Richard J. Leskosky: Christmas specials — from Japan

Richard J. Leskosky: Christmas specials — from Japan

Over the last 50 years or so, Americans have developed a new family Christmas tradition — gathering around the television to watch familiar movies and TV specials with Christmas themes. Classic Christmas films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Carol” (and its various adaptations) and “The Bishop’s Wife” have become part of our holiday ambience.

Also firmly engrained in holiday viewing are family-oriented animated specials such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964), “The Little Drummer Boy” (1968), “Frosty the Snowman” (1969), “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (1970), “The Year Without a Santa Claus” (1974), “The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow” (1975) and “The Stingiest Man in Town” (1978), one of the 15 or so animated versions of “A Christmas Carol.”

All of those specials (and their sequels and many other seasonal titles as well) were produced by Arthur Rankin Jr. (1924-2014) and Jules Bass (1935 - present) through their company, Rankin/Bass Productions (originally called Videocraft International). Bass also did music and lyrics for some, as well as directed a few.

But all the animation, whether stop-motion puppets or cartoons, was done in Japan. So if you’ve been avoiding Japanese animation because you think it’s all robots and monsters and superheroes, it turns out you’ve actually been watching it most, if not all, of your life in these Christmas specials.

Rankin/Bass based many of them on already popular songs, with new scripts to flesh out the details of the lyrics, and then hired well-known film and TV performers — with very recognizable voices (Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Andgela Lansbury, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Walter Matthau) to speak and sing the main roles.

Then they would send over scripts, storyboards and pre-recorded sound tracks to Japan, and a studio there would do the actual puppet or cartoon animation.

From the late 1960s on, it was common for Japanese studios to work “below the line” — that is, to do work for hire animation for production companies in other countries. One of the Japanese companies that animated many of the Rankin/Bass holiday specials, Topcraft, also did the animation for the 1977 Rankin/Bass cartoon version of “The Hobbit,” a television movie that told J.R.R. Tolkien’s story in just 90 minutes, and their 1982 cartoon adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s “The Last Unicorn.”

Topcraft was a minor studio, but the quality of its work was so good that Hayao Miyazaki chose it to adapt his popular manga (comic book) “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” (1984). Miyazaki wrote and directed the film, and his friend Isao Takahata served as producer.

Topcraft, however, went bankrupt, and in 1985, Miyazaki and Takahata, along with some Topcraft animators, formed Studio Ghibli and went on to create such lasting animated classics as “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

The Topcraft staff who did not go with Miyazaki and Takahata formed the Pacific Animation Corporation, which did the 1985 stop-motion (puppet) animation TV special “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” (based on a 1902 book by L. Frank Baum, creator of the Oz stories) for Rankin/Bass.  In 1988, Pacific Animation Corporation was bought out by Disney and became Walt Disney Animation Japan.

Rankin and Bass continued their animation company until 2001. Their final production was also their first animated Christmas special in 16 years, “Santa, Baby!” It featured a mostly African-American cast with Eartha Kitt, Patti Labelle and Vanessa Williams singing the title song (which Kitt had made a hit back in 1953).

After retiring from animation, Bass turned to writing children’s books, starting with “Herb, the Vegetarian Dragon” and “Cooking with Herb, the Vegetarian Dragon: A Cook Book for Kids” (both 1999).

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film