Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Inane Rambling of Rankin/Bass' "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is without a doubt the most asinine and repulsive Christmas special available to the imagination. It is the purest example of how the technological advancements of the 20th Century outpaced common sense and storytelling. By 1970, Rankin/Bass had a successful formula for holiday television specials; get an aged celebrity to narrate an animated story based on a Christmas song. Rudolph, Frosty, and The Little Drummer Boy all got the Rankin/Bass treatment. Most of these were stop-motion mini-movies--some simply cartoons--and they all have a place in our modern holiday celebration (many more have hardly been seen, of course. Who of us have seen "The Cricket on the Hearth," "Mouse on the Mayflower" [narrated by Tennessee Ernie Ford!],  or "The First Christmas"?). But it's 1970's Christmas special that I want to examine.

How absurd can a show be?

Fred Astaire is a postal worker who takes a break in the woods to frolic around answering Santa's mail for him, addressing the disembodied voices of the children who sent the mail and the woodland creatures who couldn't stay away from the road and are too petrified of the crazy man to do anything but humor him.

He chooses to answer questions regarding Santa's origins and, evidently, he has no fucking clue what Santa's story is. But that doesn't stop

Let's pretend, for a second, that Santa Claus is an new subject for you. You might be excited about the chance to learn a little about the guy.

This isn't the place to do it. According to Fred, Santa was a foundling left on the doorstep of the most ridonkulous bad-guy of all time, the Burgermeister Meisterburger. He's a second-rate Boris (of Boris and Natasha, yo) who hates everything. He rules over a town--evidently the only town in the world--and is some sort of kingish-mayor-guy. He rejects the baby, sending it to die in the forest. Pretty messed up. He's rescued by animals. He's rescued by the Winter Warlock. So now there are two badguys. And he's taken to a little house full of silly little men in red coats. This family that raises him gets him to love toy making and wearing red cloaks. Boom. Origin explained.

The forest animals teach him everything else about being Santa. That is, they teach him how to laugh. I'm sorry, not the forest animals, but the seals. Because they sound like ho-ho-ho, right? No. No they don't.

Anyway, you get the picture. The Burgermeister outlaws toys, Santa makes and delivers them, the Winter Warlock turns into a good guy, and the reindeer fly. It's just that any kid could have come up with better explanations. Let's take a look at those explanations.

Outlandish and Lazy Explanations
  • How did he get his name? He had a necklace with that name on when he was found.
  • Why does he make toys? Because the family that found him makes toys.
  • How did he get his laugh? Seals.
  • Where did he get his coat? His adoptive mom gave it to him.
  • Why stockings? Because "how clean your stockings are" is the only thing that matters in Sombertown, thus they are always hanging them up by the fire.
  • How does he spy on children? A monster living in the woods showed him how to make a magic snowball that shows him what kids are doing.
  • Why does he go down chimneys? A penguin told him to when a door was locked once. It was fun.
  • Why do the reindeer fly? That monster from the woods gave him magic beans.
  • Why Christmas? Because it's the most magical night of the year (many kids feel that this is a chicken/egg situation)
  • Why does he have a beard? Because he grew one.

There are more, but you get the idea. This is pure lazy. If there is some element of the Santa narrative that you've ever wondered about, he was either born that way or a ridiculous warlock/flibbertygibbet gave him the magic ability to deal with it. The lazy storytelling doesn't stop there. The heartless and frightening Burgermeister who chases Santa throughout the entire story never does come around and turn good thanks to love or Christmas or anything, it's just that,  "Well, you see, the Burgermeisters eventually fell out of power."

I would have been dropped from my college had I shown such sucky storytelling abilities.

The Songs

Again, Rankin/Bass really gets me with the poor song choices.  This is a Christmas movie and you'd think that once in a while the songs might deal with that subject. After all, the darn show is named after a Christmas song! But no!

Most memorable of the songs is probably the one where the Winter Warlock turns good. This song starts out as a metaphor for taking babysteps to change your direction in life, but eventually, as the video illustrates, the metaphor takes over the song and instead of learning how to behave, the Winter Warlock is actually learning how to walk like a baby!

The least memorable song is the one that Jessica (the future Mrs. Claus) sings. It's a psychedelic head trip where the girl learns through love (and possibly, drugs) that authority sucks and toys rule.

Aside from the titular song, there is nothing mentioning Christmas. I see this as a hugely missed opportunity.


Rankin/Bass made their money much the same way Micheal Bay does today: taking source material with a built-in audience and lazily throwing together interesting visuals that suck people in. We watch it because watching the same show every years somehow musters feelings of childhood and nostalgia.

But besides, the final message is a good one. It's a lot of fun to watch. I just wish they had put a little more into it.

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