Rankin/Bass Retrospective - A Christmas Tree / 'Twas the Night Before Christmas
Even a studio as prolific as Rankin/Bass couldn't turn out an hour long Christmas special every year, but it would be a long four year wait after "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" before their next big special. In the meantime, they focused on their weekly TV series...
A Christmas Tree
December 17, 1972
Premiering in 1972, “Festival of Family Classics” was an anthology series by Rankin/Bass which told 16 classic stories, from classic literature and folklore, across 18 half-hour episodes (“Around the World in 80 Days” and “2000 Leagues Under the Sea” each received two episodes). Naturally, as a Rankin/Bass series, doing an adaptation of a Christmas story was inevitable.
The ninth episode of the series was “A Christmas Tree”, loosely based on the 1850 short story written by Charles Dickens. Indeed, Charles Dickens takes on the role of the narrator, telling two children named Mary and Peter about what Christmas was like when he was their age. He transports them into his memories, to a giant tree decorated with various toys based on legends. The Peter Piper toy comes to life to tell them that the Essence of Christmas has been stolen by the giant at the top of the beanstalk.
Mary and Peter (the boy) travel up the beanstalk and make it to the giant’s castle, being let in by the giant’s maid. When the giant awakens, the children are assisted by a mouse, but are soon found, and leave the castle, being chased by the giant. They manage to escape back down the beanstalk, saved by the giant’s newfound fear of heights thanks to his fall at the hands of Jack.
Back at the bottom, Peter Piper tells them that he was mistaken and the Essence of Christmas is in fact in the possession of Mantu the Magician. Peter (the boy) and Mary ride along the star on top of the tree, which takes flight, and sends them to the far-off land where Mantu resides. There, they meet King Thorgood, who captures them for fear Mantu would punish his kingdom if they let the children pass. It doesn’t take long for Peter and Mary to escape, taking the star further along.
Next, they encounter Orlando, a snow-breathing ice dragon who traps them inside a cave. Using some branches inside the cave, they light a fire on his right paw, which ends up melting off not only his paw, but his entire body as well. The dragon defeated, the children proceed onward, finally gaining the attention of Mantu himself.
Mantu takes a magic carpet and intercepts them, introducing himself before lunging a magic icicle at them. They manage to avoid the icicle, but it comes soaring back over and over, never stopping until it hits its target. Peter quickly realizes the icicle is specifically targeting him, so he jumps from the star to the magic carpet, using a giant candy cane to hold Mantu in place as the icicle flies back toward them. Mantu panics and melting the icicle, just before he collapses from fright. Peter grabs the Essence of Christmas and tosses it to Mary, but the container breaks, letting the essence out. The spirit of Christmas washes over Mantu, undoing his evil magic and turning his heart good. With their task complete, Peter and Mary wish Mantu a merry Christmas, and fly off.
A moment later, they find themselves being woken up by Charles Dickens. He explains that they fell asleep just as he started to tell about Christmas in his youth, but the children don’t believe him and tell him about their adventure. They tell him that they believe this Christmas to be the best Christmas, and he agrees, as so long as there are children who believe, there will be hope for peace on Earth.
“A Christmas Tree” is a bit of an oddity in the Rankin/Bass library due to its nature as a Christmas episode rather than a special. In some ways it does feel very much like most of the other specials, there’s a journey to save Christmas like most of the specials and a villain who seeks to destroy it, though it also falls short in some aspects. Notably there are no songs like a traditional special, but also the Jack and the Beanstalk portion feels very unnecessary, taking up nearly half the special and having no connection to the rest of the plot.
But the second half is very exciting, with a lot of that coming from the animation provided by Mushi Productions, who had previously animated “Frosty the Snowman”. The work during the encounter with Mantu was very exciting, especially for the time. It is unfortunate, then, that Mushi filed for bankruptcy shortly after work on Festival of Family Classics was completed, dissolving its assets (a new semi-related Mushi Production was formed in 1977, which is still in operation). Also unfortunate, and also somewhat odd, is that this is the only episode of Festival of Family Classics that has not been released on DVD.
'Twas the Night Before Christmas
December 8, 1974
Based upon the famous 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” Clement Clarke Moore, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” was the next attempt by Rankin/Bass to turn a classic Christmas story into a special. Set in the fictional town of Junctionville, New York (based on the city where Moore spent his final years: Newport, Rhode Island), the story opens with the narrator, clockmaker assistant Father Mouse, stirring at night, unable to sleep.
He then takes the viewer back to earlier, when the mailman (and mailmouse) were delivering letters. Mice and humans alike across the town were receiving terrible news, as every letter they had written to Santa was being returned unopened, rejected by Santa. Father Mouse calls up the North Pole substation to find out what happened; the mouse on the other end says that Santa had taken all of Junctionville off his list after a scathing letter written about him was published in the Junctionville Register, calling him a fraud and signed from “All of Us”.
As it turns out, Father Mouse’s son Albert wrote the letter, refusing to believe in Santa as he’s never seen him. Father attempts to show him the way in which he’s ruined Christmas for everyone, like taking him to a children’s hospital filled with sad children, but Albert still feels indifferent. So Father takes him along to the ribbon cutting ceremony of the new clock tower in town, which has been built by the owner of the house they live in, Joshua Trundle. As the clockmaker, he proposed a plan to make a clock tower that would chime with a Christmas carol at midnight just as Santa passes overhead, in hopes that it might persuade him to change his mind.
But just as the ribbon is cut, the clock breaks apart into pieces, horrifying both the mayor and Mr. Trundle. Quickly, the clock store’s business plummets as the town’s faith in the clockmaker evaporated, with not even the mayor allowing him to repair the clock. As winter hits, the Trundle family and the Mouse family are unable to pay their bills and are running low on food. Albert, seeing the damage he’s caused, guilt finally hits him, and he admits to one other thing; he was also the one who broke the clock. To make amends, he heads off to the clock tower, armed with a book about clockmaking, and attempts to fix it.
This is the point where the story catches up with the opening, as Father Mouse paces back and forth in his nightgown, watching his bedside clock hoping his son can fix the town clock in time. Midnight comes, and it seems as though Albert didn’t make it in time, with the townspeople gathered in the square singing “Silent Night” to hopefully reach Santa instead. But just as they’re about to finish the first verse, the clock starts up, chiming a song across the town.
Sure enough, as Santa passes overhead, he stops to listen to the music, then turns around and heads into Junctionville. The entire town is overjoyed, as Santa delivers his presents, all being forgiven.
“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” was adapted by Hawaii Five-O writer Jerome Coopersmith, with the music, as usual, composed by Maury Laws and lyrics written by Jules Bass (and sung by the “Wee Winter Singers”). The character designs were done by MAD illustrator Paul Conker, Jr., who had previously worked on Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. While narration is credited to actor Joel Grey, who voiced Mr. Trundle, he only reads the poem at the end, with the bulk of the narration being provided by Father Mouse’s voice, comedian George Gobel. The special also featured actress Tammy Grimes as Albert and character actor John McGiver as the mayor, with Bob McFadden and Allen Swift providing additional voices.
With the closure of Mushi Production the year before, this became the first Christmas special animated by another Japanese studio Rankin/Bass collaborated with, Topcraft; They would animate the majority of Rankin/Bass’s traditional animation output going forward until 1986, when the studio filed for bankruptcy and split in half. The animators who were laid off in the wake of this formed the Pacific Animation Corporation (which continued work with Rankin/Bass) while those who remained at Topcraft itself changed its name, to Studio Ghibli.
As for “‘Twas the Night” itself, it may not be as fondly remembered as it could be in large part due to the fact that Rankin/Bass created another Christmas special in 1974, one which vastly overshadowed. For just as Junctionville worried about Santa not visiting him, the rest of the country worried just a few days later, for a year without a Santa Claus...