Puppets My Dreams
Are they puppets? Are they some sort of clay-animated figures? Or are they some kind of beasts hitherto unknown and the likes of which the world has not seen again since?
It doesn’t matter. The creatures Rankin & Bass brought to life in their animated holiday specials are so much a part of my psyche that I no more think about their nature than I pause to consider what constitutes the air I breathe. As I’m sure so many other Generation Xers will admit, these unassuming tales wended their way into our little brains every Christmas to such a degree that now it’s impossible to think of the holidays without them. That their surprisingly subversiveness may infect some of us all throughout the year is just a nice side effect.
Take Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, for instance, 40 years old this Christmas season. A paean to nonconformity that would be startling today, it must have been downright shocking in pre-hippie 1964, when it debuted. (Good thing grownups don’t take cartoons seriously, or they might have tried to prevent us kiddies from watching it.) Rudolph, of course, is our hero, son of Donner, who’s embarrassed by his “special” son and says horrible things like “There are more important things than comfort” and tries to cover up Rudolph’s red nose with a mud pack. But Rudolph’s (the voice of Billy Richards) got a whole troop of wonderful misfits along on his adventure: Hermey (the voice of Paul Soles), the elf who doesn’t want to be a cooperative cog, who refuses to join in “elf practice,” who wants to be a dentist (and makes me want to burst into strains of Little Shop of Horrors‘ dentist song); the prospector Yukon Cornelius (the voice of Larry Mann), a loner and adventurer who surely has his own sad story of rejection to tell; the poor, misunderstood Abominable Snow Monster of the North; and an entire island of misfit toys that are something like Jack Skellington’s Santa Claus gives away to unsuspecting boys and girls.
There’s a lot that’s rather disturbing here, as we Xers came to expect from our kiddie entertainment: Mrs. Claus fattening up Santa in time for Christmas, like he was a goose or something (she’s obvious never heard of diabetes); Yukon Cornelius toppling off a mountainous glacier with the Snow Monster to his apparent doom (Jesus!); and that reindeer coach who’s terrifyingly reminiscent of the gym teachers all us geeks were afraid of. But the misfits triumph in the end, as they should, since they hardly ever do except in fantasy like this.
A few years later, Rankin & Bass checked in with 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, which gave us Kris Kringle as a rebel without a Claus (that name would come later); his future wife, a hottie schoolmarm who literally lets down her hair for a psychedelic musical interlude; a commune of socialist elves; and the idea that grownups need toys, too. (So this is where we Xers got it from.)
Just say “Burgermeister Meisterburger” to anyone over 30, and watch ’em giggle. We all know this story, of how Kris Kringle (the voice of Mickey Rooney: Babe: Pig in the City), an orphan raised by that commune of toymaking elves, became Santa Claus with his conquest of the mayor of Sombertown, who declared toys illegal because he never got the Atari 2600 he’d asked for that Christmas he was 10 (or something like that). And we’ve never forgotten the Winter Warlock and the scary trees in his forest (another thing that Tim Burton picked up on — he grew up on Rankin & Bass, too, obviously).
I had forgotten, though, how Town ends: with Kris and the hottie schoolmarm’s “wedding,” which happens without benefit of clergy as they “marry” each other under the trees of the wintry forest, with all the animals and the Warlock in attendance. Very pagan.
What I remember most about The Year Without a Santa Claus, from 1974, is always always the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser — those warring warlocks of weather; heh, more pagan stuff — and their awesome awesome songs, and their scary tiny servants, who are very creepy; the Snow Miser’s ghostly white little dudes look like the shriveled little creatures from a Doctor Who episode that’s on the tip of my mind. Oh, and also sad little Vixen, who takes sick while she and two elves, Jangle Bells (not Owen Wilson) and Jingle Bells (not Colm Meany), are out searching up some Christmas spirit to cheer up Santa, who wants to take this year off. Vixen with those socks on her ears, wilting in the cage of the world’s dumbest dogcatcher in Southtown USA… *sniffle*
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, from 1976, likewise sticks out in my mind for one reason: the Baby New Year with his jug ears, who’s missing! Oh, and the giant monster bird Eon who looks like Fish from Barney Miller. Otherwise, eh: this is pretty silly, what with Old 1 Million B.C. and his dinosaurs. Any geeky kid worth his dinosaur books knows that cavepeople and dinosaurs did not coexist. Flying reindeer with red noses, yes. People riding stegosauruses, no.