Monday, July 22, 2019

Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979)


We're big fans of Rankin/Bass here at Cereal At Midnight, and we love talking about the company and their legacy every time we get a chance. No single company is more synonymous with holiday magic than Rankin/Bass, who is responsible for a string of TV specials that still get a lot of love decades after they originally aired. The collaboration between Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass yielded Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970), Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976), and our personal favorite, the theatrical film Mad Monster Party (1967)! But nothing can prepare a viewer for the bizarre zaniness of 1979's Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, which feels like a fever dream starring Rankin/Bass' most successful characters.


Where to begin with this "forgotten" special? How about the plot, which acts as sort of a superstar showcase of past Christmas special all-stars? Rudolph and Frosty are chilling (literally) in their winter wonderland when Rudolph's famous glowing nose starts to dim and then--gasp!--goes out completely! We're then treated to a secret backstory that would have made J.R.R. Tolkien proud. Once upon a time, we learn, a wizard name Winterbolt terrorized the North Pole with his evil winter powers. A beautiful enchantress named Lady Boreal (the Queen of the Northern Lights) put a stop to Winterbolt and places the remainder of her dwindling power in the nose of a newborn reindeer named Rudolph. By giving Rudolph's glowing nose a D-and-D-worthy history, screenwriter Romeo Muller is able to revisit his creation (Muller wrote the original 1964 Rudolph special that kicked off the Rankin/Bass holiday heyday) and expand on the mythology of Christmas.


 We cut back to Rudolph and his dim nose, which heralds the return of Winterbolt! And thus a quest takes form, one that will lead Rudolph and Frosty far from home, all the way to a summer realm where they celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks and ice cream and the music of the Beach Boys. Okay, no Beach Boys, but everything else is true. Frosty the Snowman (making his stop-motion animation debut) says farewell to his snow-wife and two snow-children and sets off with Rudolph and Milton the Ice Cream Man for an adventure of a lifetime. There are ice dragons, a creepy genie straight out of a nightmare, magical amulets with secret power, a hot air balloon, and a circus by the sea. We also get to revisit Rankin/Bass favorite characters such as Santa Claus (voiced by a returning Mickey Rooney), Jack Frost, and Big Ben the Clockwork Whale, as introduced in Rudolph's Shiny New Year.


Here's the thing: as cool as all this sounds (and it IS cool), the movie just about collapses under the weight of all of this plot. The sweet spot for a Rankin/Bass "Animagic" (the trademark name for the company's unique stop-motion process) feature was always between 30 and 60 minutes. When stretched to feature length as in the case of Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, it's easy for boredom to set in as it all starts to feel padded and stretched out, or perhaps just numbing. The film would probably have worked better in two 45-minute chunks (like that last Harry Potter tale). And while this story debuted on television in November of 1979 (which is odd enough for a story that takes place around the 4th of July), it did get a very limited theatrical release that, by all accounts, bombed at the box office.


That's not to say that Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July is without charm. Everything that we love about Rankin/Bass animation is present in spades. There are lots of original songs, but we also revisit some of the songs from past specials. In addition to the obligatory "Frosty" and "Rudolph" Christmas tunes, we're treated to "We're a Couple of Misfits" from the 1964 Rudolph film. We also get a circus-performer rendition of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Stop-motion characters sing and dance against familiar winter backdrops, and when the special is really working, we're reminded of the biggest successes of the sixties and early seventies.


It's also great to hear this voice cast. Rudolph is once again voiced by Billie Mae Richards, the performer that gave life to the character fifteen years earlier in the original 1964 classic. Jackie Vernon returns to his famous Frosty persona ("Happy Birthday!) as well, but this is the last Rankin/Bass special to feature both voice actors in the roles they made famous. Similarly, Mickey Rooney wouldn't voice Santa again for another 26 years. Thurl Ravenscroft, who sang about how the Grinch was "a mean one" and pitched cereal as the voice of Tony the Tiger, gives voice to the Genie of the Ice Scepter. Comedian Red Buttons voices Milton the Ice Cream Man, Ethel Merman is the matriarch of the circus by the sea. Screen siren Shelley Winters (Cleopatra Jones) also lends her voice, as well as Hanna-Barbera voice legend Don Messick. Paul Frees, the voice actor behind "the Ghost Host" in Disney's Haunted Mansion attraction, provides multiple voices, including the evil Winterbolt.


Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July ultimately suffers from being too much of a good thing. With all these bizarre fantasy elements, crazy character mythologies, and an expanded feature-length running time, it's just too much for one single special. How much ice cream can one viewer consume before they've had too much? This Rankin/Bass film is the holiday special equivalent of being over-served too many festive treats in a single sitting. But hey, kudos for going big and shooting for the moon! Rankin/Bass in the 1980s would prove to be a very different company, mostly moving away from holiday specials and spearheading Thundercats (one of the greatest syndicated cartoons of the 1980s, in our humble opinion) for the after-school set. In a lot of ways, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July is our final farewell to Christmas classics from the company that created them. Long live Rudolph and Frosty, and long live Rankin/Bass.


Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July is available as part of the "Classic Christmas Favorites" DVD box set as well as a standalone, single-disc release.


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