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Holiday memories: Looking back at Rankin/Bass

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The day after Thanksgiving, the American holiday season begins. Some string up Christmas lights, while others whip out their credit cards. Some finally cue up that radio station that’s been playing holiday standards since October. And some watch Christmas movies. 

I’ll confess myself a member of the latter group. My family’s annual Rankin/Bass movie marathon began during my formative years, and was repeated with the sort of regularity usually reserved for doctor’s visits. 

My poor developing psyche never had a chance. 

If you were an American kid in the '70s or '80s, the airing of “Rudolph” or “Frosty” on cable was a once-a-year event, something you’d talk about at school the day before and maybe the day after too. The magic was lost for millennials, who saw the movies circulated on network TV until they were stale. Still, they’ve remained culturally omnipresent. Even most kids of the internet generation are familiar with Rudolph and Frosty. 

Rankin/Bass was the American production company behind Rudolph, and Frosty, and a host of other holiday standbys. Their signature “Animagic” technique, executed by a team of Japanese animators, created lush, three-dimensional worlds, while their voice casts were a veritable snowstorm of celebrities - Mickey Rooney, Danny Kaye, Fred Astaire.

Rankin/Bass specials are memorable. Not for any particular originality - though one could make an argument - but because they are really good at targeting the weird plasticity of a child’s brain. Watch these movies at age eight and you’ll never forget about Burgermeister Meisterburger. Snow Miser and Heat Miser are etched onto your soul. There are tens of thousands of Americans going around with a sardonic ice demon somewhere in their heads. One enjoys the thought.

Still, most people aren’t aware of the sheer scope of the Rankin/Bass canon. Which is a shame, as it contains many lesser-known gems.

Take 1979’s “Jack Frost,” in which Jack (voiced by Robert Morse) falls in love with a mortal woman. To woo her, Father Winter allows Jack to become human, but there’s a caveat - Jack has to obtain a house, a horse and a bag of gold and marry his wife before the first day of spring. That’s not so easy when the evil Kubla Kraus is terrorizing the residents of January Junction. Meanwhile, there’s an inexplicable Groundhog Day theme going on, with Buddy Hackett narrating the special as a singing, waistcoated woodchuck. And so forth. I can assure you that this one is as odd as it sounds, but it WORKS. It’s worth a watch just for the bittersweet ending, strangely mature for a kids’ film. 

If you’re brave enough for a real deep dive into unadulterated Rankin/Bass weirdness, check out “The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold,” a 1981 St. Patrick’s Day crossover that, in the spirit of the holiday, only really makes sense if you watch it completely hammered. Rankin/Bass also produced a 1985 adaptation of an L. Frank Baum story, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus,” which is high fantastical and horrifying. (To its credit, the animation is stunning; they’d had lots of time to hone their craft.)

A disclaimer: these movies lean hard into stereotypes that will make modern viewers sweat a bit. For instance, the way Arabs are depicted in “Little Drummer Boy” is, at best, off-putting. Not to mention all the issues with “Rudolph.” When I watched the movie as a kid, I’m not sure how much misogyny I internalized, but suffice it to say that if a GIRL deer was born in Christmastown with a deformed schnozz, Santa would have cut it off. 

Look, I’m not here to cancel Rankin/Bass. Offhanded discrimination in American media was once par for the course, and these stereotypes aren’t in a malicious spirit. Perhaps, in a backwards way, it’s a lesson in tolerance; even as we turn an appraising eye to these movies - and we should - we can appreciate the goodness in them.

And there is certainly plenty of goodness to be found. Rankin/Bass manages to deliver worthwhile messages without soapboxing. Instead, we get Mickey Rooney singing about “putting one foot in front of the other,” because “you never will get where you're going, if you never get up on your feet.” It’s a tune to hum when your to-do list seems insurmountable, and, I’d say, not such a bad thing to teach the youth.

Is it strange to proselytize about the moral value of films that were created in order to sell ad-spots during the commercial breaks? Maybe. But I like to think that commercialism and good intentions can coexist. Forget about the capitalist backstory for half an hour and take these movies for what they are - happy little films with great animation, great music ... and maybe a life lesson or two. 

The real value isn’t in the movie, anyway. It’s in the memory of being seven years old, pajama-clad, watching the animated snow fall onscreen and hearing the quiet voices of your parents in the kitchen. That’s the value.

That’s the magic.

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 December 2021 07:56

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