Tonight’s film is a television movie, but it’s an iconic Christmas film which holds a place in most people’s hearts. It’s the Rankin-Bass 1970 movie Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Let me preface this by saying Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is my favorite of the Rankin-Bass movies (my second is the little loved Rudolph’s Shiny New Year). I saw Rudolph again last year and it’s not my favorite, but I know a ton of people who love it, just not me. Anyway, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town boasts the best villain, Burgermeister Meisterburger, tells a tight story about the origins of Santa, and dabbles in the 1970s trippiness we all know and love.
Narrated by postal carrier S.D. (Fred Astaire), the movie tells how Santa Claus (voiced by Mickey Rooney) became the man he is. It answers questions like why he wears a red suit, what’s the connection to Kris Kringle, and other questions commonly asked about the man in the red suit. Along the way, Kris/Santa gives toys to the bland residents of Sombertown, and melts the cold heart of the Winter Warlock (voiced by Keenan Wynn).
I have to ask how many people have seen the atrocious Justin Bieber music video for the song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town?” I don’t know what hurts me more: the horrific CGI or the redoing of such an iconic song. I recommend everyone watch this 1970 movie just to hear the song the way it was intended to be performed, by the iconic Fred Astaire. The movie is only a TV film, clocking in at 50 minutes, but you go on quite the journey in that amount of time. Your enjoyment of the film boils down to your level of nostalgia for the Rankin-Bass movies. I remember this as a kid and have made it a tradition every year. There’s something about the way the film answers the questions of the children and provides great answers for everything, like how Kris Kringle was Santa’s adopted name when he was found by a gaggle of elves all with rhyming names (Tingle, Wingle, etc). Most of the story involves how he became an outlaw by the evil mayor of Sombertown, Burgermeister Meisterburger (voiced by Paul Frees), who outlaws toys.
Burgermeister is my favorite Rankin-Bass character! The booming voice of Paul Frees is so intimidating, yet he has such a Napoleon complex about him. When Kris gives him a yo-yo, it’s not until his second-in-command tells him “Sir, you’re breaking your own law” that he gets angry. Burgermeister is the little kid who doesn’t get what he wants; the naughty child that Santa would probably give a lump of coal to. Other characters, like the Winter Warlock, also learn to get past their anger and discover the joys of giving.
I can’t deny the movie is highly dated. There’s some trippy sequences, the animation is pretty laughable (the scene of Kris trapped in the Winter Warlock’s trees for instance. His facial features look like he’s having a seizure). For the most part, I’m still awed this movie was made with puppets, but the lack of mouth movement is pretty primitive. Some of the songs, especially the ones sung by Rooney and Robie Lester as Jessica seem like the result of a lot of marijuana and aren’t as memorable as “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” or “First Toymaker to the King.” Also, anyone looking for religious acknowledgement in this film will be sorely disappointed. There is no mention of Jesus or anything related to him. The movie makes a point of saying the first Christmas tree was invented for Kris and Jessica’s wedding, and Kris picks December 25th because it’s the best day for love, or something to that effect. Now, I enjoy an absence of a religious message in most works, and it is a kids movie so it doesn’t want to preach, but I figured a passing reference or something would be included.
Despite how dated the technology and story is, there’s something sweet and nostalgic about Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. I have fond memories of this as a kid and continue to watch it. The songs are good, the characters are sweet, and Burgermeister is the best dictator in all the land! If you’re a Rankin-Bass fan you probably have seen this dozens of times but if you haven’t, seek it out on the numerous channels that will play it this season.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.