First to Last is a biweekly column where the pilot episode and series finale of a TV show are examined. This week’s show: Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials.
Despite being an unabashed Grinch, I decided to get in the spirit and write this week’s column about the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve seen them: they’re those old Christmas specials that don’t quite look like any claymation you’ve ever seen. Produced by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass between 1964 and 1985, their work is as much a staple of December television as commercials telling you to go buy more shit.
I began with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), which was readily available on YouTube. Although even if it weren’t, the story is so engrained into the public consciousness that I could have written about it from memory. The tale is hosted/narrated by Burl Ives performing as Sam, a snowman who dresses better than anybody I know and inexplicably carries an umbrella (wouldn’t accumulating more snow only make him stronger?).
If you’re somehow unfamiliar, I’ll give you the gist of the story: Santa Claus’s lead reindeer fathers a son, Rudolph, who is born with a glowing bright red nose, and he is lauded for his unique individuality. Just kidding—it was the 1960s and everybody hated the shit out of him. We soon meet the Abominable Snow Monster, who is hellbent on Christmas genocide. Nonetheless, the young reindeer are more interested in mocking Rudolph. If one of them had called him the n-word, it wouldn’t have felt out of place (again, it was the ‘60s). Rudolph’s parents force him to wear a fake nose, at which point he decides to run away from home with an elf named Hermey.
Hermey didn’t fit in because he wanted to be a dentist instead of a toymaker, and Rudolph, according to Santa, his peers and even his own parents, was a literal piece of shit because of his discolored nose. So they go to the Island of Misfit Toys, which is the North Pole’s version of Hot Topic, where they meet a bunch of mangled, asinine or otherwise undesirable toys. The most troubling of which, by far, is the water pistol that shoots jelly. First off, the water pistol looks just like a real gun, not like the translucent neon-colored water pistols I grew up with. And the jelly, in this context, seems a lot like blood. But what bothers me most is that you could just clean the pistol out and fill it back up with water. This is a perfectly good toy, just accidentally full of jelly! I’m pretty sure this was cut out of later broadcasts, because I don’t remember seeing that as a kid in the ‘90s.
Anyway, Rudolph eventually returns home and… well you know exactly what happens. He guides the sleigh tonight and all that. Everybody knows that. By 1985, though, the Rankin/Bass specials would become less “everybody knows that” and more “wait, what the hell was that?”
Their final special was The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985), and it was an origin story for Santa, but not the origin you would expect. Whereas Rudolph was fittingly hosted by a snowman, The Life and Adventures is helmed by The Great Ak, an immortal forest spirit or… something. He hosts a meeting with the other Immortals to determine whether or not Santa Claus may be made an Immortal. One of the Immortals is a dinosaur. I want to add that the forest isn’t blanketed in snow or anything. It’s branches and leaves as far as the eye can see. Ak decides to sing a song about how the Immortals are banned from having children, and then talks about Santa (specifically, his life and adventures).
Ak finds an abandoned baby Santa Claus in the forest, and puts him with a lion to feed off her milk. It is immediately clear why the Immortals are not allowed to have children. A younger, female Immortal comes and steals the baby from the lion, and brings it home, where Ak immediately tells her that they may keep it. Who imposed the ban on children, and why is getting it repealed as simple as asking for such? That, perhaps, is the least puzzling thing about this special.
During a montage, Santa grows to adolescence, at which point Ak takes him to the mortal world and shows him all it has to offer (knights, samurai and migrant workers, in this case). Seeing how shitty it is for morals, he decides to live among them. After another montage, Santa is old and finally making toys. Before he can give them out when he is attacked by a group of monsters known as Aguas. Rather, he is ambushed and ransacked twelve separate times before The Great Ak decides to get involved. Ak has an ax, but he doesn’t chop anybody with it. Instead, it shoots lasers. Is that weird? That’s probably weird, but you’ll forget all about it by the time the group is attacked by a dragon that looks like it just walked out of a Chinese New Year parade. Anyway, Ak blows a bunch of shit up with his ax, the children get toys, and that’s the story of Santa Claus.
When looking at the two specials, the most plain difference is in the character models. While still cartoony, characters in the 1985 special look much more lifelike than the ones from 1964. In Rudolph, Santa looks like Elmer Fudd, but in Life and Adventures he looks like, well, what you imagine when you think of Santa Claus. He looks like the guy you saw at the mall earlier. Life and Adventures has people made from clay, while Rudolph seems more like cartoon characters made out of clay.
But the biggest difference is that Rudolph is based on a story everybody knows by heart, and Life and Adventures seems like it was written by somebody who never heard of Santa Claus before. It’s like a knock-off action figure at a dollar store: parts of it look vaguely familiar, yet it’s all inherently wrong.
Matt Pass is a writer in New Jersey. Have a suggestion for the next column’s show? Shout it at him on Twitter!