To prepare for the holiday season ahead, I find myself reaching for my family’s personal collection of Rankin/Bass movies on VHS and DVD. Watching stop motion films like A Year without a Santa Claus (1974), Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964), and Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), and traditionally animated films like Frosty the Snowman (1969), have become a generational tradition in my household. My parents watched these televised short films as reruns when they were kids, long before “recording” on a “VCR” was a possibility- and they shared these films with me, mostly on VHS, when I was a kid. While the names of these films, the characters, the choppy animation and catchy songs, have become a cultural mainstay in the USA, the studio behind these holiday specials has become long defunct. Put some mud on that shiny red nose, put one foot in front of the other, and let’s deep dive into the history and filmography of Rankin/Bass Animation!
Founded in 1960 by Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass in New York City, the studio was established as Videocraft International. Arthur Rankin Jr. had seen “Animagic” stop motion* commercials, the style invented by Japanese-Chinese animator Tadahito Mochinaga, and a partnership was born with the two studios. The writers, producers, directors, and score was based in the States; voice actors recorded in Canada, and traditional and stop-motion animation for the short films was out-sourced to Japan, whose animators were often left uncredited in the final cuts of the films. The first project these two studios started was The New Adventures of Pinocchio (1960), a stop-motion series that is now considered obscure media, a loose adaption of “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi. Videocraft International would be rebranded as Rankin/Bass Productions in 1968, and would continue to outsource to numerous Japanese animation studios going forward.
Rankin/Bass found their biggest success adapting the short story and song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, into a short forty-four minute film, edited for broadcast on the silver screen. This 1964 stop motion short follows the titular Rudolph, Hermey the Elf and Yukon the Prospector as they try to find where misfits like them can fit in, and in doing so, finds their place in the North Pole and save Christmas. This little short has become the longest running Christmas short of all time, annually being televised since 1964, and is regarded as the most memorable and culturally significant film from Rankin/Bass Productions. Their other popular Christmas specials released in the 1960s-1970s, all of which were originally broadcast directly to TV, would become instant classics. Rankin/Bass would also produce and direct a series of sequels and crossover films including the casts of these holiday classics, but failed to recreate the same success and impact as the originals.
A personal Christmas favorite of mine from their catalog during this era, is A Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), an adaptation of a book with the same name by Phyllis McGinley. Santa Claus is convinced that no one believes in him anymore, so he decides to cancel Christmas- leading to Mrs. Claus telling two elves to find proof that kids do still believe in Santa. They ride young Vixen, one of Santa’s reindeer, down south, but are caught in the cross-fires between the Miser Brothers- mystical brothers who control the cold and heat- and land down in Southtown, located somewhere in southern America. Poor Vixen isn’t used to the hot weather, so the elves try to cool her down and disguise her as a dog; Vixen is then kidnapped by the local dog pound, and the mayor of the town will let Vixen out of the pound for free, but only if they can make it snow for just one Christmas. Meanwhile, Santa has been told that the two elves and Vixen are in danger, and head down south to retrieve them. Mrs. Claus find the elves and Santa and they all meet up with the Miser Brothers, who are not easily convinced to let it snow in Southtown; Mrs. Claus gets their mother involved, Mother Nature, and the brothers are forced to compromise. Santa Claus is sent hundreds of packages from children around the world, saddened that Christmas is cancelled this year, and it convinces Santa that there are people who believe in him, and he embarks on his sleigh on Christmas Eve. The inclusion of the Miser Brothers and other mystical entities in this short make it really unique; most modern Christmas specials and movies focus in on the North Pole, Santa, Mrs. Claus, elves, and reindeer. But A Year Without a Santa Claus expands on the North Pole universe already established by Christmas lore and the previous Rankin/Bass films, and pushes the boundaries of what Animagic could accomplish with stop-motion puppets and special effects.
Rankin/Bass Productions would also adventure into non-Christmas stop-motion specials, and traditionally animated films. Mad Monster Party! (1967) is a fun and cheeky Halloween special filled with iconic monsters and campy humor, and featured Boris Karloff’s last voice acting role and last acting role as a Frankenstein character. Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971) is a stop motion adaption of The Easter Bunny That Overslept by Priscilla and Otto Friedrich, that follows a young and cocky Peter Cottontail as he travels through the holidays, trying to convince the current Easter Bunny that he could be the best replacement- with Vincent Price voicing the villainous Irontail. In the traditional animation department, Rankin/Bass would adapt The Hobbit (1977), The Last Unicorn (1982), and The Wind in the Willows (1987) into full feature films**. They returned to syndicated cartoons in the 1980s, with their biggest Saturday morning cartoon success airing in 1985 with ThunderCats, animated by Japan-based Toei Studios, based on toys designed by Ted Wolf.
Around the late 1990s, Rankin/Bass Productions started to dissolve; in 2001, their final film, Santa Baby!, was produced by Fox and animated by Pacific Animation Corporation. It continued the company’s long-held practice of taking a Christmas song and expanding the lyrics for a longer animated adaption; Santa Baby! featured a predominately black cast of characters and voice actors, a first for Rankin/Bass Productions. However, Santa Baby! was not enough of a financial success to make up for the costs, and Rankin/Bass Productions permanently closed their doors. Arthur Rankin Jr would retire, living in Bermuda with his wife; he passed away in 2014. Jules Bass would follow a similar path, although he published two books unrelated to Rankin/Bass Productions, before passing in 2022.
Researching Rankin/Bass Productions is a melancholy experience- on one hand, it’s inspiring to see how Rankin/Bass Productions were the first studio to ever make long-lasting Christmas specials, ones that are still regarded as classics to this day; and their partnerships with Japanese animation studios, outsourcing the animation progress overseas to off-set costs, was long before their time. On the other hand, their catalogue is full of forgettable and downright terrible sequels, and non-existent diversity with character designs pre-Santa Baby!. But, like the other defunct studios I plan on covering in future articles, Rankin/Bass Productions created films that were once viewed as top-quality, the cream of the crop, timeless classics to be watched and shared by generations; they just couldn’t evolve with the audience they were trying to appeal to. In their 41 years of producing films, Rankin/Bass Productions created 62 works; 35 television specials, 7 feature films, 13 television shows, and 7 live action films, an impressive feat nonetheless. I’ve listed most of them below, for your viewing pleasure. Happy Holidays!
SearchOhio/OhioLink items linked below will be temporarily unavailable to request and check-out using your WPPL card from November 20th- early 2024. You can still find these materials in the libraries listed under SearchOhio/OhioLink, and borrow materials with another library’s card. Sorry for the inconvenience!
The New Adventures of Pinocchio – Youtube Playlist of the first seven episodes
Tales of the Wizard of Oz – Compilation of episodes on Youtube here
The King Kong Show- Youtube Playlist of all 25 episodes
The Smokey Bear Show- First Episode “Founder’s Day Folly”, available to watch on Youtube here
The Tomfoolery Show- Watch an episode on Youtube here
The Reluctant Dragon and Mr. Toad Show- Youtube Playlist of first seven episodes
The Jackson 5ive- SearchOhio
The Osmonds- Youtube Playlist, compilation of various episodes
Kid Power- Episode available to watch on Youtube
Festival of Family Classics- Youtube Playlist, compilation of various episodes
The Comic Strip- Karate Kad & Street Frogs & Mini-Monsters Episode available to watch on Youtube
Return to Oz- SearchOhio
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer- WPPL
The Ballad of Smokey the Bear- Preview of special on Youtube
Cricket on the Hearth- SearchOhio
Mouse on the Mayflower- SearchOhio
The Little Drummer Boy- SearchOhio
Frosty the Snowman- WPPL
The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians- Full film on Youtube
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town- WPPL
Here Comes Peter Cottontail- SearchOhio
The Emperor’s New Clothes- SearchOhio
Mad Mad Mad Monsters- SearchOhio
Red Baron- Full special on Youtube
That Girl in Wonderland- Alice in Wonderland sequence on Youtube
The Year Without a Santa Claus- SearchOhio
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas- WPPL
The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow- SearchOhio
The First Easter Rabbit- SearchOhio
Frosty’s Winter Wonderland- WPPL
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year- SearchOhio
The Little Drummer Boy, Book II- SearchOhio
The Easter Bunny is Comin’ To Town- full film on Youtube
Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey- SearchOhio
The Stingiest Man in Town- SearchOhio
Jack Frost- WPPL
Pinocchio’s Christmas- SearchOhio
The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold- SearchOhio
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus- SearchOhio
Santa, Baby!- Full film on Youtube
Full Feature Movies:
Willy McBean and his Magic Machine- full movie on Youtube
The Daydreamer- SearchOhio
Mad Monster Party?- SearchOhio
King Kong Escapes- WPPL
Marco- Full movie on Youtube The Last Dinosaur- Clip on Youtube
The Hobbit- WPPL
Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July- WPPL
The Return of the King- WPPL
The Ivory Ape- Full movie on Youtube
The Bushido Blade- Full movie on Youtube
The Last Unicorn- WPPL
The Flight of Dragons- SearchOhio
The Sins of Dorian Gray- Full movie on Youtube
The Wind in the Willows- SearchOhio
The King and I- SearchOhio
Sources & Other Rankin/Bass Material
The Animagic World of Rankin/Bass (2018) documentary on Youtube
The History of Rankin/Bass (2021) by Eli Sanza
The Anime Studios That Helped Rankin/Bass Make Christmas (2020) by Steve Porfiri
* Animagic Stop-Motion animation is different from the previous styles of stop motion popularized by Ray Harryhausen, by animating toy-like puppets, animating on ones (one frame per second of animation), making the movements more choppy and playful. Puppets were often made of rudimentary materials, such as carved wood, cotton, furs, and fabrics. Many of the Rankin/Bass puppets used in production have broken down or gone missing through the years, often kept by the animators in Japan and boxed away. In 2020, a Santa Claus and Rudolph puppet set that was used in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer made headlines when the pair, newly restored, went up for auction. The highest bidder donated the puppets to the Atlanta Center of Puppetry, and have been used in a seasonal exhibit as a part of the museum since.
** Rankin/Bass Animation’s traditionally animated full feature films are all considered modern cult classics. Topcraft Studios, which would later be rebranded as Studio Ghibli, animated The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn in Japan. I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Last Unicorn, although it is not a traditional fairytale story for kids, but a nihilistically mature story about what it means to be human.
Last month, Nostalgic Showcase covered Don Bluth Studio’s filmography and history; from a group of disgruntled Disney animators walking out of the studio in protest in late 1979, to becoming Disney’s biggest competition in the early 1980s, to Don Bluth Studio’s anti-climatic fall from grace in the 1990s. It’s a captivating story of an underdog animation studio in America, whose films still hold up to this day- and I recommend you check out that article too!