The Case of Our Five Favorite Santas

First, let’s talk a little bit about the origin of Santa Claus! 

Santa Claus is known around the world by many names. Some of the most well-known are; Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, and Papa Noel. These names and origins should not be confused with the Belsnickel and Krampus. St Nicholas is known to be the patron saint of many things including children, sailors, ships, merchants, pawnbrokers, and some cities like Moscow.

One of the most well-known stories tells of Saint Nicholas gifting three girls dowries in order that they may get married. Due to his generosity and good deeds towards children in life, he became their patron saint and a popular bringer of gifts on his celebrated day of December 6th. 

As people traveled and immigrated to the United States the celebrations followed and the legends of Saint Nicholas and the scary and shaggy Belsnickel became mixed to eventually become what we know as Santa Claus. Santa Claus, like the Christmas holiday, is an amalgamation of traditions and practices, and hopefully one day we will go further into detail about Santa’s history. 

Much of the details that we have accepted about Santa Claus came from a Clement Clarke Moore poem called, A Visit From Saint Nicholas. But, two years before that story, there was “The Children’s Friend.” It was notable for removing the religious aspects of St. Nick and associating him with the Christmas holiday. Here are a couple of stanzas: 

“Old Santeclaus with much delight

His reindeer drives this frosty night.

O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,

To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The steady friend of virtuous youth,

The friend of duty, and of truth,

Each Christmas eve he joys to come

Where love and peace have made their home”

NUMBER 5

  • “Sandy Claws” (The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)*
    • If you need a refresher, The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton. It follows Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloweentown, as he faces issues with burnout and his own identity. Jack’s purpose in life becomes reinvigorated when he discovers Christmastown and attempts to give Christmas a try instead. 
    • Santa’s voice can be heard at the beginning of the movie during the initial narration. Since the narration doesn’t return, it makes sense that it turns out to be a character in the movie, though this is not immediately obvious to the audience
    • Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws) appears in this film after Jack Skellington visits Christmastown for the first time. However, the audience doesn’t get a great look at the character until much later, when three trick-or-treaters kidnap Santa Claus and deliver him to the evil Oogie Boogie Man.
      • Lock, Stock, and Barrell kidnap Santa so that Jack can take his place. 
  • Voiced by Edward Ivory, this is a pretty classic take on Santa Claus. Although Santa is generally depicted as a kind being that only wants to spread joy, The Nightmare Before Christmas gave some more depth to the character by showing how he would react to being kidnapped. Although this version of Santa becomes more and more frustrated (and possibly scared for his life), he never seems to really lose his cool and still recovers in time to save Christmas! 
    • Ivory was not in very many movies but he was also in the film Nine Months (1995), Rampage (1987), and Blood Red (1989.)
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas is such a well-known and beloved classic, it’s safe to say the film made a major impact on a lot of people. Although the debate about whether it’s a Halloween or Christmas movie will never be settled, you’ll find fans enjoying it during any season. 
    • It won the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film and Best Music
    • It earned Annies for Best Individual Achievement for Creative Supervision in the Field of Animation and Best Individual Achievement for Artistic Excellence in the Field of Animation.
    • It also won the Blimp Award at the Kid’s Choice Awards for Favorite Movie!
  • So why did this Santa make it into our top five?
    • We LOVE the style of this film, and seeing a Tim-Burton-style Santa is an automatic win. Although he has the classic characteristics of many western depictions of Santa Claus (red suit, white beard, black boots) he still has the same unmistakable charm as other Burton creations. Before this film came out, you wouldn’t find a Santa that looks like this anywhere else. 
    • This Santa is inherently good-natured. He withstands being carried around in a sack and is essentially tortured by Oogie Boogie. But, when he realizes it was a misunderstanding and that Jack never intended for him to be hurt, he seems to forgive him almost immediately. He never hesitates to fix all the damage that the Halloweentown residents had done, and makes time to visit them after delivering all of his presents!
  • We asked our Twitter followers for their suggestions on some favorite Santas! Jacob (@DemChops) suggested Santa Claus from Nightmare Before Christmas, saying, “He was so fed up with the Halloween people but he still gave them some Christmas magic in the end. A true Santa.”

NUMBER 4

  • North (Rise of the Guardians, 2012)*
  • Rise of the Guardians is based on a book series by William Joyce called, “Guardians of Childhood.” Every year the holidays arrive and with them the protection of the immortal Guardians. The Guardians, known as Nicholas St. North, E. Aster Bunnymund, Toothiana, and Sandman, spread light to protect children everywhere from darkness and despair. An evil spirit called Pitch Black plots to overthrow them by destroying the source of their power, which is the faith of children everywhere. Saving the Guardians is left up to a new young immortal by the name of Jack Frost. 
    • This film was directed by Peter Ramsey for Dreamworks Animation
  • Voiced by Alec Baldwin, North is the leader of the guardians and this universe’s more-secular take on Santa Claus. Although he is far from the traditional depiction of Santa Claus, he is still dedicated to spreading love and cheer across the world and protecting the innocence of children. 
  • Though this isn’t the most popular Dreamworks film, we consider it to be one of their best works. The story is heartwarming and imaginative and encourages children to believe in magic–not just supernatural magic, but the magic within themselves.
    • Rise of the Guardians received the Vanity Fair International Award for Cinematic Excellence and the Hollywood Animation Award at the 16th Annual Hollywood Film Festival. The film also won two Annie Awards for Effects in Animation and Storyboarding. 
  • So why did North make it into our top five?
    • Out of all the entries on this list, North is the most unique version of Santa Claus. Generally, we see an older and less active version of the character in cinema, but here we see a buff Santa with tattoos and a Russian accent (which makes sense because St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Moscow). This Santa is much more active and unafraid to use weapons to protect the things he loves. It’s important to see a different take on a character because it shows that even though someone is unconventional, it doesn’t mean they are any less than someone who is traditional. This Santa thwarts tradition and conventional standards. 
    • Every story that includes a Santa storyline begs the question: how does he keep track of all the children and bring them toys in one night? The universe in Rise of the Guardians answers this question with a combination of advanced technology and magic. The approach feels rooted in our universe, so audiences find it easier to comprehend. 
    • Rise of the Guardians provides a completely different perspective on Santa. We’re used to seeing him as he delivers gifts and interacts with children. In this film, we see him amongst his peers (the other holiday guardians) which adds another layer to his character. There are even some comedic moments when he clashes with the Easter Bunny or gets frustrated with his bumbling elves. 
  • This was another Twitter suggestion! You guys really know how to pick your Santas. Mics and Beers (@micsandbeers) said, “Got to go with the Santa with swords.”

NUMBER 3

  • Santa Claus (Year Without a Santa Claus, 1974)
  • Based on a book by Phylis McGinley, The Year Without a Santa Claus follows the story of a sick Santa Claus (played by Mickey Rooney) who may not be well enough to deliver presents this year. His doctor even tells him that he should stay in bed because children don’t really believe in Santa anymore. Mrs. Claus takes action into her own hands and sends two elves with a reindeer out into the world to find Christmas cheer. When they run into some trouble, Santa heads out after them and discovers that the world still cares about Christmas. 
    • Of all the Rankin and Bass stop-motion specials, this is one of the most beloved. It included songs by Jules Bass and Maury Laws, most notably the heat and snow miser songs!
    • The special was written by William J Keenan and animated in Japan, like the other Rankin and Bass specials. 
  • This is a special that returns every year during the holiday season, and inspired a sequel special starring the heat and snow misers! You’ll also find their merchandise in stores at Christmas time. 
  • Mickey Rooney during his lifetime was in over 300 films from silent films from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Phantom of the Megaplex. He also voiced Santa Claus in three other animagic specials, including Santa Claus is Coming to Town. So, it’s probably OK to say that this version of Santa is the same one that appears in the other specials of the Rankin and Bass universe. However, we chose the Santa from this particular special because we liked seeing this side of him. Usually, Christmas movies are about children losing their faith in Santa, but this special was more about Santa losing faith in the world. 
    • This Santa Claus is relatable and hard-working. He seems more mortal than other depictions because he has fallen ill. More often than not, Santa is depicted as a supernatural being, capable of looking in on children at any given time to see if they are behaving. This version of Santa, however, doesn’t seem as powerful. 
    • No matter how awful this Santa feels, he’s never angry or upset with anyone. Sure, he feels unappreciated, but that makes him sad more than anything else. And who could blame him for wanting to cancel Christmas? None of us want to go to work when we’re feeling sick. 
    • This version of Santa also really seems to enjoy his job. Sometimes we get the sense from other versions of the character that he feels like he’s doing the world a huge favor, but here it seems that he gets as much out of Christmas as anyone else. 

NUMBER 2

  • Klaus (Klaus, 2019)*
    • Klaus is the most recent entry on our list! Directed by Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martinez Lopez, Klaus is a Netflix original that follows the origin story of Santa Claus, known in this universe as Klaus. 
    • The story initially follows Jesper, the privileged son of the postmaster general, as he’s banished to a cold and freezing island called Smeerensburg. While there, he meets a toymaker named Klaus. Because he needs to meet a quota of 6000 letters mailed, Jesper convinces the children to mail Klaus letters so that he will deliver toys to their houses. Because one act of kindness always sparks another, Jesper and Klaus end up changing the lives of everyone on the island. 
      • Actor J.K. Simmons provides the voice of the stoic and kind Klaus, a toymaker isolated in the woods. This version of Santa is more unwitting than others and is somewhat of a reluctant hero. Early in the film, it’s clear that he wants to make children happy, but Jesper pushes him to start making new toys again.
      • Simmons is famous for several character roles, like Tenzin in The Legend of Korra and Jay Jonah Jamison in the Spider-Man films.  
    • Impact 
      • Klaus won the 2020 BAFTA for Best Animated Feature
      • It also received several Annie Awards for Best Animated Feature, Character Animation, Character Design, Directing, Production Design, Storyboarding, and Editorial.
      • It was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It, unfortunately, lost Toy Story 4.
    • Number two on our list is pretty high, especially for a character that might not be as well-known or established as some of the other entries. But, we chose Klaus because we love how human his story is, and his immense generosity. 
      • When Klaus first delivers a gift, he does it solely because he saw the sad drawing of a child and wanted to cheer them up. He stays back to watch the child open the gift, and we can see how much it means to him that the child was happy. 
      • One of the most appealing aspects of Klaus is that he’s a regular man and not a supernatural being (to begin with, anyway). He uses his craft to bring joy to other people, inspiring others to do the same. 
      • Klaus is reclusive and uninterested in making friends, but throughout the film we see the character open up and grow, and it’s because others are willing to help that he becomes Santa Claus. 
      • Near the end of his mortal life, Klaus embodies the spirit of Christmas so much that he becomes father Christmas. It’s seemingly a reward for a life well-lived that he can continue to spark kindness across the world. 
    • This was another Twitter suggestion from our friend and listener, JD Gravatte! 

NUMBER 1

  • Kris Kringle (Miracle on 34th Street, 1947)
  • This Christmas classic follows Doris Walker, a no-nonsense single mother with a young daughter named Susan. While Doris performs her job as the manager of the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a kind old man approaches her and points out that the Santa Claus hired for the event is intoxicated. Doris invites the kind older man to fill in as Santa not only in the parade but during the holiday as the Macy’s store Santa. Kris Kringle, as he calls himself, is not only a hit with the children but also with adult customers. He truly embodies the spirit of Christmas by helping them buy gifts, sending them to other stores to find them. Soon, it captures the attention of the store that Kris believes that he himself is the real Santa Claus. This issue gets overlooked until Kris assaults the resident psychologist with his umbrella, causing him to get sent to an institution. All this leads to a public hearing, where Kris’s lawyer, Fred Gayley, must defend him by proving that he is indeed the real Santa Claus.
    • Doris’s daughter, Susan, has never believed in magic before, but Kris convinces her that magic is real, saving Christmas for at least one child. 
  • While this version of the character was played by Edmund Gwenn, there was a 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough. Since it’s the same character, we felt it was worth mentioning! 
    • Gwenn won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role! He also won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor!
  • Miracle on 34th Street is a tradition for many families during the holiday season. It’s heartfelt and engaging, a warm Christmas classic that’s also a legal drama? Count us in! 
    • The film won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor
    • It also won Oscars for Best Original Story, and Best Screenplay. Finally, it also won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay.
  • When we set out to make this list, we knew from the beginning that Kris Kringle was our number one. Throughout the entire film, all the way until the end, the audience doesn’t actually see any proof that Kris is Santa Claus. We don’t see him perform magic or visit the north pole, we only see what the other characters see. And yet, we’re on board the entire time. Why? Because this character is so pure and believable as Santa Claus that it almost seems impossible not to believe him. 
    • This Santa is one of the most wholesome we have ever seen. He has a genuine personality and a great sense of humor and doesn’t get frustrated or upset when people don’t believe him. Sure, he’s got some old-school ideas for punishing naughty people (the umbrella might’ve been out of line) But in 1947, parents were spanking their kids harder than Kris hits that man with his umbrella. 
    • Kris’s interactions with others are heartwarming and memorable. He helps many different characters, from Alvin the janitor to little Susan Walker. 
    • He is able to change those around him for the better with simple acts of kindness, like listening to people and gently guiding customers to where they can find toys so that their children can have a happy holiday. 
    • Whether or not people believe he’s the real Santa isn’t important to Kris. Instead, he just wants to help those around him and only tells them that he is Santa because he’s just an honest person. 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Since there are hundreds of movie Santas, we had some honorable mentions: 

Santa Claus (The Polar Express, 2004)

  • Our first honorable mention is the Santa from the Polar Express. Of course, we don’t see very much of this version, but the audience gets enough of him to know that he is a very classic version of the character. This Santa appears at the end of the film when the main character is finding his faith in Santa again. 
  • Tom Hanks voiced this Santa Claus (as he voiced many characters throughout the film). 

Scott Calvin (The Santa Clause, 1994)

  • Played by Tim Allen
  • While watching his son, Charlie, for Christmas, Scott hears a noise on the roof and goes to investigate while his son follows. After scaring a red-suited man off the roof, the man disappears in the snow but his red suit remains. Scott dons the suit and he and his son are taken to the North Pole where he discovers he will be Santa for the foreseeable future. Problems arise, however, when Charlie’s mother and Step-Father believe that Scott is endangering Charlie’s well-being.

Father Christmas (The Snowman, 1982 & Father Christmas, 1991)

  • Voiced by Mel Smith
  • Father Christmas follows Santa on his adventures as he decides to take a vacation in France, Scotland, and Las Vegas. When he returns from his travels to begin preparations for Christmas he finds that he has forgotten something during his trip.

Willie T Stokes (Bad Santa 2003)*

  • Played by Billy Bob Thorton
  • Willie T. Stokes only works one season a year. He drinks constantly and is an embarrassment to himself and others. He works as Santa at the malls. On Christmas Eve he and his accomplice Marcus take all the information they have gathered while working during the season to rob the entire shopping mall.
Noelle (2019)

Noelle (Noelle, 2019)

  • Played by Anna Kendrick
  • Noelle has always loved Christmas, especially the presents. The holiday is made even more special to her as her father is Santa Claus!  At a young age, her brother Nick is given a Santa hat and revealed to officially be the successor to their father as Santa Claus. Noelle wants to be a part of the magic and is tasked by her father to guide Nick and help how she can. Years later after their father passes away, the pressure becomes too much and Nick runs away. Noelle must save Christmas by finding not only her brother but the meaning of Christmas beyond the presents. 

Nick (Fred Claus, 2007)

  • Played by Paul Giamatti
  • Santa Claus’s older brother, Fred, is jealous of him.

Fred ends up needing help and must live with his brother for financial reasons.

Santa Claus (Elf, 2003)

  • Played by Ed Asner 
  • Buddy the elf finds his human father and helps him see the spirit of Christmas.

Santa Claus (A Christmas Story, 1983)

  • Played by Jeff Gillen
  • You’ll shoot your eye out!

Maybe you believe in Santa Claus, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you call him by a different name. Maybe you think he’s a person, and maybe you think he’s the spirit of Christmas. No matter how you feel about the character, these Santas can all teach us something about humanity. You don’t need magic or a sleigh or millions of helpers to be Santa Claus for someone. As long as humans continue to use their abilities to make others happy, the spirit of Santa Claus will always endure. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlies Brown–wait.


SOURCES:

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Case (1962)

Hey, Cassettes, and welcome to the first episode of the Christmas Case Diaries! We have a big month planned, filled with all kinds of holiday fun. We all have those Christmas specials that we watch every holiday season, right? I mean, is it even Christmas without the Island of Misfit Toys, or if we don’t watch the Grinch descend from Mount Krumpet to steal holiday cheer from Whoville? 

Animated Christmas TV specials are a holiday tradition that dates back almost 60 years, and while Rudolph has been airing consistently on TV for the longest amount of time, it was not the special that started it all. 

In December of 1962, people all across America turned on their TV sets to watch the first full-length animated Christmas TV special. Keeping with Christmas tradition, the special was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but with one notable twist: famous cartoon character Quincy Magoo was playing the part of Ebeneezer Scrooge. 

Boasting colorful and stylish limited animation and songs written by Broadway musicians, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol became an instant holiday classic. Although lesser-known than many other 1960s animated specials, it’s a delightful retelling of a familiar story, packed with great performances and animation, unlike anything you’ll see today. 

So, since this is our first episode of the month, we decided to start by covering the very FIRST animated Christmas special! Grab some woofle jelly cake with razzleberry dressing and come join us!https://www.youtube.com/embed/0y33r9bilw8?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

The first appearance of Mr. Magoo in Ragtime Bear (1949)

  • UPA AND MR. MAGOO
  • So first let’s start by talking about the history of United Productions of America (UPA) and Mr. Magoo
    • If you remember back to our history of animation episode, we talked a little bit about the Disney strike of 1941 and how that shaped animation in the years after. 
      • At this time, unions were an established organization for every other form of work from cameramen to cooks, but not animators. One animator, David Hilberman, realized working for Disney, “You were no longer the individual… you were part of an assembly line.” Many other animators and artists realized this as well, and since job security was not guaranteed, holidays could be mandatory, and overtime could be required without added pay. 
    • Industrial Film and Poster Service
      • After being fired for a second time from Disney in 1941, Stephen Bosustow decided it was time to make an animation studio of his own. His first studio was with animator Cy Young and named Associated Cine-Artists. This studio did not last long and soon he began the Industrial Film and Poster Service in 1943 with Zack Schwartz (fired from Disney in 1940), and David Hilberman (who left the company to gain the union more concessions). 
      • Stephen Bosustow had been fired 8 days before the strike. When one of the other fired employees asked Disney what they should do, Disney reportedly replied, “I don’t know, go start a hotdog stand.” 
      • The three men that founded UPA thought that animation could be used as a tool for social reform. They were unhappy with the restrictive, Academic style of drawing at Disney, with familiar fairy tales and an emphasis on humor. In an article titled Animation Learns a New Language Zach Schwartz and John Hudley, who would become a director at UPA, wrote of the Disney formula, “Select any two animals, grind together, and stir into a plot. Add pratfalls, head and body blows, and slide whistle effects to taste. Garnish with Brooklyn accents. Slice into 600-foot lengths and release.” 
        • In Between Disney and UPA, Zach Schwartz worked for Columbia’s Screen Gems where he had an epiphany. “Our camera isn’t a motion-picture camera. Our camera is closer to a printing press.” 
          • Schwartz explained to his coworkers that animated films are not really films at all but are instead graphic art. Although this revelation did little for his coworkers it affected Schwartz greatly.
    • The first few works produced were paid for by the United Automobile Workers.
      • The first short that the team produced was called Hell Bent For Election in 1944. It was directed by the legendary Chuck Jones and was a video that campaigned for FDR’s re-election. It depicted him and his opponent as trains racing for votes. FDR was a sleek new train and Thomas E. Dewey was older and run-down. 
    • The studio would go on to change its studio name to the much sleeker United Productions of America or UPA and win an Oscar for Gerald McBoing-Boing(1950), When Magoo Flew (1954), and Magoo’s Puddle Jumper (1956).
    • Today we know of UPA for its most popular character–Mr. Quincy Magoo. His first appearance was in Ragtime Bear in 1949. The loveable Magoo’s nearsightedness often gets him in trouble where antics ensue but it all ends up alright in the end.
      • The cantankerous character came to life with Jim Backus’ booming voice. Jim would later be known not only for Mr. Magoo but also Thurston Howell III in Gilligan’s Island.
    • The studio’s influence spread, and before long their use of simpler lines and limited animation techniques went on to be used by Hanna Barbera and even Disney.
  • As the anti-communist movement and publications gained traction, many UPA writers and directors were forced to renounce communism or be fired to save the company. In the end, it did little to save production and by the late ’50s, the creative giant was gutted of most of its most innovative and creative minds. 
    • When Henry Saperstein acquired UPA from Columbia in 1960, production halted on new animation as the medium was losing traction. Saperstein instead decided to license Magoo out for commercials and tv spots. 
      • But, this was not the final chapter for Magoo. In 1961, UPA hired a new director of program development that had a plan for the character: a full-length animated Christmas special complete with Broadwayesque music. 
    • In the ’80s Saperstein looked to sell but could not find the proper amount that he was asking for. By the 1990s he was determined to make a live-action Magoo which would eventually star Leslie Nielson. It was originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg but the option lapsed. 
  • SYNOPSIS
    • Mr. Magoo is late for Broadway’s opening night of “A Christmas Carol,” where he will play the lead role. As he finally makes his way to the stage, the curtain rises on the set of “A Christmas Carol.” From there, the audience sees a musical retelling, with Magoo giving a straightforward performance as Scrooge. 
The top picture is the original drawing of Belle. The bottom was the last minute re-design from Tony Rivera.
  • THE FIRST ANIMATED CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
  • Just as the TV series “Mister Magoo” had finished production, producer Lee Orgel entered the scene as the new director of program development. According to his wife, Lea, the two of them were out shopping when Lee got the inspiration for Magoo’s Christmas Carol. 
    • Orgel rushed to the nearest phone to pass along his idea. He created a pitch for the special, along with several other pitches that he called, “spectaculars.” 
    • While the other specials did not come to be, Orgel believed in Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Although there were some doubts that the project could work–A cartoon character in a serious acting role?–Orgel did everything he could to get the project off the ground. According to Orgel’s wife, the made-for-TV film was his “baby.”
  • This was not Orgel’s first animation project, as he was already the Associate Producer of a Warner Brothers film called, “Gay Purr-ee,” starring Judy Garland and Robert Goulet. That film also featured the work of Chuck Jones and songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (the team behind The Wizard of Oz.) 
    • The movie was released around the same time as Magoo’s Christmas
  • Although Magoo was a fairly popular character, there was concern that audiences wouldn’t appreciate seeing him play a serious role. After all, Magoo was a goofball that got into wacky situations. Why would he be the lead in such a beloved and serious story as “A Christmas Carol”? 
    • Barbara Chain, a screenwriter that had collaborated with Lee Orgel on a cartoon called Crusader Rabbit, found a solution to this problem. Instead of Mr. Magoo completely changing his personality to fit the part of Scrooge, the special takes place on Broadway and features a play within a play. That way, the audience can see Magoo and his wacky antics on his way to the theater, and then the character drops all of that the moment the play begins. 
      • Of course, the running gag of Mr. Magoo is that the main character has difficulty with his eyesight. There are a few moments when Magoo as Scrooge also has difficulty seeing what is happening in front of him, since playing a character wouldn’t magically fix Magoo’s eyes. 
      • Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a fairly true adaptation, but with some key differences. One of the biggest and most mysterious is the change in the order of the ghosts. We’ve never been able to find the exact reason for this switch, though we suspect it was for story purposes. 
  • Abe Levitow was the man tasked with directing Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. According to the artists that worked on the special, Abe gave them a lot of creative freedom with their sequences, and he had a tight grip on the production, which allowed it to run smoothly. 
    • Although several animators worked on the project, they hardly ever communicated with each other except through Abe. It really spoke to his ability as a leader and communicator that the final product turned out to be so seamless. 
    • Levitow also directed Gay Purr-ee and The Phantom Tollbooth. 
  • UPA was known for a specific type of style, and Mist Magoo’s Christmas Carol was no exception. The team of artists and animators truly understood how to match the specific look of a UPA film. 
    • Animator Lee Mishkin designed the characters, though some of them did go through several changes. 
      • For example, artist Tony Rivera drew a different design for the character Belle, but it was apparently changed late in production. Author Darrell Van Citters wrote about this in his blog dedicated to the special. He also published a book you can buy that he talks about in his blog! Which you can find—HERE
      • This was a big change, as the scenes that included Belle had already been inked and colored, and it would have been expensive to make that change so late in production. 
    • Gloria Wood and Bob Inman were two key background artists that really brought a unique look to the special. Wood designed the background for the graveyard sequence, which takes place when Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. 
    • Shirley Silvey was a female animation designer in a male-dominated profession. In the scenes with Marley’s ghost, she animated the characters from unusual angles, which drives home the unsettling nature of the moment. 
    • Many of the animators that worked on the production were freelance, as UPA probably couldn’t afford a large number of animators on staff. It’s impressive that the animation is as consistent as it is, as the freelancers had to grasp the style before working on the project. There were a couple of sequences, like the Cratchit Family sequence, that needed to be redone. 
  • Almost 60 years after its release, the lasting power of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is largely due to its incredible music. Lee Orgel reportedly wanted Richard Rogers to compose the songs, sending him a copy of the novel and asking him to consider it. Rogers was unavailable, and contacted legendary songwriter Frank Loesser (you might remember him from our Christmas songs episode from last year, he wrote “Baby it’s Cold Outside”.) Loesser was also unavailable, so he contacted Jule Styne. Styne was a former vocal coach and prolific composer, responsible for classic songs that appeared in musicals like, Peter Pan and Gypsy. Styne was in-between projects, as he was about to start working on the Tony-Winning musical Funny Girl with lyricist Bob Merrill. So, Styne and Merrill signed on to write the songs for Magoo’s Christmas
    • Merrill was a prominent lyricist that penned a lot of popular songs like, “How much is that doggy in the window?” 
  • Composer Walter Scharf crafted a score that seamlessly blended the songs while adding some musical magic of his own. Scharf was a prolific TV composer, scoring episodes of TV shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Mission Impossible. He also scored 1955 musical classic The Court Jester, though he was uncredited. 
  • SO LET’S TALK ABOUT THESE SONGS!
  • GREAT TO BE BACK ON BROADWAY
    • The special opens with a musical number, “Great to be back on Broadway,” showcasing the lights, billboards, and traffic of New York City. The challenge for animators in this scene was depicting such a complicated setting using the classic simplified style of UPA. 
    • Bob Singer was one of the layout artists responsible for the scene. He said that UPA was like an animator’s paradise. Even though there was a team of layout artists, the final product looked seamless because they were all able to match the style. 
    • This is the only song sung by Mister Magoo AS Mister Magoo. The rest of the music is the play within the play, which explains why this song has a different overall sound. 
    • As we said before, actor Jim Backus provided the speaking and singing voice of Magoo. 
  • RINGLE RINGLE
    • After Magoo gets pushed onto the stage and the play begins, the story wastes no time getting started. As Scrooge, Magoo begins to count his money and breaks into a song called “Ringle Ringle.” 
    • In order to create an accurate setting, layout artists and “color stylists” (also known as background artists) spent a lot of time researching the furniture styles of the 1840s. They also used a type of splatter technique to make the room look dingy. 
    • This song is the first appearance of Tony-nominated actor Jack Cassidy as Bob Cratchit (he would win a Tony in 1964). Scrooge and Cratchit sing a duet, with Scrooge continuing to count his money as Cratchit shivers in the other room. 
  • LORD’S BRIGHT BLESSING
    • When the ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to see the humble home of Bob Cratchit, the two witness the family sit down to a meager Christmas feast. The family doesn’t have very much but is still very happy. They break into a song called, “Lord’s Bright Blessing,” which perfectly captures the spirit of the holidays, as they dream of a better Christmas but happily accept the one they have now. 
    • The Cratchit House is designed to look run down, with broken furniture. However, it looks much cleaner than Scrooge’s office, showing the pride that the family has in their home. 
    • This song features Jack Cassidy as Bob Cratchit, Laura Olsher as Mrs. Cratchit and the Cratchit son, and Marie Matthews as the Cratchit daughter. Olsher was meant to only play Mrs. Cratchit, but the actor for the other roles was late to recording. Olsher had almost no experience with music, so Jule Styne helped her through the recording. 
      • Laura Olsher also voiced the boy at the end that gets the turkey for the Cratchits. The boy says, “walker,” which was Victorian slang for “humbug.” Olsher’s daughter had just visited the UK and told her mom about the word, and it made it into the special. 
  • ALONE IN THE WORLD
    • When the ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood, they see Scrooge as a boy. Together, Scrooge and his younger self sing a song about how lonely they are. 
    • “Alone in the World” was meant to be sung by a little boy, but none of the boys that auditioned seemed to have the sound they were looking for. Marie Matthews was in the room because her son had auditioned, and Matthews’ mother convinced the team to let Marie try singing the part. The songwriters resisted, saying that they really wanted a boy to sing the part, but they let her audition anyway. Matthews happened to have the voice they were looking for and was hired for the role. She said she was very honored to sing such a beautiful song. 
  • WINTER WAS WARM
    • When the ghost of Christmas past takes Scrooge to relive his days with his love, Belle, she sings a song about their lost love. “Winter Was Warm” is one of the most loved songs from the special, serving as an emotional climax as Scrooge sees all that he lost because of his greed. 
    • Jane Kean played Belle, and although she was known as a comedic actress, Jule Styne knew she would be able to handle the song because they had already been working together on another project. Kean later said that the song should have been a big hit if it had been sung by someone much more famous. 
    • There’s a long-standing rumor that the song, “People” in the musical Funny Girl was originally written for Magoo’s Christmas. Kean cleared that up, saying that they were writing that song simultaneously, and she wanted to sing it, but Jule Styne told her no, they had another song for her instead. 
  • WE’RE DESPICABLE 
    • The final song of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (if you don’t count reprises) is sung by a group of criminals as they pawn stolen items from Scrooge’s home. “We’re Despicable” is many viewers’ favorite part. The song is bouncy and fun, with silly rhymes and gags. 
    • This scene was animated by Gerard Baldwin, who had been given the song and the situation, and built the storyboard from there. Baldwin said it took about two weeks to animate the entire sequence from start to finish after the storyboard had been completed. 
    • This is the only sequence in the entire special where Scrooge has four fingers and a thumb. This was because Baldwin liked to draw hands. This might seem like a continuity error, but it speaks to the charm of the special and the fact that many different people worked on the animation. 
  • ALSO STARRING
  • Royal Dano as Marley’s Ghost
    • Marley’s ghost is introduced with the sounds of dragging chains. Earl Bennett provided the sound effects for the special. 
    • Royal Dano was a screen actor that appeared as Tom Fury in Something Wicked This Way Comes
  • Paul Frees as the stage director
    • Frees was a prominent voice actor, well known for roles he played in other Christmas specials, especially for Rankin and Bass
  • Joan Gardner as Tiny Tim/The Ghost of Christmas Past/Belle’s Speaking Voice
    • Joan Gardner was a prolific voice actor, although she is hardly known today. She was also a screenwriter and composer. 
  • John Hart as Billings
    • Hart appeared on TV shows like Rawhide and Dallas
  • Morey Amsterdam as Brady
    • Amsterdam was a comedic actor that appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show!
  • Les Tremayne as Ghost of Christmas Present
    • Tremayne worked in radio and had one of the most heard voices in the wartime era. 
  • RECEPTION/LEGACY
    • Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol premiered in December of 1962. According to Lea Orgel, she and Lee rented a color TV and had all their friends over to watch the premiere. In the special edition commentary of the movie, Lea says that Walt Disney called Lee that night and congratulated him. He told him that it would be watched for generations. 
    • For several years after, the special aired on NBC. Sometimes certain songs would be cut for time (usually Winter Was Warm). Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, families across the US were treated to this special until it stopped airing. 
    • In 2012, on the 50th anniversary, NBC aired the special once again, and it has aired on TV sporadically over the past couple of Christmases. While it is unlikely that you will catch the special on TV, it’s now streaming for free on Peacock (with ads). 
    • At the time of airing, the special was popular enough that Mr. Magoo got a brand new TV series, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, and would appear in more animated specials with literary characters. 
    • Despite getting less exposure than some other more well-known Christmas specials, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol has no shortage of fans. You can find recipes for Razzleberry Dressing online, along with many testimonials about why this particular version of A Christmas Carol is an absolute classic. 

There’s no doubt that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol had a lasting impact on TV history. It was the first entry in a decades-long tradition of animated Christmas specials. If you love Rudolph and Frosty, but you’re unfamiliar with this animated gem, go ahead and give it a watch. It’s a unique and entertaining look at an old classic and calls back to a time in animation that is often forgotten. 

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a time-honored tradition. It’s a wonderful look back at the 1960s, a time capsule that brings the viewer to a different age of animation. And in our house, like so many others, it’s not Christmas until this short, bald man sings. 

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The (Brief) Case of The Snowman (1982)

Happy Thanksgiving, Cassettes!

This month, we talked all about movies that were based on books. Since it’s still November, we’re continuing that theme with a British TV special from 1982. 

In September of 1978, children’s author Raymond Briggs published “The Snowman,” a wordless picture book that detailed the story of a young boy embarking on a wondrous adventure with the snowman he built that day. Before that, Briggs had repulsed critics with a picture book called, “Fungus the Boogeyman,” and before that, he published a bestseller about a grumpy old man that didn’t even want to work one day a year. That book was called, “Father Christmas,” and detailed the life of Santa Claus. 

But when Briggs set out to write “The Snowman,” he wanted a story that was so quiet, he didn’t include any words. The book begins with comic-strip-like illustrations, panels that increase in size as the story unfolds, leading up to beautiful double-page spreads. The illustrations guide the reader through a nostalgic tale, filled with the magic of childhood. 

“The Snowman” is one of Brigg’s best-known books, returning to collective memory every holiday season. It wasn’t long after its release that a half-hour animated special based on the book premiered on Channel 4 in Great Britain in December of 1982. 

The short film received commercial and critical acclaim, and according to “The Snowman” official website, it has aired on Channel 4 in Great Britain every year since 1982. So, come join us from wherever you are, in whatever weather, to talk about this classic that has touched the hearts of millions of people. 

MAKING OF

  • Raymond Briggs went to art school to become a cartoonist but eventually found himself writing his own stories. By the time he published “The Snowman,” he had a successful career as an illustrator for at least twenty years. 
  • Because “The Snowman” relies only on imagery, it was more important than ever for the illustrations to make the viewer feel the action of the story. Briggs said, “That’s the essence of good illustrating I think, where the drawer really feels a feeling that a figure in the picture is feeling. You’ve got to feel what it’s like to fly, feel what it’s like to slow down as you land. And yet you’ve got to be outside observing it. Very difficult! I’m thinking of giving it up.” 
  • Producer John Coates of the animation studio TVC became interested in optioning the story for a short film. TVC was a well-established studio that had created the animated film “Yellow Submarine” in the late 1960s. 
    • Coates had two assistant animators, Hillary Audus and Joanna Harrison, buy a dozen copies of the book and start cutting it up to make a mock-up animation. 
  • John Coates brought the idea to Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the Chief Executive of Channel 4 at the time. The channel was brand new, and The Snowman was actually one of the first things they ever did. Isaacs felt it would be a stark contrast from the other programming they had planned for the channel, but it was so delightful that he gave it the green light. 
    • According to the Animation World Network, Coates mortgaged his own house to help pay for the project. 
  • Director Dianne Jackson, who had worked on TV commercials for several years, took over the project and created the storyboard “bible.” This “bible” was not to be changed by anyone except for the director or producer. The animators and the composer, Howard Blake, timed the storyboard and used it as their guide to finishing the final product.
  • They were a small team of about 8 animators and they were all given their own sequence to animate. 
    • The animators started by creating keyframes of movement, filling in more drawings based on the timing of the scene. Each drawing was sent to a coloring artist that used colored pencils to fill in the detail. Each image takes about 45 minutes to an hour to color. 
    • One of the most unique visual elements of “The Snowman” is the look and texture of the backgrounds. A background artist would layer every scene with pencil shading, resulting in no solid colors. Because of this, the texture of the paper shows through, giving the feel of a picture book. 
    • “The Snowman” used cell animation, meaning that artists would draw the moving elements of the short film on cells, which would then be placed on a static background and photographed one by one. 
  • The animators have said that they feel like the snowman wouldn’t look right if it wasn’t hand-drawn. In 2012, Briggs signed off on an animated sequel to the short film which was also hand-drawn. 
  • When the short film made it to the US in 1984, the American broadcasters wanted a new introduction with a famous person. So, they chose David Bowie. 
    • Bowie had already gotten in touch with the studio to work on an upcoming film, and even though the producers were nervous to ask him, he happily recorded a new intro. 
  • For the 20th anniversary of the short, the original animators created an opening sequence introducing the story with Father Christmas. This was done in the traditional hand-drawn style so it would match the animation.

THE SHORT FILM

  • The short begins with the little boy waking up to a snowy day, and he’s so excited that he forgets to put on his underpants before his trousers. Roger Mainwood, the man that animated the sequence, said that the number one question he got from children was, “why didn’t he put on his pants?” Mainwood said it was simply because there wasn’t enough time in the scene for it. 
  • In Brigg’s book, the boy and the snowman sit in the family car and play with the lights. One of the assistant animators, Hillary Audus, was a motorcyclist at the time and came up with the idea that they go for a ride. This way, the story could interact with the countryside and location of the story. 
    • The number on the motorcycle plate was the animator’s house number.
  • Joanna Harrison animated the scene in the bedroom when the snowman tries on false teeth. Harrison actually asked her grandmother to take out her false teeth so she could draw them.
  • Near the end of the short, the boy and the snowman travel to the North Pole and meet Father Christmas. Harrison and Audus were the ones that came up with the idea to incorporate the character, simply because he was a subject from another of Briggs’ books. 
    • Briggs thought it was a corny idea but later said that he was wrong and that it worked out just fine. 
    • The boy also receives a Christmas present in the film with a tag that says “James.” Joanna Harrison wrote the name on the tag because she was dating a man with that name, and it just stuck. The gift is a blue scarf with the snowman on it. Two props of the scarf were eventually made, one given to David Bowie.  
  • The most iconic part of the short, and possibly what made it stick in the minds of viewers, is the scene where James, the boy, takes off with the snowman. The pair fly across the world to a hauntingly beautiful song by composer Howard Blake. 
    • Blake had originally written the tune over 10 years earlier while walking on a beach. He felt the music held the sensation of innocence. Blake was visiting a friend at the studio when John Coates asked him if he would consider writing a song for the film. Blake reportedly said, “I think I may have something.” 
      • Blake scored the entire short film, using music to convey every moment of animation. Blake could play the music and tell you exactly what is happening with each sound. 
    • Peter Auty was a 13-year-old choir boy when he recorded the song for the special. Coates later blamed his lack of agent on the fact that the production forgot to credit him, so audiences weren’t aware that it was him. He went on to be an operatic tenor. 
    • Many people believe that singer Aled Jones recorded the original version because his cover of the song topped the charts a couple of years later. 
  • Of course, all great things must come to an end. When James wakes up the next morning, the score reminds us of the excitement from the day before as he runs downstairs to find his friend has melted. The scene is incredibly poignant, especially as the music shifts quickly to a minor sound. 
    • But, as James mourns the loss of the snowman, he reaches into his pocket to discover that the scarf that the snowman had given to him was real. 
    • Composer Howard Blake remarked, “I think why it touches so many people is, the friend melts, and it’s something we all experience. We lose somebody we’re really very fond of, and he’s absolutely heartbroken. But then he has the memory, and the memory is symbolized by the scarf.” 
  • Briggs has said that it didn’t occur to him at the time that the snowman is like a friend, and children see him as a real person. He received many letters asking him to bring the snowman back to which he replied, “ghastly idea.” 

RECEPTION

  • When “The Snowman” first hit shelves, it sold fairly well. It wasn’t until the animated film debuted that the book started flying off the shelves. 
  • The short was nominated for an Oscar, which it did not win. However, it did win the BAFTA for best children’s program! 
  • “The Snowman” has been adapted into a stage show and ballet! 
  • This classic will be 40 years old next year, and it continues to delight audiences to this day. 

From the moment that “The Snowman” begins, it evokes a special kind of nostalgia. There are elements to the story and imagery that we all can relate to in some way. The film is a perfect marriage of visuals and music, and it poignantly portrays the magical, beautiful, and fleeting nature of life. 

Thank you for joining us from wherever and whenever you are, this is another *brief* case closed! 


SOURCES: 

https://www.thesnowman.com/about/

https://www.awn.com/mag/issue1.4/articles/mcgreal1.4.html

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/dec/22/how-the-snowman-melted-david-bowies-heart-raymond-briggs

The Case of Frankenweenie

On a rainy afternoon in 1816, a 20-year-old woman named Mary Shelley wrote a story that would change the world forever. It was possibly the first science fiction novel, a book about a scientist that created a living creature from corpses. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus challenged the romantic idea of beauty and explored philosophical themes about the nature of man and the power of creation. 

Today, Frankenstein is a Halloween staple. It’s a story so ingrained in western celebrations of the holiday, it’s hard to imagine a world without it. The story inspired many different adaptations, but one of the strangest and most original was created by Tim Burton in 1984. 

Frankenweenie followed the story of a young boy that uses electricity to bring his beloved dog back to life. Twenty-eight years later, Disney gave Burton the chance to remake this short film in his favorite medium: stop-motion. Today, we’re bringing you through the history of this fun re-telling of a classic tale. So grab your popcorn and settle in for the SHOCKing story of Sparky and his human Victor!

THE ORIGINAL FRANKENWEENIE

  • Based on his films, it’s no surprise that Tim Burton is a fan of horror stories. He grew up watching the Universal Monster movies and Japanese monster films. One of his favorite aspects of these movies was that the monsters were almost never what they seemed to be. 
  • Burton had the original idea for Frankenweenie while working at Disney in the 1980s. 
    • The story came from experience. When Burton was a child, he had a dog named Pepe that he loved dearly. It was his first major relationship and the first big death that he experienced. This, combined with the Frankenstein storyline, created a new kind of adaptation that flipped the original story on its head. The original monster in Frankenstein was cast out by its creator because it wasn’t a product of love. In this story, Victor only attempts to create life because he misses his best friend. 
  • The project was green-lit, and Burton was able to direct a live-action version of the story starring Barret Oliver, Daniel Stern, and Shelly Duvall. Its runtime was only 30 minutes, and it was set to premiere on television. But, the test screenings appeared to scare children, and the short film was pulled. 
    • Years later, Disney released the short film on home video. It quickly became a hit, and today it has a cult following. Now, it can be streamed on Disney+ and can be found on many The Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs. 
  • When Tim Burton was gathering pieces for a Museum of Modern Art exhibit, he came across the concept drawings for the film and decided he’d like to revisit the story again. By now, Burton was an accomplished filmmaker with hits like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas under his belt. So, he brought the idea to Disney which would eventually fund the project.  
    • To Burton, this didn’t really feel like a remake. This time he had the budget and the resources to incorporate all of the personal experiences and monster movie influences that birthed the original concept. 
      • Burton decided the film wouldn’t be live-action, but stop-motion instead! Burton said of using stop motion, “It’s a form that I do love because there’s something that’s very tactile about it, you know, it’s a set and the lights and characters are going in and out of shadows, you see that. There’s something, yes, why I love Ray Harryhausen’s work where you can feel hands on it, you can feel there’s an energy to it.” 
    • When asked why redo an already successful movie, Tim Burton replied to puppet designer Peter Sanders that he wanted more of a performance from the dog Sparky. This would be more possible with a stop motion dog than a live-action dog. 

SYNOPSIS

Victor Frankenstein loves his dog, Sparky. They do everything together, including making their very own monster movies. One day, while Victor is playing baseball, Sparky runs into the street and gets hit by a car. Victor is devastated. After learning about the possibilities of combining electricity with a dead frog in science class, Victor decides to use lightning to bring Sparky back to life! As other students catch wind of the experiment, they want to try it as well. But, things go awry and the town is soon under attack by a group of pets-turned-monsters!  

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • Based on an original idea by Tim Burton, the 1984 screenplay was written by Leonard Ripps. John August wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film. 
    • Tim Burton was adamant that the film be in black and white. Thankfully, there was no push back from the studio to produce a color film. It was a nice coincidence that the black and white film The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012 validating the choice for black and white. 
    • In order to give the filmmakers more aesthetic options, it was shot in color and changed in post to be black and white.
  • 3D
    • To keep up with the monster movie tradition, the team knew immediately that the film should be 3D. A test was conducted to make sure that the effects worked well with the black and white aesthetic. After the test was done they saw right away it worked. The contrast of the film even helps to intensify the effect. 
    • Instead of shooting the film originally in 3D the team shot normally and gave the different elements, such as the set and characters, to a visual effects house team. This team then put it all together into a 3D film. 
  • Stop Motion
    • Stop motion is a time-consuming art form that we have discussed before. In order to keep filming going smoothly, Exposure Sheets are used. 
      • Exposure Sheets help to clarify what a character is doing in each frame so that everything can be mapped out. The sheets include frame numbers, the waveform for the score, and the phonetics of the words formed by the characters for mouth movement. Frankenweenie was shot at the standard 24 frames per second. For animators, that meant that for one second of film the puppets must be moved 24 times. Most often one animator is able to animate about 5 seconds of the film a week. 
    • In order to speed up the process animators would be working on different scenes at the same time with the multiples of puppets that were created.
  • Puppets
    • Inspiration for the puppets began from the drawings by Burton. Not only did they have his original concept drawing from the 1984 film, but he drew some new ones as well. The team of artists worked closely off of these and consulted Burton often on the personalities and looks of the characters. 
    • The puppets were cast from sculptures and then cast into foam rubber. All of the clothes had to be hand sewn as the puppets were only about a foot in height, and Sparky was about 4 inches.
    • In total, there ended up being over 200 puppets that needed to be cared for. A special Puppet Hospital was created where there was a team that made repairs for the clothing, limbs, and more.
  • Production
    • The production designer Rick Heinrichs had worked with Tim Burton before on both the short film Vincent and Nightmare Before Christmas. The longtime collaborators had also done well with the 1984 Frankenweenie. When Rick heard that Burton intended to remake the movie in stop motion, he was in from the start. Rick saw opportunities to improve what they built with the original. 
    • Rick Heinrichs was blown away by the animators working on the film. He was thrilled to see the story in black and white again and loved the controlled nature of stop-motion. He said, “When you’re doing a live-action film, you’re dealing with a lot more people and, as much as you want to control the sets and control the lighting, it’s like wearing boxing gloves to try to do something delicate. With stop-motion animation, the cinematographer is lighting the set, and the set decorators and the model makers and the animators are all people you’re talking directly to. You can fix things. It’s on a scale where it’s all fixable, and you can continue to manipulate things until it shoots. It’s a longer process of prep and production as well, so you can really bring more continuity to bear, on the whole process.”
    • The sets were built on tabletops complete with trap doors, similar to the ones we learned about when Nightmare Before Christmas was made! The attention to detail on the sets was incredible. 
      • Art director Sandra Walker, when talking about the sets, said that they strived to create Burton’s version of American Suburbia. What’s strange isn’t the neighborhood, it’s what happens in the neighborhood. Burton grew up in a 50’s/60’s middle-class Burbank-type area.
      • This story takes place in the fictional town of New Holland with a classic-looking windmill near the town. In the climax of the original film, Victor and Sparky become trapped in the windmill at the local golf course. So, the animated film needed to have a windmill for the ending as well. Heinrichs said about using the cultural aspects of New Holland, It was all about having Dutch day, and also about how American communities really take these Old World elements and they turn it into this flat, suburban thing. They knock down all the maple trees and they call it Maple Street. It’s this absconding of things out in the world and making it your own thing. There was something characteristically American and charming about that…To be honest with you, I really think that it establishes a purpose for the windmill.
  • Artists
    • Working on a stop motion film is incredibly physical work. Instead of working in front of a screen, you are constantly moving. One frame of movement would include several changes that would all have to be physically and meticulously moved. It is a very hands-on process that is evident in the final product. 
  • Film references and research
    • Burton believes that references should not be used just to have them there. He enjoys referencing older movies but you should not have to know what is being referenced to enjoy the movie. It should pass by as you are paying attention to the story. 
    • Producer Allison Abbate said that in order to be able to reference these movies, and with a purpose, the animators all watched the classic monster movies, paying special attention to the old Frankenstein movies. 
    • Here are just some of the references that we noticed throughout the film!
      • Frankenstein- Including a character similar to Igor
      • Sleepy Hollow and Frankenstein both have a windmill that burns down as well
      • Rodan- In the short film that Victor created at the beginning
      • Bride of Frankenstein- Sparky’s love interest Persephone ends up with white hair
      • Pet Sematary 
      • Invisible Man- Invisible fish
      • Gremlins-The sea monkeys resemble Gremlins
      • The Mummy- Nassor’s Colossus the hamster, and also when Nassor gets wrapped up and shoved into a large nesting doll
      • The Birds- Phone Booth scene with all the sea monkeys trying to get in
      • Gamera: The Giant Monster
      • Jurassic Park- The mayor tries to hide in a Porta Potty 

SCORE

  • Danny Elfman of course!
  • In an article in Films in Review from 1992, Ken Hanke comments that “Elfman’s scores are far more creative, far more in line with Burton’s combined sense of charm, irony, and absurdity, and generally just better music.”

STARRING

While the actors recorded their lines for the performances, video references were taken. These videos would be watched for behaviors, movements, and idiosyncrasies that could be used in the performance of the puppets.

Burton in an interview with Collider commented on the casting saying “Always, the voices have to be right.  With Martin [Short] and Catherine [O’Hara], they’re so good.  That’s why I had them do three voices each.  To me, there’s a great energy with that.  And Winona [Ryder], I hadn’t seen for many years.  Same with Martin [Landau].  Anything like that just makes it that much more personal.”

  • Winona Ryder as Elsa Van Helsing
    • Can it even be a Tim Burton film without Winona?
    • She is a favorite of Burton’s and was also in Beetlejuice.
    • Van Helsing references Bram Stoker’s character from his novel, Dracula. 
  • Catherine O’Hara as Mrs. Frankenstein, the gym teacher, and the weird girl
    • She was in Beetlejuice but is also well known as the mom in Home Alone.
    • In this universe, there is no Frankenstein story. These people ARE the Frankensteins. 
  • Martin Short as Mr. Frankenstein, Nassor, and Mr. Burgermeister
    • Martin Short is most recently seen in Only Murders in the Building!
    • In the Rankin and Bass episode, we talked about how much Burton enjoyed their work, and so in this film, he pays tribute with the character Mr. Burgermeister. The character is similar in a lot of ways to Burgermeister Meisterburger in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. 
  • Charlie Tahan as Victor Frankenstein
    • Charlie most recently has been in Ozark.
    • You can see in his character’s room a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea poster.
  • Frank Welker as Sparky 
    • Frank is a voice actor that did voices for the live-action Transformers.
    • Sparky is given the classic bolts on the sides of his head in reference to Frankenstein’s monster.
  • Martin Landau as the teacher Mr. Rzykruski
    • This character may look very familiar to you because he is modeled after Vincent Price!
    • Martin was in many films before he passed away, most recently Abe and Phil’s Last Poker Game in 2017.
  • Also features the voices of Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, James Liao, Conchata Ferrell, Jon Donahue, Tom Kenny, and Dee Bradley Baker.

RECEPTION

  • There are lots of opinions out there as to whether or not Tim Burton’s films are for children. Burton himself grew up where death was a taboo topic. But, monster movies made him feel more optimistic about it all and reminded him of how life and death go hand in hand. He never felt he had a morbid fascination with death. Frankenweenie in particular was made with kids in mind and distances you from the scary with its emotional storyline, humor, and animation. Animation inherently shows you it is not real and therefore children are more receptive to the scariness. 
  • The film did not do well commercially, but it did make back its budget. 

FUN FACTS

  • There was an “Art of Frankenweenie Exhibition” that toured the world after the premiere. It had a wonderful reception and even came to Comic-Con in San Diego! You were able to tour some of the sets, props, and characters.
  • Burton invited his high school art teacher to the movie premiere.
  • Names of animators’ animals were on the gravestones at the pet cemetery.

AWARDS

Frankenweenie was nominated for a lot of awards, including for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature which it, unfortunately, did not win. It lost to Brave. It did, however, win a lot of awards in different states and Saturn Awards for Best Animated Film and Best Music.

Frankenweenie is a wonderful retelling of a classic story, with an optimistic twist. The original Frankenstein ends with the monster becoming increasingly destructive as he faces more cruelty, and the townsfolk end up hunting down a being that was initially harmless, his only crime being his existence. In Frankenweenie, the townsfolk make this same mistake but have the capacity to learn and grow, deciding to bring Sparky back to life. This concept can be summed up with the line, “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about,” spoken by Victor’s father at the end of the movie. 

In the tradition of the original, this movie explores human nature, the strength of an act of love, and how dangerous an act of fear can be. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

You can now buy us Popcorn! @  buymeacoffee.com/blackcasediary   

Thank you to all that support us whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


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The Case of Adventure Time

This week we are continuing Adventure August with a special guest: Robin’s sister, Becky! This week, we’re covering a show that is near and dear to Becky’s heart, and we thought she might enjoy geeking out with us. 

The late 2000’s was not the brightest spot in Cartoon Network’s history. The channel had begun to branch out, incorporating live-action shows into its programming in an attempt to compete with other kids’ networks. By July of 2009, this endeavor appeared fruitless, as almost none of the live-action shows proved to have any staying power. The network scrapped their block of live-action and started looking for new ideas. 

In April of 2010, Cartoon Network premiered a new animated series that would quickly become one of their most prominent properties. It followed the adventures of two best friends/brothers, a human named Finn and a dog named Jake. Together, they explored the magical land of Ooo, rescuing princesses, making friends, and going on various adventures. 

Adventure Time was strange and refreshing. Its world was rich with indescribably odd characters and yet completely relatable. Its themes were complex and sometimes dark, with a brightly colored coat of paint and enough humor to appeal to all audiences. It was a show that took the world by storm, knocking down barriers and opening doors for other off-beat animation for years to come. 

So this week, we’re meeting up with Finn and Jake in the Land of Ooo. Come on, grab your friends…because we all know what time it is! It’s Adventure Time! 

SUMMARY

  • Adventure Time centers around Jake the Dog and Finn the Human who, as the title suggests, go on adventures together. In these post apocalyptic adventures they fight evil, protect their friends, make new friends, and learn lessons. 

MEET THE CREATOR

  • Pendleton Ward has always been an introvert. In a 2014 Rolling Stone article, he detailed his experiences as an awkward, overweight child with a bowl cut. He never knew his dad but was raised by his mother, an artist that nurtured Ward’s creativity. 
  • Because he had difficulty understanding people, young Ward would take notes on the people he knew, trying to make sense of the characters around him. He loved Dungeons and Dragons and would roller-skate down to the comic shop. He felt like an outcast among outcasts.
  • When Ward attended CalArts, one of the top animation schools in the country, he found a group of peers that would become friends and collaborators. One of these friends was Adam Muto, a classmate and fellow artist who would join Ward on the biggest project of his lifetime. 
  • In the mid-2000’s, CalArts accepted one of Ward’s animated shorts into an end-of-the-year show called “The Producers Show.” Frederator, an independent animation studio that created TV shows like “The Fairly Odd Parents” and “My Life as a Teenage Robot,” was impressed by Ward’s work. At the time, the studio was accepting pitches for short films. They needed ideas to fill a Nickelodeon block of animated shorts, and they were taking pitches from anyone–even animators without experience or representation. 
  • Ward threw together a storyboard for a 7-minute short called “Adventure Time,” which followed the characters Pen and Jake, a human and dog that were best friends. The short made its way to Nickelodeon in 2007, which later broadcasted it in 2008 on the anthology show “Random! Cartoons.” Watch part of it here: Adventure Time Pilot (Nicktoons)
    • It was directed by Larry Leichliter, Hugo Morales, and Pendleton Ward. Adventure Time (2008) starred a group of actors that would eventually be replaced, except for John DiMaggio as Jake the Dog. John Kassir played the Ice King, and we might remember him as the voice of the Crypt Keeper. 
  • Initially, the short didn’t make a considerable impact commercially, but it earned a nomination for Best Animated Short Subject at the Annie Awards! Because of this, the short had to be available to watch online and was published on YouTube. Although the animated short didn’t win the Annie, something else incredible happened: it went viral.

As the video racked up over 3 million views online, it became clear that it had a far-reaching appeal. Frederator Studios decided to start pitching the show. Pendleton Ward found all of this exciting, but as he told Rolling Stone, “If the show hadn’t been picked up, I would have moved to the Midwest and gotten a cheap apartment. I would have been that guy with a telescope watching my neighbors, getting pizza and putting a sign on the door that says ‘Leave the pizza outside.'”

THE TROUBLESOME BEGINNINGS AND MAKING OF ADVENTURE TIME

  • After creating the original Adventure Time short, Pendleton Ward spent a year writing and creating storyboards for a Cartoon Network show called, “The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack.” Years later, he would credit this experience with teaching him how to run an animated series. 
  • Ward and Frederator pitched a full Adventure Time series to Nicktoons, and were reportedly rejected 5 times. Once Nickelodeon no longer had the rights to produce the series, Frederator producer Frank Seibert brought the concept to Cartoon Network.
    • As Ward admitted in an interview with Fastcompany.com, it’s a huge risk for a network to put money behind an original idea. Usually, studios like to pick up established properties that have proven to do well, and Adventure Time was a hard-sell in general. In a sense, the show was very open-ended. It was simply about two best friends just having adventures, and there wasn’t much of a hook.  
  • Luckily for Seibert and Ward, Cartoon Network was interested in producing a full series. However, they would only commit to a deal if Ward could prove the short “wasn’t a one-hit wonder”. Cartoon Network asked Ward to submit a sample script for their consideration, but the vice president of Frederator, Eric Homan, convinced Ward to play to his strengths, and create a storyboard instead. 
  • Ward turned to his friends Patrick McHale and Adam Muto, and they began developing ideas. For years after, Ward would explain that the characters he and his co-writers created weren’t just characters. Finn, Jake, and all the others were extensions of the writers themselves, and the people that Ward chose to work with were the heart and soul of the show. 
    • The group’s first storyboard featured Finn and Princess Bubblegum going on a spaghetti-supper date, but Cartoon Network was disinterested in the idea. It was clear that Ward and his team needed to recreate the magic of the original short. So Ward, McHale, and Muto created a storyboard for the episode “The Enchiridion!”, which was their attempt to consciously emulate the style of the original “Adventure Time.” This tactic proved successful, and Cartoon Network approved the first season in September 2008, with “The Enchiridion!” as the first episode to enter into production. 
  • Just as Ward and his team began storyboarding more episodes, Cartoon Network once again became concerned about the direction of the series. Because Adventure Time was one of the only new animated shows on the network, they needed to ensure its success. Compared to other animators, Ward and his colleagues were fairly inexperienced, and production became a little hectic. One issue was finding the right team of animators to work in Ward’s unique and simplistic style. Also, the writers still hadn’t landed on a clear vision of the show.
  • Cartoon Network put production on hold, and hired three veteran animators who had worked on SpongeBob SquarePants. Derek Drymon, who served as executive producer for the first season of Adventure Time, Merriwether Williams, who served as head story editor for the show’s first and second seasons, and Nick Jennings who became the series’ long-serving art director. The team added artists like Phil Rydna and Dan “Ghostshrimp” Bandit, two animators that were instrumental in getting the show off the ground as they were able to draw in Ward’s style. Derek Dryman was able to help the production team storyboard a new episode called “Prisoners of Love,” that would finally ease the anxieties of the network. Four long years after the original short, the show finally premiered on Cartoon Network on April 5, 2010.

SHOW PRODUCTION

  • Growing up, Ward was a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons and The Simpsons. He was able to combine the two to make Adventure Time. Ward told The A.V. Club that the show’s writing process usually began with the writers telling each other what they had done the previous week to find something to build on. He has compared the writing process to creating D & D characters, and playing them in that universe. To Ward and the other writers, they were just animating the campaigns of their assigned characters each week. 
  • Adventure Time was produced using hand-drawn animation. Because each episode took roughly eight to nine months to complete, multiple episodes were worked on at the same time. After the crew got a storyboard approved by Cartoon Network, the board was then worked into a script for the voice actors. The recorded dialogue was then placed under the polished storyboard panels, making a rough cut for the episode that the animators could follow. Then, character and prop designers would meet to see what needed to be designed for the episode. After the design phase, the animation was outsourced to South Korea. The animation was largely hand-drawn, and then scanned into the computer. Once it was completed, the American team looked over the episode for errors, sometimes making minor changes at the last second. 
  • Pen Ward kept an open mind as the showrunner. He would often let his team contribute their own ideas and stories while keeping control of the show overall. 
  • After four and a half successful seasons, Ward decided it was time to step down as showrunner. Although he stayed to contribute every now and then or look over stories, he felt it best for his personal health and wellbeing to step away. The pressures of controlling a massively popular show became too much for his introverted personality. He handed the reins to Adam Muto, his college buddy that helped him develop the show.
    • When Muto took over, the show went in a different direction. Although the show never lost its sense of whimsy, the tone shifted to be more introspective. There were more series’ of episodes, rather than one-off adventures, and the plots became even more complex. 
  • In an article for the LA Times Rebecca Sugar talked about what it was like working on the show, especially the finale. She said, “I wrote a song for the finale called “Time Adventure.” I wanted to write about how even if something ends, it continues to exist in the past, nothing ever really goes away, you only feel like it does because our mind has to process information one moment at a time in order for us to function as humans. I’m so nostalgic for the time that I spent working on “Adventure Time” and I find it comforting to think that I still exist in that office with Adam, working on those stories. I would be so happy to come to work and brainstorm with him and sit down and draw on paper and pitch these stories with Post-its tacked up to the wall, just like they did in the 1930s with the stick and the song and the dance, the most traditional way of doing cartoons.”

CAST

  • In order to create dialogue that would naturally flow between the characters, Adventure Time preferred recording as a group under the direction of Kent Osbourne. 
  • Hynden Walch, who voices Princess Bubblegum, said in a Comic Con interview that, “It’s just like doing a play reading—a really, really out there play.”
  • In order to bring some variety into the voice acting, the team has employed many actors for small roles within the show. Some actors were reached out to but others were fans of the show and asked to be a part of it! In an interview at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con Adam Muto and Kent Osborne remarked that they had a strange goal of getting all the actors from Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Office to voice recurring and minor roles. Kent made it clear though that when someone like Rainn Wilson had asked to guest star, they did not immediately put him in. They have a list of actors that have contacted them and when a character arises that would fit their voice they are brought in.

STARRING

Voice actors typically voice more than one character and so we will mention the main character that the actors voices but know that they voiced several others throughout the series.

  • John DiMaggio as Jake 
    • He is also known as Bender in Futurama.
    • In Paul Thomas’ “Exploring the Land of Ooo,” John DiMaggio is quoted saying, “I was trying to figure out from the beginning what the big deal was. I was like, ‘I’m not sure I understand what’s going on here.’ … You just had these lines that said whatever, and it was like, ‘I don’t get it.’ I said to Tom Kenny once, I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t get this show at all. I have no idea.’ And he was like, ‘Listen, man. Just trust me. This is this generation’s Yellow Submarine. Just leave it at that.’ And he was right. The art direction on the show, the whole world is great—the Land of Ooo is just weird. … It’s just a weird thing, you know. I love doing the show. It’s fun as hell.”
  • Jeremy Shada as Finn 
    • Jeremy is Reggie in Julie and the Phantoms!
    • The character of Finn was originally inspired by another animation by Pen Ward called Bueno the Bear. You can easily see how the style carried over to Adventure Time.
    • Bueno the Bear
    • Jeremy’s older brother Zach was the original voice of Finn
  • Tom Kenny as Ice King 
    • We all of course know Tom Kenny but in case you are not aware he is Spongebob!
  • Hynden Walch as Princess Bubblegum 
    • Hynden often voices Starfire in the Teen Titans shows.
    • Bubblegum was one of the first characters created for the show and was originally named Bettie after Ward’s mother. 
  • Olivia Olson as Marceline the Vampire Queen
    • She has been voices in other shows such as Phineas and Ferb, also played Joanna Anderson in “Love Actually”,  but is best known for Adventure Time
    • Ward got the idea for Marceline from a childhood friend!
  • Nikki Yang as BMO 
    • She also voices Candy Chiu in Gravity Falls.
  • Pendleton Ward as Lumpy Space Princess
    • He works on many Cartoon Network Studios projects as a screenwriter, animator, voice actor, etc.

RUNNING JOKES/ GAGS

  • Snail in every episode
    • Excluding the very first episode and a few others, the snail can be found within each episode. His appearance becomes a running gag as the seasons go on. He is even possessed by The Lich in a few episodes and can be seen with green eyes and an evil appearing expression.
  • Ice King kidnapping princesses
    • Many Fans believe that the Ice King is obsessed with Princesses because his human form, (Simon Petrikov) before becoming the ice king, had a fiancee named Betty. He would often call her princess. This leads those to believe that he is trying to find his princess or at least replace the love that he has lost.
  • Squirrel that hates Jake
    • His most famous words to Jake, “You son of a Bleep, Blop!”
  • Shelby the worm that lives in Jake’s viola 
    • His voice is created by altering Pen Ward’s! He is also specifically labeled as a male earthworm even though earthworms are in fact hermaphrodites. 
  • Finn being able to sing with auto-tune
    • We do not get to see in the show how Finn is able to sing auto-tune, but he says that when he was younger he swallowed a little computer.
  • Peppermint Butler being secretly evil
    • Peppermint Butler is Princess Bubblegum’s trusted butler, advisor, and friend. Throughout the series many instances show how he may have a dark side and past that is unbeknownst to the citizens of the candy kingdom. With this dark side he never turns on Princess Bubblegum and stays by her side making sure she is safe. 
  • The hints at Ooo being in a post apocalypse (Business Time)
    • Adventure Time is set in The Land of Ooo. The land of Ooo began as just a magical land but in the first season it quickly began to have a history emerge. This history does not become the main focus but rather a background to the main characters and their stories.
    • In a USA Today article Ward said, “I never planned it – I just saw this world as a magical place. The show developed organically – someone would add an element to the world, and it would stick. At some point, we did an episode about businessmen rising up from an iceberg at the bottom of a lake (“Business Time”) and that made the world post-apocalyptic, and we just ran with it.”

FAVORITE EPISODES

  • Wizard – Season 1, Episode 11
  • Dungeon – Season 1, Episode 18
  • Rainy Day Daydream – Season 1, Episode 23
  • The Other Tarts – Season 2, Episode 9
  • “What was Missing” Season 3, Episode 10
    • It is the genuine band episode
    • This episode is famous for deepening the relationship between Bubblegum and Marceline. After reading the episode, storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar suggested to Adam Muto that Bubblegum and Marceline had been in a romantic relationship that had gone south, which explains their complicated interactions and the cryptic lines of Marceline’s song. The show liked the idea, but knew that they had to approach it in a very subtextual way. Still, audiences understood what the writers were going for, and the episode sparked some controversy among the fanbase. 
    • Several seasons later in 2018, Cartoon Network aired the final episode which confirmed the relationship. 
  • Jake vs. Me-Mow – Season 3, Episode 16
    • This is a fan favorite because people love Me-Mow.
  • I Remember You – Season 4, Episode 25
  • The Lich – Season 4 finale
    • A big turning point for the show and first appearance of Prismo.

AWARDS/ RECEPTION

  • Although on first look Adventure Time seems to be for children, it has garnered an audience from a wide range of ages. Many teenagers and even adults relate to its offbeat humor and characters. This has caused some of its episodes to obtain over three million views! It paved the way for Cartoon Network after its failed attempts to compete with live action shows. 
  • Adventure Time has won several awards which include eight Primetime Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, three Annie Awards, two British Academy Children’s Awards, two Behind the Voice Actors Awards, a Motion Picture Sound Editors Award, and a Kerrang! Award. It has been nominated for many others as well. 
  • The series was so popular that lots of merch has been made which includes books, video games, clothing, and more.
  • The original series ended in 2018 but with it’s popularity still big, HBO brought it back in 2020. Adventure Time: Distant Lands has three episodes with a fourth on the way. The 42 minute specials explore new and distant worlds based on the universe that Pendleton Ward created.

INDUSTRY IMPACT

  • One example of Adventure Time’s positive impact is the continued careers and success of its crew. Many of the people that worked on the show went on to produce their own shows which include Over the Garden Wall, Steven Universe, OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, and City of Ghosts. 
  • Adventure Time brought in a new era for cartoons where artists could come together and create a series without holding back. It has inspired countless shows after it with its storyline and animation style. Adventure Time demonstrated that independent artists could not only animate but create interesting and successful stories. 
  • Finn and Jake are so big that they are also now included in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!

In the late 2000s, Cartoon Network took a big risk, and boy did it pay off. In a world already overwhelmed with remakes and revivals, they decided to take a different path; a unique path; a weird path. Adventure Time is one of the most important animated shows of the 2010s. It not only gained an unbelievable cult following, it ushered in a new era of animation for Cartoon Network and even some other animation giants. But putting the needs of big studios aside, it’s a show that likely inspired other animators, proving that success isn’t out of reach–even for the weirdos. Adventure Time is out there, and that’s what makes it special. Its humor is off-beat, and not everyone will understand it all the time, but every moment is understood by someone. So, if you’re in the mood for an adventure, go check out the land of Ooo. The fun never ends. 

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The Case of Amblimation

So we all know Steven Spielberg as a groundbreaking director that brought us classics like Jaws and Jurassic Park. But even though his live-action achievements are well-known, his contributions to the animation world might be overlooked from time to time. 

Spielberg’s love of animation drove him to collaborate with Don Bluth on movies like The Land Before Time and An American Tail, beloved classics that are likely still enjoyed at grandparents’ houses all over America. But the director wanted to do more with the medium. So, he teamed up with Universal Pictures to create his own animation studio: Amblimation. 

This week, we’re taking a look at the short-lived history of this defunct studio, and its three films. Amblimation may not have lasted long, but its movies will live forever in the hearts of viewers everywhere. 

  • In 1981, only 6 years after Jaws took a huge bite out of box office numbers, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall launched their own film production company, Amblin. Its logo would later become the iconic image of Elliot flying with ET over the full moon. 
  • Under Amblin, Spielberg teamed up with Don Bluth to create the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of the time: An American Tail. The movie even beat Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective in box office numbers, and proved that Spielberg could be successful in animation as well as live action. 
    • An American Tail tells the story of Fievel Mousekewitz and his family as they emigrate from the Imperial Russian territory of Ukraine to the United States for freedom.
  • Amblin continued to work with Bluth, creating the childhood classic The Land Before Time. This film was also a major success, prompting many sequels. If these two films weren’t enough of an indication that Spielberg could succeed as an animation producer, it was the wildly successful Who Framed Roger Rabbit that really sealed the deal. The hybrid animation/live-action film drew in massive crowds, beating out the box office numbers for the previously mentioned films. 
  • Spielberg wanted to continue to work with Bluth, and had ideas for An American Tail sequel. Bluth reportedly turned him down, as he didn’t like the lack of creative control he had had with the other two films. So in 1989, Spielberg made his own animation studio with Universal Pictures. He based the studio in the UK, and sought out animators outside the United States. Walt Disney Animation essentially had a monopoly on all the best animators at the time, except of course the team at Don Bluth (which Spielberg wasn’t about to try and poach). It would be difficult to convince someone with a job at the most historically successful animation studio to jump on a new and uncertain venture. 
  • Once Spielberg had his team, they set to work on their first feature film, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.

AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST (NOVEMBER 22, 1991)

Don Bluth has a unique animation style that can be imitated, but not replicated. He was noticeably absent from the second installment of the “American Tail” franchise, so Fievel Goes West had a different tone and animation style from its predecessor. 

When asked about it in an interview, director Phil Nibbelink said, “Don Bluth made a beautiful movie with American Tail. We tried to live up to it and go beyond it. We would never be able to match Don Bluth’s style. He had such a distinct style. We had a completely different set of artists. It forced us to go in a different direction.”

SYNOPSIS

  • Fievel is up to his old tricks as the family moves out west for a better life, as New York is not the catless dream they expected it to be. They are once again deceived by a smooth talking cat, that plans on exploiting the labor of the mice and eventually turning them into “mouse burgers.” (Ew.) But, luckily their old cat pal Tiger has followed them to Green River, and will help them face off against the evil Cat R Wahl. 

PRODUCTION

  • This film was directed by Simon Wells and former Disney animator Phil Nibbelink.
  • Like we said before, Spielberg had to go to Europe to find more animators to fill his team. He built a production crew of 280 people, 120 of them were animators. The rest were ink and paint, background artists, layout artists, etc.
  • All voices for the film were recorded before animation, which is a common film practice. Usually, voices are recorded after the storyboard process, but before the animation. This ensures that animators don’t draw extra scenes that end up not working, and they can hear exactly how the characters will speak as they draw. 
  • Spielberg wanted the movie to have a live-action cinematic quality to it. He pushed for the animation to not have very many cuts. He wanted the animators to save that for building tension. For most of it he wanted a moving camera, and this meant that animators had to draw really long backgrounds so they could keep the shots moving. The movie relies heavily on its western setting, and this technique helped establish that. 
    • The background was watercolor underneath, and artists used pastel, crayon, and a little bit of airbrush to create depth! 
  • Animators also worked with a variety of angles, which was not common in animation.

MUSIC

  • The music was composed by James Horner but the film does feature the song Rawhide from the movie “The Blues Brothers” in which Spielberg cameoed in! 

STARRING

  • Phillip Glasser returned to lend his voice as Fievel
    • He is an actor and producer known for The Illusionist and Agent Cody Banks.
  • Veteran film actor James Stewart plays the heroic Wylie Burp! 
    • He is known for Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, The Philadelphia Story, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and fittingly, How the West Was Won
    • This was his final film credit before his death in 1992.
  • Erica Yohn as Mama
    • She has been in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, The Godfather: Part II, and Corrina Corrina.
  • Cathy Cavadini as Tanya
    • She is best known as Blossom in the Powerpuff Girls.
  • Nehemiah as Persoff
    • He has been in Some Like It Hot, Twins, and The Wrong Man.
  • Dom Deluise as Tiger
    • He is known for All Dogs Go to Heaven, Blazing Saddles, and The Secret of NIMH.
  • Amy Irving as Miss Kitty
    • She has been in Traffic, Adam, Carrie, and Crossing Delancey.
  • John Cleese as Cat R. Waul 
    • John Cleese is known for Monty Python and A Fish Called Wanda.
    • Fun fact- He turned down Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast for this role! Which is especially interesting because the two movies released the same day.
  • Jon Lovitz as Chula
    • He has been in A League of Their Own, Happiness, Rat Race, and Loaded Weapon 1.

RECEPTION/IMPACT/AWARDS

  • Although it did not win anything it was nominated at the 1992 Golden Globes for Best Original Song for “Dreams to Dream.” The music was by James Horner with lyrics by Will Jennings.
  • It grossed about $40,766,041 worldwide. Alternatively, Beauty and the Beast, which released on the same day, was the first animated movie to reach 100 million dollars in its first run.

In order to maintain a consistent release schedule with their movies, Amblimation worked on all three of its projects simultaneously. Originally, the next feature planned was an animated version of the musical Cats. But as that ran into problems, the studio focused on releasing another film, based on Hudson Talbott’s book, “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story.”

WE’RE BACK! A DINOSAUR’S STORY (NOVEMBER 24, 1993)

SYNOPSIS

  • Captain Neweyes travels back in time and feeds dinosaurs his Brain Grain cereal, which makes them intelligent and nonviolent. They agree to go to the future in order to grant the wishes of children in New York city. Their plan is to meet Dr. Bleeb of the Museum of Natural History, but they get side-tracked with some new friends and later run into the Captain’s evil brother, Professor Screweyes, who has other plans for the dinosaurs.

PRODUCTION

  • Hanna-Barbera was the first company to contact Hudson Talbott about obtaining rights to his book We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (1987), only months after its release. It may sound funny to hear of the “Scooby Doo” animators making full-length films, but they produced some great animation, like the 1973 version of “Charlotte’s Web.” Universal Pictures then paid off Hanna-Barbera and purchased the rights for Spielberg to produce the film.
  • The film was directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells, who also directed Fievel Goes West!
  • Although Talbott had little involvement, he had many encounters with the creators of the film during production, including Spielberg who would make several calls to the author. 
  • Storyboarding of We’re Back started in 1990 during the production of Fievel Goes West. The first screenplay draft was written by Flint Dille and the film’s director Simon Wells. But, the initial script was not well received by Spielberg, and he hired John Patrick Shanley to write another draft, which was done quickly and ultimately used. 
  • The book was only 20 pages and lacked any antagonist or any major plot points, making it difficult to adapt. Talbott felt the film had none of the tongue-in-cheek humor that he wrote in his book, so the voice actors changed a few lines while recording. However, this was not approved by Shanley, so his original lines were used in the final film. 
    • And funny side note; John Goodman started recording his part just shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed!
  • While Amblimation was working on the film, Spielberg secured the rights to Michael Crichton’s book, Jurassic Park. The animators knew that even though they had been working on the animation for years, the films would likely release around the same time. When Nibbelink saw the ILM’s computer work for Jurassic Park, he said he knew that the film would be a game-changer. There’s no doubt it overshadowed “We’re Back” as the best Dinosaur film of the year, probably decade, maybe even century?

MUSIC

  • The music for all the Amblimation films was done by James Horner. His work is the emotional cornerstone of “We’re Back,” as the movie can be quite silly. 
  • Horner wrote the melody to, “Roll Back the Rock,” with lyrics by Thomas Dolby. Horner proved time and time again that he was a talented songwriter, and Spielberg utilized that to great effect. 

STARRING

  • John Goodman as Rex
    • He is known for things like Roseanne, The Big Lebowski, and Monsters Inc.
  • Blaze Berdahl as Buster
    • She has been in the 1989 Pet Sematary and the show Ghostwriter.
  • Rhea Perlman as Mother Bird
    • She is most known for being in Matilda, and the shows Cheers and Taxi.
  • Jay Leno as Vorb
    • He is of course known for being a big tv personality for The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show.
  • René Le Vant as Woog
    • He has been in Rocky II and the 1977 The Incredible Hulk.
  • Felicity Kendal as Elsa
    • She has been in things like Good Neighbors, Valentino, and Parting Shots.
  • Charles Fleischer as Dweeb
    • He is known for movies such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zodiac, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
  • Walter Cronkite as Captain Naweyes
    • He was a news reporter and journalist who lended his voice to just a few movies and shows. 
  • Julia Child as Dr. Bleeb
    • This movie was her only acting role as she is most known for her cooking and cook books.
  • Kenneth Mars as Professor Screweyes
    • He is known for Young Frankenstein, The Producers (1967), and The Little Mermaid.
  • Yeardley Smith as Cecilia 
    • She is Lisa and other characters in The Simpsons. She was also in Maximum Overdrive and As Good As It Gets.
  • Martin Short as Stubbs the Clown
    • He has been in Father of the Bride, Three Amigos!, and Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.

RECEPTION/IMPACT/AWARDS

  • We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story released during the start of an economic downturn for animated features in the early 1990s. It opened during the Thanksgiving holiday with other new entries including Mrs. Doubtfire, A Perfect World, and a film adaptation of The Nutcracker. It grossed $3.7 million on its opening weekend and ended with a total gross of $9 million in the United States. The film was generally considered to be a poor performer, and it was the highest grossing children’s film of its opening weekend only because it was a poor weekend for the genre.

By the mid 1990’s, animation wasn’t lucrative for anyone except Disney. Other studios were struggling to make films that competed with what would be later known as The Disney Renaissance. In an LA Times article dated January, 1994, an anonymous Disney animator was quoted saying, “Animation–even bad animation–is a lot of work, and if you do that much work, you want people to see it, but the reality of the situation is that people won’t go see it unless it’s a Disney film.”

We’re Back was considered a flop, and certainly had its problems. But, after its video release, more fans were drawn to the wacky storyline, mysterious villain, and John Goodman’s stellar performance as Rex. The components of a good animated film were there. In 1990, producer David Kirschner expressed concern that studios would start releasing films that weren’t quite ready for consumers, in an attempt to push forward with an animation renaissance. His worries proved valid, as more animated projects seemed to flounder throughout the 90’s. 

After Amblimation’s second flop, it pushed forward to release its third, and ultimately final film, “Balto.” If you grew up in the 90’s, you might think of Balto as a success, as it seemed to constantly air on TV and in waiting rooms at the pediatrician’s office. Unfortunately, the popularity of the film didn’t manifest until after it was in theaters. 

BALTO (DECEMBER 22, 1995)

SYNOPSIS

The film is loosely based on the true story about a sled dog team that helped save children infected with diphtheria in 1925, by performing a serum run to Nome, Alaska. The movie focuses on a dynamic main protagonist, Balto, who is part wolf and Siberian Husky. Despite the challenges that Balto faces as a social outcast, he ends up taking charge and leading the team on the treacherous journey to Nome, saving the children in the process. https://www.youtube.com/embed/ucfHDO4k9gM?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

PRODUCTION

  • It is a 1995 animated adventure film directed by Simon Wells, produced by Amblimation and distributed by Universal Pictures. 
  • Writer Elana Lesser recollected being told the story of Balto by her grandfather when she was younger and as an adult thought it would be a beautiful animated feature. She and writer, Cliff Ruby, pitched the idea to Amblin with their screenplay in tow. It was then relayed to Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells.
  • Director Simon Wells had to heavily persuade Steven Spielberg to make this story. It was close to his heart and he felt it needed to be told. It was a tough sell as Spielberg was apprehensive of a movie that he felt would not be colorful enough. In order to quell these fears Wells showed him dozens of small color studies done by the production designer Hans Bacher. They proved that the movie would not be solely black and white dogs on a desolate background. It ended up being Simon Wells’ first solo directed movie, as Nibbelink would leave the project to return to working on We’re Back. David Cohen and Roger Schulman would fine tune the story into the final screenplay that would be accepted.
  • Since the budget was tight, a lot of tough decisions had to be made. An example of this would be that they would have to choose between either shadows or footprints in the snow. In the typical shot they could not afford both so they would try to figure out what they could get away with not having or showing.
  • In order for the voice actors to get a sense of the characters they were portraying, several model sheets were drawn up for the actors to look at. These sheets were done in the early years of development and would show different aspects of the character-like facial expressions, movement, and size comparisons.
    • The team brought in 7 siberian huskies to study! They were used among many other references in order to get look and character movement correct.
  • When asked about the decision not to reveal the identity of the white wolf, Wells said “We wanted to keep it mystical and vague – is this a real event or is it some kind of hallucination that Balto is experiencing? All of these were reasons to not have the White Wolf speak or in any way explain himself. Perhaps the Wolf is a manifestation of Balto’s inner voice, telling him to take ownership and use that part of him that he has always been ashamed of – certainly that is the message Balto takes from the encounter, real or not.”
  • Unfortunately the morse code used within the movie is just gibberish with no hidden easter eggs.

MUSIC

  • The music was once again composed by James Horner. Wells said that, “James preferred to present his score as the orchestral finished product, and make alterations based on notes from that finished product…”
    • This process made sense because Horner was in California while the rest of the cast and crew was in the United Kingdom
    • Balto is considered to be Horner’s best Amblimation score, with beautiful and enchanting music that remains one of the best features of the film. 

CASTING

  • Kevin Bacon as Balto 
    • He is known for Footloose, Tremors, and Mystic River.
  • Bob Hoskins as Boris
    • He was in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Long Good Friday, and Unleashed.
  • Bridget Fonda as Jenna
    • She is in A Simple Plan, Point of No Return, and Single White Female.
  • Jim Cummings as Steele
    • He has been in Princess and the Frog, Aladdin, and the 2018 Christopher Robin.
  • Phil Collins as Muk and Luk
    • He is a music composer, that we all know. Tarzan, etc.
  • Juliette Brewer as Rosy
    • She was also in The Little Rascals and Vegas Vacation.

RECEPTION/IMPACT/AWARDS

  • The film earned over $11 million at the domestic box office.
  • It was forced to compete with classics like Jumanji and Toy Story, which absolutely destroyed Balto in terms of numbers. 
  • It was nominated for the Young Artists Award for Best Family Feature – Musical or Comedy and three different Annie Awards. Unfortunately it did not take any wins home.

WHAT HAPPENED TO AMBLIMATION? 

  • When Balto opened, it only earned 1.5 million dollars opening weekend. It was in 15th place, and even though it seems to be the most well-known and successful of Amblimation’s films, its failure to draw in crowds seemed to be the nail in the coffin for the studio. 
  • Originally, the plan was to release a new film every year. The fourth feature in the making was an animated version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” 
    • The film was to be set during the London blitz, with traditionally animated characters set against 3D miniature sets. The art style was inspired by German expressionism. Animator Hans Bacher said he roamed the “ugliest” parts of London to take reference photos, and the team had been working on the project since they had wrapped “Fievel Goes West.” 
    • Of course, this version of “Cats” never came to be. There were disagreements about the screenplay, and production stopped after 6 months. The studio moved on to the other two films that it produced. When Spielberg relocated the studio to California, a new team started work on the project. But, it eventually stopped and Amblimation folded in 1997. 
    • Since Amblimation was gone, Universal bought the rights to the play. And well…we know how that story ends. Imagine if Amblimation had held on for just a few more years, we would have an entirely different version of cats than the monstrosity that clawed its way into our collective psyche in 2019. 
  • Now, you could say that Amblimation never REALLY disappeared. After the devastating box office loss for Balto, Spielberg saw the writing on the wall, and shifted his attention to a new venture. 
  • Throughout the early and mid-90’s, Amblimation was attempting to compete against the Disney machine. Like we said before, this was the Disney Renaissance. Fievel Goes West was overshadowed by Beauty and the Beast. By 1994, audiences were only gambling their movie money on Disney animation. And when Balto hit theaters, it stood against the first ever full-length computer animated film. 
    • Things didn’t seem to be slowing down for the animation giant, but in 1994, the company lost its president, Frank Wells, in a tragic helicopter crash. The death sent shock waves through the institution, and prompted the resignation of one of the architects of the Disney Renaissance: Jeffrey Katzenburg. 
    • Katzenburg had struggled with Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner for years. We talk about this a little more in our episode on The Disney Exodus from last year. 
    • So, what’s one of the most successful animation producers to do when he finds himself out of a job? 
    • Well, luckily for Katzenburg, another producer and director had already rounded up some of the best talent in animation outside of the US. Katzenburg, Spielberg, and businessman David Geffin created Dreamworks SKG, and named Katzenburg as the head of the animation division. 
    • Of course, as Spielberg focused more on the new venture, Amblimation fell to the wayside. Many sources report that all the animators currently employed at the studio moved to Dreamworks Animation by 1995, and Amblimation was defunct by 1997. 

Amblimation might not have lasted long, but its legacy will live on in our hearts forever. It didn’t make the most groundbreaking or popular films, sure, but it wasn’t afraid to try new things. Looking at the box office, it’s easy to say they were an undisputed failure. But, that’s okay. Amblimation wasn’t afraid to fail, and success isn’t always measured in dollars. They made three perfectly respectable films that entertained millions of kids, just not in the theater. They learned from their mistakes, and they moved on to make more films at one of the most successful animation studios today. Without Amblimation, we would not only be missing these movies, but we might’ve missed out on films like The Prince of Egypt and How to Train Your Dragon. There’s something to be said for the lesson that Amblimation taught us. Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful and respected filmmakers of all time; and if he’s not afraid to fail, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, and Linda.


SOURCES: 

https://www.slashfilm.com/the-short-but-animated-legacy-of-amblimation/

IMDB

We’re Back:

https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/roll-back-the-rock-an-oral-history-of-were-back-a-dinosaurs-story-for-its-25th-birthday

https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-01-04-ca-8386-story.html

Fievel Goes West:

Balto:

The Case of the Animated Hidden Gems

Happy Animation April! Last year, we packed this month with several historical episodes about the beautiful artform of animation. This year, we’re starting the month with something a little different. 

The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt, and Toy Story are all beloved animated classics that have stood the test of time. But today, we won’t be talking about any of them. Every once in a while, a beautiful animated movie will hit theaters, and do…okay. They can have great stories, wonderful performances, and innovative design, but people just won’t go to see it. Sometimes it’s because the studio doesn’t have enough name recognition. Other times it’s because of marketing, or because the movie looks strange and took risks, and people like the familiar. Why do you think Disney still makes princess movies? Because it’s what the people want. Why are all the Marvel movies the same; allow me to answer by directing you to my previous sentence.

So today, we each picked a movie that we felt deserved a little more exposure. These are films we love, that if you haven’t seen, we recommend you give them a chance. Here are our animated hidden gems!  

ADAM- SURF’S UP (2007)

SYNOPSIS

  • Surfing means everything to teenage penguin Cody Maverick. Followed by a documentary film crew, he leaves his home in Shiverpool, Antarctica for PenGu Island, site of the Big Z Memorial Surf Off. Cody wants to be respected and admired, and he believes that only winning the competition will bring him that. However, an encounter with washed-up surfer Geek, teaches Cody about what is truly important.

PRODUCTION

  • Surf’s Up is a mockumentary comedy film directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck. Starting production in 2002, it was Sony Pictures Animation’s second theatrical feature film after Open Season. It is a parody of surfing documentaries, such as The Endless Summer and Riding Giants. 
  • Early on in production, one of the first things they did was take the entire crew and actors to the beach to take surfing lessons. It was to get a sense of the characters’ lifestyle as well as to take in the majesty of the ocean and waves. They were looking for a balance between the fun and flair of surfing, with the danger and power of the ocean. 
    • The animators even designed a unique rig just for the waves, so they could be properly realized. 
  • For this movie, the directors wanted to nail the documentary feel. Most documentaries have someone with a camera trying to capture spontaneous moments and it’s often rough and jittery. To obtain the desired hand-held organic feel, the film’s animation team used, an at the time, groundbreaking motion-capture technology that utilized a physical camera and a live operator’s movements. It was a camera that filmed a digital environment through the viewfinder, with another small camera on top that senses the outside room. This allows the camera operation to move around in the virtual space while the digital images stay in their place. 
  • In another unusual move, the directors decided to have voice recording sessions done live in person with multiple actors together. Usually voice acting is done in a small booth with one actor being fed lines to say in various ways. But for Surf’s up they didn’t want the dialogue to sound like it was planned out or being read from a page. This was crucial to creating the documentary, “this is happening right in front of us” feel. 
    • Ash Brannon said in a behind the scenes interview talking about creating real chemistry, “We encouraged them to overlap each other and just be themselves. People recognize real conversation. It just has a different sound to it than a scripted movie. Everything about the way you talk changes when you are talking face to face.” 
    • Shia LaBeouf also recalled being told that they were willing to do three hours of ad libbing for a five second moment on screen. Many of Cody’s (the main character) lines were in fact adlibs. 
  • Real-life surfers Kelly Slater and Rob Machado make appearances as their penguin surfer counterparts along with Sal Masekela, the announcer for the X-Games. They were originally brought on as consultants for the film, but the directors got the idea to create an in universe sports network to add to the feeling of authenticity, and they were the perfect voices for the job. 

VOICES

  • Shia LaBeouf as Cody Maverick
    • Known for many movies including Holes, Transformers and Disturbia. 
  • Jeff Bridges as Zeke “Big Z/Geek” 
    • Also a well known actor from films like Tron: Legacy, The Big Lebowski and True Grit.
  • Zooey Deschanel as Lani
    • She is in many things such as 500 Days of Summer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but may be most currently known for her role in New Girl.
  • Jon Heder as Chicken Joe
    • Most famous for playing Napoleon Dynamite he is also in Blades of Glory, and provided a voice in Monster House. 
  • Mario Cantone as Mikey
    • He is an actor that is know mainly for his part in Sex and the City (both the show and movies.)
  • James Woods as Reggie Belafonte
    • A famous voice that we all know from Hercules. But he was also in things like  Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and the 2006 version of E.R.
  • Diedrich Bader as Tank Evans
    • A voice actor for numerous cartoons and games, he was also in Office Space and Napoleon Dynamite.
  • Kelly Slater as the penguin version of himself
    • Known for an unprecedented 11 world surfing championship wins and is widely regarded as one of the greatest professional surfers of all time.
  • Rob Machado as the penguin version of himself
    • Machado has won the Hawaii’s Pipeline Masters (which is called the Triple Crown of Surfing), and the U.S. Open of Surfing, the largest surfing event held on the U.S. mainland.
    • He also hosts and participates in an annual event held at his home reef called the “Rob Machado Surf Classic and Beach Fair” which is an amateur competition for the locals of all ages.
  • Selema “Sal” Mabena Masekela as himself (sports tv announcer)
    • He is an American television host, sports commentator, actor and singer. He was also the voice of the X-games for 13 years, including the time this movie came out.

MUSIC

  • Surf’s Up: Original Ocean Picture Score was composed for the film by Mychael Danna.
    • He also did the recent Onward with his brother Jeff Danna as well as the new Addams Family and The Good Dinosaur.
  • The soundtrack for this film is made up of many popular rock, punk rock, and alternative rock bands from all around North America and The UK. 
    • Ex: Green Day, Pearl Jam, Incubus, Sugar Ray.
    • According to the film’s end credits, the version of “Wipe Out” heard in the film is actually performed by The Queers. The official soundtrack includes this version under the pseudonym “Big Nose”, for marketing purposes. It is to this day, the only song under that name. 

RECEPTION

  • The film was released on June 8, 2007, and received generally positive reviews from critics, with praise for the animation and humor. However, the film didn’t break any sales records, grossing $149 million against a budget of $100 million. 
  • But it was also nominated at the 80th Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature! Ratatouille was the winner that year. 
  • A straight to dvd sequel was made in 2017 called “Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania” as a cameo tie in with the WWE.
    • Jon Heder and Diedrich Bader were the only two to reprise their roles. 
    • We don’t talk about this one…

WHY THIS MOVIE IS A HIDDEN GEM

  • With so many CGI animated feature films starring cute animals pouring in year after year, it can be tough to sort through them all and figure out which ones are worth looking at. Surf’s Up belongs in the pile with the good ones. This mockumentary film has a unique humor to it that spins the same old underdog storyline into something fresh that everyone can enjoy. It is one of Surf’s Up’s most admirable traits. There’s enough for the adults without too much material going over kids’ heads and there’s plenty of physical humor that kids will enjoy. The mockumentary style provides a fresh perspective, and there’s also plenty of good values that one would expect from an animated movie focused on a sport: never give up, winning isn’t everything, and the value of friendship.
  • Additionally, the animation is strong. Most interesting is the way the animation is meant to reflect real life as if it were being shot like a live-action documentary. So, it’s very cool in terms of filmmaking, not just a mere concept. It’s unique, sweet and fun to watch. This movie keeps the plot simple but shows it in a new and very interesting way.

ROBIN- THE LAST UNICORN (1982)

Sometimes a hidden gem can garner a cult following, but still somehow avoid the radar of mainstream audiences. The film I chose is certainly popular in some circles, and is still regarded as one of the best and lasting animated films of the 1980’s. But, I personally know a lot of people who haven’t seen it, and some who are unwilling to give it a chance. So, I am bringing it up today in the hopes that at least one person listening has not seen it, and will seek it out with an open mind. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Enq2pFpBz1s?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

We all know Rankin and Bass as the team that brought Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman to life. But in the fall of 1982, they produced a full-length feature film that was worlds away from their happy holiday specials. It was based on a popular novel by Peter S. Beagle, and starred Mia Farrow as the titular character: a unicorn who has just discovered that she may be the last of her kind. 

The Last Unicorn is a heartfelt and imaginative story. It is weird, dark, and wonderful. It entertained and horrified an entire generation of children, and aged well with them as it contains messages that only adults will likely understand. 

SYNOPSIS

  • From a riddle-speaking butterfly, a unicorn learns that she is the last of her kind, all of the others having been herded away by a terrifying force known as the Red Bull. The unicorn sets out to find others like her. She is eventually joined on her quest by Schmendrick, a hapless magician, and Molly Grue, a middle-aged woman. Their journey leads them to the castle of the tragic King Haggard, a man who has never known happiness. In order to shield the unicorn from the red bull, Schmendrick transforms her into a human. The three of them stay at Haggard’s castle as they try to find where the rest of the unicorns have gone, and how to save them. They don’t have much time, because the unicorn becomes more and more human each day, as she falls in love with the King’s son. If she forgets her true form, all hope of saving the unicorns may be gone forever. 

PRODUCTION

  • Peter S. Beagle is one of the world’s most celebrated fantasy authors. In 1968, he published The Last Unicorn, a book listed in Time Magazine’s “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time in October of 2020. The list was curated by a panel of authors, including Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin. 
  • Beagle himself never really imagined the story becoming a film, but it was so popular that filmmakers started approaching early on. Beagle knew he would be devastated if another writer touched and changed his work, so he insisted on writing the screenplay if this were to ever happen. Now, we all know that just because someone is a good writer, it doesn’t mean they are a good screenwriter. But, because Beagle had written the screenplay for the 1978 animated “Lord of the Rings,” the studio allowed him to write The Last Unicorn as well. 
    • Beagle has said that he didn’t have any input other than his screenplay, but that the film stayed remarkably close to what he had written. 
  • According to Beagle, Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez (the creators of the Charlie Brown specials) were interested in making the film. But, one of the partners’ wives pulled Beagle aside and reportedly said, “Don’t let us do it, we aren’t good enough.” Beagle didn’t know what possessed her to do that, but Mendelson and Melendez ended up not taking on the job. 
  • Producer Michael Chase Walker bought the rights to the book from Beagle, and optioned it to different animation studios. Finally, Rankin/Bass’s offer was the one they went with, which concerned Beagle. 
    • Like I said before, these were the Rudolph guys. You can forgive Beagle for being a little apprehensive as they tackled this epic fantasy film. 
    •  “I do remember being horrified when he told me that Rankin & Bass had made the deal with him, and screaming ‘Why the hell didn’t you just go to Hanna-Barbera!’ To which he replied ‘They were next on the list.’ That was going to be it.”
  • As we mentioned in our Rank(ing) and Bass episode, the studio always outsourced their animation to Japan, with great success. The Last Unicorn was no different, as Rankin and Bass acted as directors, and employed the Japanese studio Topcraft to bring the movie to life under the production management of Masaki Izuka. A few years later, Topcraft folded and was bought by legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, along with Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. They built the studio into the magnificent powerhouse that is Studio Ghibli

STARRING

  • When Rankin and Bass set out to cast the film, the animators were able to secure every voice actor they wanted. No one turned down a part, which meant the film had a stellar cast. 
    • Legendary screen and stage actress Mia Farrow plays The Unicorn/Lady Amalthea. 
      • She’s known for many things, including Rosemary’s Baby, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and Alice. 
    • Jeff Bridges plays Prince Lir
      • After hearing that a friend of his was cast in the film, Bridges called Jules Bass and asked for a role, offering to work for free. Bass hired him immediately to play Prince Lir. 
    • Alan Arkin plays Shmendrick the magician
      • Peter Beagle has praised the performances of the actors in the film, all except for Arkin. He thought his version of Schmendrick was a little flat. Arkin brought an every-man quality to the character, though, as he wasn’t meant to really steal the show. 
    • Tammy Grimes plays Molly Gru
      • While Beagle was critical of Arkin, he seemed impressed with Tammy Grimes’ version of Molly Gru. He said in an interview that Grimes brought something to the character that he himself didn’t add. 
    • Christopher Lee plays King Haggard
      • Lee was a huge fan of the book, and brought his own annotated copy to his recording sessions. When he saw Beagle, he asked for his approval of his vocal performance and offered to do it again if it was unsatisfactory. 
      • Lee was also fluent in German, and loved playing King Haggard so much, he recorded the lines for German version of the film as well. 
    • Angela Lansbury plays Mommy Fortuna
    • Robert Klein plays the butterfly
    • Rene Auberjonois plays the talking skull.
    • And Rankin/Bass regulars Paul Frees and Keenan Wynn played various voices as well

MUSIC

  • Songwriter and composer Jimmy Webb created the music for The Last Unicorn. He’s had many popular songs for artists like Donna Summer, Art Garfunkel, and Glen Campbell. 
  • The songs for the movie were performed by the actors, and the folk rock band, America. 
    • The modern sound of the music, mixed with the medieval imagery adds a timeless element to the film. It’s never specified when the story takes place, and there are modern references throughout. 

RECEPTION

  • Despite the film’s cult following, producers had a difficult time finding a distribution company. Eventually, the now-defunct Jensen Farley Pictures released the film on less than 700 screens across the country. It was rated G, despite scary imagery that would plague children’s nightmares for years to come. According to IMDB, the film’s budget was $3,500,000, and made $6,455,330. But, these numbers are misleading. Fans of the film and internet sleuths have claimed that reporting on the box office numbers stopped after 17 days. If this is true, it would mean that the actual amount earned will likely never be known. They believed that this was because Jensen Farley reported bankruptcy while distributing the film, but according to court documents, this happened later. 
  • Although the film made money, it wasn’t considered a huge success. Some sources claim that the producers didn’t see profits from the film. Peter S. Beagle has said that he thought the film was better than expected, and loves the animation. 
  • The film received favorable reviews. Janet Maslin of the NYT said, ”’THE Last Unicorn’ is an unusual children’s film in many respects, the chief one being that it is unusually good. This animated fable also features a cast that would do any live-action film proud, a visual style noticeably different from that of other children’s fare, and a story filled with genuine sweetness and mystery. Children, except perhaps for very small ones, ought to be intrigued by it; adults won’t be bored. And no one of any age will be immune to the sentiment of the film’s final moments, which really are unexpectedly touching and memorable.”

WHY IS THIS A HIDDEN GEM?

The Last Unicorn is a wonderful movie that showcases the best that 1980’s animation had to offer. It’s not Disney or Don Bluth, and it had an uphill battle all through its creation. It’s a movie that most of us have heard about, but maybe only saw once as a kid or never at all. At times, the story seems like a standard hero’s quest for children, and then it throws the audience a curveball. One moment, you think you’re watching a cute film about a unicorn, the next, you’re watching the comic relief almost get smothered by the breasts of a lovestruck tree. 

The film has sharp edges, and presents truths that will have the adult audience nodding its head in agreement. We watch as an immortal, magnificent creature must seek help from humble, fragile humans. And in time, she’s burdened by the lessons of humanity like love and regret. 

MARCI- THE WIZARD OF OZ (1982)

SYNOPSIS

  • Dorothy is left to tend to the farm alone as her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry go off to run some errands. When a tornado comes she frantically tries to get herself and her dog, Toto, into the cellar. When Toto runs from her because he gets scared Dorothy gets knocked out as she is thrown to the floor of the cabin. When she wakes up it is in The Land of Oz where she meets many characters and tries to find her way home to Kansas. (You know the basic plot of The Wizard of Oz.. lol)

PRODUCTION

  • This little gem was based on L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz and directed by Fumihiko Takayama. The screenplay was written by Yoshimitsu Banno and Akira Miyazaki.
  • It was produced by Banno and Katsumi Ueno for Toho Co., Ltd.  This movie was also made with cooperation from Topcraft Animation!
  • English version came first
    • Although this movie was animated in Japan it was not dubbed for Japanese release until 1986! The English version surprisingly came first. 

MUSIC

  • The music was done by Joe Hisaishi and Yuichiro Oda. Joe would later go on to write music for many of the Studio Ghibli movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. There were three songs and the English lyrics were written by Sammy Cahn and Allen Byrns. The three songs were all performed in English by Aileen Quinn and are; “It’s Strictly Up to You,” “I Dream of Home,” and “A Wizard of a Day.” 

THE BOOK, THE 1939 MOVIE AND THIS MOVIE

  • Everyone of course knows Dorothy as this lovely young girl portrayed by the brown haired and pigtailed Judy Garland in the 1939 live action. It is hard for most to see her any other way. L. Frank Baum himself did not give her specific physical descriptors in the first book; instead saying things like how she was an orphan, innocent, and harmless little girl.  In this animated version, however, she had blonde hair tied up into a single ponytail with a simple red ribbon. 
  • Overall this movie is much more similar to the original book than the 1939 version but the one key difference that it kept was the red slippers.
    • One of the closer similarities to the book was that the first witch that Dorothy stumbles upon is the Good Witch of the North and she is not Glinda. Glinda, just like the book, is the Good Witch of the South.
    •  The second similarity would be that each of the characters is shown a different version of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.
      • Dorothy is shown a gigantic green head.
      • The Scare-crow is shown a beautiful angel.
      • Tin-Man sees him as a scary rhino. (In the book it was said to be a great beast, not necessarily a rhino.)
      • Finally the Lion sees the wizard as a great big ball of fire.
    • The final similarity to mention is the appearance of the Kalidahs. Kalidahs are vicious large creatures that appear within Oz.

VOICES

  • American
    • Aileen Quinn as Dorothy
      • She was also Annie in the 1982 Annie.
    • Lorne Greene – The Wizard
      • He is known for Bonanza, Battlestar Galactica, and the movie Earthquake.
    • Billy Van – Scarecrow
      • He was in things like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein and Law and Order.
    • John Stocker – Tin Man
      • He has done for things like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and a couple of the Care Bear movies.
    • Thick Wilson – Cowardly Lion
      • He has done voices for the animated Alf series and he was also in Tommy Boy and The Dark Crystal.
    • Elizabeth Hanna – The Good Witch of the North, Jellia Jamb, The Wicked Witch of the West
      • She has done voices for many different things including Babaar, Little Bear, and Care Bears.
    • Wendy Thatcher – Glinda, the Good Witch of the South
      • She is known for Mythic Warriors: Guardians of the Legend, Threshold, and High-Ballin’.
  • Japanese Voices
    • Mari Okamoto – Dorothy Gale
    • Kotobuki Hizuru – Scarecrow
    • Jōji Yanami – Tin Man
    • Masashi Amenomori – Cowardly Lion
    • Naoki Tatsuta – Uncle Henry
    • Taeko Nakanishi – Aunt Em and Jellia Jamb
    • Miyoko Asō – The Good Witch of the North
    • Kaori Kishi – The Wicked Witch of the West
    • Kazuo Kumakura – The Wizard
    • Kumiko Takizawa – Glinda, the Good Witch of the South
    • Shohei Matsubara – Toto
    • Motomu Kiyokawa – Soldier
    • Toshiyuki Yamamoto – Monkey King

WHY THIS MOVIE IS A HIDDEN GEM

  • This movie is not well known, and to be honest there was not a lot of information floating around about it either. It’s beautiful that this movie is able to follow the story of the book just a bit closer and show us some lovely animation. I think what is most charming about it is that they are able to show that each of the characters Dorothy meets essentially already have what they are asking the wizard for. The Tin Man becomes sad over killing a bug which shows he cares and has heart. The Lion distracts the vicious Kalidah, showing he has courage. Finally, the Scarecrow makes plans and has good ideas like cutting a tree to create a bridge which demonstrates that he can think.
  • This is a charming version of The Wizard of Oz and a hidden gem you just might want to check out. 

The best thing about animation is that there is so much of it. Some of it might be a little rough, but some of it is spectacular. For every movie like “The Lion King,” there’s a beautiful hidden gem that deserves a little love. So don’t be afraid to go see the animated movies that you haven’t heard as much about. Worst case scenario, it will be an adventure. The best case scenario, you will find a movie that you might end up loving for years to come. 

So go give these films a watch if you haven’t already, and tell us what you think! Do you have any hidden gems that you would like us to watch or talk about? Let us know! 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, and Linda.


SOURCES:

The Case of Light

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Hey Cassettes and welcome back to another episode of the BCD!

This week, we’re doing something a little different. Marci and Robin are stepping out of their comfort zone, and allowing Adam to teach them about something completely new (to them)! 

In the time before time, the Great Spirit descended from the heavens carrying Alastair Swinnerton, Bob Thompson, Martin Andersen, and Christian Faber. Together they illuminated us with the three virtues; Unity, Duty and Destiny, and in 2001, Bionicle hit store shelves. It was a smash hit, connecting with kids around the world and taking LEGO out of the red by 2004. A place the company hasn’t returned to since, despite more recent struggles. 

Set in a universe filled with biomechanical beings, the world of Bionicle was unique, intriguing, and mysterious. Harnessing the power of the elements on their island home, the six Toa heroes are destined to save the world from the evil Makuta. LEGO dove deep into this world which spawned hundreds of toys that sold by the millions. Coupled with dozens of characters and a complex lore that would take a whole year of college classes to fully understand. But it worked. It was such a success that talks of a feature length movie started in the same year.

So, gathered friends, listen again to our legend, of Bionicle: Mask of Light.

HISTORY OF BIONICLE

IN NEED OF AN IDEA

  • Before the LEGO company became the largest toy company in the world, they were on a downward spiral that was nearly their end. The 90’s saw absolutely horrid sales and in 1997 the company posted a loss for the first time since their beginning in 1932. Not even securing the Star Wars brand was enough to save them from the brink.
    • Star Wars at the time was a franchise based solely on the movies. The interest in Star Wars toys would dip drastically if there wasn’t a new movie that year. LEGO knew that this was not sustainable.
  • LEGO needed something original that they could produce and sell year-round. Something to appeal to a new generation of builders. They realized that kids in this quickly growing modern world wanted something to play with that would encompass more than simple building blocks. Kids wanted a story behind those blocks, and to go with it, new pieces they could use to create their own characters and fantasies.
  • LEGO hired various staff from the broadcasting world to come up with story-based ideas, to counter the all-conquering franchise Pokemon. At the time, Pokemon was largely credited with Lego suffering their first loss. Many ideas were brainstormed and pitched to Erik Kramer, then Technical Director at LEGO, including one called ‘Bone Heads of Voodoo Island’, or Voodoo Heads for short. Secrecy was so tight around Bionicle that this original title was known only to the insiders for many years.

CREATORS

  • The key Lego creators of ‘Voodoo Heads’ were Bob Thompson, who had become Head of Story, and Martin Andersen, then a ‘mere’ toy designer. The third of the four ‘official’ co-creators was Christian Faber, Creative Director of the Danish advertising agency Advance, who created the amazing graphic look of the whole project.
  • It was not until Alastair Swinnerton got a hold of the project shortly after, that Bionicle began to take its final form. 
    • According to an recount written by Swinnerton on his personal website, “Voodoo Heads,” along with other brief concepts were sent to outside writers at a company called Skryptonite. 
    • He said, “Something about ‘Voodoo Heads’ caught my eye, so I decided to work on that one. It had a kind of Easter Island vibe to it I felt, and I’d always been fascinated with that subject. The basic story was there – a bunch of characters on an island, not knowing why. But that was about it. So I pretty much started again with the concept.”
    • The rewrite of the concept was sent back to Bob Thompson, and he liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, that come February 2000, Swinnerton was on a plane to Lego HQ in Denmark.

MOVIE SUMMARY

  • The movie picks up in the second story arc after the Toa have already been around for a while. So in order to get the best comprehension out of the story, you should at least know this: It takes place on the mysterious island of Mata Nui. The spirit protecting the island, also called Mata Nui, has been put into a deep sleep. Six Toa heroes fall from the sky and discover that it is their duty to find the masks of power, defeat Makuta and reawaken the great spirit. 
  • Everything seems fine and dandy on the island and the matoran are safe and happy. They are in the midst of peace and prosperity! The different tribes are getting along and they even built a new stadium to play the sport of Kohlii. It is not until one curious matoran, Takua, makes a very important discovery: that Makuta again rears his ugly head. 
  • The mask of light has been found! The Turaga tell that it is a sign of the coming of a seventh Toa! Now the reluctant hero Takua and his friend Jalla, are sent on a quest across the island in search of their destiny. 
  • Meanwhile, Makuta must not let this happen. So he sends his evil sons, the Rahkshi, to find Takua and take the mask of light.

Making of the movie

  • From the beginning the creators envisioned that there would be a Bionicle movie. Thanks to the toy’s unprecedented success, Miramax and Lego made a partnership in 2002 to develop and distribute three direct to DVD movies with budgets estimated at around $5 million each. 
  • While most projects of its type took 18 to 24 months to complete, the development team completed the film in 13 months. This was due to a convenient arrangement with the Taiwanese animation studio CGCG that created most of the animation. As the US based team was done with work, the team in Taiwan was just getting started. So work was being done on the film almost 24/7.
    • CGCG Inc. has also done animation work for Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and even the more recent Jurassic World: Camp Cretaious! (This fact has made Adam very happy haha!)
  • The film was co-directed by Terry Shakespeare and David Molina.
    • Shakespeare and Molina both started as animators working with Don Bluth and would later go on to work at Disney. (Reverse exodus?) They worked on films such as An American Tail, Secret of NIMH, Beauty and the Beast, and more. 
    • They both began their paths to directing as animation directors for video games. Their first project was a game called Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse (1994.) They both did many video games for years until they were both given a shot at a film in 2002, with Bionicle: Mask of Light! They would both also go on to direct the two soon-after sequels. 
  • You could say that Mask of Light had many writers, because the story came from many places and went through many hands. We mentioned the big influence Alastair Swinnerton had on the Bionicle story, and he had a part in writing for this movie as well. But the biggest credit for the film itself goes to Henry Gilroy for the screenplay. 
    • Gilroy has many TV writing credits we’re sure you’ve heard of. For example, the 90’s Batman animated series, the Timon & Pumbaa tv series, Star War: The Clone Wars, and Avengers Assemble. 
  • Unlike previous Lego themes, Bionicle was accompanied by an original story told across a wide array of media. From comics, games, and commercials, to books, and web animations. This meant that many fans had their favorite version of the story so far, and it was important to keep that in mind. 
    • According to the behind the scenes extras of the DVD, one of the biggest considerations was being honest with the loyal fan base and being true to the source material. Bob Thompson said in an interview, “People often talk about, when they make a film from a book, everyone that has read the book has a slightly different take on it. Well this is even more extreme because everyone that’s played with the toy has a belief about what Bionicle is.” 
      • When choosing a style, directors Shakespeare and Molina noted that there were several already existing interpretations of the Bionicle look. They would go through it all during the early design phase, including flash webcomics, comic books, and CGI commercials; they eventually decided upon the more commercial look. (Perhaps we could have gotten a great 2D animated movie in another life!)
      • The characters were changed as little as possible, while still adding enough new detail in order for the characters to act and move as we would expect. Including the addition of hands and masks that can move as they talk.
      • The look is loved by many fans and disliked by others and is now referred to as the Miramax style. The same look would continue for the next two movies. 
    • While writing, Henry Gilroy made sure to stick with what had come before. This was the first Bionicle movie, but it was picking up on what was then, the second major story arc. So he had to be mindful of how characters think and behave. 
      • The team developed new expressions that would fit in the world. For example, Takua says, “hold your rahi” instead of the “hold your horses” and Jalla says “You could have been lava bones” in place of “You could have been killed.”
    • There were many discussions about this with the casting director Kris Zimmerman. Henry said also on the DVD, “I think everybody has a certain expectation for the voice they want to hear coming out of their favorite Toa. Every Bionicle fan has their favorite Toa, so we really wanted to be true to them, to somehow instil in them a voice that would be believable to the hardcore fans. So they didn’t sound like they lived in the United States or in Europe, but that they came from their own world.”

STARRING

  • Jason Michas as our main character Takua. 
    • He has had other voice roles such as Ernest Goes to School, and the show Dragon Tales.
  • Andrew Francis as Jalla, the Captain of Ta-Koro’s Guard
    • He has made his way more recently in tv shows and doing english dubs for anime, such as the localization of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
    • According to Kris Zimmerman, the two leads came in to audition for the opposite roles they would eventually get. Andrew came in very well dressed and professional, while Jason dressed in a hawian shirt and cracked jokes the whole time. Kris eventually had them try and switch their lines, and the characters just clicked. 
  • Scott McNeil would voice both Tahu, Toa of Fire and Onua, Toa of Earth
    • He is know for doing many english dubs for anime such as the extremely popular Dragon Ball Z and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing.
  • Dale Wilson as Lewa, Toa of Air
    • He has made an appearance in Psych and has provided voices for things like, Transformers, Stargate, and X-Man: Evolution. 
  • Kathleen Barr as Gali, Toa of Water
    • She has over 300 voice credits on IMDB including My Little Pony, Ninjago (another LEGO property), Ed Edd n Eddy, and Veggietales.
  • Michael Dobson as Kopaka, the Toa of Ice
    • He has done many voices as well, including The Hulk, Sausage Party, and Norm of the North.
  • Trevor Devall as Pohatu, Toa of Stone
    • He has many cartoon and gaming voice roles such as Halo 5, Regular Show and the new ThunderCats Roar.
  • Lee Tockar as the Makuta, the main antagonist.
    • He is also in many cartoon roles such as in Bob the Builder, Johnny Test, and even the Ratchet and Clank movie!

RECEPTION/AWARDS

  • Obviously this movie is a freaking masterpiece of the highest quality! Just kidding! Or am !?
    • Among fans of Bionicle, it is a well loved movie and the majority favorite of all four films. With an existing knowledge of characters and the world, the film really shines for what it is. 
    • The main criticism from many is that it relies heavily on knowledge of earlier Bionicle storylines. It could be said  that it was almost “too respectful” in this aspect. 
  • Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+”, calling it a “well-constructed CGI adventure” and saying that even those who did not understand the story would at least enjoy the effects and action sequences. 
  • And Don Houston of DVDTalk, also was generally positive about the film. He called the direction and visuals “exceptionally crisp and clear” when compared to other films of its type, and gave high praise to the voice acting and noting darker themes within the film. 
  • The movie has actually won two awards! 
    • In 2003, Mask of Light won a Golden Reel Award for Best Visual Effects in a DVD Premiere Movie, also it won the Best DVD release award at the 2004 Saturn Awards.

Bionicle: Mask of Light’s success prompted later Lego themes to utilize similar story-telling methods. Ninjago, Hero Factory, and Legends of Chima to name a few. But Bionicle was special. It was a deep and fascinating franchise loved by many. Bringing in the fans of fantasy, and sci-fi, as well as Lego builders all together. From the beginning, it had an element of mystery—what are these robots doing on an island? Wait, are they even robots? Where did the Toa come from? How powerful is Makuta? But somehow you knew that there was even more beneath the surface. Movies like Mask of Light brought a new light, pun intended, to that mystery. 

After a long ten year run, the story is kept alive today by the undying love of its fans. More and more new builds, games, art, and stories are shared everyday. And there is even more still creeping just past the horizon. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Bionicle! So, happy anniversary! We look forward to the next time, when we will all listen again to the legend of the Bionicle. 


SOURCES:

The Case of Rankin(g) and Bass

Well, Christmas is a-coming and bells begin to ring! Wreaths are on front doors, stores are crowded (though they really shouldn’t be) and Christmas music is assaulting our eardrums once more (just kidding…but am I?) But most of all, it’s that time again to watch the Rankin and Bass Christmas specials! 

Back in the 1960’s, the concept of a holiday TV special was brand new. It started with Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol in 1962. The idea was well-received, with advertisers jumping at the opportunity to profit on the undivided attention of families gathered for the holidays. In 1964, an animation studio known as Videocraft International created a Christmas special about a reindeer with a bright red nose. Although previous holiday specials were generally successful, this quirky stop-motion classic changed the game. 

The success of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was undeniable. The off-beat animation perfectly matched the eccentric, yet lovable characters. So, the animators went to work and produced more holiday specials for years to come. Soon Rankin and Bass, as the company was later known, was a fixture of the holiday season. Their work has become a holiday tradition, and some wouldn’t consider it Christmas without it. 

There are so many specials, we couldn’t possibly talk about all of them. So, we have picked our top 5 favorites! It’s time, cassettes, for Rankin(g) and Bass! 

HISTORY OF RANKIN/BASS

Before we get into our favorite specials, let’s talk about the history of Rankin and Bass! 

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  • In the early 1950’s, Arthur Rankin was an art director for ABC. Eventually he left the network to start his own business, making commercials for ad agencies. Through this experience, he met Jules Bass, when he would deliver materials from Gardner Advertising to Rankin’s studio.
    • The two decided to go into business together, combining Rankin’s experience in Art Direction and Bass’s advertising knowledge. Although it was a no-brainer for the two to create TV commercials, Rankin has always wanted to animate. So, the two men decided to create an animation studio called VideoCraft International (and later, Rankin/Bass.)
    • In the late 1950’s, a Japanese Delegation came to New York, and spoke with people in the entertainment business. One of them was Rankin, who decided to travel to the country in 1958. While he was there, he toured various studios, and fell in love with the animation techniques they employed, which he later called “animagic.” He was also impressed by the speed and quantity of animation that came through the studios; and ultimately, Rankin recognized the immense talent of these animators. Therefore, Rankin and Bass outsourced all the animation for their first series to studios in Japan.
    • Rankin and Bass chose Pinocchio first because he was a well-known character, and they wanted to draw in audiences. Their next series was cell animation, based on characters from The Wizard of Oz (since it had lapsed into the public domain.)
    • One company that was impressed by their work, was General Electric. They commissioned some TV commercial work from Rankin and Bass.
      • Due to the success of the advertisements, the men started planning something bigger for GE: an animated Christmas special!
      • Of course, this special would become the holiday staple known as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer–and as they say, the rest is history.
    • For the next 30 years, Rankin and Bass produced stop-motion and cell-animated holiday specials, TV shows, and live-action films. Their careers were so vast, they can be found all throughout American pop-culture, even in places you might not expect. From the 1980’s series Thundercats, to shows about The Osmonds and the Jackson 5, to specials about Easter, Thanksgiving, and Smokey the Bear–Rankin and Bass did so much more than Christmas specials. They were a full-fledged animation studio that influenced and entertained millions. 
  • But of course, it is Christmastime, so today we are talking about their contribution to the holiday. Let’s start Rankin’ our favorite Rankin and Bass Christmas specials! 
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NUMBER 5

  • THE FIRST CHRISTMAS: THE STORY OF THE FIRST CHRISTMAS SNOW
  • The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow was the 8th Christmas special by Rankin and Bass, and first aired December 19th, 1975 on NBC. 
    • Video Link
    • Plot
      • After a young shepherd is left blind from a lightning strike, the nuns of a nearby abbey take him and his animals in. The priest insists that the nuns send the boy, named Lukas, to an orphanage after Christmas. Sister Theresa, the head nun, tells Lukas about the white Christmases she saw growing up. Lukas is fascinated by the idea of snow, since he has never seen it. His one wish for Christmas is for it to snow, and he asks a friend to describe it to him if it comes. 
      • While the abbey performs their nativity play, snow miraculously begins to fall (since they never have snow in their climate.) Lukas suddenly can see again, as the snow has seemed to cure his blindness. The priest and nuns decide to let Lukas stay with them at the abbey.
    • Making of
      • The special was written by Julian P Gardner, which was a pseudonym for Jules Bass! 
      • The music was done by Maury Laws with lyrics by Jules Bass, just like previous Rankin and Bass specials, but with a special appearance of “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin.
      • This special was made with “animagic,” the term coined by Arthur Rankin to describe the stop-motion process used by the studios in Japan.
        • Ichiro Komuro and Akakazu Kono were the production supervisors for the animagic process, which of course included characters made of foam and latex, with ball-in-socket joints. Animagic also used projected imagery on its miniature sets and characters to add a kind of visual magic to some scenes–like the scene where it snows.
    • Starring 
      • Angela Lansbury stars as Sister Theresa, and also narrates the special. This was of course before she was known as the gentle Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast, but after starring as Miss Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
        • Lansbury is a big name actress, but Rankin and Bass had already been known for introducing young audiences to legendary actors like Fred Astaire, and Mickey Rooney.
      • Cyril Ritchard plays Father Thomas, the priest that wants Lukas placed in an orphanage. Ritchard was a seasoned stage actor, well known for his version of Captain Hook in Mary Martin’s Peter Pan! (You know, the version of Peter Pan that every school library had on VHS in the 90s?) 
        • Ritchard appeared in other Rankin and Bass productions, including the animated Hobbit.
      • David Kelley only gave his voice to a couple other TV shorts in his career, but he is most well-known for the role of Lukas the shepherd boy.
      • Dina Lynn as Louisa
      • Iris Rainer as Sister Catherine
      • Joan Gardner as Sister Jean 
      • Sean Manning, Don Messick, Greg Thomas, and Hilary Momberger provided additional voices.
    • Impact/Why we chose it
      • After watching a lot of Rankin and Bass (and we do mean A LOT,) we decided to include this sweet little special as our number 5 choice. When we think of Rankin and Bass, we imagine classic characters like Santa Claus and Frosty, a brightly-colored and non-religious representation of Christmas. But, Rankin and Bass also created specials based on Christian stories, with passages from the bible and the birth of Christ. 
        • Back in the 1960’s, it was frowned upon to use religious messaging in specials, and A Charlie Brown Christmas really paved the way for more religious subject matter in TV entertainment. This is likely why Rankin and Bass’ first special was secular.
      • The most notable of these is possibly The Little Drummer Boy, which takes place in Bethlehem and features biblical characters. But if you’re looking for a special with religious themes that doesn’t also include murder and brief animal violence, The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow is a great choice.
      • This special is short, and features the comforting voice of Angela Lansbury. For any kids that were raised in Christian households, it features familiar components like the annual nativity play, where the main character plays an angel (a rite of passage for every christian child.)
      • But, more than anything, this special isn’t as heavy-handed as other religious material. The story of Christ isn’t the focus, and there is no hard-learned lesson about believing in God. Instead, the focus is on the simple joy of snow on Christmas.
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NUMBER 4

  • SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN
  • Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town first aired on December 14th, 1970 on ABC.
    • If you’ll notice, these specials appeared on all different networks, and this was because Rankin and Bass created them specifically for brands and companies, while the network then aired it as an ad for that brand. That’s right, your favorite Christmas specials are just very intricate commercials! 
    • Back in the 60’s and 70’s, there were fewer commercials on TV, so the special is often edited for modern TV viewing, to keep the full runtime under an hour. Sometimes songs are removed, or more troubling scenes will be omitted. 
  • Plot
    • Santa Claus is coming to Town follows the origin story of Kris Kingle, a toymaker who eventually becomes Santa Claus. It starts with a train conductor, reading children’s questions about Santa, which then leads into the story. The special explains where Santa comes from, why he brings toys to children, how he met Mrs. Claus, and why he lives at the North Pole.
    • This framing device is similar to the one Rankin and Bass used for Rudolph, with an outside character addressing the audience and narrating the story. It was a popular style for many live-action specials, giving these programs a feeling of legitimacy–they were like any other Christmas specials, but animated.
  • Making of
    • Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is their fifth Christmas special made, and unlike the first special on our list, it was one hour long
    • Written by Romeo Muller, the movie was based around the Christmas song with the same name, with music and lyrics by Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, and  originally sung by the American comedian and singer Eddie Cantor in 1934.
      • While the film featured the famous song, it was in amongst original songs by Maury Laws who did the music and lyrics by Jules Bass.
        • This team created most of the Rankin and Bass musical catalog, but they counted this soundtrack among their absolute favorites!
          • Maury Laws later said that this was a very enjoyable project for him because the animation and music gelled so nicely. He said that Mickey Rooney, who played Santa, had the perfect voice to animate to.
      • The script was also slightly influenced by the book by L. Frank Baum entitled The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. While they would later adapt this book into a more faithful adaptation in 1985, some details were used for this film.
    • The story is set in Germany, with the name Kris Kringle coming from German folklore. Many people have noted that most of the characters with German accents are villainous, except for Santa’s mother. Because of this, some have made the connection that the German mayor burning the toys of children is a metaphor for the Nazis burning literature and art during WWII.
  • Starring
    • Fred Astaire as the Postman Narrator, SD Kluger
      • Astaire added some star power to the special, as someone who often hosted his own holiday and TV specials.
        • Kluger was a character of Fred Astair himself, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the performer.
      • The character was so popular, Rankin and Bass brought him back for another special: “The Easter Bunny is Comin to Town.”
    • Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle/ Santa Claus
      • Rooney had a long and legendary career in show business before playing Kris Kringle at age 50, and continued working long after until his death.
      • He reprised his role as Santa Claus in a later Rankin and Bass special that we will talk about here shortly! 
    • Keenan Wynn plays the Winter Warlock
      • Keenan Wynn was the son of famous character actor Ed Wynn, and he had a career of his own as a character actor.
      • He played live-action Disney villains in “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “Son of Flubber,” and “Herbie Rides Again.”
      • His full name was Francis Xavier Aloysius James Jeremiah Keenan Wynn.
    • Paul Frees makes several appearances as Burgermeister Meisterburger, Grimsley, Soldiers, Townsmen, and the Doctor.
      • Frees was a legendary comedian and voice actor, who would often provide voices for the Rankin and Bass specials, even after his retirement.
      • The Burgermeister was one of his most well-known roles, and Frees personally loved voicing him. In case anyone was wondering, a Burgermeister is a German mayor–a “City Master.” 
      • Frees was also known for providing the voice of Professor Ludwig Von Drake, Donald Duck’s paternal uncle. This character hosted episodes on the Wonderful World of Disney, as well as the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea sing-along tape.
    • Joan Gardner as Tanta Kringle the Matriarch of the Kringle family and Kris’ adoptive mother. 
      • Gardner was a voice actress that lent her voice to many characters, including Tiny Tim in “Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol” and Bonnie in “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”
      • She also played Sister Joan in our number 5 pick! 
    • Robie Lester as Miss Jessica/ Mrs. Claus
      • Lester was a voice actor and musician that often provided singing voices for characters.
      • She was the singing voice of Bianca in The Rescuers, and Duchess in The Aristocats.
  • Impact/Why we chose it
    • There is no doubt that Santa Claus is Coming to Town is one of the most famous of the Rankin and Bass specials. It still airs every year on regular cable, and is included in holiday special collections. But why did we choose it? This special certainly has star power, with Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney, but it also is one of the most consistent in terms of its music. Sure, there are a couple strange-ish songs, like when Mrs. Claus realizes her love for Kris, or when Kris sings about how each child must kiss him to get a gift–but those cannot undo “One Foot in Front of the Other” and “First toy-maker to the king.” 
    • For many children, this was their first exposure to the lore behind Santa Claus. And although some explanations for Santa were written specifically for this special, there is something to be said for introducing children to the more mythical side of the man that brings them presents every Christmas. There are different Santa origin stories from all over the world, and this shows children that he doesn’t belong to one just one culture, but to everyone. 
    • https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x72h9lf?fbclid=IwAR32SSYD1MM4OJPzUQkb1lnEIgObfW4_upYy7jY5_Ir1aoSBdgZM51C-1Ww 
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NUMBER 3

  • FROSTY THE SNOWMAN
    • Rankin and Bass’s most popular cell-animated Christmas special aired on December 7, 1969 on CBS.
    • It was based on the song, “Frosty the Snowman,” written by Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson.
      • The song was originally performed by Gene Autry, but has since been covered by countless artists. Autry and the songwriters were hoping for a hit as big as “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but the song unfortunately didn’t achieve the same level of popularity.
      • We covered the history of the song in last year’s episode, “A Brief Case in the Snow, man!” So please give that a listen if you would like to hear more about how the song came to be. 
      • Just as a refresher, some believe the song was based on a snowman character created by author Ruth Burman. Songwriter Jack Rollins said it was inspired by his step-granddaughter, who cried after her snowman melted overnight.
    • The special follows Frosty, a snowman brought to life by the magical hat of a failing magician named Professor Hinkle. After seeing what the hat is capable of, Hinkle tries to steal it back and pursues Frosty and a young girl named Karen as they attempt to travel to the North Pole, in search of a place where Frosty will never melt.
      • This was not the first time someone animated Frosty, as United Productions of America made a 5 minute animated short to the song 15 years earlier!
    • Making of
      • Rankin and Bass wanted the special to look like a greeting card, so the characters were designed by Paul Coker Jr, an incredibly talented artist whose illustrations appeared in Mad Magazine, and on Hallmark cards. After Frosty, Coker continued to work with Rankin and Bass for years, often designing cover art and promotional material.
        • The animation supervisor was Steve Nakagawa, who had the same role for “The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians” and “The Smokey the Bear Show,” two more Rankin and Bass productions.
      • This was not Rankin and Bass’ first cell-animated special, as they produced Cricket on the Hearth and Mouse on the Mayflower years earlier. Like all their other animation, however, it was produced in Japan.
      • Romeo Muller, the writer known for Rudolph, Santa Claus is coming to town, and many other Rankin and Bass specials and shows, adapted the story from the popular song.
    • Starring
      • This special was narrated and sung by Jimmy Durante, a well-known musician and actor, and this was reportedly his last performance.
        • Durante had covered the song years earlier, but had to re-record it specifically for the special. The original song didn’t mention anything about Christmas, but since this needed to be specifically a Christmas special, the lyrics were changed to say, “He waved Good-bye saying, ‘don’t you cry, I’ll be back on Christmas day.” 
      • Comedian Jackie Vernon voiced Frosty
        • Although Frosty was well-known before the special, Jackie Vernon really gave Frosty his warm and loving personality. Now it’s impossible to think of the character without imagining his jolly voice exclaiming, “Happy Birthday!” 
        • Vernon’s portrayal of Frosty is iconic, and the special would likely not have been nearly as popular without it.
      • Veteran character actor Billy D. Wolfe played Professor Hinkle.
        • Wolfe was a regular on the Doris Day show.
        • Rankin said that his vocal performance was one of the best they ever had, and his vocal patterns were perfect for animation.
      • Additional voices of Paul Frees and June Foray
        • Of course Paul Frees was part of the fun, bringing the voices of the traffic cop and ticket clerk.
        • June Foray played the children’s school teacher, but she also recorded all of Karen’s lines as well. Karen was re-cast and a different voice actress plays her in the special. Foray later said that this disappointed her, but she still loved the special anyway. There is no known reason for the casting change, though perhaps some executive wanted a child to play the role? 
    • Impact/Why we chose it
      • Much of the Charm of Rankin and Bass specials comes from the animation. They are so well-known for stop-motion, audiences often forget that Frosty is one of their creations. Frosty was able to capture the charm of a Christmas card, and the sweet innocence of playing in the snow. It has a killer cast, all delivering incredible performances. The special reminded viewers of their childhood, bringing back a popular Christmas song, sung by a familiar voice. 
      • Frosty’s story is fun, but also succinct and complete. No time is wasted with extra songs, and it leaves viewers satisfied with a happy conclusion.
      • Frosty still airs every Christmas and it deserves a top spot among all Christmas specials, not just those of Rankin and Bass.
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NUMBER 2

  • THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS
    • This special aired on December 10, 1974 on ABC. 
    • Plot
      • Santa has a cold, and doesn’t want to deliver the Christmas presents this year. This attitude is made worse by a grouchy doctor who tells Santa that no one cares about Christmas anyway. Mrs. Claus, concerned for her husband and the fate of Christmas, sends two elves and the baby reindeer Vixen out into the world to find Christmas cheer. The three of them ultimately land in some trouble, after getting caught in the crossfire between the heat and snow misers, two brothers responsible for cold and hot weather. Afraid for their safety, Santa goes out looking for them, and ends up discovering that the world does still care about Christmas.
    • Making of
      • It’s important to note that this is one of the only two specials on this list that wasn’t created around an existing Christmas carol–yet we heavily considered it for our number one spot. 
      • William J Keenan wrote the special, which was based on a book by Phylis McGinley.
      • This was a one-hour animagic special, featuring songs by Jules Bass and Maury Laws.
        • Although there are several songs throughout the special, none of them compare to the sheer greatness of the heat miser and snow miser songs. In fact, no other Rankin and Bass original song is as memorable.
        • Maury Laws said years later, “People knock on my door and ring me up about that song.”
      • Although the animation was done in Japan, storyboard artist Don Duga was responsible for giving animators a mood to follow. He had worked on several Rankin and Bass productions before this one, like Frosty the Snowman, and was often credited as a continuity artist.
      • Ichiro Komuro and Akakazu Kono were the production managers for the project (they lead many of the Rankin and Bass productions) while the production design was done by Paul Coker Jr.
    • Starring
      • Shirley Booth as both the singing narrator and Mrs. Claus
        • Shirley Booth is best known as the title character in the tv show Hazel, a sitcom about the misadventures of a live-in maid.
        • This was her last role before retiring from acting, so she went out on a good one!
      • Mickey Rooney (once again) as Santa Claus
        • A few years after starring in Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Mickey Rooney returned to play Santa, cementing his place in the Rankin and Bass Christmas universe. 
      • Dick Shawn as Snow Miser
        • Shawn was an off-the-wall comedian, often described as a counterculture favorite, as he was bit of an acquired taste.
        • He appeared on shows like “The Love Boat” and “Captain Kangaroo” as well as many films like, “The Producers” and “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” 
      • George S. Irving as Heat Miser
        • Irving was an actor that appeared in many projects. Besides this special, he was most well-known as the narrator in Underdog! 
      • Colin Duffy as the little boy Ignatius Thistlewhite or Iggy for short
      • Ron Marshall as Mr Thistlewhite
      • If you look closely, you can see that Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character appears as a citizen of Southtown USA in the Mayor’s song “It’s Going to Snow Right Here in Dixie.”
    • Impact/Why we chose it
      • Why did we choose this special as our number 2? Honestly? The songs. I mean, there are other great aspects to this special, like the unique story and the message that no one is too old to believe in the magic of Christmas, but the songs really seal the deal. Is there anything funnier than the mini heat misers hopping around on pogo sticks as their leader sings about himself? It really is too much. 
      • Rankin and Bass were well-known for the iconic characters they created in their specials, and their depictions of Christmas have had a major impact on the aesthetic of the holiday, and this special was no exception. 
Rudolph.png

NUMBER 1

  • RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER
    • The crowned jewel of Rankin and Bass aired December 6, 1964 on NBC, as part of General Electric’s Fantasy Hour. For a few years, Rankin and Bass had been creating commercials for GE, and since they had been well-received, they decided to make a Christmas special as well.
    • Back in the 1930’s, Montgomery Ward would give out free storybooks to children. One of their catalog writers, Robert L May, created the perfect story to include, about an outcast reindeer named Rudolph.  The store printed 2 million copies that Christmas, and they received letters from children and parents all over the country. Rudolph was a hit! Two years later, the store gave the rights to the story to May, who then teamed up with his brother-in-law  to make it into a song. 
    • In 1948, that song was covered by famous country singer Gene Autry, and a Christmas tradition was born. “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” became one of the most played Christmas songs. 
    • So, in the early 1960’s, Arthur Rankin turned his attention to the story for a Christmas special. Johnny Marks, the songwriter and May’s brother-in-law, was very protective of the property. But, it just so happened that Rankin was his next-door neighbor! Rankin finally convinced his neighbor to let him make the special, and the rest was history.
    • Plot
      • Narrated by Sam the snowman, this special follows the life of Rudolph, a reindeer born with a strange nose that glows red. After being made fun of by the other reindeer, he teams up with Hermey the elf. Together they run into characters like Yukon Cornelius and the abominable snowman, and end up on the island of misfit toys.
    • Making of
      • Rankin wanted a particular look to his specials, and he hired talented artists that weren’t well-known. His goal overall was none of his specials to look the same, so that every story had its own feeling. That’s why Rudolph felt so unique, because no one ever made anything like it before or since.
      • This special was written for the screen by Romeo Muller, and this started a long career partnership between him and Rankin and Bass. It was also directed by Larry Roemer, with assistant director Kizo Nagashima.
      • The songs were written, as usual, by Jules Bass and Maury Laws, with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Holly Jolly Christmas” both written by Johnny Marks.
        • The song ‘Fame and Fortune’ was not featured in the special until the next year, 1965.
      • The special had about $500,000 in production costs, which was immediately covered by the GE when they purchased the rights to the property for two airings.
        • Because of this, during the first airings, the title page said, “GE presents” while on the DVD versions, it says, “Rankin/Bass Present.”
      • This was the biggest premier of stop-motion television so far, with “animagic” created in Japan.
        • Ichiro Komuro created the puppets, while Tadahito (Tad) Mochinaga was the animation supervisor. 
          • The 22 room sized sets which took a year to complete.
          • The figures had ball joints and each one cost $5000 which included multiple lip and eyepieces. 
      • In later years, the special has been released on DVD with minor changes from the original. The biggest change is the ending. The original airing had the end credits immediately after Santa flies to the island of misfit toys. The credits appear on packages being thrown by an elf from the sleigh. 
        • In the later version of the credits, names are spelled incorrectly.
        • They also shortened one scene from the special to make room for a few moments of the misfit toys getting on to Santa’s sleigh. 
    • Starring
      • Narrated by Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman who was recognized for this role for many years afterwards. He even noted that this role overshadowed even his Oscar win in 1958’s The Big Country.
      • Larry D. Mann as Yukon Cornelius the loveable arctic prospector aiding Rudolph and Hermey on their journey.
        • Larry D. Mann was in several things but most notably as the train conductor in “The Sting”and Watkins in “The Heat of the Night.”
      • Billie Mae Richards as Rudolph (you know him.)
        • She is not only known for being the voice of Rudolph but also Tender Heart Bear in the first and second Care Bear Movies.
      • Paul Soles as Hermey the elf that does not want to make toys but be a Dentist!
        • Paul Soles has made appearances in many things but some of his most notable are when he played Danny in the movie “The Score” and Stanley in “The Incredible Hulk.” (The Hulk with Edward Norton in it.) 
      • Stan Francis as Santa Claus
        • Stan Francis only acted in a few things like “Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans” and “The New Adventures of Pinocchio.”
      • Alfie Scopp as Charlie in the Box, Fireball, and some of the Reindeer.
        • Alfie Scopp was Avram the bookseller in “The Fiddler on the Roof” and has also done voice work for several other projects.
      • Janet Orenstein as Clarice, the little doe that fancies Rudolph before he was cool.
      • Paul Kligman as Donner, Clarice’s Father, and Comet the Coach.
        • Paul Kligman is known for the 1955 musical drama series “Folio” and as General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross in the 1966 “Hulk” series.
      • Carl Banas as the Head Elf, Spotted Elephant, and some of the Other Toys.
        • Carl Banas has done voice work on several things, one being the character Sweetums in the 1971 “Tales from Muppetland: The Frog Prince.”
      • Corine Conley as the Doll and others.
        • Corine Conley has many credits. She has been in a range of movies and tv shows including “Days of Our Lives”, the 2019 “Anne With an ‘E,’” and the 2018 movie “A Simple Favor.”
      • Peg Dixon as Mrs. Donner, Mrs. Claus, and other voices.
        • Peg Dixon was in the 1956 tv movie “Anne of Green Gables,” the 1967 “Spider-Man” tv series, and several characters in the 1972 “Festival of Family Classics” tv series.
    • Impact/Why we chose it
      • When Rudolph first aired, it captured 55% of viewers, and those numbers didn’t decrease for over 30 years. It remains to be the longest-running animated Christmas special, and its popularity has never declined. In 1995 it was the highest rated animated program for the entire year. Rudolph wasn’t just a big deal for Rankin and Bass, but for TV in general. It paved the way for more specials. If not for Rudolph, would we have How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Or A Charlie Brown Christmas? This special also highlighted an unpopular type of animation style, and inspired creators like Tim Burton and other stop-motion artists. 
      • Rudolph not only had incredible songs, but it also yielded colorful characters that audiences would not soon forget. 
      • But most of all, Rudolph is about intolerance. It’s the story of a young reindeer whose father is ashamed of him, of an elf ostracized by his coworkers. It’s a timeless story about people in search of acceptance, and that the parts of us that seem to be our weaknesses may be our best qualities 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

So on Twitter, we asked you guys for your favorite Rankin and Bass Christmas specials, and your ranking was: 

4. Frosty the Snowman

3. Santa Claus is Coming to Town

2. Year Without a Santa Claus

  1. Rudolph 

We used your ranking to decide our number one! We had one comment that we would like to read as well, from Andrew Boynton @guthbrand: “The Hobbit! Before you say that’s not a Christmas special, remember the elves. Also Gandolf is basically a low-carb Santa” So The Hobbit is officially an honorable mention. Thank you Andrew!

Our other honorable mentions are: 

  • The Stingiest Man in Town(1978)
  • Rudolph’s Shiny New Year
  • Twas’ the Night Before Christmas
  • Nestor, the Long-eared Christmas Donkey
  • Jack Frost
  • The Leprechaun’s Christmas gold

Rankin and Bass wasn’t just a Christmas special machine, they were a full-fledged animation studio that heavily influenced animation for years to come. But, their contribution to Christmas is incalculable. We encourage everyone to go and watch all the Rankin and Bass specials, and make a ranking of your own–you won’t regret it!


SOURCES:

The Night-Case Before Christmas

So, the harvest is upon us, and Samhain (Sow-en OR Sah-wen) is almost here. The days are shorter, the air is cooler, and we’re all enchanted with the scents of falling leaves and pumpkin. Yes, it’s time to talk about Halloween. But tonight, we’re covering a stop-motion musical classic that was born from a love of two holidays: Halloween and Christmas. In fact, if you ask anyone whether this film is a Halloween or Christmas movie, you might spark quite the debate. 

Released on October 13th, 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas gleefully celebrates everything strange and wonderful about Halloween. The film immediately introduces the audience to a horrid cast of characters: personifications of our deepest fears, happily singing in friendly unison: “I am the clown with the tear-away face; here in a flash and gone without a trace! I am the ‘who’ when you call, ‘Who’s there?’ I am the wind blowing through your hair” 

Brought to life by a powerhouse team, led by Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and Danny Elfman, the film follows Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloweentown, as he faces issues with burnout and his own identity. Jack’s purpose in life becomes reinvigorated when he discovers Christmastown, and attempts to give this new holiday a try instead. 

Outside of its holiday connections, this is a movie that has inspired audiences for almost 30 years. So, goblins and ghouls, let’s talk about Tim Burton’s

The Nightmare Before Christmas!https://www.youtube.com/embed/fxQcBKUPm8o?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

THE SPOOKY BEGINNINGS

  • You may notice that the movie is officially referred to as, “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Burton was the person who created the concept of the movie. 
  • Growing up in Burbank, California, young Tim Burton was fascinated by the Halloween and Christmas decorations in the local stores and shoppes. For years, as a joke, he would place Halloween decorations on his Christmas tree. He thought the holidays clashed in an interesting way, and it was funny seeing them mashed together.
    • For years, Burton built on that idea, imagining a story told in the tradition of classic Christmas specials like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the Rankin and Bass Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, but about Halloween.
  • After attending Cal-Arts, the school notable for uniting many famous animators that would go on to work for Disney Animation and Pixar, Burton worked on The Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound. 
    • He later said that it was a struggle to animate in the style of a classic Disney film, especially with “Disney eyes.” Making cute, cuddly creatures was difficult for him, which was why he would eventually move on from the animation department.
      • He also started working on his own side projects, one called “Vincent,” narrated by the incredible Vincent Price; and the original “Frankenweenie.” Vincent can be seen in the video above.
    • During this time, however, Burton developed the idea for his own movie even further. He wrote a poem, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” as a twist on the first line of the Clement Clarke Moore poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
    • This original story was the bare bones for the film, following the character of Jack Skellington as he attempts to take over Christmas–we can see how Dr. Suess’ Grinch really influenced this part of the story, with the rhyme scheme and subject matter–Jack Skellington was meant to be a reverse Grinch.
    • There’s even a 2-D animated version of this poem, performed by Christopher Lee! We will link to it in the blog so you can watch it for yourself: https://youtu.be/XbPCwc_Cdz0
  • Tim Burton shopped the idea around, but because animation wasn’t a very popular medium at the time, many places didn’t seem interested. Remember, this was still the Bronze Age of Disney, and the studio itself was danger of closing down.
    • Burton remembers that some people were interested in the idea, but weren’t sold on stop-motion. Stop-motion is much more popular today than it was in the 1980’s, and that’s really saying something. 
    • But Burton didn’t feel that this story could be told any other way. He felt that there was a magic to stop-motion, a reality to it. It had the realism of live-action with the creative freedom of animation.
  • In the mid 1980’s, after creating his live-action short Frankenweenie, Tim Burton directed his first full-length feature film: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
    • This movie was huge for Tim Burton’s career, not only because it was a major movie, but because it was the first collaboration between Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman!
    • Elfman was a rock artist before he composed films, and he felt like he had no idea what he was doing.
    • The two men continued to collaborate on films like, “Beetlejuice,” and “Edward Scissorhands,” and when Tim Burton brought the idea of Nightmare Before Christmas to Elfman, Danny embraced the idea and ran with it.
Skellington Santa.jpg

THE SONGS

  • According to Burton and Elfman, the songs came first. Neither of them had ever done a musical before, and they didn’t want grand, show-stopping numbers, but instead something like a “Three Penny Opera,” where the plot continues through the songs.
  • Danny Elfman remembers that when Burton would come to him with new ideas for characters and plot, he would push Tim out of the room because the melodies were popping into his head and he needed to write them down before forgetting them.
  • Although Elfman is credited with writing the melodies and lyrics to the songs, he says Tim Burton deserves a writing credit for all the ideas and lines that he contributed.
  • The songs were written long before any scenes were shot, or even before there was a screenplay! The movie was structured around the songs, as each song signified one part of the plot.
  • Elfman felt a personal connection with Jack. At the time, he was in the band Oingo Boingo, and he had started branching out and doing scores for movies instead. He said that the song, “What’s This,” was slightly inspired by his own feelings at the time, where Halloweentown was playing in the band, and Christmastown was the new world of film music.
    • Because of this, and the fact that Elfman had written the songs himself, he approached Tim Burton and requested that he be the singing voice for the character.
    • Elfman said, “I realized that I was writing a lot from my own character. I went to Tim and said, `I’m not the best singer alive by a long shot, but no one’s going to sing Jack Skellington better than I am.’ And he agreed.”
  • Long after the songs had been written and the film was shot, Elfman also had to piece together a score. He later referred to it as a sort-of jigsaw puzzle.
    • He needed to work the songs into the score without giving too much of the melodies away, and they needed to fit together seamlessly. Musicals often alert audiences to an upcoming song, and although he had never scored a musical before, he was able to connect the songs with transitional music so no number was too jarring.
    • Elfman said it was a challenge–but not in a way that made him want to give up. It was challenging in a way that made him want to try even harder, and even more excited about the project.
    • The limited orchestra recorded in a small space, giving the tracks more of small-scale sound. This lent itself more to the operetta sound that Elfman and Burton were looking for.

THE DIRECTOR

  • After years of concept art and sketches, it was time to start putting the animation team together. 
  • Tim Burton had a visual consultant named Rick Heinrichs reach out to Henry Selick as the possible director of the film. Burton knew of Selick because of his recent work with stop-motion (for example, the Pillsbury Dough-boy commercials) and also because they both graduated from Cal-Arts.
  • After seeing the concept art, Selick happily agreed to do the project. He was giddy, in fact, and Tim Burton trusted his skill and vision so much, that he allowed Selick to be the sole director of the film.
  • Danny Elfman handed over the first completed song, “What’s This?” to Selick, and the crew started storyboarding and building sets and characters for the number. It was the first sequence shot in the movie.
  • Selick had his own team, from years of stop-motion animation, and he brought them onto the film with him. 
  • In the Disney+ series, Prop Culture, host Dan Lanigan asked Henry Selick about the pressure he felt as a first-time director on Disney’s first ever stop-motion film.
    • Selick explained that he didn’t feel pressure at all. Because Burton had so much faith in Selick, he was a little more hands-off than other producers, which gave the team creative freedom to explore concepts and ideas.
    • On the DVD audio commentary Selick said, “I never doubted that we would be able to figure everything out. I just wasn’t worried. I think I believed in the project so much that I assumed that things would fall into place, and 90% of it did.”
  • Selick’s impact on the film is immeasurable, but one of the things that he brought to the project that set it apart from other stop-motion at the time, was the moving camera shots.
    • In stop-motion, we always think of cameras sitting in a fixed position on the tripod while animators manipulate the characters in front of them. So you can imagine that moving camera shots would be technically difficult to pull off.
    • However, this special touch added a cinematic quality to the movie, with a dynamic energy that many other films in the same medium lacked.
Thicc Sally
Thicc Sally
zero.jpg

ANIMATION

Overall, the animation took three years and over 100 artists and technicians to complete.

  • Characters
    • Each character started with a metal armature, that was covered in foam latex by professional sculptors. 
      • Many of these armatures were built by legendary visual effects artist and stop-motion animator Tom St. Armand!
        • Armand has created armatures for many other stop-motion films, but also live-action films with stop-motion sequences and special effects.
        • For example: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; The Rocketeer; and Jurassic Park.
        • He and Tim Burton both reference Ray Harryhausen as an early influence on their work!
      • After the characters were sculpted, the puppet fabrication department painted and clothed them as-needed.
      • After Jack Skellington had been created, the animators had to send the test of his armature to Disney, to prove that the character would translate well on the screen.
        • Originally, Jack was meant to wear all black, which proved to be a problem because he was too thin and wasn’t showing up on camera. So, Henry Selick decided to try pinstripes for him instead, and it worked very well.
      • They did this test with Sally as well. The animators wanted her to have quaky, doll-like movements, but they ultimately decided that she looked drunk, and they stabilized her.
      • In her concept art, Sally was, shall we say, Thicc. She wore a black and white striped dress before it was ditched for her classic patch-work dress.
    • There were about 200 puppets, many of them duplicates of characters. There were 400 different Jack heads, with separate eyepieces.
      • Jack was the first Disney leading character without eyeballs, so it was really important that the animators make his face as emotive as possible, so audiences would connect with the character. 
      • Disney reportedly asked them to give Jack eyeballs, but the animators stuck to their guns–they thought it was an interesting challenge to make him lovable without eyes.
    • Sally also had replaceable faces, since the animators didn’t want to re-make her long, red hair.
    • Animators used special techniques for the more ghostly characters! Rotoscoping, the technique of tracing over live-action footage to mimic realistic movement, was used for some of the ghost characters.
    • One of the most interesting characters in the film is Zero the ghost dog. He was created using a tool called a beam splitter, which is used to split a single beam of light into two, thus giving Zero his translucent appearance. 
Example of Edward Gorey’s Work
Example of Edward Gorey’s Work
Example of Ronald Searle’s Work
Example of Ronald Searle’s Work
  • Set Design 
    • Overall, the movie had 230 sets, filling up 19 sound stages. Some of the sets were lit with as many as 20-30 lights. 
    • There was a very simple color pallet for Halloweentown: Black, Orange, White. Tim Burton didn’t want any deviation from those colors, giving the town the bleak atmosphere of late fall and early winter.
    • For the Halloweentown sets, production artists took inspiration from the drawings of Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey.
      • Animators used styles that would call back to the cross hatching done in these drawings.
      • For example, they would use clay or plaster on the sets and scrape them to give an etched look.
    • Each set was first created at a quarter of the size first, so the artists could figure out where the sets should break so they could stand between them and reach the puppets for adjustments. When they weren’t able to make a clean break, trap doors were installed on the sets so they could open them and adjust when needed! 
    • It took about two years to build the sets.
      • One of the most iconic pieces, the spiral hill that moves with Jack in the song, “Jack’s Lament”, was built more than once. There was the stationary hill that was later covered in a foam substance to give the appearance of snow–and the mechanical hill built with its own armature to move as Jack walks across it.
      • Henry Selick said that it just felt right that the hill would move, but Tim Burton had told Selick that there was to be no magic in Halloweentown.
        • Selick got around this by saying that the hill is mechanical. So, in universe, that is a mechanical hill reacting to Jack’s movements, not magic. 
  • Movement
    • Overall, there were about 12-17 animators, and eight different camera crews tasked with capturing the animation. 
    • Every form of animation takes a little bit of acting, because animators need to understand the motivation behind their characters’ performances in order to draw them well.
      • But, with stop-motion, each animator is essentially putting on a performance through their puppet. This is something Henry Selick understands and tries to get from his animators while directing. On the DVD commentary for this film, he said, “In the end it’s an animator and their puppet and they have to breathe an actual performance into that puppet one frame at a time.”
      • Selick himself became the “actor/animator” for Jack. 
        • So, Tim Burton created Jack, Danny Elfman gave him his soul, and Henry Selick brought him to life. In their own ways, all three men saw themselves in the character, which would explain how Jack resonated with fans as well: he was completely authentic. 
      • Selick based Jack’s movements on his character design, and the movements of spiders and stick bugs. He also used Fred Astaire’s elegant dance moves as a reference as well! 
    • Animators did 2-3 test shots before Selick would sign off on the movement and acting before the final shoot was done. It was so meticulous, that one minute of film took an entire week to shoot.
Oogie Boogie.jpg

THE SCREENPLAY

  • Horror writer Michael McDowell had previously worked with Tim Burton as the screenwriter for Beetlejuice, and actually started working on a draft of this film’s screenplay.
    • However, he was too ill to continue working on the project, and the screenplay was taken over by Caroline Thompson.
  • Thompson was actually Danny Elfman’s girlfriend. And at the time, she had heard every song in the movie, which made her the perfect person to write a story that connected them.
  • According to the DVD commentary, McDowell still made contributions to the story, like Sally’s tendency to break apart and piece herself back together. However, in the Disney+ series Prop Culture, Thompson says that she immediately elaborated on this idea, and pictured a scene where Sally would use her disembodied leg to seduce the villain, Oogie Boogie.
  • Caroline Thompson wrote the new script in about two weeks time, and was not required to make any major edits or re-writes! She received a few notes from Burton, but her story appeared to perfectly hold the film together, filling in all the gaps.
    • Thompson’s biggest contribution through her script was Sally’s personality and development. Sally went through a couple transformations throughout the film’s process–from the “babe” in Burton’s drawings, to a shaky rag-doll designed by Rick Henrichs, to a soft-spoken, yet strong and independent character that is an absolute hero behind the scenes of Jack’s shenanigans. 
    • Although Sally may at first appear to be weak, she has identified her strengths and attempts to use them to stop Jack and undo the harm he has caused.
    • Thompson is proud of her contributions to the story, as she should be.

VOICE ACTING

In stop-motion, the voice acting is done first. Many of the songs were animated before the final voices were added in, so it actually took a year of going back and re-shooting scenes with new singing voices to match them perfectly.

  • Chris Sarandon provided the perfect speaking voice for Jack Skellington.
    • Serandon also acted in “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “Fright Night,” but he’s most well-known as the evil Prince Humperdink.
    • Serandon has never actually seen or touched a Jack sculpture until appearing on Prop Culture, when he got the chance to look at the character.
    • He still gets recognized for playing Jack, which is great news for someone who portrayed such an iconic villain as Humperdink.
  • Danny Elfman, of course provided Jack’s singing voice, but he also voiced The Clown with the tearaway face.
  • Catherine O’Hara voiced Sally! She had previously worked with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice just a few years earlier, however she is also known as Kate McCalister in Home Alone, and most recently Moira in Schitt’s Creek.
  • William Hickey played Evil Scientist, Dr. Finkelstein, and he was also known for playing Lewis in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, as well as Grandpa Wrigley in Pete and Pete.
    • Finklestein’s lair was modeled after his character. If you look closely, Jack’s house is modeled after Jack as well, and Santa’s workshop is modeled after Santa Claus!
  • Glenn Shadix played the Mayor of Halloweentown, and was also Otho in Beetlejuice (the interior decorator.) 
    • The mayor’s design was meant to point out the two-faced nature of politics.
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  • Lock, Shock and Barrel were voiced by Paul Reubens (AKA Peewee Herman), Catherine O’Hara, and Danny Elfman respectively.
    • The three were inspired by a Twilight Zone episode that Tim Burton saw as a child. The episode featured characters that wore masks–and when they removed their masks, their faces were the same. It was a creepy image that stuck with him throughout his life.
  • Ken Page played the evil Oogie Boogie, and he was also known for All Dogs Go to Heaven and Polly! (1989) 
    • In a deleted scene, the identity of Oogie Boogie turned out to be Dr Finklestein! Through his dialog he explained that he was angry that Sally loved Jack more than him, he was her creator.
    • In the final cut of the movie, Oogie Boogie is made up thousands of bugs, being controlled by the single Boogie bug that gets squished at the end of the movie.
    • There was meant to be a scene where the bugs danced as well, but the animators found it to be too meticulous to make it happen.
    • There was also another deleted sequence of Oogie Boogie’s shadow, dancing on the wall, but it was cut for time.
  • Edward Ivory played Santa, and this was his most well-known role.
    • Santa’s voice can be heard at the beginning of the movie during the initial narration. Since the narration doesn’t return, it makes sense that it turns out to be a character in the movie, though this is not immediately obvious to the audience.

RECEPTION

  • The Nightmare Before Christmas was technically made by Walt Disney Studios, but they released the movie under the Touchstone name, for fear that it may hurt their animation brand.
    • Disney was in a precarious position at the time, as they were trying to decide whether their animated films should be made at other studios (for example, should they allow PIXAR to make Toy Story?)
    • They also didn’t know how to market the movie, and because of this, it wasn’t a commercial blockbuster. It made money, and it was by no means a flop, but it’s true success would happen in years to come.
  • Although The Nightmare Before Christmas is not truly scary to anyone but really small children, Steven Greydanus in the Catholic Digest from 2014 had this to say, “The frightful or creepy galvanizes us. It speaks to us of mortality, of the moral and existential implications of the kind of beings we are: creatures of frail flesh and eternal spirit, alienated from our world and from ourselves, haunted by dreams we can’t attain and dread we can’t escape.” Surprisingly, he went on to say that it is for all ages.
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CULT CLASSIC STATUS

  • In 2005 it was adapted into a video game by the art director Deane(Pronounced like Deen) Taylor and Tim Burton. It was made for the Playstation 2, X-box, and Gameboy Advanced.
  • On October 20, 2006 it was reissued as a 3D movie in theatres. It also came with a new CD that had the original songs with bonus tracks that paid homage to Danny Elfman’s scores. Some of the artists that contributed were Fall Out Boy, Panic At The Disco, and Fiona Apple.
  • Sales in toys/blankets/cups/etc.
    • You can find anything you want related to this beautiful film. Clocks, mugs, storage jars that say Frog’s Breath and Deadly NightShade, cookie jars, jewelry, and so much more. 

The Nightmare Before Christmas was the result of 20 years of ideas, drawings, and collaborations, culminating in an animated classic that will last for generations. It gave Henry Selick his first full-length directing job, which paved the way for James and Giant Peach and Coraline. It gave Tim Burton the opportunity to make animation in a new way–his own way–that he wasn’t able to do before. 

The realism with stop-motion moved audiences, and the fearlessness that this film had with its macabre imagery made it ground-breaking. It teaches lessons about passion and arrogance, and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. This film spoke to children in a way that animation rarely did before, and helped popularize stop-motion just as Disney was healing from its dark age. 

The Nightmare Before Christmas happily shows how wonderful it is to be who you are–even if you are a nightmare. 


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