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.