It was an annual ritual, as predictable and important as decorating the tree or wrapping the presents.
We’d scan the TV section of the newspaper, hoping that that night one of the holiday specials was on. Every year my brothers and I would look forward to these specials, and we probably watched them well into our teens (and occasionally in college, if my smoke-filled memory serves me right). They were a part of our holiday traditions that were never sullied by poor weather or family chaos…a dependable and iconic touchstone of the season.
71ORu93aaTL._AA1500_ We all look back fondly at the pre-Carrey Grinch and the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. But nothing littered the television Christmascape like the Rankin-Bass specials. Every year there would be a new animated special, introducing such diverse characters as the Brothers Miser (Heat and Cold), Jack Frost, and Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. And now their tributes to the unholy trinity of holiday characters–Santa, Frosty, and Rudolph–are available in sparkling Blu-Ray.
It’s a nice, focused package, containing Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rheindeer, and a double-feature of Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns. Unlike the regular DVD set of the same name, no one is pretending that Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol or Cricket on the Hearth are anything close to “classic” and forcing us to pay for them, too. I hadn’t seen these in well over a decade, so I sat down with my five-year old daughter to see if they still held up to my memories of them.
First up was Frosty, the only hand-drawn show in the bunch. Narrated by a comically over-sized nose voiced by Jimmy Durante, the story awkwardly sets up a scenario in which a magic hat comes into the possession of some school children. The hat belongs to a nasty magician who “throws it away” only to want it back when he discovers that it’s magical enough to animate frozen water. A confusing and unconvincing argument ensues which should never be used to educate children on the difference between finding and stealing. But nonetheless the hat stays on the snowman, who immediately wakes and starts musing on the nature of his existence in a way that would make Philosoraptor proud.
The rest of the story is a quest to get Frosty to the North Pole so he’ll never melt, which once started is simple and sweet. He travels with the little girl who found the hat, which gives the story an immediacy that the other shows don’t have; instead of being a pure fable, a kid could imagine that he or she might find a hat and wake a snowman themselves.
One warning, though: in a scene which I vividly remember from my youth, Frosty actually does melt, and Santa discovers the little girl crying over a puddle that was once her friend. Although of course he’s going to come back it’s a very sad moment, so if you have a sensitive child (like, say, the one sitting next to me) be prepared for some serious reassurance. And don’t let them see you cry.
Next up was Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which takes a valiant stab at an origin story for Santa Claus. Having been bit by a radioactive spider orphaned on a doorstep of some toy-making elves, he grows up into a ginger John Denver who becomes a local hero to the children of Sombertown. Apparently the grouchy Mayor Burgermeister Meisterburger has been rounding up all the Jews toys and burning them out of a vengeful hatred of all things he can trip on. Santa devises a number of tricks to get toys to the children which are cleverly used to explain Christmas mythology, like how he knows if you’re naughty or nice and why you hanging stockings by the fireplace.
In fact, my favorite part of this show was how well so many answers to questions are woven into the story. Why is he called both Kris Kringle and Santa Claus? Why does he live at the North Pole? Where did Mrs. Claus come from? It’s a pretty complete fictional history that gives a gentle, barely-perceptible nod to that whole birth-of-Jesus thing while delicately sidestepping it. Unfortunately, it also suffers from some mediocre musical interludes and uneven animation, which are distracting for those of us who know better. But my daughter now firmly believes that Santa can see when she’s being naughty with his magic snow ball, which is handy when I need her to adjust her attitude or behavior. That alone justifies the price.
Bumble1 The crown jewel of the set, without a doubt, is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This truly is the original Christmas classic, having aired for the first time in 1964. The craft and attention to detail are amazing, and it’s the most seamlessly entertaining of the bunch. The characters are all memorable and well-developed (Hermey the Misfit Elf! Clarice! Yukon Cornelius!) and the songs are as catchy and fun as you remember them.
I don’t know if it’s the simplicity of the era or the limitations of stop-motion, but there’s real purity and joy to the animation. No one is trying to show off with 3D shading, fancy jump-cuts or post-ironic banter. It’s not trying to be too clever; it just wants to tell a good story with interesting characters.
I guess that’s why these are classics.
So why would you want these on Blu-ray? Good question. This isn’t Blade Runner; it’s not like we’ve been missing any details because our stupid old TVs couldn’t adequately display a toy reindeer. In fact, like porn, too much detail can expose you to things you might not want to see. The colors are vibrant, but probably no more vibrant than you’d find on a regular DVD. And the package does come with a CD of Christmas songs, but it inexplicably bypasses songs from the shows (“Silver and Gold,” anyone?). I guess if you’re the kind of person who needs to have the best quality whether you notice it or not, and who is willing to spend an extra $15 to guarantee it, then this is the set for you.
Regardless, if you don’t own these by now it’s time to do your kids (and yourselves) a favor and get them. The whole family can enjoy them, and unlike, say, The Christmas Shoes or anything starring Gilly you won’t want to blow your brainst out afterwards.