It started with humble beginnings. But look how far we’ve come. With ten specials under our belts, I think we’re finally ready for the movie. Consider this as a premise: we’re going to team up the biggest names in Rankin-Bass, deconstruct their legends, and maybe even go back to rewrite the origins of the universe. It’s a heavy order, but one that is entirely fulfilled by Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July!
The most important thing to remember while watching Christmas in July is that this is the Rankin-Bass universe reimagined for feature film. Christmas in July actually got a theatrical release in July 1979, where it (predictably) flopped hard, but everything about this movie was built to be a blockbuster in the modern sense. At 97 minutes, it is by far the longest holiday film they ever attempted, and in order to justify that runtime, it cuts deep into everything we know, or think we know, about Rankin-Bass. It features Rudolph and Frosty coming together in stop-motion for the first time. An ancient evil to be thwarted. And although Santa’s presence was pretty much a given, we can even tell from his first lines that they’ve actually brought back the Mickey Rooney version of Santa too! Nice. It’s the third installment in three trilogies at once. That might be a common idea nowadays, but think about when this was made. The Avengers was barely a twinkle in a teenage Joss Whedon’s eye when Christmas in July brought Rankin-Bass together in a shared universe.
We open Christmas in July in late June with Rudolph and Frosty meeting. This is Frosty’s first foray into stop-motion, and in my opinion, the transition has not been kind. He’s still Jackie Vernon, but visually, this is quite a different character. His freewheeling movements feel far more restricted, although perhaps that’s appropriate for the former bachelor who is now married with two kids. His magic top hat is now yellow to match his new scarf, an addition to the wardrobe that breaks up his once fluid form. He has responsibilities now. He has weight. On the reindeer side of things, Rudolph’s nose is going out. He’s dying. For his entire life, Rudolph has been defined by his red nose. Is Rudolph still Rudolph if his nose doesn’t glow? This is a movie about these characters as legends. It’s a special that celebrates these characters while also tearing down what they’ve always been about and building them up anew.
But before we move forward, we first have to move back to learn a whole new layer of mythology on the origins of this universe. It begins with Winterbolt, a sorcerer-tyrant from the pre-history of the North Pole. In his rule, all creatures who dared to defy him were destroyed and blizzards constantly assaulted the entirety of his domain. Visually, Winterbolt bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Lee, and his heavy beard and tuft of hair betray an ancientness, perhaps even a connection to the pagan gods. His true power is drawn from the Genie of the Ice Scepter, an even more eternal force whose visual design is terrifying in its abstraction. This figure may simply represent evil incarnate in this universe. Together, Winterbolt and the Genie of the Ice Scepter present the strongest force to be reckoned with yet.
Of course, every mythology requires balance, and Winterbolt is balanced by the goodness of Lady Aurora Boreal, Queen of the Northern Lights. An eternal demigod, Boreal sees the evil of Winterbolt’s tyranny and takes human form to oppose him. She was able to put Winterbolt into a slumber that would restrain him for as long as she remained mortal on earth, but it was a finite time at best. During her mortal life, she used her powers to guide Santa towards the North Pole to act as a benevolent king in her stead. Christmas in July uses the Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town models for this flashback, in an amazing scene that retroactively ties this continuity together in an astoundingly organic way. With Santa at the North Pole, Winterbolt remains imprisoned. Winterbolt has more magic at his disposal than Kris Kringle, but Santa is ultimately more powerful due to the love children hold for him in their hearts.
But what importance does any of that have on the story we’re about to follow? Well, actually a lot. It seems Rudolph at the centre of this ancient war. At the time of Rudolph’s birth, Winterbolt knew Aurora was dying and was about to make his return. In her last act, Aurora gifts Rudolph the magic of the Northern Lights in his nose so he can one day battle Winterbolt directly. But if he ever commits an act of evil, it will never glow again. This is everything. We actually went back and learned why Rudolph’s nose glows in the first place! It really felt like we were going full circle here by returning to the beginning before we moved forward. Rudolph’s origins have been explained, and we’re very likely looking at the culmination of that gifted destiny in the following scenes. Rudolph’s nose has already helped him thwart Winterbolt’s plans to conjure up a massive storm on Christmas Eve, but Christmas in July will see Rudolph and Winterbolt opposed face to face.
Stop right here. This is an insane level of lore to be dropping in the third film of a franchise. Later we’ll see both Big Ben and Jack Frost return from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year and Frosty’s Winter Wonderland respectively, so there’s definitely a connection to what has already come before, but these early expositional scenes work so hard to present a new backstory for everything we thought we already understood. It presents it as if it’s been hiding under the surface all along, but it simply wasn’t there before. By going back and changing things like Rudolph’s origin story, they’re fundamentally rewriting their own history to fit these characters in. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, because they now feel like they belong here with such a strong connection to Rankin-Bass’ roots.
And, trust me, I know I have, like, so much plot to get through, but I really just want to talk for another minute about Rudolph’s nose. This was his defining characteristic that made him a misfit. He was shunned since birth by his parents, by his teachers, by Santa Claus himself, for having a shiny red nose. And now, Christmas in July is telling me that this trait that made him so unwanted was actually a power imbued to him by a dying God? Not to mention a feminine power? First of all, I love this. I love that it is an inherently good power, and one that Rudolph discovered all on his own. The strength to wield this godlike power comes from within and no one gave him that. But I can’t help but feel a little slighted on Rudolph’s behalf. Aurora may have groomed him to defeat the ultimate evil of the North Pole, but at what cost? Because it stole Rudolph’s childhood. It made him into a weapon. Rudolph is a superhero.
He’s practically Green Lantern.
Back to present day, we see how these long-set plans are now fully in motion. Winterbolt has extinguished Rudolph’s nose, removed him from his power, but only temporarily. In order to do more permanent damage, Winterbolt must force Rudolph to commit an act of evil. It turns out he’s been working a long con to make this happen.
Oh! And there’s also a flying ice cream salesman who stores his ice cream at the North Pole. This character is interesting because, in any other special, he’d be the narrator. But there is no narrator in Christmas in July, and Red Buttons instead plays the ice cream man as someone who’s just sort of… there. A celebrity guest without a cause. He’s in love with a circus girl, but the circus itself is in financial trouble. Breaking this down, Rankin-Bass seem anxious about the state of entertainment itself. We’ve seen them ramp up the stakes and obviously lore of these specials more and more, never quite matching the heights of their original films because of it, but building into something grander and more complex by necessity. Did they enjoy that process? Or did they feel like the ringleaders of this circus, constantly one step behind, trying desperately to catch up with an audience that was moving away from them? It seems like an inner conflict on the direction of the company shining through.
Rudolph, being the sap he is, volunteers to temporarily become an act in the circus to help business. Again, it echoes what Rankin-Bass do. Problems with sales? Add Rudolph! It’s a surefire hit. Frosty wishes he could come as well, but would obviously melt if he tried going out in July. Which is exactly what Winterbolt wants. The sorcerer appears and gives out magic amulets so Frosty and his family won’t melt if they go down to see the circus. Not even if it’s hot enough to melt steel. As if that isn’t a clue they just did a deal with the devil. But these amulets will also only work if they’re back at the North Pole before the last Fourth of July firework explodes. If they stay too long, they will die. Because this devil also watched Cinderella.
The gang is off to the circus! With Rudolph and Frosty helping out, they’re able to present a special circus performance of Christmas in July to boost sales. Things look up and everybody’s pretty pleased.
Then Winterbolt said the line I’d been waiting for my entire life.
“And now for the snow dragons.”
This is where sh*t gets real. The genie sends Winterbolt beyond the Forest of the Burned Christmas Trees and through the Hills of Broken Baubles. It’s there he will find the Caves of Lost Rejections. These names are awesome, by the way. All the locations name checked in this special are places I would have loved for the special to visit, because they’ve clearly gone full-out D&D campaign with their world. It’s here in the caves that we meet Scratcher. Scratcher is the anti-Rudolph. A reindeer bumped from Santa’s team when Rudolph was chosen, he’s a selfish, greedy fellow who’s all in for any plans Winterbolt has in mind to oppose the old red-nose. The same way Rankin-Bass is literally rewriting history by adding in Lady Boreal & Winterbolt, Scratcher has rewritten history out of bitterness. He sees Rudolph as a usurper, someone who has taken what was rightly his.
There’s a touching, slightly foreboding scene between Santa & Mrs. Claus. We’ve almost forgotten these two characters are here in the movie, and honestly, we’re about to forget them again, but this is an important moment in the tone of the special overall. I love how Mrs. Claus calls Santa “Papa” in a throwback to their relationship in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, even though those were clearly different interpretations. They reminisce on old times with a tone of finality that hangs over the entire scene. Like this might be the last time we ever see them alive. To their knowledge, all they have to do is fly down and pick up Frosty, but I think they sense what Winterbolt has in store. Their yellow travelling outfits, like Frosty’s hat and scarf, are another attempt at bringing “summer colours” into a Christmas special that I don’t think quite works. Their fears are validated when, almost immediately after taking off, the sleigh is caught in a tornado. Santa and Mrs. Claus are temporarily sacrificed to show us just how real Winterbolt is as a villain, and how close he’s come to pulling off his plan.
But Rudolph and Frosty know nothing of this. The circus holds a grand parade with a Christmas float at the end starring Rudolph and Frosty’s family. Everybody’s happy. Rudolph acts like he’s part of the circus show now, using his position to give Scratcher a job when he asks, because of course he does. Rudolph holds no ill will, even towards this clearly evil reindeer. I kind of like that Rudolph is finding his own way here, at least. With so many implications that his life has been guided by destiny and purpose, it’s good to know that when Rudolph is removed from all that, he’s still a pretty useful guy.
Cutback to Winterbolt to remind you he’s evil. Instead of reindeer this guy has rein-snakes.
But while we’re still at the circus, we actually get to see the performance of the Christmas in July act, and this? This is a show. A complete and total spectacle that doesn’t claim to be anything else. It’s just fun to watch, as intended. Frosty demonstrates his belly whopping on stage in a daredevil stunt and Rudolph blares the light of his nose through the fog. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a Rankin-Bass live show, culminating with Red Button’s character coming out dressed as Santa. His little “Ho Ho” song has never been more appropriate, but they restrain themselves enough to feature it as a fairly minor cameo in this act that hops from strength to strength.
But remember how Santa & Mrs. Claus are stuck in that tornado? Yeah… they’re not coming anytime soon. Just as Winterbolt planned it, these snowmen are doomed. The children accept their death with quiet dignity. Frosty counts the number of fireworks as they count up to 100. “I remember when I could only count to 4… the good old days” he says sadly. Frosty, this once so carefree character, has developed a black sense of humour. Trying to keep making jokes for his family in the face of imminent destruction.
Meanwhile, Scratcher has tricked Rudolph into using his nose for an evil purpose and now he’s lost his light. He has to admit his crime because, if he tells the truth of how he didn’t mean to steal the money (I don’t have time to go into it) then Winterbolt will melt the Frosty family immediately. As it stands, Rudolph exchanges his dignity and power for Frosty’s life, and Frosty’s wife and children immediately shun him in a way he hasn’t been shunned since childhood. Frosty is the only one who knows the truth, but family comes first. The look he gives to Rudolph is one of such empathy it melts your heart.
So Rudolph lives a lie. This is especially heartbreaking if you remember Rudolph’s dual origins as a queer parable and now as superhero. Rudolph has always been forced to hide aspects of himself in order to fit in and lie about his secret identity. Now with the added weight of responsibility towards others, he again is shunned for something he had no control over, but makes the choice to become a misfit on the fringes once more.
Guilt wracks at Frosty. Thinking the sorcerer could help Rudolph if he wanted to, he wonders what he has that Winterbolt wants. Frosty does have his own magic, of course. His hat. WInterbolt consults his Genie who tells him he could use the hat to bring armies of snowmen to life. He’ll lie and deceive Frosty to make him believe he could restore the light of Rudolph’s nose, but in actuality? He’s killing him without any intention of payment, and Frosty is lining up like a lamb to the slaughter. Death and sacrifice have always followed Frosty. This time he’s walking into the face of it.
It’s not over yet. Aurora Borealis talks to Rudolph in the sky and inspires him. Rudolph finally gets to confront the source of both his power and his vulnerability, and decides who he really is, with or without the light. Frosty may give up the hat and go back to being just a pile of snow, but Rudolph returns ready to fight. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. You want a superhero movie? You got it. Rudolph fights Winterbolt’s snakes in an aerial battle in order to get the hat back. Yes, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has a FIGHT SEQUENCE against eight gigantic flying snakes and an ancient pagan sorcerer. He performs a selfless act and, in getting the hat back, his light is restored and Winterbolt slinks away.
This sequence ends with Frosty and Rudolph singing We’re a Couple of Misfits. This is the song Rudolph and Hermey sang in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, so at first, it’s a little off-putting to hear Frosty sing it here. But if you know a little more about the history of this song, it makes sense. From the second year Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aired to sometime in the 1990s, We’re a Couple of Misfits was replaced by Fame and Fortune. The song Frosty and Rudolph sing here is literally plucked out of the first time Rankin-Bass went back and changed something about one of their specials. I find that wholly appropriate considering so much of this special did the same in setting up its story! Including We’re a Couple of Misfits here is an almost too-subtle nod to that fact, especially now that modern viewings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer have had the original cut restored.
Okay, let’s cut to conclusions. Winterbolt comes back. Mama Lily, the circus owner, throws her shooting irons at Winterbolt’s Ice Scepter, shattering it. Because it’s ice, dude. Why did nobody do this before? Without the Ice Scepter he has no power, and so he turns into a withered tree. It. Is. Terrifying. Definitely one of the best transformation sequences Rankin-Bass has ever done and completely appropriate for a villain both so incapable of redemption and so intertwined with ancient pagan beliefs.
However, with Winterbolt defeated, so too vanishes any magic he left behind, including the magic that stopped Frosty and his family from melting. While no one was looking, the sun came out and Frosty, Crystal, and their children are melted. Thematically, Frosty can never escape death. What snowman ever could? That tragedy weighs even more heavily upon his character now that he has a family. Anybody can sacrifice themselves for the greater good, but Frosty now knows that “sacrifice” really means a newfound responsibility to protect those around him. His failure in this regard is the saddest part of the film. Their bodies are left as melted puddles, with only their physical effects left as a reminder.
But all hope is not lost! And it comes from the sequels! Big Ben, the whale from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year brought Jack Frost, the demigod from Frosty’s Winter Wonderland. He’s able to blow a North wind over the bodies of Frosty’s family and bring them back to life. Santa finds his way out of the woods. He gives the circus owners his corn feed that makes animals fly. Fantastic for the circus, it ends with the spectacle of every animal in the circus flying in formation with Rudolph in the lead.
This felt like a feature film. Christmas in July doesn’t touch the originals, but it sure beats the heck out of a lot of the late-game competition. Billie Mae Richard’s performance as Rudolph is pitch-perfect, with just as much heart as you’ve come to expect. There’s an air of finality to Christmas in July that can’t be shaken, like it’s the final episode of a long-running television series. It’s more than Rudolph fulfilling his destiny. It’s Santa and Mrs. Claus remembering those old times before they head out alone into the storm to die. It’s Frosty making a hard choice between his family and his friend. And it’s Rankin-Bass learning they actually do know what it takes to bring these characters into a feature film, and then deciding never to do it again.
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- Frosty the Snowman
- Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
- Twas the Night Before Christmas
- Rudolph’s Shiny New Year
- Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July
- Frosty’s Winter Wonderland
- The Year Without a Santa Claus
- Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey
- The Little Drummer Boy
- The First Christmas Snow
So there we have it. My original intention for this series was to do 12 Days of Rankin-Bass leading up to Christmas. Obviously, there are more than 12 Rankin-Bass specials worthy of attention. I promise a quick wrap-up on what I’m going to do with those later. But for now, we’re going to end with one final swing.
Join us tomorrow for The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus!