The annual December television trend has begun. Year after year, we can count on the major networks to fulfill our desire for holiday cheer with their festive programming, but the majority of these programs are monotonous and mediocre, especially made-for-TV movies revolving around typical holiday themes like family and selflessness. It’s not that these themes aren’t enjoyable, but the movies play so incessantly that by the time Christmas comes, we’re grateful for this odd genre of television to go into hibernation for another 11 months. Despite the yearly repetition, there are a few holiday specials that make this month of programming worth noticing. And you can thank Rankin/Bass for that.
Rankin/Bass is a Canadian production company that created many holiday specials in the ’60s. Many of us have grown up watching their classics, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Year Without a Santa Claus” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” With their catchy musical numbers and whimsical stop-motion animation, these programs are an important part of our Christmas memories. They’re more than just December annoyances. They have evolved into a tradition celebrating both seasonal festivities and innocent childhood.
The Rankin/Bass holiday specials generally follow a few oddball characters who encounter a series of bizarre circumstances and have to save Christmas. They’ve used this premise to explain the origins of Santa Claus and other Christmas customs in “The First Christmas,” and they expand upon the lyrics of a legendary song in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Given their beauty and tradition, you’d think these classic episodes would survive as a part of Christmas tradition.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. For the past several years, studios have been trying to profit from the success of Rankin/Bass’s holiday productions by creating remakes, sequels and spin-offs. In 2001, Goodtimes Entertainment released a straight-to-DVD sequel of the beloved “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Though the sequel, which now runs each winter on ABC Family, stays true to the characters, has musical numbers and uses the same general plot line, the show has received criticism for the computer-generated style of the new “Rudolph.” Abandoning the distinct Rankin/Bass animation ruined any chance the movie had of appealing to fans of the original.
This failure should’ve discouraged further attempts at reviving Rankin/Bass stories — but it didn’t. In 2006, NBC premiered a remake of “The Year Without a Santa Claus.” The film discarded the classic style, swapping stop-motion animation for live-action and eliminating the songs that made the original so appealing. Needless to say, this effort to revitalize the story was unsuccessful, as the complete divergence from the original confused those familiar with Rankin/Bass style.
After NBC’s poor attempt at a revival, it would seem that “The Year Without a Santa Claus” had been subjected to enough anguish. But yet another spin-off will air on Dec. 13 on ABC Family: “A Miser Brothers’ Christmas.” Unlike the others before it, this Rankin/Bass revival may have hope. It will follow the popular characters, Snow and Heat Miser, who — as in most other specials — must overcome their differences to save Christmas. But what makes this one different is that the “Miser Brothers’ Christmas” animation remains loyal to the classic stop-motion and was produced by Warner Brothers, who owns a large section of the Rankin/Bass library. These factors will hopefully bring “Miser Brothers’ Christmas” closer to emulating the classic aesthetic and give it an edge over other remakes.
When sifting through the usual holiday crap on television, it’s easy to see that the stories have little purpose beyond capitalizing on the Christmas season. But the original Rankin/Bass holiday specials are innocent and sincere. Their timeless animation makes TV watching during the holiday season enjoyable, and it’s a shame that their sad revivals remain a large contributor to frustrating December television.
Despite the fact that these revivals are devoid of the integrity that made the originals so lovable, it’s unlikely that studios will stop trying to renew Rankin/Bass specials. No matter how awful the final product is, it will still be associated with a holiday favorite and thus will always find an audience. At least that will create a new tradition: Dodging mediocre Christmas programming and finding relief in Rankin/Bass’s holiday specials.