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Time Warp Christmas

Rudolph and Santa star in two stop motion holiday classics

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The final Time Warp presentation of the year moves inside from the drive-in with a pair of holiday TV classics.

Back in the days before million-channel cable TV packages and the endless entertainments of the internet, Christmas specials were big deals on broadcast TV. The undisputed kings of the holiday special were Videocraft International, which would later take the names of its two principal partners, Rankin/Bass.

Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass were animation pioneers on several levels. Their formula was simple: Rankin would write a script based on a popular Christmas song, leveraging the intellectual property, as it's called now. They were also pioneers of outsourcing the expensive animation process to Asia, which played a part in jump starting the Japanese anime industry. Their stop-motion visual style, developed by Rankin and animator Tadahito Mochinaga, is unmistakable and never better than in 1964's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which will screen at Studio on the Square on the 50th anniversary of its premiere, making it the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.

Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town
  • Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town

Rankin sticks pretty close to the song for Rudolph's story, with unnaturally glowing noses and reindeer games, but, in a stroke of what can only be described as weird genius, he introduces an elf who only wants to be a dentist. Even though it's Rudolph's story, Hermey, the sad-sack elf, kind of steals the show — at least until the Abominable Snowman shows up. In another memorable sequence, Rudolph, Hermey, and an inexplicable prospector named Yukon end up fleeing to the Island of Misfit Toys, where the production design goes pleasingly nuts. Burl Ives appears as Sam the Snowman, the narrator and singer on the soundtrack, which includes both the title song and "Holly Jolly Christmas" and is itself one of the most successful Christmas records in history.

Rankin/Bass repeated the formula in the 1960s with The Little Drummer Boy and the immortal Frosty the Snowman, culminating in the 1970s with Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, the second of Time Warp's selections. Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town presents an origin story for Santa Claus, played by Mickey Rooney, with a convoluted plot that has absolutely nothing to do with Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century Greek Christian bishop. But it does have memorable characters like Fred Astaire's mailman narrator, Keenan Wynn's Winter Warlock, and the perfectly named Burgermeister Meisterburger, voiced by Paul Frees.

The songs and style of the Rankin/Bass holiday specials are indelibly etched on at least two generations of American brains. Maybe part of these shows' enduring appeal comes from the strange combination of surrealism and intimacy. It's as if you're watching a little kid's fantasy where a collection of random toys comes alive. And because of the stop-motion artistry, you kind of are.


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