During this time of the year there are a lot of things that are labeled as “traditions” and in some universe that is supposed to give them a pass for being awful. Or racist. Or hard to look at while sober. It’s a lot like inviting your aunt over for the holidays (who is also awful, and racist, and hard to look at while sober) these things just keep happening; maybe powered by some sort of inertial laziness that just asks for things to always be the same. Well, not the same exactly but some imagined far away time that was better and happier. You know, like the 50s perhaps? Maybe the 60s? Yes, I think that’s where the Boomers look to when thinking of their halcyon days. It was (allegedly) a time when people were polite and everything was great. So I find it is not a coincidence that some of the cultural bric-a-brac that has encrusted our lovely, and increasingly secular, holiday season comes from this particular dark age.
Today’s target is Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, from Rankin/Bass, the fine folks that brought you singing Gandalf. Rudolph and is probably the most holy of the non-holy texts; so put on your ugly sweater and avoid the hollow stares of your family because for the holidays I’ve got you all something special – a shiny new Takedown.
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (hereafter known as just Rudolph with italics unless my editor hates that) is told via the frame story structure by Sam the Snowman because there was no other way to work Burl Ives into the plot. It starts several years previously when a young reindeer named Rudolph is born to Donner and a doe who shall not be named. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that she was a call girl who lives in a cave. Like most of the female characters in this she’s not important.
Upon seeing that Rudolph has a red nose Donner does what any doting father would do, and he expresses his unending shame at having a freak for a son. Seriously that’s not hyperbole, the words “freak” and “weirdo” are thrown around pretty harshly by Rudolph’s fuggin Dad minutes after he is born. Since he can’t just turn the boy into chutney, he hides Rudolph’s hideous deformity by rubbing some mud (read: reindeer shit) on his nose.
With that out of the way, Rudolph is off to school. He quickly makes friends with some other venison en potentia and is even discovered to be pretty good at flying in spite of the handicaps of being born without wings, stabilizing fins or loving parents. But wouldn’t you know it? Santa is there that day, which makes it all the more tragic when Rudolph’s nose falls off and his glowing red schnoz is revealed for all to see. Jolly Olde Santa Claus does what any kind saint would do, and he piles on by telling Donner that he can barely look at his son.
Meanwhile in the B-Plot, Hermey the Elf hopes to one day be a dentist. It’s never explained why, but let’s assume it’s because elf slaves have a slightly higher suicide rate than dentists, slightly. After being told off by his boss and fired (although, can you really fire a slave?) Hermey jumps out of a window. Unfortunately he lives, making suicide one more thing he is bad at. He meets up with Rudolph, they sing a song that makes me want to stick ice picks through my eardrums, and they wander off into the frozen tundra of the North Pole just in time for a commercial break. Which we will too.
Hey kids. Do you have an unrelenting emptiness in your soul? Does it seem like nothing you do makes it better? Well there is a way. There has always been a way. Join us. Join us now. Everybody you’ve ever known is there waiting for you, hoping to hear what you have to say. The pictures are always changing but always smiling, forever and always because sadness has been banished. There are only Likes, there will only ever be Likes. Everybody Likes you. They don’t have a choice. Facebook.
I just remembered why we don’t do sponsored content. Anyway, out in the wilderness Rudolph and Not Legolas encounter the Abominable Snow Man (named Bumble because…reasons), and run for their lives. But it’s okay, because they run into Yukon Cornelius, a prospector who has been court ordered to stay away from public parks. After his grand entrance, Rudolph takes a timeout for another Burl Ives song, because they have a time slot to fill. With that shameless marketing done, the trio of outcasts sails away on an iceberg to get away from Bumble.
They wind up at a place called the Island of Misfit toys, which is sort of like a leper colony for cast off toys. There they learn the story of terrible toys that are as bad at being toys as Hermey is at living life. Then they meet this giant winged lion because they had the model sitting around and the filmmakers thought it looked “neat.” In the night, not wanting his friends to get into danger, Rudolph leaves. As he looks down that long and lonesome road, Rudolph ponders the meaning of life, and what it means to be alone. I’m just messing with you, there’s a commercial break instead. Oh geez…
Here at the Honey Baked Ham Factory we know what it’s like to have a family that would rather be anywhere else for the holidays. We appreciate the hard work that goes into guilting family for months, slowly wearing them down until they just agree to “stop by for a few hours.” That’s why we offer up the scrumptious 12 course Ham-Stravaganza. Once they see this truly backbreaking spread artfully arranged on the good china, your family will have no choice but to stay all night, or at least until you can explain, “what’s wrong with the kids of today and how the whole country is going to hell.”
Honey Baked Hams – People will endure a lot for sugar pork
Let’s move on, quickly. While Rudolph grows up alone and wandering the frozen desert like a horned Moses his parents finally realize he’s gone because they are just the best. They all leave and are captured off screen by Bumble. Rudolph, returning home after probably months discovers his family is gone. Meanwhile Santa is all butt hurt because his sleigh won’t work without Donner. Although if we’re being honest, none of that would’ve happened if Jolly Olde Snatchgrab hadn’t been such a judgmental prick in the first pace.
Rudolph goes to rescue his parents and finds them in Bumble’s Cave. But before a furious firefight can ensure we get cut away back to Hermey and Yukon Cornelius to see how they got back from the Island of Misfit Toys and to Bumble’s Cave. It’s super hacky but whatever, let’s just get through this Michael Bay Level Disaster. They lay an elvish ambush and knock out Bumble at which point Hermey using his sweet dentist skills, removes all of Bumble’s Teeth. Let me rephrase that, the would be dentist ripped out all of Bumble’s teeth. That’s kinda horrible and he’s dead now.
There’s a brief moment where joy spreads over the land because it seems like Yukon Cornelius fell to his death, but Rudolph denies us even that small pleasure and he survives. Then everybody apologizes, Santa needs a headlamp for his sleigh and the show is over. The song plays over the credits and our national nightmare is finally over.
On a basic level, the main issue with the plot is one of adaptation. Long story short, it is very hard to take a 2 minute song and turn it into a 50+ minute movie. That’s because the driving force behind any good story is the conflict. The conflict in the song is that Rudolph has a shiny nose, other reindeer make fun of him, but Santa being a nice guy shows that everybody is good at something given the chance. It’s a cute little narrative in song form, like Hotel California without the heroin.
To fill out the run time the writers of Rudolph added a whole bunch of garbage that doesn’t need to be there and added conflict to justify its inclusion. I’m of course talking about Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius. As characters they serve no purpose whatsoever. Yukon is a deus ex machina plot device that decides to stick around and Hermey could have been left in the snow to freeze to death without it being a great loss. Actually without them both the plot is a lot tighter, focusing on Rudolph.
The worst victim of the additional conflict is Santa, because it was decided that he too needed to be a douchebag to Rudolph. While having the “Big Guy” be a source of conflict is often a good method to raise the stakes, in this case it fundamentally alters the nature of the characters that it hopes to be based on. So while the main conflict in the song is the other reindeer being dickholes and Sat-Nav showing that they are wrong, Rudolph instead makes it about running away because Rudolph doesn’t fit into the Santa Cult of Perfect Things.
Let’s get this out of the way, the music in this is awful and pointless; except Burl Ives because that man is a national treasure. Other than that any time the characters started to sing I could feel my bowels clench in awful anticipation. Maybe it’s a weird 60s thing, but everybody is just a little bit tone deaf and tries to sing with the same awful cartoon voice inflections. And if I hear, “I am not such a misfit, I am not just a nit wit” one more time I might be pressed to commit war crimes.
Don’t get me wrong, musicals can be delightful: The Music Man, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, most of the Disney Renaissance – the list of not bad is extensive. However, like everything else there are rules to observe and instead of following them Rudolph is instead content to fart in bathtubs and watch the bubbles. The core rule, the one rule to, um, rule them all is that the music in a musical must advance the plot.
The only time you can get away with not advancing the plot is when a song is used to introduce a character. So the Genie singing “Never Had a Friend Like Me” doesn’t advance the plot, but it does introduce the character of the Genie. This is acceptable. Hermey the Elf singing the same song as Rudolph (the previously mentioned “misfit” song that makes me lose faith in humanity) is just an excuse to repeat a terrible piece of music. It serves no purpose other than to make the audience want to swallow Xmas lights.
But getting back to the music moving the plot, let’s pull out the worst offender that everybody has probably seen – The Lion King. It’s a great movie, Hamlet in Africa tends to be, and the score is a delight. Except for this awful song:
“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is a rancid little wart on the butt of The Lion King. Go ahead and watch it. Done? Good. Now ask yourself these questions. Number 1: Was the plot advanced in any way? Number 2 : Did you learn anything about the characters that you didn’t already know? The cheat sheet is as follows: “No” and “Hell no.” It sticks out because the rest of the songs in that movie do something. Even Jeremy Irons honey baked hamming it up in “Be Prepared” advances the plot by getting those brain dead hyenas to join his cause. In a movie everything needs to be doing something, and this is especially true if you bring the narrative to a screeching halt to sing at the audience.
With that in mind, the songs in Rudolph don’t do any of those things. There’s a song about bells, sang by a Santa who comes across as a little autistic. There’s a shitty song that Santa walks out of because it’s bad. Then there’s that Misfit song that is now a Stage 4 infection in my brain, and there’s the Burl Ives interludes. In each case the song could be excised (sorry Burl) and the only impact it would have on the movie would be to make it move along quicker and be less like a colonoscopy.
The main theme of this movie is really why it deserves to be taken out back and beaten to death with a spade. It starts with the weird Cult of Personality that seems to be built around Santa. Both the reindeer and the elves seem to defer to him as some kind of supreme authority. They work for Santa. The reindeer breed for Santa and their self worth is derived from what he thinks of them. His presence is so overpowering that Donner’s first reaction upon seeing his son is what Santa will think about the red nose.
But then it gets worse. Upon the revelation of his red nose Rudolph gains the scorn of his peers and Santa. In effect the man at the top of the social pyramid makes persecution of Rudolph’s difference the de facto position of the State. Rudolph’s not good enough because he is different, and, hey kids, if the authority figures tell you that someone is lesser than you, go ahead and ostracize them. It really is the holidays after all.
Even at the end of the movie the core issue remains. The other reindeer don’t willingly change, but only due to the Santa’s change of position that Rudolph gets to be un-expunged from the record. Hypothetically if he doesn’t continue to do what he is told it would be easy to just exile him along with all the rest of the political dissidents back to the Island of Misfit Toys.
In the end the moral of the story is that different is okay once you’ve proven yourself useful. Until then, enjoy wandering the tundra waiting to die. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is one of the classics, but as I’ve shown it has zero right to that claim. It is just another thing that we keep on trotting out, year after year even though nobody remembers ever really liking it in the first place, just like Grandma. So no, everyone deserves better than to sit through a cultural artifact whose structure is more patchwork than uncle’s toupee and has songs that make grade school concerts seem like Broadway. It’s finally time to ask, when it comes to Rudolph, where’s the guy that shot Bambi’s Mom when you really need him?
And that, is the Takedown.
Because I’m not enough of a Scrooge to kill a classic and leave nothing, here’s a cartoon that is older and ought to be a classic. Also it tells the Rudolph story in just 9 minutes so you can get back to drinking. Happy Holidays.