An Animated Dissection: ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas
By now, we’re all fully ensconced in the Holiday season. The stores have not relented in the neverending torrent of Christmas music coming from the speakers, glittery red letters over the doorway of Macy’s tell us to Believe (in what, they don’t say), and we can look forward to a staple of television that almost all of us remember in some capacity: Christmas Specials.
Two that I readily enjoy for their simple message are A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the one with Boris Karloff, not Jim Carrey, though that one isn’t all bad either). One studio that became synonymous with Holiday specials was Rankin-Bass Productions. Founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr, and Jules Bass, their specials related to Christmas were the ones most of us recall. While the majority of their Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were done with stop-motion animation, they also produced several hand-drawn animated specials like Frosty the Snowman.
Studying animation, one thing I noted in a lot of the older productions was a lack of logic at times in order to push some stories through to their completion. There’s a general thought by some that cartoons don’t need proper logic, just enough movement to keep the kids occupied. Plus, if you examine a few of those cartoons, the stories are a little questionable. One such example is in Frosty the Snowman, in which after her adventures with Frosty, a little girl named Karen is returned to her home by Frosty and Santa Claus. However, where do they leave her? Not at the front door, but on the roof of her home! I still remember our paperboy coming by to collect money when I was 9 years old, and he witnessed this moment too. “I always wondered,” he said, as Santa and Frosty flew away, “How did she get down from there?”
This put me in mind of a recording done by Patton Oswalt, in which he dissects the song Christmas Shoes, by a band called New Song. What starts as a grumpy guy standing in line witnessing a boy buying shoes for his Mother on Christmas Eve, really becomes kind of ‘wrong’ as Patton dissects the song.
This week, I thought I’d take a cue from Mr Oswalt, and dissect one animated short from Rankin-Bass that I’ve come to question over the years: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
The short subject is based on a poem of the same name, and like some works, it would be over before it began. So, it was up to the writers to stretch it out into a story that could last 25-30 minutes.
The first 8 lines of the poem are narrated over by Joshua Trundle(Joel Grey), the town’s clockmaker, awake in his bed, who is (possibly by sheer coincidence) reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (and judging by the size of the book, he’s got the unofficial, unabridged version). The scene then moves below the floorboards to a mouse family living under the Trundle’s. The head of the Mouse household is Father Mouse(George Gobel), who is also awake and unable to sleep. It is then that he breaks the fourth wall, and addresses the audience, leading us into a flashback.
Two months prior, the entire town of Junctionville (where the Trundles and the Mouse family live) received the letters they sent to Santa…returned, and unopened. No one has any idea why this can be, and Father Mouse says that the grown-ups are “going to do everything they can to find out.” However, in regards to the ‘human’ grown-ups, “finding out” means one thing: demanding that the Mayor and the City Councilmen give them some answers!
The Mouse Family however, actually does something. Using their phone, they ring the North Pole substation, and talk to a mouse phone-operator(?). The mouse phone-operator then explains that Junctionville got their letters back because Santa was upset by a ‘letter to the editor’ in the town’s newspaper, simply signed “All of Us.” This is where my first question comes up: why weren’t the humans smart enough to consider making a call? If the mice can ring a mouse-operator(?) at the North Pole, doesn’t it stand to reason that there would be a human-operator there as well?
Speaking of the humans, the Mayor and his Councilmen are at a loss for what to do, and simply decide to barricade themselves inside the Town Hall and sit around a table. Eventually, Joshua Trundle comes to them with a possible solution. Joshua proposes that the town build a clock that will play a special song on Christmas Eve, that Santa will (hopefully) hear, causing him to forgive the town and return. Of course, within reason of cartoon logic (and with no other options available), everyone in the room eagerly votes to pass the proposal. Forget about those public tax dollars going to fix roads and pay for education: we need Santa to come back, doggonit!!
Back at the Trundle’s place, the Mouse Family has gone through the bundled back-issues of the town’s newspaper in the family’s cellar, and find the letter. The letter states that Santa Claus is a myth and a lie, along with his reindeer. Just like the mouse-operator said, it is signed ‘All of Us.’ Now here’s a bit of logic to think about: does Santa get newspapers from every town/city/municipality in the world? If so, there have to be more than just this one from Junctionville that got him upset. Maybe Santa was having a bad day and this Letter to the Editor was the last straw. Or, maybe he had a group of ‘yes men’ who decided to make the decision for him, with Santa completely unaware of the town being snubbed. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?
Anyways, Father Mouse notes there are a number of long words, and immediately suspects one person/mouse: his son, Albert. Up until this point, we have seen the Mouse family consisted of Father Mouse, Mother Mouse, and two unnamed boy and girl mice. Albert is the only mouse child we encounter who has an actual name (most likely since he figures into the plot). Albert admits to writing the letter, along with his friends (which is odd, considering we haven’t seen a sign of any other mice that live in Junctionville).
Albert refuses to write a rebuttal to his letter, and Father Mouse then shows how his opinion has destroyed the hopes and dreams of numerous people in the town. In this case: little children. However, even the sad predicament of these children does nothing to make Albert remorseful.
Father Mouse then shows Albert the model of the special clock Joshua Trundle is working on. However, Albert’s mental acuity filters out the fact that Joshua believes in Santa, and instead becomes enthralled in the complexity of the clock.
Finally, Joshua’s clock is completed. Most likely as a cost-cutting measure, Joshua has simply retrofitted the Town Hall’s clocktower with his mechanism. However, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony to test the clock, it malfunctions and breaks down.
Next comes two of the biggest ‘WTF‘ moments in the show. After the clock breaks down, all of Joshua’s customers take back their clocks, and noone will go to him. I’m assuming Joshua is the only clockmaker in Junctionville…so this means the townspeople with broken clocks must have decided to either live with their broken clocks, or go to another town many miles away to get them fixed.
The next moment comes when Joshua goes back to the Town Hall, intent to fix the clock and find out what went wrong. He is at first rebuked by a security guard, who asks in a smarmy voice, “Haven’t you fixed things enough around here?” Really? The man made more of an effort than anyone to try and put things right, and you’re casting stones? As if to add insult to injury, the Mayor comes out and throws around some more negatives words of his own, before demanding Joshua go home. Geez, the way they shun him, you would have assumed he’d gone on a mass killing spree or something.
What we should also consider is that at this time, the humans are still running on the assumption that Santa is mad at them, but have not found out ‘why.’ Only the Mouse Family knows…and they haven’t told ANYONE!! Why is this!? Are they the only mice in town that can speak to humans? Is Joshua the only one who can understand them? Are they renegade mice from a turn-of-the-century NIMH, who escaped and are hiding in the town, and this is why they can reason, think, talk, AND wear clothes? I better move on before my head explodes.
Winter comes, and both of the families endure hardships with noone willing to help the Trundles or go to Joshua for clock repairs (and once again, the mice who are hungry and as listless as the Trundles, STILL haven’t told them about what they know!). Eventually, Christmas Eve comes around, and Joshua’s children doubt they should put up their stockings. It is then that Joshua then begins to sing the song, Even a Miracle Needs a Hand.
This is a strange and somewhat confusing song, in that it lifts the spirits of the children, and throughout the piece, we see images of the Town Hall clocktower, and some gears. We even see the kids polishing up the model of the clock Joshua presented to the Mayor, while he draws at his table and…whittles? However, once the song is over…that’s it. Several persons I’ve discussed the scene with felt that it was a sign that Joshua was going to pull a Christmas Miracle, break into the Town Hall, and set things right.
Instead, he merely hangs up some stockings, and he and his wife go to bed as well. Shame on you, Joshua Trundle. You’ve let down the entire town, and now, you lifted the spirits of your children who are going to hate you for doing so in the morning.
It soon becomes apparent that the song that was sung was a means to catch the ears of Albert…who has been out-of-the-picture since he saw the miniature of the clock. It is then that he confesses to Father Mouse that he broke the clock…and rather than confess this as soon as it occurred, he seems to have gone into self-imposed exile since the incident, and just emerged as Joshua started singing that song. Well, that’s what it seemed to me, anyways.
With time ticking away, Albert intends to set things right, and rushes off to Town Hall to fix the clock himself. Even though Father Mouse claims Albert doesn’t know how to fix a clock, he still goes anyways…armed with a wrench, pliers, and a book on Astronomy (presuming that the information inside telling about Copernicus will help).
After this, Father Mouse visits Joshua. This also becomes the only time where Father Mouse briefly mentions what Albert did (regarding the letter). Here’s the conversation:
Father Mouse: Merry Christmas, Mr Trundle.
Joshua Trundle: Not very merry, I’m afraid.
Father Mouse: You’re right of course. And it’s my fault…my family’s.
Joshua Trundle: How so?
Father Mouse: My older boy, Albert. First he insulted Santa, and then…I can hardly say it.
Joshua Trundle: Go on.
Father Mouse: I’m afraid he got into your clock, just to see how it works, and…
Joshua Trundle: Ker-plunk?
Father Mouse: Ker-plooey.
One wonders why Joshua doesn’t suddenly fly out of bed yelling: “What!? What do you mean by insulted Santa? And why are you telling me this now? You mean my family’s life has been ruined because of your son!!?” But of course, Joshua Trundle is a modest man with a heart of gold and a modest mentality (well, when he’s not filling his children’s heads with hopes and dreams he can’t provide). He simply listens and says:
“So…that was it.”
With that scene over, we return to Father Mouse coming out of the flashback (which took up about 17 minutes of the show’s running time). With only 3 seconds until Christmas, no chimes from the Town Hall’s clock are heard. Both Father Mouse and Joshua assume Albert has failed, and go to sleep.
Out in the streets, a group of people are singing Silent Night, which is a rather interesting contrast: the townspeople seemed so upset over being snubbed by Santa, yet the true meaning of Christmas seems to have eluded those who simply wanted a hand-out from the man in the red suit. Then again, maybe the carolers singing are the town renegades: they may have been the only ones who didn’t care about Santa snubbing Junctionville, and their hope is that their simple caroling will lift the town’s spirits in a way that will make them recall just why December 25th is so special.
But, that’s me being ridiculous. Albert manages to fix the clock, and a full-on chorus starts singing once the chimes start ringing. The entire town lights up, and everyone just starts running around, their eyes wide-open and their mouths stuck in a wide grin (even Mr “Go Home Trundle!” Mayor comes out with a big grin plastered across his face). Eventually, we see a far-off silhouette in the night-sky. It pauses in mid-air, then does a turn, and we soon see that it’s Santa, having heard the song, and on his way.
From here on in, Joshua Trundle continues the rest of the Night Before Christmas poem, narrating it over the scene as Santa alights on the roof of the Trundle house, comes down the chimney, and leaves them gifts. The poem to me sounded like it was just the narrator who saw Santa, but in this case, Santa allows himself to be witnessed by all of the Trundles, and even the Mouse Family, including Albert who has returned, and gets to see Santa for himself too.
One of the strangest revelations I had came after the whole poem had ended, and Santa flew away. In the Rankin-Bass short, he only fills two stockings left by the Trundle’s fireplace, and that’s it. He doesn’t go to any other houses in town, and there’s nothing even left for the Mouse Family. It seemed that for one brief moment, the rest of the town was affected by cartoon-mob-mentality, which means that every single person becomes unified in one emotion/movement. We see this alot in cartoons (most notably The Simpsons). One has to wonder what the townspeople must have thought when they saw Santa and his sleigh disappear into the night sky…and only the Trundles were given gifts.
In a twisted sense, I had this thought of the Trundles suddenly being descended upon by the angry citizens of Junctionville, who now considered them to be truly evil since they were the only ones who got something from Santa. But this is a children’s cartoon, so the sight of them being bludgeoned and their home burned to the ground wouldn’t make for good, wholesome entertainment.
In another sense, the fact that the Trundles were rewarded could be seen as a sign that since they believed and at least attempted to do something, that this was why Santa came to them. Just something to ponder.
And that’s my analysis on Rankin-Bass’ ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. It definitely suffers from the problem of people receiving too little information, and problems that could have been solved pretty quickly had people used their brains, or explained things. Though there are plenty of other films and TV shows out there that suffer from this. Take Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Yoda and Obi-Wan simply assume that Anakin has turned to the Dark Side, but they never think of a reason, or are given one. Anakin knows the reason why: he’s afraid of his wife dying, and he’s turned to the Dark Side in hopes that he can find a way to save and protect her. But of course, Anakin never tells Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan never questions why his friend/pupil has done this. I better stop, as that frustration level that rose earlier in my recap is boiling to the surface again.
Anyhoo, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night…unless you’re the Trundles, in which case, watch your backs. Those Junctionvillians know where you live.