'Rudolph,' 'Charlie Brown,' and 'The Grinch: Will the great American trilogy of Christmas specials work on a newcomer? (PART 2)

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Image Credit: Classic Media; 1965 United Feature Syndicate; Everett Collection

Christmas Time is here, which can mean only one thing: A hearty rendition of “Christmas Time is Here,” from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Or perhaps a group singalong to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Yesterday, holiday special superfan Darren Franich prepared Yuletide TV newbie Hillary Busis for the holy trilogy of Xmas TV. Now Hillary’s seen all three… and she has some opinions. Read on!

Darren Franich: Well, Hillary, after that triple-shot of pure Christmas spirit, I’m in the mood to buy a misfit toy, decorate a misfit tree, and put reindeer antlers on an emotionally-abused misfit dog. Let’s take these specials one at a time: What did you think of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?

Hillary Busis: Ho ho ho, Darren! I’ve got to say, I was very pleasantly surprised by all three of these shorts — especially Charlie Brown. That said, Rudolph was my least favorite, mostly because it had the most filler. The Grinch is 26 minutes long. Charlie Brown is 25 minutes. Rudolph is 47. I wish capital numbers existed, just so I could emphasize that even more.

I understand some of the additions Rankin-Bass made to the Rudolph story — the narration of Sam the Snowman lends a nice folksiness to the tale, and it makes thematic sense for Rudolph to bond with a misfit buddy like Hermey the wannabe dentist elf. But… extraneous sidekick Yukon Cornelius? Clarice, the sexy doe with a voice that sounds about 20 years older than Rudolph’s? Every song that isn’t “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year,” or “Rudolph” itself? All easily could have been cut without sacrificing much.

Still, the special manages to be pretty fun without getting too saccharine. And it’s fascinating as a historical document — the misfits’ triumph over conformity is the story of the ‘60s writ in jerkily animated clay. (Hermey’s whole “dentist” thing also seems like a thinly veiled homosexuality allegory, but maybe that’s just the annoying ex-college student in me talking.) I’ve also got to give Rudolph props for maybe-probably inspiring my favorite animated movie: Toy Story, which took the idea that “a toy is never truly happy until it is loved by a child” and ran with it.

Of course, being a natural born cynic, I have a few leftover questions that you might be able to answer. How is “elf” is both a species and an occupation? Does anyone really think Santa delivered those misfit toys to needy girls and boys? (From where I was sitting, it looked an awful lot like he was just chucking them into the Arctic Ocean.) What is the point of Yukon Cornelius, seriously? And were you creeped out by Thin Santa as a kid? I know I would have been.

Darren: Part of the fun of watching these specials with a newcomer was getting to see them in a completely new context. Like, I’ve probably watched Rudolph a couple hundred times, but roughly 198 of those times, I was sitting next to a Christmas tree in my childhood home on Christmas Eve, assembling a LEGO set that my parents just got me for Christmas, warmed by the fire my dad built in our fireplace, cooled by the ice cream sundae that my mom drowned in chocolate sauce.

What I’m saying is that I have never exactly approached Rudolph with particularly critical eyes, which is why I could have sworn Rudolph was about 20 minutes shorter, and also why I barely remembered that Yukon Cornelius was a character. He does seem like the part of the movie that was most likely beamed in from a boardroom — the fact that he bears a striking resemblance, visually and vocally, to Yosemite Sam doesn’t help matters. Actually, the whole first part of the movie feels much more slapped-together than I remember. There are elf antics, and deer antics, and Mrs. Claus keeps on telling Santa to eat more, get it? Because Santa is usually fat?

All that being said, I gotta admit: When they got to the Island of Misfit Toys, singing “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year,” I started to choke up. The Charlie-in-the-Box! The elephant with polka dots! A cowboy who rides… an ostrich! I think you’re right to sense the greater ’60s counter-culture in Rudolph. Rudolph’s dad, Donner, is set up as kind of a joke on a “Father Knows Best” type. And you could even argue that Rudolph’s “She thinks I’m cute!” moment reflects a society on the cusp of sexual liberation. But the running through line in Rudolph about “misfits” — the self-identifying term used by Hermey and Rudolph — is what makes the special work for me. (It’s interesting to note that the Rudolph special aired three years after the first appearance of Spider-Man, another weirdo who just couldn’t fit in.)

Did all the “misfit” stuff connect with you in any way, Hillary? Or, as you pointed out in our pre-movie chat, is the whole “our differences make us special” thing played out in this era of Gleeks and Little Monsters? Was there any part of Rudolph that connected with — dare I say it — your heart?

Hillary: From now on, when I’m feeling blue, I’m going to ask Darren for more stories of his Norman Rockwell childhood. Do the Franiches wear matching sweaters on Christmas morning? Did your dad call you “sport”?

Hmm… I guess I’ve inadvertently answered your last question. Generally speaking, I don’t have a heart. And while I do think Rudolph’s “hooray-for-misfits” theme is admirable, I also think it doesn’t have the same effect today as it did in 1964 — mainly because almost every modern entertainment aimed at kids projects that exact same message. (Good call on the Lady Gaga comparison, though. Now all I want is to see Hermey belt “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen” in a new stop-motion video.)

Speaking of the animation: My other main takeaway from Rudolph is that visually, it’s aged much more poorly than either Charlie Brown or The Grinch. Those other specials are stylized enough to be sort of timeless. But Rudolph’s staccato movements and largely expressionless face don’t seem nearly as purposeful as Charlie Brown’s two-dimensional backgrounds or Cindy Lou Who’s lack of feet.  In comparison, Rudolph just looks primitive – charmingly old-fashioned, maybe, but old-fashioned nonetheless. Do you think that’s a fair assessment, Darren? Or am I being too harsh on poor Rudolph and his claymates?

Darren: You’re so harsh that I’m tempted to compare you to the big storm that comes in out of nowhere during the climax of Rudolph and apparently covers the whole planet — a storm which can only be defeated by the warming glow of Rudolph’s shiny nose, which, in this metaphor, is probably a hearty dose of egg nog. (Aside: I don’t think I’ve ever actually drank egg nog.) However, you’re not wrong about the animation. One of the important points of this exercise is differentiating between “primitive things that are actually good” and “primitive things that only seem good because nostalgia insists that they are good,” and I’m willing to allow that parts of Rudolph have that weird early-DreamWorks quality: Animation that probably looked much better when it was new and different.

Still, I do think you’re underrating just how goofily eccentric some of the special’s visuals are. Need I remind you that the king of the Island of Misfit Toys is a lion with wings? If nothing else, Rudolph deserves some respect just for its meme-generation-per-minute ratio: Pretty much every aspect of the special has been parodied over the years. (The best is still MadTV‘s “Raging Rudolph,” which is the last time I will ever mention MadTV in a sentence involving the word “best.”)

But let’s move on to warmer climates, Hillary. You already singled out Charlie Brown as your favorite of the specials. Did the crappy little tree win you over?

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