23 December 2012

A Rankin-Bass retrospective, part I

Plot: The story opens in the manner of Citizen Kane: with spinning newspapers whose headlines announce a terrible storm, because there were no bigger news stories in the early ’60s. But fear not, our narrator, Sam the Snowman, assures us that Santa will still be coughing up the presents. In fact, the next scene reveals that the greatest threat to Santa is in fact the monstrous Mrs. Claus, who is intent upon producing arterial sclerosis in the jolly old elf.

Sam introduces us to Rudolph, a reindeer who was born with a 5-watt penlight instead of a nose. Fascist parents Donner and Mrs. Donner are deeply disappointed with their minute-old offspring, as is a grumpy Santa, who nonetheless launches into the stirring “I am old Kris Kringle”.  Meanwhile, Hermey the elf tries in vain to defy his phallicly-nosed boss by becoming a dentist.  “Why am I such a Misfit?” he asks no one in particular. “Such is the life of an elf,” observes Sam, philosophically. In another part of Christmas Town, Rudolph provides a melancholy echo to Hermey’s haunting song. Somewhere in between comes the musical number “We are Santa’s Elves,” but nobody ever remembers that one anyway.

At the Reindeer Games (which are no fun at all), Rudolph’s hides his shame, allowing him to make friends with the spunky Fireball and to put some moves on the coquettish Clarice. He  blows his cover just as Santa arrives. Spurned by the beloved saint, Rudolph is nonetheless encouraged by Clarice’s observation “There’s Always Tomorrow.” Several woodland creatures seem to agree, but just as the two are about to mate, Clarice’s dad intervenes. Hermey appears and the reindeer and elf set out together to seek “Fame and Fortune,” nearly plunging off a cliff to early deaths.

Suddenly, the Abominable Snowmonster of the North appears, snarling, over the mountain tops, in a scene designed to forever scar the collective psyches of a nation’s children. For no apparent reason he allows Hermey and Rudolph to pass unmolested. The duo meet up with the prospector, Yukon Cornelius, the only competent individual in this holiday special. Sam chides Yukon’s avarice—or does he celebrate it?—with the ambivalent ditty “Silver and Gold.” Enter the Snowmonster again, attracted to little red light bulbs. Yukon saves the day with his pickaxe, leading the three to the “Island of Misfit Toys,” a bleak, pale pink land whose denizins spend all day hiding in giftwrap. The loudest of the toys is the whiny Charley-in-the-box, who sends the newcomers to the castle of King Moonraiser, this world’s secular version of Aslan. Moonraiser grudgingly allows the trio to spend the night, but in a fit of altruism, Rudolph sets off on his own to be eaten.

After growing some horns, Rudolph returns to Christmas Town only to find that his mom, dad, and girlfriend have been taken by the Snowmonster to his cave. There the cross-eyed brute drools over them for several weeks, apparently waiting for Rudolph to show up before administering the coup de grace. Rudolph fails miserably in his attempt to rescue them, but Hermey and Yukon save the day by yanking the monster’s teeth out, another scene designed to further terrify. “I’ll light the way,” Rudolph offers as they leave the cave, but no one pays his cry for attention any mind. Yukon torments the defenseless Snowmonster and ends up falling over a cliff, and by now, the shell-shocked viewer has run screaming from the room.

Of course there’s a happy reunion at the end to the tune of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and Yukon and the monster aren’t really dead and  Rudolph, by virtue of his nose, gets to lead Santa’s sleigh, although a pair of headlights seems the more obvious answer.  In the most heartbreaking scene of all, the Misfit Toys weep bitterly about their apparent abandonment. “I haven’t any dreams left to dream,” states the rag doll, who has absolutely nothing wrong with her. But down comes Santa and Rudolph, and off they fly to the tune of Sam’s rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Notes: This was the first Christmas special to be produced by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, and the animation has both the freshness and the funkiness of a maiden effort. The simple felt-covered characters have a tendency to sway wildly and stare blankly ahead, and the sparse, blank sets sometimes make you think you’re watching a frozen Meshes of the Afternoon.

As networks have demanded more commercial time, Rudolph has often been shortened for broadcast. I once saw an airing which cut “I am Old Chris Kringle,” yet confusingly left in Santa’s lead line “You see, Rudolph, every year I polish up my jingle bells...” before jumping to the shot of the jolly man exiting the cave. Donner’s line to the Mrs. when he sets out to find Rudolph—“This is Man’s work”—is also often cut in these more enlightened times.

Santa and Mrs. Claus are nothing like their later Rankin-Bass incarnations, and both seem to be quarrelsome and unpleasant—the Italian mother Mrs. Claus, especially. Santa calls her “Mama,” which leads to some disturbing questions about their sex life.

No comments:

Post a Comment