It’s pretty easy to think of Santa Claus as just another one of the Christmas icons, and not hard to overlook all the mythology associated with the character—the elves, the reindeer, the toys, the chimney thing. Some of it is pretty strange, when you think about it, but it’s all just accepted without question.
But the 1985 film The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus from Rankin-Bass tries to pull it all together in a coherent package. And what better way to tie all of Santa’s fantastical elements together than with a story by Wonderful Wizard of Oz scribe L. Frank Baum?
Rankin-Bass brings Baum’s story (written in 1902) to life through its own unique style of stop-motion animation. The studio may be best known for its cutesy puppets, but they do a great job in this story on the Immortals, who march by the dozens onto the screen in answer to The Great Ak’s booming music. It’s very impressive.
The story opens with The Great Ak informing the other Immortals that Santa Claus, being a mortal, is near to dying a mortal’s death. The Great Ak wants to bestow immortality to him, and to convince the other immortals to go along, he tells the story of how an abandoned human baby was found and raised among the Immortals as one of their own. Claus, as they named him, reached adulthood and was released back into the world of humans. The Great Ak prepared him for this by taking him to several places and showing him scenes of humans being lousy to each other. That doesn’t seem like a wise move on The Great Ak’s part, considering that something like that could make Claus afraid of entering the world of mortals, but Claus instead felt compassion, especially towards children, for whom he eventually started making toys.
Claus isn’t without his opposition, however. There are creatures called Awgwas that enjoy causing strife within humans, and they target Claus because he’s been providing children with joy. Claus’s immortal friends come together and end up doing battle with the Awgwas. For Rankin-Bass animation, the visuals are kind of cool.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this movie, particularly for anyone in love with the idea of Christmas and the richness of the Santa Claus story. It’s Santa Claus as a myth and a fairy tale. It’s exciting, imaginative, humorous, and touching. It’s hard not to like something that touches upon a very strong tradition in our culture and treats it with both respect and a sense of fun.
Aside from the occasional kid-musical number that runs on a bit too long, there’s really nothing to complain about concerning The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, except maybe the total absence of anything even remotely related to the Christian holiday. Fortunately, the second element on this Rankin-Bass double feature, the 1977 Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the origins of Christmas. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much else going for it.
Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is a story we’ve all heard before. Not, I hasten to reassure those who mutter “Nestor who?” when they hear the name, because he’s a familiar and beloved character from pop culture. No, it’s because stories about mutated animals mocked for being different until said mutation comes in handy are a long-standing tradition in storytelling, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Dumbo.
Nestor is a young donkey that lives in a stable with other animals and constantly trips over his gigantic ears. Naturally, that lands him at the very bottom rung of the barnyard hierarchy, and he is subjected to well-thought-out and choreographed dance routines performed by his stable mates for the sole purpose of making fun of him. Every creature gets in on the action, with the exception of Nestor’s mother, who does her best to keep him happy. Big, long ears, eh? Think those will come in handy someday, and Nestor will realize God had a plan for him all along? (I still can’t figure out the reason for his abnormally large tear-ducts, though, as they only make him constantly cry enormous tears which make him look like one of the most pathetic animals ever to walk the earth.)
Nestor gets abused and bumped around for a while until divine intervention from a friendly cherub named Tilly gives him guidance which ultimately leads him to meet Joseph and Mary and help them out in their journey. It is a cute story, but it’s nothing special. Nestor himself looks good—adorable in a pathetic sort of way—but most of the other animals, and even some human characters, are either over the top and ridiculous looking or just kind of generic.
Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey doesn’t run longer than half an hour, but it’s quick, somewhat entertaining, and gets its point across. The moral of the story is, apparently, that if you want to make friends and be popular, the best way to compensate for your freakish yet comic deformity is to play a somewhat significant role in the birth of one of the world’s major religions.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus/Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is available through Warner Archive.