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REVIEW: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerDirected by: Larry Roemer
Produced by: Arthur Rankin, Jr. (producer), Jules Bass (co-producer)
Written by: Romeo Muller, Robert L. May
Animation supervised by: Tadahito Mochinaga
Music by: Johnny Marks
Starring: Burl Ives, Billie Mae Richards, Paul Soles, Larry D. Mann, Stan Francis, Paul Kligman, Janis Orenstein, Alfie Scopp, Carl Banas, Corinne Conley, Peg Dixon
Based on the story and song written by Robert L. May
Year: 1964


I’m going to allow for my first 2013 Christmas movie review to make me out to be a Scrooge.

A 1964 TV special done in the medium of stop motion capture, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has become one of the most beloved and influential examples of the medium – if someone doesn’t know what the term “stop motion” means, you could undoubtedly point to Rudolph or one of its other Rankin/Bass Christmastime siblings as an example that nearly everyone will then immediately understand. It’s arguable that even the likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas owes its aesthetic style to these holiday productions, albeit with the obligatory Tim Burton-esque macabre twist, not to mention the countless spoofs, knockoffs, and affectionate references that followed across TV and film. Beyond the aesthetics and styling, however, this short TV movie also stands as one of the longest running TV traditions, airing annually each Christmas season since it was first shown.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Hermey and Rudolph

And yet, as beloved as the film may be, I have a strong feeling that much of this is based in nostalgia or a fear that you’re not being nostalgic enough, in which case people might just watch the program out of obligation. Me? Allow for me to take the role of contrarian, yet again, when I say that I’ve always hated the Rankin/Bass Christmas programs, Rudolph included. Between their frequently sloppy animation that have their characters gesticulating and twitching in bizarre manners, some truly insipid songs, and overall hyper-sweet twee-ness, even as a kid, I didn’t quite understand why these were considered to be such obligatory holiday viewings, and I found myself wishing we could watch all of the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story rather than be subject to these annoying musicals.

The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is presented to us by the affable, musical Sam the Snowman and pretty much follows that of the original story and song written by Robert L. May – though, as one might expect, the movie goes a bit more into depth regarding the details surrounding these familiar events. Rudolph, it turns out, is the son of Donner, one of Santa’s star reindeer. To the dismay of apparently everyone, including his own parents, however, Rudolph has a freakish red nose that tends to light up (and screech) at inopportune times. Shamed by this deformity, Santa tells Rudolph’s parents that he’ll never be able to pull the sleigh due to this imperfection, and his parents pretty much agree, opting to hide his nose through a disguise that they expect him to wear at all times. And though Rudolph excels at his first performance at the reindeer games despite this major blow to his ego, a mishap exposes his shame, and he becomes the target of abuse from the other reindeer – save for Clarice, who happens to find Rudolph “cute,” regardless of his glowing nose.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Yukon Cornelius and Bumble the Yeti

But their love is forbidden, and Rudolph runs away to find a place where he’s accepted. He’s joined by an elf named Hermey, who is himself ridiculed by his own kind for his desire to become a dentist instead of doing all the normal elf things like toy building and singing. They are then joined by Yukon Cornelius, a prospector whose desires alternate whimsically between gold and silver and who can apparently tell if they’re nearby just by the taste of his pickaxe. They also stumble upon the Island of Misfit Toys, where defective, sentient toys make their residence away from a world where they don’t feel accepted or wanted, instead living out their lives as subjects to a winged lion king. Not so welcome, however, is the abominable snowman, who is attracted by Rudolph’s nose. (One might wonder if George Lucas was inspired to create the wampa from Star Wars in its image. I kept picturing Yukon slicing Rudolph open and shoving Hermey into his carcass to stay warm.) Fearing that he’s a danger to his new friends, Rudolph once again sneaks off on his own to find a new home. But with the creature out to get him, his few friends and family out searching for him, and an oncoming storm threatening to cancel Santa’s Christmas journey, the stakes up in the Arctic Circle have never been higher.

It’d be easy to fault the herky-jerky animation, with movement succumbing to frequent bouts of frame skipping and awkward bending, but it might be a bit unfair to fault a 1964 TV production for not matching the standards of modern animation, and at least many of the models, particularly the humanoid figures, are clean and have a certain arts and crafts charm to them. It’s not exactly pretty, but I’m going to try to cut it some slack.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - The Misfit Toys

However, one of the prime factors that keeps the film from endearing itself to me, as it somehow has with others, is the obnoxious voice acting. While Burl Ives’ Sam the Snowman is endearing as the musical narrator, Rudolph, Hermey, and Cornelius are borderline torturous to listen to. Rudolph, even as he grows older, maintains a stuffed-nosed, golly-gee, little boy voice throughout the film that gets old really fast. Hermey, who looks like a young boy himself, instead sounds like Paul Lynde if he swallowed helium and also had a stuffed up nose. And Cornelius is a boisterous, gravel-voiced loudmouth who likes to shout “WA-HOO!” at almost any given moment. Supporting players, such as the despicable Donner and the lion king, similarly grate on one’s nerves.

Then there’s the story’s complete lack of depth. It may seem odd to complain that a film based on a story-driven song and children’s book lacks emotional complexity and all that, but while the song delivers its message about non-conformity and accepting differences in just about a minute, the movie stretches it out across nearly an hour, throwing in new characters that it clearly wants us to care about but who never get the development thy need. The film is neither short enough to keep it sweet nor long enough to let characters like Hermey and the Misfit Toys feel like anything more than superficial expansions meant to pad out the running time. It’s clear the filmmakers wanted illustrate that even outcasts can find acceptance with each other (which oddly sounds like just a nice way of pointing out that misery loves company), but so much of the characters’ driving emotions are conveyed through Sam the Snowman’s narration and the film’s hurried pacing that I really find it hard to understand why people latch on to these characters so passionately. It’s not even like the film makes up for it with a potent sense of humor, either. Again, I just blame nostalgia goggles. And maybe some of the catchy Burl Ives songs. (Not the Rudolph or Hermey ones, though. Those are awful.)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Santa and Rudolph

Look, I know it sounds like I’m over-intellectualizing a film that many regard with the same affection as they would a warm, fluffy blanket, a hot cup of cocoa, and a glowing fire on a blustery winter night, but I honestly don’t feel like it’s asking for too much when I expect even a holiday TV special from nearly 50 years ago to make an effort to endear me to the characters in its story. While you might be able to blame the jerky animation and old fashioned sensibilities on budgets and the technology of the era in which the film was made, you can’t, however, blame the dull storytelling and obnoxious characters on the film’s age. It’s not like there aren’t other TV films from the same era that were not only shorter than this but also based on similar material that still manage to entertain modern audiences (see: 1965’s animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas). If disliking this film makes me a Scrooge, however, then so be it. Bah, humbug!

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1.5 / 5

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  1. November 30, 2014 at 7:09 pm
  2. December 1, 2015 at 6:40 pm
  3. December 2, 2016 at 3:24 am
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