Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Probably the quintessential Christmas classic. Rankin/Bass hitting on all cylinders here: memorable characters, songs, animation, a moral, and a story that actually makes some sense in the end. If you watch it objectively it truly is weird, but it’s agreeably weird. The difference between this and some of the other Rankin/Bass specials that aren’t good is subtle. It seems like their strategy was to have a kind of silly adventure story where a strange character eventually finds acceptance and redemption. They throw a lot of crazy ideas and situations in the protagonist’s way, and sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s just odd. I think the difference between when it works and when it doesn’t is simple: humor and good characters. Rudolph’s friends are:
- Hermie the Elf, who doesn’t want to make toys but wants to be a dentist (further: they meet when Rudolph sits on a snowbank that Hermie is apparently just hanging out in)
- Yukon Cornelius, a prospector with a sled team comprised of random dog breeds like poodles and dachsunds, and who determines if there are valuable minerals around by licking his pickaxe, and who never actually finds any minerals (he is apparently outwitted by a squirrel for the only gold nugget shown)
- A bunch of misfit toys like a Charlie in the Box.
Somehow it’s all funny and amusing. Some other Rankin/Bass entries like Nestor The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey aren’t funny. Rankin/Bass are actually quite funny but not so effective at drama. I mean, it’s not like we didn’t know how things would turn out for Rudolph. So it’s that factor, or it’s just whatever you see as a kid you will like and everything else is bad. Overall: you don’t need me to tell you this is one of the best Christmas specials ever.
Compare another Rankin/Bass entry, Jack Frost. I’d never seen this one, and I never quite bought into it. Possibly because it’s not funny enough. Because unlike Rudolph, we don’t know where this is going. So: Jack Frost is the invisible personification of a magical elf that starts winter, and it turns out he’s part of a whole frosty crew. There is Father Winter, who is the boss, and Snip the snowflake maker and a host of other laborers who produce winter, ostensibly by hand. It’s amazingly inefficient and you wonder how winter ever happens. Anyway, the story revolves around an Eastern European village where a beautiful girl enchants Jack by saying how much she loves winter and Jack Frost, but more the concept than the actual dude. (Understandable: I have had more than one ex-girlfriend with the same feelings towards me.) Jack takes this literally and asks Father Winter to make him human so he can meet her. For some reason Father Winter OKs this provided Jack obtain a wife, a house, a horse, and a bag of gold to make his being human official. These rules are not explained more but I went along with it. In the end the story actually comes around in an interesting way. I liked it, actually. It didn’t end as I expected and there are some lessons about relationships that make sense. Though I did have an issue with Father Winter’s powers. At one point Jack gets trapped and things aren’t looking good. So, he just bails on the whole human thing and asks Father Winter to let him come back, which is done. Then a bit later he has a good opportunity to be human again, so Father Winter lets him right back down there with the same conditions as before. I think this is a classic example of drama having no stakes. It’s like Jack has a reset button that brings him back to a convenient save point. Two other thoughts: there is a sort of unnecessary framing story about Pardon-Me Pete, the Groundhog charged with overseeing whether winter comes. It’s a little tacked on but I liked it anyway. And: there were a lot of characters in this with goofy voices, namely Jack. I know goofy voices are fun, but not all animated characters need squeaky goofy voices, please. Overall: Fun, worth a watch. Not a classic but worth the time.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
This is my all-time favorite Christmas special. It’s got everything: muppets, good songs, humor, a good story. It’s about Emmet and his Ma, a couple of poor river animals working to get by in the wake of the passing of Pa, still an inspiration to both of them. Unbeknownst to each other, they both enter a town talent contest in an effort to win some money to buy each other Christmas presents. Further, they both risk a lot to make it happen, giving up some of their few valuable possessions to make their entry work. I won’t give away the ending but things work out because they are good souls, in true muppet fashion. The characters are really memorable, such as The Nightmare, the hard rock band from River Bottom, who steal the show in the talent contest. I kind of wish they weren’t so awesome because they’re actually total punks. Hmph. Typical celebrity attitude, I guess. I also like the mysterious Pa. We know only that he died and was a snake oil salesman. But Emmet and Ma constantly use his example to seize the day. They clearly miss his presence, although we must wonder if his recklessness is the reason he’s not around anymore. To be objective, it doesn’t sound like Pa always made altogether great decisions. Anyway, this special ultimately really works because it creates a completely believable fictional world the animals live in, but it has some of the same problems as ours: the rich, privileged, and uncaring generally get what they want and the poor and humble do not. But it’s not all sad, it’s funny and there are fantastic songs. Overall: my favorite Christmas show, and a yearly watch.