Oh! You’re back? I didn’t scare you off with my analysis of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a parable for queerness and oppression? Well, okay! Welcome back. Skipping past the honestly-pretty-mediocre Cricket on the Hearth for now, the next essential Rankin-Bass special on our docket is one I’ve actively avoided for years. The Little Drummer Boy!
Now, I want to preface a bit here, and explain that I did not grow up in a religious home. My holiday decorations consisted of snowmen and reindeer, and the only way I even knew what a nativity scene looked like was from watching Mr. Bean’s Christmas. It took me years to realize they didn’t actually include a Dalek by default. The ways of your Christian world are new and strange to me, and I don’t know who decided that Rankin-Bass needed to tackle the religious origins of Christmas immediately following Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in their stop-motion canon, but I oddly think it had the opposite effect than intended. The Little Drummer Boy is a film that speaks out against maintaining consistent faith in any one ideology or religion and instead espouses openness of thought.
The main visual element we get from this opening sequence is sand. It’s admittedly pretty impressive sand on a technical level, considering those desert winds are actually blowing in painstakingly hand crafted stop-motion, but it’s a far cry from the winter wonderlands we’ll get from most of the other specials to come. Spotted in this sand are camels, donkeys, and sheep. It’s jarring to think that this was their immediate follow-up to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Did they really think what people wanted to see more of in their Christmas specials was livestock? It’s very brown and a huge departure from the bright and colourful world of the North Pole.
Notably, we also hear the voice of Hollywood actress Greer Garson narrate this opening sequence. That is, we exclusively hear it, because Garson doesn’t play any actual character in this special whatsoever. Without a Sam the Snowman character, the whimsy of this narration is painfully absent. There’s no one here to guide us through the narrative. Just omnipotence watching from on high. The implicit message is clear. The Little Drummer Boy has us in for a dry biblical narrative without any of the bells and whistles that might make it entertaining. I will give it some respect for including a female narrator for the first time, but the fact that she comes in absent of even a scrap of personality is disheartening to say the least.
The first thing we realise as we get into the special is how much more restricted Rankin-Bass seems to be in telling this story. These specials, as you’ll see, are always at their best when they’re allowed to get downright insane with the source material. Understandably, in telling a story that seems to be directly out of the Bible, they lose that creative freedom and can’t exactly have the little drummer boy suddenly come up against the Bumble. That restriction hurts this special, becoming its most damning feature as most of this special suffers from the reality of human interaction.
So who is this little drummer boy? His name is Aaron, and he hates all people. That’s actually how he’s described. Now, this is a kind of interesting arc to take. The bones of this story are pretty bare. How do we expand The Little Drummer Boy into a story worthy of running a full twenty-five minutes? That moment of playing the drum for Baby Jesus needs to be the most important moment in his life. It has to change him in some way. So let’s focus the plot on his motivations and put him as far away from the boy we know from the song. The little drummer boy we know from the song is a “poor boy too” prostrating himself in reverence to the lord. Let’s make him a humanity hating jerk.
To keep Aaron from making this change too soon, we’re quickly introduced to Ben Haramed, a man who will represent all the negative aspects of humanity in one character. Singing to the captive boy about why he cons people, how he can’t work like other men When the Goose is Hanging High, it appears we’ve met our villain. Yet in actuality, he and Aaron are remarkably similar. Neither are characters who don’t believe in anything. That is to say, both ascribe unquestioningly to a single philosophy, albeit ones of their own devising. The audience are supposed to recognize that both these characters are in the wrong in the same way they were expected to recognize Rudolph and Hermes were in the right. That negativity also puts the pair of them at odds, as captor and captive, man-abuser and man-hater.
Of course, if we simply see Aaron as a man-hater, we won’t care at all, and the difference between himself and Ben Haramed won’t matter. In an attempt to get us to empathise with the little misanthrope, we’re treated to a flashback where we get to watch his father get stabbed by Roman tax collectors. F**king Romans, man. Villains every time. This is a decent reason to be hateful. It’s a Luke Skywalker moment, to be sure, and it definitely lets us understand Aaron as a character. The fact that the drum is a gift from his murdered father is a nice bit of storytelling into making the drum an important object as well.
Journeying into a city, Ben makes Aaron sing and dance Why Can’t the Animals Smile to entertain a crowd, where we really see Aaron’s hatred of humanity in action. It’s a joyful sequence, but Aaron ends the segment by yelling at the crowd for ever being happy. So, if you’ve enjoyed this segment of the show, he hates you too. He’s a stubborn boy, undermining any attempt at happiness he might have. In his anger at the crowd, it undermines your own happiness at the same time. Not… exactly… what you want to be doing in an entertaining special, but at least it’s thematically on point. This leads to the protagonists being chased out of the city by an angered mob, driven back into the desert once more.
The biblical element comes back into the story as Ben and Aaron are travelling in the desert and meet three kings. Yes, those three kings. Ben, following his philosophy to put money ahead of everything else, sells Aaron’s friend Joshua the camel to the three kings who require another animal to make their way to Bethlehem. This is finally too much for Aaron, who escapes Ben Haramed to follow them. While the kings are present in the story, we’re definitely on the sidelines from their actual story in a way I can totally appreciate. The true biblical figures are kept at a distance. As someone who, I guess, wouldn’t consider themselves a fan of the book on this one, it definitely made me feel more comfortable interacting with this story, and totally granted Rankin-Bass at least a miniscule amount of creative freedom. If anything, it needed to do more of that.
In hot pursuit of his camel, Aaron finally begins his inevitable journey to Bethlehem. Following One Star in the Night leads him to the city. Just as they reunite with Joshua, Baba the lamb is hit by a cart and mortally wounded. Okay, actually? As much as I usually hate seeing animals so much as hurt in media, I’m okay with this. This special found a way to manipulate our emotions. Finally, Aaron makes a move to actually approach humanity and ask them of something. He asks for help from the kings in helping his lamb, but they say there’s nothing they can do. He must ask the king of kings, the baby laying in the manger, in exchange for a gift of his own.
What Aaron offers the babe as a gift is obvious. It’s The Little Drummer Boy. The song, sung by the Vienna Boys Choir, becomes a huge swelling moment in the story. It’s a version of the song that is, again, safe. It’s not my favourite version. I potentially would have preferred a more intimate version, sung by Aaron alone, but I doubt it would have had the same impact. By the end of the song, Aaron is a changed boy.
The supposed moral that Jesus, as the Lord, somehow changed Aaron. Yet I don’t think that’s so. “Blessed are the pure of heart. For they shall see God.” So, I guess Aaron’s love for his donkey and lamb outshines his hate of all mankind? No, it’s more about letting go of prejudices, of firmly held beliefs that won’t be shaken. Aaron hated humanity because he was stubbornly clinging to a belief that didn’t make sense. Finally being shaken awake by a need to approach humanity for help, he’s learned to open himself up to something new.
Look, if you have religious connections with this story, it may potentially work better. But from a story perspective, I find it flawed.
I did not enjoy this special anywhere near as much as I did Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In terms of story, The Little Drummer Boy just doesn’t flow. It relies so much on familiarity on the religious fables of Christmas that I don’t think it stands on its own. I respect that they gave him motivations completely removed from Jesus, but it doesn’t go far enough into making it a watchable story. It doesn’t want to be watched, and it’s a huge fumble after the excellent Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and at-least-watchable Cricket on the Hearth.
I attribute this mostly to the loss of freedom in being able to manipulate the story themselves. Sure, you can get some beautifully classic images, but there’s far less elasticity to how you portray certain aspects of a biblical story. It definitely feels more commissioned, like less of Rankin-Bass’ own spirit is within it. The shorter running time is appreciated, but strips away the ability to make the special feel… well… special.
It’s not hard to place this one. For now, The Little Drummer boy sits at the bottom of the pile. Barring any unforeseen disasters, I’m assuming it’s going to stay there.
1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
2. The Little Drummer Boy
If you’ve made it to the end, thank you. As a reward for making it through this religious slog, join me tomorrow for Frosty the Snowman!