Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Written by Romeo Muller
Directed by Larry Roemer
Rankin-Bass dominated holiday television for decades, yet almost none of their productions are remembered aside from this one and maybe a sprinkling of others. Rudolph was the beginning of what would become a bizarre shared universe with Santa Claus, Jack Frost, the Easter Bunny, and more. All of this would serve to inspire later work, especially A Nightmare Before Christmas, which exists as a sort of lost Rankin-Bass crossover between Halloween and Christmas. Rudolph keeps airing every year, but I wondered if it still held up as time has passed and stop-motion animation has evolved since.
Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) tells us about a massive snowstorm that threatened to cancel Christmas. His tale goes back four years to the moment of Rudolph’s birth, the son of Donner, one of Santa’s sleigh team. Rudolph is born with a glowing red nose, which his father and Santa are aghast over. It’s hidden as the young reindeer is pushed to join in the reindeer games, but after the aberration is discovered, he becomes a figure of ridicule. Meanwhile, Hermey the Elf is in trouble for becoming more interested in dentistry than toymaking and thus is an outcast. Rudolph & Hermey join together decide to leave Christmastown and see what else is out there. The duo crosses paths with Yukon Cornelius, a jovial prospector but good times are short when the Abominable Snowman shows up.
As expected, this show is relatively crude in its animation style, but it was the 1960s, so advancements in cameras and puppetry were still to come. Rankin-Bass didn’t have much idea that they would be able to franchise the special and gave away many puppets to crew members and their families. The whole production, done in Canada, where the company was based, was a pretty simple operation. Burl Ives was added in post-production so the cartoon could have a “name” attached to it to potentially draw more viewers. While Rudolph turned out to be popular enough to inspire more holiday-themed specials, the reindeer himself wouldn’t headline a show until 1976’s Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.
With this viewing, I personally found the plotting to be pretty rough. The first act clearly communicates who our main characters are and their conflicts. Once Rudolph and Hermey set off on their journey, things get a little messy. So many moments feel rushed and sort of unnecessary. I get why the Island of Misfit Toys is there, but so little is done with it that I imagine it could have been cut; the story would have had the same relative ending. Why introduce a character like the winged lion King Moonracer and then do little to nothing with him? The Abominable Snowman also feels like a threat that is solved with little to no challenge involved.
The story’s overall theme is that being different is not bad, and you have a place in society. I am a little iffy about how well that is communicated without being insensitive. Rudolph’s nose makes him an outcast until Santa can get some use out of it. That’s sort of mixed messaging. If it hadn’t been for a snowstorm, Rudolph would have remained unwelcome by Santa? I think the intent was probably okay, but the final delivery has many bumps in the road.
The special seems to vilify conformity in the context of Cold War America, where forcing someone into a predetermined position is terrible. However, when management can extract value from your uniqueness, then you are valuable. Differences are positive only when it can be commodified. Santa isn’t framed as unreasonable for his intolerance, and all is quickly forgiven once he sees how Rudolph can be used. Do the characters who were wrong about Rudolph ultimately learn anything so that the next ostracization will be avoided? It doesn’t really feel like it, which is why this special comes off as a mixed, messy affair.
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