Monday, December 14, 2020

Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town

Premiered December 14, 1970.

Kris KringleYou better watch out. Better not cry.  Better not pout.
Kris Kringle:I'm telling you why!
Kris Kringle:'Cause I came to town, and look what I brought.

At the North Pole, a postman named Special Delivery "S.D." Kluger (Fred Astaire) receives lots of letters from children who want to more about Santa Claus.  

They ask why he wears a red suit, why he enters homes through chimneys, how his reindeer can fly, etc.  Kluger answers their queries telling Santa's origin story.

It begins in Sombertown, a grey, bleak, depressing town located in "one of the northern countries."

The town is overseen by a dictatorial mayor known as the Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees).  

One day, a baby named "Claus" is left on the Burgermeister's doorstep, with a note requesting he raise the baby.  However, the Burgermeister isn't interested and orders his chief enforcer Grimsley (Frees) to take Claus to the orphanage.  Grimsley encounters an intense snowstorm, which spirits baby Claus away into the woods.  

The baby is rescued by forest animals and taken to the Kringles, a family of toymaking elves.  They're led by their matriarch Tanta Kringle (Joan Gardner).  The Kringles decide to adopt the baby and they name him Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney).  

The Kringles were once prominent toymakers in the region and used to bring toys to children in Sombertown.  Unfortunately, the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) eventually arrived and prevented them from taking their toys into town.  This means they still make toys, but they just pile up, so they have a backlog of toys that can't be delivered.

When he's grown to adulthood, Kris decides to bring the Kringles' toys to the children of Sombertown.  On the way, he meets a lost penguin who needs help.  Kris names him Topper and says he will take care of the penguin.

At the same time, Burgermeister steps on a toy and breaks his funny bone.  This prompts him to declare all toys illegal and orders Grimsley to enforce his decree.  

When Kris gets to town, he gives toys to kids as planned, until he's confronted by Sombertown's schoolteacher Jessica (Robie Lester).  He gives Jessica a doll as a peace offering and she is won over to Kris' cause.  The Burgermeister isn't so sympathetic and demands Kris' immediate arrest.

Kris flees town, but on the way home, he encounters more danger in the form of the Winter Warlock!  Fortunately, Kris thinks fast and gives the warlock a toy train. 

This warms Winter Warlock's heart and Kris shows him he can change his ways and be a good person.  Kris is so persuasive that the warlock, moves in with the Kringles, changes his name to "Winter," and pledges to use his magic to help Kris deliver toys to children.    

Kris continues to visit Sombertown and give toys to kids.  The Burgermeister responds to the Kringles' charity with increased brutality.  Toys are gathered up and burned in public and the Kringles' home and workshop are destroyed. 

In the midst of all this action, Jessica and Kris fall in love and are married under the first Christmas tree.  Burgermeister's hostilities eventually send Kris, Jessica, Winter, Topper and the Kringles on the run and they settle in the North Pole, where Kris continues to make toys eventually becomes known as Santa Claus.  

J.A. Morris says:

Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town was often shown on network television when I was a kid and was part of my annual holiday viewing.  It's a special I've always enjoyed and I appreciate it more today as an adult because I have a much better understanding of its message.

To put it in context, Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town was produced during a time of worldwide upheaval.  The Vietnam War was an ongoing conflict.  Student-led protests were occurring all over the United States.  The Kris Kringle depicted in this special has a lot in common with protest organizers and countercultural rebels of the late-60s and early-70s.  When Jessica lets down her hair, she resembles "flower children" of the era. 

Burgermeister Meisterburger serves as a stand-in for "the establishment" that overreacted to the youth of the times.  The Burgermeister even bears a resemblance to Pres. Richard Nixon, who became the personification of everything the protest movements decried.  I don't think that's an accident or a coincidence.  

However, you don't need a degree in history or political science to enjoy this special.  This tale of how Santa came to be is charming and Kris and the other protagonists are all very likeable and sympathetic.  Burgermeister and Grimsley are truly bad people.  It's worth noting that this, to my recollection, is one of the few Christmas specials where the primary villain doesn't "reform."  The narrator says that Burgermeisters "kind of died off and fell out of power."  Kris does get the Winter Warlock to change his ways, so maybe the creative team figured one bad guy turning good was good enoug.  The Kringles love for Kris is palpable, Topper is adorable and Jessica and Kris' love for each other feels genuine and earned.  

This special also features a strong cast of voice actors.  Mickey Rooney provides a great voice for Kris Kringle and a good "old man" voice for Santa near the end.  Joan Gardner and Robie Lester have great singing voices. Voice acting legend Paul Frees is excellent playing both the Burgermeister and his chief henchman Grimsley.  Fred Astaire's presence as narrator adds a lot of gravitas to the story and he also performs a nice version of the title song.  I should note that Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town was my childhood introduction to Astaire.

Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town also features some of the best songs in Rankin-Bass' oeuvre, they're composed by Bass and Maury Laws.  "The First Toymakers To The King" shows how much the Kringles enjoy making toys that bring joy to children.  "One Foot In Front Of The Other" shows Winter Warlock that it's not hard to change your wicked ways once you've taken that first step.  I've thought of this song many times in my life when I'm depressed or discouraged and it's helped me focus on taking the first step towards solving a problem.

Kris shows Winter how to "put one foot in front of the other!"

"My World is Beginning Today" shows us the moment where Jessica realizes that both her love for Kris and her decision to become an activist (for lack of a better word) in the struggle against oppression have made here a different person and changed the trajectory of her life.  Jessica's performance of  "My World" is accompanied by amazing psychedelic imagery, which provides another connection to the counterculture rebellion of the 1960s.  

Speaking of songs, one song in this special hasn't aged well.  "Prepare To Pay" accompanies a scene where children sit on Kris' lap and tell him the toys they want.  It includes these lyrics:

If you sit on my lap today
A kiss a toy is the price you'll pay
When you tell what you wish for --
In a whisper
Be prepared to pay.

The underlying message of the song is be nice to others, spread love, and make the world a better place.  Out of context, however the "kiss a toy" lyric sounds like the language of one who preys on children.  For that reason, this song is sometimes edited out of broadcasts of Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town.  Having said that, I imagine most children who watch the unedited version will just see a scene of kids expressing their Christmas wishes to Santa.

Rankin-Bass specials always gave us cute animals and Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town is no exception to that rule.

If there's anything wrong with this special, it's at the very end.  Narrator S.D. Kluger tells of people who still don't approve of Santa and we're shown a frazzled, stressed-out retail clerk who says Christmas should be outlawed.

I've worked in retail (Toys R Us, to be exact) during the Christmas rush and I can sympathize with that clerk.  I'll just say please remember to always be friendly and patient when shopping during the holiday season and don't take out your frustrations on the store employees. 

I love Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town and I think it's just as good today as it was when it premiered five decades ago.  This special remains relevant, since children will always have questions about Santa's beginnings and because people who act like the Burgermeister are (unfortunately) still around in today's world.  Thankfully, they're are also lots of people who are opposed to the Burgermeisters of 2020 and I believe Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town can still serve as an inspiration to freedom fighters (and those who just love Santa Claus) everywhere.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 candy canes!

RigbyMel says:

I do not recall seeing Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town on TV when I was younger -- so I guess I am a little bit late to the party with this stop-motion "Animagic" Rankin Bass special.  Since I first saw it as an adult, I don't bring the nostalgia to it that someone who watched it every year might.  That being said, this special is quite charming.

I quite enjoyed the framing device of S.D. Kluger telling the story to answer kids' questions about Santa and appreciate the way that all the pieces of the story fit together.  The way lyrics from the titular song get shoehorned in the script as dialogue is goofily charming (and also a bit of a Rankin Bass holiday special trope). 

Topper and Kris on the run from the law!

As J.A. Morris mentions above, this special most definitely feels like it is hearkening to the time it was produced, but tales of fighting injustice are also universal so it works on that level as well.  

The voice casting is fantastic and the songs are top-notch overall.  "One Foot In Front Of the Other" is a standout track and I really like Fred Astaire's rendition of the title song.  

My only real criticisms are the inadvertent and unfortunate creepiness the "Prepare To Pay" song to contemporary ears. Also, although I enjoy the trippiness of Jessica's psychedelic interlude, it feels like it brings the proceedings to a bit of a halt.

I have always enjoyed the Rankin Bass stop motion animated specials.  There's something about the texture and depth of the animation as well as the cute character designs that's delightful to watch.

Criticisms aside, it's easy to see why Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town remains popular even after 50 years. 

RigbyMel's rating


3 1/2 candy canes.

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