Do you remember when… Rudolph visited the Island of Misfit Toys, and Santa asked Rudolph to guide his sleigh on Christmas Eve? Share the magic of this Original Christmas Classic told and sung by Burl Ives!
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer 7.5
eyelights: the characters designs. the message.
eyesores: the songs. the misogyny.
“Well now let me tell you about Rudolph. It all started a couple of years before the big snow. It was springtime, and Santa’s lead reindeer, Donner, had just become a proud papa…”
‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is the longest running Christmas TV special in history, having run every year since it was first broadcast on December 3, 1964. Not only is it broadcast every year, but it is frequently played multiple times across various cable channels.
This one-hour short film is based on the classic holiday ditty by Johnny Marks, which itself was based on a book. Both were also chart-toppers, with the book moving 2.5 million copies in its first year alone and the song eventually selling 25 million copies – making it the second-best selling record of all time until the 1980s.
To say that ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is a cultural phenomenon is an understatement.
And yet, for reasons that I can’t really explain, I hadn’t seen the holiday special in many years – so long ago, in fact, that I couldn’t remember most of the story, let alone when I had last seen it. Was it because I rarely watch television, and thus hadn’t had a chance to see it? Who knows…
Seeing it now, with an adult mind and a critical eye, I was surprised by the quality of the production and just how well it holds up (as far as kids’ entertainment goes) some 50 years later. Furthermore, I wasn’t expecting such a serious subject matter and some of the archaic notions that pepper this classic.
‘Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer’ is about discrimination. It tells the tale of our newly-born reindeer hero and the prejudice that he endures due to having a red nose. Although it’s wrapped up in the notion that he’s a misfit, as much as his friend Hermey or the Misfit Toys are, actually it’s about prejudice.
What was sad was that even Rudolph’s parents were unsupportive of the little reindeer; his dad, Donner, is so embarrassed by his son’s discrepant appearance that he has him conceal it, thereby closeting him. Even worse, Santa actually shames the Donners over the little one’s nose! You’d have expected Santa to be sympathetic. Not so!
Thankfully, Santa will eventually come around and Rudolph would take the lead on his sleigh, but it would be much later, after Rudolph goes off on many other adventures, doing battle with the Abominable Snow Monster, making friends with Yukon Cornelius and even saving his parents. In that time, Rudolph has matured and grown.
The film opens with news footage as well as newspaper taglines indicating that a major winter storm is threatening to prevent Santa from delivering his presents for Christmas. Then we are introduced to our narrator, a bearded snowman who would regularly cut in to narrate the story or give background info.
Then came the most curious bit of the whole picture, which was the unveiling of the special’s setting, which, naturally, is the North Pole. The curious part: Santa’s castle! Castle? And here I had always thought that Santa lived in a quaint little home with Ms. Claus! I had no idea that he aspired to be King of the North!
Beyond that detail, though, and Santa’s unadmirable rebuke of the Donners, I loved that Santa isn’t just dressed in his red and white suit: he actually wears other clothing and only puts that suit on for Christmas. This gave him a more realistic vibe – which was helped by the remarkable attention given to his appearance.
In fact, aside from the reindeer, the character designs were all astonishingly good:
- I adored the look of the Abominable snowman. And even though he is threatening, I didn’t find him truly scary (although I suspect that he might make an impression with smaller children than myself).
- I found Yukon Cornelius pretty cool-looking, too, with tons of details afforded him, including his curly mustache. The character was amusing (and also annoying, truth be told). I liked the notion that he would lick his pick-axe after throwing it up in the air (although the reason remained unexplained).
- And of course, I thought that the island of Misfit Toys was brilliant, filled with awesome characters and concepts. I am not alone: the characters were so popular that producers Rankin/Bass received a deluge of mail from kids who decried that Santa Claus never helped the Misfit Toys in the end – so they filmed a new ending and this has been the one that’s been broadcast ever since (it is one of the many different versions of the show out there).
‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, unlike ‘Frosty the Snowman‘, is a stop-motion animation film. Some of the scenes were embellished by traditional cel animation (to create gusts of wind and add some snow), but otherwise it was all stop-motion. Unfortunately the characters’ motion was decent, but slightly stilted.
This was more apparent during the musical numbers (yes, this is !@#$ musical!), because the characters were incapable of following the tempo and moving fluidly. A musical… egad! Thankfully, although the songs aren’t very good, they are mercifully brief and spread out enough for us to forget the pain.
The voice acting isn’t always terrific, and is sometimes ill-suited to the characters (Hermey, in particular, is awful – although nothing nearly as horrible as Felix in ‘Mad Monster Party?‘). But the writing is decent enough for this sort of production and it even cleverly uses some of the song’s lyrics in the dialogues.
However, two things troubled me about this Christmas special:
1. For starters, there’s a certain amount of misogyny imbedded in the picture. You might be surprised to hear this, but at one point Donner dismisses his spouse’s offer to help find Rudolph by telling her “No. This is man’s work”. Ugh. Me big man, with big stick. Sigh… give me a break, Donner!
One could write it off as merely a character flaw, until we realize that the issue resides with the writers: at another point, the narrator tells us that “the best thing to do is to get the women back to Christmas Town”. Look, I know that it’s probably consistent with the times, but it makes me sick to my stomach anyway.
2. I also found the mistreatment of the Abominable Snow Monster absolutely revolting: in an effort to make him less of a threat, while he’s unconscious, Hermey pulls all of his teeth out! I suppose that someone thought that this would be a funny way to neutralize him, but I don’t find mutilation amusing.
Further to that, the Abominable Snow Monster is then chased off of a cliff, where he presumably falls to his doom. Now, I don’t know how anyone could justify killing the now-pitiful beast after having been defanged, but I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of impact this might have on the children watching this show.
But, beyond those issues and the deplorably lame songs, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is a pretty decent family-friendly fare. It has its charms, it’s noteworthy from a production standpoint, and diligent parents could parlay a decent moral out of its mixed messages.
So it’s no wonder that Rudolph has delighted audience with his nose so bright for so long.
“Now don’t worry about your nose, son. Just get out there and do your stuff. Remember, you’re my little buck.”
Date of viewing: December 10, 2013