Now that I’ve reviewed every Christmas special from our marathon back in March, I decided to check out a few more Rankin/Bass specials that people seem to rate quite highly. Our theme this week is “Santa Claus origin stories”, with this Friday’s review covering The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1985). But first, I’d like to discuss a personal favorite of mine, the more well-known Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town from 1970!
This one is pretty special because, not only did I love watching this one as a duckling, but Mother Duck grew up with this special, as well! (To this day, she and I both agree that the villain’s name Burgermeister Meisterburger is utterly hilarious.) This special has got it all. Great songs. A great story. And memorable characters. But as I usually do, I should probably start at the beginning.
The story is narrated by the postman S. D. Kluger, voiced by none other than Fred Astaire. He starts by explaining that a lot of kids don’t just send letters to Santa asking for toys, but rather, many of them ask various questions, like why Santa chooses to wear a red suit and sport a beard. (I’m not sure I understand the confusion, kiddo. Lots of men choose to have facial hair.) So he decides to tell the story of how Santa Claus came to be, which answers a lot of these questions, including questions that really didn’t need an answer. (Again, does Santa need a reason to have a beard? Not everything is your business, children!)
In every backstory for Santa Claus that I have seen, he always ends up orphaned one way or another. In this case, he is abandoned as a baby and ends up being raised by Tanta Kringle and the other toy-making Christmas elves. Despite a name tag that says “Claus”, he is named Kris Kringle and learns to make the very best toys. The problem is, they can’t deliver these toys to any children because they can’t get past the mean, old Winter Warlock.
Once Kris becomes an adult, he decides to risk the journey anyway and deliver the toys to Sombertown. Though he manages to make it past the Winter Warlock, his problems aren’t over because toys have recently been made illegal in Sombertown thanks to the nasty, child-hating Burgermeister Meisterburger (voiced yet again by Paul Frees; who knew the Ghost Host would be in so many Christmas specials…). So while Kris hands out toys to the sad, little children, he is confronted by Jessica the schoolteacher. Fortunately, being the kind soul that he is, Kris is quite good at softening all but the hardest heart with just the right gift. Jessica changes her mind about him when he gives her a doll, and he gets pretty close to appeasing even the Burgermeister by giving the grouch a yo-yo. But alas, when the Burgermeister is reminded by his lawkeeper Grimsley that he is breaking his own rule, Kris has no choice but to make a break for it before he’s arrested.
On his way back through the forest, Kris’ slim luck runs out entirely when he’s captured by the Winter Warlock. Fortunately for him, even he’s no match for Kris’ kindness, and his icy heart is literally melted when Kris gives him a toy train. When the Winter Warlock confesses that he would like to be a better person, Kris sings him a song about how changing is as easy as “putting one foot in front of the other”.
Even though Kris has now befriended both Jessica and the Winter Warlock, who now just goes by Winter, things don’t get any easier for him in Sombertown, as he must resort to increasingly sneaky means to deliver presents to the boys and girls, including climbing down the chimney after they lock their doors and hiding gifts in stockings when the town guards search people’s homes.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is easily in my top three Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. It has some of the best music out of any of these movies, and I’ve always had a special fondness for the Winter Warlock since I was a child. He’s pretty frightening at first, but after Kris befriends him, I have to admit that he’s actually kind of adorable. He’s probably one of my favorite Rankin/Bass characters, right up there with the Miser Brothers from A Year Without a Santa Claus (1974).
Now, as I can’t just be totally positive (because I’m a cold-hearted monster who must even nitpick at harmless Christmas specials), I’m just going to bring up a few minor complaints. One, Jessica’s song is really weird. The art style suddenly changes, and at one point, she’s singing to a cartoon reflection of herself in a fountain that doesn’t move. It’s…bizarre. It’s the one part of the movie I don’t care for. Also, the Burgermeister really has no consequences for his actions. He just falls out of power as the years go by, which might explain why the story didn’t really feel like it had any true resolution. Sure, we see Kris become Santa Claus, which I guess was the whole point, but nothing really got resolved in any satisfying way with Sombertown and its cruel tyrant of a mayor. Also, this is the only Rankin/Bass special I can think of where the characters’ pupils sometimes get huge. I have always found this to be a tad unsettling.
Nevertheless, these minor complaints don’t stop this from being one of my very favorite Christmas specials of all time. But wait, it turns out Rankin/Bass made another origin story for Santa Claus called The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus from 1985. How will this version compare to one of my favorite Rankin/Bass specials ever? Well, you shall see on Friday, dear readers!
Previous Rankin/Bass Reviews (and other similar holiday specials)
- Cricket on the Hearth (1967)
- Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971)
- ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)
- The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
- The First Easter Rabbit (1976)
- Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976)
- Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)
- The Easter Bunny is Comin’ to Town (1977)
- Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)
- The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)
- Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979)
- Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980)
- The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold (1981)
- A Miser Brothers’ Christmas (2008)