Friday, December 22, 2006

Rankin/Bass and Little Reindeer Christmas specials 

Rankin/Bass Christmas films

Last week, we were surprised to find DVDs of some old Rankin/Bass Christmas films for sale in the Supermarket. Apparently, these are seen regularly in the U.S., but they haven't been on TV (or available otherwise) in Australia for a long time. These old movies bring back memories for a lot of people around my age.

The stop-motion animation is, just as I remember, a joy to watch, and the scripts are quite witty and quirky - often given to the unexpected! My children are pretty much too old to be the intended audience, but seemed to enjoy these in any case.

Rudolph was the first one made (premiering in 1964), and it's already an accomplished effort. In one of the extras on the DVD Arthur Rankin tells of how Johnny Marks, who wrote the song, was a neighbour of his, and he actually wrote a number of other songs for the film. Burl Ives, as narrator Sam the Snowman, performs many of these. Interestingly one song, "We're a Couple of Misfits" was replaced for a period of time, but this release features the original cut. When I heard the album, Island of the Misfit Toys by prog band Timothy Pure a few years ago, I knew the title was familiar for some reason - it's from this film!

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI'm inclined to think that Tim Burton drew much inspiration from these films as well, both in his interest in stop-motion animation and choosing it for A Nightmare Before Christmas, and the realization of grey people and cities contrasting with Santa's bright realm. Given that all stop-motion animators must be very aware of these films, the Penguin in Wallace & Gromit's The Wrong Trousers also owes a huge debt to Topper the Penguin from this film.

In story terms, Santa Claus is probably more successful than Rudolph, which is as it should be, with this coming a few years later. Santa is certainly a nicer character (he's pretty mean in Rudolph) and it's a great relief that a major baddie is converted without having to have his teeth pulled out.

Choosing to tell an etiological (explaining known elements) story, and one that wholly reimagines the origins of Santa, is a great concept! For one thing, the recognition and sense of being in on the jokes works really well for kids. Looking at the red-haired Kris Kringle character I can see why I liked this film as a kid - he looks a lot like me :).

Miss Jessica has to be about the most gorgeous animated puppet ever, though her weirdly psychedelic, cheesily animated solo song (where she lets her hair down) comes on a bit like a lost James Bond theme. All in all, I'm in awe of wooden/fabric puppet animation - all that swapping of face parts and moving figures with such basic inertia in a co-ordinated and endearing way is still remarkable.

Others in the series include The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman (done with line animation).

The Little Reindeer
Photobucket - Video and Image HostingA new Christmas special on TV this year is a half-hour adaptation of Michael Foreman's fine watercolour picture-book, The Little Reindeer.

This book has been a staple classic in our house for some years, though it disappeared elsewhere. While this television adaptation is set in London (the scenes of Santa's sleigh flying over English landmarks recall Raymond Briggs' excellent Father Christmas books), the original book was set in New York. Our copy was a public library book discarded immediately after 9/11, as the Twin Towers feature prominently in a number of pictures. I haven't had a chance to see how this might have been redressed in the reissue (anyone?). In the film adaptation it was nice to see Foreman's team in a sense reclaim this imagery, with a scene of the boy photographing a jet airliner flying over a cityscape of tall buildings.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe television adaptation retains the watercolour textures and exquisite colour choices of Michael Foreman's original illustrations, while preserving the tone of the story. Apart from the addition of a minor bullying subplot it is completely faithful. However, the story is told almost completely without words - just accompanying music and some narration (J. was irritated by some of the recurring musical themes used for characters :)). This one is a nice new addition to the somewhat diminishing roster of Christmas children's shows.

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Without giving away our age heehee, Bearman and I are excited to see Rudolf on your page and miss what Christmas television in Australia used to be! Merry Christmas to thee and yours Ian T.!!!
Merry Christmas to you and your loveones Ian!

Best regards
Raymond Briggs' The Snowman was really popular here in the 90's, I think it was.

Did you never see Santa Claus Is Coming To Town? It's another in this series of stop-motion animation, done by the same people. There's also a Rudolph special for New Year's Eve in which they must find baby New Year...

I also love 'Twas The Night Before Christmas, another animated cartoon, again done by Rankin/Bass I believe, involving the clockmakers, both human and their mouse counter-parts.

Rudolph and Frosty have been staples here this time every year. But to find The Little Drummer Boy, or Nestor the Christmas Donkey, or the others, one must look hard on special cable channels.

Enjoy your dvd!
Thanks, all!

Anonymous, yep, it's a bit of an age giveaway.

Aravis, I'm sorry I didn't make it clearer that I was talking about Santa Claus is Coming to Town in the text. I haven't seen 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, and it's not in this series of releases.

Another film I should recommend - an original vision in both concept and animation - is Olive the Other Reindeer, from a few years ago - excellent!
My favorite was the one with Jerry Stiller as the Heat Miser. If you get a chance, check out Mad TV's "The Reinfather." (as opposed to "Raging Rudolph") Merry Christmas to you & your fam
Tony, I hope you're having a great Christmas! Both those titles are new to me - I don't think they've been shown in Australia, but I'll keep a lookout for them...
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