Christmas is incomplete without Rankin/Bass holiday specials

Discover which of the company’s Christmas films are festive — and which ones are failures.

Stop-motion animation is a little creepy, I’ll admit. Yet a lineup of classic Christmas films is incomplete without the whimsical movies from Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment. The production company is most well-known for its seasonal television specials of the ‘60s through ‘80s, from the iconic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to the more obscure “Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.” Some stories are magnificent, while others are ho-ho-horrible.

The holidays may be a time of kindness, but I’ll be accepting no objections to this ranking of the best and the worst Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas films.

  1. The Worst: “The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus” (1985)

This film is quite possibly the most un-Christmas Christmas special I’ve ever seen. Sure, the story is about the origins of Santa Claus, but aside from the final 15 minutes, it’s just a fantasy battle among the “Immortals” and other woodland creatures. The basic plot is nonsensical and features villains that lack any relation to the holidays whatsoever. Young Santa Claus’ sidekicks are a lioness and a goblin — enough said. While Rankin/Bass films typically have an animation style that is quirky but loveable, this special switched the animation to that of a low-budget, disturbing fever dream.

  1. “Jack Frost” (1979)

At the start, “Jack Frost” has so much potential. There are plenty of imaginative characters like Snip, who cuts the snowflakes for winter storms. Even the villain, the Russian ruler Kubla Kraus, is so outlandish that it’s hilarious. That being said, the film’s climax and ending are extremely rushed without any sense of closure. Oh, and not to mention the blatant misogyny in Jack Frost’s quest to get a “house, gold, horse and wife” while all the male characters compete to seduce her. That’s a lovely message for children.

  1. “The Little Drummer Boy” (1968)

As one of the shorter television specials, the tale of “The Little Drummer Boy” is fairly entertaining. It’s much more biblical than festive, following an orphan drummer named Aaron who runs into the three wise men on their way to Bethlehem. The film is simple but meaningful, yet it doesn’t have much to make it stand out amongst the more beloved classics.

  1. “The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow” (1975)

In less than 30 minutes, this film manages to develop each character with a distinct personality. The plot centers on a blind shepherd boy who dreams of a white Christmas, believing he will be able to feel it even if he cannot see it. It’s an uplifting tale with unproblematic characters; however, it is not the most exciting story for a younger audience.

  1. “Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey” (1977)

Warning: sensitive viewers are guaranteed to cry. Nestor’s story does not just tug on the heartstrings, it snaps them entirely. Plus, Nestor is one of the most adorable characters in any Christmas film. It is one of the shorter television specials with a quintessential theme of showing kindness toward people (or donkeys) who are different. Much like “The Little Drummer Boy,” it focuses more on the biblical story of Christmas and adds a fresh twist that fits in smoothly with the age-old story. The music is somewhat catchy but nothing phenomenal.

  1. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (1970)

This film tells an exciting, goofy and uplifting origin story for Santa Claus that addresses all the common questions children ask about the man with a little round belly. The musical genius shines through this special; Viewers will be singing “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” for days on end. Burgermeister Meisterburger is easy to despise, proving him a successful villain (with a super fun name). In the end, it offers a moral outlook on the season, urging people to be more like Santa Claus in their everyday lives and truly embody the spirit of Christmas.

  1. “The Year Without a Santa Claus” (1974)

Forget Santa Claus — the two bantering brothers of Snow Miser and Heat Miser steal the show with their sensational theme songs and unforgettable personas. Although “Mister Ten Below” and “Mister Hundred and One” could push the film to the top all on their own, it is also the most festive holiday special chock-full of Christmas cheer. The musical numbers accompany the plot with grace, and it offers the ideal blend of sentimental moments and upbeat goofiness. Plus, for the ‘70s, there is an impressive amount of female empowerment as Mrs. Claus takes charge and saves the day.

  1. The Best: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964)

It may seem like the obvious choice, since “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the longest-running Christmas special in history at over 55 years on television. But there’s a definitive reason for its earning of this title; Rudolph’s holiday magic endures through all these years. It fills the viewer up with a warmth that only an elf dentist and a group of loveable misfit toys could bring. The abominable snowman is crafted as a terrifying monster, and I myself can vividly remember childhood nightmares about the creature. Nonetheless, even he is persuaded to join the good guys in the end. From the soundtrack to the exciting storyline, it is the epitome of Christmas. It seems that Rudolph truly will go down in history.

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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