The team of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass produced some of the best-loved of all Christmas specials. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman are the ones you know; Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus, a 1985 adaptation of a book by L. Frank Baum is the lesser-known masterpiece that you should know. Warner Archive released the latter in 2009, on a disc with Nestor the Long-eared Christmas Donkey, and it is an essential addition to any holiday DVD shelf. A more recent collection of lesser-known Rankin/Bass holiday titles is unfortunately less than essential.
Rankin/Bass TV Holiday Favorites Collection is a misleading title. Only the first of its four specials is worth a second look. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II, is a 1976 sequel to the 1968 Rankin/Bass special, which like Rudolph and Frosty was based on a popular Christmas song. Book II is no throwaway sequel. It’s a well-written entertainment with high production values and a message appropriate to the holiday season. In this sequel, drummer boy Aaron rescues silver bells from the hands of Roman tax collectors led by Zero Mostel. Its 22 minutes are taut and powerful, and more somber than your typical holiday special. Fueled by loss and poverty. It’s an indictment not only of the commercialization of Christmas but of commerce in general.
It’s a precipitous drop to the next title, and it keeps getting worse. The Stingiest Man in Town is a musical version of A Christmas Carol starring the voice of Walter Matthau as Scrooge, and Mad Men’s Robert Morse as a younger Scrooge. The 50-minute special uses animation rather than the company’s signature stop-motion look, and while it’s a sight better than say, the animation seen on Hanna Barbera’s Christmas Classics collection, the writing leaves much to be desired even if it is based on Dickens. The character design is unappealing, from Scrooge’s red nose to a homely ginger that’s supposed to be his nephew.
Pinocchio’s Christmas benefits from a few interesting puppet designs, and is an intriguing variation on the Pinocchio story that riffs on its Frankenstinian elements, the puppet who wants to be a real boy even stealing a Bride. The set closes with what may be the nadir of the Rankin/Bass holiday imprimatur, The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold. This holiday season, do not sully the memory of the Island of Misfit Toys with this set. For those who want to dig deeper into the Rankin/Bass coffers, go instead to the surreal adventure of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.