- Year: 1979
- Director: Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass
- Starring: Billie May Richards, Jackie Vernon, Paul Frees
In 1964, Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass created one of the most famous holiday specials of all time—Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Made on a very low budget with stop-motion animation and only one famous celebrity voice (Burl Ives), it became a classic nonetheless. Rudolph‘s success led to a string of other Christmas specials from Rankin/Bass, including Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Little Drummer Boy, and of course Frosty the Snowman. Both Rudolph and Frosty had their own individual sequels, but in 1979, they decided it was time to finally have the two beloved characters crossover with Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July.
If you never intend for two specials to crossover, there are some obvious issues with canon you’re going to have to deal with. Let’s start with the obvious. The animation in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer looked like this.
The animation in Frosty the Snowman looked like this.
Rankin and Bass decided to make Frosty in Claymation, and I have to admit that 15 years after Rudolph, the stop motion animation has gotten a lot better.
Then there’s the issue of Santa Claus. In Rudolph, Santa was a downright jerk to everyone, only stopping his mockery of Rudolph when he needed to use his nose. Santa in Frosty the Snowman was voiced by Paul Frees, who voices the villain in this special, so they decided to make this a three-way crossover and throw in Mickey Rooney from Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
Frosty (Jackie Vernon) has moved permanently to the North Pole with his wife Crystal (Shelley Winters, clearly chosen for the name), who he married in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (For the ’90s kids wondering, Frosty Returns actually came years later and is not from Rankin/Bass). He also now has two children Milly and Chilly, who thankfully were not created in any special.
After seeing Rudolph and Frosty being friends for a few minutes and a very nice opening credits sequence, we get the reason why this special is 90 minutes long—lots and lots of exposition. Santa tells us that long before he came to the North Pole, it used to be ruled by an evil sorcerer named Winterbolt (Paul Frees)
Winterbolt lives in a cavernous lair, with dragons, a crystal ball, and a Magic Mirror-esque genie who answers all his questions. Again, the stop motion animation has come a long way, because I have to admit, the design of it all is pretty great. Also, Winterbolt is just so over-the-top in his mannerisms and evil voice that it’s at least interesting every time he’s on screen.
I’ll attempt to give you the somewhat quick version of this ten minutes of exposition. Winterbolt used his scepter made of pure ice to ward off everyone good who crossed his path and ruled for a long time. One day the Aurora Borealis took human form (Lady Boreal) and used her magic to put Winterbolt to sleep for a thousand years. In that time, Santa Claus came to the North Pole and happiness was restored. When the thousand years were over, the ring came to the creature Gollum…
Sorry, I already need a drink. This is freaking long. Let’s play the Voice Actor Drinking Game and we can get back to the exposition. Alright, there are four definitive voice actors in 60’s and 70’s animated specials. A special with all four is almost a thing of legend, but let’s see how many we can find. We already have Paul Frees. How about Thurl Ravenscroft, that famous bass who voiced Tony the Tiger and sang “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”?
Sure enough, he voices the moving mouth that Winterbolt uses every time he has a question. Alright, we’re two for two. How about Don Messick, the voice of Scooby-Doo?
Messick voices Sam Spangles, the character on the far left there whose design is clearly based on the evil magician from Frosty the Snowman. Alright, let’s see if we can get a perfect score. Tell me, is Hans Conried, the voice of Captain Hook, in this special?
Seriously? No Hans Conried? Alright, well the search for the perfect four-for-four continues, but now surely we’ve all had enough alcohol to get back to this ridiculous special.
When the thousand years were over, Winterbolt awoke from his sleep and the Lady Boreal’s human form was waning. She left her last bit of power in a young reindeer, telling him his nose would only remain lit if he only used it for good. Winterbolt, jealous of Santa’s power, conspired to stop him by causing the worst storm the world had ever seen. However, as we all know, Rudolph’s nose shone brightly through the storm, causing Santa to make his flight anyway. Now it’s July, and Winterbolt doesn’t want to wait to Christmas to try to defeat Santa again.
Do you see the problem here? This is a special for children. Why do we get this epic backstory for a special involving Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Was Rankin/Bass jealous they never got to make a full-fledged Lord of the Rings? Hey kids, the story of Rudolph is a great tale about overcoming insecurities, but more importantly, it’s about a war between two gods.
Also, the Lady Boreal gives Rudolph this gift at birth! How is he supposed to remember the words he was told when he was just seconds old? Even worse, she tells him that the nose will go out if he is even tempted just once. He doesn’t even have to do anything wrong, just be tempted. Look Rankin/Bass, you already did The Little Drummer Boy. Why does Rudolph have to be the Messiah in this thing? I guess that means since Santa came to the North Pole before Rudolph’s birth, that makes him John the Baptist and Frosty’s multiple resurrections make him Lazarus.
So now our story finally gets going. Rudolph and Frosty meet up with the recycled Fred Astaire puppet from Santa Claus is Coming to Town, who comes to tell them MORE EXPOSITION.
They’re calling the character Milton this time around, and he’s voiced by Red Buttons. Milton is an ice cream man who keeps his stash up at the North Pole to keep it cold all year long (just go with it), and he’s in love with a circus performer whose show is going broke. If their big July 4th show is a flop, they’re going to sell to Sam Spangles. Since Rudolph is apparently a worldwide celebrity, he agrees to go with Milton and help get the circus back on its feet. Frosty and family want to go as well, but it takes them way longer than it should to realize they’re snow-people and they would melt. Frosty says he feels like a misfit, leading Crystal to sing “Everything I’ve Always Wanted,” the one good song in the whole thing. It doesn’t need to be there (Okay, none of the songs save “Rudolph” and “Frosty” need to be here), but it’s got a really pleasant tune and it doesn’t go on too long. It’s also the first thing in about twenty minutes that isn’t just plot exposition, so maybe it’s just placed nicely, but it works.
Since the biblical metaphors weren’t heavy enough already, it’s time for Frosty the Snowman to make a deal with the Devil. (Who knew? I could have put this on my Faustian Tales Match-Up.)
Winterbolt comes and gives the Frosty family amulets that will keep them frozen until the final firework on the 4th of July. No one finds it suspicious that this obviously evil sorcerer who no one has ever heard of has given them temporary life that will end at a bizarrely specific time, so they just go with it.
They go to Santa, and via Winterbolt’s mind control, he says he will come down to pick them up right as the fireworks end. This is of course so Winterbolt can cause a storm that will stop Santa in his tracks, but if you have the power of mind control, why don’t you just have Santa move? I suppose he has that very common plot-relevant mind control. We also get a scene where Santa and Mrs. Claus discuss their marriage, and they both admit Santa is sometimes a bit too focused on work this time of year, because they’ve got Mickey Rooney back and he’s getting his minimum screen time.
Finally we get to the circus where we meet the special’s second most important character, Ethel Merman.
She has a character name, but it’s just Ethel Merman. Ethel runs the circus, and is also the mother of Milton’s girlfriend. She seems to have mixed feelings about Milton, as she makes fun of his job in one scene but calls him “yummy” in another. We get plenty of scenes of the circus performers preparing the tent, parading around town, and performing their acts, because it’s Ethel Merman and we need to make her sing… FOUR FREAKING SONGS. That’s right, Ethel Merman has four musical numbers in this thing. Enough of these boring characters, what’s Winterbolt up to?
He’s going to the Cave of Lost Rejections, sort of the Mos Eisley Cantina of the Rankin/Bass Universe, to find the most evil reindeer in existence. We also get to see how awkward Winterbolt’s ridiculously hammy antics would be in a normal conversation.
I get they’re trying to make this look like a seedy bar, but one of the patrons is a bird with an afro and sunglasses (I’d show him but it’s just a split second and too darkly lit). Did you just throw all the leftover pieces onto one puppet?
Winterbolt finally tracks down the reindeer he’s looking for.
This is Scratcher, voiced by Laugh-In‘s Alan Sues. He’s not evil, but rather just lazy and self-serving. He’s also a campy gay stereotype right out of the ’40s… and that’s the whole joke. Scratcher claims he was going to be one of Santa’s reindeer until Rudolph came along (although he’s never been mentioned before), leading to Scratcher’s downward spiral. Is it strange that I’d much rather watch a Lost Weekend style special about his descent into reindeer alcoholism way more than I would this film? Seriously, though, how many characters need to be in this thing?
Winterbolt’s extremely convoluted plan surprisingly goes off without a real hitch. Scratcher gets a job with the circus and goes into the trailer with Rudoph and (unbeknownst to Rudolph) gives him the money to hand to a police officer, who is actually Sam Spangles undercover.
Even though he didn’t willingly do anything wrong, the temptation causes Rudolph’s nose to go out. Santa gets caught in the storm and Frosty realizes he and his family are about to die. He tries to get Ethel Merman to stop the fireworks, but they’ve already begun and it’s too late. Winterbolt comes back and says he can make Frosty’s amulets last longer if Rudolph agrees to let his nose stay dim and never tell anyone what actually happened (Yeah the thing contradicts itself, but that’s what happens when your Christmas special has more plot points than The Big Sleep.)
Winterbolt flies back to the North Pole and Frosty tries to find a way to help Rudolph, who has now wandered off alone. Winterbolt asks his magic ice mirror if Frosty does have anything he’d want, so he gets shown the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Frosty the Snowman special (just now with claymation) and learns of Frosty’s life-giving hat. I have to admit, I love how this special interrupts its darkest moments to sing an upbeat rendition of “Frosty the Snowman.” It really shouldn’t work, but for some reason, it does. The genie tells him that if he found a way to harness the hat’s powers, he could create an army of killer snowmen.
For being an eons-old villain, he really is kind of riding by the seat of his pants with this evil plan.
Since there are still twenty minutes left in this thing, Winterbolt goes back to the circus and says if Frosty gives him his hat, he’ll turn Rudolph’s nose back on (Something he can’t do, but Frosty doesn’t have to know.) Frosty gives him the hat back and freezes, but for some reason the amulet stays on so he doesn’t melt.
Meanwhile, Rudolph has gone off to the beach and heard the Aurora Borealis vaguely telling him to “Be brave.” He also runs into his old buddy Big Ben, the Clockwork Whale, from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. It’s a pretty shoehorned cameo, but Ben is voiced by the hilarious radio star Harold Peary (famous for playing The Great Gildersleeve), so he at least brings some lightness to this surprisingly dark Christmas special.
Ben gets an idea and swims off to South America, while Rudolph goes back to the circus and finds Frosty dead and Winterbolt maniacally laughing. The two of them fight for the hat, and this brave act of violence causes Rudolph’s nose to come back. Rudolph puts the hat back on Frosty, thankfully never telling him his sacrifice was in vain, and explains the whole story to Ethel Merman. The real policeman (an Irish stereotype, of course) comes and arrests Sam Spangles and gives the money back to Ethel. Frosty and Rudolph sing “We’re a Couple of Misfits” from Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, and just as the special seems to be over, Winterbolt comes back. Ethel Merman pulls out her guns to shoot him, but she is informed that the circus guns only have blanks. Instead, she chucks the guns at him, breaking his staff. Winterbolt cries out “If the scepter dies, I go too” and turns into a tree. Yay, violence saves the day twice in the third act, kids.
However, since Winterbolt is dead, his amulets are no good anymore and the Frosty family melts. HOW ARE WE NOT DONE YET? Big Ben swims back with Jack Frost (he was in one of the specials at some point), who was in South America for their winter. Jack blows a chilly winter breeze and brings the snowmen back to life.
Santa finally comes to town and takes the Frosties back to the North Pole as Jack Frost spends all his breath keeping them alive. Everyone at the circus eats some of Santa’s reindeer feed (for reindeer, not made of reindeer), causing it to become a flying circus. THE END.
What a mess this thing is. The plot is ridiculously convoluted, and it feels like each scene introduces (or re-introduces) a new character. We get seemingly pointless scenes of characters talking about their marriages, moping because their powers have gone out, Viagra-esque amulets that give Frosty power… Hold on. Is this whole thing about impotence?
Maybe I’ve just watched one too many bad Christmas specials, but hear me out. All three male heroes (Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa) feel indebted to a woman in their lives—Frosty with Crystal, Santa with Mrs. Claus, and Rudolph with the Lady Boreal. They all take considerable amounts of time wondering if they are good enough to please these women. Both Frosty and Rudolph have magical powers that give them life, and Frosty is given amulets that extended his potency for a few hours. One of the first things we see happen in the circus grounds is the workers literally pitching a tent.
Rudolph’s nose only goes out when he is alone with the ambiguously gay reindeer in the dark trailer. The villain is indebted to no one and derives all of his power from his large phallic scepter. When he ultimately dies, he turns into a limp tree. And what ultimately saves the day at the end? A sperm whale.
So is this thing secretly brilliant? Probably not, but it’s still a fun theory. As silly as this whole thing is, I can’t hate it. It’s clear Rankin/Bass just decided to go all out with this one, and while the final product is insane, it’s enjoyably insane. Winterbolt is hysterically over-the-top, even going as far as to pronounce “evil” with emphasis on the second syllable. He also delivers perhaps my favorite line in the history of Christmas cinema: “I must rid my north lands of this ho-ho-hoing creature and his flock of Christmas interlopers.” Surely voice actor Paul Frees knew this was a dumb line and just went for it.
Also, basically every returning character is voiced by their original actor. Rankin/Bass managed to get more and more stars with each special, so there are a lot of them in this one. Jackie Vernon’s voice works really well for Frosty the Snowman, even though Vernon’s own comedy was usually very dry and sarcastic. Thankfully, Frosty has also gotten progressively smarter with each special, making him much more enjoyable to watch than scene after scene of Rudolph moping around. There is, however, far too much Ethel Merman. FOUR SONGS? FOUR?
The pointless songs aside, it’s by far the most enjoyable special I’ve watched so far. It’s just such a big dumb fun mess… that may or may not be about impotence.