Warner Bros. has released as a stand-alone disc, The Year Without a Santa Claus: Deluxe Edition, which in addition to the 1974 classic includes the 1976 gem, Rudolph's Shiny New Year and 1977's sad little Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. These three Rankin/Bass classics have appeared together on a DVD before, but The Year Without a Santa Claus: Deluxe Edition includes two short bonus featurettes that may convince fans to double-dip on this one.
I suppose for most Rankin/Bass fans, these three titles from the famed stop-motion studio will seem like "also-rans" in comparisons to their "animagic" giants like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. These shorts were produced several years after that first wave of Rankin/Bass holiday-themed specials became perennial TV classics, not achieving the same kind of impact that their predecessors have enjoyed for decades. Maybe that's because the earlier shorts seem so complete in summing up the traditional holiday pastime (now probably seriously eroded due to new media and technology) of gathering the family together around the tube to watch Christmas-themed TV specials. If you know that the original Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer is going to be on TV every year, why bother with the sequel that celebrates the post-Christmas let-down, New Years?
Certainly among the three shorts gathered here, The Year Without Santa Clause is best remembered today (it even inspired an execrable live-action remake last year), with its two main supporting characters, Heat Miser and Snow Miser, becoming genuine icons of young children's Christmas memories. As I'm sure you remember, in The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa (voice of Mickey Rooney) wakes up one morning with a cold, and after listening to his crotchety doctor, agrees that there's no longer any Christmas spirit, and decides to cancel the holiday. After tucking the depressed Santa back into bed, Mrs. Claus (voice of Shirley Booth) instructs elves Jingle and Jangle (voices of Bob McFadden and Bradley Bolke) to travel to Southtown, U.S.A. to try and find some evidence of Christmas spirit to bring back, to convince Santa he's still loved and needed. Baby reindeer Vixen is called into service to ferry them down south.
Mrs. Claus spills the beans to Santa about her plan, and he immediately sets off to rescue the group, knowing that the Heat Miser and Snow Miser (voices of George S. Irving and Dick Shawn), who guard the way back between the North Pole and the rest of the world, can be formidable obstacles. Down in Dixie, the trio run into trouble. The children don't believe in Santa any longer, and Vixen is locked up in the dog pound. It's up to Santa to rescue Vixen, and it's up to Mrs. Claus to persuade Mother Nature (voice of Rhoda Mann) to convince her two quarreling boys to let it snow in Southtown, while having a nice spring day at the North Pole (why, you may ask? Well...watch and find out).
The Year Without a Santa Claus always seemed like a near-miss Rankin/Bass effort to me. Based in part on the celebrated short story by Phyllis McGinley, The Year Without a Santa Claus has all the ingredients of the traditional Rankin/Bass holiday special: clever, sweet songs, charming stop-motion "animagic" animation, a simple, clear storyline, and some top-flight voice work from veteran pros. It all comes together quite well, but somehow I always feel that the center is diffused by too many characters going off on their own missions. Santa comes to Southtown; Mrs. Claus visits the Miser Brothers and Mother Nature, Jingle and Jangle travel also to Southtown, and non-believer Ignatius (voice of Colin Duffy) follows them all around. It's not that any of the individual parts don't work; it just never feels like a single, whole, contained piece. Perhaps that's why the Miser Brothers are so well remembered from the show, but the remaining characters and story elements, as well as the title song, aren't. Still, The Year Without a Santa Claus is entertaining, with a sweet story that young children still respond to over thirty years after its original broadcast.
For Rudolph's Shiny New Year, Red Skelton is heard as old Father Time, who sends a message to Santa (voice of Paul Frees) that the Baby New Year is missing. Santa, seeing how dark and snowy and foggy it is outside, decides that Rudolph (voice of Billie Mae Richards) is the only one who can go to Father Time, and find out how to track down Baby New Year. Clued in by Father Time that the Baby New Year ran away because everyone was laughing at his enormous ears, Rudolph goes to the Archipelago of Last Years to find the runaway, aided by various friends including knight Sir Ten-to-Three (voice of Frank Gorshin), caveman One Million (voice of Morey Amsterdam), "Big" Ben Franklin (voice of Harold Peaky), and General Ticker (voice of Paul Frees). But can the group get past the evil Eon (voice of Paul Frees), the vicious buzzard who hopes to live forever by kidnaping the Baby New Year?
Much like the similarly structured Here Comes Peter Cottontail, Rudolph's Shiny New Year relies on the lead character, Rudolph (cannily worked into this non-Christmas story), going on a journey through time to correct an upcoming event. It may champion a holiday that doesn't mean much to young children ("Um...no presents? I'll pass."), but Rudolph's Shiny New Year is suitably low-level surreal to keep your interest through its running time, even if some of the songs are too depressingly morbid and contemplative (Turn Back the Years) for a fun, upbeat holiday "animagic" special.
Speaking of depressing, don't let your kids watch Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey if they cried during Bambi or Dumbo. Telling the story of the little donkey who carried Mary to Bethlehem, Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey starts out marvelously, with the dolefully-voiced Roger Miller perfectly suited to voicing Speiltoe, Santa's donkey (yes - Santa has a donkey, apparently). Recounting his ancestor Nestor's part in the Nativity scene, Speiltoe flashes us back to those ancient times when Nestor was the butt of jokes in Olaf the donkey breeder's stable. Evidently, Nestor's extra-long ears puts him in company with Rudolph's shiny nose and Baby New Year's huge ears, engendering the mocking cruelty of his fellow animals.
When the rest of the donkey's are taken away by Roman soldiers, Nestor is thrown out of the stables in a snowstorm, with his mother escaping to help him. She shields him through snowstorm, but dies of exposure the next morning, leaving little Nestor all alone. A cherub named Tilly (Brenda Vaccaro) inspires Nestor to follow a star, informing Nestor that his life is meant for a very special purpose. Soon, Nestor is chosen by Mary and Joseph to carry her to Bethlehem, and Nestor becomes a hero to the other animals.
Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is a fairly violent little Rankin/Bass production (watch how many times Nestor gets tossed around by Olaf), and a rather sad one, too, with the death of Nestor's mother a big downer for kids who just wanted to see some puppets walking around. Miller is particularly funny in the opening scenes, shaking his head and rolling his eyes when he mournfully intones, "But you know them elves," when he's describing how they won't fix the donkey toy in the stable manager set-up. It's a speedy entry, running only about 23 minutes, but with so many elements lifted from other stories, along with the sometimes downbeat story elements, it's not surprising that Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is one of the less popular Rankin/Bass Christmas offerings.
The back cover of The Year Without a Santa Claus: Deluxe Edition says, "A sparklingly remastered Yuletide favorite," but in side-by-side comparisons with my old 2000 DVD release of these titles, I saw absolutely no difference in color, image clarity, or evidence of any digital clean-up of screen anomalies. The films do look very good, though, with bold, true color values and no compression issues to speak of.
And no, they didn't create a new stereo mix, either. The Dolby Digital English mono audio mix accurately recreates the original broadcast presentation. English subtitles are available.
Two new featurettes are included here on the The Year Without a Santa Claus: Deluxe Edition disc. First up is a 16:27 minute documentary, We Are Santa's Elves, which gives a brief, affectionate look at the Rankin/Bass producers and their work. Interviewees include historian Rick Goldschmidt, artists Don Duga and Paul Coker, Jr., actors Rhoda Mann and Bradley Bolke, composer Maury Laws, and Arthur Rankin, Jr. himself. Next, we have Stop Motion 101, which features legend Ray Harryhausen (who never specifically refers to the Rankin/Bass productions being discussed) and effects artists Charles, Stephen, and Edward Chiodo, who give some info on the "animagic" process. It runs 9:32, and there's not much in it that the average movie fan doesn't already know about stop-motion.
With a disc like The Year Without a Santa Claus: Deluxe Edition, the main info I can convey is whether or not a double-dip is necessary. If you're a Rankin/Bass fanatic, I imagine you won't want to be without the two short documentaries that are included here. If you already have these three titles on disc, and you're looking to upgrade to a possibly remastered version, forget it -- these are the same transfers as the 2000 release. But if you're totally new to these treasured TV classics, I highly recommend you purchase The Year Without a Santa Claus: Deluxe Edition. So, figure out where you fall within those categories, and buy/rent/skip accordingly.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography .