Every Rankin/Bass Christmas special, ranked

Contributed by
Dec 19, 2017

Christmas is just days away, which means that at some point this week you're likely to be gathered around the television with friends and family to watch a little holiday programming. Now, you could just watch Die Hard, but it's rather probable that you'll also devote some time to the studio that became legendary for its Christmas specials: Rankin/Bass.

The company founded by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass is no longer operating, but for nearly five decades it produced Christmas stories, beginning with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964 and continuing all the way through to Santa, Baby! in 2001. Though some were traditionally animated, the studio's signature stop-motion style became a hallmark, and you can still see its influence in everything from Christmas commercials to holiday films like Elf.

If you celebrate Christmas, you've likely seen many of the Rankin/Bass specials on a yearly basis, but you might not know just how diverse and strange their output really was. You also might not know which ones to keep watching and which ones to only watch sporadically. So, we've compiled a master list, ranking every Christmas special the company ever produced. Take a look and plan your remaining holiday viewing days accordingly. And if you have a particular favorite, let us know in the comments.

NOTE: There are a few specials that feature Rankin/Bass characters (like A Miser Brothers' Christmas) that were not actually produced by Rankin/Bass, so those are not included here.

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

The Little Drummer Boy, for all of its good intentions, is just... boring. More than one Rankin/Bass special frames itself as a path to the original Nativity story, which could be interesting, but this special is all grey and brown and bland. It's about a kid who can make animals dance with his drumming who shows up at the birth of Christ and creates some magic, and it's a tiresome journey to the end. Its heart is in the right place, but it never arrives at a place that's interesting.

The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976)

In retrospect, it seems strange that The Little Drummer Boy is one of the few Rankin/Bass specials to get a sequel, but the second installment is actually quite a bit more interesting. It involves the title character, Aaron, teaming up with one of the Three Wise Men to help a man who made silver bells (get it?) to announce the arrival of Jesus. It's got quite a bit more humor and some amusing moments, but it still doesn't feel as Christmasy as most of the other specials.

Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

Do you like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Do you wish you could see a version that's basically the same story but much less exciting? Then you'll love Nestor. This is another Rankin/Bass invention designed to tell the story of a character who just happens upon the Nativity, but it doesn't work as well as you want it to. There are charming moments (as there are in all Rankin/Bass specials) but it never delivers quite as well as it should.

Santa, Baby! (2001)

One of the last entries in the Rankin/Bass holiday catalog tells the story of a diverse neighborhood trying to find its way amid hard times, and often specifically focuses on the issue of pet adoption. There are lots of things to love, but as with many Rankin/Bass specials, its story feels scattered, and in this particular case there's not enough charm to keep much of it afloat. Still, there's a lot of heart to be found.

The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold (1981)

Now we're leaving the territory of Rankin/Bass specials that are a little bland and entering the territory of specials that are just plain weird. Like The Little Drummer Boy specials, this is a story that has almost nothing of Christmas in it. It's almost entirely about a Leprechaun mythology that doesn't always make sense, but it's just so strange that it's hard to not give in to its charms.

Frosty's Winter Wonderland (1976)

The official Rankin/Bass sequel to Frosty the Snowman is mostly about the kids finding Frosty a companion, because he can't go inside and hang out with them (he'd melt). So they make him a wife. It's a sweet gesture apart from the moment when he literally tells the kids what physical attributes he'd like his wife to have. There's a lot to love about it, but it will never live up to its predecessor.

Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979)

This might be the weirdest Rankin/Bass special ever made, and it's also the only one that's feature-length. The idea of crossing over Rudolph and Frosty is logical, because they were the company's two most popular character (aside from maybe Santa Claus), but the way it actually happens is just nuts. There's an entire subplot that completely rewrites Rudolph's origin story, a circus, and a magical device that allows Frosty and his entire family to walk around in warm climates without melting. Oh, and there's also a whale with a clock embedded in its body. If you're looking for peak Rankin/Bass imagination (even if it doesn't always make sense), this is it.

Pinocchio's Christmas (1980)

The beloved puppet, already well-known from his Disney film, appears in this story as a boy who's never experienced Christmas before. Then, because he's "a living toy," a pair of scrappy talking animals try to sell him off to a wealthy family. Yeah, that's weird, but it's no weirder than a lot of other Rankin/Bass plots. In the end, Pinocchio gets the Christmas he really wants, and while it's heartwarming, it's far from the most heartwarming thing the studio ever came up with.

The Cricket on the Hearth (1967)

This is the first of two attempts by Rankin/Bass to adapt the work of Charles Dickens, who has long been a Christmas staple. The animation is a bit choppy, but the title character is still very charming. It's a shame this one doesn't get more regular broadcasting, because even if it's often not a conventional Christmas special, it's still a joy to watch.

Jack Frost (1979)

In various other Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, Jack Frost is portrayed as a villain, or a reformed villain. In this special he's a benevolent figure who falls in love with a human woman and wants to become a mortal. It's a familiar story, but it gets strange rather quickly due to a number of mythological characters and a rather convoluted plot. It gets a little bogged down by its own insistence on worldbuilding, but if you make it to the final moments, you get one of the most moving things Rankin/Bass ever produced.

Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976)

OK, so this is technically not a Christmas special. It's a New Year's special, but it stars Rudolph so we'll count it. It's also just one of the weirdest holiday specials ever conceived. It's about Rudolph teaming up with a knight and a caveman to rescue a baby from a giant evil vulture. No, really. That's the plot.

The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

Rankin/Bass produced holiday specials of various kinds for nearly 50 years, so they were bound to get around to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at some point. This is their adaptation, a traditionally animated musical special that's surprisingly emotional. The most memorable thing about it: the ghosts that haunt Scrooge are capable of being seriously creepy, even in the exaggerated Rankin/Bass style.

The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975)

Many times Rankin/Bass leaned into weird plots, wacky characters and Christmas fun. The First Christmas, despite its odd and redundant title, is not that. It's easily the most nakedly emotional of the specials on this list, following a young blind shepherd boy taken in by a group of nuns (led by Angela Lansbury) who just wants to experience snow for the first time. It's one of the least-watched specials now, but it's worth seeking out.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

The final Rankin/Bass Christmas special to be produced in the stop-motion style is an adaptation of L. Frank Baum's slim (but memorable) novel providing an origin story for Santa Claus. In this version of the story, Santa is raised by a lioness (seriously) and a fairy in a mystical forest full of immortal beings, which include a giant man with antlers and a magic axe that he uses to fight goblins. It's Rankin/Bass doing high fantasy in ways they never did before, the stop-motion is smooth and gorgeous, and it's worth seeking out just for how strange it is.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)

The other Rankin/Bass Santa Claus origin story doesn't have the crazy fantasy elements of its successor, but it has more heart. The original Rankin/Bass Santa that appeared in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is often criticized for being a little cold and ruthless, and he's one of the thinnest Santas you'll ever see on screen. With the help of a classic performance by Mickey Rooney and narration from Fred Astaire, Rankin/Bass corrects that here, delivering a Santa who's kind, jolly, and even gets a wonderful love story.

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Frosty is the story of a group of kids who build a snowman and then somehow animate him with an enchanted hat taken from an evil magician. Then they decide he has to go to the North Pole so he'll never melt. That is a silly plot, but Frosty is surprisingly emotional because of the level of love Frosty himself shows for the kids who made him. The scene in which Frosty sacrifices himself to keep a little girl called Karen warm is still capable of bringing a tear to your eye.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

Rankin/Bass' best traditionally animated special is the story of a town that Santa refuses to visit because a nerdy mouse wrote a letter claiming Santa doesn't exist. So, he returns all of the letters that children sent him and will not bring them presents. That is, like so many of these specials, a strange plot. However, this is also the story of a disgraced clockmaker and loving father who's not sure how he'll get by at Christmas. It's the story of a mouse father who can't feed his family because there are no scraps to be found from an empty human table. It's a story about how we're supposed to come together and help each other at Christmas because, as its signature song says, "even a miracle needs a hand."

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The original Rankin/Bass classic shows a company still working to perfect its stop-motion work. You'll see later specials that are much more slickly produced, but Rudolph is still a masterpiece. It's just so, for lack of a better word, Christmassy. It takes place entirely in snowy environments. Its stars are a talking reindeer and a misfit elf. It has an abominable snowman, talking toys, Santa trying to get fatter in time for Christmas, and it's narrated by a talking snowman. As if that's not enough, it also features the best Rankin/Bass character ever created: Yukon Cornelius.

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

No, Rudolph isn't the best Rankin/Bass special. Crazy, right? This special -- the story of the year Santa (played memorably by Mickey Rooney) just wasn't feeling well and decided to cancel Christmas -- is much more emotional than you expect it to be. When Santa caves and decides to stay in bed, Mrs. Claus (Shirley Booth) hatches a plan to get him back on his feet. It involves two elves flying to a random town in America, Mrs. Claus visiting the sprites known as Heat Miser and Snow Miser, Mother Nature getting involved, and a town where it never snows finally getting a few flurries. The thing that really puts it over the top, though, is that it's a story of a group of people banding together to be generous to the Most Generous Man in the World. Santa gives and gives and gives. This is a story about people giving back to him, and that's one of the most moving ideas in the history of Christmas stories.