Rankin/Bass Retrospective - 'Jack Frost'
As the 1970s came to a close, the Rankin/Bass studio’s silver age was also nearing its end. Following a rocky start to the decade, Rankin/Bass bounced back with 1974’s “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, which led to a cycle of the studio putting out at least one new Christmas special annually through to 1981. The most striking difference was that these specials generally took on a more narrative heavy style than their earlier outings; In a way, this may have in part been what caused most of the specials of this period to be less well received by the general public than the more simplistic tales of Frosty or Rudolph, but it did lead to some memorable outings, such as The Year Without a Santa Claus, Nestor, the sequels to Rudolph and Frosty, as well as their own crossover special.
Arguably though, the last of their specials that could be considered a success arrived in 1979, the same year as “Rudolph & Frosty’s Christmas in July” (2 1⁄2 weeks later, in fact). Towards the end of that special, alongside Big Ben the whale from “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year”, was Jack Frost, who helped restore Frosty and his family after having melted. The character as presented there was voiced by Paul Frees and was intentionally supposed to be a callback to his appearance in “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland”. However, the stop motion figure used isn’t based on the Jack Frost from the earlier Frosty special (where he was portrayed as a pudgy mischievous imp), but instead a new more boy-like design. This design, as it turned out, was an early preview to the audience for his very own special later that holiday season.
December 13, 1979
In a way though, much like “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland”, “Jack Frost” isn’t just a Christmas special, it’s also a bit of a Groundhog Day special. The film opens up with the world’s attention turned to Pardon-Me-Pete (voiced by Buddy Hackett), a groundhog who (much like Punxsutawney Phil) predicts the weather by coming out of hibernation and, if he sees his shadow, is scared off and winter lasts six more weeks. As it turns out, it’s actually a deal made with Jack Frost (Robert Morse), who poses as Pete’s shadow, which means Jack can keep up his winter fun and Pete can go back to hibernating. As Pete gets ready to go back to sleep, he decides to tell the story of how the normally invisible Jack Frost once took on a tangible form.
Long ago, in the town of January Junction, a tyrannical king named Kubla Kraus (Paul Frees), an evil Cossack who lived alone in a castle otherwise populated by his mechanical creations, had taxed everyone to the point where no one had any money. It was only with the arrival of Jack Frost and the start of winter that the people could feel rich, having created a tradition of turning icicle slices into a temporary currency.
It was in this town that Jack met a young woman named Elisa (Debra Clinger), a romantic awaiting her “knight in shining armor”, that loves the winter weather. Hearing her praise of his work, Jack Frost began to feel like she truly loved him as a person, and started daydreaming about taking on human form to be with her. After she called him a hero for saving her from falling off a waterfall, Jack made up his mind and went back to his home in the clouds to confront his boss, Father Winter.
Jack managed to convince Father Winter (Paul Frees) to let him become human temporarily, under the condition that it would only become permanent should he gain all the “basic human essentials” (a house, a horse, a bag of gold, and a wife) by the first sign of spring. After adapting the identity of Jack Snip, he was joined by his friends Snip (the designer of all snowflakes, voiced by Don Messick) and Holly (keeper of the Christmas snow, voiced by Dina Lynn), who also took on human form to keep an eye on him. Jack properly met Elisa as well as her parents, and set up shop in the village as a tailor.
Not long after this, a knight named Sir Ravenal Rightfellow (Sonny Melendrez), who left as a child to join King Arthur, returned to the village and began to court Elisa. But Kubla Kraus also had his eyes set on Elisa, and kidnapped her on Christmas Day and took her away to his castle to make her his bride. Sir Ravenal and Jack set out to rescue her, but while the knight was able to fight off part of Kubla’s mechnical army and save her, Jack, Snip, and Holly were captured and placed in his dungeon.
With Kubla gathering an army of ten thousand mechanical soldiers to descend upon January Junction, Jack Snip saw no other way to save Elisa and her village than to surrender his humanity and become Jack Frost again. With his powers regained, Jack summoned up the biggest storm he had ever made, with the full force of it centered solely on Kubla Kraus’s castle, destroying his army and keeping the tyrant sealed in for over a month. But when February began, Jack noticed he was running low on snow, and the villagers were starting to talk of an early spring.
Concerned that the castle would soon thaw out, Jack spoke with Father Winter, who spoke of a sign from nature that must be obeyed to signal the end of winter: The awakening of the groundhog. If the groundhog emerges and stays awake, spring will soon arrive, but if he sees its shadow, winter can continue for six more weeks. Using his magic, Jack turned into a shadow and scared Pardon-Me-Pete, allowing winter to continue, but six weeks soon passed and spring was inevitable.
Turning human once more, Jack tricked the thawing army into destroying themselves and sent Kubla Kraus flying to parts unknown. Now having Kubla’s castle, his mechanical horse, and all the gold Kubla had been hoarding, all Jack needed was a wife, but only had until noon when spring would officially begin. He hurried to town, but realized Elisa had fallen in love with Sir Ravenal and was preparing to wed him that day. With the stroke of noon, Jack faded away and returned to the kingdom in the sky, but not before turning Elisa’s bouquet of roses white as snow.
As mentioned earlier, this special would mark the end of the silver age of the Rankin/Bass studio. Jack Frost would find success in network and cable syndication alongside their other 70s offerings, but the remaining three specials they would produce before the studio’s closure in 1987 would fail to hit the mark and be doomed to relative obscurity for years. The gears of the once well-oiled machine that was Rankin/Bass were beginning to grind to a steady halt.