Wednesday, December 24, 2014

RANKIN/BASS SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN' TO TOWN

It's Christmas Eve, and I think now would be a perfect time to review the Rankin/Bass Christmas classic...


Did you ever wonder where Santa came from; why we put up Christmas trees; why he goes down chimneys; why he leaves presents; how he met Mrs.Claus; how "he sees you when you're sleeping" and "knows when you're awake"; why he chooses the night when Jesus Christ was born to leave presents; how his Reindeer fly; why he wears a red suit, etc, etc; this Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion musical answers your questions about Santa with the voice talents of Mickey Rooney as Santa; and Fred Astaire as the narrator. However, is it as good as we remember it, ON WITH THE REVIEW...


 

First off, I like that this TV Christmas Special opens up with an extremely short Newsreel, just like how they opened their first Stop-Motion Christmas short "Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer". It not only builds up the story, but it does a great job convincing kids that Santa is real, despite how old and dated the footage is. Fred Astaire voices a singing and dancing Mailman who tells the story, and while his design is a little creepy (I mean dude, what's with the big chin, and the lines around his mouth?), he's still a fun and likable character. Astaire provides a great narration; his singing is fantastic; that speech he gives at the end about giving always touches me every time I hear it; and his rendition of the song "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" is the best version of the song that I've ever heard. Astaire is also accompanied by the off-screen Westminister Children's Choir, who interacts with him and sing, and while not really needed, it's still cute.



In the Rankin/Bass "Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer" Christmas special, I complained about how much of a whiny jerk that Rankin/Bass portrayed Santa. In their animated cartoon "Frosty the Snowman", they portrayed him better, (Even though Santa likes to drop off little girls on top of snowy houses). Here however, they hit a complete flawless bull’s-eye at creating not only the Santa we know and love, but as a young man named Kris; seriously, how many times do we see Santa as a young man?  He's so fun; energetic; kind hearted; sweet; happy; caring; giving; and understanding that it's hard for you not to think that this is Santa when he was very young, and Mickey Rooney's voice acting captures every spirit and feel of the character! While there have been many interpretations of Santa origins, this one in my opinion beats them all. The answers to your questions flow with the story so well, that I can’t think of any versions that can top Santa’s origins. However, I do wish that we can explore and learn about the powers that he’s learned from one of the characters, thus understanding how he is immortal, but however, I’m just nitpicking. For me, this is like Top 5 of the Best Santa Clauses that I've seen in film and TV, with both the performance and the writing.




Mrs.Santa Clauses portrayal is done really well in the special as well. When we first see her, she's this strict school Teacher named Jessica, but as the special goes on, the two really begin to form a beautiful relationship. She starts liking Kris once she gets a gift that she always wanted; to helping him bring Toys to the children; to later on helping him in dangerous situations and staying by his side when the going gets tough. If I may ask, if Jessica is a big help to Kris, why doesn't the special's main villain go after her? Anyway, getting back to Jessica, her design is extremely beautiful, and Robie Lester does a very charming job voicing this character.




Next we have the Winter Warlock voiced by Keenan Wynn, and I don't think I'm giving anything way when I say that this character is exactly like Bumbles from "Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer". He starts out as this powerful, intimidating and frightening villain, to later on turning good, which actually happens in the middle of the special, instead of the ending. While I do think his change from bad to good is done well here, I honestly do wish we saw more of him as a villain, than as a comic relief character, who becomes powerless for no apparent reason, to getting his powers back for no apparent reason (Seriously, what's with this guy losing power and then getting them back with no explanation at all?). Again, I do enjoy the friendship between him and Kris; and Keenan Wynn is funny and likable; I just wish we could see more of him as this evil Warlock.




Now the special does have a villain, and that's the nasty Mayor of a town where Toys are forbidden. Yeah, as cliche and silly as the villain and concept sounds, it's not only done well by connecting to Santa's origins perfectly, but the villain himself is great. While being over the top, and having some really funny comedic moments when he encounters toys; he still can be intimidating at times, as well as posing as a threat to our lead. Paul Frees voices this character, and whenever I hear him put on a German accent in other cartoons, this is the character that immediately comes to my head. This villain just has a perfect mix between comedy, and intimidation, and he does really make up for the lack of villain time that the Winter Warlock has.



Now let’s move onto the supporting characters. You first have the Elves and the Queen of the Elves, and they are all just as fun and jolly as Santa himself. Yeah, I do prefer the Elves designs in "Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer", then having the Elves look like the different versions of Santa, but I’d be lying if I said, that I don't find the concept clever. It's just when I think of Santa's Christmas Elves (Especially when being a Rankin/Bass Production) the Elves from "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" are the first that come to my mind. However, I do think the Queen of the Elves is a better character than the hot headed head Elf in "Rudolph", but I still get a laugh out of him. I guess comparing these two different versions of Santa's Elves would be like comparing Apples to Oranges; but since these two different versions of Santa’s Elves are done by the same guys, I couldn't help but make the comparison. Which do I like better, well, I guess I'd have to go with this version, since they're a lot friendlier and jollier. You also have the Animals, including Kris's sidekick which is a Penguin, and while they don't talk, they're still fun and cute characters. The last of the supporting characters is the villains right hand man, who does bring an occasional laugh, but not as big of a laugh as the villain himself. Still, it is fun seeing them together.




Now for the songs, I already talked about how much I enjoy Fred Astaire singing the title song of the special; but he does sing another song that's very haunting, beautiful, and Christmassy called "What Better Way To Tell You" as Kris gets married to Jessica, and for me that song and scene is one of the highlights of the special. You have the Elves song "First Toymakers To The King", which is a very and catchy song, that captures a child's love for toys. Then you have the villain's version of the song called "There Will Be No More Toymakers To The King", which is indeed a very fun villain song, especially the performance that Frees puts into it. Mickey Rooney gets two songs to sing, and I must say one I really love, while the other I'm very dismissive towards. The song I dislike is his first song "If You Sit On My Lap Today", and while the number is cute, and Rooney does a fine job singing the song, I usually find myself annoyed with this number, even as a kid. The song I really love is "Put One Foot In Front Of The Other", which is so fun, catchy, energetic, and uplifting, that I think it really does support the special's theme of changing your ways. Finally, there's Jessica's song "My World Is Beginning Today". While it's a very, very beautiful song; the scene itself is so surreal and trippy that it feels creepy, weird, and out of place. Hell, "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" would fit better with these visuals, than this beautiful romantic song.

 

Now, as for the Stop-Motion animation, if you're expecting to be wowed by it, or at least think it looks better than the Stop-Motion from "Rudolph"; you're pretty much not going to be impressed by it. It looks unintentionally awkward and creepy at times; the lips are mostly out synch, or don't move at all, when a character sings or talks; some of the hand drawn animation looks very trippy (Though to be fair, that's mostly in Jessica's song); a town resident has the same design as the King who the Elves served for many years ago before they had Kris; there's a little girl who smiles at everything, even when there are terrible things happening; and I'm now nitpicking. Yeah, with these Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion cartoons, you can't really expect high quality, and while some of it does look freaky, unnatural, and so on, it's still good in its own right. It's colorful; creative; cute; some of the hand drawn animation does look nice on many occasions; and this Stop-Motion universe that Rankin/Bass has created, while not for everyone is very unique. While, I don't usually find myself freaked out by their Stop-Motion Specials, here, along with Rudolph, I kind of am, but enchanted by it at the same time.

In all honesty, this Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas special has the same amount of good and bad as "Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer". The animation is good, but can look creepy at times. The story is great, but it does have a few elements that don't make much sense. The songs are really good, but one suffers from being annoying, while the other one has out of place trippy visuals. The characters are great, creative, and memorable, but you can pretty much point out the similarities between them and the characters in "Rudolph" (The Mailman is the Snowman; Jessica is Clarice; The Winter Warlock is Bumbles; and the Penguin is a companion that our main character meets on his journey, like Hermey). Where I think the special really succeeds in, is their take on Santa. Not just with the origins, but also with the character and the performance from Mickey Rooney. It's done so great, that to me, that's what makes the special so wonderful.

RATING 4/5

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