The Five Best Moments From the Rankin Bass Rudolph TV Special

So many fond Christmas-related memories of mine revolve around animated TV specials. As a kid, they were just part of the total Christmas experience, but as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate them mainly for nostalgia (obviously), and for the closely related sense of history long passed. What I love about animated Christmas specials today is actually how crude they were. Today, if you want to produce animated entertainment on the cheap, you just use CGI like everything else, and the visual quality (to say nothing of the actual content) is nearly on par with theatrical releases. Animation simply doesn’t take as much time or money as it used to.

Before computers, animated TV specials had to be animated by hand. And since they would be airing for free, it seems like most of them were rushed out missing a couple layers of polish. Make no mistake – this is my favorite part about them. The lack of refinement and overlooked mistakes and awkward pacing actually make these specials seem more genuine. More sincere. They may have been cynically produced on the cheap by giant corporations looking for an easy Christmas season advertising cash in (especially true of A Charlie Brown Christmas and its Coca Cola affiliation), but the old fashioned crudeness of the animation lends the impression of having been made by children.

There’s the aforementioned A Charlie Brown Christmas – perhaps the best single example of this notion I’m circling around. There’s also the Gerblick family mainstay A Garfield Christmas, which has its own charms. But I think the one most worthy of writing a snarky blog post about has to be Rankin Bass’s 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV movie. Not only was this an early milestone of stop-motion animation, but it cemented a number of Christmas season tropes we all recognize today (several of which were referenced in the movie Elf).

Given that I wrote a much longer intro than I had intended, I’ll jump right into the thesis statement: When you watch the 1964 Rudolph TV special today, there are just so many hilariously awkward moments that we all seem to have collectively forgotten. Here are my five favorites. 

5) “Dentist” as code for “gay”

I might be reading too much into this, but I’ve long had the distinct impression that the character Hermey the Elf was a closet homosexual. I’m dead serious. It pains me to think of anyone jumping to the conclusion that I’m trying to get a cheap laugh out of gay panic or anything like that. But this was 1964 – long before the taboo of homosexuality started to dissipate. I mean, this was basically the formative years of the civil rights movement.

The underlying theme of the Rudolph story is acceptance of those who are “different”. In this case, “misfits”. And Hermey the elf is a misfit because every other elf he works with looks nearly identical. Beady eyes, big bicycle horn noses, no visible hair. But Hermey’s pointed cap is tilted back, showing a swooping shock of blonde perfectly coiffed hair. His eyes are big and expressive and his lips are pinker and fuller than any of the other elves’. But the reason he is a misfit? He wants to be a dentist instead of make toys. Does that seem a little… arbitrary to you? We’re expected to ignore all of the other things that set him apart from the other elves, and accept that what makes him a misfit is his choice of occupation? I believe this was a thinly veiled reference to homosexuality. “Dentist” was totally their code for gay. Judge for yourself:

4) Assorted animation goofs

I couldn’t find a clip on Youtube of any of the distinctive animation mistakes that this Rudolph has, but trust me when I say they are many and they are hilarious. Traditional stop-motion animation is the domain of mad men. Each frame has to be painstakingly set up by hand using real physical figurines, with special care not to accidentally tweak even the smallest unintentional detail, because any divergence will be glaringly obvious in the finished product.

But this being a Christmas cash-in as well as a stop motion prototype, there are LOADS of goofy animation glitches. Since many of the characters have fur or fabric coverings, the hairs and cloth are constantly twitching around in every frame (this was before they figured out to use smoother clay-foam construction, giving birth to the term “claymation”). My favorite moments are when characters are called to act shocked or surprised, because they swap out the pupils with smaller ones and attempt a “crazy eye” effect, which only winds up looking like the character is having an epileptic seizure.

3) Man’s Work

Ahhh, the 60’s. The age when casual sexism could make it into a children’s cartoon and nobody batted an eye.

I don’t even have any commentary to add to this. Just watch it.

2) King Moonracer

MoonracerI couldn’t find a clip of this character, but in the second act, Rudolph and his buddies stumble upon the Island of Misfit Toys – extending the misfit theme to its critical mass. The island is populated entirely with irregular, unwanted toys, like a pink spotted elephant, a bird that swims, and a Charlie in the Box.

It’s a pretty simple – and I must confess – fairly clever concept that any kid could grasp. And yet… for entirely inexplicable reasons, the Island of Misfits Toys has a king. And that king is a griffon named King Moonracer.

King Moonracer is literally the only character in this entire TV special that is treated dead seriously. He has no moments of comic relief. He speaks with a deep, reverb-heavy voice like the Wizard of Oz and supplies benevolent wisdom and rule over the island. Why is a wise, mystical winged lion the king of the Island of Misfit Toys? It’s never explained. And he’s only in one scene. He gives temporary (STRICTLY temporary, he stresses) shelter to Rudolph and friends, then requests that they pass a message to Santa to maybe swing by and redistribute a few misfit toys. Then he’s gone, just like that.

Speaking of Santa…


1) Asshole Santa

Santa Claus is, in the Rudolph TV special, and for lack of a better word, an asshole. For no particular reason, this Santa Claus is just a great big grouchy asshole for nearly the entire run time.

His first appearance is near the beginning of the movie shortly after Rudolph’s birth. He shows up at Donner’s cave to look at the fawn, sees the glowing red nose and, at Donner’s insistence that the condition will go away with age, replies “Let’s hope so. That had better clear up if he hopes to join my sleigh team some day!” Only the most uniform, flawless specimens get to work for Santa.

He’s also skinny, and for some reason refuses to eat. Mrs. Claus is constantly trying to fatten him up to fit the traditional image of Santa, but he’s too obsessed with the naughty/nice list to notice.

But the greatest asshole Santa moment is the song We Are Santa’s Elves. The Head Elf has laboriously choreographed a musical performance featuring all of the elves, singing a song with the sole purpose of entertaining Santa Claus. It’s a full-length musical number, during the middle of which the conductor looks over his shoulder at Santa for approval, and Santa simply rolls his eyes and gives a dismissive wave.

If you skip to 1:42 in the video below, you can see Santa’s epic response to the completed song. What an asshole.

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