Rankin-Bass; A Traditional Television Event

Rankin-Bass; A Traditional Television Event

The classic claymation specials have stood the test of time - so how is that possible?
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Christmas has come and gone (well it will have by the time you read this), and among the many cultural traditions around the nation, the television special is one of the most iconic. We all know the classics, from airings of movies like A Christmas Story and It's A Wonderful Life to the animated ones like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas, but the most famous and often parodied are the claymation specials produced by Rankin-Bass, a film studio who would go onto specializing in this method. Their specials are still aired to this day, and are usually considered some of the best. So how did they get that way?

The company was founded in 1960 by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, as Videocraft, a name that would change to the more well-known Rankin-Bass by the end of the decade. However, as with many companies at the time (and even now), their entire productions were actually produced in Japan by animation companies based there, including Toei. Under the supervision of Rankin and Bass, animators created a method of stop motion animation called “Animagic,” using special made puppets with varying expressions and movement capabilities. Meanwhile, the popular song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was playing heavily on the radio, leading to Rankin-Bass and NBC commissioning a script based on the song in order to cash in and produce something to air during the Christmas season. It should be noted that the poem that the song is based on was previously adapted by Max Fleischer, best known for his World War II era Superman cartoons. Romeo Muller was hired on, and the production work began in Japan, creating several unique models for the show. Singer Burl Ives was brought in to narrate the special and sing select songs, and Johnny Marks, who wrote the song, co-wrote the special's music with Ives. As with many icons of the screen, nobody knew how popular said special would be, so many of the puppets were destroyed after production. When Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer finally aired in 1964 , it was an instant hit, and Rankin-Bass made a name for themselves in the animation industry.

After their surprise hit, the company began looking for more songs and stories to adapt for television, figuring if one worked, they all would. After four years of production, Little Drummer Boy aired in 1968, being a religion-based special – a major contrast to their usual Santas and the like. Despite their successes with claymation, Rankin-Bass returned to traditional animation in 1969 with an animated adaptation of the song “Frosty the Snowman,” which in turn spawned several sequels of varying quality (the same cannot be said about Rudolph, because none of the sequels were even bearable let alone good). Following Frosty, the company began work on a project involving a young Santa Claus, a concept that at the time was new and pretty much a clean slate to work on. In Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the origin of the jolly man in the red suit is presented, with Mickey Rooney providing the voice of Kris Kringle. Each one of these specials was very well received, instantly becoming classics aired every year. Critics and audiences loved them, along with the new style of animation that made them stand apart from Grinch and Charlie Brown. Strangely enough, their followup was not a Christmas special, rather an Easter one based on what is quite literally the only Easter song people know, Here Comes Peter Cottontail, which did about as well as you would think, considering it's rarely on television these days – though it did get a sequel in Easter Bunny is Coming to Town in 1977.

Taking a small three year break, Rankin-Bass returned with what many consider their last shining special, Year Without a Santa Claus, based on a book rather than a song – and Mickey Rooney returned to the role of Santa Claus, thus making it a direct sequel to the previous specials. Also in that year was another traditionally animated special, Twas the Night Before Christmas, which went on to be one of the most parodied and referenced specials of the era (most notably in the South Park episode “A Very Crappy Christmas”). Following this was an era not unlike Disney in the early 2000s. The company switched to primarily doing sequels to their past shows, quality not really being a concern. Among them were The Little Drummer Boy, Book II, and the so-bad-it's-good crossover nobody wanted but we all got, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, itself continuing off from Frosty's Winter Wonderland and Rudolph's Shiny New Year and yet again featuring Mickey Rooney The company also acquired the animation rights to the J.R.R. Tolkien novel The Hobbit, and all their effort was put into that rather than quality Christmas specials – the movie would be aired on television in 1977 and only followed up with Return of the King in 1980, as there was already a full animated production of The Lord of the Rings by Ralph Bakshi, who would never finish his adaptation past the ending of The Two Towers. The final Rankin-Bass claymation Christmas special was The Life and Times of Santa Claus (an adaptation of the L. Frank Baum book) in 1985, thus ending an era of television and tradition. They would attempt to make television shows to compete during the 1980s, including ThunderCats, but most of these failed and the company went under in 1987, Rankin and Bass themselves going on to do other things in the industry.

Rankin-Bass, despite the actual amount of watchable ones not being terribly high, was able to create annual traditions in millions of homes nationwide. Their specials should also be noted for being one of the earliest shared universes in media, with the same Santa castle used in both Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Year Without a Santa Claus, the same actor playing the role, Rudolph and Frosty appearing together, similar designs and concepts, and even music that sounded alike. Since the end of their reign in the late 1970s, their shows have been aired annually, Rudolph being the oldest continuously aired special at fifty-three. DVDs of the specials are sold every year, they're shown on network television and on marathons, and have become staples of the season – characters even being just as much a part of the holiday as Santa himself, such as Frosty and Hermy the Elf. Every year, even if it's on the DVD, I make a point to watch them, and it's not really Christmas until then.

Cover Image Credit: Videocraft International

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Cover Image Credit: whereshewanders.com

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