If you're an American and have had a childhood since the 1960s, then you know Rankin/Bass Productions.
Founded by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass in 1960 as Videocraft International, the New York City-based studio is responsible for a series of animated holiday specials that are virtual fixtures of seasonal television programming. Such titles as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and Here Comes Peter Cottontail have been shown more or less annually since they first aired, and many subsequent holiday specials produced by other companies will contain homages to these shows.
The general formula of these holiday specials was to take one or more classic holiday songs and to build a script (usually by staff writer Romeo Muller) around the music, featuring a celebrity narrator as an Ink-Suit Actor in the story and interspersing it with original songs with music by Maury Laws and lyrics by co-producer/co-director Jules Bass. Very likely a majority of the characters were voiced by Paul Frees. While some of the specials use traditional cel animation, most of them feature a puppet-based Stop Motion technique known as "Animagic".
Rankin/Bass also produced non-holiday Animated Shows. Best known is probably ThunderCats; its other series included Tales of the Wizard of Oz, The King Kong Show, The Jackson 5ive and The Osmonds. The popularity of ThunderCats resulted in two follow-up series, SilverHawks and TigerSharks (the third appearing along with three other shows as The Comic Strip). By the time of ThunderCats, the studios were now owned by Lorimar-Telepictures; Telepictures had acquired the studio in 1983 after distributing their post-1974note library from Telepictures' founding in 1978. Warner Bros. now owns the rights to those programs, having acquired L-T in 1989.
Its most ambitious projects were animated adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien's books, with The Hobbit and The Return of the King. (Not to be confused with Ralph Bakshi's adaptation, which bridged the series.) Along with The Last Unicorn and The Flight of Dragons, these films were the first major U.S.-Japanese animation production crossovers. The co-producing Japanese company was known as Topcraft and soon after, they went on to form the company Studio Ghibli. Earlier productions, such as Frosty the Snowman, had been animated by Mushi Productions, albeit without any input from Osamu Tezuka.
Although Rankin-Bass shut down in 1987, the company still manages its trademarks. In 2001, it released its latest holiday project, Santa, Baby!, which featured a mostly black cast. The duo also had a part in the ThunderCats Continuity Reboot. Nonetheless, Rankin/Bass will forever be remembered for virtually defining the concept of specialized holiday programming.
Arthur Rankin Jr. passed away from an illness on January 30, 2014. Jules Bass would also pass away from an age-related illness on October 25, 2022 at an assisted living facility in Rye, New York.
While Rudolph the-Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman still air annually on CBS every Christmas season, as does Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town on ABC, near the end of the 2010s, these specials would also begin airing on Freeform as part of their 25 Days Of Christmas block, including the 1968 special The Little Drummer Boy.
The company's lesser-known Christmas specials (such as Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey and The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow) and followups (The Little Drummer Boy II, Rudolph's Shiny New Year and Frosty's Winter Wonderland) currently air on AMC for their Christmas block Best Christmas Ever. Sometimes the channel would air a marathon of Rankin-Bass Holiday specials during the weekends after Thanksgiving. Prior to AMC, these specials used to air on "ABC Family" (now "FreeForm") between the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s decade.
Shows Produced or Distributed by Rankin/Bass
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman
- The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show (1965; unaired pilot)
- The Ballad Of Smokey The Bear (1966) James Cagney
- Cricket on the Hearth (1967) Roddy McDowall as Cricket Crocket
- The Mouse on the Mayflower (1968) Tennessee Ernie Ford as Willum Mouse
- The Little Drummer Boy (1968) Greer Garson as Our Storyteller
- Frosty the Snowman (1969) Jimmy Durante; animated by Mushi Productions
- The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians (1970)
- Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town (1970) Fred Astaire as S.D. ("Special Delivery") Kluger; this special also established Mickey Rooney as the official voice of the Rankin/Bass Santa.
- Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971) Danny Kaye as Seymour S. Sassafras
- The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye (1972)
- 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974) George Gobel as Father Mouse
- The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) Shirley Booth as Mrs. Claus
- The Story Of The First Christmas Snow (1975) Angela Lansbury as Sister Theresa
- The First Easter Rabbit (1976) Burl Ives as the older Stuffy the Rabbit
- Frosty's Winter Wonderland (1976) Andy Griffith
- Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976) Red Skelton as Father Time
- The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976) Greer Garson as Our Storyteller
- The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town (1977) Fred Astaire as S.D. Kluger
- Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977) Roger Miller as Speiltoe, Santa's donkey
- The Stingiest Man In Town (1978) Tom Bosley as B.A.H. Humbug (as this special was not only animated by Topcraft but was broadcast in Japan, it's listed as an anime in some sources)
- Rankin Bass' Jack Frost (1979) Buddy Hackett as "Pardon-Me" Pete the Groundhog
- Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979) Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus
- Pinocchio's Christmas (1980)
- The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold (1981) Art Carney as Blarney Kilarney
- Coneheads (1983)
- The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
- Santa, Baby! (2001)
- The New Adventures Of Pinocchio (1960)
- Tales of the Wizard of Oz (1961)
- The King Kong Show (1966)
- The Smokey Bear Show (1969)
- The Tomfoolery Show (1970)
- The Reluctant Dragon And Mr Toad Show (1970)
- The Jackson 5ive (1971)
- The Osmonds (1972)
- Kid Power (1972)
- Festival of Family Classics (1972)
- ThunderCats (1985)
- SilverHawks (1986)
- ThunderCats (2011)
- The Comic Strip (1987)
- The Mini Monsters
- Karate Kat
- Street Frogs
- Return to Oz <!—/index—>(TV; no relation to Disney's 1985 live-action film) (1964) <!—/index—>
- Willy McBean and his Magic Machine (1965)
- The Daydreamer (1966)
- Wacky World of Mother Goose (1966)
- Mad Monster Party? (1967)
- King Kong Escapes (1968) (produced with Toho)
- The Red Baron (TV) (1972)
- Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid (TV) (1972)
- Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters (TV) (1972)
- That Girl in Wonderland (TV) (1974)
- Marco (Live Action) (1973)
- The Last Dinosaur (live action) (1976) (produced with Tsuburaya Productions)
- The Hobbit (TV) (1977) (produced with Japanese studio Topcraft)
- The Bermuda Depths (live action) (1977) (produced with Tsuburaya Productions) — In which Burl Ives is eaten by a giant turtle
- The Bushido Blade (live action) (1979)
- The Return of the King (TV) (1980) (produced with Japanese studio Topcraft)
- The Ivory Ape (live action) (1980) (produced with Tsuburaya Productions)
- The Last Unicorn (1982) (produced with Japanese studio Topcraft)
- The Sins Of Dorian Gray (live action) (TV) (1983) a gender-flipped modern-day (well, 1983) update with top-billed Anthony Perkins playing the Lord Henry Wotton character (here a tycoon called Henry Lord). Dorian Gray is a model discovered by Henry Lord who's played by Belinda Bauer (Poison Ivy 2: Lily and RoboCop 2). The portrait becomes her video-taped screen test.
- The Flight of Dragons (TV) (1986) (produced with Japanese studio Topcraft)
- The Wind in the Willows (1985) (TV) (1985) note (produced with Taiwanese studio Cuckoo's Nest Studio)
- The King and I (1999) (with Morgan Creek Productions and Nest Family Entertainment)
Rankin-Bass Productions provides examples of:
- Animesque: While the character designs for their specials were done in the U.S., their specials and series animated in Japan often feature the Limited Animation and artistic touches like Cheeky Mouth common in actual anime of the era. Even future industry heavyweights like Osamu Dezaki cut their teeth working on shows like Frosty the Snowman, and Topcraft itself would eventually form the backbone of Studio Ghibli. 1978's The Stingiest Man in Town, a Topcraft co-production, was actually broadcast in Japan concurrently with its U.S. premiere, causing it to be listed in some anime sources such as The Anime Encyclopedia.
- Christmas Special: They were responsible for many of the most iconic ones.
- Darker and Edgier: Compared to their future Christmas Specials, their second stop-motion Christmas Special The Little Drummer Boy has a very melancholy and somber tone. Since Aaron (the special's main protagonist) is angry at humanity after witnessing a group of thieves killing his parents and stealing his parent's flock of sheep. Alongside being one of the only Rankin/Bass specials to show an on-screen murder even if it's bloodless.
- Their films, The Hobbit, The Return of the King, The Last Unicorn, and The Flight of Dragons are much darker than the specials they're usually known for- having nightmarish imagery, on-screen violence, and delving into very mature themes.
- Famous for Being First:
- Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town: As an origin story for Santa Claus, the special features a fictionalized account of where the first Christmas presents, Christmas stockings, and Christmas tree came from.
- The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town: In the same vein as the previous Santa Claus Is Comin To Town but for Easter, the special features a fictionalization of where certain American Easter traditions came from, including the first Easter eggs, the first chocolate bunny, and the first Easter lily.
- Discussed in "Someone's Gotta Be First", with the Aesop that people have to try new things in order to make progress.Someone's gotta be first! All things gotta be faced! Someone's gotta brave the worst, Someone's gotta take a taste!
- Heel–Face Turn: A recurring theme in many of their specials is the villain eventually learning the errors of their ways and befriending the heroes.
- International Coproduction: All of their shows, movies and specials were co-produced with many Japanese companies. Particularly Topcraft and to a minor extent, Tsuburaya Productions throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.
- The Jackson 5ive and The Osmonds also had most of its animation done at British studio Halas and Batchelor, better known for the Animated Adaptation of Animal Farm.
- Laugh Track: The only shows that used this practice were The Jackson 5ive, The Osmonds and Kid Power, played on Saturday mornings from 1971-1972. Eleven years later, it was used on their Coneheads special.
- Shared Universe: Their Christmas specials have several subtle connections between each other (the shot of Santa's sleigh flying at the end of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer being replicated or referenced multiple times throughout the specials, for example), and they outright have a crossover in Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July.
- The Wiki Rule: The Rankin/Bass Wiki.