Okay. Full disclosure here. I straight up love Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. I love it probably just a little bit more than I should. As a sequel to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it loses a bit of the heart of a simple story, but it makes up for what it’s lost by escalating the stakes, the scale of the world it takes place in, and building on its own identity to near mythological proportions. Taking on the guise of a New Year’s Eve special, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is practically a sequel to the idea of Christmas itself. So say goodbye to 2016 the same way we said goodbye to 1976, because I have plenty to say about Rudolph’s Shiny New Year!
It all began on the same night the first special ended, picking up exactly where we left things off at the end of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Returned from delivering presents, Santa receives a message from Father Time asking for Rudolph’s help. How word of Rudolph’s abilities spread so fast I don’t know. This Santa is one of the best performances I’ve seen in a Rankin-Bass special to date. It’s a shame to rewrite the flawed old man that we first encountered in Rudolph, but building the universe out into an established canon means using the version of Santa we’ve established in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Year Without A Santa Claus, and Paul Frees plays Mickey Rooney’s Santa with dignity and heart.
Narrated by Red Skelton as Father Time, there’s also a cheekiness put back into the narrated performance that’s occasionally all too absent. This twinkle in the eye is something that started with Burl Ives and was before now probably best followed through by Fred Astaire and Jimmy Durante. Red Skelton blows them all out of the water. A comedian is always a safe choice to bring whimsy. He’s a redhead, which oddly seems to be the default hair colour for Rankin-Bass, but it’s justified this time by casting notorious redhead Red Skelton in the role. And I’ve never gotten over his delicate little hands.
There’s so much more expression in these characters now than when we started. We’re looking at the difference twelve years of experience in stop-motion special making can bring, and while the quality of animation has continually grown more impressive, this is the first time we’re getting a direct comparison. All you have to do is look at the models of Rudolph and see the improvement. The more nuanced performances these later figures were capable of contribute fiercely to how much more emotional resonance they can hold. Red Skelton’s model actually captures a fairly accurate likeness of the performer and, while that’s not strictly necessary to the telling of a good story, it draws you in just a little bit more.
While the themes of misfits and oppression are still very much in play in Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, the special is far more concerned with building its own sense of scale and expanding on the lore of its universe. Consider how Rudolph’s journey begins on the edge of the great desert, with a castle beneath the star. The desert is a representation of the sands of time, and this image is a beautiful way to mesh the aesthetics of the religious specials like The Little Drummer Boy and The First Christmas Snow into the secular aspects of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year without turning non-religious viewers off. It implies a story that is biblical in scope while also embracing the totality of Rankin-Bass’ history.
Setting out alone on this initial journey, Rudolph is soon joined by General Ticker, a clockwork soldier who speaks in a staccato rhymes. “You’re bold, sir. I’m cold, sir.” The Great Quarter Past Five is a camel. Rudolph calls him Quart for short. Already the cast of memorable characters is growing. These are minor characters with virtually no impact on the plot, but the fact that they’re given names and entertaining character traits is fascinating. Think back to how any of the elves who weren’t Hermes were treated in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Can you bring any of their names to mind? Or remember specific features of what they looked like? Didn’t think so.
Entering into Father Time’s palace, it’s here that Father Time describes the nemesis of this movie: Eon. A gigantic monster bird intent on kidnapping the Baby New Year (named Happy) because Eon can only live until he’s one eon old, upon which time he will transform into ice and snow. Eon wants the year to go on forever so he can be immortal. Rudolph is straight up fighting Gods and monsters, but is still the right character for the job. Because Eon hasn’t kidnapped Happy yet, he’s merely run away.
Happy is depressed because people have laughed at the size of his ears. He doesn’t want to be laughed at, so he’s escaped to the Archipelago of Lost Years to be alone. Rudolph empathises. Rudolph found himself in the company of misfits pretty much instantly. This gave him the mental fortitude to endure what others were saying about him. Happy never had that luxury, and instead was preyed upon by an abuser.
One of the most important elements I noticed in this special was the layer of craft that has developed in Rankin-Bass’ stop-motion work. While I genuinely enjoyed the look of the last few specials, it took seeing the familiar settings and characters of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to really make me stand up and take notice. The Palace of Happy New Year is an intricate piece of machinery filled with more ticking clocks and winding gears than the first shot in Back to the Future. So much extra work went into accomplishing this feat in stop motion, and it honestly blows me away. The sequence of time marching on as a man ages is particularly beautiful, and I highly recommend checking it out.
The gang departs from the City of Auld Lang Syne. A sundial points their way through the fog and again, this lore is fantastic. It feels like a D&D campaign in all the best ways. Shortly after departure, they encounter an enormous whale by the name of Big Ben. Again, sense of scale. The Bumble in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was… well, abominable, but Big Ben is big. He works best as a unit of measurement though, because Eon, by comparison, is huge.
Our first stop is the islands of One Million B.C. and 1023. One is a world of cavemen and dinosaurs, the other of medieval fairy tales. Okay, so, to use the word “history” around these islands is probably a little inaccurate, but they’re fun diversions that provide some pretty unique visuals and it’s here that Rudolph picks up two of his travelling companions. OM is a caveman played by Morey Amsterdam of The Dick Van Dyke Show who sings It’s Raining Sunshine about always looking on the bright side of life. 1023 is a knight with a beard played by Frank Gorshin. O Holy Night, Batman! The Riddler is in this Christmas special!
On each of these islands, Happy thinks he’s found a new place to live, but is driven away by people (or dinosaurs, or bears, etc.) laughing at his ears. In a nice subversion of Rudolph’s story, nobody is actually laughing at Happy to intentionally hurt his feelings, but they’re laughing all the same, and Happy moves on, farther and farther away from coming home to start the new year. At one point Eon has Happy, but he falls off and blows away. It’s a near miss that really makes you feel like our heroes have a shot at failing their mission.
The final island is the Island of 1776 where every day is the Fourth of July. This is probably the most important island of the whole special, because it’s here you begin to understand just why we’re so obsessed with history and revisiting lost years. 1976 was the year of America’s bicentennial after all. Patriotism and a sense of nostalgia had Americans looking backwards through time now more than any other year and a huge part of that bled into this special. In what other year would a celebration of Christmas contain a Fourth of July song?! To just get completely ridiculous, Ben Franklin is 1776, or Sev for short, which is jarring, since his name is clearly Ben. I mean… we see him flying a kite.
Again rejected, Happy goes with Eon because he thinks of him as his only friend. Eon tells him as much, that even if nobody else loves him, he’ll still be his friend. He reinforces every negative interaction Happy has had with the outside world This is emotional abuse. He makes Happy think that he’s the only one who can stand being around him, and that he has no one else to turn to. While much of this special is spent in retrospective nostalgia in general, this is an aspect that truly harkens back to the themes of the original. It’s an abusive relationship and Eon is manipulating Happy’s emotions to get what he wants.
To put this back into where the majority of this special’s themes are, however, you could say that Eon represents an inability to move forward. He’s locked intrinsically within the past, holding onto all of its negative aspects. He’s the old acquaintance better left forgotten. He’s not letting Happy move forward because he’s unable to move forward himself. Watching this sequence as an adult, my heart seriously breaks for Happy and I hate Eon even more.
The finale has me realising how much of a Terry Gilliam movie this is, because it’s just surreal in how we went from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to fighting a representation of history itself. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year feels like a sequel in every way, but they went with a premise that was so goddamned insane that there’s no denying that it confidently stands on its own merits. We end the conflict on the Island of No Name. A mountain of black ice, it’s visually dark and foreboding. There’s a real feeling of danger here. There’s a high likelihood that someone is going to die. And for a moment you actually believe that when Rudolph, OM, 1023, and Sev are all pushed off the mountain and buried alive in snowballs. All hope is gone. Egon tells Happy “you will live here forever as my slave”. All pretense fallen. The abuser has shown his true colours, but only when no one else is around.
Rudolph ends Eon’s hold over happy by validating his emotions. Using his nose to melt the snowball, Rudolph has the most powerful moment of the special when he gets to talk to Happy one on one. Rudolph’s been there! He knows how it must have felt for Happy not to play in any New Year games! He makes sure Happy knows he’s understood, and is there for him. He even helps him out by giving him some of his own coping methods, and it’s great to see. Rudolph is able to move forward in life, but that childhood pain will always be with him. He’s merely learned to live with it.
They’ve done it! Happy New Year comes back! The magic diamond is lowered to signify the end of the old year and the beginning of the new! Huzzah!
Where to I even begin to sum up Rudolph’s Shiny New Year? It’s the mirror image of Twas the Night Before Christmas. Instead of building its narrative around looking forward to the future and believing in what’s to come, it focusses on looking backwards into your past and accepting yourself in order to move on. It’s a film that deals with heavy emotional trauma while also having the most fun building a wild and crazy universe around its characters. I love this special. It goes crazy and off the rails from the start but maintains enough of a link to its original material to feel like a worthy successor.
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- Frosty the Snowman
- Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
- Twas the Night Before Christmas
- Rudolph’s Shiny New Year
- Frosty’s Winter Wonderland
- The Year Without a Santa Claus
- The Little Drummer Boy
- The First Christmas Snow
In terms of tone, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year sets the stage for what would be the greatest Rankin-Bass franchise topper to come, a feature-length film combining the universes of Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa Claus. Before we get to that film, we have a little unfinished business in a manger to get to first. Forgive me though. I’m skipping The Little Drummer Boy: Book II for now. Tomorrow is something completely different. Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey!