Hey guys, Fenrir here trying to spread some holiday cheer with finals winding down and the onslaught of holiday-themed programing clogging up the channels — yet never fret, because while there’s some sub-par stuff thrown up nowadays, there will always be a special place for the stop-motion seasonal epics crafted by Rankin/Bass. Rankin/Bass is actually responsible for such greats as the old animated Hobbit, The Flight of Dragons, and even The Last Unicorn, but arguably the studio is most well-known for its holiday-themed shorts. From the 70s to the 80s–and with the help of some Japanese animators who would go on to work for companies such as Studio Ghibli–Rankin/Bass dominated seasonal airwaves with their holiday offerings, which are now regarded with a fair bit of nostalgia but for good reason.
Despite what you might think at first glance, these shorts are actually pretty solid examples of stop-motion animation, and are still a (relatively) entertaining holiday staple. Now without further ado, here are some of Rankin/Bass’s top five holiday movies that are sure to satisfy anyone with their rose-tinted nostalgia goggles on.
#5: Frosty the Snowman
Ah it was kind of hard to figure out where to start us off on this count-down — but there’s no way to go wrong with Frosty. This is the only traditional cel-animated feature on this list, and was inspired by Rankin and Bass’s idea to make a film that “looked like a holiday card”. With narration provided by Jimmy Durante and the voice-work of Jackie Vernon, these two voice actors provide a distinct sound to Frosty the Snowman to go along with it’s “look”.
It’s short and sweet with cheery animation, music, and some memorable moments — “Happy Birthday” in particular comes to mind when thinking about this film. At only 25 minutes it’s a very short trip down memory lane, but it’s not a bad diversion at all.
#4: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The first of Rankin and Bass’ holiday specials has a special place in the hearts of many (Especially companies ranging from Build-a-Bear to Walmart that was saturated in Rudolph gear a few years back), this story-based-on-a-song is a surefire hit with most people. It might be the cute reindeer figures that actually look (And probably) feel soft, which is a considerable step up when one remembers that Rankin/Bass’s contemporaries included the likes of Gumby — so having characters that look more cute than frightening is definitely a bonus.
Not to mention this incarnation of Rudolph delved deep into that “misfit” story-line that has subsequently influenced other not-so-inspired reincarnations. Either way, besides the cute and cuddly characters, there’s at least that message of “independence”, “embracing who you are” and all that sort of good nonsense.
#3: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
And now we’re nearing some of the holiday gold that Rankin/Bass came up with. These next two picks were a bit of a tough choice, and not because they deal with a similar premise, but because of how they excel with their different content.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a stop-motion animated adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s book of the same name. Although L. Frank Baum is famous for his Wizard of OZ series, this story is notable for its unique mythology that explains a rather interesting good-versus-evil Santa Claus origin story, something that quite frankly I find very refreshing and, in its own way, intriguing.
Rankin/Bass certainly pulled out all the stops when bringing about the various demons, sprites, elves, and the evil Awgwas to life — and it’s a film that is definitely worth a glance for its visual style and its atypical telling of Jolly Old St. Nick. There is also a pretty respectable animated version that came out around 2000 or so, which is also worth a watch if you can get your hands on it!
Also be on the lookout for a kendo scene, because there is nothing as effective about showing the “evils of man” than by having kids hit each other with bokken haha.
#2: Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Now if you’re in the mood for big musical numbers and light-hearted galavanting through a stop-motion world, look no further than Santa Claus is Coming to Town. This telling of the Santa Claus origin story has less dragon-fighting and more singing, dancing, and cute animal sidekicks — ie. what is expected out of Rankin/Bass. But, there is something undeniably catchy about these songs, that are arguably some of the best in the Rankin/Bass holiday special line-up.
Also, sympathetic villains? Villains named Burgermeister Mesiterburger? Yeah sign me up for grouches and warlocks with a cause and some good theme songs, haha.
#1: The Year Without a Santa Claus
And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for — here’s the top pick for Rankin/Bass holiday specials, and it has to go to The Year Without a Santa Claus.
You’ve got to hand it to Rankin/Bass for this special, which is arguably one of the most original plots they’ve come up with. Santa Claus comes down with a cold and considers taking a holiday, especially when he realizes that there are people who don’t believe in him; it’s then up to Mrs. Claus, the elves Jingle and Jangle, and a few cheesy nature spirits — as well as the hope and belief in the “spirit of Christmas” realized by children around the world — to get everything back in order. This film is, again, arguably the most original that Rankin/Bass have come up with, without any other mythology/author to grab the idea from, so there has to be kudos given there.
Furthermore — there’s nothing like the two most memorable characters of Rankin/Bass fame: The Snow and the Heat Miser. While they’ve sadly suffered from “horrible sequel syndrome”, they will always be remembered for their complementary musical numbers that never fail to be cheerfully cheeky and just fun to watch and listen to:
Of course, the rest of the movie is pretty darn good on its own and is worth a watch through for those interested in a little something more “original” from the Rankin/Bass lineup.
And that’s all there is to this holiday line-up; sadly Rankin/Bass didn’t seem to deem it necessary to branch out to other holidays that coincide with Christmas, but hey, we’re talking 1960s America here. Either way, these films are in their own little way short and fun vestiges of a different animation age that still have the power to bring wonder and joy — or at least, a good round of those schmoopy nostalgic feels.