Have we been naughty or something? For the last 10 years, TV’s most successful elves — the creators of 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1979’s Year Without a Santa Claus, and a sackful of others — have failed to deliver a single yuletide package.
”All the networks approach me,” says Arthur Rankin, CEO of the Christmas-hit factory Rankin/Bass Productions. ”But I tell them I haven’t had any better ideas.” Rankin and his partner, Jules Bass, built most of their 10-plus Christmas specials around already existing ditties. But now, says Rankin, ”I just don’t know of any great new songs out there. If you know of one, please tell me.” Instead, the company is at work on adapting The King and I as an animated feature film.
Meanwhile, its quirky specials keep giving holiday cheer to programmers. When CBS aired Rudolph last month, it drew 23 million viewers, soaring high above this year’s crop of kids’ Christmas shows. (CBS’ Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree and ABC’s Peter and the Wolf wrangled fewer than 15 million each.) And local stations continue to rent other Rankin/Bass offerings (its last was 1985’s Life and Adventures of Santa Claus).
What’s more, the eye-popping look of Rankin/Bass’ stop-motion animation (it shot handmade dolls frame by frame) has left its mark on pop culture. In his The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Tim Burton gave them a demented tribute with Jack Skellington’s twisted, Rudolph-like flight scene. And Toy Story’s freakish gadgets whiff strongly of Rudolph’s Island of Misfit Toys. Says Andrew Stanton, a Toy Story writer, ”[Rankin/Bass] was very much in the Schoolhouse Rock category of our influences.”
For its part, Toy Story — which was, ironically, originally conceived as a Christmas TV special — may spark a new round of cutting-edge animation on the tube. ”With the success of Toy Story, networks would obviously look for new properties we can turn into perennial classics,” says Steve Warner, a senior vice president of CBS. Still, new specials may have trouble holding a candle to Heat Miser and friends. Why? Just ask Rankin: ”Because Rankin/Bass is not making them.”