Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
Whenever the name “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is mentioned, many would remember either the song or the Rankin-Bass stop-motion special. Based on the poem by Robert L. May, Rudolph is considered a recognizable icon, next to Santa Claus, the Grinch and other Christmas fables. Besides, this wasn’t the first time Rudolph made the jump in the animation medium. Fleischer Studios, known for making Betty Boop and Popeye, made a 1948 cartoon short based on the story, which is catered in the public domain nowadays. Most would be surprised this came out before the Rankin-Bass special. Speaking of which, the stop-motion special still remains as a holiday classic with memorable characters, creative storytelling, and timeless songs. Despite the special spawning sequels, some people doubt that the story would be retold for another generation. At one point, it did...but it was quickly forgotten.
Enter GoodTimes Entertainment, a home video company known for distributing low-budget animated features based on fairy tales/folklore from third-party companies like JetLag Productions and Golden Films. In fact, the company was once sued by The Walt Disney Company for making their VHS covers looking identical to theirs and ordered GoodTimes to print its name on the cover in distinguish themselves. Sometime later, GoodTimes wanted to take a leap into the silver screen by adapting Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for a new and wider audience. The results bring to our today’s subject: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie.
Upon observing the poster or VHS cover, many people would get confused and begin asking questions like “What is this?” or “When was this movie in theaters?” The answer is quite shocking. At first glance, this seems suitable something for direct-to-video or something. But, in actuality, the project was ambitious yet a sell-out at the same time. They credited big celebrity names like John Goodman or Whoopi Goldberg. They heavily promoted with merchandise like dolls, story books, postcards, a CD-ROM game, a Wendy’s kids’ meal toy line, and, no joke, the movie was even sponsored by UNICEF. With all that marketing and a $10 million budget, surely this movie would earn something. That is, until the movie was given a limited theatrical release and bombed at the box office where it earned less than $1 million. Fortunately, the movie did well with home video sales and gradually gained an audience and fan base over time, including yours truly. If most still prefer the Rankin-Bass classic, what makes this movie so special and different than the other? It’s best to see for ourselves.
In this animated retelling, Rudolph (voiced by Kathleen Barr) dreams to be one of Santa’s (voiced by John Goodman) flying reindeer. But when a powerful storm threatens to ruin Christmas, Rudolph must prove himself worthy.
Before continuing, there will be no comparisons between this movie and the Rankin-Bass special. It is quite comprehensible that the Rankin-Bass special is more recognizable by the mainstream audiences. The movie itself is another adaptation of the original tale, so it will be judged on its own.
Over-Simplicity Overshadows Worldbuilding
The easiest way to start off is that the story does naturally follow the spirit of the original poem. The only catch is that this is a full-length animated movie, so the writers had to think hard in order to expand the story into a three-act structure. Right from the beginning, we do get a sense of world-building. Besides Santa’s workshop and the elves, we see four sprites putting up a “light-show” in the night-sky while we later get introduced to a character that has the power control snow storms. Even the original drafted opening showed potential about Rudolph’s origins, such as how he got his red nose and relationship with the sprites. However, the executives thought the idea was too “dark” for younger children to see.
In fact, the main “issue” that the story has is its over-simplistic tone. With all the creative possibilities thought up, the writing was still executed in the safest way possible that audiences under the age of eight would enjoy. There’s definitely nothing wrong with simplicity in storytelling; it is easily understandable to follow. For a movie targeted for children and those who grew up watching it, the execution does its job fine enough. There’s nothing offensive or bad morality in this flick; just cute and harmless.
Even the world-building hasn’t been completely wasted. Some would make the argument that adding too much world-building would make the story too complex, especially nowadays when movies try to make cinematic universes. True, but when given to the right hands, the movie still manages to maintain it with its simplicity. We do get to see more of Rudolph’s childhood years, interacting with other characters and the Reindeer Games has been interpreted an Olympic-like sporting event. Again, the simplicity didn’t flesh out its characters or lived up its potential, especially with the 90-minute running time. The movie would also sometimes light the mood with comedy. Most of the humor is mediocre slapstick with random sound effects thrown in while there is a chuckle-worthy moment here-and-there regarding the dialogue. The story may be simple enough for kids, but not enough for everyone else.
Best Looking Animation...for Direct-To-Video
When looking at any direct-to-video animated movie distributed by GoodTimes, their animation quality usually falls under the “cheap television” category. However, with a $10 million budget, Rudolph the Nosed Reindeer: The Movie is the surprisingly best looking out of all the other projects...at first glance. The highlighted aspect of the movie is the character designs. Each character has their own look that would visually stand-out from the crowd. While Santa and Mrs. Claus may have a generic and realistic design, all the elf characters have a cartoonish appearance with a variety of styles whether in body shape, size, color and ethnicity. Think of them like members of the United Nations. Same goes to the reindeer characters. Their design is similar to animal characters out of a Disney film, where they look and move anatomically accurate with readable facial expressions. A couple of reindeer characters would wear either a bow or eye glasses. Like Rudolph, Santa’s eight reindeer have an identifiable presence with facial or birthmarks. For example, Rudolph’s father Blitzen has lightning bolts on his muzzle while Cupid has a heart marking on his forehead. Other animal characters like Slyly, Leonard and Ridley look and act anthropomorphic to provide comedic or animated reactions.
The North Pole is a hodgepodge with standard and interesting locations. Yes, the North Pole is understandably an arctic region and common setting where the mythological characters reside, but most of the time...I believe these characters described it best in one scene:
...Just a lot of snow.
Even Santa’s village is nothing special to look at, with a couple exceptions. There are moments of nice features like a fully-functioning railroad and a greenhouse with candy cane trees. The toy factory is not bad either with a hard-working staff, operative machinery and a music box...with tiny elves making toys from inside. The “best” looking location in the village is the coliseum where the Reindeer Games are held. It helps benefit on the world-building where young and aspiring reindeer would compete in events like the sleigh-race and leaping contests. In fact, it offers an entertaining racing sequence between Rudolph and his rival Arrow. After the village and passing over two dull caves, we enter Stormella’s ice castle. It is important to note is to never cross her ice bridge or there will be consequences. Sure, she has a nice garden full of ice sculptures. But, her castle has labyrinth-like hallways and traps that would send you into her dungeon. On a side note, whenever the four Sprites would fly in night scenes, the effects animation would offer some pretty luminous lights and other scenes where we get heavy snowfall.
With all that said, despite the creative and ambitious visuals, the animation quality itself is not cinematic enough, especially for its limited run. The character animation falls under that “television” quality where the movements are limited than smooth. During one musical number, one or two scenes were recycled. Once in a while, we also get animation errors that are easy to spot. The animation had a bit of boost in production, but still a direct-to-video movie nonetheless.
Basic Characters with Solid Performances
As simple-minded as this movie is, so is its cast of characters. Not to say that to say are “unlikeable” or “mean” per say. Some have likable traits that would that make them memorable while others are so basic, they wouldn’t leave much of an impression for everyone else. Starting with our titular character Rudolph, he is a young reindeer born with a glowing red nose. Outside of the following the original story, he is your typical kind hearted and courageous reindeer who dreams to be on Santa’s team like his father. Zoey is Rudolph’s childhood friend and love interest. She had potential to be as independent and adventurous as Rudolph. But, later becomes a damsel-in-distress. Santa Claus and Rudolph’s parents Blitzen and Mitzi both share the role as loving, supportive figures for Rudolph with assertiveness when necessary. Slyly is the tough-yet-soft arctic fox that can be described as a “child-friendly hybrid of Ratso Rizzo and Han Solo”. Leonard is the gentle-giant polar bear. Boone and Doogle are mail-delivering elves that act as comic reliefs whenever they accidentally cause trouble. Arrow is Rudolph’s jerky, shallow rival and cousin.
The Sprites of the Northern Lights (Aurora, Sparkle, Glitter and Tinkle) are conceptually intriguing characters as creators of the aurora borealis and Rudolph’s guardian angels. They also serve as a Greek chorus or “singing narrators” for those that know theatre.
The most entertaining and most developed character among the cast is the villain Stormella. She is an evil ice witch who has the authority to create snowy storms with a hatred for Santa and Christmas. She means serious business whoever crosses her bridge, vandalize her property, and would either freeze or imprison her victims as punishment. She is also accompanied by her loyal penguin butler Ridley and her pack of vicious wolves. Of course, keeping with the harmless tone, Rudolph saved her life from falling off and offered him a wish. In return, he wished her to be nice as part of his selfless nature. It does lead to a funny moment once it happened. Not to mention, Whoopi Goldberg sounded like she was having fun with this performance.
In fact, the voice acting is pretty solid. Sure, some celebrities like John Goodman as Santa would sound like tight-casting and a waste. But to their credit, they definitely give their all to give personality to their characters. It’s strangely funny to hear Eric Idle doing a Bronx accent while hearing health guru Richard Simmons voicing an elf character. The rest of the voice actors are native-Canadian actors that actually went places after this movie. Kathleen Barr, the voice of adult Rudolph, would later voice Kevin and Marie Kanker in Ed, Edd n Eddy and Trixie in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Other recognizable names include: Garry Chalk, Tabitha St. Germain, Lee Tockar, and Cathy Weseluck. Even an uncredited Matt Hill, the voice of Arrow, later became the voice of Ed in Ed, Edd n Eddy. How ironic that the hero and bully switched roles. The voice acting did help bring life to the characters but others would’ve had more depth than just basic.
Budding Yet Wasted Songs
Being a movie aimed for children, it is no surprise that it would include musical numbers. Not to mention, the musical score would try so hard to sound very whimsical as possible. As mentioned before, the Sprites would act as the Greek chorus which did the movie fine. The songs written by Al Kasha and Michael Lloyd are a fascinating case to discuss. At first, some songs would be forgettable with a straight face while the rest have hidden talent yet wasted at the same time. To fully understand this, the songs must be talked individually. We are familiar with the titular song, but the movie’s version performed by country singer Clint Black is not bad of a listen. “What About His Nose” is a cheerfully confusing number about Rudolph’s nose and his hopes. “Christmas Town” is an upbeat song about the elves making toys with vocals provided by R&B group The Pointer Sisters of all choices. “Santa’s Family” is a heart-warming song with a nice message about social acceptance. “Show Me the Light” is the love ballad between Rudolph and Zoey, and also the best song in the movie. It is noticeably humorous how Michael Lloyd as Rudolph’s singing voice sounds older than his regular voice. “It Could Only Be Worse” is Slyly’s song about life could sometimes get unfair and unpredictable, accompanied by a random group of back-up singing female foxes. For Monty Phyton experts, some say the song is the kid version of Life of Brian’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. “I Hate Santa Claus” is the transparent number about Stormella discussing her hatred towards Santa and Christmas in general. Lastly, “We Can Make It” is simply put a motivational song when Rudolph leads the team through the storm. Strangely enough, the only licensed song used during the middle of the movie is Paul and Linda McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”. A great Christmas song on its own, but doesn’t count. When listening to the songs throughout the movie, some are short and others had some promise but never fully utilized. However, if you listen to the soundtrack CD, “Santa’s Family”, “Show Me the Light”, “”It Could Only Be Worse”, “I Hate Santa Claus”, and “We Can Make It” are extended with lyrics that would’ve made the songs stronger than in the final product. If the budget was bigger, then the musical numbers wouldn’t be as bad as before. The extended versions are worth listening if you come across them. The songs have tried and there is talent within them. Too bad it is the deadline that was more problematic.
Through experience in writing movie reviews, this movie was the most difficult talking about. It may sound outlandish for providing so much detail into something as simple as this children’s movie. Then again, it was a special case speaking from both a nostalgic and general perspective. It is quite obvious mainstream audiences will definitely remember the Rankin-Bass version more than this. This DOESN’T mean that the movie is bad. Calling it “bad” would be considered too harsh. It’s like shamefully criticizing a toddler’s drawing. It may not look great, but it the child showed potential. GoodTimes Entertainment had an infamous reputation for making animated “mockbusters” of familiar tales. Despite the movie’s financial failure and trying to capitalize on the Rudolph character, they at least try to put some thought and effort into making a different story on the character himself. It’s not we expected, but it is close enough. It is relieving that the movie has gained a cult status after its home video sales, with fan art on DeviantART. It is also rumored that a sequel would be a possibility; the CGI-Rankin Bass movie doesn’t count. As a movie on its own, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie an inoffensive and harmless Christmas movie that families would have a nice time watching. For those who are open to another adaptation of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, it’s not bad of a movie to check out. Once you get past the over-simplicity, television quality animation and flat characters, you’ll get some substance like the ambition, creative character designs, entertaining voice work and some hummable songs. Its future may be dim, but its audience continues to make it glow.