For the first time in forever, I watched The Little Drummer Boy last night, a 1968 Christmas TV special produced by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. Greer Garson narrates the 25-minute story of an orphaned boy exploited by bandits who (literally) finds Jesus.
The only reason I watched was out of a sense of nostalgia. The stop-motion animation was cruder than I remembered. Nevertheless, within a few minutes, none of that mattered. Here I am, edging into 55 years of age, and I got completely caught up in a 52-year-old children’s show about a little boy with a drum and his dancing animal friends. And I’m not embarrassed to say that the last few minutes put a little mist in my eyes.
Over the past week or so, the wife and I have watched a bunch of these Rankin/Bass specials. Their very first is probably the most famous, 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We also watched Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (1970), The Year Without a Santa Claus (my personal favorite), and tonight we’ll watch Jack Frost (1979) and Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976).
You’re probably reading this and thinking, Well, the Noltes are enjoying a Rankin/Bass marathon for Christmas.
And that’s my point — we’re not. The fact that Rankin/Bass Christmas specials make up almost all of the animated specials we watch and rewatch over the Christmas season has nothing to do with loyalty to a certain brand or love for stop-motion. We love these specials for the same reason anyone loves any movie or TV show… We’re charmed and moved by the stories, the songs, the characters, and the performers.
Other than Rankin/Bass, we only watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1966), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), and Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). That’s it.
Of course, I’m talking about animated TV specials. There are all kinds of great Christmas movies and TV episodes and live-action specials (Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland) that we enjoy.
Could the Rankin/Bass thing just be a product of nostalgia?
I don’t think so.
Most every list out there that ranks favorite/greatest Christmas specials always includes a handful of Rankin/Bass titles. Even 40 and 50 years later, in this the age of Pixar, people continue to be charmed forever by these old-fashioned stories about the true meaning of Christmas, many of which focus on the birth of Jesus without embarrassment.
What’s more, these specials always seem to be broadcast somewhere. Every year you can find and watch them
And if you want to talk about an animated special that focuses on the birth of Jesus without embarrassment, look at the one that reruns forever and almost always ranks at the top of everyone’s list, A Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
Could it be there’s no other competition in the animated special arena?
Growing up in the seventies, we were inundated every year with what was always advertised as a “brand new classic.” Look at this list. So no, the abiding love for Rankin/Bass obviously has nothing to do with a lack of competition.
Rankin/Bass produced 19 of these things over 17 years, and at least seven or eight of them still charm a world that has changed a whole lot over the last 56 to 39 years. But then again, maybe we haven’t changed all that much.
We’re still human beings attracted to charismatic stars like Greer Garson, Fred Astaire, Shirley Booth, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Burl Ives, Joel Grey, Red Skelton, Buddy Hackett, Jimmy Durante, and Keenan Wynn. Most people under 30 who watch these specials probably have no idea who most of these people were, which is what made them so special, what made them stars and legends. You don’t have to know who they were to appreciate them.
We’re still human beings attracted to stories of outsiders and underdogs searching for a place in a world that demands conformity.
We’re still human beings with a God-shaped hole looking to be filled, who sense the magic of the true spirit and meaning of Christmas even as we’re buried under the tinsel of commercialism and bullied by the soul-killing desolation of secularism.
With so many bad guys in charge of today’s dominant culture, it’s easy to be manipulated into believing you’re outnumbered.