May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
January 26, 2012
This less-than-seasonal post is brought to you by NVidia and their faulty logic boards.
For most Americans, stop-motion is something of a Yuletide affair.
Don’t get me wrong; the surge of stop-motion in theaters lately has been extremely gratifying. Aardman Studios is stretching beyond their Wallace and Gromit brand, Laika is capitalizing on the success of Coraline to produce ParaNorman, and even Wes Anderson having a go at it with The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Still, if there’s a Disney of stop-motion, a company whose work is so iconic that it’s ingrained in American culture — well, actually, Disney might be the Disney of stop-motion. They did produce Nightmare Before Christmas, after all. But even Nightmare is riffing on America’s love affair with the Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas special.
Rankin-Bass, formerly known as Videocraft, produced no less than 17 television Christmas specials through the 60s, 70s and 80s. They range from perennial classics (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) to the rather more obscure (The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold).
They’ve also done live-action, stop-motion and traditional animation, including non-holiday fare like The Hobbit, and Thundercats, as well as one of the U.S.’s few early stop-motion features, Willy McBean and His Magic Machine.
Still, holiday specials were their bread and butter, and their formula is time-tested and followed to the letter; a celebrity narrator – either playing himself or a thinly disguised version thereof – warmly addresses the audience, asks if they’ve heard the titular story and discerns from their implied reply that they don’t, and proceeds from there, not unlike a children’s sermon or a Passover Seder (without the gravitas).
Most of the popular Rankin Bass specials take their stories from Christmas carols, from the pious – The Little Drummer Boy – to the department-store classics – Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Key lines from the song inform the characters and situations and are called out like clockwork, and the rest of the 30-50 minutes are filled out with adorable animals, likable underdogs and a villain who will be not so much destroyed as defanged – in one case literally.
Honestly as an animator they’re a little difficult to watch: The movement is stiff and choppy, and the average character is about as expressive as a nutcracker. Part of that owes to the construction: the puppets are wire-rigged models with stiff faces whose mouths are replace for the sake of (often bad) lip-syncing.
But I don’t think it’s the medium that fails the material: the character designs are often quite lovely with their craft-store textures and clear lines, and the environments can be elegant in their own right. Sometimes the filmmakers find clever ways around their characters’ lack of expression, changing the lighting and environment to reflect the mood. Their technique, however, is pretty shaky: There are perfectly decent gags in each short that fall flat in setup and timing. Mostly the characters appear aimless and awkward. Thank God for the musical numbers, of which there are plenty; the regulated choreography of dance minimizes the animators’ weaknesses.
Nonetheless these specials endure. Maybe their relative quality is irrelevant. At their best, they invent a kind of Christmas mythology, and myths aren’t usually remembered for the excellence of their telling but for the images they conjure.
I wonder, too, especially watching The Little Drummer Boy: stop-motion has taken much deeper root in slavic countries, with their strong tradition of puppet theater, so maybe there’s something to be said for the way the medium has a special relationship with Christmas here in the U.S. It’s the one season where we still tell important stories with figurines. Nativity creches mirror the wondrous descent of the incarnation, something truly immense made present in something miniature. I don’t want to make too much of it, because these things aren’t deep, but maybe a little of that feeling — that especially at Christmas deep magic is sometimes uniquely present in small things — flickers and glows somewhere even in the stiff and kitschy world of Rankin-Bass.
For the sake of this post, I watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, and though I’m not sure whether I’ve seen them all before, I feel as if I have: their images are so iconic I might have absorbed the stories by osmosis.
I doubt the world needs reviews of such things – who am I to pass judgement on the Christmas Canon? – but here are some impressions:
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a slight affair, but it bounces along nicely enough, and I like how cheekily surreal it is: Hermie’s iconoclastic dream of being a dentist, Yukon Cornelius’ eclectic dogsled team (including that tireless beast, the poodle), and of course The Isle of Misfit Toys: a bird that swims, a cowboy riding an ostrich, a jelly-filled water pistol. The severity of Santa’s disapproval of Rudolph seems a little excessive, but I suppose a guy who neatly divides the children of the world into good or bad has to have pretty strong opinions.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town begins sensibly enough, with Fred Astaire answering children’s questions about various Christmas traditions – the most explicitly Seder-like of the specials – and then disregards all of the actual folklore behind them in favor of an odd story about Santa the Hero of a Fantasy Novel. He’s a foundling raised by animals who grows up to subvert and topple a cruel regime! His raiment is given to him by the elves! Stockings are a symbol of the rebellion!
Then it takes a turn for the pious in its final moments, with Santa and Mrs. Claus married “in the sight of the Lord” and choosing the date of their annual mission based on the birth of the “greatest gift of all” and explicitly connecting their work to that of the Magi. (Also, there’s an Arminian diss to Calvinism in Winter’s big musical number: ”If I want to change the reflection / I see in the mirror each morn/ You mean it’s just my election / to vote for a chance to be reborn!”) Despite having a timeworn template, the plot’s still pretty ropey- Winter loses his magic for no apparent reason, and in a stunning climax the real villain grows old and dies of natural causes. For all that, though, Santa’s a likable fellow and the music’s nice, so I guess we’ll call it a draw.
Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey
Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey I was not at all familiar with beforehand, and I can see why. It’s somehow both a poor man’s Rudolph and a poor man’s Little Drummer Boy. It dumbs down the latter’s nativity milieu and retells the former’s underdog story with much less imagination. It also includes a noxiously cute moppet of a cherub who is about as far from the majesty of a biblical angel as I can possibly imagine. The result is a film not light enough to be charming nor weighty enough to be reverent.
The Little Drummer Boy
I was, however, surprised by how much I liked The Little Drummer Boy; it’s about as heavy-handed and pious as a Christmas pageant, but equally endearing, and not without its moments of grace (in both senses of the word). Perhaps a pageant isn’t the right analogy; when little Aaron approaches the holy family it looks like nothing so much as a nativity creche, and I am reminded of the delicate handmade creches that the women of my church put on display over the Christmas season, carved wood and felt and other hand arts, not necessarily sublime but still tenderly made. And that is indeed worth something.