You can’t deny that the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials have become classics in their own right. When the holiday season comes around, certain films will inevitably get some airtime, and still others will be played in near perpetuity across cable and network channels alike as everyone attempts to cash in on the American love for traditions, and the Rankin/Bass Original Christmas Classics certainly qualify. Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town! sit comfortably next to A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas on the shelf of Christmas programming. We’ll watch these things year after year, and this Blu-ray release of the Rankin/Bass classics helps to preserve them for future generations, even if it doesn’t do too much to improve their appearance.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town! is a 51-minute expansion on the classic Christmas carol of the same name, and with Rudolph, it’s easily the most enjoyable part of the collection. Call me crazy, but the epitome of a Rankin/Bass feature’s quality is the stop-motion used to bring the intricate character models to life. In Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town!, Fred Astaire sings the titular song as a voice cast including Mickey Rooney tells the story of how Kris Kringle became Santa Claus and overthrew a ban on toys.
Similarly, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has a 52-minute adaptation of the song everyone knows and loves along with a little bit of a liberal expansion on the story to include an elf who can’t make toys (Paul Soles), a kind-hearted explorer (Larry D. Mann), and of course, Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) as the lovable narrator. When Hermey the elf discovers that he doesn’t have the knack of toy-making like the other elves, he strikes off to make his dream of dentistry come true, and along the way he befriends Rudolph, the outcast reindeer exiled due to the glowing red nose that we all know will come to save the day. It’s a great, great stop-motion feature and you can’t help but revel in the wizardry involved in making these models sing and dance.
The final disc features Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns, which personally I was never as taken with just because it’s not quite as special when you tell these stories in basic animation, some of the wonder gets lost. The primary Frosty feature is still based on the song we grew up with at every Christmas, but the follow-up that came 23 years later has never sat well with me. Bursting at the seams with environmental political overtones, the whole thing seems horribly lacking in Christmas spirit and really has nothing to do with Frosty besides having him as the protagonist in a story about the possible end of snow (remedied, of course, by a song about all the things that make snowy winters great). The original may be wholesome and fit well with the overall collection, but Frosty Returns as an extra doesn’t feel right and is in no way as classic as the three primary features. Furthermore, even though Jackie Vernon, who played Frosty originally, died before the making of Frosty Returns, John Goodman’s substitution never feels right (though the man is by all accounts a terrific actor both onscreen and in voiceovers).
Now for the bad news. As great as it is that Classic Media is helping to preserve the Rankin/Bass legacy by bringing their films to the next video format, it doesn’t mean anything if the original prints of the film have suffered deterioration through years of poor maintenance. Both Santa Claus and Rudolph have evident color distortion throughout their durations. However, when the color isn’t shifting, the remastered version shows some definite improvement over old DVD and VHS copies as the models’ detailed work becomes visible (in the stop-motion films). The animated features also show wear and tear in the original reels (Frost Returns, ironically, is the best preserved having been produced in 1992 and despite being the worst), though it’s never as bad with animation as it is for such painstakingly crafted works as stop-motion features.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The only “extra” is Frosty Returns, but that’s not entirely unexpected considering how old these are (they weren’t thinking about extra features back then).
"The Original Christmas Classics" is on sale November 12, 2010 and is not rated. Animation, Children & Family. Directed by Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr, Larry Roemer. Written by Romeo Muller, . Starring Keenan Wynn, Mickey Rooney, Billy De Wolfe, Jackie Vernon, Burl Ives.