Is there anything on a screen that catches the eye of a child more than animation?  Whether pen-and-ink, stop-motion, or today's computer-generated works, animation somehow resonates within a child's - and for the truly fortunate, an adult's - mind to capture and guide him/her through worlds that just don't exist.  But maybe should...

I don't find much to admire in today's animation.  Granted, there was a lot of schlock in the animation of my youth (circa early-to-mid-60's through the mid-70's), but even the dreck had some charm that I just don't find in the "good" animation of today.

Right now, I'm going to be talking about some of the best, which also happen to be some of the holiday's best, and all produced by the same studio, Rankin/Bass.

You've gotta hand it to the folks at Rankin/Bass; their projects were more often than not top-heavy with top-notch talent.  This wasn't "stunt casting", as these talents brought a certain tone to each of their projects which fit in perfectly to the theme.

Let's start with Frosty the Snowman, and a performer who sadly is probably not well-known to current audiences, Jimmy Durante.


"The Great Schnozzola" was legitimately a star of stage, screen and television.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, his background as a vaudeville star brings an air of authenticity to his narration of Billy de Wolfe's pathetic magician (said magician likely having long since failed on the vaudeville boards) trying to nab some real magic for himself.
Good Night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are...

 
Freezing in the ice cream train
Oh, yeah, there was a snowman here too.  Comedian Jackie Vernon had a deadpan style that made Frosty's full, instantly-realized, and semi-befuddled personality completely real and believable.

The need for strong performances here was crucial, as the story itself didn't stray much from the song, and the medium chosen was the so-called "limited animation".  Arguably, moreso than in other productions, the particular talents of these three performers, along with a supporting cast headed by perennial vocal stars Paul Frees and June Foray, truly did bring Frosty to life...

Frosty's annual parade

Here's one that I think is a bit overlooked these days, Twas The Night Before Christmas.  I've seen it on the ABC Family Channel the past couple of years, but severely edited.  There does seem to be a VHS edition out there, but hasn't yet made it to DVD.  Given that it was only designed to fit a half-hour timeslot in 1974, I suppose that's all to be expected, though.  More's the pity.


Why is Santa mad at us?
Credits line to the contrary, George Gobel handled the narration chores here as "Father Mouse".  At the time, "Lonesome George" was probably best-known for his appearances on the original version of "Hollywood Squares", but had been a long-time comedic showbiz veteran.

 
Joel Grey, coming off a high-profile Oscar win for "Cabaret", had the human lead role of Joshua Trundle, a clockmaker trying to get their little town back on Santa's good side.  Trouble is, his efforts are inadvertently impeded by Father Mouse's son, Albert, who secretly was responsible for Santa's annoyance with the town.
Even a miracle needs a hand...

 
A disbelieving youngster...
And in the category of "Strange Casting", if my ear correctly matches the cast roster, Tammy Grimes voiced the boy mouse.  "Strange", not so much that a woman portrayed a male character - in fact, Rocket J. Squirrel, Charlie Brown, Bart Simpson are all famous examples of gender-crossing that worked.  But if memory serves, at about the same time, Grimes was using her husky voice - and more - in a series of come-hither mattress commercials.  Ok, so maybe it's just me...

 
As an aside, this also had the best satirical line I've ever heard in any Rankin-Bass feature - John McGiver's Mayor on being told a citizen (Mr. Trundle) wanted to address the town council:  "Citizen?  They're not allowed in here.  This is Public Property!"
Hizzoner, The Mayor

 
A surprise confession
The severe edit I mentioned earlier was Gobel's song on the importance of believing with one's heart, not just with one's head.  To my way of thinking, this number was a key to setting up the resolution.  No doubt in my mind that the program suffers for its omission.

Be that as it may, the young mouse repents his actions and sets out to make things right.


 
Does it work?  What do YOU think...???
And To All, A Good Night!

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town has probably the most star-studded lineup of any Rankin-Bass project.


Start with the legendary Fred Astaire, represented here most accurately as North Pole mail carrier "S.D. Klueger".  Here, absent the use of his famed dancing ability, Astaire's natural grace and gentleness shines instead through his voicework.
Not sleet, nor snow...

 
 
The first deliveries
Checking them twice...
In the title role, life-long entertainer Mickey Rooney.  Rooney was literally born into the business, and found success in nearly every aspect of entertainment.  Who better then to portray the holiday icon from youth through senior citizen?

 
Yet another notable player here is Keenan Wynn, who voices The Winter Warlock, who in this telling is responsible (at least in part) for creating Santa's magic snowglobe (by which Santa knows if you've been bad or good), flying reindeer, and Christmas trees.  Wynn, the son of veteran comedian Ed Wynn, had the ability to portray straight dramatic roles equally as well as playing the Disney comedic heavy, making him a perfect Warlock...er, Winter, if you please...
A toy?  For me?
Breaking out of jail...Kids, don't try this at home...

Frankly, though I realize this is a pretty good show, it's really not on my "A-list" of favorite holiday programs.  Good visuals, catchy tunes (my favorite being "One Step In Front Of The Other"), solid voicing...but just a bit too heavy-handed in explaining the various elements of Santa's legend.

Still, it's definitely worth an hour of your time...

The holiest night of the year...

All righty then, boys and girls, here now is the big one...the granddaddy of them all...the "shining light", as it were, of all shows in the holiday oevre...Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I can remember certain things before the age of four, but I cannot remember a childhood Christmas without sitting in front of the tube, starting intently at Rudolph and company.  Yet, it wasn't till 1964 (ok, so now you math wizards know my age...) that our antlered misfit first graced the airwaves.

Haven't you ever seen a talking snowman?
After all the anticipation of waiting for the program to come on, and the opening depicting a miserable blizzard...what a relief to see Sam the Snowman shuffling in, sounding just like Burl Ives. 

Don't know why exactly.  Maybe it's a grandfatherly vibe that everything's going to be fine in the end.  Except Ives didn't sound like either of my grandfathers.  Whatever...


 
Santa meets the new fawn
A couple of misfits on the way to fame and fortune...?
As dear to my heart as this show is, I must confess that the "political correctness" movement inadvertently ruined it for me. 

Let me tell you, I was really annoyed by that circumstance, which lasted a few years.

The idea that Santa, of all people, could be so pin-headed as to reject Rudolph as a potential sleight team member merely because of his nose rankled me no end. 

On the other hand, the chief elf was pretty dense, so the Hermey-bashing wasn't so surprising...


 
Once the non-PC clarity of thought returned, I realized that they pretty much had to use Santa in that not-so-favorable light to get to the payoff of acceptance of those who are different from us.  Which in itself might be just a little bit PC...how's that for irony...?
Lookie what else Bumbles can do!
Christmas isn't cancelled!

But really, any "messages" are just a plus here.  The imagery is quintessential Christmas.  The music is perfect in tone with both the holiday and the theme of the program.  The balance of suspense and sweetness is perfectly blended...oh, let's face it, this is one I just can't be particularly critical of.  It's a keeper.

Ho, ho, ho!!!





For more on Rankin/Bass programs, you may wish to check out rankinbass.com
 

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