Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Horrible Lessons Found in" Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer"

Every year, we wash ourselves in nostalgia by watching a slew of Christmas Specials (and not-so-specials) that gently blow the embers of childhood memories and remind us what it was like to experience magic. We hand these down to our children in a kind of cultural cannibalism that makes our species so much easier to sell to. Some of these movies or cartoons are wonderful, even perfect--like A Christmas Story. Some are not quite as good as their source material, but still a nice way to stoke Christmas memories while learning about the holiday hidden behind the commercialism, like "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." And some are just plain awful and lazy and nearly completely full of evil messages.

Rudolph and the whole gang of you at Rankin/Bass, I'm looking directly at you.

Somehow, the stop-motion animated cartoon continually gets played year after year in our household--and in households across the country. While the animation is enough to tickle you, the writing, the songs, and the messages found inside this show make it less worthy of Christmas than the Star Wars Holiday Special.

The Writing

For the moment, let's be good sports and leave the main of the plot alone--the part that comes directly from the original song about a caribou with a shining red nose. What in the world is going on in this arena? There is nothing that makes the remotest bit of sense here. An elfin dentist who is hated for his passion; skinny Santa getting fattened up; an island of misfit toys that is ruled over by a winged-lion; an island of misfit toys that is ruled over by a winged-lion; an island get it. That's really bad.

These misfit toys are complete junk, Charlie-in-a-Box aside.
We can certainly forgive Charlie for his name. But an airplane that doesn't fly but floats? A pistol that shoots jelly? A train with square wheels? Try giving your toddler a train with square wheels and see where that gets you. Just watch the look on Mom's face when little Davy squirts her Christmas sweater with grape jelly. There's a bird that swims in a fish bowl, and while I don't have any real huge issue with that on principle, I can't imagine it making the top of any kid's wish list. That spotted elephant looks like crap. Sometimes crappy toys are just crappy toys.Sometimes toys are misfits for a reason.

Why in the world does a winged-lion have anything to do with these awful toys? Why doesn't he ravage them in an awesome bought of fury? He's wearing a crown, he's in a castle on the North Pole, and he's harboring the world's crappiest toys just miles from the capital of all toys ever? There is no strain of logic that can make this add up. You can't just say, "they were on drugs" or whatever, because that is just as lazy an excuse as they are giving us for a script. There isn't a single lesson that we can learn here. I don't pity these toys, I don't want them in my stocking, I don't care that they get whisked away and dropped down a chimney at the end of the movie. Inexplicably.

The Morality

Everyone in this show is a jerk. I fail to explain even the simplest actions taken by the supporting cast to my daughters. They cannot fathom why Santa comes rolling around moments after Rudolph's birth only to slam his mom and dad to the ground for birthing this changeling. He's nearly venomous in his dealings with them and their newborn. He's ashamed!

Comet is likewise a jerk. He has to train a new generation of flying caribou, and he takes the time to rain ridicule down on one of his poor students. Comet the reindeer--the very beast who lands on our rooftops pulling Santa's sleigh--leads the kids in bullying and excluding Rudolph because of his physical difference. I get that this comes from the source material, but in the far superior Fleischer Brothers Rudolph Cartoon (1948), the bullying is at least kid-to-kid bullying, and comes across as cruel hazing rather than out and out hate crimes:

Besides the institutionalized hate that Rudolph experiences thanks to Santa Claus and his Minions, there's a elf who gets excluded from society for wanting to help other elves practice dental hygiene. There's a good deal of people on the Internet who believe that this little elf is a homosexual metaphor.

The Songs

Besides Burl Ives' wonderful rendition of "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer," there is no song worth listening to. The chorus of misfit toys sings in a bland single voice explaining the most horrid afflictions a toy could have. "Silver and Gold" spends a few minutes celebrating the commercial monster that Christmas has become. The eardrum-splitting song "We Are Santa's Elves" is arguably meant to be annoying, for God's sake. There really isn't a lot of room for intentionally bad music in a musical.


The end lesson that we learn is supposed to fall into something like, "Our differences make us stronger" or something, but it really comes across as "Conformity is Key" and "Exploit your Differences for More Effective Conformity." Fitting in is key in North Pole society, and people and beasts only admit their faults if the difference they were making fun of is useful in the end. While this has always been a deficiency in the Rudolph legend, it's much easier to pass by in the original song and single-reel cartoon, as there is little room for anything other than a shallow morality-play where those who wronged Rudolph are shown their error through very clear and decisive measures. In a 47-minute Christmas Special (an hour with commercials), there is more room for subtlety and morality, but instead the insanity is just amped-up to a dizzying degree.

Perhaps the most unforgivable and maddening error is the character of Santa Claus who--instead of spreading cheer throughout his kingdom--enforces fear and hatred. This is not the symbol of secular love and forgiveness that we have come to enjoy on our holiday. Instead, it is a mechanism for conformity and irrational prejudice that permeates the worst side of mankind.

I watch this show, and I will continue to watch it for years to come, but it gets more eye rolls from me than warming memories these days. The Rankin/Bass team made some really amazing movies during their apex and was brave enough to pioneer animation methods that Disney wouldn't touch, but their lack of judgement and writing prowess makes this movie an archive of a different time rather than a lasting legend to be handed down from generation to generation.

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