1960's, abominable snowman, animagic, anti-bullying, Billie Mae Richards, bullying, bumble, burl ives, charlie in the box, Christmas, christmas elves, Christmas Eve, christmas special, christmas town, Clarice, coach, comet, dentist, dentistry, Donner, elf, elves, fame and fortune, flying lion, gay, groupthink, Hays Code, Hermey, hermey the misfit elf, holiday special, holly jolly christmas, island of misfit toys, isle of misfit toys, king moonracer, kris kringle, misfit, misfits, mrs. claus, music, musical, nightmare before christmas, north pole, nostalgia, outdated, racist, Rankin Bass, real time fandub, reindeer, reindeer games, Romeo Muller, rudolph, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, rudolph's dad, rudolph's dad is the worst, sam the snowman, santa claus, sexist, silver and gold, snowman, song, songs, spotted elephant, stop motion animation, stop-motion, talking snowman, the bumble, the worst, there's always tomorrow, toys, tv review, tv special, unpopular opinion, we are santa's elves, we're a couple of misfits, winged lion, Yukon Cornelius
Hi! If this is your first time here, I highly recommend checking out my other movie/tv/holiday special reviews before this one, just to get a more positive idea of what to expect from my writing. Usually, I’m not this…well, you clicked on this review, didn’t you?
I suppose I should begin this month with a little bit of Rankin-Bass’ history. It was founded in 1960 by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass under the name Videocraft International. They began by producing animated television series for children, alternating between stop-motion and traditional cel animation before combining both with a process they called “Animagic” (which sounds more like a fireworks show at Disney World than an actual animation technique if you ask me). All the animation for these shows and the holiday specials and films that they would later branch out into were outsourced to Japan. Throughout the studio’s existence, work rotated between five different Japanese animation houses: MOM Production, Toei Animation, TCJ (Television Corporation of Japan), Mushi Production, and Topcraft. Chances are if you’re into anime, then these names ring a few bells. These studios have produced hit after hit on the big and small screen, with some of them continuing to do so today, and many of Topcraft’s animators went on to bigger and better things at Studio Ghibli.
Most of Rankin-Bass’ Christmas specials, particularly the ones I’ll be looking at, follow a simple formula – take a well-known holiday song and build a story around it. It’s not a bad concept if a bit overutilized. Their first outing, and most beloved in the eyes of many, is Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, based on the tune of the same name written by Johnny Marks (who would also write the other songs in the special) and popularized by Gene Autry in 1949. The song itself was taken from a children’s book created a decade prior to promote the Montgomery Ward department store, and the special was sponsored by General Electric, who, by a stunning coincidence, were selling Christmas lights that holiday season which happened to resemble Rudolph’s nose.
In short, this special originated as a commercial, and always was one through and through.
In spite of its original intent, Rudolph has become a holiday staple and icon as big as Santa Claus himself. And if you are one of the millions of people on this planet who loves this special, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from doing so, and you are not wrong for enjoying it. After all, this is just one person expressing their opinion. If this person’s opinion differs from yours, that doesn’t invalidate how you feel nor should you feel as if you absolutely must agree with them –
Allow me to explain.
This isn’t me being an upstart contrarian just to raise some hell, or a heel-realization I made as an adult or cynical teen, no, no, no. I’ve felt this way since I was ten. I grew sick of having to watch this special on repeat with the family, enduring the same tiring songs, the same unlikable characters, the same dull meandering story, the same jerky cheap animation, and the same insincere attempts at heartwarming holiday lessons year after year after year. But whenever I made my feelings known and asked if we could put on something else, I was made to feel as if there was something wrong with me. By my own family. And it’s always been that way. Every time I’ve tried to explain to people why I didn’t like this special or how I think it doesn’t hold up as well under scrutiny compared to others, I’m met with a skewed glance and asked if I keep my heart in a jar somewhere. So, ironically, I have gone through the same kind of discrimination as our titular reindeer and his elf friend have, even more so if you count the years of actual bullying for being a barely social artsy bookworm.
And now, after nearly three decades of having to put up with the most famous reindeer of all’s twee little antics and his blind devotees, I have a platform to vent my issues from. Rudolph may be a sacred cow in the eyes of many, but I’m in the mood for a cheeseburger. Let’s dig in.
Our story begins with newspapers blaring across the screen, all warning against massive blizzards sweeping the western hemisphere this season.
Well, whether or not snow queens are involved, at least we won’t have to deal with any sentient snowmen running amAAAAAAAHHHH!
This, I regret to inform you, is our narrator, Sam the Snowman. Sam is played by actor and folk singer Burl Ives…and I’m sorry but I never gravitated towards him, or Burl Ives as a whole. I dislike his singing, and he’s so damn cheery and wholesome all the time that it doesn’t feel right, like he’s hiding some deep, dark, evil secret which he covers by putting on this bland neighborly country bumpkin persona.
The animation and editing don’t help Sam’s case – or this special, as a matter of fact. Rudolph was given a budget of $500,000, which comes to $4,000,000 today. Yet the whole thing looks like something done on less than a twelfth of that amount. What happened to the rest of the money, Rankin-Bass? Where’s that money?! And don’t tell me it’s in Bill’s house or Fred’s house! All the characters have janky movements and the lip-synching is awful. They cheat with Sam’s “walking” animation somewhat by making him…slither? Oh god, is a snake controlling him from the inside like in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?
The story will often abruptly cut to Sam standing (sitting?) there staring at us with those piggy little eyes and he’ll make some casual remark in response to some of the crueler or more bizarre moments we’ve just witnessed. After a scene of Hermey The Elf being verbally abused, we jump back to Sam, having watched it played out, saying “Oh well, that’s his problem.” Then he’ll pause for a bit, and continue. In fact, there are a lot of awkward pauses in the dialogue, especially in Burl Ives’ delivery, and I swear they were left there intentionally to fill out the runtime.
And speaking of filling out the runtime, ye gods, the writing! Rudolph was scripted by Romeo Muller, who also wrote most of the other Rankin-Bass specials and gave us such immortal lines as:
“You nincompoop, paying attention to the words of a gushing female!”
I’m not asking for Aaron Sorkin here, but the dialogue is awkward, dated and mean-spirited, and the story meanders all over the place with new characters randomly popping up to contribute nothing. It’s a series of “this happened, then this happened” with little connective tissue. Great stories like Alice in Wonderland and Dante’s Inferno can pull this off. Rudolph is not one of them.
“But Shelf,” you say, “this is just an annual cartoon from the 60’s for children! Surely you can’t expect it to match the quality of today’s animation.” To which I respond, adults who grew up with this saw fit to show it to their kids for the past five generations and are likely to keep doing so. It’s been heavily referenced and parodied in other animation around Christmastime, and has become a staple of holiday programming as much as Charlie Brown and It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s an unspoken stipulation that this special is required viewing if you celebrate Christmas and love animation. Ergo, it SHOULD be judged by those standards regardless of the pedestal that it’s been placed it on; if anything, it’ll teach future writers and animators what pitfalls to avoid when writing Christmas specials.
But perhaps I’m laying too much of the blame on Muller. He’s not fully responsible for Rudolph’s outdated screenplay, he’s just the symptom of an even worse cause.
In 1930, Hollywood enacted The Hays Code, aka the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of strictly enforced moral guidelines that all films had to follow in order to be released to the American public – it was also inherently racist, misogynistic, homophobic, overly evangelical and frighteningly conformist with conservative values of the era. Though a handful of great filmmakers stepped up to the challenge of getting their vision around Hays’ stranglehold, the Code got its second wind with the rise of television; hence the overabundance of safe, bland family sitcoms in the 50’s and early 60’s that would provide the inspiration for Pleasantville. But as the decade rolled on and change swept throughout American politics and culture, it was put on life support. The MPAA eventually formed and pulled the plug on the Code by 1968, but Rudolph was one of the last victims of its conformity policing.
Sam introduces us to the world of Christmas Town where Santa lives in a castle with his wife. Mrs. Claus constantly harasses her husband to eat more so he’ll fill his suit by December 24th, which seems more like a sign of an unhealthy relationship if you ask me. Plus she keeps referring to him as “Papa”, which sounds wrong somehow yet I can’t explain why. This scene also establishes that this Santa isn’t the jolly, kind soul we’re familiar with. I understand how the stress of preparing millions of toys for the entire world can get to a person but DAMN, Santa will find any excuse to complain. I scoured this special from beginning to end, and over 90% of his screentime has him frowning at something. You want to portray the symbol of yuletide generosity, goodness and love? Don’t make him an unpleasant self-important jerk who grinds those who don’t meet his standards beneath his heel.
Sam once again mentions that terrible storm that almost canceled Christmas and asks if we know who the reindeer that saved it was. He sings the lead-in to the title song, and we dive into an orchestral medley of this special’s most noteworthy themes playing over the opening credits. All right I admit it, this melody gets me a little nostalgic.
Sam begins his tale in Donner the reindeer’s residence, a small barren cave. Wait, Santa can afford a big fancy castle to himself yet refuses to spring for a decent stable for his sleigh-pullers? I was only joking back in October about Santa being a new-age capitalist but damn, it looks like I was right! Donner and his wife are the proud parents of a newborn buck they call Rudolph. He’s already smart enough to know how to talk and recognize who Santa is, but his folks are more startled by his unusual red nose. It blinks on and off intermittently accompanied by an aggravating high-pitched whine. Now Rudolph is a sweet character and I have virtually no problems with personally, but that noise his nose makes when it lights up drives me up a wall. I’m certain dogs in the next county over can hear it.
Santa pops in to congratulate Donner and Rudolph’s nose also takes him by surprise. He tells Donner his boy had better get his honker under control or there’s no way he’d ever let him join his sleigh team. Then, as if to rub it in, Santa sings a song about how awesome he is which comes across as him bragging how he’s better than Rudolph.
Rudolph’s mother (I just realized she’s never given a name throughout these sixty minutes) shrugs and says they’ll just have to overlook this nose issue because it’s their son and he’s wonderful all the same. Donner, however, adheres to the strict inherent mores of 1960’s masculinity and responds accordingly:
Donner believes they can simply hide Rudolph’s “noncomformity” and he starts by smearing shit on his son’s face (it’s the dirt floor of a reindeer dwelling, you can’t tell me there aren’t any droppings mixed in there!) And his wife goes from saying the most sensible thing in this entire special to nothing at all. I’m not the type to gripe about the portrayal of female characters before the rise of women’s rights, but how they’re depicted here gets under my skin. They’re meek individuals who quietly follow their spouse’s or father’s commands and live to serve as a reward or motivation for the male characters. If not, then they’re a shrill shrewish housewife like Mrs. Claus. And before anyone points out that Mrs. Donner later disobeys her husband’s wishes to search for Rudolph alone, Sam later paints their capture at the hands of the Abominable Snowman as her and Clarice making things worse for Donner. In short, someone needs to whip off this special’s fedora and flush its red pills down the toilet.
Rudolph isn’t the only one enduring torment in the North Pole, however. An elf named Hermey gets called out by the Head Elf and his coworkers because he reveals that not only does he hate making toys, but his real dream is to be a dentist. Dentistry wouldn’t be my first alternative to toymaking, but I wouldn’t jump on making fun of him so quickly. The North Pole could really benefit from having at least one dentist considering what makes up the elves’ main diet.
If Rudolph’s tale centers dealing with prejudice based on a disability/deformity, they make it obvious that Hermey, well, his subplot is a traditional coming-out story. Under pressure from his peers for not following a conventional mindset, he reveals his hidden desires and refuses to quash them again to fit in. Also, his voice actor gives him a Paul Lynde-esque cadence that often goes hand-in-hand with stereotypical depictions of gay characters, and no other elf has hair so fancily coiffed as his (or hair at all, come to think of it). Hermey is a coded-gay elf out of the closet and he’s not going back in. The Head Elf even forces Hermey to work through his lunch break after his announcement in a blatant display of workplace bullying and discrimination. Hermey sings a snippet of The Misfit Song where he affirms his career/affiliation and that his manager can shove it.
But ignoring those HR-mandated sensitivity meetings aren’t the only things the elves do around the North Pole. The Head Elf has all the elves participate in “elf practice” which involves making the elves sing loyalty oaths to their beloved leader. “We Are Santa’s Elves” is another relentlessly upbeat time-filler song, made slightly more interesting by the sudden inclusion of Elf Clark Kent. Not exaggerating about him appearing suddenly either. The first time he literally pops up right behind the dancers trying to look as if he had just run up from behind them.
Despite the elves’ musical display of cult-like devotion and Mrs. Claus’ enthusiasm, Santa spends the entire number imitating me watching all these Rankin-Bass specials in preparation for this month.
Once it’s over, Santa hurries out the door, his only comment being “It needs work”. I’m not crazy about this tune either, Santa, but I would still applaud the hard work those elves put into writing and performing a song about me. Even Mrs. Claus is defending it. You’re just being a Grinch. The Head Elf takes Santa’s comments personally and writes the whole concert off as a failure, though it could have gone a lot worse. In fact, it would have been a lot more entertaining for me if it did.
Since the elves need a scapegoat for their “terrible” performance, they all blame Hermey for not showing up. For some reason, the Head Elf barging in shouting “WHY WEREN’T YOU AT ELF PRACTICE?!” became a meme in late 2017, and it’s something I’m neither for nor against. Hermey shows the boss what he’s been working on, a doll with realistic teeth that can chew. But the Head Elf isn’t amused: “We make dolls that cry, talk, walk, blink and even have a temperature! We don’t need any chewing dolls!” I’m proud of Hermey for trying to find a creative solution that combines both work and his interests in a way that’ll please everyone, but I’m inclined to agree with the Head Elf. How many of you are old enough to remember those Cabbage Patch dolls that could “chew” food and were recalled when they started eating kids’ hair? The Head Elf storms off after telling Hermey to cut the dentist crap and join the elf groupthink, and Hermey decides now’s as good a time as any to go work freelance instead.
Back in Rudolph’s story, it’s time for the Reindeer Games; an open inspection for Santa to view possible new deer to pull his sleigh. Donner forces Rudolph to wear an uncomfortable and obviously fake nose over his real one. Rudolph puts up some protest but his father tells him “There are more important things in life than comfort – SELF-RESPECT!” At this point, I’m not even sure if he’s talking about Rudolph’s self-respect or his, though I’m willing to bet it’s the latter. I’m sure Donner would get along well with Chicken Little’s dad. I would understand if he’s trying to protect his son from bullies, but if he is then he’s going about it the completely wrong way. Donner’s being a bully himself, and as we’ll see later, Rudolph internalizes his father’s toxic mindset regarding his nose. Plus, if the reindeer are that eager to taunt anyone who looks different from them, I’m surprised no one’s made fun of Fireball’s Trump hair yet.
Fireball, perhaps subconsciously noticing Rudolph is a fellow weirdo, immediately befriends him, indoctrinates him into the reindeer clique by getting him to laugh at one deer’s failed takeoff, and tells him that all this sports stuff they do is mostly their way of showing off to the ladies (just like in real life). Rudolph catches the eye of a doe named Clarice and the two get to talking. Clarice turns out to be genuinely nice and is the first person who doesn’t tease Rudolph for his fake or real schnozz. In fact, she flat-out tells him she thinks he’s cute.
Jubilant over being called “CYUUUUDE!!”, Rudolph rockets through the air and impresses everyone with his flying, even Santa. But Fireball accidentally knocks Rudolph’s false nose off as they celebrate and is terrified by what’s underneath. The other deer catch sight of it and start mocking Rudolph. Then Coach Comet steps in to see what the ruckus is. Surely he’ll put a stop to this awful bullying, right?
Comet not only stops and screams on seeing Rudolph’s blinking snout but openly announces that Rudolph’s no longer allowed to join in any reindeer games.
But maybe now that Santa’s seen Rudolph’s flight skills for himself he can look past his red nose and say something nice to assure Rudolph and change everyone’s minds?
Santa, you KNEW about Rudolph’s condition back when he was born! And you have the balls to blame Donner for this?!
Clarice comforts poor Rudolph with the well-intended but plodding ballad “There’s Always Tomorrow”. She’s joined by a host of singing woodland detritus, but strangely enough, there’s no hide or hair from any sheep in the vicinity. I wonder if Clarice knows why there’s silence from the lambs.
Her father drags her away by the end because he’ll be damned if he lets his daughter be seen with a red-nosed reindeer. Also, Clarice’s dad shares the same voice and model as Rudolph’s dad. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Clarice was the result of a fling Donner had with Cupid before Rudolph was born, he’s been raising her on the side without his wife and son knowing, and now he’s trying to stop his two kids from accidentally Lannister-ing. Rudolph’s blues don’t last too long as a familiar face soon pops up.
Rudolph and Hermey quickly bond over being outcasts and the two leave the North Pole together to find their place in the world. They solidify their new friendship with a reprise of the misfit song, though the version I grew up with had a different song entirely, “Fame and Fortune”. It doesn’t matter which one is better, both are annoyingly catchy.
As optimistic as the two are, they’re unprepared to face the grueling arctic tundra that lies beyond their home. It’s a barren wasteland of ice and snow with the constant threat of the Abominable Snowman constantly looming over their heads. The mere mention of the creature is enough to frighten Sam into hiding. Sam recovers from his episode after the commercial break and goes on to say that a different character runs into Rudolph and Hermey first:
When he explains the history of geology, you want to listen.
ZZTop turns to him for luxurious beard grooming tips.
His sled dog team buried the last known copy of Snow Dogs…and he was awarded a medal for it.
When Mr. T, Chuck Norris and the Most Interesting Man in the World get together to throw a party, he’s the first one they always invite.
He is…Yukon Cornelius.
I’ve got no notes for Yukon. He’s a mashup of Scrooge McDuck and Kurt Russell from John Carpenter’s The Thing: too crazy and too cool to not like. This Christmas ham is the one thing that comes close to redeeming this special for me. Any moment he’s onscreen he makes things way more interesting and entertaining. It also helps that he’s not a prick to Rudolph and Hermey for no reason, either.
Sam interrupts Yukon’s introduction to have a chuckle over the prospector’s obsession with gold and silver. Then he grinds the special to a halt so he can sing “Silver and Gold”. Methinks somebody’s projecting. Also, yes, not a fan of this song either. It’s just another excuse to have Burl Ives sing. The melody and lyrics are uninteresting and slow, and its presence in shopping malls and commercials have robbed it of its original meaning for me.
Skipping ahead, Yukon offers Rudolph and Hermey a lift on his sled. But the Abominable Snowman, or “Bumble” as Yukon refers to it, finally puts in an appearance. In the words of Sam, the Bumble is a “mean, nasty monster who hates anything to do with Christmas”.
The Bumble has terrified lots of kids who grew up with this special, and though I can see why, he’s not even in my top fifty list of childhood traumas. Not even close. I’d say the Bumble is what Cookie Monster would look like if he had teeth except I’ve seen what Cookie Monster with teeth actually looks like and it’s somehow WORSE.
It turns out that Yukon is quite the Bumble expert, and he treats their run-ins as if they were two understanding foes eternally locked in a battle of mental and physical superiority, like if Captain Ahab was hunted by Moby Dick instead of the other way around.
The Bumble gives chase until they’re cornered on the ice. Yukon chips at the ice until it floats away. Since the Bumble can’t swim, they’re safe for now. Yukon is so thrilled at their getaway he randomly switches from hunting gold to hunting silver just ’cause. Don’t question it. Logic does not apply to Yukon Cornelius. He applies to it, and it bows to his whims every time.
Meanwhile, Rudolph’s parents are dismayed to learn that their son has run away. Donner, wondering if perhaps he’s slightly responsible for this, resolves to find him. Rudolph’s mom wants to join her husband, but Donner tells her to stay home because “This is MAN’S work!”
Despite Donner still being an ass during what’s supposed to be his redeeming moment, his wife and Clarice follow him anyway, probably to make sure he doesn’t piss off a pack of wolves and get himself killed.
As for Rudolph and friends, their ice floe gets lost in a fog thick as peanut butter (Yukon’s words, not mine, though I wish they were). And I don’t know about you guys, but they missed the perfect opportunity to insert an appropriate song here.
The floe crashes on a snowy island with a majestic winged lion flying overhead. I won’t lie, his design is kind of cool. They also meet the island’s inhabitants, a group of sentient toys that refer to themselves as the Misfit Toys since they were all rejected by their owners for their varying undesirable traits. They sing another song (what a shock) about how they dream of a Christmas Day where they’ll be given to children who will love them.
A place for forgotten, less-beloved toys isn’t a bad idea, but many of the qualities that make these playthings “misfits” are things that could be easily overlooked or mended. I suppose that’s the point, but it’s still an annoyance when the answers are right in front of them. A train with square wheels, a scooter with its wheels on backward, and a boat that doesn’t float? Get yourselves repaired! A water pistol that shoots jelly? I know several annoying younger brothers who would pay out the nose to have a toy like that. Or better yet, just wash out that jelly! A cowboy who rides an ostrich? Market yourself as part of the Swiss Family Robinson playset! Not all toy planes have to fly, a bird who doesn’t fly but can swim can be a fun bathtub toy, and if you’re a jack-in-the-box whose real name is Charlie, well you don’t have to let the kids know that! You can let the kids call you Jack!
Yet perhaps the most frustrating toys are the most genuinely adorable and ordinary ones who would absolutely have no problem finding companionship in the real world. First, there’s a spotted elephant who wonders how anyone would want a toy like him.
Then there’s a sweet, polite little Dolly who has absolutely no defects, at least none that we can see. What could have possibly happened to her to make her think she could ever be unloved OOOOHHHHH…
Rudolph and Hermey feel a kinship with these fellow misfits and want to stay with them. Charlie tells them they have to get permission from King Moonchaser, that neat lion they saw earlier. Each night he roams the earth collecting forgotten toys and bringing them to his island until he can find someone who wants them. But Moonracer denies their request. “Unlike playthings, a living creature cannot hide on an island,” says the only living creature hiding on an island of playthings. He allows them to stay for the night, though. Moonracer also asks the guys to put in a good word for the Misfit Toys if they return to Christmas Town and see Santa. You’re kicking them out of your kingdom for a baseless, hypocritical reason, your highness. I don’t think you’re in any position to ask for a favor.
Yukon, Hermey and Rudolph try to make plans before turning in. But in keeping with the mindset of an abuse victim, Rudolph blames himself for the troubles they’ve had since they met. He feels his nose is what attracts the Bumble to them and is a danger to them all. But unless he leaves his nose on throughout the night and burns down the Fisher-Price playhouse they’re sleeping in, I think Hermey and Yukon will be okay. Once his friends are asleep, Rudolph sneaks out and ventures into the wilderness solo so he can ensure their safety.
Rudolph holds up well on his own, occasionally befriending woodland critters before moving on to keep the Bumble off his tail. Soon he grows up into a tall, mature adult. Eventually Rudolph returns home where, unsurprisingly, everyone still acts like jerks to him. Santa catches Rudolph up on the situation with Clarice and his family, though he seems more worried that his star flyer might not return in time to get his sleigh off the ground than whether or not Donner is in any real danger. Thoroughly guilt-tripped, Rudolph leaves again to bring his family back. Unfortunately, Donner’s party is about to get eaten (the irony!) and OH MY GOD THE BUMBLE HAS SQUEEZED CLARICE’S HEAD OFF!!
I get that the Clarice puppet is an older one in keeping with the time skip (I’m glad that the makers remembered to keep that detail instead of just keeping her small) but in other scenes, her head isn’t that far off from her body like it is in this screenshot. Either her head’s popped off like grape from a vine or the Bumble’s stretched out her neck like a giraffe’s.
Rudolph reaches the Bumble’s cave. Now it’s his time to shine, his long-awaited moment of heroism where he uses his previously shunned abilities to rescue his loved ones and finally proves his worth.
Or it would be if the Bumble didn’t immediately concuss him.
Thankfully, Yukon and Hermey have been searching for Rudolph since he left and they arrive in time to save the day. Sam tells us that HE was the one who told them where Rudolph was and sent them on their way, incorporating himself into the story he’s currently telling.
Sam, please, stop. You’re making the narrator from Reefer Madness look like Ferris Bueller by comparison. And why, when you get to Rudolph’s near-death scene, are you saying “No! Tell me when it’s over!” when YOU’RE the one relating it to us?
Yukon prepares to drop a boulder on the monster’s head and has Hermey draw him out of his cave by making him squeal like a piggy. I’d insert a reference to a certain infamous scene from Deliverance, but I realize that even after all my snark that would be taking things too far.
Yukon knocks out the Bumble, saving the reindeer and officially becoming this special’s real hero. I just hope he remembered to check all corners of that cave in case he left any more of the Bumble’s victims behind.
As for the Bumble, Hermey pulled out all its teeth while it was unconscious so he’s no longer a threat. Congratulations Hermey, you’ve killed this relatively innocent carnivorous creature since there’s no way it can properly devour its prey now, and probably threw the entire North Pole’s ecosystem out of whack considering he’s the only major predator of its kind. Not to mention you’ve left it with the sheer trauma and indescribable pain of waking up with every single tooth ripped from its mouth without even the courtesy of a novocaine shot.
With the Bumble reduced to a walking shag carpet, Yukon rather uncharacteristically bullies the defenseless beast, backing it up against a cliff with his sled dogs before going over the edge with him.
…Okay, you know what? I take back what I said about Yukon and logic because I see this scene and go “Why?!” Yukon had no reason whatsoever to throw himself on the Bumble like that. What purpose did it serve? He was already beaten! There was nothing to gain! He won! Game, set and match! He hit a zillion points in charisma! Game over, man! Did he just have to rub it in without giving a shit about himself? There was no way he couldn’t have seen that cliff either so he knew what he was getting into. Was he just looking for a way out of the special since he served his purpose?
Or perhaps, in keeping with the deadly game of cat and mouse that has consumed the Bumble and Yukon’s lives, he feels there is no reason to go on now; that this world no longer has a place for either of them, when one no longer has a foe to outwit and the other has literally no bite left in him. So the only option for these two worthy opponents is to finish this match as they began it: together.
…Or maybe it was just a hug gone horribly wrong, who knows?
Hermey, Rudolph and the rest are heartbroken by this sudden turn of events (I refuse to call it a heroic sacrifice since it wasn’t a sacrifice and the circumstances were far from heroic) but Sam takes over and says the best they could do was head home
so they could get the emotional womenfolk back to Christmas Town because 1960’s masculinity was so fragile that they pinned any show of emotion on the nearest female rather than take a moment to properly grieve. They return to Santa’s castle and Sam insinuates that everyone apologizes to Rudolph, but apart from Donner mumbling some regret for a second, I don’t hear a single one of them genuinely saying “I’m sorry” or expressing remorse for their actions.
See, this is the point I’ve been getting at. I attended a great lecture by Marvin Terban about writing humor for children’s books and he imparted some words of wisdom that can also apply to children’s media such as this: mean-spiritedness just for the sake of it in any form has absolutely no place in a story for kids. If there are bullies and other characters who do bad things, they must either be punished (preferably through some kind of karmic action as a result of their awful behavior) or properly learn why what they did was wrong and make amends by the story’s end. People say this is a heartwarming story where a browbeaten outcast overcomes ridicule and makes them all see how wrong they were about him. But while they show Rudolph being unfairly harassed A LOT, this moment where everyone who perpetrated all that bullying seems to have learned their lesson is so glossed over it’s barely noticeable. They breeze by it so fast you barely feel a chill. You have to wonder how much of these sudden regrets are genuine. There is such a thing as saying sorry and not meaning it or learning from it. Simply apologizing doesn’t automatically earn forgiveness or absolve your ass. People will suddenly act remorseful over a terrible action or event because everyone’s doing it regardless of how sincere they are in their contrition. Rudolph has the right to call out every single one of these jerks – including his own father and Santa – for enduring physical and emotional abuse from the moment he was born for the sake of their egos. And if you’re one of those people who try to rationalize everything that’s happened to Rudolph beforehand from Donner demeaning Rudolph with a fake nose to Coach Comet telling the deer to leave Rudolph out of the reindeer games with “They’re just realistically showing the negative effects of bullying and racism”, have you forgotten you’re watching a cartoon about talking deer who pull a flying sled for an immortal geriatric?
The half-hearted sentiments also extend to Hermey as the Head Elf reluctantly allows him to set up shop as the North Pole’s first dentist. Hermey books him as his first patient then and there, so it’s nice to know that somebody in this special will be put through unbearable dental torture ala Marathon Man as punishment for their cruelty.
And what’s this? Why, Yukon’s alive after all! And he trained the Bumble to put the star atop the tallest Christmas tree! But how did they survive that fall?
I’m with The Odd 1s Out, that’s a weaksauce explanation and the mere thought of Yukon and the Bumble hitting the bottom of the gorge and trampolining back up on their butts is ridiculous. If Yukon was being honest, he would have said he survived because Romeo Muller didn’t have the guts to kill the best character in the special, or any character for that matter. It’s not like death is a thing that doesn’t happen in children’s media, after all. Just ask the totally alive parents of Bambi, Simba, Littlefoot, Tarzan, Harry Potter, Hiccup, the Baudelaires, the majority of the Disney Princesses…
With less than seven minutes left in this special, the story finally returns to its roots. Santa receives a weather report warning of a dire blizzard and too much fog. He sadly announces to everyone that Christmas is canceled this year. You’d think he’d have some kind of contingency plan considering how long he’s been doing this job. Hell, when Hurricane Sandy hit my neighborhood, we rescheduled trick or treating so the kids wouldn’t have to skip Halloween that year. Think ahead, Kringle!
Rudolph’s nose goes out of whack, annoying Santa until he suddenly realizes that the very deformity he and everyone else disparaged him for is, in fact, useful for something. Not exaggerating either, he goes from saying “Turn that thing down!” to “That beautiful, wonderful nose!” in the space of five seconds. And so:
But Santa surgically removes Rudolph’s nose and grafts it onto a more compliant deer who coincidentally shared the same name, looks, and disposition as Rudolph. That scene was cut for time, however, so it looks like our Rudolph proudly accepts the mission and Christmas is saved for the umpteenth time. Donner even boasts that he always knew his son’s nose would be useful someday.
No, seriously, it’s the end. No more special. Show’s over.
What, you think I’m kidding? I did my homework. This is how the special really ended on its premiere. I’m not forgetting anything. But apparently, Rankin-Bass themselves did.
If they thought the thousands of kids watching this wouldn’t notice the Misfit Toys were still abandoned and unloved by the story’s end, they were wrong. Very, VERY wrong. There were angry letters to CBS, boycotts, picketing, and violence in the streets that made post-2016 Election riots look like a family picnic. So the following year when Rudolph re-aired, they added a new scene that featured Rudolph and Santa rescuing the Toys and dropping them off at their new homes, and it’s stayed that way ever since. To make room for it, they removed the resolution to Yukon Cornelius’ arc. I never knew this until I was older, but him licking his pick-ax after each use was foreshadowing: it wasn’t precious metals he tasted, it was peppermint the whole time. This led to him finding an enormous peppermint mine beneath the North Pole and striking it rich in sugar.
So that was Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and I think Wednesday Addams summed it up best:
I don’t care what the comments are going to say, It’s all that plus it has one of the worst if not THE worst version of Santa Claus depicted on film (and I know a thing or two about bad Santas, I watch Mystery Science Theater and Rifftrax’s takes on Santa Claus and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians religiously this time of year). Any lessons about the dangers of bullying are lost in the shuffle of shifting locations, plot threads, characters, and songs that have nothing to do with anything, and it is so teeth-disintegratingly saccharine. I like my Christmas specials sweet, but all sugar and no spice leaves you impotent and craving something more filling (it’s scientifically proven, folks). The Rudolph movie made by Goodtimes Entertainment in the ’90s isn’t much better, but I give them credit for attempting to fix some of the underlying issues I have with the original special. I hate how people worship it to the point of calling it one of the greatest Christmas-related things ever made and telling you how wrong you are if you disagree the slightest bit. If there’s any good that I can attribute to Rankin-Bass’ Rudolph, it comes down to a handful of things:
- It inspired much better holiday fare like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Elf.
- We got Yukon Cornelius, who deserves a special all his own.
- WHY WEREN’T YOU AT ELF PRACTICE??!!
- Those awesome Nickmas parody bumpers they made in the early 2000’s.
- Superelf: You will believe an elf can fly, though he don’t like to brag.
- Real-Time Fandub’s silly superior cover. It condenses the special to twenty hilarious, improvised, quotable minutes and it’s my preferred way of watching it.
Rudolph is born red nose and all, and of course, his parents are concerned. There’s some teasing until Santa learns about it. To stop the harmful bullying while also recognizing that Rudolph has a wonderful gift, he declares Rudolph will have a spot pulling his sleigh once he grows up without having to audition for it. The power and pride go to Rudolph’s head and he starts threatening anyone who crosses him. When word of Rudolph’s bullying reaches Santa, he punishes him by stripping him of his rank. He’s left out of the reindeer games not because he’s a “freak”, but because he was an asshole to everyone. Ashamed and purposeless, Rudolph wanders the arctic and learns to use his abilities for the right reasons while befriending other “misfit” characters. There could also a true bad guy here who’s like the dark mirror of Rudolph, powerful but rejected and reviled partly because of said gift and partly because of a bruised ego (I’m thinking along the lines of the snow witch from Goodtimes’ Rudolph but actually compelling). Rudolph and his new friends save the day by convincing the villain that it’s not the magic that others ostracize him for but what he does with it, just as a bad snowstorm hits. This time it’s not Santa who comes crawling to Rudolph, but Rudolph with his nose so bright who humbly asks if he may guide his sleigh that night. And due to the amount of character growth, he’s earned it. It shows how bullying can stem from insecurities and anyone is capable of it, even people who have been bullied themselves. It also revises the ableist message that the original perpetrated, albeit unintentionally. There can also be a side-plot about Rudolph trying to make his dad proud of him; but Donner, who is not an abusive jerkwad in this one, tells him he was always proud of his son.
And if much of this plot sounds familiar, well you know what they say: you can’t spell “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” without “Thor“.
If you like Rankin-Bass’ Rudolph and want to keep watching it, fine. There’s nothing stopping you. I’m only one person ranting their opinions on the internet as if they were facts. Just know there’s countless of other Christmas specials out there that deserve as much attention as it has, some of which are on the Christmas Shelf this very moment. So maybe this year, why not save Rudolph for another time and give those a chance instead?
Thank you for reading! Though I doubt anyone who’s read this review will want to give me any money after poking holes in this untouchable holiday classic, please consider supporting this misfit on Patreon. Patreon supporters receive great perks such as extra votes for movie reviews, movie requests, early sneak-peeks and more! If I can hit my goal of $100 a month, I can go back to weekly tv series reviews. As of now, I’m only $20 away! Special thanks to Amelia Jones, Gordhan Rajani and Sam Minden for their contributions!