You know Rudolph and Frosty and Santa and Nestor . . . wait, Nestor? Between 1960 and 1987, Rankin/Bass Productions Inc. put together classic seasonal specials, many of which were powered by stop-motion techniques (called Animagic), catchy songs, and out-of-the-box imagination. Some are perennial favorites and some…like Nestor…have developed a more “niche” following. With all due respect to immortal perennial Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, here’s a look at a few of the more offbeat stand-outs from the Rankin/Bass library.
1. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
Based on the book of the same name by Oz creator L. Frank Baum, this special digs deep into myths and folklore for a new origin of Santa Claus (different than origins presented in other R/B specials). A council of immortals debates whether or not to grant Santa immortality as they examine his life story, which is, frankly, nuts. Santa is raised by a lioness, befriends magical creatures, and staves off what are essentially goblins and demons responsible for making good children do bad things. It’s bursting with creativity, but just not as well-known as the so-called Animagic Big Four (Rudolph, The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus).
2. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)
A heart-tugging story about bullying with a theme song by country legend Roger Miller, Nestor relates the tale of the titular donkey as he endures abuse over his long ears. Through a series of heart-breaking circumstances, Nestor is left alone in the desert until a little angel finds him and tells him that his long ears will actually be instrumental in saving a life. Nestor soon finds himself transporting a very special pregnant lady to a town called Bethlehem. Be warned; Nestor is weaponized to take your tears.
3. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)
1976 was the Bicentennial, so maybe it seemed liked the perfect time to add a New Year’s-centric installment to the R/B holiday canon. Rudolph (voiced by Billie Mae Richards) undertakes a mission for Father Time, since the reindeer is apparently Santa’s special agent. The New Year’s Baby, Happy, mocked for his big ears, has run away, and the calendar can’t turn without him. Even worse: the baby is being pursued by a giant bird named Eon that wants to prevent the New Year so that it can live forever. Along the way, Rudolph teams with characters that are emblematic of past years, including Benjamin Franklin, a knight, and a caveman. While’s it good weird fun, it’s probably most fondly remembered for the scene in which Rudolph tries to comfort Happy by telling the baby about his own history with bullying, including a new hand-drawn animated origin sequence set to “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
4. Jack Frost (1979)
Whereas Jack Frost was something of an antagonist-turned-ally in the traditionally animated Frosty’s Winter Wonderland from 1976, here he gets a full semi-tragic origin story. Jack falls in love with a human girl and petitions Father Winter for humanity. Father Winter suggests a rather arbitrary list for Jack to prove that he can cut it as a human, telling him that he needs to have a horse, a house, a bag of gold, and his wife by spring. This is all complicated by an evil king with a clockwork army and the fact that Elisa already loves someone else. This has a slightly more complicated plot and action that other specials, and it’s definitely bittersweet in the love story department.
5. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979)
40 years before Avengers: Endgame, we got an ambitious franchise crossover of the Animagic variety that adds layers to Rudolph’s backstory while bringing back characters and voice actors from a number of specials. Frosty and Crystal (his snow-wife) make the jump from hand-drawn animation to Animagic, voiced by Jackie Vernon and Shelly Winters. Mickey Rooney is Santa, reprising his role from Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus. The story also features Mrs. Claus, Big Ben the Clockwork Whale (from Shiny New Year), Donner, an evil reindeer named Scratcher, and a circus in peril. That’s all on top of another plot involving Winterbolt, a wizard that wants to reclaim the North Pole, as he possessed it before Santa; however, he had been thwarted by Lady Boreal, Queen of the Northern Lights, who put the last of her power and the key to defeating Winterbolt in a secret place: the nose of infant Rudolph. It is all gloriously, weirdly crazy, with Rudolph learning that his power is tied directly to whether he does good or evil and a long-game plot by the bad guys that allows last-minute heroics by another crossover character, Jack Frost.
In a way, this barely scratches the surface of the kind of fare that Rankin/Bass offered. They spent decades regularly churning out one-off classics like ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, interesting takes of familiar material with Return to Oz, live-action gender-flipped takes on literary adaptations (The Sins of Dorian Gray), and even SNL characters (1983’s animated The Coneheads). Rankin/Bass didn’t really have any genre boundaries, and were willing to dive into whatever expression of filmic media suited the story that they wanted to tell. While a number of their concepts live on, nothing seems to have the staying power of cultural impact of their holiday specials. When you throw out the rule book and become your own seasonal institution, then you’ve achieved a kind of immortality that’s well beyond kids’ programming. That’s genuine Christmas magic.
Featured image: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo
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