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Monday, 10 December 2012

Rankin-Bass' "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town", the World War II allegory

As my friends know, I am someone who very rarely gets sick.  I chalk  this up to a healthy diet, occasional exercise, and that fact that I am in the so-called "prime of my life".  But, despite having a usually gold-plated and well-functioning immune system, I spent the last few days housebound with the flu and bored out of my mind.  Since basic housework would induce a coughing fit, I decided to go the route of least resistance and watched lots of awful daytime television, and several Christmas cartoons.

Christmas cartoons are a distinctive entity of their own within the world of animation.  For one reason or another, the standard rules that govern quality in animation, voice acting, and production seem not to apply.  And the general populace doesn't seem to care.  Classic Christmas cartoons made prior to 1980 seem to be above scrutiny because we have attached so many warm and fuzzy holiday memories to their otherwise shabby facades.   Without the sentiment, most of these cartoons would have been relegated to obscurity long ago.  And the kings of this shabby chic holiday fare have got to be Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr.

It's all business when it comes to puppets.

Rankin-Bass is in your childhood, and probably still permeates your adult life whether you remember their shows, and whether you liked them or not.  Along with their bevvy of stop-motion Christmas specials, they also had a wealth of conventional cartoon productions including The Last Unicorn, The Hobbit and Thundercats. And while I could wax poetic for an entire post about Rankin-Bass and their prolific cartoonery (BTW, these two are still alive and STILL involved in animation!), I am focusing today on one particular stop-motion Christmas piece that has a bit more to it than just a simple children's tale.

This weekend I watched Santa Claus is Comin' To Town, a Rankin-Bass jem from 1970.  This one shows up on TV less frequently than Rudolph and Frosty, but is one of Rankin-Bass' better efforts in many regards.  My sister and I noticed something about this movie years ago when we were still in our teens.  The choice of ethnicities for the various characters seems to be particularly deliberate, to the end that the story actually becomes a World War II allegory, albeit one told from an American perspective.  Raising several characters as examples, I would like to suggest that Rankin-Bass not only did this on purpose, but that the hidden allegorical side of this movie makes it all the more clever, insightful and meaningful.

Burgermeister Meisterburger is clearly a Nazi.  And it's not only the German accent.  He is the lederhosen-wearing totalitarian dictator of Sombertown.  The fascist Burgermeister is introduced as an uncaring figure who persecutes the town's children (the Jews) by taking away all of their possessions and expecting them to do nothing but menial labour.  His immediate answer to the problems posed by Kris and allies is to incarcerate them. 

Heil.
What is bizarre within the context of the WWII allegory is that the Burgermeister's sidekick Grimsby is British.  While Italian may have been more suitable in the context of the war, I took this choice of accent to reflect the British appeasement policies towards the Nazis leading up to the war.  Grimsby smiles and nods without any reflection regarding whether or not he agrees with the Burgermeister's policies on a personal level.

And then there is the hero, Kris Kringle, who is clearly representing the Americans.  He comes onto the scene after the persecution has already begun, and using his seemingly unending resources to attempt to intervene in the situation and remedy it.  And in the end, of course he saves the day, as goes the ending of every American-made war movie, ever.

How does he do it?  Elf slave labour (AKA conscription!).

The WWII undertones are a great reason why this movie is a real Rankin-Bass winner.  But the true soft spot in my heart is always a good sing-along song.  And so I leave you with the best of the bunch from this one, the duet between Kris (Mickey Rooney) and the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn):

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