Rankin-Bass (1974), Warner Home Video (October 5, 2010), 1 disc, 24 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 ratio, Dolby Digital 1.0, Rated G, Retail: $19.98
Santa decides to boycott a whole town after a letter appears in the local newspaper criticizing the very belief in Santa Claus. When a young clock-maker tries to help, the same writer of the notorious letter stymies his plans.
The Sweatbox Review:
Rankin-Bass made its reputation largely on its holiday specials done for television in the 1960s and 1970s, with their stop-motion animated productions generally getting the most attention, in particular the all-time classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. They also did do a number of hand-drawn animated favorites, including (among many others) Frosty the Snowman and ’Twas The Night Before Christmas. ’Twas was produced in 1974, and was based on the well-known poem most often associated with Clement Moore, which was first published in 1823.
Of course, the poem is only a very bare outline for a half-hour teleplay, and so writer Jerome Coopersmith (likely with input from producers/directors Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass) concocted a story about a town that was being boycotted by Santa Claus. The reason for the snub? Santa read a letter in the local paper, The Junctionville Register, which protested the “myth” of Santa. Worst of all, the crank signed his letter “from all of us.” One can see why Santa was a little put off, though one does wonder what he really had to gain by essentially providing evidence to the little guttersnipe who wrote the letter, by not showing up at all on Christmas Eve.
The story follows two families, one made up of mice, and one human family. The two families are tied together by the friendship of the two fathers, and the fact that they all live in the same house. In fact, Father Mouse is an assistant to Joshua Trundle, a clockmaker. It becomes known early on to the Mouse family that it was Mr. Mouse’s son Albert who wrote the infamous letter. Albert sticks by his political views, though his father chastises him for thinking he knows more than he does. Meanwhile, Mr. Trundle makes a proposal to the town council that he be allowed to construct a giant clock that will play a song designed to convince Santa to come back on Christmas Eve.
Unfortunately, something horrible goes wrong with the clock, making Mr. Trundle the town pariah. Albert knows something about it, but will he make amends in time to save Christmas for Junctionville?
The story is as slight as can be, but it is undeniably charming. The plot is somewhat original, and the story’s sentiments are worthwhile (even if I’ve long been wary of the idea that we need to convince kids of Santa Claus’s existence). The designs by Paul Coker, Jr. are very pleasant, especially for the mice. (I tend to feel that his human designs worked best in the stop-motion productions.) I only felt that his Santa, though accurate to the poem’s description of being elf-like himself, was given far too deep a voice.
And, of course there is the Rankin-Bass signature music, written by Maury Laws, with lyrics by Jules Bass. All the songs are cheery and nicely arranged, with xylophones and bells being prominent. The lyrics may be a little syrupy, but I think them sincere. Rankin-Bass always put a lot of positive values into their productions, and I won’t criticize them for it. In today’s cynical and sarcastic age, I find these older specials oddly refreshing.
Is This Thing Loaded?
This thing is so NOT loaded. For a so-called “Deluxe Edition,” this is actually a pretty pathetic effort. One wouldn’t mind the lack of bonus material if the disc’s labelling did not create certain expectations, but in fact there are exactly NO special features that pertain to the disc’s main feature. Oh, they address the holiday season, with Trailers for the Peanuts holiday specials and the Classic Christmas Favorites Collection playing at disc start-up, plus ones for How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Lego Harry Potter off the special features menu.
There is also the headline featurette Christmas: A Global Holiday (8:50). This cheaply produced selection of still images with lamely written narration by an elf (and with intermittent animated snow in the foreground) examines how other countries celebrate Christmas. This is somewhat educational, especially for kids, and it would have been fine to include as an extra alongside more pertinent bonus material; but as the only real bonus on the disc, it’s a big slap in the face to Rankin-Bass fans. How this qualifies as a “Deluxe Edition,” I really don’t know.
The single disc fits into an eco-keepcase, with no inserts included. The case comes inside a slip sleeve with an identical cover, but in embossed foil. The cover is derived from a still from the special, using the most minor and poorly designed of the characters, and re-colored in order to give it less charm. Meanwhile the more pleasingly designed main characters are barely visible. The only credit I can give the cover is that it does carry the Rankin-Bass name (fortunately, Warner Home Video hasn’t made its frequent mistake here of labelling every cartoon retroactively a Hanna-Barbera production), though the “Deluxe Edition” moniker badly over-hypes what is actually a barebones release.
Ink And Paint:
The only really “deluxe” thing about this disc (aside from the price) is the remastered video. The image is uniformly lovely, with bright, non-bleeding colors amidst a minimum of dust or grain. The odd speckle only serves to remind the viewer of the handcrafted quality of the production, which was animated in Japan by Top Craft. Some minor aliasing is seen, but I was overall very impressed by the lack of shimmering during the numerous pans used in the film. This is a very strong transfer from Warner.
In looking at these examples, with the older image on top and the new DVD image on the bottom, one can see that colors are now darker and therefore more solid-looking. This alone may not be an actual improvement, as much as it is a simple color-tweaking job. However, the new disc also has significantly fewer physical artifacts, with much less dust to be seen now. The older disc also showed a great deal more aliasing and instability in the image, which actually could be seen to shake at times.
There is only an English one-channel mono track, which plays clearly and pleasantly, with no hiss or distortion. It suits the material just fine. English and French subtitles are also available.
It’s far from my favorite Christmas special, but it’s worth bringing out every couple of Christmases. The charm and positive feelings in this Rankin-Bass production is a testament for their enduring reputation for quality animated specials. The slight story is nevertheless engaging, and the music is guaranteed to give you a warm feeling inside.
However, this particular edition, though it does have terrific video quality, is misrepresented as a “Deluxe Edition,” when in fact it is just an overpriced reissue lacking in substantial bonus content. A more modest packaging presentation at half the price might have been more in order. Fans of the special, though, will be very happy with the video upgrade.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?