aaron, animated, animated special, animation, anthropomorphic animals, Balthasar, ben haramed, Bethlehem, camel, caravan, Caspar, Christmas, Christmas cartoon, christmas episode, Christmas miracle, Christmas review, christmas special, Christmas star, christmas story, donkey, drum, drummer, Greer Garson, Jerusalem, Jesus, jose ferrer, Joseph, june foray, lamb, little drummer boy, manger, Mary, Melchior, nativity, nativity story, One Star in the Night, Paul Frees, performers, Rankin Bass, Romeo Muller, stable, star, Star of Bethlehem, stop motion animation, stop-motion, the goose is hanging high, three kings, three wise men, we three kinds of orient are, we three kings, when the goose is hanging high, why can't the animals smile
The Little Drummer Boy began as a Christmas carol written under the title “Carol of the Drum” and was first recorded in 1951 by the Von Trapp Family Singers. Maybe you’ve heard of ’em. It was inspired by a long-lost Czech carol, and the French legend of a poor juggler who performs for a statue of the Virgin Mary. The idea of a performer humbly offering their own talents as a gift to a holy figure has been revised and retold in many ways throughout the years (the Tomie De Paola book The Clown Of God is a beautiful example), and has resonated so much in its current form that it’s brought together singers as diverse as Bing Crosby and David Bowie.
I’m willing to bet the song’s popularity is what attracted Rankin-Bass to it, but it still strikes me as an unusual choice for their first stop-motion special made following Rudolph. The R-B roster mainly consists of secular Christmas stories. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Cricket On The Hearth barely touched on the Nativity in their tales. Little Drummer Boy, though? He doesn’t give a figgy pudding for Santa and wholly embraces the biblical side of Christmas. It’s only one of a handful Rankin-Bass specials that do – which means it’s buried beneath the more popular non-Jesusy Rudolph and Frosty outings. Heck, just look at the cover for Little Drummer Boy. Compare the covers for the other Rankin-Bass specials which advertise its celebrity narrator, or that they’re based on some “classic” story by a beloved author. There are TWO Academy-Award winning actors in the cast of Little Drummer Boy, and it’s partly based on what millions of people consider a true story, but instead of playing on that, there’s a cute tagline. Now I may be a tad prejudiced, but I find this to deliberate slighting of this particular Rankin-Bass special a bit unfair. Allow me to elucidate:
We open on a long procession tramping through a desert. Our narrator, Greer Garson, tells us that these are but a few of the people returning to their place of birth to partake in Emperor Ceasar Augustus’ census. This train is made up of the young and the old, the famous and mighty, and some whose names were not yet known but would be revered in due time.
Our narrator continues that there were good people out there who could afford to make the trip and pay their taxes, “And there were…others.”
But no, our narrator lady is referring to something almost as bad that the twitterer-in-chief would gravitate towards – outdated Middle Eastern stereotypes.
The guy on the left is Ben Haramed, played by José Ferrer. He runs a caravan full of performers from exotic lands with his inept sidekick Ali (voiced by Paul Frees, because of course he is). They have their eyes on a boy named Aaron playing his drum as he leads a small parade of dancing animals. Ben is eager to make Aaron part of his caravan, though Ali reminds him that Aaron won’t join them willingly due to his hatred of mankind. I find it kind of odd that they already know Aaron’s name, talent and all about his antisocial attitude. The kid’s been living out in the desert for who knows how long and somehow he’s maintained a steady reputation. And why would Ali go out of his way to mention this to Ben if he already knows this?
Ali’s not exaggerating about Aaron either. He’s kind of like Mowgli in that he’s perfectly happy living away from civilization with his animal companions, except, as we’ll soon learn, his bratty behavior towards anyone who’s not part of his four-legged drum corp is somewhat justified. Ben grabs Aaron from behind and ties him up while Ali has the unenviable task of rounding up the unruly animals – a camel named Joshua, a donkey named Samson, and a cute little lamb named Baba. We also get our first funny exchange from this otherwise clunkily-animated scene:
Ben: Get them! Get them!
Ali: I only have two hands!
Ben: Stop concerning yourself with details!
Aaron’s drum rolls into the sands and the main titles fade over The Vienna Boys Choir’s take on the theme song. It’s almost identical to the version by The Harry Simeone Choir, the one that popularized this tune to begin with. Though we only hear the first verse, it’s a beautiful sample of what’s to come. In fact, the way they weave the title song into the score is quite beautiful and helps give this story an even grander scope; one that you’d expect from a symphony orchestra concert or a classic film soundtrack more than a simple tv special.
The usual Rankin-Bass roster shows up in the credits including Paul Frees, Romeo Muller –
– but the most surprising of all was the man in charge of animation continuity, Don Duga. Don Duga, wasn’t he one of Donald Duck’s ancestors in Legend of the Three Caballeros?
Aaron resists Ben’s initial offer as he truly does hate all people. He’d be content to never talk to another human being for the rest of his life.
Ben convinces Aaron that, if you must be stuck existing among others, it’s better to do so when you’re rich, and he demonstrates with his bad-guy song, “When The Goose is Hanging High”. For the first villain number to come from Rankin-Bass, it’s surprisingly hummable and gives plenty of insight to Ben’s character, even if he does dance around like Topper the Penguin from Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.
You might be wondering like I was, what does this hanging goose nonsense even mean? Well, dear reader, I did my homework and discovered it’s an archaic phrase meaning things are looking up, because a goose hanging in the larder means you’ve got food to last you for a while. Or it could mean things are good because geese fly high in good weather. And if the goose is flying low, then that means things are not so great. But if you’ve got a goose running around town being a dick to everyone, then you’ve got a hit video game on your hands. What was I talking about again? Oh yes, dead birds.
Aaron reluctantly agrees to go along with Ben, and our narrator flashbacks to the start of Aaron’s hatred for humanity. Once, Aaron was a happy good-hearted boy who lived with his loving mother and father on a farm. On his birthday, his parents gave him the gift of a small drum. Whenever Aaron played his drum, the farm animals followed him around like he was a mini pied piper. Our storyteller insinuates that it’s because the drum was a gift of love and Aaron playing it was also an act of love inspired by it, which cleverly sets up the story’s outcome.
But any tale that starts this happily can’t last. Aaron’s life was changed forever when roaming bandits attacked one night and murdered his parents onscreen!
Yeah. This time we get to SEE the deaths happening. Aaron’s father emerges from the house to stop the bandits, one of them throws a knife, and though we don’t watch it as it makes its mark, we cut to Aaron’s dad from the waist up with a thud noise as his pupils shrink and he collapses. DEAD. Aaron’s mother (June Foray) also sacrifices herself to buy her son some time to escape as the thieves burn the farm to the ground.
And little, helpless Aaron is witness to all this. Alone in the desert, forced to become an orphan vagabond with Joshua, Samson, and Baba, the only other survivors of the massacre, he can only see the evil in humanity. It is then, for taking away his family and the life that should have been his, that he vows to hate mankind for the rest of his days.
Unlike Cricket On The Hearth, fridging Aaron’s parents serves a true purpose outside of being dark for the sake of it. It pulls off the right kind of storytelling and tone this plot needs to make the ending as natural, beautiful and earned as possible. Once Aaron’s backstory is revealed to us, we’re lifted out of our role as outsiders watching some misanthropic kid in a desert and planted firmly into his point of view for the rest of the story. And even though it’s not the most pleasant place to be, Aaron’s mindset really captures how it feels to be so alone even when you’re surrounded by other people. This is when you begin to feel for something for him despite his blind prejudice.
Ben meets with the rest of his troupe in Jerusalem and they put on a performance in the marketplace. Unfortunately, they’re all terrible. Ben begs Aaron to go on before the crowd gets restless, but the boy can’t bring himself to smile and pretend to be happy. So Ben turns to Aaron, pot of paint in hand and says, “Let’s put a smile on that face!” And…
Aaron performs a cute song asking why can’t animals smile and laugh. His barnyard buddies join in the dance, spontaneously mimicking the creatures in the song, sometimes to adorable effect –
– but sometimes…not.
I somehow feel obligated to mention that in kindergarten, I had a weird Spanish teacher who didn’t teach much Spanish but loved to show us this special a lot – this scene in particular – and told us it was all about a boy who couldn’t smile and wanted to make animals smile. That’s…not an entirely incorrect summation of the plot, but a strange generalization with little connectivity to her job regardless.
Aaron’s performance wins over the crowd and they shower the caravan with coins. Ben is obviously pleased. But this profit boom brings Aaron no peace or happiness. He can only look upon the rabble with scorn, jealousy, and anger. How dare they be happy when he has suffered so much at their hands? How dare they mock his pain and loss with their laughter? I don’t know if this is lazy or brilliant, but the puppet that’s front and center in the crowd is the same one as the thief that killed Aaron’s father. If it’s a different person entirely and Aaron is projecting his rage upon him and the gathering, that’s some good old deep psychological stuff. But if it IS the same character and Aaron is watching as the man who ruined his life and got away scot-free laughs at what he’s been reduced to, that’s even worse. A great fury roils inside Aaron that he can no longer contain.
Aaron snaps and insults the spectators before running off in tears. The caravan is forced to flee the angry mob and hide out in the desert that night. Ben is ready to punish Aaron when Ali spies good fortune on the horizon: Not one, not two, but THREE kings of orient are camping out not very far as they’re following yonder star! But more importantly, unless you count Aaron, WE FINALLY HAVE OUR FIRST POC CHARACTERS IN A RANKIN-BASS SPECIAL!! AND ONES THAT AREN’T A WALKING STEREOTYPE!
Oh, and the kings are all played by Paul Frees. So is Aaron’s father and the king’s guards and that one Roman soldier. So are the wind in the sky and the crocuses forming beneath the snow. Your dog is voiced by Paul Frees. Your car is voiced by Paul Frees. I am voiced by Paul Frees. You are voiced by Paul Frees, though you don’t know it. He is everyone, and if he’s not, then his roaming spirit is fighting Frank Welker for supreme control of all sounds everywhere.
As anyone who knows the direction this story takes will tell you, the kings are following a beautiful newborn star that, according to our narrator, Ben, Ali, and Aaron are too greedy/hateful to notice. Ben promises Aaron half the gold and his freedom if he performs for the Three Kings. Aaron only agrees because that much money means he’ll be self-sufficient enough to never have to bother himself with people again.
Ben arrives too late to the Kings’ camp as they’re already packing up to continue their journey. Caspar, the most compassionate of the wise men, hears him out, though he must turn them away nonetheless. Ben is downcast, even more so when he sees how much gold and rare frankincense and myrrh they have on their person. One camel is weighed down by so much of their treasure that she collapses. Caspar refuses to burden the poor beast any further, even if it means delaying their journey. Ben leaps at this opportunity and sells them Joshua over Aaron’s protests. The miserly showman offers Joshua a single coin for his share, but Aaron smacks it out of his hand. Money has brought him nothing but misery, and he no longer wants any part of Ben’s greedy philosophy. He storms off with Samson and Baba to track down the wise men and get Joshua back. In an interesting move, Ben stops Ali from holding back Aaron and the animals and lets them go. For all his bluster and avarice, he turns out to be a man of his word. Perhaps that’s why there’s no karmic punishment for him or Ali in the end. That last we see of them is their wallowing in crapulence. A chance at redemption is highly unlikely, though. Usually, in these Rankin-Bass specials, the villain is redeemed or bumped off. This is a slightly more realistic in-between end to these two characters’ arcs(?), and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Now that our antagonists are out of the way, we get to the meat of the special. Samson and Baba point Joshua towards the heavens and he recalls the wise men were following the star dead ahead. So he decides to follow in their footsteps by also following the star. And the song that plays…
Sorry, I’m getting choked up just thinking about it.
“One Star in the Night” is beautiful. It’s one of those songs that cuts right to my heart. I will never be able to grasp why there are five-hundred covers of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” playing on the radio this time of year yet this tune has, I want to say, two covers on Youtube. This scene, especially thanks to being coupled with “One Star in the Night”, encapsulates the kind of feeling I only feel this time of year, standing by the enormous creche erected in the medieval wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or lying beneath the tree gazing up at the lights like stars, or like the church scene in Home Alone. I’m not sure how to describe it. Imagine yourself as a stranger in a strange land, alone. Directionless. But you’re searching for something. You can’t explain what, but something draws you closer to it – a glow, a snatch of music on the wind – winding through shadowy alleys to a hidden destination. A place so sacred that none dare to speak it. And as you approach, and the beauty of that place envelops you, that perception of being an outsider begins to fade away, and you gradually realize that you are becoming a part of something greater, something far beyond words.
Okay, in order to cut through the treacle, I’m gonna have to throw in a few jokes. Sorry for throwing the review off-rhythm but this is the only way I can get through it without slapping myself every time the waterworks start up again.
As Aaron comes closer to his target, he realizes he’s not the only one headed in the same direction. Shepherds are closing in from far and wide, drawn by a powerful force.
Aaron finally reaches the star’s destination, the city of Bethlehem. After much searching, he finds a small stable where the many shepherds and Three Kings are gathered.
It’s largely thanks to this scene and many other specials that combined both Christmas and the Epiphany that for years I thought the shepherds and the three wise men all visited Jesus on the same night. I was surprised and kind of disappointed to learn that they came separately.
Aaron spies Joshua in the crowd and races to him with Samson and Baba. But a Roman centurion speeds by on a chariot and…runs over Baba?!
…You know what? I’m not even going to put the spit joke in here. Not only is it gutwrenching to see the cutest character in this special hurt, but Baba is the most innocent thing in this, and many Christmas specials I’ve seen as of late. He symbolizes what good is left in Aaron, and now that too is threatened to be destroyed by a single man’s indifference to life. It happens quick, but it’s kind of hard to watch.
Believing the Three Kings are the only ones wise enough to save his friend, Aaron makes his way to the front of the crowd. But he can’t believe what he sees them worshiping – a newborn baby. I don’t think I need to tell you who that baby is, but our narrator recites some Scripture for clarification anyway. Caspar recognizes Aaron and the boy begs him for his help. He tells him that he is only a mortal king and cannot save Baba. But the baby who lies in the manger, whom Caspar calls the King Among Kings, could. Aaron is mystified, and at a loss since he has no gift to bring the child, yet Caspar encourages him to go up to him anyway.
Since I started this review, I’ve been wrestling with myself over whether or not the addition of saving Baba sullies the message of the original song. Rather than giving of himself just because, he’s doing it to rescue his friend. But there’s far more at stake here than the life of one little lamb. There’s Aaron’s faith in mankind and in this child who represents so much to so many. The lyrics of the song also reflect how Aaron is able to take the first step in overcoming his hatred of man, by seeing himself in someone else. The baby in the manger may be a King, but he is still a poor boy too, like Aaron. He has no gift worthy of a king, but he wants to give something to this child. It may stem from desperation, but that desperation stems from pure love, turning his gift into the most pure of all.
As the choir strikes up once more, Aaron offers the one thing he can: his drumming. He plays steadfast and true, the animals and onlookers keeping time with him. And as the song goes, the baby smiles at Aaron and his drum.
Something about him moves Aaron. Something beyond words.
Caspar approaches Aaron and he shares that Aaron’s act was truly favored above all others.
Baba is alive and well.
You’d think Jesus performing his very first miracle while only a few hours old would get more attention, but Matthew probably decided that escaping King Herod was more exciting when he wrote all this down.
Sorry, sorry, bad place to stick a joke, I know. It’s just between this and Greer Garson’s perfect ending monologue with that sweeping pan out of Bethlehem up to the star and that gorgeous orchestral swell of the theme song ending on a few simple notes…
Well, let’s just say I got onions for Christmas. Lots and lots of onions.
There’s a lot to be said about The Little Drummer Boy in that you don’t need a big budget, a ton of A-list actors or even a full hour to tell a moving story. The animation isn’t very good, but this wasn’t made out of some commercial desire or obligation. It was created out of pure love for the story they wanted to tell and the message they wanted to convey; that message being all hate, no matter how you justify it, is wrong, holding on to it for so long isn’t right, and love in all its forms is the greatest power and gift of all. Needless to say, I’m particularly touched by this message after holding on to such hate for so long. Hell, out of all the Rankin-Bass specials Romeo Muller wrote, THIS was his favorite! So why does Little Drummer Boy remain forgotten except by those who grew up with him?
Because nothing can remain pure for so long, they made a sequel to this in 1976, Little Drummer Boy: Book II. I haven’t seen yet, but don’t really want to. A sequel to this kind of story is unnecessary and risks ruining the message and emotional highs of the original. I’ll give it this though, there’s a catchy musical number where Zero Mostel sings about how great money is, and that’s always a win in my book.
I may not enjoy Rankin-Bass as much as everyone else does, but when it does something as perfect as Little Drummer Boy, Pacha’s little “those hills sing” animation doesn’t even begin to cut it. This is the one Rankin-Bass special that’s retained that special purity from my childhood and is as good as I remember it if not better. And if you still love all the other Rankin-Bass specials I’ve harped upon this month, I’m glad. I’m through hating on what so many love. I’m done hating. For one crystal, shining moment, I’ve found one thing by them that I love. And that love means far more to me than all that pooled hatred.
Whatever you celebrate, whoever you celebrate it with, whether you worship one god or several or none at all, I wish you all the best of love, kinship, peace and happiness that your holidays have to offer.
Bless you all.
Thank you for reading! I hate to undercut this sincere review by asking for money, but if you are able, please consider supporting me 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!
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you in the New Year!