Welcome to the Rotoscopers’ Twelve Days of Christmas! Every day until Christmas Eve, we’ll be taking a look at a holiday-themed piece of animation. Check back each day for a new review!
For me, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’m with my family, sitting in front of the TV with my hot cocoa watching a classic Christmas special. And of all the Christmas specials, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is one of my absolute favorites. It features some great songs, endearing and timeless characters, and a wonderful message about the true meaning of Christmas.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town of a stop-motion television Christmas special made by Rankin-Bass Productions. The television special premiered in December 1970 on ABC and continues to air every year around Christmas time. Like many other Rankin-Bass holiday specials (including Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer), Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town was produced in Japan and utilizes Rankin-Bass’ unique style of stop motion animation (referred to by the studio as “Animagic”). While Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass oversaw the television special’s production, a Japanese crew of animators – including production supervisor Kizo Nagashima, the associate director of Rudolph – partnered with the studio to create the beloved holiday special we all know and love.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is its own take on the origin story of Santa Claus and explains how he came to be the legendary character we all know today. While there are countless Santa Claus origin films, I truly think Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is one of the best. While it may not be overly flashy or spectacular, Rankin and Bass’ version of the legend of Santa Claus manages to answer all the major questions viewers have about the mysterious mythical figure without being too gimmicky or ridiculous.
The special tells the story is Kris (voiced by Mickey Rooney), an orphan who is taken in by a friendly family of toy making elves known as the Kringles. As an adult, Kris stumbles on the city of Sombertown, where toys are banned as they are declared “illegal, immoral,” and “unlawful” by the town’s grouchy ruler, Burgermeister Meisterburger (voiced by Paul Frees). With the help of the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) and the town schoolteacher Miss Jessica (Robie Lester), Kris vows to bring toys to the children of Sombertown – even if he has to sneak into the town at night and hide his toys in the children’s drying stockings.
One of the things I love about Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (and, honestly, about all the Rankin-Bass specials) are the songs. The special features many memorable songs written by Maury Laws and Jules Bass, namely “One Foot in Front of the Other” and “The First Toymaker to the King.” The song “One Foot in Front of the Other” is probably one of my favorite songs from any Rankin-Bass special! In this sequence, the terrifying and sinister Winter Warlock captures Kris and his penguin sidekick, Topper. Instead of fighting back, Kris gives the Winter Warlock a toy train as a present. This act of kindness “melts” the warlock’s icy heart, and he decides he wants to become a good person again. However, he’s been bad for so long he’s unsure that he can really change. Before the eyes of the viewer, the terrifying Winter Warlock suddenly changes from a sinister and powerful wizard to an anxiety-stricken and cowardly (and sympathetic) one.
Kris, Topper, and the forest animals then teach the warlock that turning over a new leaf is as easy as putting “one foot in front of the other.” Not only is this song catchy (and adorable), it has a great message that can be applied to any situation in which one is forced to face one’s fears in making a big change.
Not every song in Santa Claus in Comin’ to Town is a hit, however. Certain songs in the special are definitely not as good as others. The songs “Be Prepared to Pay” (sung by Kris) and “My World is Beginning Today” (sung by Jessica) are not nearly as catchy and feels out of place. If it’s any indication of how unnecessary these songs are, ABC has even cut them out of the televised special in past broadcasts in order to make room for commercials.
More than anything, the message of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is probably what makes it one of my favorite Christmas specials. The story ends when the narrator, S.D. Kluger (voiced by the iconic Fred Astaire), informs viewers that there are still people to this day who, like Burgermeister Meisterburger, fails to recognize the true beauty of Christmas. Cut to a haggard looking retail worker fighting off Christmas shopping crowds and expressing her desire that Christmas be “outlawed” for being a “bother” and to a disgruntled man asking, “How can they talk about Santa Claus when there’s so much unhappiness in the world?”
But, in the words of our narrator: “They miss the whole point. Lots of unhappiness? Maybe so. But, doesn’t Santa take a little bit of that unhappiness away? Doesn’t a smile on Christmas morning scratch out a tear? … What would happen if we all tried to be like Santa and learned to give? … Of ourselves, our talents, our loves, and our hearts.” While the special itself might be a little dated, its moral is a timeless reminder that Christmas is a time to share our love with others. So, if you’re feeling a little low on holiday spirit, this is the movie to watch! I guarantee it will leave you feeling ready to sing carols and decorate the Christmas tree!
Do you like Rankin-Bass’ Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town? Is “One Foot in Front of the Other” perpetually stuck in your head after you watch it? Let us know in the comments!
Edited by: Kelly Conley