"T’was the Night Before Christmas": Spirit Trumps Intellect
Rankin/Bass’ 1974 holiday special T’was the Night Before Christmas has got the characteristic charm present in much of the studio’s other work, though this loose take on Clement Moore’s famous poem is about as simple as it gets. Whereas many Christmas specials tell a tale relating to an iconic figure or focus on the virtues associated with the spirit of the Christmas season, the program is defined by its single-minded focus on a message that exhorts children to believe in Santa Claus.
In the city of Junctionville, a place where people and small anthropomorphic mice both live harmoniously, the townsfolk are stunned to discover that their letters to Santa have all been returned from the North Pole unopened! The people storm city hall, demanding that decisive action be taken to placate Santa and save Christmas for the town. Enter one Joshua Trundle, an accomplished clockmaker, who proposes to the mayor that they build a grand clock tower that will play a special song for Santa when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile Trundle’s assistant in the shop, Father Mouse, discovers the reason Junctionville’s been blacklisted: a letter in the town paper signed “All of us” that declares Santa to be a fraud. It turns out that the letter was written by his brainy son, Albert, along with some of his friends. Father Mouse tries to open his mind by showing him the townsfolk that believe in Santa and are now crushed by this state of affairs, a tour that ends with Albert being told all about Mr. Trundle and his plan. But when things go wrong with the clock tower, it’ll take a small miracle to guarantee Junctionville a Merry Christmas after all.
The premise, alas, falls apart if you stop to think it through even a little bit. Santa is supposedly angry at Junctionville over an impression that the entire town editorialized against him in a newspaper, but surely ol’ Saint Nick should be smart enough to wonder why anyone from town would send him a letter if that were true. The highly unlikely alternative is that Santa understood the letter was the work of a few individuals and was set to punish the whole town for that, which would be a unconscionable and preposterous portrayal of the jolly old man. Much of this twenty-four minute program is occupied by its pleasant songs, which are fortunately just charming enough to elevate the special above mediocrity.
There’s a predictable theme of rationality vs. belief, of course, as illustrated by such things as Father Mouse’s declaration that “You don’t know as much as you think because you only think with your head!” and the song lyrics “When doubt’s in your mind, give your heart a try.” For all that, notwithstanding the overt notion that Albert ruined Christmas with his opinions, the lad’s right to his point of view isn’t denied. And when it’s revealed that a curious Albert inadvertently broke Trumble’s clock tower, Father Mouse motivates him to flex his intellect and try to fix the damage he caused. Of course, it’s no spoiler to say that holiday cheer prevails also!
The Blu-Ray release of this special does it fine justice. The colors are bright and the images crisp; this is undoubtedly the best the special has ever looked. For those with pleasant old memories of this production, this release will no doubt offer an appealing rediscovery. Beyond that, this is undoubtedly a fine feature for the little ones, though it’s also not a diamond in the rough that one should consider having in a collection before tried-and-true classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or A Charlie Brown Christmas.