Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) – a Rankin/Bass Production – Starring Burl Ives, Billie Mae Richards, Paul Soles, Janice Orenstein, Larry D. Mann, and Paul Kligman.
RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER is my favorite of all the Rankin-Bass productions.
There is something both heartbreaking and heartwarming about Rudolph, Hermey, and the whole Island of Misfit Toys being shunned and then embraced by the Christmastown society and their Grand Dictator-in-Suspenders, Santa Claus.
At it’s core, RUDOLPH is about misfits finding their place in a culture that derides them for what makes them different. For Rudolph, it’s his enormous red nose that glows brightly and loudly. His father, Donner, is aghast at his son’s physical oddity, and instantly insists that this “defect” needs to be hidden from sight, lest shame come down hard on him and the family. You might think, as I did, that Donner is overreacting a bit to his son’s nose; while it’s not typical, a glowing red nose is hardly going to prevent him from one day pulling Santa’s sleigh, which is the only job the male reindeer in Christmastown want any part of having. It’s not like Rudy is born with a gimp leg, a crooked spine, or suffer from Missing Eyeballs Disease. (I forget the technical term, but, you know, it’s the one with the missing eyeballs.) There’s nothing about Rudolph’s nose that’s anything more than cosmetic, and as we all know, it’s pretty god durn hard for anyone to catch a close-up view of Santa and his sleigh.
But Santa, apparently more concerned with living up to his postcard image, lets Donner know right from the start that Rudolph’s red nose makes him ineligible to ever be part of the A-team. Santa shows up to see the newborn Rudy, and graces the Donner cave with all the forced jocularity of Regis Philbin hosting a local Arbor Day parade. “Ho, ho, ho! Well, Donner, where’s the new member of the family?” he guffaws. “After all, if he’s going to be on my team some day, he’d better get to know me.” Notice that Santa’s only real concern is imprinting his own self-importance onto Rudolph – it’s his way of keeping Christmastown in line, I suppose.
“Well, hi there,” Santa greets the baby Rudolph, “aren’t you the sturdy little fellow? Ho ho ho!” Again, Santa’s only interest in Rudolph is in what Rudolph can do for him, and he does so with all the tact of an NFL player personnel director at a scouting combine. “San-ta,” Rudy baby talks up at the surprisingly skinny-in-the-offseason Santa. “And smart, too!” Santa says before Rudolph’s red nose starts to glow.
Santa is completely taken aback by this genetic oddity. “Great bouncing icebergs!” he exclaims, and Donner quickly steps in to assure Santa that his son will grow out of this condition.
“Well let’s hope so,” Santa declares, “if he wants to make the sleigh team some day.” Santa then explains to Rudolph how every year he “shines up my jungle bells for eight lucky reindeer,” and sings a song about how he’s the “King of Jing-a-ling,” and then leaves. Santa’s song is all about the performance of the reindeer, not their physical appearance, but the message is still clear – no genetic freaks are going to be on the Jolly Man’s sleigh team.
Donner forces Rudolph to blacken his nose and poor little newborn Rudy is so desperate for his father’s affection that he takes it. Who can blame him? He’s just been born and his father and the community leader has just told him that he’s not good enough for a job he has to want because there is no other destiny for reindeer at the North Pole.
After growing up a bit, Donner comes up with a more permanent fake nose for Rudolph to wear. Now older, Rudy is starting to assert his independence. “Oh daddy, I don’t wanna! It’s not very comfortable!”
“There are more important things than comfort,” Donner insists. “Self respect. Santa can’t object to you now.” Donner, like most of the citizens of Christmastown, gain their own sense of self from their ability to please and serve Santa Claus; there is no individuality at the North Pole, just parts to play in Santa’s great machine. “Why am I such a misfit?” a sad Rudolph sings to himself as he wanders outside into the snow.
While Rudloph’s place in the community is determined by the genetic spin of the wheel, Hermey the elf’s status as a misfit is determined by his desire to be a dentist. “Elves make toys!” his boss insists, but Hermey has no interest in the prescribed life. When the Head Elf debuts his new song for Santa, Hermey is a no-show. The real force of the scene is how miserable Santa is at having to listen to what he clearly thinks is a horrible song, and his impatience at getting to the Reindeer Games to evaluate the new talent.
At the Reindeer Games, Rudolph makes a big impression with Clarice, a faun who’s instantly attracted to him. When her and Rudy make their instant crush connection, Clarice tells Rudy that she bets he’ll be the best, and that she finds him cute. At this verbal encouragement, Rudolph leaps high and far into the air, easily proving himself to be the best young buck at the games. Even Santa is impressed, but all Rudolph cares about is that Clarice thinks he’s cute. In the celebration, his fake nose comes off and his red, glowing nose returns. All of the other young reindeer bust Rudolph’s chops, teasing him mercilessly, but it’s the North Pole Godfather who proves himself the biggest assh*le of the bunch.
“Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself!” Santa lambasts the embarrassed father. “What a pity! He had a nice take-off, too.”
As Rudolph sulks off, only Clarice stands by his side. She follows him, reminding him that he promised to walk her home. Rudolph is full of self-pity as his “great shame” has been revealed; since no one has ever convinced him that it’s okay to have a red nose, he can’t believe that Clarice is okay with it. “Being unique is what makes it special,” she insists, before launching into a hopeful song about how “there’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true.” It’s such a beautiful moment between the two young reindeer, and Clarice proves herself to be the real moral center of this story, and one of the great girlfriends of all-time. Sure, her interest in Rudy is predicated on his being cute, but she thought him cute before his red nose was revealed and stands by him afterwards, as well.
After Clarice’s dad orders her home, Rudolph has a chance meeting with Hermey, who’s running away. The two become instant friends, bonding over how “we’re a couple of misfits.” While the song isn’t the most catchy number Rankin-Bass let out the doors, it contains a wonderful message about deciding for yourself what’s right for you. The two new friends leave Christmastown behind, have a close encounter with the Abominable Snow Monster, and run into Yukon Cornelius, a prospector who’s searching for gold and silver out on the ice. Cornelius provides much of the comic relief of the story, as his loud, bombastic manner infuses the special with the levity it needs to balance off the more somber plot of rejection and acceptance. “This fog is as thick as peanut butter!” he yells.
“You mean pea soup,” Hermey corrects him.
“You eat what you like and I’ll eat what I like!” Cornelius insists.
Once Cornelius and the Snow Monster come in, RUDOLPH becomes an adventure narrative. They run away on an iceberg and end up at the Island of Misfit Toys, a place where discarded toys have come to wait out their existence. The toys sing a really depressing song about how they “want to travel with Santa Claus in his magical sleigh,” but that right old bastard never comes for them. I love these toys: Charlie-in-the-Box (instead of Jack), a spotted elephant, a bird that swims instead of flies, a boat that can’t stay afloat, a cowboy that rides an ostrich, a train with square wheels on his caboose, and so on. The one toy that doesn’t seem to be a misfit is a girl’s doll. She seems normal, suggesting that one’s status as a “misfit” isn’t solely determined by physical characteristics.
Rudolph and Hermey want to stay, but King Moonracer (a winged lion) tells them they can’t stay here. “Unlike toys, living beings can’t hide away on an island,” he insists. He allows them to spend the night, but that’s it, though he does have the gall to ask for their help in bringing Santa to the island to help the misfit toys find a home. The companions argue about sticking together, as Rudolph feels bad about his glowing red nose attracting the Snow Monster. Hermey is adamant they’ll all leave together, but Rudolph runs away in the middle of the night, refusing to let his condition put his friends’ lives at risk. On his own, running from Abominable, Rudolph grows up, eventually realizing that he can’t run away from his problems, so he returns home to find an empty cave.
After Rudolph and Hermey ran away, Donner finally realized what he’s done and decides to go out looking for Rudolph. While it takes Donner longer than it should to embrace his true role as a father, the fact that he gets there at all is a nice bit of character development. The special doesn’t emphasize the love between father and son, favoring instead the idea that sons are created to meet the expectations of the dad, but once Rudy runs away, Donner does realize things have gone too far. Of course, he trades in his bad parenting hat for his sexist hat as he insists to Rudolph’s mom that this is “man’s work.”
Luckily, Rudolph’s mom (they refer to her as “Mrs. Donner”) and Clarice aren’t having any of his paternalistic bullsh*t, and go off searching for Rudolph on their own. Clarice is the driving force here, as Mrs. Donner did as her husband asked and stayed in the cave, only coming out when Clarice compels her to go with her. Unfortunately, the way this scene is shot robs Clarice of her big moment as the narrator (Burl Ives) explains this scene to us instead of just letting it happen, but the drive of this brave little doe is still clearly in evidence.
When Rudolph comes home to find the empty cave, Santa is quick on his heels, telling the now antler-sprouting buck that his parents and Clarice have been gone for months looking for him. Santa is worried – not so worried that he tried to look for Rudolph and Hermey because it’s not like he owns a magical sleigh that can fly across the freaking planet in one night or anything – but once again his concern is reserved mostly for himself. First, King Jing-a-ling tells the returned son that “They’ve been out looking for you,” making sure Rudy knows it’s his fault they’re missing.
“Clarice, too?” Rudolph asks.
“Yes, and I’m very worried,” Santa insists. Worried about Clarice? Hell no. Santa is worried about himself. “Christmas Eve is only two days off and without your father I’ll never be able to get my sleigh off the ground!”
Now, Santa has responsibilities to the children of the world, of course, so I do have a bit of sympathy for his plight, but it has to be remembered that this is a self-induced plight. It was his attitude towards Rudolph’s genetic oddity that set the tone for Christmastown’s mocking rejection of the child, and he seemingly hasn’t done anything to search for Donner while he was out being an actual dad.
The adventure plot comes to a head when Cornelius and Hermey defeat the Snow Monster (the prospector by dropping a chunk of snow on his head and Hermey removing all the Snow Monster’s teeth), and everyone reconvenes back in Christmastown. Cornelius even befriends “Bumble” after he and the Snow Monster go tumbling off a cliff together.
The rest of the group returns to Christmastown and tells their story, and we hear from Sam Snowman’s narration that everyone starts to realize that “maybe they were a little hard on the misfits, and that maybe misfits have a place, too. Even Santa,” Sam continues, “realizes that maybe he was wrong, too.” Santa apologizes to Rudolph, but because Rudolph is such a great guy, he was telling Santa about the Island of Misfit Toys and so Santa’s “apology” comes in the form of promising to find homes for the toys, and not in being such a big dick to Baby Rudolph.
Christmastown is hit with the Storm of the Century and Santa decides “we’ll have to cancel Christmas,” when he really means “I’ll have to cancel Christmas.” Santa goes to tell the community that “Christmas is going to be cancelled” and “there’s nothing I can do,” always passing the buck. Just then Rudolph’s nose starts to glow and Santa realizes that the reindeer’s now “wonderful nose” can cut through even the strongest storms, so he tells Rudolph that he’s going to lead Santa’s sleigh team.
Now, it would have been nice to see Rudolph tell Santa to go pound mistletoe, but that wasn’t going to happen. Rudolph agrees to lead the sleigh team and saves Christmas. It’s telling that Santa never really apologizes to Santa, because Santa never gets away from his true role of King Jing-a-ling, where everyone bends their will to serve him. At least Santa saves the Misfit Toys; even if he never really accepts Rudolph until he realizes he can exploit Rudolph’s genetic oddity for his own benefit, the overall message of the special is that everyone does have a place in society, no matter if they’re a misfit or not.
And that’s a good message.
As I said back at the start, this is my favorite Rankin-Bass special, thanks mostly to the wonderful characters and their journey to finding their place – though one can’t overlook the kindness (or singing talent) of Burl Ives’ narration as Sam Snowman. Rudolph, Hermey (he gets to open a dentistry practice), Cornelius (he strikes a peppermint mine), the vibrant Misfit Toys, and the amazing Clarice propel this story forward, creating a touching ode to friendship, love, and belonging. RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER is a perfect Christmas story, blessing us with one of the greatest children’s characters of all-time.
Be sure to check out the Holiday Review Index for all the Holiday-themed reviews to be found at Atomic Anxiety.
Jurgen the Gorilla. Throne the Lion. Bronze the Golden Eagle. Ray the Brown Bear. Bottle the Dolphin. Dev the Lynxwoman. 3 the Triceratops. Ptera the Pterodactyl.
These eight stuffed animals make up the Return Squadron. For seven months they have worked together to return disconnected stuffed animals home. But now … on their final mission, the Return Squadron seek to steal the legendary Map of Everything.
Before Christmas morning arrives, three of the Squadron will turn traitor, four will be stranded, and one will never see another Christmas.