Dec 19 2008 5:33pm

Supreme Holiday Weirdness: Rankin, Bass, and L. Frank Baum ask, Should We Just Let Santa Die Already?

Hearken unto me, little children. I grew up during the 1980s, when something called the Video Cassette Recorder was still the red hot, razor sharp, cutting-edge of technology. While it seems hard to believe nowadays, the bulky black rectangle, perched like a crude, mass-market facsimile of the Monolith from 2001 glowered ominously from the heights of our family entertainment center and was worshiped as a household god, which might be why my brother kept trying to feed it his Cheerios all the time (that did not end well). For me, the VCR was just a magical purveyor of Fraggle Rock and Cyndi Lauper videos; for my father, I now realize, it became a means of ruthlessly hunting down and capturing every single televised holiday special aired in the tri-state area between the late 70s and the mid-90s.

The amazing thing is that most of these tapes still survive to this day, having somehow escaped both the trauma of having soggy cereal dumped into the VCR and my manic Mystery Science Theater taping-sprees of yore (Hey! Joel said to keep circulating the tapes—if that meant recording a Gamera movie over some lesser sibling’s first baby steps, so be it. I have no regrets). The upshot of all this is that my siblings and I have had access to A LOT of really strange, Christmas-themed entertainment, and yet every year we return to one of our collective favorites: the 1985 Rankin/Bass adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus, also known as The World’s Most Bizarre Animated Christmas Special...EVER.

If you’re not familiar with Baum’s take on the Santa Claus legend, here’s the deal (get ready): Claus, a mortal infant, is found by the great Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, and raised by the immortals populating the magical Forest of Burzee, which include Fairies, Wood Nymphs, Gnomes, Elves, Imps, and (most awesomely) Wind Demons. His education includes a traumatizing jaunt through the human world, where he encounters war, poverty, child abuse and neglect, and general inhumanity, at which point Claus decides that he must venture forth from his charmed existence in order to bring some good into the depressing hellscape that is mortal life.

The rest of the book follows his transformation into the kindly, toy-dispensing Santa Claus we’re all familiar with, except in this version he has to fight the evil Awgwas (a sort of malevolent ogre/demon blend) with the help of all his wacky immortal buddies, culminating in an massive battle between the Great Ak and his minions and the forces of evil: Awgwas, Demons, Giants and, of course, Dragons. Because what Christmas story is complete without evil, Santa-hating dragons?

Even better than the random demon-and-dragon battle, though, is the fact that the entire story is framed by a plot device involving Claus’s impending death. The Rankin/Bass special begins with the Great Ak assembling a council of Immortals in order to decide whether Claus should be granted the Mantle of Immortality and continue bringing joy to the children of the world, OR whether they should, you know, just let him drop dead. Tonight. Got it, kids? Santa’s about to go to sleep AND NEVER WAKE UP. Yeah. Thanks, Rankin and Bass, for bringing the much-needed stench of death to the world of cheery holiday fun. Wow.

I really can’t describe how weird and amazing this special is, so all I can do is implore you to see for yourself, beginning with the clip below. Feel free to skip the first minute of the clip if you’re in some sort of weird hurry, but please, please, please check out the opening song, which combines creepy pseudo-Latin chanting with crazy puppet wind demons, and features catchy holiday lyrics like: “Ora e Sempre/ Today and Forever/ For ages and ages to come/ To the first cracking of Doom!!!” Not exactly “Frosty the Snowman,” is it? Doom? Wind demons? Chanting in Latin? These things alone should be enough to convince that you haven’t done Christmas right until you’ve done Christmas with L. Frank Frickin’ Baum (whose profound and awe-inspiring weirdness is overlooked far too often by the general population). This year, do yourself a favor and check out Baum’s book, the inspired Rankin/Bass production (which is as visually gorgeous as it is bizarrre), or some combination thereof; the holidays will never seem quite the same again...

Irene Gallo
1. Irene
The design on this is awesome.

Funny, I can pretty much trace all my current interests to things I loved by the time i was eight. I have no doubt that my love for animation, and stop motion in particular, traces back to watching these Rankin/Bass shows on TV. (Although I'm just enough older than you to have had to carefully rember air times. I have a clear memory of crying one year because I missed one.)
eric orchard
2. orchard
I didn't know about this! So cool! I love the look of it.
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger
I watched this just a few days ago. Of the two rankin-bass Santa origin stories, this is by far the more interesting and strange. (the other being "Santa Claus is Comin To Town" where there are no dragons, only Bugermeister Meisterberger, who, as villains go, is kinda shit.)
Eric Braddock
4. EricBraddock
This is so cool. Such strange stories came out of this period of time, I miss it.
Bridget McGovern
5. BMcGovern
@ Jason

True, but I like Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, too. The Winter Warlock is rad, and young Mrs. Claus is actually pretty sexy :) The Life & Adventures is also the only of the Rankin/Bass holiday specials that doesn't have a celebrity narrator, and just the whole feel of it makes it seem closer to the darker, weirder Rankin/Bass stuff--like The Last Unicorn--that I was obsessed with as a kid, way more than "Rudolph" or "Frosty." I really enjoy them all, but the darker stuff was always more interesting to me when I was younger...
Jason Henninger
6. jasonhenninger
@ Bridget

I like it too, and you're right about the young, svelte Mrs. Claus (the wedding scene is nice, too). Just in terms of villainy, Meisterberger isn't anything much.

Did you ever watch Mad Mad Monster Party? I love that.

(It's all up on youtube as well)
Heather Massey
7. sfrgalaxy
Bridget, you made my holiday season! I *love* this special. Loveitloveitloveit. I discovered it totally by accident one night a few years ago. I was so shocked and amazed I didn't stop talking about it for months. My favorite song is "Big Surprise" ("...a wooden cat with yellow-green eyes...").

I agree, this Rankin/Bass wonder is not to be missed.

I watched Santa Claus is Coming to Town with my daughter the other day (her first time!). The parts that never get old are the scenes with the amazing pupil dilation action. And when young Claus is flying backward through the air? Priceless.
Tara Chang
8. tlchang
Wow - I didn't even know this one existed (thought I was aware of all of the wonder of the Rankin/Bass library). I have the book, but looking at this snippet, I suspect I have never read it either.

Must remedy!
9. Pop-Monkey
Good grief! You just unlocked a long buried-and-forgotten memory from my childhood! I remember watching this on TV as a kid and loving it as it was so different from some of the other traditional Christmas specials of the time. They don't make 'em like this anymore, do they?

Pray tell, what other dormant memories of mine might you be able to resurrect with some of your video tape treasures?
Bridget McGovern
10. BMcGovern
@ Everybody

I'm so glad you all liked this so much! I started typing up a list of other overlooked weirdo Christmas gems, but I think it will work better as a separate post, so I'll try to get that up quickly, in case the usual holiday entertainment is starting to wear on anybody's nerves :)

In the meantime, happy holidays! I hope none of you get terrorized by dragons in the next week. Watch the skies...
David Lev
11. davidlev
never seen this, but I did read the book when I was a kid, and I think that there was also (much later) and animated adaptation that I remember seeing on Cartoon Network once. I am interested in checking this out tho
Bridget McGovern
12. BMcGovern
@ davidlev #11

Yes! There's a version made in 2000 that I've never seen, but includes voice talent from Dixie Carter and Hal Holbrook, so I can only imagine there's some awesome "Designing Women" meets Santa crossover vibes going on :) Apparently Brian Froud did design work on this adaptation, so I definitely would love to check it out. Thanks for the reminder!

Also, if anyone's interested, there's a Mike Ploog graphic novel based on Baum's original book, which I can only assume is pretty cool...
Paul Henning
13. henningish
Yet another reason not to have grown up in Britain in the 80s. I don't think we ever got this.
Michael McGovern
14. mikemcg
This one had me cracking up, for reals. Once I buried the newly resurfaced shame of the Cheerios incident, of course. (Just wait till I get my own fancy blog thingy and tell all about THE SUGAR BOWL!) Anyway, I just wanted to comment on the brilliant socioeconomic commentary regarding the turnip stealing serf and his obese feudal lord. And the severe beating of the Japanese child. Oh yeah, and the knight who bashes the other knight to death with a mace. Those pansy-ass execs over at ABC Family need to take a break from "A Miser Brothers Christmas" and blow some minds with this shit.
15. Pendras
no wonder i like dark music and latin. look what i was cheeering for as a kid XD it all makes since now!!

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment