One thing I’ve always been curious about is why it is some aspects of pop-culture come and go and others become evergreen classics. Last night CBS aired the original 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special yet again. I decided to watch it for the first time since my daughter was young, and this was my first viewing in high-definition, and it got me thinking about why it is this story continues to captivate over a half-century later. Of course, I think I can answer that question!
LOOK AND FEEL
Rudolph and its related films are often mischaracterized as claymation when in fact they are miniatures with an internal metal armature. Aardman (think Wallace and Grommit) are claymation. Either way, stop-motion animation has always been a rarity, especially on TV where it had only been used for Gumby and Davey and Goliath (the latter of which is good fodder for another article). The distinctiveness of this medium is what elevated Nightmare Before Christmas more recently, or the Laika Studio (whose most recent film, Kubo, is up for some awards.)
Rankin-Bass produced a number of stop-motion animation specials, and all of them occupy a special place in pop-culture because of the uniqueness of the medium, but none of them come close to the resonance of Rudolph. So look and feel alone is not enough.
It’s hard to remember, but the story of Rudolph is really nothing but the song’s lyrics stretched out into a meatier arc. So really the popularity of the song came first, and then the special, and then Rudolph himself was hoisted up into the quasi-pagan Christmas canon as a mythic hero. So one of the reasons this special resonates is that it piggybacks on the preexisting popularity of Gene Autry’s song. It also doesn’t hurt that the songwriter who originally wrote it had a strong hand in all of the songs, so it has an authenticity to it that traces itself back to the original rather than being the sort of cold and calculating preexisting IP cash-grab that reboots have these days. While none of the other songs in the special are as catchy as Rudolph, Holly Jolly Christmas comes close. That song pretty much made Burl Ives’ career in his later years. The performance in the special is, IMHO, far superior to Ives’ dedicated pop single version later. The pop single version is a little too “swingin” and not as sweet and sincere. (More on the sweet and sincere later.)
So many holiday specials have really dull stories aimed at being nothing but time-wasters for toddlers. Rankin-Bass was not immune from dishing out turkeys themselves, but more often than not, their stories have a surprisingly elaborate structure, full of meandering twists and turns. This mythic story structure owes itself to Romeo Muller. His signature was to take the kernel of an idea and drape it with layers and layers of fantasy-like excess. In Rudolph, the innovation comes in the insertion of the Abominable Snowman, Yukon the prospector, and most notably, the entire Island of Misfit Toys subplot, complete with an Aslan-like demigod in the form of King Moonracer.
Remember how pious Christmas is supposed to be, and how, in a three-network TV universe, holiday programming had to tread very lightly on the subject of religion. What is surprising in retrospect is how bold the Rankin-Bass specials were in spinning tall-tales upon tall-tales which pushed the Christmas holiday season away from a religious context and more towards CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien. These creative liberties had just begun with Rudolph and went on to bring us inventions like Snow Miser and Heat Miser or the pantheon of pagan archetypes like the Warlock and elves in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town on the epic to the silliness of how Nestor the long-eared donkey was presented as if it were an actual biblical parable or at least apocrypha. It’s a miracle these specials did not cause an uproar from the bible-belt.
What all this amounts to is a desire on the part of Muller to tell stories that stand on their own rather than leaning on the fact they’re holiday-themed, even if it meant (gasp) trampling on religous canon. Rudolph in particular is a compelling story, as it always was all the way back to the lyrics, not so much because it’s about Santa and sleigh-rides, but because it’s about the desire we all have to win approval within the tribe, and to be cast out for being different. This is one of the most primal human stories there is. The most classic form is that of the hero who must slay the dragon to win the respect of the tribe, the Beowulf legend. But the big burly sword-swinging hero is of somewhat limited appeal. Most of us these days feel we fall somewhere shy of society’s ideal. Our identification with Rudolph (and Hermey) is is the same factor that led to the popularity of Elsa in Frozen or Judy Hopps in Zootopia or the ragtag team that assembled in Guardians of the Galaxy. So 50+ years on there’s really nothing dated about this kind of story.
Another thing Rudolph has going for it that some of the other (more excessive and self-important) Rankin-Bass specials don’t is its pacing. In a classic, every story beat feels like it belongs there and there is no filler or waste. This is in contrast to, for instance, the filler aspect of the Coconut pirates in Moana, let’s say. The dialogue is straight and to the point, simple, and easy to memorize. Everything is in its proper place and it fits “just so”. The closest film I can think of that has this sort of tightly-compressed storytelling is the original 1977 Star Wars. The Wizard of Oz also has a similar brisk pacing with no filler. This lack of filler even extends all the way to the end, as the special decides to roll credits over the misfit toys being distributed. Peter Jackson, this isn’t. As such, there’s really never a moment while watching Rudolph where the story feels to drag, even by today’s A.D.D. standards. This is despite the fact that the story is meant to fit into a 1-hour timeslot which was less common than half-hour specials like Charlie Brown Christmas.
The reason Rudoph is so often parodied is because it reflects a more innocent time when entertainment was served up without the slightest whiff of irony, self-parody, sexual innuendo, or winking at the camera. It has a purity that can’t be replicated these days because we, as a society, have become so self-reflexive and cynical. So there’s a part of us that wants to rip Rudolph apart for being so sickeningly sweet and so naive, and yet at the same time, it offers us a nostalgic Garden of Eden that will remain forever incorruptible.
It’s this tone that was played up so well in Elf…
…but as good as Elf was, it was still a post-modern look back at Rudolph iconography and attitudes. There will only ever be one original.
Even though it originally came out six years before I was born and one year after the Kennedy assassination, I’ll always associate it as a particularly Gen-X artefact. As such, it is just one of those things that deserved to earn its props here in these hallowed halls.
So, hat’s off to Rudolph, no matter how old and embittered I become, Rudolph will still occupy a warm little place in my heart.