Friday, December 20, 2013

Childhood Memories: Christmas Specials

Well folks, it's almost Christmas already! Seems like just awhile back I was in the midst of my big Halloween celebration, and now it's almost Santa time. As part of my month-long Halloween theme, I wrote an article about great Halloween TV specials that I remember from my childhood. So to follow that up, I thought I'd do a bit of the same for Christmas TV specials, as lord knows there's a lot of great ones. Arguably the king of Christmas specials, and certainly the most prolific, was a company called Rankin/Bass Productions, who from the 60s through the 80s, churned out tv specials of all kinds, from Christmas to Easter to Halloween, as well as many non-holiday productions. Their two main mediums used, were traditional cell animation, and stop-motion animation, which they proliferated on television to the same degree that Ray Harryhausen did theatrical films. I'll surely give Rankin/Bass their own dedicated article at some point, and might even dedicate a few solo articles to their works, they were awesome. But simply put, you cannot talk about Christmas TV specials without talking about R/B.

Without further adieu, let's get rolling!

"You might even say it glows!"

Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Really the first major animated Christmas special, and arguably in many ways still the best, this now perennial classic was also Rankin/Bass' first major production. Based on a 1939 song that has been a hugely popular American holiday staple ever since, this hour-long animated musical is about as good as it gets when it comes to "Christmas-y goodness". Narrated by singer Burl Ives (who also contributed his own version of the titular song, as well as couple of his other great holiday hits), Ives voices the character of the gentlemanly Sam the Snowman, who happens to sport Ives' trademark mustache and goatee. The movie has everything Christmas you could want to be represented, from Santa and Mrs. Claus, to a snowman, to all of the famous named Reindeer (including Donner, Rudolf''s father), to singing elves, cute woodland creatures, great Christmas carols, and more.

Literally Burl Ives in snowman form.

Part of the "and more" is what makes the special so, well.....SPECIAL, that being the many Rankin/Bass characters and elements  they threw in to spice up the story. They could've easily phoned it in, just had the story be simple and straight up, only telling of Rudolph's nose troubles, and then how he helps (SPOILERS) save Christmas. Throw in some songs, and it still would have been hugely popular. But as was the typical Rankin/Bass way, they went the extra mile, and stuffed an hour-long tv special full of characters and spectacles that were pure garnish, but GREAT garnish. For example, Rudolph's first real friend, a fellow North Pole outcast, an elf by the name of Hermie, who isn't satisfied with just making toys and practicing jolliness. Instead, he's fascinated by teeth and wants to be a dentist, which in and of itself is already entertaining and hilarious, but it plays to great effect throughout the show. Hermie runs away with Rudolph, and during their adventures they meet other great, colorful characters along the way, such as a personal favorite of mine, a gold prospector named Yukon Cornelius, a loud and boisterous but friendly fellow who winds up helping the kids out in their travels, even though his main ambition is to find silver and gold and strike it rich. A recurring gag throughout the special involves ol' Yukon randomly throwing his pickaxe into the air, pulling it out of the ice where it landed and licking it to check for riches, only to grumble "Nothin".

The magical king of Misfit Island, Moonracer the winged lion.

Another great and fantastical element added to the mix, comes in during their travels. After they pal up with Yukon, they find their way to a mysterious island called the "Island of Misfit Toys", where unwanted or "defective" toys go to live, ruled over by the magical flying lion named King Moonracer (pretty awesome name). It resonates on a recurring theme throughout the special, with Rudolph, Hermie, and even to some degree Yukon all being misfits themselves, and they feel for the poor toys, so in return for their help, they promise the toys that they'll have Santa deliver them to kids who would be happy to have them. Just an oddball addition, that might seem a throwaway kind of thing for other productions, but again, Rankin/Bass make it work, and it all just feels right.


Last but not least, of course, is the closest thing the story has to a "villain", that being the Abominable Snow Monster of the North, nicknamed "Old Bumble" by Yukon for short. He is the scary monster who spends much of the story chasing after Rudolf and company after they are on the run. A huge, fuzzy white yeti creature, he'd be terrifying if he wasn't so damn adorable. He seems like a horrible, merciless beast, but late in the story, after a final confrontation where the heroes manage to get the best of ol' "Bumble" and Hermie takes the poor thing's teeth, making it less dangerous, by the end he comes with them back to Santa's Village and as you can see, helps them decorate the tree. Which, while silly, is also admittedly in keeping with the spirit of of the holiday, so even the "bad guy" winds up enjoying Christmas with everyone else. Naturally, Rudolph, who becomes all grown up during the time he was away, comes back during the worst blizzard of the century, to help Santa and the other reindeer make their deliveries with the help of his glowing nose.

All in all, it's a great little movie, full of charm and wit and creativity, and even though it gets shown every year on TV, it's still an absolute classic, and it's hard not to get a smile on your face when seeing it again. Rankin/Bass made many other Christmas themed specials, even two more featuring Rudolph, but their first is arguably still their masterpiece. It also happens to be the first Christmas television special I remember, as I clearly remember having seen it even before my pre-school class, and I still love it to this day.

What a holly, jolly soul.

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

A great, if not the best example of Rankin/Bass' more traditionally animated cartoon style specials, 1969's "Frosty the Snowman" is in it's own way just as much a perennial classic as their Rudolph special. Only a half-hour special, it doesn't have quite the same amount of variety and epic feel as Rudolph, it's more of a small-scale, simple story, but it's effective, and it endures in some ways because of it's simple charm. Narrated by famous big-nosed singer/comedian Jimmy Durante, the story starts with a class of school-kids who are being entertained by what turns out to be a rather crack-pot magician who calls himself "Professor Hinkle". He has a shabby old top hat, which of course he attempts to pull the obligatory white rabbit out of, but his tricks go awry, and his rabbit Hocus Pocus escapes outside with his hat in tow. Meanwhile, the children have built themselves a fine new snowman, complete with a cob-pipe, button nose, and two eyes made out of coal. They even gave him a nice scarf, because obviously snowmen need to keep warm, but they feel he's missing something. And that something happens to be Hinkle's hat, which they put on top of their new creation Frosty's head. And blam, just like that, the hat turns out to actually possess magic after all, as it brings Frosty to life, with his trademark wake-up saying "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" (wishing to himself, one would imagine).

Santa means business!

Seeing this, of course, the Prof gets jealous, and wants his hat back now that it has some real worth. So poor old Frosty, after having a fun parade about town with the kids, discovers that he's beginning to melt, as snowmen often do, so he decides he needs to head north where he can stay solid. One of the kids, a little girl named Karen, accompanies him, and unbeknownst to them, Prof. Hinkle follows them as they hop the train north, waiting for the right moment to get his damn hat back. They get north, things seem dandy, except then Frosty discovers it's too cold for poor Karen, and she's getting sick. So he takes her into a greenhouse that he finds, and wouldn't you know it, Hinkle is right there to lock them inside, so poor Frosty winds up melting after all. The rabbit Hocus went out and found Santa Claus, who Frosty had been hoping could take Karen home, and he comes to find her crying over Frosty's puddle. Santa lets the cold air in the greenhouse, and Frosty comes back to life, and goes to live in the North Pole where he can be cold year round. Never fear, of course, because Frosty will come visit when it's cold right around every Christmas! YAY!

All in all, a good story, a classic special, and one worth watching or sharing with your kids (or household pets!).

The whole gang is here! Jon, and Ma, and Pa, and Granny, and Doc Boy........

A Garfield Christmas (1987)

During the 80s, the Garfield specials and the "Garfield and Friends" show were part of the culture (and a huge part of my childhood), with Lorenzo music as the iconic voice of Garfield (and still to this day THE voice of Garfield as far as I'm concerned). Having already had a successful Halloween special, and later on even having a Thanksgiving special, Garfield tried his hand at the quintessential Christmas special, and at least on a Garfield level (which counts for a lot), it really works. The story features Garfield and Odie being taken by their master, Jon Arbuckle, back to his family farm home where he grew up, to spend Christmas. Garfield, of course, would rather just stay home, but the one person he does resonate with on vacation is Jon's grandma, who seems a tad quiet and lonely for some strange reason, but she absolutely adores Garfield, and he loves her because she dotes on him and cooks him delicious food. While Jon and his brother Doc Boy spend their time getting into brotherly squabbles, Garfield catches Odie sneaking out into the barn, building something mysterious. While there, Garfield decides to explore, and discovers a stack of old letters hidden away. On Christmas morning, after all the presents have been opened, he hands the letters over to Grandma, who brightens up instantly, as they turn out to be love letters from her late husband from when they first met. Having done his good Christmas deed, and learned a little something about the true spirit of the season (not just being about the gifts he loves to get), the special ends with Odie presenting Garfield with his mysterious invention: an automatic back-scratcher. Garfield is, to put it mildly, elated, and even hugs Odie in a rare show of affection.

It's typical Garfield special fare, which means it's great of course. One of the best ones, I'd probably put it right behind the Halloween special and "Garfield and His Nine Lives". It's certainly another worthy classic, and one you need to see, whether it's Christmas-time or not.

"You're a mean one, Mister Grinch....."

How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

I was going to only cover three specials, but honestly, you can't do Christmas specials justice without mentioning this one. An alchemic combination of awesomeness, this cartoon combines the great story and sensibilities of the one and only Dr. Seuss, the animation talents and comedic timing of the one and only Chuck Jones, and narration and the voice of the Grinch himself provided by the one and only cinema legend, Boris Karloff, in one of his final acting appearances before his death. Of course you also have to mention the now timeless singing of voice-over artist Thurl Ravenscroft, who performs "You're a Mean One, Mister Grinch", one of the best songs to ever appear in a cartoon. Ever.

The story in this one is less integral than the total summation of the show's awesomeness, but in a nutshell, The Grinch is a furry green fellow who lives in the mountains outside of Whoville, and he hates how happy and jolly everyone gets on Christmas, because he himself is miserable. He just doesn't get it, and can't stand their incessant caroling and smiling and jollying about, so he decides to take it on himself to end Christmas, by sneaking into town, dressed as Santa Claus, and stealing all the trees, decorations, letters, and presents in the whole town. He even succeeds, a story where the bad guy initially wins, as he makes off unfettered with all their joyous materials, convinced that now they will all be miserable on Christmas just like him. But much to his dismay, even though saddened by their loss, on Christmas Day the Whos gather in the town square together and celebrate anyway, singing and proving the season is about more than just material things. So moved by this surprising turn of events, the Grinch's heart, which was once shrunken two sizes too small, swells three sizes all at once, and he and his dog Max speed back down the mountain and deliver the stolen goodies to the townsfolk. The Grinch learns the true meaning of Christmas, quits being such a jerk, and lives happily ever after. Of course they later made two other Grinch specials where he's back in full-on jerk mode, but let's just say that's not canon!

As a kid, I always loved this show, even though at a very young age I thought that the cartoon Grinch, and Golem from the cartoon version of The Hobbit (also by Rankin/Bass), were one in the same (both green and furry and mean). I still love it to this day, and I think it's amazing that Boris Karloff did such an iconic cartoon voice-over after so many years of scary horror acting. Everything about this cartoon is pretty much perfect, from Jones' iconic animation, to the memorable music, to the witty Seuss writing, to Karloff's signature voice. It's really great, and another of those that deserves it's annual playtime on television. It's a testament to how great a person and creator Seuss was, that a story of his like this could become as well thought of and well recognized as many other, far older stories and fairy tales. Again, as always, if you've somehow been living in a cave your whole life and have never seen "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", skip the 2000s Jim Carey film (even though it's okay), and watch this original adaptation, because you'll be glad you did.

Ol' St. Grinch, to the rescue!

And that's it for this year's Christmas Special tribute! I'll likely cover a few more another year, but that's enough for now. There are certainly many other specials, as well as classic holiday movies, that could easily be talked about. One I will mention, because I'm not gonna do an article on it, is the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story". I don't HATE the film, it's okay, it's well made, and I recognize it for it's classic status. But at the same time, it also kind of annoys the shit out of me, because they play it on TV every year, not once, but repeatedly, right around Christmas. To me, that's just too damn much, and the movie wore thin on me years and years ago. But, enough about that.

Happy Holidays to you all, and I'll be back in the New Year with even bigger and better things to come!