Rankin/Bass Productions, named after co-founders Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, will forever be remembered in the annals of television history for creating some of the most beloved Christmas-related animated specials, many of which continue to air on TV over 50 years later. Universal Studios is making five of those programs available in The Original Christmas Specials Collection: Deluxe Edition. They are Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Cricket on the Hearth (1967). Additionally the first three are also available in individual new Deluxe Editions on Blu-ray and DVD.
The first four specials originated from songs and told origin stories. Rudolph, based on the Johnny Marks song which was based Robert L. May's poem, tells the story of the young reindeer whose difference, a shiny red nose, was a source of derision at first but was ultimately seen as an asset. Although it can certainly be viewed in a more cynical way since aside from his fellow misfits, Santa and others didn't appreciate Rudolph until they needed something from him.
Frosty, based on the Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson song, finds the character appearing when a magician's hat lands atop a snowman. Worried about Frosty and the impending warm weather, a young girl named Karen sneaks aboard a refrigeration car with Frosty heading for the North Pole to seek Santa's help. The cold puts her life at risk while the warmth she needs threatens Frosty, which seems a little grim for kids, but will hopefully distract them from thinking train-hopping is a good idea.
Santa Claus, based on the John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie song, shows how a young orphan named Claus is raised by elves and becomes of giver of gifts to children the world over while another orphan named Aaron, whose parents are murdered by bandits, is only able to offer his musicianship as a gift to a baby in a manger in The Little Drummer Boy, which is based on the Katherine Kennicott Davis song. Both stories use magic, but Baby Jesus using it shortly after his birth is less believable than when Santa Does.
Cricket on the Hearth is based on a novella by Charles Dickens, although the story is not related to Christmas beyond the story ends on that day. Cricket Crockett is adopted by Caleb Plummer, a toymaker who loses his business when he has to take care of his daughter Bertha after she is stricken blind with grief upon the news her fiance Edward is lost at sea. Caleb gets a job from a Scrooge-like businessman named Tackleton. Two years pass, which is hard to believe considering Caleb's poor working and living conditions. A homeless man comes into the Plummers' life, who may change their destiny. It's rather obvious who is under the beard.
The story has an odd plotline that doesn't accomplish anything other than padding the run time. Cricket is kidnapped by a crow, lion, and monkey and given to a captain of a boat heading to China. The captain murders the trio, and Cricket makes his way home, using creatures such as a whale, a pelican, and a seahorse. It's unintentionally funny, but the weakest of the bunch.
Rudolph, Santa Claus, and Drummer Boy were created in 3D stop-motion animation trademarked as Animagic. Frosty and Cricket were created in traditional 2D animation. They all appear in 1080p and with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Except for Drummer Boy, the colors in the other four specials appear in strong hues, with the 2D programs looking brighter, and the blacks are inky. The 3D specials exhibit depth and texture detail on objects. The Drummer Boy video has a faded, dreary appearance throughout with a frequent soft focus. Textures on puppets and sets can be seen in close-ups, but in dimly lit scenes, visual details are lost in the pervasive shadows.
Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa Claus are available in DTS Master Audio 5.1. The dialogue sounds clear. Music and ambiance effects can be heard in the surrounds. Drummer Boy and Cricket is available in DTS Master Audio 2.0. The good audio quality of Drummer Boy contrasts with the poor video quality, making the latter further stand out. None of the tracks exhibit signs of defect or age.
The Animagic World of Rankin/Bass (HD, 47 min) is a Bonus Feature on Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa Claus. The new documentary tells the story of and celebrates the work of Rankin/Bass and includes reflections by many including animation directors Henry Selick, Brenda Chapman, and the Choido Brothers.
Other Rudolph Special Features:
- Restoring the Puppets of Rudolph (4 min): A brief look at how folks from Screen Novelties restored Rudolph and Santa
- Reimagining Rudolph in 4D (11 min): The crew discuss putting together a 4D abbreviated version of the special but no mention of where it appears. Included is a 2D version of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Attraction Film (11 min)
- T.E.A.M. Rudolph and the Reindeer Games (14 min): Shown in a series of still images, a narrator reads the story of the Reindeer Games as the words appear on the screen
Other Frosty Special Features:
- Original Pencil Test (1 min): A few scenes but no Frosty
- A commentary by animation historian Mark Evanier
Other Santa Claus Special Feature:
- A commentary by with animation historian Greg Ehrbar
No Special Featues on Drummer Boy / Cricket disc
Although these Original Christmas Specials are shown at the end of every year, it's wonderful to have them on hand, complete and able to watch at one's leisure. The A/V qualities of four specials are very well done. It makes a great gift for any holiday.