Rankin & Bass’s Best Stop-Motion Specials

If you watched Christmas movies on TV as a kid, you probably have fond memories of the claymation specials – maybe Rudolph the red nosed reindeer was your favorite, or maybe Santa is coming to town. But you might not have realized that all of these beloved classics were made and produced by the same creative team. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass first went into business shortly after WWII, just as television was becoming a mass medium, and their collaboration resulted in many of America’s most beloved Christmas programs.

“To this day, I find it incredible that these programs, which were rather simple, have lasted in the market”, Bass Recount that of Toronto National post in 2006. Today, Rankin-Bass promotions are both nostalgic – distinct mid-20th century products – and timeless. Like Rankin explained in a 2005 interview for the US Television Archives, “In all of our footage, we had an antagonist who becomes the good guy … and the underdog fulfills his quest.” It is a long lasting bow and especially comforting during the holidays. No wonder these promotions have stood the test of time.

Below, the best of Rankin and Bass’s plasticine Christmas movies, plus a bonus entry.


Rudolph the red nosed reindeer (1964)


Rankin and Bass’s first Christmas special is still the most enduring and popular. Based on Robert L. May’s 1939 short story of the same title (originally written on behalf of the Montgomery Ward department store), Rudolph the red nosed reindeer tells the story of Rudolph, a young reindeer whose shiny red nose makes him a social outcast. Of course, this very characteristic ultimately helps the underdog save Christmas. Folk actor and singer Burl Ives voiced Snowman Sam, the narrator of the special; celebrity appearances would become a hallmark of Rankin and Bass productions.


The little drummer (1968)


The team’s next big special was based on a song instead of a commercial, and it took a more serious and religious approach than Rudolph – or most of their later work – did. The story follows the serious young orphan Aaron and his animal friends, who meet the Magi on the way to Bethlehem. Aaron and his companions also go there and finally meet the baby Jesus. 1940s Hollywood star Greer Garson voiced the narrator, while Puerto Rican star (and George Clooney’s uncle) José Ferrer played the special’s villain.


Santa is coming to town (1970)


Rankin and Bass returned to secular entertainment with Santa is coming to town, a cheerfully strange origin story for Kris Kringle, that is, Santa Claus. In the film, Kris finds himself caught up in the antics of two childish and unhappy creatures: the frozen and lonely Winter Warlock and the Burgermeister Meisterburger (yes, that’s his name), the latter attempting to ban all toys in town. , until Kris infects him with the Christmas spirit. The wacky energy of this film makes it one of Rankin and Bass’s best, as do the vocal talents of Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire.


The year without Santa (1974)

Warner Bros.

The team continued to explore the myth of Santa Claus with their upcoming film. This special places Mrs Claus, exceptionally, in a leading role: after her husband catches a cold and decides to take a break from his duties, she must step in and find a way to save Christmas. Although this is not a sequel to Santa is coming to town, Mickey Rooney again voices Santa Klaus (otherwise known as Kris Kringle), and the film stages a similar conflict between territorial Snow Miser and Heat Miser, who control the weather – an inadvertent allegory, in 2021, for climate change.


Jack frost (1979)

Warner Bros.

As they approached the final years of their partnership, Rankin and Bass’s production grew more and more bizarre. Concrete example : Jack frost, a movie about an ice pixie who can’t be with his true love because he can’t stay human long enough. The special is influenced by literary tales such as the myth of Hades and Persephone, but don’t be fooled by this pedigree: it is a truly strange work. The narrator is a groundhog; love interest is kidnapped; and the villain’s sidekicks are all made of iron – real humans couldn’t stand it – and have names like Klangstomper and Fetch-Kvetch.


The life and adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

Warner Bros.

But it didn’t end with Jack frost. According to Ryan Anielski at IndieWire, The life and adventures of Santa Claus “By far the most screwed-up Rankin-Bass special ever.” That alone would make it remarkable, but it also happens to be the last stop-motion film the duo produced together. This account of Santa’s life, including his childhood, deviates even further from traditional stories: in this special, Santa is raised by a wild lioness and a woodland nymph, and works to protect both the nature and humans nearby. The special tells the story of Santa Claus’s life, while also showing advice from immortal beings deciding to grant him immortality while lying on his deathbed. This might not be special to turn on if you have kids in your life and want to keep them entertained – but it’s a surreal journey, the kind of art that can only be achieved by established directors with incredible levels of creative freedom.


The nightmare before Christmas (1993)

Walt disney studios

Finally, a non-Rankin-Bass entry: the beloved of Tim Burton The nightmare before Christmas. Although the style of the film is very different from the kitsch aesthetic of Rankin and Bass, Burton was undeniably influenced by their work. He said to Los Angeles Times that he loved specials as a kid, and even named a character in his movie Frankenweenie, M. Burgermeister, after the character of Santa is coming to town. This ever-popular feature, which takes many elements of classic Christmas promotions and gives them a Gothic twist, exemplifies the enduring legacy of Rankin and Bass’s cultural influence and art.

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