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Ah, back to stop-motion animation. After dealing with Frosty’s nonsense I’m unsure as to whether or not I missed it.
Like most iconic fictional characters, Santa’s been the subject of many origin stories. My personal favorite is The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn, which combines his saintly origins with interesting tidbits about his modern portrayal and a ton of fun historical fiction (he’s helped shape events like Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and instead of elves he has a boatload of historical figures gain immortality to help him including Leonardo Da Vinci, Theodore Roosevelt and Attila The freaking Hun! It had me at hello!) Of course, Rankin-Bass had to do their own spin on the Santa mythos (not for the last time either as one of their final specials was based on L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus) and they did it by combining it with their tried-and-true method of basing it off a holiday standard.
We open with a live-action newsreel narrated by Paul Frees detailing the world’s excitement over Santa’s imminent arrival. If you want to play a drinking game while watching this special, take a shot for every character Frees plays. He’s a Rankin-Bass regular, but he contributes quite a lot to this particular outing. Children drop off their letters to Santa and the special transitions from live-action to animation. I want to say it’s better here than Rudolph’s was, but this is still Rankin-Bass we’re talking about. These guys put the “stop” in stop-motion.
We meet the mailman in charge of delivering all those letters, and here’s something I completely ignored while watching this growing up – he has a name! Meet S.D. “Special Delivery” Kluger, voiced by talented tap-dancer and Gene Kelly’s rival, Fred Astaire.
With his snowmobile momentarily on the fritz, Kluger entertains us by reading some of the letters.
He’s then promptly hit with five years in prison as opening mail that’s not addressed to him is a federal offense.
Nah, I kid. Kluger reveals that most of the notes for Santa are questions from curious children asking things such as why his suit is red, why he comes down chimneys, has a beard and so on. I’d like to note that the acting for this special is surprisingly good, another big step up from Rudolph. It’s an A-OK blend of voice-acting veterans such as the aforementioned Paul Frees, Keenan Wynn, and Robie Lester, and long-standing Hollywood talents like Astaire and Mickey Rooney. The children on the other hand…well, I’m left wondering how many of them took an extra-drowsy dose of cough syrup before each take. Or grew up to be Kristen Stewart. That’s the one fumble in an otherwise great set of casting. They also have an annoying tendency to state the obvious conclusion to every scene once it wraps up, like “Oh THAT’S where the reindeer came from” and “Oh I KNEW she’s Mrs. Claus”. I know this special was meant for kids, but it’s not as if they couldn’t figure it out for themselves.
Kluger’s got about an hour until his snowmobile is back up and running, so what better way to kill to time than to share all he knows about Santa’s humble beginnings? He sings the first few lyrics of the title number that segues into another medley of the special’s songs and…the entire time I had a big grin on my face that for the life of me I couldn’t suppress. I began remembering lyrics to songs I haven’t heard in over fifteen years and humming along. The animators also made the clever decision of having Kluger strut his stuff to the music as an allusion to Astaire’s legacy. The result is that unusual, rare feeling of rediscovering something from the past that turned out to be more enchanting than you recalled.
…But this joyful feeling can’t last. I know it won’t. Rankin-Bass has done nothing but beat me over the head with forced whimsy for most of my life. Why should it start appealing to me now?
Kluger’s story begins in Sombertown, a gray sad city in the shadow of the Mountain of the Whispering Winds. Sombertown is caught in the icy grip of its cold-hearted ruler who’s also played by Paul Frees, Burgermeister Meisterburger. Don’t let the ridiculous name fool you, this guy’s a jerk but a force to be reckoned with. He and the guys he commands, well, they’re…
No, really, they’re Nazis, and I can prove it. The soldiers’ uniforms are a mash of German combat wear from World Wars One and Two, Burgermeister speaks in an exaggerated authoritarian German accent, he goes to ridiculous and dangerous extremes to force his ideology on people, and despises anyone who exists outside his norms. But what could be worse than regular Nazis? CHRISTMAS Nazis. And by that, I mean Nazis who hate Christmas and all it stands for in addition to the infinite list of everything else they hate. Burgermeister is never happy unless he knows everyone else is miserable, forbids celebration of the holidays, and when he’s not suppressing the people he’s in his big manor enjoying the high life while the citizens of Sombertown barely scrape by.
Burgermeister’s right-hand man Grimsley (also Frees) brings him a package left with the morning mail – a doorstep baby. The only clue to the child’s identity is a medallion with the name “Claus”. Claus also comes with a note asking Burgermeister to look after him, but Burgermeister forces Grimsley to take the baby to the “orphan asylum” on the other side of the mountain. A terrible blizzard kicks up, and Grimsley loses his sled and Claus with it. He tries to rescue him but gets trapped in a snowbank and watches helplessly as the wind carries the baby far from his reach.
Random thought, but do you think Grimsley ever feels guilty over Claus’ fate? Does he feel responsible for losing this child and is haunted by the thought that he probably died because of him? Dark, I know, though I wouldn’t rule it out. Grimsley might seem like your average sycophant on the surface, but his concern for Claus appears genuine and hints at a more pointed moral compass than he’s allowed to show. This is also evident in how he acts as the straight man to Burgermeister’s moments of extreme villainy. During “No More Toymakers To The King” he sounds weary when he sings “It’s a difficult responsibility to accept the job of the number one law keeper, me,” like he’s tired of carrying out his boss’ harsh nonsensical decrees but muddles through because this job is all he’s got. There’s enough going on in this special as it is, but I’d have loved to see his character explored further.
Thankfully the forest animals find little Claus and protect him from the real danger lurking in the mountains, the evil Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn). He’s an ancient shark-faced wizard with mastery over snow and ice, and WAIT JUST A DARN MINUTE!
Once the storm dies down, the critters bring baby Claus to a family of elves called the Kringles living in the Rainbow River Valley (gotta love these location names, remind me to steal them for the next book I write). This, I’m sad to say, is when Romeo Muller’s penchant from excessively cloying dialogue kicks in. The elves (all voiced by Paul Frees; you can just do one shot instead of five to cover them all) speak in rhyme in high-pitched voices that Alvin and the Chipmunks would call grating, and spend what feels like an eternity gushing over the little miracle left on their stoop:
Wiggle my ears and tickle my toes,
Methinks I see a baby’s nose!
It’s more than a nose, there’s a whole baby attached to it!
It’s a baby, Zingle.
A baby what, Wingle?
A baby baby, Tingle!
I like babies!
Our baby’s the best baby of them all!
The Kringles, led by their matriarch Tanta (Joan Gardner), adopt the child and rename him Kris. They raise him well, homeschool him, and when he’s old enough, they teach him their trade: toymaking. But since the nearest civilization is blocked by an impenetrable mountain ruled by a misanthropic ice wizard, there’s only one thing they can do with the toys they spend all day creating – just toss ’em outside and start the process over again. If it weren’t for the Kringles’ altruism, I’d say this was the perfect metaphor for modern capitalism.
Kris declares that once he’s grown up he’ll carry the toys over the mountain. Tanta reminisces about the good old days where the Kringles were world-renowned for their toys and teaches Kris about their legacy as the “First Toymakers to the King”.
Oh boy, good luck getting this song out of your head. I have to give credit where credit is due, the use of limited animation for the book illustrations in this sequence works well. What’s more, they combine that technique with stop-motion to make the toys jump in and out of the history book, and it’s quite impressive for the time.
Oh my God…am I…enjoying this?! No, no I can’t possibly! I don’t like Rankin-Bass specials! They’re dated and cheap and sickeningly sweet and the lyrics of “Toymakers To The King” have wormed their way out of the dark recesses of my memory and now I can’t stop smiling and singing it PLEASE SEND HELP!!
Kris learns plenty from his animal friends as well. He becomes swift as the coursing river thanks to the deer, the squirrels teach him how to climb, and from the seals, he picks up his trademark “ho ho ho” laugh. Eventually, Kris grows up into an adult Mickey Rooney. Rooney brings that right amount of sincerity and spirit to the role; his Santa is energetic, youthful, gentle and understanding, but not without a bit of childish cheek and playfulness. I’m not surprised Rankin-Bass got him to return as their official Santa in later specials. This Kris Kringle is certainly an improvement over Rudolph’s, but then again that’s a low bar to clear. In a rarity for most Christmas stories, we spend the majority of this special seeing Kris as his young adult self, and it’s an interesting take on the character.
Kris decides to finally make the trip over the mountain so he can share the Kringles’ toys with the world. Tanta makes him an official Kringle red suit and soon he’s on his way. While crossing the mountain, Kris befriends a lost and overly affectionate penguin named Topper (Paul Frees, AGAIN), and they narrowly avoid the clutches of the Winter Warlock. Sombertown is soon in their sights, but the timing of Kris’ arrival couldn’t be worse.
While parading out of City Hall, Burgermeister slips on a duck toy and takes quite the tumble down the steps. What is it with Rankin-Bass specials giving characters the most hilarious, jerky and over-the-top animation when falling down something? Look at that expression, it cracks me up!
Also, why was that toy lying in such a random place and why did nobody notice it until it was too late? Could they not be bothered to pick it up in time…unless someone left it there intentionally in the vain hope of getting Burgermeister out of the picture and making it look like an accident…
Burgermeister is diagnosed with a broken leg and funny bone by the town doctor (Paul Frees, his TENTH character if you’re keeping score) but his ego is bruised beyond repair. He develops an instant hatred for toys and is convinced they’re out to get him like a conspiracy nut. He jumps to his feet and declares “I HATE toys! And toys hate ME!” with such conviction that would make Alex Jones swell with pride. Burgermeister lays down a new law with an equally catchy reprise of the previous song. All playthings in Sombertown are confiscated, and anyone caught with one will receive the standard Lemongrab punishment:
And here’s a terrifying thought for you: it’s been scientifically proven that toys are instrumental in the early development of children. Studies show that most blind supporters of far-right leaders (including a certain controversial political figure I’ve poked at whose ego and insanity matches the Burgermeister’s) tend to have lower than average IQs. Without even realizing it, Burgermeister is breeding the next generation of his supporters.
“But wouldn’t these kids hate him for taking away their toys?” you may ask. Trust me, I’m getting to that.
Kris saunters into Sombertown with his pack and immediately receives the stink-eye from the townsfolk based on his clothing choice and unusually chipper attitude. Rankin-Bass rarely goes all out in production design, but I appreciate how they use to Kris’ red suit to, um, suitably mark him out among the dingy grays of Sombertown and its inhabitants. Once he mentions that he’s here to give away toys, they react like they’re being questioned about monorails in North Haverbrook and shut him out cold.
Kris, feeling utterly confused, takes a moment to ponder by the town fountain. There he meets a sad little boy and girl washing stockings. Now THIS is the moment I can get behind the kids’ acting in this special; they perfectly capture the boredom and misery that comes from having your toys taken away and being forced to do mind-numbing chores. Kris promises to share his goods with them if they put on a happy face and waxes lyrically using his theme song. The kids, having never learned about stranger danger yet because this was the 70’s, are taken in by Kris’ gifts and get the other village children to come to play. But someone raises a voice of protest.
This is Jessica, the local schoolteacher, played by Robie Lester. Jessica sternly reminds the children that the Burgermeister would come down hard on them if he saw them all playing with toys. She goes on to pontificate how toys are unproductive, impractical, frivolous and a whole lot of other negative adjectives. If you didn’t catch that first sentence, let me break it down for you: Jessica is a teacher who is repeating the Burgermeister’s rhetoric. The Burgermeister is already pressing his propaganda in schools to children. Kids are already being taught that the simple things they loved were wrong and that the supreme leader is unquestionably right. Tell me the thought of that doesn’t make you feel the least bit anxious. And if it doesn’t, go watch Education For Death, Jojo Rabbit, or Avatar The Last Airbender’s “The Headband” and the implications will become terrifyingly clear.
Rather than being concerned, Kris finds the whole idea of toys being made illegal absurd. To prove there’s no harm to them, he gives Jessica a china doll that happens to resemble her. This simple act provokes a change of heart in Jessica, as she always wanted a doll when she was a child but never got one. A bit of a sudden turnaround, yes, but it’s nice to see the first adult with some authority realize how petty this anti-toy law is. I like that Kris doesn’t throw it back in her face either, but instead turns it around into a joke that further charms her (“Watch out for that dolly. She’s a hardened criminal, I hear.”)
Kris recruits Jessica’s help in handing out more toys to the children. We get our next song and…I’m just gonna post some of the lyrics here for you to read.
If you sit on my lap today,
A kiss for a toy is the price you’ll pay
When you tell what you wish for in a whisper,
Be prepared to pay!
If you sit on my lap today,
A kiss for a toy is the price you’ll pay
When you sit on my lap knee,
Don’t be stingy!
Be prepared to pay!
The music is nice and I like its use in the score, yet those lyrics are bordering on cringe territory. I know the intended message of the song is to return an act of kindness to those who pay you one first, but if Kris sang this in public today, he’d be beaten up and hauled to jail by a thousand horrified mothers. It makes me want to call Detective Bittenbinder to school these kids on Street Smarts.
The Burgermeister rolls on to the scene and demands the children’s arrest. Kris steps in to protect them. For his acts of kindness, Burgermeister declares Kris is a “noncomformist and rebel”. Compare this to Rudolph where being called those by authority figures is a bad thing (unless it’s useful to them) and you can see what a difference over half a decade makes. (NOTE: Growing public dissatisfaction with Vietnam and Nixon’s administration might have had something to do with it also.) And since giving his accusers a toy turned them around to his side once, Kris figures why not do it again? He hands the Burgermeister a yo-yo. By a stunning coincidence, that’s his favorite childhood toy and he goes to pieces over it.
Burgermeister plays with his unexpected present until Grimsley calmly points out that he’s breaking his own rule in front of the entire town.
Yep, I’m calling it: if this was a full-length feature, Grimsley would have an arc where he realizes the depth of the Burgermeister’s cruelty and stupidity and switches over to the good guys.
Of course, the Burgermeister blatantly violating the law is grounds for impeachment so he’s tried and thrown in prison for his abuse of power and innumerable crimes against humanity – oh wait, this is a true story we’re being told. So nobody has the balls to stop the Burgermeister and instead follow his orders to seize Kris*. Kris escapes by calling on his animal abilities. He and Topper stop for a rest in the woods, but they realize too late that they’re back in the Winter Warlock’s territory. The trees come to life and seize them.
Yet, ever the giving soul, Kris asks the Warlock if his last act on this earth could be to give him the last toy he salvaged from Sombertown. The Warlock, while initially suspicious of Kris’ motivations, is moved since no one’s ever given him anything before. Either Kris is the kind of guy who knows exactly how to bring out the best in everyone he meets, or the Kringles enchant the toys to make grown adults sharply change into nice people when exposed to them. The gift of a choo-choo train warms the Warlock’s heart so much that he melts – literally.
Now the Warlock is a kinder, somewhat de-magicked old man with an actual skin tone who prefers to be simply known as “Winter”. I really want to know his backstory now; how did he acquire such powers and turn evil in the first place? Alas, such questions are thrown to the winds and possibly some obscure corner of a fanfiction forum. Kris’ kindness has changed Winter’s whole outlook on life, but he wonders if it will last; if this is only a temporary adjustment and he’ll revert to his cruel ways down the line. Well, such a deep moral and psychological quandary would takes years if not his entire life to truly sort out –
I don’t like “Put One Foot in Front of the Other”. Never did, never will. It burrows its way into your head, repeats that same chorus over and over, and it bashes your brains in with its sentimentality. Near the end, it slows things down and takes the “learning to walk through the door” approach literally with Winter.
The Winter Formerly Known As Warlock promises to use his magic to help Kris with his gift-giving, starting by making a crystal snowball to show him anything he desires. Kris sees Jessica looking for him and Warlock teleports him to her. The children of Sombertown gave Jessica letters to deliver to Kris asking him for more toys. Kris tells her to inform the children that he’ll return as long as they don’t shout, cry, pout, etc. because he’ll know, and to keep their doors unlocked in the evening.
Kris returns to Sombertown after dark; if he finds a house with a locked door, he passes it over.
But an unlocked door means a house with kids waiting for him to receive their presents. The next day the Burgermeister is enraged to discover the children in possession of so many toys and Kris slipped through his fingers again. He demands that all the citizens lock their doors and windows and allow their houses to be searched each morning, threatening to arrest any family found sheltering a toy. Kris gets around those obstacles by sneaking in through the chimney (probably hoping to God each time that he doesn’t wind up like that scene in Gremlins) and hiding the toys in the stockings drying by the fireplace since it’s the one place Burgermeister and his cronies don’t think to look.
Sick of constantly being outsmarted, Burgermeister resolves to set a trap for Kris. Jessica overhears him and runs to the Kringles’ to warn him, though Kris has already left. She begs Winter for his help, but he’s lost most of his powers since he turned good. Even worse, Burgermeister’s army followed Jessica and they arrest Winter and the Kringles – but not her for some reason. Kris and Topper are captured, and the Burgermeister forces all of Sombertown’s children to watch as he burns their toys in a giant bonfire.
The next morning Jessica pleads with Burgermeister to set Kris and the Kringles free, but he shuts her down. Due to her association with the Kringles, she’s now persona non grata and the school has been closed. It’s terrible and keeping with the Burgermeister’s dictator vibe, but least it’s better than what he originally proposed.
Jessica is distraught that the town has turned its back on her for doing the right thing. Yet she refuses to stick her head back in the sand, now that her eyes have been opened to what life is really like under the Burgermeister’s rule. She realizes she’s come to a turning point in her life, not an ending, but a beautiful beginning. The desire to bring peace and kindness back into the world has taken hold, and though she may be deemed a criminal for doing so, she knows its her duty to her community and the people she loves to set right what was wronged.
Jessica vocalizes her feelings in the ballad “My World is Beginning Today”. It’s a shame that it’s often cut for runtime nowadays because it’s the pinnacle of her character arc and quite a nice song to boot. This sequence stuck out in my mind for years long after I stopped watching this special. But Robie Lester’s vocals aren’t the reason why people remember it so vividly. The visuals take a rapid detour into trippy territory with melting swirls, flying geometric shapes and faces, garish oranges and blues, and occasionally a bit of on-the-nose symbolism (this song is partially about her awakened feelings for Kris, and a flower happens to pop up and we dive into it. I can’t be the only one who spots the correlation).
The blending of traditional and stop-motion animation isn’t too shabby, though the final image of Jessica singing to her reflection could count as an epic special effects failure.
Jessica seeks Winter in his cell to formulate a plan. Unfortunately, Winter is still down on himself for losing his powers and feels useless. If they had more time to do something with this, he’d probably have an arc similar to Elsa’s where he learns that he can channel his abilities through love instead of fear and hate. The only magical items Winter has in his pockets are some used up junk and corn that gives reindeer the ability to fly. Jessica takes this unusually specific enchanted foodstuff and uses her now aerial-enhanced herd to help everyone escape. They even work in a Rudolph cameo, though Kluger says that’s a story for another time.
Burgermeister enacts a nationwide manhunt for Kris and his accomplices, turning him into a gift-giving Robin Hood. Kris grows a beard as a disguise and takes up Tanta’s suggestion to change his name back to his original one, Claus, to protect his identity. On that day, Claus also asks Jessica to share his name and a life with him. They’re wed in the forest on Christmas Eve to Fred Astaire singing “What Better Way To Tell You”, a severely underrated and beautiful song. As a gift for the happy couple, Winter summons enough magic to brighten up the ceremony with enchanted lights, creating the very first Christmas trees.
The Burgermeister’s forces continue to push Kris and his family further and further up north, past civilization, all the way to the North Pole. Kris claims it’ll be the perfect spot to build a toy factory and their new home.
But Kris does the impossible and pulls it off. Soon he and the Kringles are settled in, making toys for a growing number of girls and boys. Despite the Burgermeister’s best efforts, Claus’ notoriety has spread, giving hope to children and adults alike. He receives an increasing amount of letters through his animal friends and continues making more trips at night in spite of the risk and his growing age.
As for the Burgermeister, well, Kluger tells us he “kind of died off”. I regret to inform you that we are spared the images of Sombertown’s violent uprising and his bloody execution. His legacy meets the same fate as many deserving dictators, discarded and forgotten. The anti-toy laws are abolished and the world reveres Claus to the point where they canonize him as a saint, or “Santa”. Overwhelmed by toy requests, Santa decides to limit his gift-giving to one night, the most precious night of the year, Christmas Eve.
And that’s how it all began.
Oh, and as for why Saint Nick is immortal and hasn’t aged a day since his beard turned white, uhhh…a wizard did it.
So that was Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and while it’s simplistic, a bit cheesy, and the flaws are more noticeable now than when I was a little, little kid…it’s mostly better than I remembered it. I walked into this ready to tear it a new one like the previous Rankin-Bass specials I reviewed, but now I’m glad I revisited it. Most of the songs are good, the characters are enjoyable, Mickey Rooney is a great Santa, the animation is slightly improved over Rudolph’s, and it’s got a tight story about fighting a regime of ignorance and hate with love, acceptance, and change. Call it good timing, a coincidence, a matter of taste, but if you couldn’t already tell, the latter resonated with me more in this age than it ever did before. As far as Rankin-Bass specials go, you could do much worse than this one. And even if you don’t like it, it’s not like it’s the only holiday animated feature we have about the origins of Santa that involves a mailman, a schoolteacher and a town ruled by a grouchy tyrant.
Thank you for reading! If you’re able to this holiday season, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon supporters receive great perks such as extra votes for movie reviews, requests, early sneak-peeks and more! If I can hit my goal of making $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!
Artwork by Charles Moss.
* – This review was written well before impeachment articles were brought up against said controversial political figure mentioned earlier. I’d rather not jinx the outcome by stating my opinion on the matter, but I think you can already guess what it is.