BLU-RAY LIGHTS UP THE RANKIN/BASS "BIG THREE" @ 27 November 2011 11:00 PM
On this three-disc boxed Blu-ray set, The Original Christmas Classics, you can see three of the top Christmas specials, produced and directed by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, in high def -- plus get a music CD of original-version holiday pop hits like Brenda Lee' "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and Burl Ives' Decca versions of "Rudolph" and "Holly Jolly Christmas."
[For some reason, the DVD version of the same set includes seven specials. The set of three Blu-ray discs contains four shows in total, and it's a better deal than buying the three Blu-ray discs separately.]
Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer is the first Rankin/Bass holiday special, and only their second TV special ever (the first being Return to Oz). Still the all-time champ, Rudolph is the longest-running holiday special in television history, running annually since 1964, mostly on CBS and NBC. You can get hung up on the modest scope of the stop-motion Animagic figures, elemental sets and limited effects, but you can't deny its power. There is simply an engaging quality about the production that charms every generation, regardless of how high-tech things become. Production designer Anthony Peters deserves more attention for his creations, which we see almost everywhere today -- even the lettering is widely imitated.
At its core, the story is about being "different," and how those differences become strengths. For a show aimed at children's, the characters can be downright cruel (this particular Santa, besides appearing to have an eating disorder, shows such displeasure he'd be right at home sitting next to Donald Trump on The Apprentice).
If you view the special in its historic context, during the civil rights movement, suddenly Rudolph is a victim of prejudice -- Clarice's father won't let his daughter be seen with him. Maybe that's reading too much into the story, but it makes one wonder if some members of '60s households realized they were watching or just dismissed it as a cute kid's show. Probably the latter.
As a cultural icon, you can't dismiss the influence this single special had on so much that followed it. Many of today's greatest names in animation have either cited it as a favorite (along with other Rankin/Bass films) or slipped its lore into their own work. Like The Wizard of Oz, elements of Romeo Muller's script have become part of our vernacular, from Charlie in the Box to Hermie the Dentist.
On Blu-ray, of course you can see the handmade quality of the animation in all its glory -- as well as details you may have missed, like Clarice's touch of blush or Fireball's freckles. AND, the long-omitted "Peppermint mine" scene has been included. If you've ever wondered if there was more to Yukon Cornelius' quest for riches, you'll see it just before Santa goes off to pick up the misfit toys.
For more about Rankin/Bass and Rudolph, check out the books and blog of author/expert Rick Goldschmidt, who helped save the peppermint mine scene.
Frosty the Snowman came along in 1968, when the small New York-based Rankin/Bass production company was proving itself in a marketplace dominated by Hollywood animation giants with Saturday morning series (King Kong), feature films (The Daydreamer, Mad Monster Party) and other specials (Cricket on the Hearth). Like all of their weekly series, Frosty was done in what is now called 2-D or cel animation. Almost all of their animation was done in Japan, and this was one completed at Mushi Studios.
The animation isn't much more fluid than in their Animagic productions, but it works very well even by today's standards, in which flash is becoming so prevalent in TV cartoons. What makes it stand head and shoulders over most specials is its unerring simplicity, the voice cast (led by Jimmy Durante, Jackie Vernon and Billy DeWolfe) and the rich musical "house style" by Maury Laws. More than anything else, perhaps, the design by Paul Coker, Jr. comes across most dramatically in hand-drawn animation and makes Frosty look like a Christmas card come to life.
Watching the crisp, linear Coker images (which resemble his work for countless greeting cards and especially MAD magazine) in Blu-ray is a treat. This was either beautifully preserved or painstakingly restored or both. By daughter remarked that it "looks like it was just made yesterday!"
The "bonus" on the disc is Frosty Returns, the 1992 special CBS commissioned years later (though the 1974 Rankin/Bass 'Twas the Night Before Christmas special usually held the ratings in the second half hour following Frosty), was directed by "Peanuts" legend Bill Melendez. CBS may have also requested that the special resemble a "Peanuts" special because Frosty Returns looks almost identical to a show with Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
Frosty Returns is notable for several reasons, including the voice of a very young Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olsen on MadMen) when she was a child actor, a witty script by Oliver Goldstick and Jim Lewis, and a nice supporting cast, especially if you're a SCTV and Saturday Night Live fan (the executive producer was SNL's Lorne Michaels, whose Broadway Video controlled the Rankin/Bass video library at the time).
My only quibble is that Frosty Returns either never got the loving care in the vault as it animated predecessor or there was a mastering problem, because there is a lot of "line noise" throughout, almost as if it were a VHS tape instead of a Blu-ray! I might guess that since this show is not the main attraction, it didn't matter as much, but you can't miss the flaws when you can see the images so clearly.
Other than that, Frosty the Snowman itself on Blu-ray does indeed look like it was made yesterday, rather than over 40 years ago.
Santa Claus is Comin' to Town came to ABC first in 1970, when Rankin/Bass was firing on all cylinders. The visual difference between this production and that of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is considerable, especially with regard to the immense, detailed sets and more intricate characters, designed by Paul Coker, Jr. Yes, there is the same animation "on two's and three's" as well as a few modest effects, but everything clicks within the brisk 51 minutes, none of which seem padded.
When I asked him to name a favorite special (in The Cartoon Music Book) Musical director/composer Maury Laws called this his favorite, because he thought every element was perfect, from the cast to the script to the overall feel. Fred Astaire proved added another dimension to his legendary career as one of the best narrators in any special. Mickey Rooney's bravado was ideal for the young Kris Kringle. Keenan Wynn's Winter Warlock was memorable (especially when he gets the choo-choo). And our beloved Robie Lester (read Mouse Tracks for more about her) was the show-stopper when, as Jessica, she undid the proverbial bun and belted out her solo, a great tune in a score that hasn't a dud in the bunch (though sadly, in today's more creepy times, "Be Prepared to Pay" may seem to take on an odd -- thoroughly unintentional -- connotation).
Santa Claus is Comin' to Town is so spectacular that it's the visual crown jewel in the trilogy with Rudolph and Frosty. And sure, it adds yet another set of myths to confuse those trying to figure out the origin of Santa.
In this case, the story springs from the mind of writer Romeo Muller, but I wonder if, like Rudolph, this special contains a nod to its cultural context. In 1970, Richard Nixon was president, the war was raging and the counterculture was questioning. Kris and Jessica become outlaws and get married in a forest like hippies (since no town would welcome them), and the Burgermeister does resemble Nixon a little. I even noticed that, when Kris says "It's not even safe here," they're standing among the burned remains of what might have been their small camp -- we get a quick glimpse and then it's gone with no other mention. This is the story of Santa as a revolutionary against political oppression.
Okay, enough with the term paper hypotheses. This is Rankin/Bass at their best and glows like a shimmering holiday display on Blu-Ray.
NOTE: If you have the original DVD of Rudolph, you may want to hang onto to it, though, because the Blu-ray contains no extras.
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