Chilly. Warner Bros. has released Jack Frost: Remastered Deluxe Edition, the "Animagic" Rankin/Bass Groundhog's Day effort from 1979 that's been knocking around in various public domain copies for years now. Unlike some recent Rankin/Bass "Deluxe Editions" releases, Jack Frost: Remastered Deluxe Edition isn't very "deluxe." The picture has been cleaned up quite a bit, but the extras are paltry for this relatively obscure title from the Rankin/Bass studios (and significantly, there's no featurette on the making of the film, as there have been for the true R/B "classics").
Jack Frost short opens with groundhog Pardon-Me-Pete (the voice of Buddy Hackett) explaining why he always sees a shadow, even if the sun isn't out, on Groundhog's Day. He has an arrangement with the invisible winter sprite, Jack Frost (the voice of Robert Morse), who gives Pete a magical shadow in exchange for Pete getting an extra six weeks to hibernate. But how did this arrangement come about? As the story flashes back, we discover that Jack, hearing the pretty Elisa (the voice of Debra Clinger) saying one day that she "loves" Jack Frost (meaning "winter"), falls immediately in love with her and asks Father Winter (the voice of Paul Frees) if he can become human. Father Winter reluctantly agrees, and gives Jack the opportunity to return to earth and make a go of it: but only if he secures a house, a horse, a bag of gold and a wife by the arrival of Spring. Only then can he remain human forever. Otherwise, it's back to being a sprite.
Meanwhile, the citizens of January Junction are experiencing tough times (welcome to the club, Junctionites!). They're a happy lot of peasants, who although they don't have a lot of money, wait for winter to come when they can cut up icicles and pretend that their "ice coins" have real value - just like those faulty Democrat-mandated sub-prime housing loans (come on...it's election season!). And what little money they have during warmer months, is often taken by Kubla Kraus (the voice of Paul Frees, again), a mean-spirited Cossack king who rides a mechanical iron horse, Klangstomper, and who has similar mechanical friends, such as his ventriloquist dummy, Dommy (although he's spelled out in the subtitles as "Dummy"), because nobody human wants to be around him. One day, when he catches sight of Elisa, he declares he'll have her for his queen, which set into motion a series of events that finds Jack and his friends Snip (the voice of Don Messick) and Holly Holiday (the voice of Dee Stratton) in deep trouble with Kubla Kraus.
I've written before about the Rankin/Bass classics, and having watched these shorts for almost four decades now, what I find most ironic about them is the fact that, as the years wore on during their heyday (mid-60s to late 70s), and as the producers became more adept at utilizing the celebrated "Animagic" stop-motion process, the films became less satisfying, less memorable. From the stop-motion animation stand-point, Jack Frost is far more accomplished technically than R/B's first breakout hit, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but that growing expertise is in service of an overly-familiar R/B structure fleshed out with a central story that quite frankly, has little appeal outside of a one-shot curiosity factor for little kids. Jack Frost is hardly the stuff of year-after-year repeat holiday viewing.
It's bad enough that R/B, by this point in their careers, were running out of holidays to mythologize (with the popular ones starting to get revisited again); after all; what kid gets excited by Jack Frost's Groundhog's Day? Equally off-putting was the studio's reliance on reusing familiar sets (such as the January Junction town set, which is the same one from Santa Clause is Comin' To Town), their reworking of the same villains and anonymous heroines (Kubla Kraus is just Burgermeister Meisterburger with a beard - right down to Paul Frees' unchanged vocal characterization, while Elisa is just another in the R/B line of interchangeable girls for these stories), and even the recycling of some of their music cues (you can hear a distinctive Here Comes Peter Cottontail cue throughout the beginning of Jack Frost). Kids in particular don't mind repetition, but by the time of Jack Frost, "repetition" was rapidly being replaced by "rubber stamping" in the Rankin/Bass world.
All of which could probably have been forgiven in Jack Frost if the songs - the absolute key to the success of the best of the R/B "classics" - had been even half-way decent. Unfortunately, Jack Frost's songs are barely memorable and frequently down-right awful, showing almost none of the magic that we've come to expect from lyricist Jules Bass and R/B house composer Maury Laws (Hackett's final song, about Groundhog's Day, is truly a trainwreck). And no singer, no matter how accomplished, can easily put over a terrible song. Robert Morse, the veteran Broadway singer and actor, appears game enough with his songs, but that distinctive Morse warble seems to suggest drowning rather than elation with the tacky tunes he's saddle with here. As for Hackett...I'm reminded of a film critic who famously described Lee Marvin's vocalizing in Paint Your Wagon as a thunderstorm rattling down a rusty drainpipe. Hackett is woefully miscast here as the uninteresting Pardon-Me-Pete; if he's not desperately out of tune, he's delivering flat jokes with uncharacteristically poor timing.
And so without good songs, you're stuck in Jack Frost with a story that never really jells. I'm not sure if R/B house screenwriter Romeo Muller ever had a handle on how to connect the mythical sprite Jack Frost with "pumpkin peasants," mechanical creatures, Groundhog's Day, "Father Winter," and Cossacks (???), but it certainly fails to materialize as a cohesive whole in Jack Frost. Too many elements, with too little solid motivational background, are floating around in the film, creating a big disconnect for the adult viewer (not helped, either, by the "bait-and-switch" feel we get when we think we're getting a Christmasy "holiday" film - when Jack Frost turns out celebrating Groundhog's Day). Jack in particular is an elusive character - not the best course for a film's lead - and without someone for the viewer to become involved with emotionally, we're stuck with trying to figure out why the background is filled out with characters briefly introduced, and then dropped altogether (the Sleet Sisters and Hail Fellow in particular, while actual supporting characters Snip and Holly only show up occasionally, to little effect). Everything is...off in Jack Frost, a chilly little Rankin/Bass effort that has deservedly remained obscure.
Warner Bros. has delivered a nearly faultless full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for Jack Frost: Remastered Deluxe Edition, beating by a mile the faded, grainy public domain copies that I've seen in the past. Colors are beautifully restored to their cool winter whites and soft pastels, while the image clarity is quite sharp. Brightness levels are perky, while no compression issues manifested themselves - as well they shouldn't at just a mere 49 minutes running time.
The Dolby Digital English audio track for the Jack Frost: Remastered Deluxe Edition is big, fat mono, which is exactly how the film went out to all those 19-inch tube TVs back in 1979. All dialogue is crisply rendered, with very little background hiss to be heard on the track. English subtitles and close-captions are available for the feature film.
They got the "Remastered" part right in the Jack Frost: Remastered Deluxe Edition title, but "Deluxe?" Unh-unh. There's actually a fun live-action bonus, Totally Cool Crafty Creations (8:39) hosted by "Flaky" (the actress isn't credited anywhere on the disc), where she tells your child how to make three holiday-themed crafts: a snow globe, fake snow, and a paper cut-out snowflake. An unusual bonus for this type of disc - and a nice one - but there's no getting away from the fact that no one at Warners could either justify the extra money or entice anyone to speak about the making of Jack Frost - something at the very least that you would expect for a "Remastered Deluxe Edition." A sing-along option is also included for three of the songs here, but honest to god, who the hell would want to sing along to this junk?
A chilly little Rankin/Bass obscurity I couldn't warm up to at all. Jack Frost: Remastered Deluxe Edition looks very good in its newly-scrubbed transfer, but the bonuses are paltry to say the least, and really - it's not a very good example of the Rankin/Bass artistry. The songs are dreadful and the vocal characterizations are either spotty or overly familiar (along with the puppet designs, the music cues, and the sets). This has to be for die-hard fans of this specific title only. Fans in general of the Rankin/Bass studio, or Groundhog's Day fanatics might rent if they haven't seen it. But everyone else can safely skip it.
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.