Monday, December 23, 2019

Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer

One of the most infamous and popular characters in modern Christmas/Holiday folklore, is Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Pretty much all kids hear about him and his story growing up. But the story of Rudolf isn't merely a fun tale centered around Christmas. It's the story of a misfit, an outcast, someone who is different, and thus doesn't fit in with "normal" people. A lot of us can identify with that, which I feel is a huge part of why the Rudolf mythos has remained so strong over the decades.

The legendary song.

Rudolf was born out of the imagination of one Robert Lewis May, in 1939. The department store Montgomery Ward had been giving out coloring books for kids for years, but wanted to save money by releasing their own story, instead of licensing out others. So they hired May to create a coloring book for them, and what he ultimately came up with, was the tale of a misfit reindeer with a shiny red nose. Originally outcast because of his difference from other reindeer, he eventually gets accepted, even celebrated, when his unique nose helps Santa save Christmas.

The book was a huge hit, becoming a repeat seller in later years. It also got turned into a popular song, which most of you are familiar with, originally sung by country-western singer Gene Autry. As insane as it sounds, that record was so popular, that it sold over 25 million copies, and was the second best selling album of all time until sometime in the 1980s (I'm going to imagine it got unseated, perhaps, by Michael Jackson's "Thriller"). The song alone is one of the top "Christmas Songs" people tend to associate with the season, along with other perennials like "Frosty the Snowman", "Silver Bells", "White Christmas", etc.

The original cartoon.

On November 11th, 1948, Max Fleischer released the first ever film adaptation of the Rudolf story. Produced at the time to help advertise Montgomery Ward, it was one of his last major projects, after such a successful earlier career with properties like Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and Superman. This theatrical short, takes more after the original book than the song, in fact the first release didn't even include the song. But it is a great piece of animation, and a faithful, simple telling of Rudolf's story. It's widely available to watch now for free online, as it's in the public domain, and I highly suggest if you've never seen it, dedicating eight minutes of your life to experience what you could rightly call Fleischer's last masterpiece.

The one EVERYONE knows.

The more famous adaptation, of course, wouldn't come until roughly sixteen years later, in 1964. Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass, who had founded the production company called "Videocraft International", later known as Rankin/Bass Productions, were just starting what would be a long and successful career for them as creators of (mostly) television content.As Fate would have it, the project which would become their first major success, would be a new adaptation of the Rudolf story. In point of fact, it would go on to become THE most enduring and popular telling of it.

Different from birth.

Narrated by the great folk music legend Burl Ives, himself known for some great Christmas songs, in the friendly guise of Sam the Snowman, the Rankin/Bass telling was based more around the by-then famous song. Rudolf, born to Santa's lead reindeer, Donner, and his wife, is immediately noticed by his parents for being different. Even Santa, who stops by to see the child, takes note of the "Shiny Nose", and Donner swears he'll grow out of it. Except that poor Rudolf DOESN'T grow out of it, prompting Donner to fashion a silly looking fake black nose, to make his son look "normal".

Meanwhile, Hermy the Elf, a completely new character who doesn't especially love Christmas or making toys like all the rest of Santa's elves do, instead has aspirations to be a dentist. This gains him the ire and derision of his fellow elves, making him a misfit as well. I'll note here, that Hermy also doesn't seem to look like the other elves, outside of being short. Most notably, he has rounded, human-like ears, instead of pointy ones. This is never addressed in the special, but one would imagine his looking different, like Rudolf, would also set him apart.

The dashing young doe, Clarice.

When it comes time for young Rudolf to play in the "Reindeer Games", where they get trained to fly and such, he immediately makes what seems to be a friend, in Fireball, the son of Comet. He also takes notice of a pretty young doe named Clarice, who seems to be the daughter of another of the famous Eight Reindeer who pull Santa's sleigh. He works up the courage to talk to her, and she tells him she thinks he's cute, which sends him leaping off into the air, flying better than any of the other young reindeer. Comet, the coach, is impressed, until Rudolf's nose, after roughhousing with Fireball, is revealed to all. He is, as the song goes, forbidden from playing in any more "Reindeer Games", all because of his looks.

I'd like to take the time to point out that in this special, Santa Claus, a character for whom I have great life-long affection, spends most of his time acting like a stressed out grump. Mrs. Claus spends her time trying to get him to eat, because he's "too skinny" at the time. And Santa, upon seeing Rudolf's nose, which he didn't grow out of, is shown expressing disappointment to Donner, even telling him "you ought to be ashamed". While I love this special, I think the portrayal of Santa is silly, as realistically, this character who is supposed to be the embodiment of jolliness and generosity, would not be so petty and low as to care about, much less shame, Rudolf's odd "malformity". But I digress.

New best friends.

Their savior, Yukon.

After Rudolf runs away, being ridiculously shunned by the other reindeer, Clarice runs after him, telling him she doesn't care about his nose. In fact, she seems to have taken quite a liking to him, though her father shows up, and tells Rudolf in no uncertain terms that "no doe of mine is going to be seen with a red-nosed reindeer!" This is the final straw, and Rudolf, after a chance meeting with the equally shunned Hermy the Elf, decides that together, they are going to run away, since they're not wanted.

This leads them out into the frozen wastes of the North Pole, and they find themselves having to hide Rudolf's nose in a snowstorm, lest they be seen, and presumably eaten, by the Monster of the North, the Abominable Snowman. Somehow surviving the night, even though they clearly have no idea what they're doing, their fortunes change when run across a new friend, a human named Yukon Cornelius, who has traveled so far north with his sled-dogs, in search of Silver and Gold. Ol' Yukon shows them the ropes, and helps them to survive, though they run afoul of "Old Bumble" once more, causing them to flee on an ice drift.

The Bumble.

King Moonracer, of the Island of Misfit Toys.

They wind up on a hidden island, The Island of Misfit Toys, where toys seemingly unwanted for various defects, live because allegedly no child would want them. They are introduced to the island's ruler, King MoonRacer, a magical winged lion, who tells them of the toys' plight. They resolve that they should eventually return home, and tell Santa about the toys, in hopes that he'll find homes for them. Rudolf, still believing himself to be a danger to others, takes off on his own, returning home first, only to find that his parents and Clarice have gotten lost somewhere, out looking for him.

What a hero.

Finally being recognized.

He tracks them down, only to find that they are endangered by the Abominable himself, who Rudolf stands up to, only to get knocked out. Ultimately, the day is saved by Yukon, who seemingly perishes falling over a cliff with the monster. The reindeer return home, in time to find that Christmas is in trouble, because the worst snowstorm in years is making it so Santa won't be able to fly his sleigh to take presents to the world's children. But wouldn't you know it, he sees Rudolf's glowing nose, and EUREKA, he realizes that it could act as a lamp to light their way! Christmas is saved, and Rudolf, who has been unjustly ostracized all along for something he can't help, is finally not only accepted, but is the hero of the day.

The NEW lead reindeer.

The Misfit Toys.

They also manage to keep their promise, and stop by the island, to pick up the Misfit Toys, whom Santa finds homes for. They even learn that Yukon survived, because duh, "Bumbles Bounce", and that Hermey, who had stayed behind to look for him, used his dental accumen to remove the poor monster's teeth, rendering him harmless. Not only harmless, but friendly, as he helps put he star on the North Pole Christmas Tree! All's well that ends well, and everyone seems to live happily ever after.

Sam the Snowman.

Voiced by Burl Ives.

As a kid, like many kids I'm sure, I saw this special at an early age. Early enough, in fact, that I had already seen it multiple times by the time I was in pre-school, and knew how it went. So when they showed it at school, I stated matter-of-factly that I had "already seen it", and was allowed to go play with toys while the other kids watched, even though I still watched some of it anyway. Pre-school snootiness aside, I've always been a fan of this Rankin/Bass Production, as I was of many of their other creations (including the 80s shows Thundercats and Silverhawks). I remember being afraid of the Bumble monster, and even at a young age dreaming of finding "my own Clarice".

In its own way, this special is a masterpiece. The stop-motion animation, handled as most of their animation was in Japan, while certainly not up to the standards of theatrical excellence that Ray Harryhausen set, is still rather good. The characters are memorable, as are the songs, mostly sung by Burl Ives, including one of my favorite Christmas standards that he made famous, "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas". I actually remember my grandmother owning some Burl Ives tapes, one of which was a Christmas album, which I would listen to often as a child. His voice, in many ways to me, was the "Voice of Christmas" as I was growing up.

Lending a helping hand.

All in all, the story of Rudolf itself, I think endures because it is a tale of difference, and being accepted for your differences. The Rankin/Bass special, has played on TV every single year (sometimes multiple times), since it's debut in 1964, which makes it the longest running Christmas special of all time. A pretty cool distinction if you ask me, though to be fair, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, have also been shown pretty much every year since their debuts as well.

To me, as a life-long fan of stop-motion animation, I'm glad that the Rudolf special endures, because it allows the art-form, as well as the great special itself, to be seen by new generations of kids. And I think that's important, personally. If I ever get to have children, while they are of course free to like whatever new stuff they want (even if I hate it), I am absolutely going to raise them on all of the classic things that I myself love. I'm going to share my passions with them, and this special, and others like it, will be a part of that. And it goes without saying, that yes, my kids will be allowed to believe in Santa. I think it's ridiculous, even mean-spirited, to not allow that. Santa, and the Christmas Season in general, meant so much to me as a kid. It's such a time of wonder, and fun, and I think every kid, regardless of culture or religion, deserves something like that.

Anyways, I hope that you all have a Holly Jolly Christmas, or whatever you celebrate. And if you get a chance, give the old Rudolf special a spin, especially if you have kids who have never seen it before!