Appellate Judge Kent Dixon was once attacked by a stop-motion snowman. He's been in therapy for a while and is making progress, one frame at a time.
"I'm Mister Green Christmas, I'm Mister Sun. I'm Mister Heat Blister, I'm Mister Hundred and One. They call me Heat Miser, whatever I touch, starts to melt in my clutch. I'm too much!"…Heat Miser
"I'm Mister White Christmas, I'm Mister Snow. I'm Mister Icicle, I'm Mister Ten Below. Friends call me Snow Miser, whatever I touch, turns to snow in my clutch. I'm too much!"…Snow Miser
If you watched Christmas TV specials while you were growing up from the early '60s on, you likely saw a Rankin/Bass production whether you realized it or not. And whether they remember the show by its proper title The Year Without a Santa Claus or not, most people of the right generation will immediately remember the show's characters Heat Miser and his brother Snow Miser. I know that in my household, their individual theme songs were sung at length during last year's Christmas season.
I still remember scouring the TV guide as a child, looking for my favorite Christmas specials and circling them; before VHS and DVD releases, that was the only way to be sure you'd catch your televised Christmas treats. Along with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol that stars Alastair Sim as Scrooge, the Rankin/Bass stop-motion and traditional animated Christmas specials are on my "must see" list every year, adding their unique touches to my seasonal spirit and joy.
Rankin/Bass mastered a relatively simple concept: take a familiar Christmas carol, apply traditional or stop-motion animation, and you've got a memorable holiday presentation that will last for generations. I have a feeling that when Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass formed Videocraft International in the early '60s (that would later develop into Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc.), they had no idea that their company would one day create some of the best-loved seasonal television specials of all time. Although the 1974 production of The Year Without a Santa Claus doesn't strictly follow the carol-themed approach, it certainly does paint a memorable yuletide picture.
While preparing for this review, I was very surprised to discover that Rankin/Bass were also responsible for some other animated features like The Hobbit and The Return of the King; both productions were memorable for their use of early motion capture by animating over top of footage of real actors performing some of the roles. Although certainly not to the level of Peter Jackson's interpretations of J.R.R. Tolkien's works, these animated adaptations definitely have their own cult audiences.
The Year Without a Santa Claus is a bit like a Christmas-themed Twilight Zone episode; what if Santa woke up one Christmas Eve morning with a bad cold and just didn't feel like Christmas? Safe to say that a Christmas without Santa is every child's, and possibly many adults' worst nightmare. Largely narrated by Mrs. Claus, the story unfolds with Jingle Bells, Jangle Bells (two industrious elves) and Vixen setting out to find children who still believe in Christmas and the Christmas spirit. Throw in Heat Miser, Snow Miser and their mom Mother Nature, and you have a Rankin/Bass Christmas classic.
Warner Bros. first released The Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph's Shiny New Year and Nestor The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey on DVD in 2000. At the time, I was happy to have these treasures in DVD format, regardless of the quality of the presentation. The 2000 edition was definitely a bare-bones release, only allowing viewers to select the three features from the main menu and no additional features of any kind were included.
Like the previous release, The Year Without a Santa Claus: Deluxe Edition also includes Rudolph's Shiny New Year and Nestor The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, although they haven't been given the same restoration treatment that The Year Without a Santa Claus received. On that note, I watched the 2000 version as well as the "sparklingly remastered yuletide favorite" version (their words, not mine) and really couldn't see a remarkable difference. Colors were a little less muted and some but not all of the dirt and damage may have been cleaned up, but it wasn't so dramatic a change that my jaw dropped in shock. The audio mix is simple but crisp, largely focused in the center channel; it's nothing to write Santa about, but also nowhere near worthy of a lump of coal.
On the plus side, the extras make this title worthy of a double-dip and certainly very worthy of a first-time purchase. "We Are Santa's Elves: Profiling Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass" is just what you'd expect from the title, a brief historical featurette about the history of the company and the legacy of their productions. It's a treat to hear historians, voice actors and even Arthur Rankin, Jr. himself, talk about their personal experiences with the now-classic work. In the second featurette "Stop Motion 101," the Chiodo brothers, best known for their work on Killer Clowns From Outer Space, talk about the history and process behind creating stop motion animation. With references to the ground-breaking work of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, viewers are given a quick but insightful look at this unique art form, still being used today and featured in Tim Burton's relatively recent films Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. The Chiodo brothers also paid clear homage to the Rankin/Bass legacy with their own stop-motion work during the opening sequences of Elf.
There have been a few attempts to gather all the holiday classic TV specials into one DVD collection, but sadly, no one has managed to accomplish that feat so far. The Original Television Christmas Classics, released on DVD in 2006, was close, but didn't include all of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials or other classics like Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And this year's release of Christmas Television Favorites, didn't include Frosty the Snowman and some of the Rankin/Bass specials.
Maybe one day the studios will be able to line up their waterfowl and come up with one comprehensive release that will bring all the classics together. Until that happens, we can be thankful there are piecemeal DVD releases like The Year Without a Santa Claus: Deluxe Edition to capture the classics for those who fondly remember them from their childhood and look forward to sharing them with their own children.
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