Rankin/Bass, established in 1960, became known over the course of 25 years for their stellar run of Christmas specials, along with numerous other projects. Beginning with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964, the company produced a grand total of 19 specials either about Christmas or the Christmas season. A handful were made with traditional cel animation, but the majority all used stop-motion animation from skilled Japanese artists, referred to as “Animagic”. Many were beloved, others not as much, but all became synonymous with the Christmas season for those growing up with them.
By 1985, however, the Rankin/Bass studio itself was in a sharp decline, struggling to maintain relevance in a changing television landscape. That year would bring with it their last big hit, Thundercats, but otherwise the name was quickly becoming associated with the past. It had been four years since their last Christmas special, 1981’s The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold, and with the company having entered their winter years, they would work their Animagic one last time.
In the final decade of Rankin/Bass Productions, the studio had shifted away from movies and specials about original stories or stories based on songs, instead doing projects based off of novels like The Last Unicorn and The Hobbit. In turn, coming up with a new Christmas special, they turned to a book published in 1902 titled The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, written by L. Frank Baum. Now, the works of Baum were no stranger to the hands of Rankin/Bass; One of their earliest TV series, back when the studio was still known as Videocraft, was Tales of the Wizard of Oz in 1961, their first traditionally animated project, which was followed up by 1964’s Return to Oz, their first television special. But this would be their only non-Oz adaptation of Baum’s works, and their only Baum adaptation in the Animagic style.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
December 17, 1985
The story opens in the Forest of Burzee, ‘an age ago’, where a gathering of the leaders of the Immortals is taking place. they meet to discuss Santa Claus who, as he was born mortal, will reach the end of his natural lifespan after his next sleigh ride. The item of debate raised by Great Ak, Master Woodsman of the World and one of the Immortals, is whether to bestow upon Santa the “Mantle of Immortality”, allowing him to live on forever.
To convince the others, Great ak tells the tale of Santa Claus, beginning with when he first met him 60 years ago, as a baby abandoned in the woods during a snowstorm. Taking pity on the infant, Great Ak took him and brought him to be raised by a lioness named Shiegra.
However, one of the other Immortals, a forest nymph named Necile, hears of the baby and laments how, by the law of the Immortals, none among their rank may ever have children of their own. She decides to take the baby from Shiegra and hold it for a while, angering the lioness. Infatuated by the infant, Necile begs with Great Ak to allow her to keep and raise the baby as his mother, breaking another rule that no human may reside in their forest. Great Ak, however, decides to make an exception and allow her to keep the baby, whom she names Claus, ‘little one’ in the language of the forest nymphs, with Shiegra remaining as his guardian.
Claus is raised among the forest nymphs, living carefree but isolated from other humans. Once he comes of age, Great Ak offers to take him on a journey around the world to learn about the ways of humanity, keeping invisible from sight. In a field, Claus’s first exposure to humanity is a cruel squire berating his peasant field workers, including children, for only having a single cart of crops after a fortnight. one of the children, starving, tries to take a turnip for themself, but gets scolded. Claus is horrified by this treatment, questioning if all mortals are like this.
Next, Great Ak takes him to the dinner table of the local lord of the manor, who laughingly berates the peasants for being hungry and wanting to learn how to read. Then, they travel to Japan, where Claus sees mere children training to one day fight and die for their lord as samurai. In the middle east, he’s shown homeless children, starving as others pass by without care. In England, he’s shown two knights fighting for the sake of war.
In being shown all this, Claus is taught the mortal world is a cold cruel place, but becomes determined to set out and make a difference to better it. Joined by Shiegra and Tingler, his multilingual teacher, they journey out of the forest into the Laughing Valley of Hohaho, which is perpetually in winter. Establishing a home, the years go by as he helps teach the children of a nearby village.
One evening, when Claus has reached an old age, he sees a young child named Weekum passed out in the snow in front of his house. Bringing the child inside to warm up, Claus makes Weekum a small wooden cat, the first toy he ever made. Weekum tells the other children at his orphanage about the toy, and soon they start asking Claus to make ones for them, as they have no toys of their own.
Soon, the demand is enough for Claus to recruit several beings of the forest to aid in building numerous toys in his workshop. However, his kindness catches the attention of the King of the Awgwas, invisible creatures who influence children to do bad things. Despite this, Claus continues with his toy making, which leads to a series of attempts by the Awgwas to stop him. First, they kidnap him in the middle of the night and leave him tied up in a cave, but he’s saved when he whistles the secret call of the Knooks, tailed creatures he knew in the forest. For the next 12 days, while transporting the toys to the village, Claus and his friends are attacked by the awgwas and have all the toys stolen each time. On the thirteenth day, he decides to go out at night alone, but is ambushed as expected.
Fed up with these assaults, Great Ak summons King Awgwa before him, declaring Claus to be under his protection. King Awgwa, outraged and feeling Great Ak has overstepped his boundaries, declares war against all the immortals. This leads into perhaps the most action-heavy scene in the Rankin/Bass repertoire, as the Immortals and Awgwas clash in combat. In fairness, however, it's less of a battle and more like a massacre, with such actions by the Immortals as immolating the Awgwas’ Great Dragon, transmuting another Awgwa into the form of a flower, and a flying Awgwa getting vaporized by Great Ak’s magic axe. The surviving awgwas flee in terror, and Claus is once more free to distribute his toys to the children.
With a sleigh overflowing with toys, Claus is gifted eight magic reindeer and sets out to deliver them. At the first house, Claus makes his first try at going down a chimney, as well as coming up with the idea of putting gifts in stockings. The children of the house, hearing their father refer to "Saint Claus", come up with the name "Santa Claus".
Returning to his workshop after a successful run, Claus begs Peter Knook, the Immortal who lent him the Reindeer, to let him use them from now on. Peter Knook is reluctant at first, but agrees, on the condition that they be used only once per year, on Christmas Eve. With Christmas only ten days away and not enough time to make another batch, it seems they may have to skip this Christmas. That is, until Claus remembers all the toys the Awgwas stole were never recovered, and at the last moment on Christmas Eve, they're found and ready to be delivered. Claus takes flight, his first Christmas Eve run.
Grand Ak concludes his tale, citing Santa Claus's deep generosity. The rest of the Immortals are touched, and unanimously vote to bestow the Mantle of Immortality upon Claus, so that he may continue to bring joy to the children of the world for all eternity.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus has a noticeably different tone than any other Rankin/Bass special in several ways. While the stop-motion was still being handled by the same hands as prior specials, the style of the puppets have changed drastically towards a different art style. This is most noticeable in certain scenes that reuse puppets from previous specials, as it causes the new puppets to stand out even more.
It’s possible that Thundercats, which was in production alongside it by the same animation studio, played a role in the designs being so different, feeling more like that show than the studio’s traditional style. This is extended to the voice cast, as nearly the entire Thundercats cast are in the special. Earl Hammon (Mumm-Ra) voiced Santa Claus, Earle Hyman (Panthro) voiced King Awgwa, Larry Kenny (Lion-O) voiced the Commander of the Wind Demons, Lynne Lipton (Cheetara) voiced Queen Zurline, Robert McFadden (Snarf) voiced Tingler, and Peter Newman (Tygra) voiced Peter Knook. Rounding out the cast are stage actor Arthur Drake as Great Ak and singer Lesley Miller as Necile.
But in general, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, with its more muted color scheme and the overarching reason why the story is being told (the impending mortal death of Santa), is far more somber in its tone. Considering the circumstances, it may not be a stretch to say that the story acts as a metaphor for Rankin/Bass at that time and place in animation history. The special aired on December 17, 1985, and in just two short years the studio would be shut down. With this special, not only was the life of Santa being put on trial, but the legacy of the works Rankin/Bass had spent 25 years crafting was as well.
It was true that the studio itself would not survive, though Arthur Ranin and Jules Bass would continue collaborating into the 90s. But ultimately, just as the Council of Immortals decided that Santa should live forever to continue bringing joy and happiness to the children of the world, audiences have decided the works of Rankin/Bass, from Rudolph to Life & Adventures, will continue to endure for generations of families to come.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 22, 2020: