A genuine Christmas classic, this was the first of several popular stop-motion animated holiday specials from producers Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass that implanted themselves upon generations of young minds, including several budding filmmakers. Subsequently, traces of Rudolph’s quirky influence can be found in the likes of Toy Story (1996) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
Inspired by the famous, yuletide novelty tune, this has friendly Sam the Snowman (voiced by and styled to resemble Burl Ives) narrate the tale of a forlorn, baby reindeer (Billie May Richards) born with a very shiny nose. You could even say it glows. His papa, Donner, proud leader of Santa’s sleigh team, is mortified and tries to hide the offending appendage behind a crude fake nose. At flying practice, Rudolph dazzles the other bucks with his high-flying aerial acrobatics, and wins the heart of a comely young doe called Clarice (Janet Orenstein), but sure enough his fake nose falls off. All of the other reindeer laugh and call him names and the coach declares henceforth, they’ll never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games. Worse, Clarice’s father forbids her from ever seeing him again.
Meanwhile, over in Santa’s workshop, the elves are busy making toys for children, but a hapless little elf called Hermey (Paul Soles) can’t help making mistakes, like building a truck with square wheels. In fact, none of his toys are any good and that is because young Hermey - to the horror of every elf in town - doesn’t want to make toys. He wants to become a dentist! That little announcement is enough to get him kicked out of the North Pole, whereupon he befriends lonely, little Rudolph. Resigned to being a couple of misfits, Rudolph and Hermey set off to find their own path in life, and are swiftly joined by the larger than life, heroic, prospector Yukon Cornelius (Larry D. Mann) and his team of brave sledge dogs. After a memorable stopover at the Island of Misfit Toys and a hair-raising encounter with the dreaded Abominable Snowman, it falls to Rudolph to prove that even a misfit can make a difference on Christmas Eve.
For those who did not grow up watching this every year, the story might sound cloying and insufferably twee. While every Christmas-themed story is inevitably sprinkled with sugar, the Japan based Rankin-Bass Studio set a trend for counteracting sentimentality with surreal plot-twists, quirky gags and oddball characters. Better still, at a time when children’s cartoons were dominated by chintzy fairytale heroes with perfect teeth and impeccably coiffed hair, screenwriter Romeo Muller dared to suggest that the misfits and nonconformists of this world (be they a reindeer with a glowing nose, or an elf dentist) are worthy of respect and can contribute just as much to society. It’s a message open to any impoverished child, ethnic minority, or the just plain different.
In that spirit, and while Rudolph, Hermey and Yokon Cornelius are all lovable characters, the real stars of the show are the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys. Protected by their benevolent ruler, King Moonracer, the misfit toys are unloved by children and resigned to an unhappy life on the island, dreaming that one day Santa will find them a home. Which, every year, he never does. Indeed so poignant was their plight - including the polka-dotted elephant, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a talking water pistol that squirts jelly, and Misfit Dolly (who delivers the haunting line: “I haven’t any dreams left to dream” and whom Rankin claimed was animation’s first psychologically traumatised heroine!) - that viewers asked Rankin-Bass to revise the ending, so that Rudolph finds each of his friends a loving home.
Further delights include a host of catchy tunes by Johnny Marks, many of which went on to become Christmas standards. Marks’ earlier hit, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” also appears as instrumental background music. The pace never lags throughout some engaging action and emotional scenes - prepare to gasp when Yukon Cornelius falls off a cliff! Plus you get to see a tough prospector and an elf kick an Abominable Snowman’s ass. A number of sequels followed, well into the millennium, whose continued success allowed Rankin-Bass to delve into animated feature films (The Daydreamer (1966), Mad Monster Party (1967), The Last Unicorn (1982)), monster movies (King Kong Escapes (1967), The Bermuda Depths (1978) - also starring Burl Ives!), samurai films (Bushido Blade (1978)), and even a musical version of Marco Polo (1977). They also made Thundercats, but let's not hold that against them.