The year was 1980, and Rankin/Bass, founded in 1960, was arriving at its 20th anniversary. Naturally, they were set to make another Christmas special for that winter. They hadn’t missed a year since 1974, but what could they do to commemorate such an anniversary? They had just done a number of sequels to older specials, culminating in the feature-length Rudolph & Frosty’s Christmas in July the previous year, so what else was there? For that answer, it would seem they decided to turn the clock way back to the beginning, to their very first stop-motion character.
The origin of the “Animagic” style was a 1960 TV series titled The New Adventures of Pinocchio, starring the titular character from the Italian novel (and popularized by the 1940 Disney film). This Pinocchio was deliberate in its attempts to distance itself from comparisons to the Disney film, in both character designs and personalities. Like many TV cartoons back then, the episodes were five minutes in length and ran on weekdays, during locally produced programs aimed at children. Telling five-part serialized stories, the show ran for 130 episodes (or 26 weeks) and, while it wasn’t a huge hit, it still helped establish the then-new studio.
Whether it was intentional or not, when it came time to make a Christmas special in 1980, the studio decided, lining up perfectly with the 20th anniversary, to revisit Pinocchio (albeit without any ties to the prior series) in his own Christmas special.
December 3, 1980
The special opens with the puppet boy Pinocchio (voiced by Todd Porter) remarking in wonder at the sight of snow falling on the village he lives in, at which his creator Geppetto (George S. Irving) tells him about the Christmas spirit. The marionette is enamored to learn about Christmas and excitedly wants to participate in the festivities. Nearby, however, the fiendish Fox (Allen Swift) and Cat (Pat Bright) start to come up with a plot to kidnap Pinocchio and sell him as a Christmas gift.
Geppetto frets about not having any money to buy his wooden son a gift, so he decides to sell his boots, only getting 10 lira for them. With the money, he buys an arithmetic book for Pinocchio to use in school; While Pinocchio acts grateful to his father for the gift, he promptly turns around and sells it back to the bookstore owner for 5 coins, which he decides to use to buy Geppetto a gift. Seeing the coins, Fox and Cat leap out in front of Pinocchio and convince the gullible puppet that if he plants the coins in the snow, they’ll grow into a Christmas tree.
As he skips through town singing about becoming “rich and famous”, Pinocchio catches the attention of a circus owner named Maestro Fire-Eater (Alan King), who offers to pay him to star in a Christmas puppet show. Pinocchio initially declines, but finding his coins missing (stolen by Fox and Cat) and no tree in sight, he agrees, joining the show under the alias “Sir Larry Olive-Tree”.
While in the show, Pinocchio falls for a (non-living) puppet named Julietta, who (being puppeteered by Fire-Eater) helps him get over his doubts at being laughed at on-stage. After the show, however, Fire-Eater mentions his plans to convert the Julietta puppet into a Wise Man for the next performance, which prompts Pinocchio to take her and run back home. Enraged, the puppeteer flags down a nearby officer to chase after the puppets.
Now being chased, Pinocchio runs with Julietta past the town gate and slides down the hill, toward the Forest of Enchantment, where not even the officer will follow. There, he tells Julietta about his origin, once a magic tree in the forest that eventually became a log carved into the shape of a marionette by Geppetto. Elsewhere, Fox and Cat get an offer from a Sleigh Driver (Bob McFadden), on behalf of a local duke, for the purchase of Pinocchio and, hearing the officer report back to the maestro, find out the puppet’s location.
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To lure Pinocchio back, they find him and claim they can help bring Julietta to life if he follows them. But before they can convince him, Azula the Blue Fairy (voiced by Diane Leslie) appears and takes the two puppets away to her palace. Pinocchio attempts to lie to her and the Cricket (Bob McFadden), whom he had driven away weeks earlier, about what he had gone through, but upon seeing his nose grow confesses the truth.
Back in the village, Geppetto, who had been searching night and day for Pinocchio, comes across a replica puppet that Fire-Eater had made in an attempt to continue the show without its star. Seeing the lifeless puppet, Geppetto thinks his son has died, and grieves at his workshop. Pinocchio returns to the village but, just before he can get back to his father, Fox and Cat stop him and desperately try to convince him to come with them. They suggest they take a sleigh to the North Pole so Pinocchio can get presents from Santa (shown in his The Year Without a Santa Claus design). He reluctantly follows them and get him on the sleigh, driven by the Sleigh Driver.
Thrown into a package, Pinocchio finds himself inside a large empty monochrome-colored house, owned by a duke. His children rarely get to see him, but he arrives to spend a mere three minutes with them on Christmas. He purchased Pinocchio as a gift for his children, berating them for wasting his time as they open the package, until Pinocchio speaks up about the way he’s treating his kids. Through song, the puppet helps the duke see that the best gift would be to spend actual time with his children, with the house becoming colorful to symbolize his heart opening up.
Now free to leave, Pinocchio laments how he won’t be able to make it back in time for Christmas Eve. That is, until, the real Santa Claus (voiced by Paul Frees, his sixth and final time in the role) arrives to bring him back to Geppetto. The puppet boy reunites with his father and, along with the Cricket, Azula, and Julietta (now alive thanks to the magic of the Blue Fairy), they all gather for a Christmas breakfast of oatmeal. Azula tells him that while he will be led astray again and have many misadventures in the future (represented by images of his adventures from the book), he’ll someday become a real boy so long as he doesn’t stray from the path of good.
“Pinocchio’s Christmas” aired on ABC on December 3, 1980. However, despite the special displaying how high quality and fine-tuned the Rankin/Bass holiday machine had become by this point, this special would mark a turning point for the studio. Possibly due to fatigue (this was, after all, their tenth Christmas special in the span of seven years), Pinocchio’s Christmas and their other specials to follow never caught on like their older siblings from the 60s and 70s, and rarely, if ever, saw repeats on broadcast television.
Pinocchio’s Christmas would find a home on cable during the 90s, where it ran for years on the Family Channel and its later incarnations. Presently, it airs on AMC each December alongside the other Rankin/Bass specials owned by Warner Bros.
Kevin on December 13, 2020:
I had forgotten about this one
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on December 13, 2020:
Everything was so innocent then.
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on December 13, 2020:
I loved those shows they produced.