Rankin/Bass 9 and 10: Leprechauns and Pinocchio


I’m afraid I’ve gotten way behind on my Rankin/Bass month so I will post a couple tonight to catch up.  This post will tackle 2 of the weaker specials- The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold and Pinocchio’s Christmas.  Both were made in the 80s when the company was clearly running out of ideas and have little to nothing to do with Christmas.

Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold

Leprechaun's Christmas GoldI think this special got lost on the way to St Patrick’s Day.  It’s 25 minutes and has a few moments of charm but mostly its forgettable.

It is about a boy named Dinty Doyle who digs up a Christmas pine tree that unleashes the banshee Old Mag the Hag who wants the leprechaun Blarney Kilakilarney’s gold.

leprechauns2Art Carney has fun as Blarney Kilakilarney but the rest of the voices are nothing special and the songs are lame. Christmas in Killarney is good but not written for this special.

leprechauns4The story is similar to something you might see on a Ducktales or other Saturday morning cartoon.  Nothing too drab like Nestor or weird like Year Without a Santa Claus.
This one is a definite skip.

Pinocchio’s Christmas

pinocchio christmasMade in 1980 Pinocchio’s Christmas feels like one of those films that rip-off Disney films.  It has elements of the Disney classic but none of the magic.  We’ve got a cricket sidekick, Pinocchio as still a living marionette, a fox and a cat up to no good and a blue fairy.  I realize these elements are probably in the book but it still feels like a mediocre copy of the classic film.

PINOCCHIO'S CHRISTMAS,  (from left): Pinocchio, Lady Azura, Julietta, 1980. © Rankin/Bass

The animation isn’t half bad on this one with but they make the mistake of making it 49 minutes and the story and especially the music just isn’t there.  It’s also possibly less related to Christmas than Leprechauns’ Christmas.

Basically the story is Pinocchio wants to buy Gepetto a present for Christmas. The Fox and the Cat convince him to plant his money in the ground to grow a money tree.  He does and they take the money.  He then spends the rest of the movie trying to find a present for Gepetto and getting taken by various mean people.

rankinbass-holidayfavorites-04The songs are very lame with bland lyrics like one song about dancing called Dance.  Another lame song is ‘Love, the Perfect Gift for Christmas Day” (groan…).

The voice performances are a definite step down for Rankin/Bass- no big name performers. And the writing is very preachy like ‘it took a puppet boy to learn the true meaning of Christmas” and “my Christmas present is a promise that I will go to school and obey you and always be good”.

pinocchio2You can just tell they are reaching with both of these specials.  They aren’t funny, clever or well written.  The animation isn’t half bad but I think you can definitely skip both Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold and Pinocchio’s Christmas.   I’d say more but there really isn’t for either of these specials.  They feel like something that was made in a foreign country and not translated well- lame and bland and forgettable.

Rankin/Bass 9: Year Without a Santa Claus

yw santaSorry I have gotten a bit behind on my Rankin/Bass month what with that little thing called Star Wars! Luckily they have a lot of non-Christmas specials so I should be fine stretching it into January where hardly any good movies come out.

One thing I’ve learned about these Rankin/Bass specials is they all have a kooky weirdness to them.  I don’t know if you notice it as much when you watch one a year like a normal person.  At least it is more noticeable watching them in a block like I have been.  I’ve been wondering why some of them are weird and work and others miss the mark?  I’m not sure but I think the weirdness is better as an embellishment than the whole story.  Like in Jack Frost the story was pretty good and so it made it better to have weird touches.

Anyway, The Year Without a Santa Claus is definitely one of their more successful entries and it is also full of strange elements.  Released in 1974 it is a stop motion 48 minute special that tells the story of the year Santa decides to stay at home!

yw santa-2Santa, you see, is in need of a break and his doctor tells him to ‘forget delivering presents to those ungrateful kids who don’t believe in you and stay home!’ (amazing how many people in these specials hate Christmas!).  Santa listens and Mrs Claus and the elves Jingle and Jangle are horrified (you think he could just take a day off and not the entire year!).

Jingle and Jangle decide to take a young reindeer named Vixen (they both ride the little reindeer like a horse which looks very strange) to find proof for Santa that someone believes in him.

They are stopped in their quest by the Miser Bros’ who rule the clouds- Heat Miser and Snow Miser who hate each other.  I liked these character’s designs and behavior.

yw santa-6They end up in a town called Southtown where they try to find anyone who believes in Santa but Vixen becomes sick and nearly dies.  Mrs Claus comes and they meet a boy named Ignatius Thistelwhite who doesn’t believe but his father believes.

yw santa-5Then they must go and find Mother Nature in order to convince Heat Miser and Snow Miser to work together so that the town and Ignatius will believe in Santa.

yw santa-4Santa then comes to save Vixen but before that we get a very melancholy version of Blue Christmas sung by a little girl with lots of stop motion tears.  Rankin/Bass loves the stop motion tears!

yw santa-9Santa eventually see’s the error of his ways and makes everything right in the end.

yw santa-7I mean come on- you hear that description it’s pretty creative right?  It’s wacky and nutty but very creative.  In one 48 minute short we have elves, dying reindeer, Santa playing hooky, Mother Nature, Heat and Snow Miser and a girl singing Blue Christmas. That’s great!

There are also some really nice songs with good performers.  I like I Could Be Santa Clause, I Believe in Santa Claus, The Snow Miser and Heat Miser Songs, Blue Christmas and Hear Comes Santa Claus.  They are all well sung and some of the best writing from Maury Laws and Jules Bass.

At least to me this is just wacky, weird fun:

I also like Year Without a Santa Claus is a little less heavy-handed in its messaging than some of the other Christmas shorts.  It is mostly about Santa with a thin message of believing in things and being kind.

The animation is also a little more seamless than some of the other shorts and I really liked the colors in scenes like at Heat Miser’s castle.

Scenes like this are just so nutty and silly:

It’s certainly one of my favorite of the Rankin/Bass specials.  Have you seen it?  What did you think?

Rankin/Bass 8: Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey

nestor2One thing you have to give Rankin/Bass credit for is their creativity.  Maybe it’s partly running out of Christmas stories to tell but even their Rudolph special (that review is coming on Christmas Day if you were wondering) they were very creative having plot points like an elf that wants to be a dentist. You can certainly see such creativity on display with their short Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. I mean have you ever seen a film about a long-eared donkey?  I haven’t until this one!

No doubt taking cues from Dumbo, Nestor is a donkey during the time of the Romans with abnormally large ears that go down to the ground.  For some reason they decided to give this story a folksy narrator donkey named Spieltoe voiced by Roger Miller.  It never quite fits with the feel of the short.

As if having long ears isn’t trial enough things go from bad to worse for poor Nestor.  The opening scenes soldiers come and take all the donkeys except Nestor including his mother.  Then Nestor is thrown out by the farmer and he and all the animals are really mean.

nestorNestor and his mother are caught in a blizzard and the next morning his mother has died. (It really is quite a grim film for a Christmas special!).

nestor7Then Nestor meets an angel who tells him to travel to Bethlehem because “your ears can do wondrous things no other ears can do”.  Then he and the angel travel across desert and have quite the journey.

nestor4When they arrive near Bethlehem Nestor is seen as unneeded so the owner sells him to Mary and Joseph for cheap so she can get to Bethlehem.  It is a perilous journey but “he follows the voices of the angels” and Nestor helps them find the stable to have he Christ-child.

nestor5I expected the film to end with Nestor staying at the nativity stable but in an odd turn he goes back to the original stable where they were so mean to him and he is treated like a hero.  This is strange because how would they know what he had done in Bethlehem and why would he want to go back there?

I give them huge points for creativity on this one and  it’s harmless enough.  The animation is quite good as it is one of their later films (1977).  And I’m always up for stories about characters who fight bullies and come out on top.

However, the film is so gloomy for a Christmas picture.  Almost nothing but death, rejection and persecution happens to Nestor until the very end.  Also the ending didn’t really make sense to me.  I also found he music, while pleasant to not really fit the tone and characters very well.

So over all I’d say see this as a curiosity and to see their creativity but it is not a favorite of mine.

Rankin/Bass 7: Jack Frost

jack frost8Next up we are looking at one of the more creative Rankin/Bass specials- Jack Frost.  That’s one thing I’ve noticed about the Rankin/Bass team is they are very creative and willing to do things with the story that often seem strange.  I almost never finish a movie of theirs thinking ‘well that was obvious and boring’.

Jack Frost aired on NBC in 1979 and you can definitely feel it is one of their more polished pieces with the animation being much better than the films from the late 60s, early 70s.  It also featured the entire Rankin/Bass team with Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin directing, Romeo Muller writing, Maury Laws doing the music ect.

jack frostThe story is actually kind of complicated.  Jack Frost is an immortal fairy that brings on winter but as he is putting his ice and frost he falls in love with a girl named Elisa.  Longing to be with her Jack asks Father Winter if he can become human and Father agrees as long as Jack proves his value as a human by earning a house, a horse, a bag of gold, and a wife by the first Spring (I don’t know many actual humans that could pass that test!).

jack frost2So Jack goes down to earth and becomes Jack Snip, a tailor in town.  Elisa likes Jack but is in love with Sir Ravenal Rightfellow, a ‘knight in golden armor’.

jack frost0Unfortunately Elisa is abducted by Kubla Kraus a King that talks to a strange iron puppet (they are always making strange but kind of entertaining choices with these specials).

jack frost9Now Jack must save Elisa and she must choose between him and Ravenal and what about his powers? What will happen with those?  You will have to watch it to find out.

Also there is a Groundhog voiced by Buddy Hackett that oddly becomes involved.

jack frost7The ending genuinely surprised me.  That’s why I wanted to be a little coy in the summary above.

The voice cast is all good with in addition to Hackett, Robert Morse as Jack Frost, Debra Clinger as Elsa, Paul Frees as both Father Winter and Kubla Kraus, and more.

jack frost3The music is pretty good with a lot of non-Christmas songs like Me and My Shadow, It’s Lonely Being One of a Kind, and Just What I Always Wanted.

At 48 minutes it is a little bit longer than some of the other specials but I enjoyed it.  The animation is fine.  It’s creative and the story surprised me.  I think kids will like it too and you could watch it any time during the winter, no just Christmas time.  This is definitely one of the best from the Rankin/Bass team.

Rankin/Bass 6: Twas the Night Before Christmas

night before christmasNext up in Rankin/Bass month is the 1974 short ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.  This is a traditional animation take on the 1823 poem of the same name.  The poem of course opens with the line ‘not a creature was stirring not even a mouse’.  Well, this movie takes that quite literally and tells the story of both man and mouse in the house.

night before christmas6

While the animation isn’t the best (particularly the eyes look strange throughout on the characters), this is a really cute entry from the Rankin/Bass team.  It basically tells the story of a human cloc maker named Joshua Trundle who works with a mouse called Father Mouse to make the clocks.  Unfortunately the mouse son Albert is overthinking Christmas and has written an editorial in the paper claiming Santa is a fraud.

night before christmas7Unfortunately Santa reads the letter and is offended and decides to send back all the town’s Santa letters, both mouse and human, and skip their Christmas all together, which is quite extreme when you think about it but it works!

night before christmas4So the mice must help appease Santa and convince Albert to believe in things he can’t see or explain with science.  The plan is quite elaborate where they will build a singing clock that will entice Santa to come to their town after all.  Albert eventually see’s the error of his ways and agrees to go inside the clock and repair it.  night before christmas2It’s really a sweet little story here.  Nothing that will blow you away but it is cute and has a nice message. It’s definitely not subtle but none of these specials are and this one surprised me with the creative storytelling without being too weird. I also felt like they treated Albert’s lack of a belief more kindly than some other more Christian based films might have.

The music is nice and the vocal performances by Joel Grey, George Gobel and John McGiver are all very pleasant.  It’s only 25 minutes and so I would give it a watch if you get a chance.   Its really adorable.

Rankin/Bass 5: The Little Drummer Boy

drummer boy8Oddly enough there aren’t very many holiday specials or films for that matter that focus on Jesus Christ- the reason for the season!  And that is truly one thing that stands out about the Rankin/Bass film The Little Drummer Boy.

Before reviewing this film I must own The Little Drummer Boy is not a carol I particularly enjoy.  It’s nice sung by a choir but I guess I prefer the Christmas songs that I can sing easily by myself and ‘rump a pum pum’ doesn’t work with only one!

That said, the Little Drummer Boy is about a boy named Aaron who has a magic drum that charms his friends a donkey, sheep and camel. The animation is not very fluid in this movie but I oddly got used to it after a while.

drummer boy

Life seems good for him but one night his family is killed and his home is burned to the ground by roughians.  That’s right.  They don’t mess around in this film!  It’s pretty dark to begin with.

drummer boy4Then a man named Ben Haramad abducts Aaron and forces him to join his circus of nitwits.  Aaron becomes very bitter towards the people watching him in the circus and to Ben.  At one point Ben paints a smile over Ben’s face because he refuses to smile for the crowds.  It looks kind of like the Joker.

drummer boy9Aaron meets a group of Wise Men from East heading towards a new born King.  Aaron escapes but as they head to Bethlehem Aaron’s sheep is injured and near death.

drummer boy5Aaron presents his sheep before the Christ-child and plays his drum as his gift. The sheep is healed and Aaron feels joy.  It’s really quite a lovely moment.

drummer boy6I was ready to give this one a pass at first- especially when it got so grim and sad but by the end it had won me over.  I liked seeing the character arc of Aaron and the whole sequence at the nativity was lovely.

The other standouts are a great voicecast with Greer Garson, Teddy Eccles, Jose Ferrer, Paul Frees, and June Foray

The music is also really special by Rankin/Bass regulars Maury Laws and Jules Bass.  I particularly loved the Vienna Boys Choir throughout which fit for a story about a little boy.

Of course we get our title song and I think it was all handled beautifully.

So The Little Drummer is definitely a film worth a watch.  It’s only 25 minutes (made in 1968) so what have you go to lose!

Rankin/Bass 4: Frosty the Snowman

frosty19Some movies from your childhood when visited as an adult hold up (Winnie the Pooh for example) and others not so much.  I hate to say it but I think Rankin/Bass Frosty the Snowman is the latter.  It’s another one of the specials that as an adult feels strange and is really designed for very small children- and even for them there might be stuff that is upsetting for them.  Don’t hate me but I didn’t really like it…

Frosty the Snowman was made in 1969 for CBS and it was the first time Rankin/Bass did a traditional cel animation.  To the team’s credit the animation looks fine.  It’s bright and colorful and doesn’t look terribly dated. It kind of reminds you of something you’d see on a Saturday morning television in the 80s.

frosty2That said I think Frosty looks more like a marshmallow than a snowman. For Frosty I wonder if stop motion would have looked better like the snowman in Elf.

elf leonBut anyway the story is about a group of kids that find the discarded hat of a magician named Professor Hinkle.  They decide to build a snowman and little Karen decides to call it Frosty.  Professor Hinkle has a rabbit named Hocus Pocus who tries to get the hat but it is placed on the snowman and the magic makes Frosty alive.

frosty6I didn’t really like Professor Hinkle or Hocus Pocus.  It was strange the way they kept bothering these little kids and it just wasn’t funny and was a little mean to me.  Like little Karen is freezing and a fire is lit and he blows it out for no real reason.  Frosty has the hat not Karen and Frosty obviously isn’t by the fire.

frosty8And then it gets really weird with the temperature suddenly warming up and so Frosty decides to take a refrigeration unit on a train to the North Pole, which is evidently far away because it costs $3000 to go there.  The strange part is Karen goes with them as kind of a lark, which I found odd.  This is evidently very far away to cost $3000, not just a day trip.

But I know I am over thinking it but Karen gets sick from the cold refrigeration car so they abandon the train and Professor Hinkle is fast on their tails.  He ends up trapping Karen and Frosty in (Spoiler alert!) a greenhouse and Frosty becomes a puddle on the ground.  It’s really quite a strange and upsetting story when you think of the very small children it is aimed at.  Karen almost dies, Frosty is gone but at least Hinkle gives Santa the hat back after he is threatened with no more presents for the rest of his life. It’s just odd story.

frosty9The voice cast is great with Jimmy Durante as the narrator, Jackie Vernon as Frosty, June Foray as Karen, and Billy De Wolfe as Professor Hinkle.

The Frosty song is featured of course and a few other songs but nothing stands out too much.

frosty4Frosty the Snowman is probably a fine diversion for small kids and at 24 minutes it’s fine for watching with the fam at Christmas but over all I didn’t really care for it.  It’s just so odd and I kind of wish it wasn’t so gloomy and morose in feel, but perhaps that’s just me.

What about you?  Is Frosty the Snowman a special part of your holiday viewings?  Do you love it?  Have you seen it in a while?  Let me know in the comments.


Rankin/Bass 3: The First Christmas Snow

first christmas9The next entry I’m looking at in my Rankin/Bass month is the 22 minute program The First Christmas: The First Christmas Snow.  The rather ungainly title refers to a nativity play put on but really the The First Christmas Snow is more the plot of the special.

first christmas3The First Christmas Snow unfortunately is one of the weaker entries I’ve seen but that’s not to say it doesn’t have some positive elements.  It’s just very syrupy and preachy.  More along the lines of something you’d watch as a kid in Sunday School to teach a principle than a real piece of cinema.

It tells the tale of a little blind boy named Lucas who is lost in a storm watching over his sheep and some nuns including Sister Theresa take him in and care for him.  Theresa is voiced by Angela Lansbury and I could listen to her all day.  Basically little Lucas gets to know the nuns and starts to feel at home with his sheep at the monastery.

first christmas7But mean old Father Thomas (Cyril Ritchard) doesn’t think it is the right place for a little boy and insists he be taken to the orphanage.  But Lucas and his friend Louisa pray for a miracle and they get what they ask for and more.  Lucas is also trying to thwart off pranksters who lose his sheep and also trying to find the perfect gift for Sister Theresa.

first christmas2there’s a Christmas pageant where Lucas and Louisa are our angels (did any of you doubt that would be the case?)

first christmas6The thing that makes this bit watchable and sweet in its own way is the songs.  Angela Lansbury sounds completely lovely singing White Christmas, Christmas Snow is Magic and Save a Little Christmas.

first christmas8The stop motion is fine but not the best I’ve seen from Rankin/Bass and it’s just so syrupy it is hard to recommend- and that’s coming from an adamant apologist for many Christian films.

If you need to have a sub for Sunday School and want to teach about faith and miracles it would be a fine choice but I can still think of better. Honestly any of the veggietales shorts would be better with a similar message.

first christmas5So this will definitely be near the bottom of my Rankin/Bass rankings if I do one but luckily it is only 22 minutes and I can stand just about anything for that long.

Rankin/Bass 2: Santa Claus is Comin to Town

santa clausLet’s talk about our first holiday short in Rankin/Bass month (I’ll try to mix up the holiday and non-holiday).  We are talking about Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I have to say from the start this is not one I remember watching as a kid.  I remember Rudolph but not this one for some reason.  I’m not going to say this was my first watch-through but if I have seen it was a long time ago.

With that said, I will say- this movie is weird.  It’s just the oddest assortment of strange story, characters, animation, and everything else.  I don’t think that is a bad thing per say but it’s just a bit hard to write about.  It’s really a very befuddling movie!

santa claus2Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town aired on ABC in 1970 and it is basically a Santa Claus origin story.  Our narrator is SD Kluger (SD for Special Delivery) voiced by Fred Astaire who isn’t given as much to do as you might think.

santa claus7Basically there is a villain named Burgermeister Meisterburger (a great name!) who hates everything.  One morning a baby is dropped on his doorstep and he sends it away to the ‘orphan asylum’ and then the animals rescue the baby from him and the Winter Warlock and then take him to stay with the Kringle Family who make toys. Who knew St. Nick had such grim beginnings!

But luckily the Kringles are sweet and lovely people and Kris grows up and wants to restore the Kringle family as the official toymakers of the King (who knew the king needed such a thing?).  So he sets out to make and deliver toys.

santa claus5Unfortunately Burgermeister has outlawed all toys and basically any other kind of fun.  Everything in Sombertown (the name of Burgermeister’s kingdom) is dark and gray and sad.  He not only bans toys but declares they are ‘illegal, immoral and unlawful and that anyone who has a toy will be placed in a dungeon!’.  These must have been quite the toys!

santa claus4So that’s sort of the set-up and I won’t give any more away but it involves the magic of the Winter Warlock and Kris Kringle’s attempts to circumvent Burgermeister’s  crazy laws.  In the course of the story you find out origins for Santa’s name, his relationship and marriage to Mrs Claus, presents under the tree, Christmas trees, going down chimneys, December 24th for presents, flying reindeer etc.

santa.88I could see someone really roasting this movie.  It’s just so nutty but I enjoyed watching it.  It’s only an hour so it didn’t wear out its welcome and did surprise me with the strange choices.  The ending is very odd in that Santa doesn’t really save the people from Burgermeister.  His family rules for generation until the townsfolk come to their senses. That’s more than a little disturbing if you really think about it…

The voicework by Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn and Paul Frees is all fine and fun to hear but nothing too special.

santa claus6The music is a bit of a letdown with nothing that stood out for me.  Songs like ‘No More Toymakers to the King’ and ‘First Toymakers to the King’ weren’t anything special and ‘If You Sit on My Lap Today’ made me a little uncomfortable.  It’s just odd for Santa to be asking kids to ‘be prepared to pay’ for sitting on his lap.

So overall it is an odd trippy little film but I enjoyed watching it.  Have any of you seen Santa Claus is Coming to Town?  Have you watched it recently?   Let me know what you think.  Thanks!