. But they each hold a little special magic, a piece of a simpler time. Nowadays, Rankin and Bass are remaking their specials using a form of CGI that "mimics" the animagic look. The first was called "Rudolph And The Island Of Misfit Toys." I bought it at Sears last year for five bucks thinking, like a million other duped people, that it was the original. Instead, it's a sequel of sorts where an evil creature is gobbling up toys across the globe. Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius, Clarice, Hermey, and the old Bumble himself rush to save the toys, and save Christmas. All the voices are sound-a-likes, some done by "celebrity" actors like Jamie Lee Curtis. It's production value is somewhere below Toy Story and above Jimmy Neutron. It's sharp, and clean, and crisp, exactly how I don't want it. Again, stick to what works. Don't take the magic out of Chistmas magic. If I wanna see CGI reindeer, I'll go see the Polar Express.

Could be worse though. At least they never made a Thundercats Christmas spe... wait a sec, better run a google search...


...Nope, we're safe.

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