“Have you ever been told of that fateful year when Christmas almost didn’t happen? It was everyone’s worst fear. There was no one to take Santa’s big sack of toys and deliver the presents to the world’s good girls and boys. But this Christmas season didn’t begin with any trouble or fuss. It began with some singing, as all Christmases must.”
The 1960’s and 1970’s saw an entire genre of holiday specials produced by the prolific studio of Rankin and Bass. The most popular of these specials is probably Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. But there were many others that were released in a 10-15 year period. They all had a few things in common. They used stop motion puppets and sets to achieve their animation. Yes, the same magic that sent King Kong up the Empire State Building drove Rudolph on that foggy night to lead Santa’s sleigh. There was a decidedly plastic appearance to the characters, and they were certainly distinctive. Within seconds of watching one of these specials you were able to identify it as a Rankin and Bass production. In the years since, stop motion has almost gone the way of the dinosaurs with very few practitioners working in the art form today. Tim Burton has been the most successful of late. And we can’t help but owe a huge debt of thanks to Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen for perfecting the craft. And so our childhood was amused by these annual favorites only surviving in chopped up syndicated reruns today.
Enter Warner Brothers into the picture. In 2008 they decided to bring some of the Rankin and Bass characters back to life using that same tried and true stop motion process. It was 1974 when Rankin and Bass released The Year Without Santa Claus. Mickey Rooney provided the voice of jolly St. Nick who had come down with a bad cold. Christmas was almost cancelled but, of course, it was saved at the last minute. That special introduced us to the characters of Heat Miser and Snow Miser. They were children of Mother Nature, and one of the Earth’s essential elements. They were known primarily for their bickering. They were opposites, after all. Now the brothers return for a new special of their very own called A Miser Brothers Christmas.
After all of those years Heat Miser (Irving) and Snow Miser (Chioran) are still fighting. They are called to a family reunion of the elements hosted by their mother, Mother Nature. There we meet The North Wind (Adamson) who has become jealous of Santa (Rooney) and all of the attention and love that he gets. He asks Mother Nature to assign him the duties of Christmas should anything …eh … “unfortunate” happen to Santa. When she agrees, he decides to make sure something does indeed happen. While Santa is test flying his new Super-Sleigh, built by master mechanic Tinsel, The North Wind sabotages the device and Santa crash lands. Everyone blames the crash on the fighting Miser Brothers. Now with Santa laid up with a bad back, Mother Nature decides to let the brothers, and not the North Wind, handle the Christmas chores. But the brothers can’t stop fighting long enough to get any work done. Soon Christmas toy production has ground to a halt. The North Wind is going to get this job one way or another, unless Mother Nature can teach the boys the value of brotherhood and get them to work together. With a little help from some Christmas Spirit, Christmas might just be saved after all.
There’s some good and bad in this relatively recent Christmas special. It was actually quite a treat to find that someone was attempting to bring back that lost art we grew up with in the 60’s and 70’s. Many of those shows are still very popular today and have a much longer shelf life than most anything produced these days. They appeared to get most everything right here. The animation style and textures are all very much a true reproduction of the Rankin and Bass style. They even brought back two of the voices from that original feature. Santa is once again voiced by Mickey Rooney, and the Heat Miser is once again voiced by George Irving. Unfortunately, all of the fond comparisons end here.
The characters certainly capture the look and style of those earlier shows, but they do lack the level of detail found in the original works. It appears they opted for more limited facial expressions and other points of articulation. There just isn’t that spark of life that made so many of these characters so real to us before. No question some of that is accounted for in perception. When we were kids, we were more willing to believe as we watched. We’ve also been jaded by 40 years of technological advances that could very well taint our appreciation. But that doesn’t account for all of it. I’ve gone back and watched such specials as Rudolph and find them just as magical and charming today as I did those many years ago. Give these guys an A for effort but maybe a C for execution. The song numbers are a bit more repetitive. The Miser Brothers Song is brought back here and is the best of the musical numbers by a wide margin. The character designs of even the brothers have changed considerably. Heat Miser still has his flaming Don King hair, but Snow Miser looks a little stiff with an icicle booger hanging out of his nose. The North Wind looks like a Jay Leno caricature with that T-Rex size chin. There are also evident CG enhancements here. It’s mostly used for some added f/x, but you can see that CG assist in movements as well. It’s a great homage to the old days and worth a quick look. Make no mistake, however; this will not have any of the staying power those original specials still have.
The special is presented in its originally intended 1.78:1 aspect ratio. There is pretty nice color reproduction on this DVD. There’s a lot of bright color use here that translates quite well with this solid transfer. I couldn’t detect any real compression artifacts, and black levels are above average. Sadly, the special itself doesn’t have a ton of detail, but what is there shines through quite well with this release. It was obviously filmed using HD digital cameras, and the sharpness levels are very impressive. For what it is, it will work just fine.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very basic as I’m sure you would expect. Dialog comes through just fine, and the musical numbers are pretty much in line with a television special broadcast. There aren’t a ton of surrounds, but you’ll be sucked in with the occasional sleigh bell or wind effect.
What Makes Stop Motion Go: (23:17) The crew gives us a very detailed tour of the production of the show. You get to see the miniature sets and puppets in action. There are some storyboard to final scene comparisons, and Mickey Rooney participates as well.
I’d like to see more of this attempted. It takes time, and there is fear that it will appear too crude to a child who is starting to see photo real images in his video game worlds. But, I hope that shows like this can prove that there’s a place for this kind of thing still. I’m not advocating the abandonment of the incredible technologies we now have at our disposal. I’m just hoping that we continue to make room, if only a very small space, for this kind of magical process. Check this one out again before Christmas comes this year. You don’t have much time. “The time is drawing near.”