One of these is a filmed introduction by co-producer Arthur Rankin, who gives a bit of intriguing behind scenes information, and a lot of dull analysis. The idea for Rudolph began with a song by Johnny Marks, which became a huge hit for singing cowboy Gene Autry. Rankin touches briefly on the Rankin-Bass Studios’ affiliation with the Japanese, and doesn’t mention at all that the Fleischer Studios produced a very nice cartoon short based on the song in 1944. He does spend a lot of time commenting on the complete story, complete with clips, completely spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.
Imagine sitting down with your four year-old, ready to share with him this Christmas classic, only to have the experience ruined by this droning old man who insists on giving away every plot twist. Stick to the option marked ”play story” on the menu! Hopefully, parents will look through the DVD a bit before playing it for their kids, but one would think they could trust good old Golden Books.
Well, now that you’re savvy you can skip the intro — and next you find a commercial! That’s right, there’s a commercial for Pillsbury cookies right before the feature. I thought it disgusting when I found videos — especially those aimed at kids — packed with trailers and ads for related products (like soundtracks), but I hate shelling out cash for a commercial. They should really give us some free cookies along with it. Hey, lookie in the clamshell box: a coupon for $.40 off on Pillsbury cookies! Guess they thought of everything.
Once these endless shameful preliminaries are over, we finally get down to the main attraction.
A montage of stock footage and newspaper headlines, reminiscent of the opening for a Flash Gordon serial, show worldwide blizzards. Naturally, this leads directly to a talking snowman at the North Pole. This is Sam (voiced by folk singer Burl Ives), the narrator of the show, and possible relation to Frosty. At the time, Ives was a big recording star, and he was hired on midway through the production to add a little name value. Sam/Ives sings several tunes, and also whips out a banjo at one point (though no banjo music appears on the soundtrack). According to him, this year is nothing compared to the snow storm back in the Year of the Big Snow Storm. And so begins our tale.
Now we meet the big man, Santa Claus himself, and learn that he’s not naturally fat at all. His wife, an obvious chubby chaser, insists on overfeeding him until he’s obese. Santa does what he can to resist — which is only natural, since his meals consist solely of dull purple-brown globs. Later Rankin-Bass specials would update the Santa design, but I’ve always preferred this simple version.
We also meet the newborn hero, Rudolph (Billy Mae Richards), son of Donner. His proud parents are dismayed to find that they’ve sired a red-nosed mutant, an adaptation that they hope he’ll grow out of. Even Santa reveals himself to be a narrow-minded bigot, unable to accept the misfit.
The flick’s villain is also introduced: the Abominable Snow Monster, an infamous beast who stalks around the North Pole devouring elves and reindeer. This monster looks darn cuddly today, but when I was five he scared the crap out of me, and I wondered why Santa allowed him to run loose.
In Santa’s workshop, we meet another misfit named Hermey (Paul Soles), whose ambition is to become a dentist instead of a toy maker. This makes Hermey an outcast among the elves for some reason. No one mentions the odd fact that Hermey also lacks the distinctive pointed ears the other elves sport. Maybe he’s not really an elf at all, just some sort of midget. In any case, he could hardly be a worse embarrassment than some of the other elves. Take a close look at some of the toys they’ve turned out — what the heck are they?
Hermey is taken to task for missing “elf practice”, though I couldn’t figure what they’re practicing for, except another chance to include a musical number. Abashed, Hermey runs away.
Rudolph attends flying lessons, and excels when a young Doe named Clarice (Janice Orenstein) turns him on by telling him he’s cute. Despite his performance, Rudolph is shunned when he drops his disguise and is outed as a red-noser. Ironic that flying reindeer — which look little like real reindeer, by the way — should find him so unusual, but I didn’t write the song. Clarice and her backup singers try to console Rudolph, to no use.
Just then, Rudolph meets Hermey, who has been hiding in a snowdrift. After a brief misfit pride parade, the pair run off together. Along the way, they meet up with greedy capitalist Yukon Cornelius (Larry D. Mann), who is searching for riches on the uncharted land mass at the North Pole.
Fleeing from the Snow Monster, who is attracted by Rudolph’s glowing nose, the trio end up on the fabled Island of Misfit Toys. This was a brilliant invention of writer Romeo Muller, who deserves much of the praise this special has received over the years, since he embellished the basic plot with many clever additions. Unspoken is the conclusion one must make from the Island — that for years Santa has been dumping these sentient toys from his workshop onto this island ghetto. Despite the story’s implications, Santa is always regarded as some sort of saint, when in fact he’s ultimately responsible for every trial and difficulty.
Our heroes are brought before King Moonracer, who is sort of the toys’ Big Gay Al, collecting and harboring unwanted playthings. He’s also a big lion with wings. Nobody questions this, but I guess somebody at Rankin-Bass really liked him, because a version of this character later showed up in their co-production with Toho Studios, Latitude Zero.
Not wanting to endanger his friends, Rudolph takes off on his own. Gone for some time, we see that he’s grown up some when next we see him. By the time he has enough guts to return home, he finds that his loved ones have gone off to search for him, and have been captured by the Snow Monster.
This grand adventure has its climax during the big during storm of storms, although outside of a few shots of wind and snow piling up the weather seems fine. Even after Rudolph is called upon to lead the team because of the foul weather, we see the sleigh flying away through clear skies.
And one last nagging thought: since the reindeer — at least the males — can fly, why don’t they use this power to help out, or even save some time, during all their adventures?
Despite my grousing, this new DVD release is cause for celebration, since this should prove to be the definitive version of this much-edited special. Some reels show speckles, scratches, and color shifts, but certain scenes that had been cut or replaced over the years have been found and restored. After the first broadcast, an extended ending was added, and a new musical number was added to replace Hermey and Rudolph’s reprise of “We’re A Couple of Misfits”. Other footage was later cut out, some of it to make way for more commercials. This release restores the complete 1964 version, with the extended ending — shot to include Santa’s visit to the Island of Misfit Toys, and a new credit sequence — added on. The replacement song “Fame and Fortune” is also included separately.
Much of this restoration is due to the work of premiere Rankin-Bass fan Rick Goldschmidt, whose book on the studio is recommended.
Other extras include a revamped Rudolph trivia game, promo clips from other Golden Book videos (including several Rankin-Bass films), and an “original” promo for Rudolph’s appearance on NBC’s General Electric Fantasy Hour — though this clips broadcast date of Sunday, December 4th reveals that this is actually a 1965 promo.
Rounding out the package is yet another version of the special, this time with the new “ReadSpeak” feature. This is a reading aid in which word-by-word captions are generated spewing forth directly from characters’ mouths. It’s kind a of freaky to watch, especially when used on talking snowmen and the like.