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Although nothing can replace the all-time classic that is “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), the following stop motion specials — with their charmingly clunky and slightly off-putting “Animagic” animation style, inherently reminiscent of classic films — are solid runners-up. These films will be evaluated in terms of:
Plot (out of 5): Includes Christmas-cheer, overall entertainment levels, setting, and the characters.
Songs (out of 3): Should be festive without going overboard.
Narrator (out of 2): Does this particular narrator fit well in the story in terms of their character and their narration?
An analysis of the most important elements of a stop motion Christmas movie may reveal if any of these films are able to meet Mr. Brown’s standard.
5. “Jack Frost” (1979)
Oh, “Jack Frost.” This TV special had all the makings of a great stop motion Christmas movie. It had a gorgeous set, with Jack Frost and the other winter sprites living in an exceptionally beautiful castle among the clouds. It had a quirky narrator, Pardon-Me-Pete, lazy groundhog with a New York accent who teams up with Jack every year to fake-see his shadow and gain an extra six weeks of hibernation. “Jack Frost” even had songs that fit well in its wintery theme without sounding over-saturated with Christmas-ness. “Jack Frost” does all of these elements well… and then slaps you in the face with Kubler Kraus, the movie’s villain. From his title of “Cossack king” to his exaggerated features, Kraus is an amalgamation of nasty stereotypes against Eastern Europeans and Jewish people. If you’re not already disgusted with Kubler Kraus’ character, it gets worse. Later in the film, Kubler Kraus kidnaps the blond-haired and blue-eyed Elisa, Jack’s love interest. Jack, who also has blond hair and blue eyes, and Sir Ravenal Rightfellow, a knight with — who could’ve guessed it — blond hair and blue eyes, ride in on a horse to save Elisa. As if the antisemitism embedded in Kraus’ character design wasn’t bad enough, this scene is far too reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan value of protecting white womanhood from “non-Aryan men.” This, along with the use of outdated slurs, tarnishes any praise the rest of the movie could possibly earn. Even for a special made in 1979, “Jack Frost” is far too offensive.
4. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964)
With “Jack Frost” setting the bar on the cold, hard, snow-covered ground, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is an embarrassingly close second-to-last. With the exception of the classic eponymous carol and the hilarious “We’re a Couple of Misfits,” the songs of this special are either generic or flat-out bad. Narrator Sam the Snowman is cute and Mr. Rogers-like, but his voice-actor makes his interjections within the story sound a bit boring. Likewise, while Rudolph and the other young male reindeer have child-like, age-appropriate voices, Rudolph’s crush, Clarice, has a much more mature voice that is uncomfortably laced with seduction the entire time. On top of its bad voice acting, this film’s plot is devoid of Christmas cheer. Santa, unlike his usual jolly self, is a mean-spirited tyrant, and the reindeer are forced to live in caves despite being comparatively sentient in this story. Likewise, Santa exacerbates the bullying Rudolph experiences and pits the reindeer against each other by overtly favoring the deer that pull his sleigh. This unjolly Santa even tells Donner, Rudolph’s father, that he “ought to be ashamed of himself” because of Rudolph’s nose. The elves fare no better in Claus’ caste system. Hermey, Rudolph’s fellow elfin misfit, is punished when he expresses the desire to be a dentist rather than a toymaker: His factory foreman forces him to work through the elves’ only ten-minute break. Clearly, this version of Santa is anti-union — the “King of Jingling” divides and isolates all his workers from elf to reindeer. Finally, after a troubling scene where it is heavily implied that Hermey pulled out the teeth of the Abominable Snow Monster, the short film’s other antagonist, not a single citizen of the North Pole apologizes to Rudolph for essentially driving him out of the community. This version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has a clear anti-nonconformist message and horrible Santa characterization.
3. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (1970)
“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” marks a shift to Christmas films that are actually festive. Its main flaw is that S.D. Kluger — who delivers letters addressed to Santa to the North Pole — is another boring narrator, and his large chin and eyes make him just a little too creepy. Otherwise, this is a rather pleasant film. Losing points only for the awkward and unsuccessful integration of lyrics into the characters’ conversations, the songs are only slightly over-saturated with Christmas. It boasts the classic carol “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and the film’s original songs, “The First Toymakers to the King” and “Put One Foot in Front of the Other,” slap equally as hard. Similarly, this film’s Santa is a saint compared to “Rudolph”’s. This Claus was found by the Kringles, elves who had been famous toymakers. Thus, rather than Rudolph’s hateful tyrant, “Kris Kringle” learns to craft with his adoptive family. Claus brings joy to the children of Sombertown with his toys and hilariously reforms the formerly evil Winter Warlock by gifting him a bright yellow “choo-choo train.” Unfortunately, Burgermeister Meisterburger, the leader of Sombertown, bans toys after injuring himself on a rubber duck and declares Kris Kringle “public enemy number one.” Rather than any kind of battle with Meisterburger, Kringle changes his name to Santa Claus and flees to the North Pole with his family and his new wife, Jessica, soon to be known as Mrs. Claus. Although the film’s ending is rather anticlimactic, this Santa origin story is altogether pleasant and cheery.
Narrator : 0.5/2
2: “The Year Without Santa Claus” (1974)
“The Year Without Santa Claus” is an almost perfect stop motion Christmas special. Mrs. Claus herself narrates, a refreshing departure from the usual (snow)man. She recounts the one Christmas season in which Santa felt too ill to deliver presents: a little too real given the state of 2020, but Mrs. Claus lightens the mood with an adorable song about filling her husband’s role. The Clauses are a cute elderly couple here and Mrs. Claus is an exceptionally likable narrator. Likewise, Jingle and Jangle, the elves Mrs. Claus travels with, provide actual comic relief through their spats. Even the short film’s minor villains, Snow and Heat Miser, are refreshingly hilarious and distinct from other Christmas movie villains who are just simply evil. When these weather-controlling step brothers hinder the protagonists’ goal of bringing snow to Southtown, Mrs. Claus seeks help from their mother, Mother Nature. She sides with Claus, chastising her sons with lightning instead of ear-pulling, comically reducing the powerful Misers to obedient mama’s boys. Likewise, Snow Miser and Heat Miser’s simple and repetitively identical songs not only show the childlike competition between the two, but are without a doubt the best of any of the specials. The other songs in this short film, especially “I Believe in Santa Claus,” which includes a sick banjo and strings duet, are also well-done without being too Christmas-y. If it were not for the stereotypical depiction of nonwhite kids, and (less offensively) a man whose uncomfortably short mustache makes him stick out like a sore thumb among the otherwise conventional-looking crowd, this film would receive a perfect score.
1: "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)
Some heretics claim that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is not a Christmas movie due to its Halloween elements. The title itself and Santa’s presence in the film suggests that this is simply not true. On the contrary, by fusing Christmas with the arguably the best holiday, Tim Burton easily surpasses the other stop motion films in his own unique style. This is best reflected in the songs, especially “What’s This?” The song’s upbeat trumpets and sleigh bells crescendo to a loud, less-cheery finale as Jack is bewildered yet excited by the novelty of Christmas Town. Even the disembodied narrator embodies this: His introduction balances the spooky and mysterious with the narrative rhyming of a typical Christmas special. Jack ultimately remains the Pumpkin King, but his inability to create Christmas simply reaffirms his identity. Behind the gruesome ghosts and ghouls is a rather uplifting message: It is okay to try — and fail at — new things. Even if the other stop motions Christmas specials had not set the bar so low in terms of preaching conformity or strange associations with white supremacy, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” still sits at the top.
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