Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Written by Romeo Muller
Directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. & Jules Bass
By the end of the 1960s, Rankin-Bass had solidified themselves as one of the major animation companies in North America. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer began their ascent, and in 1969 they had eleven films & animated specials under their belt. This was going to continue into the 1970s but would steadily decline in the early 1980s. When Frosty hit the air, we saw Rankin-Bass at their prime. I would also say this is by far my least favorite of the popular re-aired Christmas specials, but I’ll get more into that later.
A class is having a party on Christmas Eve (weird, because every school I know of gets out days earlier than that) where magician Professor Hinkle has been hired to provide entertainment. Hinkle’s rabbit Hocus wears the magician’s hat and follows the children when they rush outside to play after the dismissal bell. A gust of wind blows the hat over to the kids, and they put it atop the snowman they’ve made. This brings Frosty to life, who exclaims, “Happy birthday!” Hinkle sees his chapeau possess powers and wants it back. Hocus helps them keep the hat, and they set off for a train that will take Frosty to the North Pole so he will never melt when the spring arrives.
My biggest compliment for Frosty the Snowman is that it is half as long as Rudolph, which overstayed its welcome at 51 minutes. Morally, things are more clear than in Rudolph. Hinkle is clearly the bad guy, and everyone is decent and kind. I also think Rankin-Bass had better cel animation than stop-motion at this time, so it was smart to go with a cartoon. I watched the cleaned up high definition transfer, and the animation looks fantastic for being so old. The character designs are very different from anything else of the time and even today. But that’s where my positives end.
Jackie Vernon, a stand-up comedian of the era, was Frosty’s voice, and he feels very disinterested in the role. I don’t know if this is just Vernon’s stage persona or natural voice, but there is a real lack of enthusiasm in Frosty’s line delivery. The face doesn’t match the voice. I give props to Billy DeWolf, who voices Hinkle; he fits his look perfectly and is the more interesting character given what we see of them in this short. Hinkle is pompous but also with an air of the stupid. The humor in the short reminds me how modern cartoons try to hide sly jokes for parents & adults in them that aren’t too dirty but something to make watching tolerable. I feel like a kid over the age of four or five will see through how shallow and dumb this whole cartoon is.
I also don’t buy the friendship between Frosty and Karen. The story is so rushed that we don’t ever understand why she cares so much. Frosty never struggles too much with operating in the human world and having him overcome some things like that might have made the bond between them feel more substantial. His only challenge is the threat of melting. He knows how to speak English and seems to comprehend most things unless it’s plot convenience. When Frosty bumps into a police officer, he says he doesn’t know what a lamppost or traffic light is, but he doesn’t stumble when the kids talk about trains and buying a ticket.
What always frustrated me as a kid about this cartoon was how pointless it all felt. It seemed to have little to do with Christmas until Santa shows up to act as the deus ex machina. Motivations just sort of happen when they need to, and I can’t even say they are trying to mimic little kid logic. This is just stupid person logic driving the narrative. When you compare this to Charlie Brown or the Grinch, which have a lot of substance to their stories, which are the same length, it shows how shallow so much of Rankin-Bass’s work was. They churned out so much junk in 20 years, and I think the animation studio is a tad overrated.