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"'Twas the Night Before Christmas": Unexpected Gifts

Rankin-Bass is widely acknowledged as the prime source for all your corny-Christmas-special-related needs, but their few really famous films, like Rudolph and Frosty, tend to overshadow some surprisingly decent ones. This sadly short featurette is a prime example of that, and it’s a shame that it isn’t better known. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is Rankin-Bass at its best.

The special hinges on the immediately hilarious idea that Santa Claus has chosen to skip over an entire town on Christmas Eve because of some very nasty things that were said about him in the newspaper. The nasty note, which calls Santa a fraud, was written by a skeptical young mouse, and the special from that point on descends into excellent fodder for people who claim that the Santa issue promotes conformity. (At one point the line “You’ve ruined everyone’s Christmas with your opinions!” is actually uttered). This sets the backdrop for some of the standard silliness: I love how the entire town begins to riot in the streets at the horrifying prospect of a Santa-less Christmas. (The parents of the young skeptic wisely keep the truth hidden until the end of the special, lest their boy be torn into pieces by the mob.) I also love how the mayor’s plot for re-gaining Santa’s goodwill—which involves building a huge clock tower to belt out a Santa-flattering song when the hour is struck—is so much more needlessly complicated then, well, almost any alternative. I love how when Santa hears the song (oh, shut up, as if that wasn’t a foregone conclusion) he literally appears to press on his sled-brakes, listen for a moment, and then make a U-turn back for the town. But I especially love the way how, even though everything in the film is so ridiculous, all the actors and animators play it completely straight. Even the comic-relief character, the hapless mayor, treats the issue as if it were life or death.

All of the above would have been significantly less charming—maybe even unbearable—if there wasn’t a significant amount of talent to back it all up. Luckily there is. The special was designed by famous illustrator Paul Coker, who had the same role in Frosty, and while this film doesn’t have nearly as appealing character designs as that one did—some of the human characters look downright ugly—it makes up for it with beautiful backgrounds and sheer visual inventiveness. This is especially evident during the musical numbers. There are two such scenes (impressive for a film with a twenty-minute runtime) and the first, “Give Your Heart a Try”, perfectly demonstrates both the strength of Coker’s designs and the special’s intriguing visuals by throwing two of the mouse characters into a surreal world filled with primary colors and holiday mascots (Leprechauns! The Easter Bunny riding down a rainbow! Mice re-enacting a scene from Sleeping Beauty! ) The second musical number, “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” is less frantic and centers on the less appealing human characters, but it redeems itself by being the catchiest thing I’ve heard in months and by liberally sprinkling visual gags throughout. (But keep in mind that this special, like most traditionally animated Rankin-Bass specials, has very limited animation, so just pulling a visual gag off is quite an impressive feat.) Even outside of the musical numbers, the special is visually interesting. The opening credits, for instance, have the backgrounds shot in sepia, contrasting nicely with the colorful main characters. Also, while for the most part the character designs are surprisingly weak, I have to say that I love Coker’s very original Santa Claus design: it has a certain inhuman feel to it that makes the character feel more at home with both the special’s plot and that of the poem the special was based on.

The voices are Rankin-Bass’s typical lower-medium profile actors, and are a mixed bag. George Gobel sounds as if he’s reading off a script, but Joel Grey and Tammy Grimes leap to their parts with gusto. Grimes, incidentally, plays the young skeptic, and her burden in voicing a male character who has to spout such ridiculous lines must have been great, so I especially applaud her performance.

I have to say, though, that no matter how much I enjoyed the material, I have a problem with the way this “Deluxe Edition” DVD has been released. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is a very short film and was originally sold on DVD in 2004 with another featurette, Frosty’s Winter Wonder-Land, presumably to make up for this fact. In this release, the only extra feature that’s not a commercial is Christmas: A Global Holiday, an abysmal affair labeled as an “animated comic book” that gives the audience a bunch of ugly pictures while an obnoxious narrator explains how Santa is viewed in other cultures. He does this in such a convoluted way that even this very interesting subject is rendered boring, and while the DVDs main feature felt much too short at twenty minutes this extra seems to drag on forever at ten. I don’t know why this release omitted the Frosty special. Maybe WHV is planning on releasing that one independently as well at a later date, but it’s certainly a disappointment.

Nevertheless, this is an ideal holiday film and I’m glad it’s back on the market. The fact that “It ends too soon” is the only true complain I have about it is a very good thing.

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