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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, on NBC (reruns on CBS)
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streaming sites: iTunes

Caution: spoilers!

This first aired in 1964, eleven years before I was born. Of course, I must have seen it numerous times during my childhood, but when I first put this page here, it had been several years since I'd seen it, so I didn't really write a review. I finally watched it again in 2014, because it was the 50th anniversary of the special. And um... well, it's still definitely a classic, and I kind of love it for its nostalgic value. But I don't quite want to rate it as "loved," because... I dunno. If it wasn't a classic, and so nostalgic, I'm just not sure how much I'd like it if it was brand new, or if I was seeing it for the first time ever as an adult (even if it still was 50 years old). I'm not saying I wouldn't like it... just not as much.

Anyway, the special is based on the popular Christmas song about a red-nosed reindeer who was teased by all the other reindeer. The story is narrated and sung by Burl Ives, who voices a snowman named Sam. Sam tells us of events that happened a few years earlier, starting with the birth of a reindeer named Rudolph (the son of Donner, one of Santa Claus's flying reindeer). Donner is terribly upset to discover that Rudolph has a red, glowing nose. And I can't say I find it surprising that he'd be shocked, because damn... how would that even happen, biologically speaking? But whatever, the important point is that Donner wants him to hide his nose by wearing a false, normal-looking nose over it. His attitude was reinforced by Santa himself, who was just as perturbed by Rudolph's abnormality. Anyway, a year passes without anyone else finding out about the red nose, and then Rudolph joins other yearlings to engage in reindeer games, and start learning things like how to fly. Rudolph quickly makes a friend named Fireball, as well as catching the eye of a doe named Clarice. While playing, Rudolph's false nose gets knocked off, so everyone turns against him, except Clarice. She still likes him, and tries to cheer him up. (I always liked Clarice.)

Meanwhile, there's an elf named Hermey, who doesn't like making toys. Instead, he wants to be... a dentist. That's something I always found rather amusing, because it's just so... random. I think it's neat that a special like this would even address the idea that one of Santa's elves might want to do anything other than what he's supposed to want to do with his life. I mean, it's kind of like a caste system, when you think about it, and I've always been against that. But of all the other careers he could possibly fantasize about... a dentist? I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being a dentist, of course. But I'd be hard-pressed to think of any other career choice for an elf that would be more unexpected, and therefore so funny. Anyway... he gets sick of not fitting in with the other elves, and always being reprimanded by his foreman, so he runs away. Shortly thereafter, he meets Rudolph, and because they're both misfits, they decide to run away together. (Incidentally, they sing a duet at this point that is a reprise of a song they'd each previously sung alone. But when I was a kid, they sang a completely different song together. But apparently that was a change from the original 1964 version, which was made before my time, in 1965. And it was changed back to the original song, according to Wikipedia, in 1998. So now when I watch it, it just seems wrong, and I miss the replacement song I'm used to from my youth. And there were some other things in the 1964 version that were changed in 1965, which I don't believe I've ever seen in my life.)

Before long, Rudolph and Hermey meet a prospector named Yukon Cornelius. They begin traveling together, mainly to escape from the Abominable Snow Monster (or as Cornelius calls it, a "Bumble.") By this point, Donner is sorry he'd been so mean to his son, so he goes out looking for him. And then his wife and Clarice also go out to look for Rudolph. Meanwhile, Rudolph, Hermey, and Cornelius find themselves on the Island of Misfit Toys, ruled over by a winged lion named King Moonracer. He asks that if Rudolph and Hermey ever return home, they ask Santa to help find homes for all the misfit toys, who had previously been abandoned by their original owners. They agree, but that night Rudolph goes off on his own, because his glowing nose frequently let the Bumble find them, and he didn't want to put his friends in any more danger.

So, time passes while Rudolph is on his own, and he grows up. He finally decides to return home, and learns that his parents and Clarice have been out looking for him for months, so he goes to find them. Somehow he knows they must be in the cave of the Bumble. I have no idea how he knew this, nor how he even knew where the Bumble lived, but whatever. Rudolph fights the monster, and receives some unexpected help from Hermey and Cornelius. How they showed up, I have no idea, but again I say "whatever." But I kind of was only half paying attention to this part (in 2014), because when they'd been on the Island of Misfit Toys, one of the toys was a cowboy who rides an ostrich, which reminded me of Zuko's journey in season two of Avatar: The Last Airbender, so I made this:

I really should have been paying full attention, but the internet is shiny. Anyway, our heroes (or most of them) finally return home on Christmas Eve, and um... everyone apologizes to them, I guess. The foreman will let Hermey become a dentist, and Santa promises to find homes for the misfit toys. Then there's a big storm, which means Santa will have to cancel his flight. That is, until he realizes Rudolph's shiny nose would be useful in guiding him and his reindeer through the storm. (So finally, after tons of divergence, the story finally gets back on track with the song that inspired the special in the first place.) And there's a happy ending for everyone.

I suppose I always liked the story of misfits (including Rudolph, Hermey, and the toys) finding acceptance, though in the years since the last time I watched this, I became increasingly offended by the thought that any of them (especially Rudolph) had been so severely ostracized in the first place. It's kind of less noticeable when just listening to the song itself (though still somewhat troubling), but it's really disturbing in the special, when you think about it. I mean, both Santa Claus (who should be a paragon of virtue) and Rudolph's own father (who wasn't specified in the song) act like... well, like racists. And eventually I started thinking that what's even worse is they didn't accept him until his nonconformity because useful. But... I might have realized I was wrong about that, if I'd been paying closer attention when I watched the special this year. But reading the plot summary on Wikipedia, afterwards, I do realize that the apologies came before the usefulness was realized. So I guess that's something. (And Donner had realized he was wrong earlier, when he first went out to look for his son.) But even so... damn, this whole story really is a lot more messed up than I realized, when I was a kid.

But, as I said, it's still a classic, and it's still very nostalgic. And hey... it's a good way of showing that even people who have wronged you in the past can change, and become truly repentant. That's not such a bad lesson, I guess. And of course, the special has plenty of fun songs. There are also a couple of sequels, Rudolph's Shiny New Year and Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July. And it has inspired lots of homages and parodies in lots of different media, over the years. When I was in grade school I remember a parody song about a cowboy (not a parody of this special, but of the song)... though when I look for that online, all I find are versions that are close to the parody I remember but slightly different. And um... more recently, I've seen a meme on facebook with a cross-parody of this special and Silence of the Lambs, and a different meme about intolerance. And one year on Glee there was a cover I adore of one of the songs from this special. And there are parody commercials for Aflac and Windows phone. There's a rap song called Red Nose, by Tech N9ne, which plays on Rudolph's theme of rejection. These are just a few of the countless cultural influences the special and original song have had. So... that's a mark of how well-loved the story is, I guess. Regardless of whether you take some deep lesson from it, or just watch it for the time-honored Christmas feels.

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stop-motion specials: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer * Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town * The Year Without a Santa Claus * Rudolph's Shiny New Year *
Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey * Rudolph & Frosty's Christmas in July * Pinocchio's Christmas * The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold * The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus

animated specials: Frosty the Snowman * 'Twas the Night Before Christmas * Frosty's Winter Wonderland * The Hobbit * The Stingiest Man in Town

TV series: The New Adventures of Pinocchio * Tales of the Wizard of Oz * ThunderCats * SilverHawks

Movies: Mad Monster Party? * The Flight of Dragons * The Last Unicorn