This week I’ll be wrapping up this series on Christmas TV specials by looking at four classics that are practically guaranteed to make anybody feel like a kid again. Give them a view this week and get into the jingle mood!
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (1964)
About ten or twelve years ago, one of my wife’s relatives had temporary custody (long story) of a young child who looked exactly like Hermey the elf. No exaggeration. Exactly like him. Hermey in human form. Iused to talk to him about what he wanted to be when he grew up and try to talk up the field of dentistry. I think about him this time of year and wonder if it stuck. I really, really hope so.
Rudolph the television show was based on Rudolph the song which was based on Rudolph the story written in 1939(!) by Robert L. May. Initially a storybook handed out for free by Montgomery Ward department stores, Rudolph has become an icon of Christmas, and quite a lucrative one, no doubt. Rudolph the song followed ten years later in 1949 and is still sung every year. In 1964, the Rankin/Bass company delivered the stop motion animated classic Rudolph television special, which is arguably his most popular adaptation. Rudolph appeared in cartoons, comic books, View Master reels (remember those?), and scores of other products but it is this special that most people think of whenever the red nosed reindeer is brought up.
Interestingly, the producers of the show didn’t have a copy of the original book when making the show. With only the song as a guide, Rankin/Bass added in a fairly wild original story where after being ridiculed for his shining nose Rudolph runs away from home with Hermey the elf who longs to be a dentist. Along the way they meet up with Yukon Cornelius (my favorite character, hands down) who is digging for gold, er, peppermint, and also hunting the Abominable Snowman because of course he is. Somehow or other the gang winds up on the Island of Misfit Toys (featuring toys such as a Charlie In The Box) before making their way back to the North Pole during a dense fog, prompting Santa to ask Rudolph to use his shiny nose to help guide the sleigh and save Christmas.
Nuts, right? But it works.
The reason it works is because Rudolph is all of us. We all feel like misfits to one degree or another and America loves an underdog story, so when Rudolph saves the day and finally gains acceptance we all cheer him on. Even Hermey and Yukon get accepted back into the community and everybody gets a happy ending. Even the misfit toys get picked up by Santa and delivered to grateful kids, although not originally. The special ends with scenes of Santa and Rudolph delivering toys while the credits roll. However, audiences were not satisfied with the unresolved ending for the misfit toys, so the credits were changed to show Santa delivering them to kids as well.
If you haven’t seen it for a few years, you may be surprised that the first part of the special can be a little difficult to watch, especially when the other reindeer are so cruel to Rudolph (with Santa being, well, oblivious at best) and Hermey gets into trouble with the head elf. However, the high points pull it all together nicely.
Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (1970)
After the success of Rudolph it was only natural the Rankin/Bass made a special featuring the big man himself. While it hasn’t quite attained the classic stature of Rudolph’s show, I think this special is every bit as good if not a little bit better, at least on the technical side. The animators have really improved the stop motion style on this one, and the story is sweeter overall.
This one is a version of the Santa origin story. It details how he fell in with the elves, why he goes by two names (Kris Kringle and Santa Claus), how he fell in love with Jessica, or Mrs. Claus as we know her today, and how and why the whole giving toys at Christmas bit started. The songs are quite catchy in this special as well, if not quite as classic.
It also features voice work by the late great Paul Frees, perhaps the only voice artist to give Mel Blanc a run for his money. Apart from doing voice work in numerous Rankin/Bass productions he worked for Jay Ward productions by voicing Boris Badenov and Inspector Frnwick in Rocky and Bullwinkle, also providing voices in Tom Slick and Super Chicken among others. Frees also narrated The Manchurian Candidate, did multiple voices for Disney projects, and played both John Lennon and George Harrison in The Beatles cartoon. Google his resume, it will knock your socks off. Frees at work is always a treat and he is on full display here.
Okay, so the whole “sit on my lap and give me a kiss a toy” song doesn’t work really well in today’s climate, but that’s not what the writers meant and you know it, now get your mind out of the gutter for cryin’ out loud. Then, sit back and enjoy this big hearted, slightly overlooked and underrated gem.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
What can be said about this one, other than it’s pretty much perfect? With a story by Dr. Seuss, narration by the great Boris Karloff, and wonderful animation directed by Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame, you can’t miss.
The first third of the film is actually my favorite part, when The Grinch hatches his evil plan of stealing Christmas from the Whos down in Whoville (in order to stop all the noise they make which, to be fair, as an adult I kinda see his point) and goes about his preparations. The animation is most reminiscent of the Looney Tunes cartoons here and is a treat to watch, especially the interactions between Mr. Grinch and his so-cute-I-can’t-even-deal-with-it dog Max.
Then, of course, he sets his plan into motion. The animators do an excellent job at coming up with clever ways for old Grinchy-poo to go about his business…and then THAT SONG kicks in. Sung with what can only be described as glee by the deep voiced Thurl Ravenscroft (who, with that name should have been like a wizard or something) and the special goes to a whole new level.
After seeing how devious and awful The Grinch can be, especially when lying through his crooked teeth to the adorable Cindy Lou Who, his eventual and, let’s face it, inevitable transformation is rivaled only by that of Ebenezer Scrooge himself. This is a wonderful little cartoon and has definitely earned its place in the pantheon of great Christmas specials. It is also a million times better than the live action movie, don’t even talk to me about it, get outta here with that nonsense. The original is where it’s at!
A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
What is the greatest Christmas special ever made, and why is it A Muppet Family Christmas?
Let me make the case.
There have been many entries in the MCU (Muppets Christmas Universe), but this one tops them all and is a show for the ages. The premise is about as straightforward as you can get. Fozzie Bear has decided to surprise his mother by coming home for Christmas and as a bonus he brings all of his “weirdo showbiz” friends with him to the old farmhouse. Trouble is, Mama (Emily) Bear has planned a Christmas vacation in Malibu and rented out the house. Everyone arrives at Emily’s doorstep at the same time and hilarity ensues. There are a few side plots as well. One features the Swedish Chef attempting to cook the Christmas turkey, which is bothersome for him since the turkey is quite naturally against the idea. Another is the fact that Miss Piggy is running a bit late to get to the farmhouse, and there’s a massive storm coming. There’s also a cute sub plot featuring Fozzie where he finds a new partner for the act.
This is enough to set the stage for a quality Muppet venture, but then Jim Henson and company up the ante by introducing the Sesame Street gang into the mix as carolers, and of course more guests for Mrs. Bear. They also use this opportunity to stage a Christmas pageant which is genuinely hysterical. Watching the characters from both worlds interact is delightful, and it’s filled with meta humor, even though back in the 80’s that wasn’t really a thing. We are also treated to a song from the non-cartoon Muppet Babies via an old home movie, and a version of Jingle Bell Rock by Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem that may well be my favorite version ever.
But wait, there’s more! Remember those would be renters I told you about? Well, they are none other than Doc and Sprocket from Fraggle Rock! Does that mean the Fraggles will make an appearance too? Of course it does, and the original song featured in their segment stays in my head each year until roughly June. Not a complaint.
I’ll be the first to admit that, as much as I love them, Muppet productions can be pretty hit and miss. Not this one. All the jokes land. Every beat is hit. It warms your heart and tickles the funny bone in equal measure. This special is highly quotable, and I never get tired of it.
The thing is though, you’ve got to look for it. Due to all the music involved (and there is a lot), licensing this thing for home use proved to be a nightmare. A version did appear on home video years ago, but due to those licensing issues some of the aforementioned songs, and at least one major scene involving Fozzie wound up being left out. This makes the callbacks to that scene and the resolution of the “double act” plotline ineffective. So in order to watch this production in all its glory, you gotta go to You Tube, and make sure you have selected the “full” special. There is even one option that lets you watch the original broadcast with ads.
This largely unknown special is well worth searching out. It’s a classic around our house, and once you see it, I hope it will be a classic at yours as well.
Okay, that’s the Christmas Specials Round Up for you. I know there are many shows I didn’t touch on, many of them absolutely deserving mention, but I can only do so much. Also, I gotta save something for next year.
Here’s wishing a Merry Christmas to all my readers. Enjoy the happiness and peace of the day.
And if you celebrate other holidays this time of year, I hope they are full of joy and meaning for you as well.
See you next week.