Rankin/Bass Retrospective: 'Rudolph's Shiny New Year'
Across its 27 year run as a production studio, Rankin/Bass made a lot of holiday specials, roughly two dozen in fact. Some were very well received, such as Frosty the Snowman and The Year Without a Santa Claus, and some were smaller hits, like The Little Drummer Boy and Nestor. But one special has stood above all else as the king of all Rankin/Bass specials, perhaps the king of all Christmas specials in general: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Rudolph was the first Christmas special Rankin/Bass created back in 1964, and through the years it endures as their most popular by far. So when it came time in 1976 to create a trio of sequels to their earlier Christmas specials, it was a no brainer that Rudolph would be selected as one of the three. However, the people at Rankin/Bass surely knew that another Rudolph story set at Christmas would never be able to live up to the original and would simply be viewed as unnecessary. So, with that in mind (and being aware that the special would ultimately air during December anyways), they shifted focus to another part of the holiday season, and made Rudolph’s second outing a New Years special.
Rudolph's Shiny New Year
December 10, 1976
The special picks up immediately after the events of the original special, on the same foggy Christmas. After returning from delivering the presents, Santa (voiced by Paul Frees, reprising the role from the original Frosty the Snowman) receives an urgent letter from Father Time (voiced by Red Skelton, who narrates the special). In it, he is warned that the baby New Year, Happy, has gone missing; If he isn’t found, the year will never end and it’ll be December 31st forever. Santa, sensing the danger and noticing how the fog still hasn’t lifted, enlists the help of Rudolph (once more voiced by Billie Mae Richards) to find Happy.
Escorting him to Father Time’s castle are two of his servants, the living clock General Ticker and a camel named Quarter Past Five. Together, they reach a great desert called the Sands of Time, and begin to follow a star toward the castle when they’re suddenly attacked by a giant vulture named Eon the Terrible. Eon is targeting the baby New Year because he can only live for exactly one eon, after which he’ll turn to ice and snow, and his eon will finally be up if the current year is allowed to end. Rudolph and his guides narrowly avoid Eon and continue on their journey.
Arriving at the Palace of New Years, Father Time explains to Rudolph about what happened to Happy. Happy was born with large ears, which make anyone who sees them laugh with joy. This made Happy upset, and one night he ran a way. Father speculates that Happy escaped to the Archipelago of Last Years, where old years retire to islands where time is frozen in the year they reigned. Rudolph takes a boat and travels through the fog surrounding the islands.
Once more, Eon tries to attack Rudolph, but he’s saved by a large whale named Big Ben. Big Ben takes him to the island of One Million BC, a prehistoric island where the old year One Million is a caveman with a positive outlook on life. One Million tells him that Happy was on the island and saved a baby pterodactyl, but he left after the dinosaurs laughed at his ears. He then offers to join in the search.
Two days and several islands later, they arrive at the island of Sir 1023, a medieval island where all fairy tales are real. On the island, Happy stumbles upon the house of the Three Bears, going through the Goldilocks routine before falling asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. When he’s awoken by the bears, Baby Bear (also voiced by Red Skelton) offers to be his friend, and they play outside the house. But when Baby Bear pressures Happy into taking off his hat, the bears see the baby’s ears and laugh, once against scaring him off.
But not too long in the woods, Eon swoops down and takes Happy away. Rudolph and the others follow after Eon, and Big Ben shoots water at Eon, knocking Happy out of the bird’s clutches. The baby uses his hat to drift off to the island of 1776, an island where it’s always the Fourth of July and the old year is a Ben Franklin lookalike nicknamed Sev. Sev gets Happy to remove his hat to show respect for the flag, and he’s yet again scared off after a crowd laughs at his ears. Eon catches up and snatches Happy again, while Sev, feeling guilt, joins the group.
It’s worth pointing out that this special was released during the bicentennial year. While the majority of festivities would’ve been over by the time this aired, it’s safe to assume the island of 1776 was included with this in mind.
Eon takes Happy to the Island of No Name, an island made of ice where the sun never shines. With only half an hour to go, Rudolph and the old years climb the island toward Eon’s nest, but are caught in an avalanche caused by Eon, who then drifts off into a deep slumber. Rudolph gets out of the snow by melting it with his nose and, with Eon still asleep, reaches the summit. Rudolph then talks to Happy, explaining how he used to be laughed at for his nose, but no longer minds.
Being too modest to tell his own story, the wind and trees begin to sing the classic song. This is notably accompanied by a traditionally animated sequence from Topcraft, showing us a glimpse into how the classic special would have looked if it had been animated in a similar artstyle to Frosty the Snowman.
After realizing that his ears make people happy, Happy finally feels confident enough to remove the hat for good. Eon wakes up and sees the ears, laughing so hard that he fell off the mountain, freeing the old years from the snow. With his heart being filled with warmth from the laughter, Eon is no longer afraid of turning to ice and snow. However, the clock strikes midnight and it seems they were too late after all.
It’s then that Santa arrives and, quickly, the group gets in his sleigh and they take off, reaching at the Palace of New Years and getting Happy to the throne room before the twelfth bong. Happy is crowned as the New Year (“19-wonderful”), and time moves on.
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is a special that has its positive points, but also has its share of flaws. Like the original special, it has a colorful cast of characters that Rudolph meets along the way, each with an appearance and character quirks that make them memorable. But the plot moves so quickly from one location to another that none of them really get a chance to make a lasting impact (General Ticker and Quarter Past Five disappear almost as soon as they’re introduced, and the trio of past years that tag along with Rudolph exist solely to give him someone to talk to). Ironically, while the pace can be frantic at times, a decent chunk of the middle is also rather padded out, with the same formulaic structure playing out on every island.
There’s also a fair number of songs, though it can be argued that the special does a better job at making memorable visuals during the songs than the songs themselves. A good example is the sequence where the viewer is given a visual representation of how a baby New Year grows up and becomes the new Father Time, set against a rather somber song.
Whether the cons outweigh the pros is irrelevant though, as Rudolph’s Shiny New Year was arguably the most successful of the post-1974 specials. Premiering on ABC in 1976, it continued to air on the network for many years to come, as recently as 2017. This is in contrast to the other specials of this time, that all eventually were moved off broadcast TV and solely onto cable (though Shiny New Year has also pulled double duty as an annual cable staple as well). Though, despite really being a New Years special, all these airings classify it as a Christmas special. These continued appearances on broadcast TV have done well to solidify itself as the definitive Rudolph sequel, as opposed to what happened with Frosty’s Winter Wonderland vs Frosty Returns.
Three years later, Rudolph would have one last outing under Rankin/Bass, and he would bring Frosty along for the ride. But that’s a story for another Christmas, or more accurately, a Christmas in July...