Few holiday specials are odder ducks than Frosty Returns in terms of how they are consumed by the general public. No one seems to particularly “like it,” yet its been airing on CBS every year for more than two decades alongside its far more beloved Rankin/Bass cartoon counterpart Frosty the Snowman. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that having a full 60 minutes of programming is far more convenient for a network to schedule than a half-hour of it. Even so, people must be watching Frosty Returns annually at this point, as the network wouldn’t keep showing it if everyone was shutting off the television once the original was over.
First airing in 1992 and directed by longtime Peanuts director Bill Melendez (which probably explains why the whole thing feels like a rejected Charlie Brown special at times), Frosty Returns was supposedly created so CBS would have a Frosty sequel they could call their own, as Disney had the cable television rights to the Rankin/Bass-produced follow-up Frosty’s Winter Wonderland. Bizarrely, SNL creator Lorne Michaels served as an executive producer, and maybe that makes sense, since Frosty Returns has a surprisingly smartass sense of humor that attempts to be “hip” while still remaining kid-friendly. Perhaps because of this, the cartoon has an early 90’s “wannabe Simpsons” vibe about it, unable to balance what it sees as an edge with its oft-repeated “believe in yourself” message.
Now, I don’t want to give you a heart attack or anything (especially since the special has a joke about how those are caused by chili dogs), but Frosty Returns is kinda a mess from start to finish. It barely functions as a sequel to the Rankin/Bass classic, with Frosty (now voiced by John Goodman, who is at least trying to make this work) exchanging his “happy birthday” innocence for a series of wisecracks, a town that is celebrated for its winter carnival that also wants to get rid of snow, and a greedy capitalist who thinks that if he is nominated “king” of said winter carnival that he’ll become…king for real? No, seriously, his goal is to win a contest or something so he’ll…become king of the town, because apparently he knows nothing about how American politics work.
Frosty Returns also isn’t a Christmas special–or even a “holiday” special–and might even take place in the month of February. There are kids who sing a song about how much they love snow, until they get to school, when they decide that they actually hate snow and start a warlike chant for its destruction (because they think that will give them ten months of summer vacation, or something). Also, there’s a dork named Charles who everyone’s allowed to make fun of because he wants to be smart (and being smart is a bad idea, kids), and he also looks like a male version of Marcy from Peanuts.
Perhaps most importantly, though, there is virtually nothing resembling franchise continuity. Frosty can take his hat off whenever he wants to without turning into a snow corpse, and despite the “Returns” of the title, there is no implication that he has ever visited this town before. So why the heck do we watch it every year? Has it become a strange sort of comfort food at this point? Do we simply enjoy making fun of a silly cartoon?
There are some nice things about the special. The song “Let There Be Snow” does work as a gentle winter ballad, even if I’m not sure if it’s good enough to be sung twice. Yet there is something resembling nostalgia at play here, even if it doesn’t come from the usual use of the term. I don’t think most of us grew up watching Frosty Returns over and over again and loving every minute again, yet it has been, for better or for worse, part of our collective childhoods (well, if you grew up during the 90’s at least). That doesn’t by any means make the special a “classic” as its always labelled as by CBS, but it has, fairly or not, become a tradition by now. Like a fruitcake, you have to have a taste of it every year.
Next: Rankin/Bass produced a bad cartoon during their golden age with Cricket on the Hearth.