The Flamboyant Snow Miser from Rankin-Bass The Year Without a Santa Claus
  • screen capture from ABC Family airing
  • The Flamboyant Snow Miser from Rankin-Bass’ “The Year Without a Santa Claus”

Peter Jackson’s new film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit might have broken box-office records despite mixed (and in the case of this paper, excoriating) reviews, but I myself am still reluctant to see it and weigh in. Why devote nearly three hours to a film adapting 1/3 of a book that you could read in less time — and why try to improve on the 75-minute version by Rankin-Bass Productions?

The Rankin-Bass Hobbit was a mainstay of my childhood. Made for TV in 1977, it was rebroadcast a few times in my youth, but I knew it the most from the book-and-tape based on the special that my family would listen to on long car trips as a way to temporarily pacify my brother and myself (things were different in those days before DVD players in cars).

For me, Gandalf the Wizard will always be the stentorian tones of John Huston, and while I’ve nothing but love for Andy Serkis, there’s little that can replace the salamander-like Gollum voiced by monologist and regular David Letterman guest Brother Theodore.


(I’ll admit, though, that I’ve never seen Rankin-Bass’ version of The Return of the King, which awkwardly completed Ralph Bakshi’s dead-serious Lord of the Rings animated movie with a disco number about whip-loving trolls. A few of my friends have admitted they’re fans.)

It’s only appropriate that this new Hobbit turns my thoughts to Rankin-Bass, as Christmas has long been their season. From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, Rankin-Bass was the king of Christmas specials, regularly turning out some new effort either in stop-motion or traditional animation that still air on networks and on cable.

While some of the Rankin-Bass specials are still mainstays of the major networks, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Frosty the Snowman (and its dreadful 1990s follow-up Frosty Returns), my fondness for Rankin-Bass comes in part from the stranger and more obscure specials they produced over the years that often find themselves relegated to “bonus features” on DVD, or on such cable networks as ABC Family.

Rankin-Bass’ specialty (usually through the scripting of the late Romeo Muller, who wrote something like two dozen holiday specials in his lifetime) was finding a way to stitch a half-hour-to-an-hour storyline around every possible Christmas song imaginable, somehow finding a way to organically weave the lyrics throughout the storyline, or to build to that triumphant moment where, after 3-4 original songs, the storyline would climax with that number you already knew, presenting the young audience with the scene of “Ta da! And that’s how it really happened!”

For instant, when Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem that came to be known as “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” I somehow doubt he intended St. Nicholas’ visit to be a great relief to the residents of Junctionville after an intellectual young mouse caused him to send back their letters after publishing a Santa-denying editorial and almost ruining the clock that played a pro-Santa message.


As a kid, I found Santa’s need for validation somewhat suspect, but I always loved the Joel Grey-performed “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” which is so catchy that even South Park hommaged it.


Indeed, South Park has made no bones about its debt to Rankin-Bass, particularly in its Christmas episodes, which have featured everything from the credit “Blankin-Rass Presents” to characters morphing into stop-motion-style figures.