Now that Christmas is over and it’s almost time for Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, it’s time that we all took a trip into the DEEP LORE of the Rankin/Bass Special-verse, which teamed up its franchises in a feature-length epic decades before those chumps at Marvel Studios. It’s time to talk Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, a movie/special I’ve been mildly obsessed with ever since it snuck into a Christmas DVD collection I bought in elementary school.
The 1979 production, clocking in at a positively epic 97 minutes, is the capstone of Rankin/Bass’s increasingly esoteric 70’s output. It features Rudolph (of course), Frosty (now stop-motion), Frosty’s wife Crystal (Shelley Winters, returning from the now-forgotten Frosty’s Winter Wonderland), Jack Frost (also from FWW), Big Ben (from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year), and the Mickey Rooney version of Santa that had been established starting in Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Oh and there’s also Ethel Merman.
But before we get to all them, there’s DEEP LORE. In a prologue delivered by Santa with all the import of Galadriel introducing the tale of the One Ring, we’re told of the epochal struggle between the benevolent Lady Boreal and the tyrannical warlock Lord Winterbolt (a delightfully hammy Paul Frees), whose frigid rein predated even Santa.
Lady Boreal manages to force Winterbolt into an indefinite slumber, but the act so weakens her that she can no longer protect the North should he reawaken. Which he of course eventually does. Enraged by the presence of the usurper known as Santa Claus, Lord Winterbolt induces his Ice Dragons to breathe a terrible storm and dense fog into the world on Christmas Eve night, to hinder Santa’s deliveries and render him hated by the world’s children. That’s right folks – Rudolph‘s getting RETCONNED!
And it doesn’t stop there! Rudolph wasn’t just a genetic freak of nature – no, he was a divine avatar, a messiah chosen by the dying Lady Borealis to carry out her will on Earth. She foresaw Winterbolt’s plan years in advance and gifted Rudolph accordingly. So already ten minutes in we’ve learned the original special wasn’t just a charming one-off tale. It was an angelic chess-master outplaying her sorcerous opponent on a board the size of the North.
I can’t summarize the entire plot here – it becomes a surprisingly involved and sordid story about petty crime at a seaside circus on the 4th of July. (Despite the name, the special is set entirely on the 4th, not the 25th). Some other highlights include:
- Frosty dies and is resurrected (again) only this time he takes his whole family with him. Because it’s summer, he has to be brought back by the whale Big Ben swimming to South America (where it’s winter) to retrieve Jack Frost.
- Lord Winterbolt wants to steal Frosty’s hat to create an unstoppable army of snow golems.
- Ethel Merman sings a song called ‘Chicken Today, Feathers Tomorrow’
- Rudolph uses his nose light to commit an immoral act, and thus his light goes out. He sings a tragic song about the loss of his distinction, including a wrenching shot where he dips his now normal nose in red glitter.
- Santa is useless and spends the entire third act trapped in a tornado.
- There’s a cave full of Arctic tough customers including a walrus wearing an eyepatch.
- The phrase “Slither, my Reinsnakes!” is shouted.
- Ethel Merman throws a gun at Lord Winterbolt’s staff and he turns into a tree.
Maybe you have this same DVD set hanging around in the back of your cabinet. If you do, I say tie one on and throw in Rudolph and Frosty. It’s a cheesy, terrible, wonderful, inexplicable delight.