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Why 'Rudolph's Shiny New Year' is the weirdest stop-motion holiday special ever
Looking back at the time Rankin/Bass let their freak flag fly.
In 1964, Rankin/Bass productions released Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and created a new kind of holiday special. For the next two decades, the company would use Rudolph's runaway success (nearly 60 years later, it still airs multiple times each Christmas season on television) and its groundbreaking "Animagic" techniques to produce a wide array of stop-motion holiday specials. Those specials range from Easter tales (Here Comes Peter Cottontail) to Halloween movies (Mad Monster Party) to nearly a dozen more stop-motion Christmas specials, including The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town and, the best of the bunch, The Year Without a Santa Claus.
But of course, much of it stemmed from the initial, runaway success of Rudolph's story, which meant the character was bound to return one day. It took more than a decade, but when Rudolph finally did return to a Rankin/Bass production, he did it with one of the strangest holiday specials ever produced, a wild, time-hopping adventure that celebrates its 45th birthday this holiday season, and remains a delightfully weird trip into the imaginations of its creators no matter the age of its viewers.
You might think that the first sequel to Rudolph might focus more heavily on his relationship with the Island of Misfit Toys (that didn't happen until a non-Rankin/Bass production in 2001) or even on a crossover with the other song-inspired Rankin/Bass heavy-hitter, Frosty the Snowman (which finally happened in 1979, with the also-very-weird Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July). But Rudolph writer Romeo Muller and directors Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass weren't interested in the most obvious Christmas-based follow-ups. Instead, they conjured an idea based on the simple question "What if Rudolph was tasked with saving a different holiday?"
So, Rudolph's Shiny New Year picks up in the immediate aftermath of the Christmas victory we saw in the original special, as Santa receives an urgent message from Father Time (Red Skelton) begging for his help. It seems that Happy, the Baby New Year meant to literally manifest into the next calendar year in six days, has run away from home, leaving everyone with a ticking clock (get it?) to find him or face the stoppage of time itself.
Naturally, because he just saved Christmas, Santa can think of no better man for the job than Rudolph (Billie Richards), who leaps into action and heads out to help Father Time find Happy.
So far, this complicated story makes sense in a children's holiday special kind of way, right? It's all pretty straightforward. Rescue the literal Baby New Year, save the calendar, go back to the North Pole. What makes Rudolph's Shiny New Year particularly strange isn't the setup, however, but what happens next.
When he gets to Father Time's castle, Rudolph learns that he has to search for the baby in what's known as the "Archipelago of Last Years," a vast expanse of islands in which every island represents a different year gone by, with all the historical trappings that year represents. As he embarks on his journey with a living clock man and a slow-talking, slow-walking camel with a clock in its hump (there's also a whale with a clock tail, just in case you weren't picking up on the theme here), Rudolph heads into the Archipelago.
There, he soon finds himself teaming up with a caveman, a knight, and a guy who looks like but isn't Benjamin Franklin — all of whom represent years gone by and who seem to have had some interaction with Happy. But it's not just a baby hunt, you see. They also have to contend with an evil, giant vulture named Eon, who will be destroyed if the new year is allowed to happen because his "eon" of time in the universe is up. Oh, and Happy? He's running away because he's got big ears which make everyone laugh, putting him right in Rudolph's particular wheelhouse as the former picked-on kid.
If this sounds like a lot to pack into an hour-long (including commercials) holiday special, that's because it is, and I will confess that for huge portions of my childhood, I had absolutely no real idea what was going on in Rudolph's Shiny New Year apart from the basic "rescue the baby" narrative. But it still worked for me as a kid, because I liked Rudolph, and because there's something about the Rankin/Bass style that was simply comforting and arresting. As an adult, the idea of Rudolph journeying across time itself to rescue a being that literally the entire concept of time depends on, while fighting an evil vulture along the way, is just as fascinating.
As the Rankin/Bass specials progressed throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, they got more inventive by necessity, while also getting weirder as they went. Some of them, like Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, are more straightforward and uniformly Christmas-y than others. But specials like The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold and the L. Frank Baum-inspired The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus get quite a bit more visually and narratively ambitious while still trying to retain a Christmas feel.
Then there's Rudolph's Shiny New Year, which stands alone even among particularly strange efforts like Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July and The Little Drummer Boy Part II (which is vastly superior to the original because of how wild it gets). The idea of making it a New Year's special is strange enough on its own, but at every turn, this little piece of pop culture arcana seems to resist the temptation to fall back on the familiar trappings of what made the original so popular. You've still got Rudolph at the core of things, finding a reason to let people know it's good to be yourself, but once he leaves the North Pole, it's all invention, all the time, and that makes it a refreshing piece of ambition in a holiday special landscape that still seems to grow more predictable by the year.
So, if you're looking for something to fill some viewing time in that weird gap between Christmas and New Year's Eve this year, throw on Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and bask in its weird, cheerful glow.