Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979) was originally described to me as “the Destroy All Monsters of Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas specials,” a comparison that is superficially apt while withering somewhat under closer scrutiny. It’s also completely bonkers on every conceivable level, and as one approaches it, it widens into a yawning maw of insane Yuletide glory.
The plot involves the owner of a failing circus (Ethel Merman) who seeks to boost its flagging attendance by bringing in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Billie Mae Richards) and Frosty the Snowman (Jackie Vernon) as special guests. Things immediately go off the rails, as an ancient evil awakens and attempts to kill the protagonists to facilitate his conquest of Earth. The stakes are crazy high, and this film represents both the establishment of a shared cinematic universe and a rather clumsy transition from light to high fantasy.
Like the Godzilla and Universal Monster series before it, the Rankinverse began as a series of thematically linked but otherwise unrelated films. However, those series established a common setting fairly quickly, allowing them to have numerous crossovers take place within that setting. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July is one of the final Rankin/Bass films, and also the first meaningful crossover of its established characters.
Sure, Santa Claus appears in almost all of their holiday output, but even he isn’t always the same character. After all, how are we to reconcile the robust, jolly Santa of Year Without a Santa Claus (1977) with the anamorphic fascist of the original Rudolph? Granted, the former is set in the 19th century and this allows Santa some time to radically alter his personality in the first half of the 20th; even so, I find it hard to believe that the North Pole sided with the Axis.
Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July establishes that not only do our holiday demigods occupy the same universe, but they even know each other personally. After all, only the elves work year-round at the North Pole, so it’s only natural that Rudolph would bump into Frosty on one of his 363 consecutive days off. We see characters from the time travel adventure Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976), and there’s even an appearance from the title character in Jack Frost (1979), which isn’t even really a Christmas movie.
And after all that world-melding, this is the only crossover film in the Rankinverse. There would be a few others, but they don’t reference this briefly-established shared continuity. Christmas in July isn’t the final film in Rankin/Bass’ oeuvre chronologically, but it feels that way thematically. It’s Christmas special Ragnarok.
Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark was an independent comic which slowly transformed from Conan the Barbarian parody to genuine high fantasy to a medium-expanding attempt to explore the author’s constantly-shifting religio-philosophical views. Cerebus Syndrome refers to that transformation, one that’s often undergone by long-running comedies in many media. It happened to Cerebus, it happened on M*A*S*H, and it happened in the Rankinverse.
Which is not to say that there weren’t dark elements sprinkled throughout the series’ earlier entries. The original Rudolph’s conformist message is pretty dark in retrospect, and Rudolph’s Shiny New Year had elements of light cosmic horror with Aeon the Terrible, who seeks to physically destroy time itself. The family of The Little Drummer Boy (1968) is killed by bandits, and Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977) features the death of the title character’s mother. Christmas in July stands out by highlighting those dark elements while simultaneously injecting a kind of self-conscious, Tolkien-style mythology into the distant past of the setting. It’s likely no coincidence, either; in the late 1970s, Rankin/Bass began producing full-length adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King. Until Peter Jackson’s live action trilogy, these films reigned as the most visible pop-culture adaptation of Tolkien’s work.
The results are mixed. For example, while some viewers may have at some point wondered why Rudolph sports a glowing nose, it is unlikely that the film’s explanation — that our hero is an avatar of Lady Borealis, a kind of defanged Great Goddess figure personifying goodness and light — does anything more than raise further questions. The film also posits a Zoroastrian kind of dualism, with Lady Borealis and her warmth eternally opposed by an evil ice elemental called Winterbolt, who seeks to inflict eternal winter upon the world.
Winter(bolt) is Coming
Each film in the Rankin/Bass canon tells very much the same story, with a good-hearted eccentric hero triumphing against all odds and warming cynical hearts along the way. The protagonists are almost always dull, but Rankin/Bass antagonists are often bizarre, singular characters far stranger than whichever Christmas icon opposed them. Frosty was menaced by an incompetent magician, Rudolph had to contend with an ill-tempered yeti, et cetera.
Despite this, there are a few recurring threads that run through the Rankin/Bass rogues gallery. There are two villain archetypes which reappear several times each: Winter Elemental (Winter Warlock, Snow Miser, the villainous version of Jack Frost) and the Tyrant (Burgermeister Meisterburger, Kubla Krauß, even the Elf foreman in Rudolph). The Rankin/Bass brain trust seems to have pegged extreme weather and joyless authoritarianism as the primary threats to Christmas spirit. Normally, these threats are represented by disparate characters and defanged by the end of the work in which they appear, but Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July bucks this trend. Winterbolt is a sharp departure from earlier antagonists in both the purity of his evil and the scale of his power.
He is an icy giant, very similar in appearance to the Snow Miser and especially the Winter Warlock. But those characters were shown to be essentially good-hearted; Snow Miser was much friendlier than his brother the Heat Miser, and the Winter Warlock literally defrosts when he is presented with a toy train. Winterbolt, however, is never redeemed, and he is never a comic figure. He doesn’t want to destroy Christmas over some perceived slight, he wants to extinguish all life as we know it and plunge the world into infinite winter. It’s like Rudolph is out here trying to step to the fargin Night’s King.
This Movie is Weird as Shit
Even if you get past the fact that Rankin/Bass made a Christmas special about a freeze-dried Saruman trying to kill Rudolph because of what a dawn goddess did in an antediluvian age, this movie is still absolutely insane. Frosty and his wife can apparently reproduce sexually, since they have a pair of children; there’s a whole bit of business about ice amulets that can keep snowpeople alive in the summer; Winterbolt’s allies in evil include an ice genie (voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft!), a pair of ice dragons, a human con man, and a sleazy shadow-Rudolph called Scratcher.
There is a sequence in which Winterbolt considers using his magic to animate a goose-stepping army of Frostys; Winterbolt’s fate as he is petrified into a dead tree; Frosty’s for-all-intents-and-purposes suicide, including his family’s discovery of his lifeless body; and a last-minute run-in by Jack Frost, rushing in to save the day like Steve Austin swinging a folding chair.
Rankin/Bass would later explore the mytho-poetic origins of Santa Claus even further in the extremely weird Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Fittingly, this would be the last major entry into RB’s holiday oeuvre, and it’s a deadly-serious origin story of St. Nick based upon an L. Frank Baum story, framed by a council of gods and spirits debating the wisdom of bestowing immortality on a lowly mortal. However, at least the strangeness of that film is self-contained; Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July attempts to force the square peg of humorless pseudopagan mythology into the round hole of lighthearted Christmas special, uh, pseudopagan mythology. It’s like the Winnie the Pooh people decided to shoehorn in a thematically inconsistent narrative about the Ents that used to live in the Hundred Acre Wood, and then they went ahead and cast Ethel Merman anyway.
Merry fucking Christmas. In July.
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