What is it about stopmotion specials that makes them so magical? Is it that their earnestness is well-suited to the winter holidays? Or that their clunkiness only magnifies their charm, or that they persist, year after year, unfazed by the advent of slicker forms of animation, like CGI? Whatever it is, my celebration of Christmas doesn’t feel complete until I’ve seen one of Arthur Rankin’s claymation Christmas specials.
This is, hands-down, my favorite Christmas special of all time, though I suppose that should be taken with a grain of salt because I don’t like most Christmas movies, especially the animated ones (sorry, Charlie Brown, it’s nothing personal).
In a time when the reindeer/angel/fat-man-in-red-suit quotient is getting a little high, it’s nice to watch a non-traditional, though winter-themed, movie like Jack Frost. The special stars Jack the winter-spreading sprite, a “knight in golden armor,” a fair maiden (yeah, gender roles are maybe not the most forward-thinking in this one), and everybody’s favorite misanthropic King of the Cossacks, Kubla Kraus! Oh, and Kubla’s number one flunkey and alter-ego, a metal ventriloqist’s dummy named Dommie.
Jack Frost begs Father Winter to allow him to become human so he can win the heart of Elisa, the afore-mentioned fair maiden, whom he’s fallen in love. Father Winter acquiesces, but under the condition that Jack marry Elisa by spring or return to his spritely duties. So Jack sets off with some anthropomorphic friends to make his mark on Elisa’s tiny village, January Junction.
All goes well until Kubla Kraus, the miserly, mechanically-inclined King of the Cassocks, who lives just up the way on Miserable Mountain, decides he wants Elisa. Apparently it isn’t enough that he’s already stolen all the gold and brick and mortar (does this remind you of Settlers of Cataan? Me too) from the people of January Junction, who have been reduced to fashioning ice coins for currency. Ice coins! Do you know how hard it is to shave those buggers, not to mention the obvious, that they’re worthless 75% of the year? But what can you do to ward off a guy who has a robotic horse called Klangstomper and an army of also-robotic Ka-Knights?
If you’re Jack Frost, you can assume your spirit form and whip up the mother of all blizzards, freezing Kubla inside his castle for months and months, only reverting to human form to battle him on the last day of winter. Jack wins, of course, and rushes down the mountain to find Elisa. Unfortunately (spoiler alert!), not only did that floozy fall in love with her “knight in golden armor” in Jack’s absence, but she’s literally at the altar, about to marry him! Jack sadly morphs back into a sprite, blowing a farewell dusting of ice onto Elisa’s bouquet before returning to Father Winter’s heaven-like cloud palace in the sky.
I suppose that all sounds depressing, but it’s actually a very light-hearted movie, albeit with some morose, adult themes sprinkled here and there. For example, the upbeat song “It’s Just What I Always Wanted” is about the poor people of January Junction passing an empty box around on Christmas Day, making believe when they open it that the perfect present is inside (and you thought the bit about carving coins out of ice was sad!). And, of course, it goes against what viewers expect of a family special to have the hero wind up not getting the girl. As a kid, I thought it was totally unfair that Jack Frost didn’t marry Elisa, but as an adult, I don’t think Elisa’s much of a catch and Jack isn’t cut out to be human anyway.
A Year Without a Santa Claus/Santa Claus is Coming to Town/Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The above are three more great Christmas specials by Rankin, Rudolph being the most well-known, though I prefer the Santa specials, primarily because Santa Claus is Coming to Town introduces Burgermeister Meisterburger as perhaps one of the most uncreatively but hilariously named villains in animated history.
That, and A Year Without a Santa Claus gave us the Miser Brothers–slightly creepy, Tim Burton-esque creatures of the underworld who revel in their abilities to control the weather. Below, their song:
If you haven’t already seen a Rankin claymation special this year, and the Miser Brothers’ dancing didn’t convince you to check one out, well, I don’t know how much harder I can sell this. Unfortunately, none of the films are available on Netflix Instant, but you can always order the actual DVDs or, if one still exists near you, visit a video rental store. I promise a few minutes of Kubla Kraus singing about all his kaputniks will cure anyone of anything that ails them, including the dreaded saccharine overdose from movies like Miracle on 34th Street (what? That movie’s the worst).