If you watched
Christmas movies on television as a child, you probably have fond memories of claymation specials — maybe Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was your favorite, or perhaps Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. But you may not have realized that all of those beloved classics were directed and produced by the same creative team. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass first went into business shortly after WWII, just as television was becoming a mass medium, and their collaboration yielded many of America’s most beloved Christmas programming.
“To this day it’s amazing to me that these programs, which were rather simply made, have lasted in the marketplace,” Bass
told Toronto’s National Post in 2006. Today, the Rankin-Bass specials feel both nostalgic — distinct products of the mid-20th century — and timeless. As Rankin explained in a 2005 interview conducted for the Archive of American Television, “In all our pictures we had an antagonist who becomes the good guy ... and the underdog fulfills his quest.” It’s an enduring arc, and one that feels especially heartwarming around the holidays. No wonder these specials have stood the test of time.
Below, the best of Rankin and Bass’ claymation Christmas movies — along with a bonus entry.
1 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Rankin and Bass’ first Christmas special is still their most enduring and popular. Based on Robert L. May’s 1939 short story of the same title (originally written on behalf of department store Montgomery Ward),
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer tells the story of Rudolph, a young reindeer whose glowing red nose makes him a social outcast. Naturally, this very feature eventually helps the underdog save Christmas. Actor and folk singer Burl Ives voiced Sam the Snowman, the special’s narrator; celebrity appearances would become a feature of Rankin and Bass’ productions. 2 The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
The team’s next big special was based on a song instead of an advertisement, and it took a more serious and religious approach than
Rudolph — or most of their subsequent work — did. The story follows serious young orphan Aaron and his animal friends, who encounter the Magi on their way to Bethlehem. Aaron and his companions travel there as well, and ultimately meet the baby Jesus. Greer Garson, a top Hollywood star of the 1940s, voiced the narrator, while Puerto Rican star (and uncle to George Clooney) José Ferrer played the special’s villain. 3 Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970)
Rankin and Bass returned to secular entertainment with
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, a gleefully strange origin story for Kris Kringle, i.e. Santa Claus. In the film, Kris finds himself caught up in the antics of two childish and unhappy creatures: the icy, lonely Winter Warlock and the Burgermeister Meisterburger (yes, that’s really his name), the latter of which attempts to ban all toys in town, until Kris infects him with the spirit of Christmas. The zany energy of this film makes it one of Rankin and Bass’ best, as do the voice talents of Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire. 4 The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
The team continued exploring the Santa mythos with their next film. This special places Mrs. Claus, unusually, in a front-and-center role: After her husband gets a cold and decides to take a hiatus from his duties, she has to step up and figure out how to save Christmas. Though not a sequel to
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, Mickey Rooney once again voices Santa Klaus (otherwise known as Kris Kringle), and the film stages a similar conflict between the territorial Snow Miser and Heat Miser, who control the weather — an inadvertent allegory, in 2021, for climate change. 5 Jack Frost (1979)
As they approached the final years of their partnership, Rankin and Bass’ output got stranger and stranger. Case in point:
Jack Frost, a film about a frost sprite who can’t be with his true love because he can’t stay human for long enough. The special is influenced by literary tales such as the myth of Hades and Persephone, but don’t let that pedigree fool you: This is a truly weird piece of work. The narrator is a groundhog; the love interest is kidnapped; and the villain’s sidekicks are all made of iron — real humans couldn’t stand him — and have names like Klangstomper and Fetch-Kvetch. 6 The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
But it didn’t end with
Jack Frost. According to Ryan Anielski at IndieWire, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus “is far and away the most screwed up Rankin-Bass special.” That alone would make it noteworthy, but it also happens to be the final stop-motion film the duo produced together. This retelling of Santa Claus’ life, including his childhood, diverges even more sharply from traditional stories: In this special, Santa is raised by a wild lioness and a wood nymph, and works to protect both nature and nearby humans. The special recounts Santa’s life story, while also showing a council of immortal beings deciding whether to grant him immortality as he lies on his deathbed. This may not be the special to turn on if you have kids in your life and want to entertain them — but it’s a surreal trip, the kind of art that can only be made by established directors with incredible levels of creative freedom. 7 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Finally, a non-Rankin-Bass entry: Tim Burton’s beloved
The Nightmare Before Christmas. Though the film’s style was vastly different from Rankin and Bass’ kitsch aesthetic, Burton was undeniably influenced by their work. He told the that he loved the specials as a child, and even named a character in his film Los Angeles Times Frankenweenie, Mr. Burgermeister, after the character in Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. This still-beloved feature, which adopts many elements of classic Christmas specials and gives them a goth twist, illustrates the enduring legacy of Rankin and Bass’ cultural influence and artistry.
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