Quick: name something that first aired on TV in 1964 that you still watch on a regular basis and quote in everyday conversation. More likely than not you answered Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the classic Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated special that celebrates its milestone birthday this year, complete with a snazzy new 50th anniversary Blu-ray. (There must have been something special in the water in 1964, since it’s also the year when A Charlie Brown Christmas first head-shake-danced its way into our hearts.)
Five decades is a long time for any work of pop culture to remain relevant to an audience, and while the annual network TV airing of Rudolph remains a rare mass-audience touchstone in a 500-channel universe, it’s time to dig in and see just how well this Christmas classic has aged.
Not counting the title track, of course — that popular hit dates all the way back to 1949, which was already ten years after the character of Rudolph had been created as a holiday advertisement for the Montgomery Ward department store. (Yes, it’s Rudolph’s dark secret: he was born a corporate shill. Better a song and specials built around him than Ronald McDonald, anyway.) Two of the original compositions for the TV special — “Silver and Gold” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” — have become standards in their own right, while the others (“Jingle Jingle Jingle,” “There’s Always Tomorrow,” “We’re a Couple of Misfits,” “We Are Santa’s Elves”) are hummable enough that you probably have them in your head just by reading this sentence.
It’s a celebration of non-conformity: Rudolph is shunned by friends and family alike because of his glowing red nose, but when he becomes the only hope for Santa to make it through a particularly treacherous Christmas Eve storm, suddenly everyone loves him. Call it acceptance-by-pragmatism if you will, but often the first step for outsiders and minorities toward assimilation into the majority comes from, you’ll pardon the expression, outshining their former tormentors. Rudolph’s acceptance by the popular kids allows Hermey to put aside toymaking to pursue his dreams of dentistry. Both these characters could easily fit into the smash X-Men franchise, where those ahead of the evolutionary curve slowly and painfully find acceptance in the world.
Hoo boy — the men get to go on adventures and achieve personal growth, while Clarisse (Rudolph’s most steadfast supporter) and Rudolph’s mother (denied a first name of her own and known only as “Mrs. Donner”) serve the plot only as hostages. And then there’s Mrs. Claus, who has to glad-hand the elves every time her grumpy, short-tempered husband dismisses their musical efforts.
Still gorgeous after all these years, a triumph of meticulous stop-motion craftsmanship from an era where you had to do all that stuff by hand and not with computers. Add to the fact that several of the leading characters are furry (or at least hairy) animals or felt-covered Misfit Toys, and the animators’ feat becomes even more impressive.
Oh, come on: if you’ve never stage-whispered, “Hermey doesn’t like to make toys!” about someone stepping out of their accepted career path, or lamented “No one wants a Charlie-in-the-Box!” or held your nose and bleated, “She thiggs I’bm gcyoot!” upon finding out that someone you find attractive feels likewise, you’re just not trying. (Super-fans will get into the deep cuts, like impersonating the way Yukon Cornelius licks his pick-ax and sighs, “Nothin’.”)
So, OK, yes, the women’s roles are fairly diminished (none of the lady elves gets any substantial dialogue, but they’re presented in a fairly cheesecake-y way — by lady-elf standards, at least), but beyond that, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer remains as watchable and wonderful as it was when LBJ was in the White House. Have a holly jolly Christmas.
Alonso Duralde is the author of the quintessential holiday film guide Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas. Follow him on Twitter at @aduralde.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer returns for its 50th anniversary broadcast Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 9:00 pm on CBS. Read reviews here.
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