You know, I almost didn’t have a holiday post this year. Sure, there’s a whole lot of folklore associated with the December holidays, but I just wasn’t feeling the draw for any of that stuff. What I really needed was something that drew on the other side of the “Fairy Tale Fandom” equation: popular culture.
So, let’s talk about one of the most unique aspects of Christmas-time popular culture: the Rankin/Bass Christmas special.
Rankin/Bass Productions was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass on September 14, 1960 as Videocraft International. Rankin/Bass Productions is known for its animated productions, some of which were made using traditional cel animation but many of which were made using a stop-motion animation process called Animagic. Interestingly, a great number of Rankin/Bass animated productions were actually animated at studios in Japan (that’s right, when you’re watching Rankin/Bass specials you’re watching anime). And while they’ve been responsible for a number of different things ranging from the animated Hobbit movie to the ‘80s cartoons Thundercats, Silverhawks and Tigersharks, what Rankin/Bass are best known for is their Christmas specials.
It’s kind of strange, because of this fact, stop-motion animation is probably more associated with Christmas than anything in the world.
Anyway, while Rankin/Bass has done its fair share of work with mythic figures like Santa Claus and Jack Frost, what got my attention is this special that I just happened to get as a gift on a DVD set last year: Pinocchio’s Christmas from 1980.
I know I post about Pinocchio a fair bit already, but I’ve got a soft spot for that story. This story is familiar territory for Rankin/Bass too. One of their first productions was a TV series titled The New Adventures of Pinocchio.
The story focuses on Pinocchio as he prepares to get ready to experience his first Christmas. Geppetto, as is usually the case, is flat broke (or maybe a better description is “dirt poor”). So, he decides to sell his boots to buy Pinocchio a present: an arithmetic book. Pinocchio, less than enthusiastic about the book, sells it and then decides to use the money to buy Gepetto a present. At least, he does until the Fox and Cat show up and convince him to bury the money so it will grow into a Christmas tree covered in money. The Fox and Cat having stolen his money, he decides to sign up with Fire-Eater’s puppet show. While performing in the show, he develops a little crush on another non-living puppet named Julietta. Discovering that Fire-Eater plans on changing her into a Wise-Man for a Nativity production, Pinocchio takes Julietta and runs. Meanwhile, the Fox and Cat are making a deal with a rather brutish man to secure Pinocchio as a gift for the children of his boss the Duke. Pinocchio finds his way into a magic forest (one where he was once part of one of the trees). The Fox and Cat find him and try to convince him to be taken to the Duke (in song, mind you) by lying that he’ll be taken to a medicine that will bring Julietta to life. But they get scared off and Pinocchio finds his way into the presence of the Blue Fairy. And . . . you know, I’ve told you enough probably. He gets a lesson/task from the Blue-Haired Fairy. He gets tricked again. He meets the Duke. Santa Claus shows up (as he often does in these specials).
If it seems like it’s just one ordeal or misadventure after another in pursuit of some kind of pie-in-the-sky goal, you’re not wrong. That’s pretty much how Pinocchio stories work, though. Carlo Collodi’s original story was serialized so that it would be one story after another. Even the Disney movie followed roughly the same format.
Going beyond that though, I’m pretty impressed by what a nice middle ground the special finds between the sometimes controversial book and popular but saccharine Disney movie (yeah, I said it. Come at me, bro). There are numerous examples in the special that show that the creators of it have read the book. They acknowledge that Pinocchio is kind of a naughty little puppet at first. They show the Blue Fairy’s servants: the monkey and the poodle. They include her coach pulled by white mice. The names are consistent with the book. The Cat from the shifty Fox and Cat duo is female like in the book. Geppetto even wears his yellow wig. But other things are softened or made more consistent with the Disney film. For example, Pinocchio doesn’t kill the talking cricket, he just drives it away. Also, when they show scenes from his future adventures, it’s definitely a whale he’s escaping from, not a dogfish. But possibly the most notable difference between the special and the book is that they make extra sure to note that Pinocchio is the world’s only living puppet. It’s even a major plot point. This was very much not the case in the book, as Fire-Eater’s puppet theatre was full of living puppets. But this all just shows that there is a middle ground to be found between the two extremes.
The special is not perfect, though. The songs are nothing to write home about. There are no bonafide Christmas classics in it like “Silver and Gold” from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They can even be a little dated. One scene where Pinocchio imagines himself teaching Santa’s toys how to dance, the music has a bit of a disco vibe. Not really an “ironic” disco vibe, too. Also, one troubling thing is that the Fox and the Cat (two characters known for being thieves, liars and swindlers) are dressed kind of like Romani stereotypes.
I would recommend the special, though. It would be a good way to inject some variety into the roster of Christmas specials that are shown every year. Give it a watch if you can.