By 1970, Rankin-Bass had begun its conquest of Christmas animated specials. However, that isn't to say they held a monopoly on it, as between 1970 and 1971, viewers were treated to four other specials...
The Night the Animals Talked
December 9, 1970
“The Night the Animals Talked” is an attempt to provide the story about the birth of Christ from the viewpoint of the animals who resided in the manger. On the morning of Christ’s birth, the star above Bethlehem shines down on all the animals of the town, causing them to suddenly gain the ability of speech. While they are initially surprised by the miracle, the manger gradually descends into chaos as the animals become annoyed with each other and gradually more and more mean-spirited. When news comes from a donkey that he will be bringing a pregnant woman to the stable later that night, the animals are disgusted, unwilling to help out a human for anything. But the leader of the barn, an ox (voiced by deep-voiced actor Joe Silver), shames them for letting the gift of speech cause them to become just as hateful as the humans.
They all have a change of heart and decide to be better than humans by opening their home to the woman. The woman, Mary, gives birth that evening, and the animals witness the miracle of Christ’s birth. Overjoyed, the animals go forth into the town, wanting to proclaim about how life is a miracle and to be kind to one another. However, dawn breaks, and the animals find themselves losing their ability to talk before they can wake anyone. The ox is the last to lose his speech, wondering with his last words if it’s not too late for humanity to see the truth...
The special was animated by Italian studio Gamma Film, and was directed by Shamus Culhane, an animator who had previously worked on films such as Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs and was the head of Paramount Cartoon Studios for its final two years. The story itself came from Peter Fernandez, best known for his voice roles on early anime dubs like Speed Racer, who wrote it for MGM as a children’s storybook record.
While this special is meant to be the Christmas story from the perspective of the animals, it unfortunately feels very half-hearted toward that goal. Half the special is taken up by the animals remarking about how they can talk now, and then trashing on each other and on humans. This is then extended longer by having poor musical numbers that basically reiterate what they just spoke about. The message the animals learn doesn’t even feel authentic, as the only reason they let the birth happen in the manger was so they could pat themselves on the back for being better than humans, it wasn’t exactly about being kind toward others. The “life is a miracle” lesson also seems to entirely rest upon them witnessing the birth of Jesus, but this isn’t conveyed very well within the dialogue. Overall, it’s a very poor special, and audiences seemed to agree; it played for four years on ABC from 1970 to 1973, and besides 16mm prints made for schools in 1975 (from which all bootleg copies presumably originate from), it hasn’t seen any legal release since.
Santa and the Three Bears
November 7, 1970
Tony Benedict Productions
Saturday matinees for children was a long standing tradition in movie theaters, stretching at least as far back as the late 20’s with the original Mickey Mouse Clubs. By 1970, this tradition had been adapted for television, giving birth to the Saturday morning cartoon blocks that dominated until the 90’s. As such, by this point, coupled with all the major studios abandoning their theatrical animation divisions, Saturday kids matinees were quickly becoming a thing of the past. However, studio Tony Benedict Productions (founded by Flintstones writer Tony Benedict) ran into a situation in 1970, when they produced “Santa and the Three Bears”; no network wanted to broadcast it. The reasoning was simple; Rudolph had the Bumble, Frosty had the magician, and so on. But Santa and the Three Bears had no villain to speak of.
So what did it have? The story is essentially about a group of bears, a mama bear name Nana (voiced by Jean Vander Pyl) and two baby bears named Chinook and Nikomi, living in a park that is about to be hit by a winter storm. The friendly park ranger (voiced by Hal Smith) tells them the story of Santa Claus, which makes Chinook and Nikomi excited for their first Christmas. However, their mother has to break the news to them that bears like them have to hibernate, meaning they won’t get to celebrate Christmas. But they’re determined, staying awake and visiting the ranger to learn more about Christmas, eventually unable to let their mother sleep through their carol singing. Nana has a talk with the park ranger, and they decide the best course of action is to have the bears meet Santa; luckily, the ranger used to be a mall Santa, so he agrees to don the outfit. That night, however, a blizzard stops the ranger from making it there on time. Nevertheless, just as Nana is about to break the news to her cubs about Santa just being a legend, a bearded man enters the cave and leaves stockings filled with presents, The next morning, the ranger makes it to the cave, bewildered as he wasn’t the one who left those stockings…
The special ended up being released in theaters as a matinee film distributed by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, the second to last film released under this incarnation of the company (the final film was released less than a week later). However, Santa and the Three Bears was ultimately a victim of its own release; as the studio refused to put a villain into the story (feeling it didn’t need one), barely any children in 1970 saw the film in the dwindling weekend matinees, and indeed it wasn’t until the film showed up in cheap syndication packages years later that it got any real exposure. But by that time, because Rankin-Bass dominated the Christmas rotation more and more as the 70’s rolled on, it was far too late for Santa and the Three Bears. Eventually, the copyright for the special expired, and it slipped into public domain right as VHS distributors were looking for cheap content to put out for the growing market.
One addendum to this, the special’s theatrical release was bookended by around four minutes of live-action footage with Hal Smith reading the story to two children by a fireplace. This footage does still exist, thanks to home recordings of 1980's TV airings, but has been edited out of all home releases from 1992 onward for unknown reasons.
“Christmas Is” was the first of three holiday specials produced by the Lutheran church, starring a boy named Benji and his dog Waldo.
The local church is getting ready for its annual Christmas play, but Benji isn’t happy; Like all years, he’s been put into the role of a shepherd. After going home from rehearsal, he falls asleep while going over the play with Waldo, and dreams about the lives of the shepherds who witnessed the birth of Christ. By the end of the dream, he realizes how difficult their lives were under the subjugation of the Romans, and how Jesus’s birth gave them hope. When he awakens, he has a newfound appreciation for his role, and goes through with the play.
This is a rather simple special, both in terms of plot and animation, and feels like a middle ground between Charlie Brown and Davey & Goliath. Popular voices like June Foray, Hans Conried, and Don Messick show up, and the titular song “Christmas Is” was a regular part of Christmas radio playlists during the 70’s. While it feels a bit disjointed at times, it gets its point across well enough.
A Christmas Carol (1971)
December 21, 1971
Nigh-countless adaptations of A Christmas Carol have been produced over the years, and the plot of this animated version is a straightforward one. It even has actors reprising their roles from past adaptations, specifically Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern, who played Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley both here and in the 1951 film Scrooge. But what makes it stand out is the animation, directed by Richard Williams (best known for his magnum opus, The Thief and the Cobbler), and executive produced by Chuck Jones. Its sketchy art style makes the characters look almost alive on the screen, while also feeling like a storybook. It is surprisingly fluid for the time, especially for early 70’s television animation, and it seems someone else thought this too, as it won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Animated Short.
But wait, one may ask, how did a television special win an Oscar? Well, this version of a Christmas Carol is the exact reason this doesn’t occur anymore. After airing on television in 1971, it received a theatrical run in the fall of 1972, qualifying it for an Oscar at the 45th Academy Awards. Beating out “Kama Sutra Rides Again” by Bob Godfrey and “Tup Tup” by Nedeljiko Dragic, the win from “A Christmas Carol” outraged some industry insiders, feeling a short that had been produced for and run on television first didn’t deserve to earn an award meant for theatrical animation. Soon after, the Academy revised its rules, barring any film or special from being nominated if it ran on television first.