I used to grow up watching a lot of those stop-motion Rankin-Bass specials around the holiday season. There are two in particular which hold up the best, and each offers a contradictory origin of Santa Claus. They are the subject of today’s blog entry.
I will go to my grave saying that Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town was the best short the Rankin-Bass studio ever made. It tells a tighter, more focused narrative than Rudolf that doesn’t require a huge suspension of disbelief (the massive time skip) or make everyone–including Santa–look like a complete jerk. Its narrative creatively strings together the many attributes of Santa into a plausible sequence of events. This was produced before Rankin-Bass got a little too creative, and started writing screenplays via the Mad Libs strategy. (Rudolph’s Shiny New Year and Christmas in July are the best examples of what I’m talking about.) The musical numbers stand head and shoulders above its peers in the Christmas special pantheon, and the soundtrack thoughtfully utilizes motifs to accentuate major story beats. (Notice how the melody for the title song plays every time another aspect of the Santa’s mythos is explained.)
I love how this origin story frames Santa as something of a modern Robin Hood, spreading joy to the people who have been subdued by a repressive government. It’s both unexpected to modern audiences, who’ve trained to think of Santa as the ultimate personification of lawful good, and somewhat true to the origins of Saint Nicholas. (Who, among other good deeds, is said to have saved men from wrongful execution and freed women from prostitution.) Santa’s enemies brand him a “non-conformist and a rebel,” which teaches children that following unjust laws does not make one a good person–sometimes, it’s quite the opposite. Notice how the denizens of Sombertown are all grayscale while Santa and his presents both literally and metaphorically bring color to their lives. We see that, while he may not have the law on his side, Santa is morally in the right because of his generosity. Every single antagonist in the story, from Jessica to the Winter Warlock to the Burgermeister are either swayed or at least briefly softened by his gifts. Therefore, if a law prevents the spread of happiness, maybe it’s the law itself which is wrong.
What I always found especially profound in this special was its storyteller, Special Delivery Kluger. It’s a huge cliche in the Rankin-Bass library for a wacky narrator, usually with no ties to the main action or characters, to guide us through the narrative. Sometimes it’s unnecessary but harmless (Sam the Snowman in Rudolf) but as you go through a million of these specials it starts to get pretty ridiculous and limited. I feel this insistence on sticking to a played-out formula largely hampered the Rankin-Bass studio from growing and developing in their craft. There was only one single exception where I felt the narrator was inseparable to the film, and this was it. Besides SD Kluger’s handsome uniform and comforting voice, he delivers this beautiful monologue at the end which ties everything together wonderfully. Don’t just look at Santa Claus as the deliveryman for your presents on Christmas…think of him as your role model for every other day of the year. If we all did that, maybe this weary world wouldn’t be so damn miserable for so many of us.
Unlike Comin’ to Town, which my family had on videocassette growing up, I had never seen The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus until sometime in high school when I found it by wikipedia surfing. I tracked down a copy online and wound up thoroughly impressed by this buried gem of the Rankin-Bass catalog. In comparison to Comin’ to Town, which was an original story, this one’s based on a novella by L. Frank Baum, of Oz fame. It has a bit of a darker edge to it than its contemporaries from the same studio. It’s almost as if here, in their final stop-motion film, Rankin and Bass were learning from their past mistakes. There’s no goofy, convoluted script of their own creation and a willingness to stray from their trademarked formula. I think Life and Adventures largely benefits from this and is arguably their best work as a result.
While this particular special isn’t relayed directly to the viewer by a separate narrator, admittedly there is a framing device where the chief deity, Great Ak, is telling the story to other divine beings. He does so in order to convince them to grant immortality to Claus. The Greak Ak also serves as a mentor to our hero throughout his life, including a sequence where he shows the young Claus the widespread sufferings of mortal men. The two could almost be thought of as dual protagonists of the story, and have great chemistry together. For me, their dynamic is best captured during the scene where Great Ak offers this moral imperative, which complements SD Kluger’s lesson very nicely:
Claus: “What is man’s use? Why is he here? Why is he born at all?”
Great Ak: “To leave the world in some way better than he found it.”
Claus: “Great Ak, how can I do that?”
Great Ak: “You must follow your star as others have before you. And try to bring a measure of joy and love to the world.”
I don’t want to say too much because this is really one of those shorts you just need to see for yourself. Rather than a benevolent monarch of the North Pole or a Robin Hood/Chaotic Good archetype, this special portrays Claus as a mythological hero akin to Hercules and Romulus. He’s a mortal whose good deeds endear him to the Gods enough for them to adopt him as one of their pantheon. There’s a good mix of emotional depth, especially in the scene where Necile asks Claus to call her “mother.” There’s also a fair amount of action as far as stop-motion goes, like when Great Ak defends Claus from malevolent deities.If I’ve enticed you to check it out, the entire film may be found on Dailymotion, albeit in poor quality.
So, if I’m recommending animated Christmas specials, why is this post titled “Beautiful New Years Fantasy?” Because I would like us all to take SD Kluger and Great Ak’s advice to heart, and make it our collective New Years resolutions to be more like Santa for the remaining 364 days of the year.