Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Rankin/Bass Christmas mythology

You've seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, right? You've probably seen Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, and maybe even The Year Without A Santa Claus (the Miser Bros., anyone?) as well. Well, have you ever seen Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July? Chances are that you haven't.

We've all seen the classics, and most people really enjoy them. But being the nerdy completist I am, I always like checking out the lesser known sequels that add so much more to the continuity and the mythology. What? Santa Claus has a mythology? Well, a strangely elven fat jolly old man who lives forever and has roots in Catholic beliefs and a plethora of Christ-like qualities, using powerful magic to judge right from wrong and fly around the world with flying reindeer and make toys with elves sounds pretty mythological already. You just don't think of him as a folkloric figure because he sells Coca-Cola.

Rudolph fans probably all know that he was created as a children's book by Robert L. May to promote Montgomery Ward stores. Not exactly a spontaneous creation from the common folk, sure, but they already had several hundred years for St. Nicholas to turn into the Santa Claus we know today, and the book owes quite a bit to the ever-important poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" by Clement Moore (more popularly known as "The Night Before Christmas")- including taking its rhyme scheme and rhythm!
It was about a decade later when the familiar song was written, surpassing the popularity of the original book a millionfold. According to some sources, the Max Fleischer cartoon (which includes the song) is from 1944, but everywhere else says that Johnny Marks wrote the song in 1948. Yeah, I don't get it either. Whatever the case, the Fleischer cartoon is directly based on the book, albeit shortened considerably.
In a case of an adaptation retelling the original story and consequently erasing it from the public mind (much like Disney and Grimm's Fairy Tales), Rankin/Bass released the definitive version of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer story in 1964. They completely tossed the original book out the window and based the story entirely on the lyrics of the song- which, of all versions, is the most bare-bones, leaving them a lot of room for invention.

While the original book included your usual talking, bipedal animals, Rankin/Bass' version included sentient toys, an "abominable snow monster", and most unusual of all, a winged lion who reigned over a strange island kingdom where toys who were rejected by children lived- one King Moonracer. Already things are getting more interesting...

The next Rankin/Bass Christmas special to contribute to the continuity was seemingly unrelated at the time of its release- Frosty the Snowman. His character was created in 1950, and both the song and a children's book were released that year. The book followed the song lyrics pretty closely, if I recall. Rankin/Bass had very little to work with, so the 1969 special wasn't much different from the lyrics. The most notable new additions are the murky origins of the magic silk hat, which belonged to a talentless magician, and the fact that Santa Claus takes Frosty to the North Pole where he can stay cold. No explanation is given as to how the magic hat came to be, although it's suggested that the combination of the first snow of the season and the Christmas snow is equally important to bringing Frosty to life.

Next came Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town from 1970, which spins an entirely original tale loosely inspired by the song of the same name. Here we see that Santa Claus was abandoned by an unidentified mother and wound up in the hands of a family of toy-making elves called the Kringles- thus, Kris Kringle. A young, red-haired Santa (voiced by Mickey Rooney) sets out to return the Kringles to their glory days as royal toymakers by giving them away to children in a nearby town, but not without a struggle and some enforced niceness along the way ("Give a little love, get a little love back" versus "Do unto others as you would do unto yourself" and "The love you take is equal to the love you make"). Rankin/Bass tells the origins of Santa's distinctive laughter, his flying reindeer, and his use of stockings and chimneys. We even see him marry Mrs. Claus.
One thing this special fails to explain is how he becomes immortal. Oddly enough, the story is strangely similar to The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, written by L. Frank Baum, famous for his Oz books- which does explain how he becomes immortal. And Rankin/Bass would adapt that story years later, although unfortunately the similarities are minimal.
Another thing that's remarkable about Comin' To Town is that it's the first time Rankin/Bass would use a malicious creature with magical winter powers as an opponent- the Winter Warlock- although this first example turns over a new leaf almost immediately. Not only that, he gives Santa the ability to spy on children with his magic snow crystal ball.

The lesser known The Year Without A Santa Claus from 1974 is something of a follow-up to Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, mainly because Mickey Rooney reprises his role as Santa. It's a little unclear what time period it's supposed to take place, but the same goes for Comin' To Town- this one seems to be the turn-of-the-20th-century, but then Vixen is depicted as a baby. "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was written in 1823, so I'm not sure what the chronology is. (It may be that we must consider it a plain and simple contradiction...)
Whatever the case, this story, based on a children's book from 1956, tells the story of Santa wanting to take a vacation due to his illness and a loss of faith in the world's Christmas spirit. But the most memorable parts of this special are the scenes with the characters Snow Miser and Heat Miser, two deities who control summer and winter weather conditions, respectively, and fight for control of the world's weather. Their mother is Mother Nature. The use of demigods and deities in these specials reflect the secular Christmas' pagan origins, and largely disregard any question of God and Jesus. Who does Mother Nature answer to?

Things get a little weirder and more confusing once we reach the first true sequel, Frosty's Winter Wonderland from 1976. Frosty has been lonely at the North Pole, and longs to play with his friends in the town where he was created. When he finds that when the kids have to go home at night, leaving him lonely once more, the kids build him a snow woman for a wife. For some reason she's only brought to life when Frosty gives her a bouquet of flowers. Her name is Crystal.
Are they saying that only when a sentient snowperson gives a physical expression of love to a non-sentient snowperson will they come to life? Because that's the sort of sappy, sentimental type of magic I can get behind, if only somewhat ironically. I mean, Frosty manages to come back to life without his hat when she gives him a kiss...
Confusing and unexplained rules of magic aside, this special has yet another winter deity that causes trouble for the good guys- in this case, Jack Frost. Jack is jealous of Frosty and all the friends he has, and does everything he can to ruin things for him and everyone.

The lyrics of "Winter Wonderland" come into play when Parson Brown is invited to marry Frosty and Crystal. He explains that he only marries humans, so the kids build a "snow parson" (ha ha get it?) to do the job. He only comes to life when they hand him a Bible. So does God recognize snowpeople as His creation?
Jack finally becomes nice when they ask him to be the best man at the wedding. Is that really it? Jack only needs a little love, I guess...

Rudolph gets his first sequel the same year, in the form of Rudolph's Shiny New Year from 1976. Father Time (voiced by Red Skelton) is brought into it this time, and so is the concept of a baby New Year. The New Year, named Happy (ha ha surely you get this one?), runs away because everyone laughs at his enormous ears, and if he isn't returned, it'll be Dec. 31 for all eternity! Yessir, the passing of time depends on the presence of some magical baby, it would seem. Not only does Rudolph have to find him among all these magical islands representing and preserving every year in all of Earth's history, but an evil giant buzzard named Aeon is trying to stop him because he's destined to live for exactly one aeon, after which he will die and turn into snow- so if he keeps the New Year from ever coming, he'll live forever.
If that doesn't sound insane enough, several characters have clocks as body parts, such as a camel named Quarter Past Five and a whale named Big Ben (voiced by none other by Harold Peary, best known as The Great Gildersleeve).
Ultimately, Aeon is permitted to live because Happy's ears make him laugh, which warms him on the inside and prevents him from turning into snow. So if he doesn't die then, when does he die? I don't get it...

Things get truly epic with the crossover sequel Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July from 1979, which is a sequel to The Year Without A Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney returns once more as Santa), Frosty's Winter Wonderland, and Rudolph's Shiny New Year- an incredible feat indeed, the likes of which I have never seen elsewhere. Just think of it- a sequel to two different sequels and a semi-sequel, all of which were completely unrelated until now!
Ready for the origin story of all time? It turns out that an evil wizard named Winterbolt (yes, another bad guy with winter magic)- who, years ago, created havoc at the North Pole and was stopped by Lady Boreal, a powerful spirit representing the Northern Lights- caused the famous storm that Rudolph's red nose could pierce through in an attempt to take the North Pole away from Santa. Not only that, Lady Boreal uses the last of her magic to give Rudolph his red nose- which will go out if he uses it for evil. And you thought it was just some birth deformity, right?
Frosty and Crystal have by now raised a couple of children (presumably fraternal twins), named Millie and Chilly. I don't know about you, but I don't want to know how they came to be. Anyway, Winterbolt gets Rudolph and Frosty's family to attend and star in a circus, giving the snowpeople magic amulets that will keep them from melting until the Fourth of July. Santa agrees to pick them up when that time comes, but Winterbolt cooks up a blizzard that keeps Santa from arriving in time. He also sends Scratcher, a criminal reindeer jealous of Santa's reindeer, to trick Rudolph into helping him steal some money so that his nose will go out. Winterbolt wants to take over Christmas, you see.
To cut a long story short, when everything seems hopeless and Frosty's family has melted into a puddle, everything is all right again when Winterbolt is defeated (and turns into a tree), Rudolph returns Frosty's stolen hat and restores the light of his nose, and Big Ben the whale arrives with Jack Frost to refreeze Frosty and his family so they and Santa can return home. Whew!

You're probably confused out of your mind by now. For one thing, when did Jack Frost become a good guy? Well, it's actually somewhat hard to say. Jack Frost here is clearly based on Winter Wonderland, what with being voiced by Paul Frees and all. I really don't know if he's supposed to completely redeemed in that one. Despite this reference, Jack would get his own special the same year as Christmas In July (1979), simply titled Jack Frost. Jack Frost works for Father Winter (presumably a variation of Old Man Winter) as part as an entire team of winter deities. The story is simple- Jack Frost falls in love with a young human woman, and asks Father Winter to turn him into a human. He must gather all the important items essential to surviving as a human before winter is over, or else he'll change back. Glossing over the fact that he also faces the evil of a tyrant, Jack tries to extend winter by scaring the groundhog with his shadow on Groundhog Day. It works, but by the time he gets everything he needs to become human permanently except for a bride, he finds that the young woman has married a knight in shining armor. Brokenhearted, Jack returns to his life as a winter spirit.
So we get the origins of Groundhog Day as well as some explanation as to the nature of Jack Frost. But the change of personality from Frosty's Winter Wonderland to this is still odd, isn't it? Well, Jack Frost obviously does take place in the past, so perhaps his loss of his true love made him bitter and cranky, which may explain why he's jealous of Frosty- although apparently at some point Jack was granted the ability to interact with humans once more in Winter Wonderland, albeit still as a impish creature.

You probably thinking: What's with all these winter deities? Who's really in control of winter? Well, let's review:

  • The Winter Warlock seems to be just this guy living in the mountains who likely only controls local weather and apparently some sentient trees.

  • Snow Miser and Heat Miser answer to Mother Nature, mainly due to family ties. From the looks of it, they only control where their respective weather conditions occur... their disputes are mainly over territory.

  • Winterbolt seems to be just some mean wizard king who happens to have winter powers and used to live at the North Pole.

  • I've always assumed that Jack Frost was merely an artist, creating frost patterns and icicles. Father Winter may ultimately be the big kahuna of cold winter weather, having servants who specialize in snowflakes, hailstones, and sleet. (And please... let's not get into The Santa Clause 3.)

Things get simpler and quieter from this point forward. No sequels appear until 1992 with the release of Frosty Returns, which completely disregards Winter Wonderland and Christmas in July- Crystal and their children are nowhere to be seen. In fact, if I remember right, Frosty even survives without his hat! I don't know what to think of this one. The whole environmentalism thing is interesting, but the characters' strong resemblance to Peanuts characters make this one rather iffy.

Over a decade later, 2004's The Legend of Frosty the Snowman attempts to be a "true sequel", but there are still no references to previous sequels. Just goes to show that no one cares about them! The origins of the magic hat are still unknown, unfortunately. Also, various flashbacks (in the form of an utterly unexplained magical comic book) seemingly retell the original Frosty special differently, so the continuity is a little screwy unless you were to place them before and after the events of the original special. For example, the story goes that a jealous child locked away Frosty's hat in a trunk in an attic until the children seen in the original special are all grown up. Think of poor Crystal and their children! Being without a father for decades...
Interestingly, both Frosty Returns and The Legend of Frosty paint the titular character as some sort of wandering spirit who goes from town to town and rescuing them from their own self-inflicted lack of joy and happiness. It would be an interesting thing to see, seeing Frosty decide to help townsfolk in need- but I can't help but wonder how he gained the ability to fly about as a mere hat, without needing Santa to take him anywhere.

Rudolph finally returns to the spotlight in 2001's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys. One big problem with Shiny New Year and Christmas in July is that Rudolph, Santa, and Mrs. Claus are the only characters held over from the original- Hermey the Elf, Clarice, Yukon Cornelius, the "Bumble" and King Moonracer were nowhere to be seen. They all return in this one, being another "true sequel", yet disregarding the previous sequels again. Also, they made King Moonracer wimpy, which is pretty lame. This one expands on the world of sentient toys, particularly the issue of abandonment- which is, of course, what the Misfit Toys are all about.

On a slightly unrelated note, 2005's Here Comes Peter Cottontail: The Movie- the sequel to the Easter special Here Comes Peter Cottontail- introduces the character Jackie Frost, quite obviously a female version of Jack Frost. Apparently she's replaced him, and whether or not she's a descendant of him is unclear. Unlike Jack, Jackie wants to have winter last forever, and she sets out to do it by stealing the three magical objects that keep the clocks representing Spring, Summer, and Fall running and allowing the seasons to change (apparently created by Father Time). As you can imagine, she's defeated.
Speaking of weather deities, we also meet The East by Southwest Wind. He doesn't appear to be one of Snow Miser's or Heat Miser's relatives, as we see in this next one...

Finally, the latest in a long line of convoluted and confusing Rankin/Bass Christmas specials is 2008's A Miser Brothers' Christmas, which introduces even MORE weather deities. This one's probably the most unexpected and, in this writer's opinion, the best of all the sequels ever made in this continuity- although Christmas in July is pretty awesome, so I can't decide which I like best. It just goes to show that the Miser Bros. were strong and memorable characters, especially since this special practically reads like a fanfiction, revealing the origins of their feud as babies, introducing the aforementioned deities who are all of Mother Nature's children, and having them finally make amends. Their siblings include The Tides, Lightning and Thunder, Earthquake (which isn't really weather, come to think of it), other unidentified siblings, and most importantly The North Wind (who The East by Southwest Wind decidedly is not).
The North Wind plays the villain, which is something of a break from your usual evil winter deity wanting to take over Christmas- he's a evil wind deity who wants to take over Christmas. Cold wind, maybe, but still. He doesn't control snow and ice! I wanna know what his connection to Father Winter is, though. How else would Jack Frost have "whistled up" that snowstorm?

Well, there you have it. Ultimately, all these specials mentioned are all connected in some manner, creating a complex mythology full of flying reindeer, spirits representing natural phenomena, talking animals, living toys, living snowmen, snow monsters, nearly immortal giant birds, and winged lions who take on the responsibility to care for toy factory defects. I could go on and describe how I think Miracle on 34th StreetErnest Saves Christmas, and The Santa Clause series all work together... but hey, most people's minds would explode as it is.

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