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Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, Robie Lester
Writing Credits:
Romeo Muller

Where does Santa's suit come from? Why does he slide down the chimney? Why does he live at the North Pole? The answers to all these questions and the origins of our favorite holiday traditions are revealed in this delightful classic about Kris Kringle, the world's most famous gift giver.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural
Spanish Monaural

Runtime: 51 min.
Price: $39.98
Release Date: 9/14/2004

• “The Little Drummer Boy”


Single Disc Version

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town: Christmas Classics Collection (1970)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 24, 2004)

For me, the most fun Christmas specials were the ones that featured “Animagic”. This form of stop-motion animation from the Rankin/Bass studios created one genuine classic with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and a mix of other fun shows.

One of the more enduring of those comes from 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. The special purports to answer all of our questions about the life of St. Nick. Narrated by a postman voiced by Fred Astaire, the tale gives us a flashback look at the life of Santa (Mickey Rooney).

We go to a northern city called Sombertown. Run by Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees), a baby turns up on his doorstep. The gruff leader rejects surrogate parenthood and sends the child - marked only with a tag that says “Claus” - to the orphanage. However, before he gets there, a gust blows him into the Mountain of the Whispering Winds, the home of the evil Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn).

Some forest animals rescue the baby and deliver him to a nearby home of elves named Kringle. Elf Queen Tanta Kringle (Joan Gardner) names him “Kris” and the clan raises him as their own. There he learns how to make toys, which the Kringles do even though they have no way to deliver the goodies; they’re too small to risk going through the Warlock’s lair.

Kris learns the ropes and promises to move the toys when he becomes bigger. Once he hits adulthood, he follows through on this oath and works his way through the wilds. Kris makes it past the Warlock without too much trouble and he plods toward Sombertown.

Unfortunately, in the meantime the nasty Burgermeister recently made a decision that will negatively affect Kris. The leader slipped on a toy and decided to ban all such goods from his realm. When he enters town, Kris doesn’t know this, so he hands out the toys. This briefly lands him in hot water with sexy but stuffy schoolmarm Miss Jessica (Robie Lester), but she warms up when he gives her a doll.

As one might expect, Kris can’t buy off the Burgermeister as easily, and the leader’s forces chase our boy out of town. His methods do work when the Warlock captures him, though. The baddie’s so delighted to get a present that he softens immediately and becomes Kris’s ally. He helps Kris and the other Kringles subvert the Burgermeister’s laws and deliver the toys. The rest of the show follows these actions along with Kris’s low-key efforts to woo Miss Jessica.

As I noted earlier, Town perseveres after more than three decades, and it’s a program that reminds us of the glory days of “Animagic”. I like the show, but I can’t say that it compares tremendously well with the better efforts in the field like Rudolph or even 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus. Town lacks Rudolph’s energy and rough-hewn charm, while it also fails to match up to Year’s memorable irreverence.

This doesn’t mean that Town doesn’t offer a fun and likable piece; it’s just not as good as the others. I watched it right after I saw Rudolph, and it was interesting to compare the two. Technically, Town distinctly improves upon its predecessor. The characters move more smoothly, and the settings look decidedly more elaborate and detailed. It’s still not a dazzling piece of work, but it shows substantial visual growth.

Both shows enjoy good casts. Astaire doesn’t get a ton to do, but he offers a genial and likable presence. I never cared much for Rooney, but he does fine as Kris, and the usual supporting suspects like Paul Frees help add life to the proceedings.

Town falters somewhat due to its cuteness. I like some of the adorable elements such as the delightful penguin Topper, but the show goes for too much of a sugary tone. I was surprised to see how angry and aggressive much of Rudolph was, but any menace in Town presents little heft. It presents a less threatening affair that packs less of a punch.

Musically, the tunes of Town seem drab. Rudolph enjoyed lots of great numbers, but outside of the title track, you’ll find little to hum from Town.

Don’t expect Town to muster the charm and spark of something like Rudolph and you’ll probably enjoy it. I think it’s a perfectly likable show with some good moments. It simply doesn’t stand as one of the best of the genre.

The DVD Grades: Picture C-/ Audio C-/ Bonus C

Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Town came out six years after Rudolph but demonstrated rather similar visuals.

Sharpness improved a bit over the earlier program. A smidgen of softness interfered but not much. Instead, definition was generally quite good. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I noticed only a little edge enhancement.

While most Christmas specials utilize broad palettes, the design of Town meant it went with substantially more restricted tones. That’s because the dank setting of Sombertown as well as the icy realm of the Winter Warlock dominated the program. When brighter elements appeared, however, they looked nicely vivid and concise. Blacks were dark and tight, while the occasional low-light shots looked fairly clean and visible.

Town lost most of its points due to source flaws. Throughout the show, I noticed quite a few defects. The show suffered from specks, grit, scratches, blotches, tears, lines and general debris. Some parts were cleaner than others, but few shots escaped without very obvious damage. Town could look pretty good with a clean up, but now it presented a below-average image.

Similar problems came with the monaural soundtrack of Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. It also marked a minor improvement over Rudolph but presented more than a few problems. Speech was moderately thin and could be a bit edgy at times. The lines remained intelligible, though, and they weren’t terribly problematic. Distortion affected the music, which also sounded compressed and without any range. Effects showed some harshness and lifelessness as well. A little hiss and background noise also came up throughout the show. The audio was passable for an older program, but it showed too many problems to merit a grade above a “C-“.

Only one extra shows up on Town. We get the 1968 Animagic special The Little Drummer Boy. It lasts 25 minutes and 10 seconds as it tells the tale of Aaron (Teddy Eccles), the titular percussionist. We see his many problems as he eventually winds up at the birth of Christ.

Boy could have been very good, largely due to its surprisingly dark tone. Aaron is an intensely angry character who watches the murder of his parents and gets sold into slavery. The show mostly follows a dramatic line, but it doesn’t fully embrace that spirit. It engages in too much slapstick and goofiness, as though the Rankin/Bass folks aren’t confident enough to make it totally dramatic. Despite that, it’s a pretty good show, though the transfer looks terrible.

I can’t call Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town one of the best Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. It plays things too safe and cutesy to really excel. Nonetheless, it’s perfectly enjoyable and pleasant. The DVD offers passable but flawed audio and picture. The only supplement comes from the inclusion of the interesting show The Little Drummer Boy. Pick up Town only if you already own better programs like Rudolph and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Note that you can find Town on DVD in a couple of releases. The one I reviewed comes from a package called The Original Television Christmas Classics. That box packages Town with Frosty the Snowman, Frosty Returns, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It also includes a CD called Songs from the Christmas Classics with “new recordings by the Silver and Gold singers”. From what I understand, the single-disc Santa is exactly the same as the platter in the Classics set.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3333 Stars Number of Votes: 63
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