Written by: Beth Kelly on December 14th, 2015
The holiday season doesn’t seem quite right without ugly sweaters, cups of hot cocoa, decorated cookies, and Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. Some may not be familiar with the groundbreaking stop motion animation duo comprised of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, but virtually everyone has seen or at least heard of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Frosty the Snowman (1969), or Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970). These cartoons have become as much a part of our traditions as trimming the tree or hanging up stockings, but few know the history behind Rankin/Bass Productions’ celebrated “animagic” creations.
The slightly spasmodic, cute-but-vaguely-creepy stop-motion style of Rankin/Bass Productions is their trademark, and was largely due to the studio’s use of wood-based puppets. Those who recognize the work of Paul Coker, Jr. of Mad Magazine fame may see a similarity between his artistry and the characters in Rankin/Bass Programs. The reason? Coker designed many of the puppets used for characters in the cartoons. Along with the work completed by Japanese animator Tadahito Mochinaga – yes, Frosty and Rudolph were animated in Japan! – the lineup of Rankin/Bass programs developed a unique flair that hasn’t been replicated and has influenced other animation studios. Ever hear of Studio Ghibli? It’s the successor of Topcraft Studio, which was an offshoot of Toei Animation – the very studio that animated the Rankin/Bass cel-animated shows. Rankin/Bass Productions definitely has a rich history that has touched many areas of the animation industry.
The early years of Rankin/Bass productions saw the premier of some of its most famous shows, starting with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1964. Kids and adults alike already knew and loved the song, but adding a story to go along with it, some cute characters, and quirky lines made the cartoon a hit. Rudolph’s success was followed up by other programs based around timeless Christmas tunes, including Frosty the Snowman, The Little Drummer Boy (1968), and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.
Along with featuring very well-known Christmas songs as the themes and soundtracks to their shows, Rankin/Bass Productions used some of the era’s most popular vocal talent to draw in additional viewers. Burl Ives voiced the narrating snowman in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, comedian Jimmy Durante narrated Frosty the Snowman – a show which also starred the voice talents of Paul Frees and Jackie Vernon – and Mickey Rooney gave voice to Kris Kringle while Fred Astaire narrated Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. The Rankin/Bass roster of celebrity voice actors spans the likes of Dennis Day, Andy Griffith, Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tallulah Bankhead, Mia Farrow, John Huston, and Art Carney.
Legendary celebrities aside, with all of the current innovations in animation, some may wonder why these old shows are still relevant. Why watch rickety stop-motion when there are new CGI movies with glitzy special effects? It’s because the Rankin/Bass specials reach us in a way that modern technology can’t – they are the ultimate in holiday nostalgia, harkening back to a simpler, warmer time. Back before there were hundreds, even thousands of TV channels, before cable, satellite, and streaming diversified the way we consumed entertainment, there was the shared joy of seeing a “television event” together.
The advent of anatomically correct computer-based models, vector graphics, and more technologically advanced animation techniques has brought cutting-edge content to the table – but nothing created with those formats can replace these classic cartoons and the memories they hold.
It’s been over 50 years since Rankin/Bass shows premiered, but they continue to capture our hearts. These programs are a present to open in the days leading up to the Christmas holiday, as their joyful carols remind us of past celebrations and the people in our lives who make the world bright all year ‘round.