In their prime, filmmakers Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. produced numerous television specials based on popular Christmas songs, including Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and many others. 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town is another charming holiday special by Rankin-Bass, which was adapted from the popular yuletide song of the same name. It’s not quite as captivating as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town is an endearing little festive gem nevertheless, notable for its playful tone, creative deconstruction of the Claus mythos, and clever approach to long-established Christmas folklore.
Before jolly old Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney) delivered presents to all the girls and boys around the world, he was an orphaned baby adopted by the Kringle family. A family of elves, the Kringles are skilled at making toys, but there are no children to enjoy their creations. Once Kris matures, he volunteers to deliver the countless toys to Sombertown, hoping to brighten the spirits of the kids who live there. Unfortunately, town mayor Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees) has outlawed all toys and immediately reprimands jolly old Kris. But Kris refuses to let Burgermeister have his way, continuing to distribute playthings around the town, making the Kringle family public enemy number one. Kris’ heroism attracts the attention of local teacher Jessica (Robie Lester), who fully supports his acts of defiance against the wicked Burgermeister.
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town was written by Rankin-Bass’ go-to writer, Romeo Muller, who explores all aspects of Santa Claus’ origins. Narrated by a mailman named Kluger (Fred Astaire), this hour-long special dissects the development of Kris’ selflessness, and covers the origins of his beard, hearty laugh, crew of helpers, need to go down the chimney, North Pole residency (he needs to hide from Burgermeister, after all), and pretty much everything in between, providing a hugely creative look at how Santa came to be. On top of being edifying, it’s wonderfully entertaining too, full of delightful set-pieces and tender moments of humour.
Whereas today’s moviemakers use 3-D computer animation, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town was executed with stop-motion technology, using models and sets to painstakingly create each frame. It does look dated and rough at times, not to mention the pacing does occasionally drag, but there’s something charming about this primitive technique, especially when you consider just how much work went into every second of screen-time. Rankin-Bass movies often featured impressive casts, with the pair securing at least one or two major names for each production. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town has two big names, with Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire both lending their vocal talents to the film. Astaire is a huge asset, guiding us through the story with energy and charm. He has a great singing voice, too, which enlivens the numerous musical set-pieces. Rooney, meanwhile, submits well-judged work with plenty of heart.
For over four decades now, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town has been part of annual Christmastime traditions in many households, and deservingly so. Muller’s screenplay covers the origins of many holiday traditions – including hiding gifts in stockings and how reindeer fly – while also delivering an uplifting reminder about the real meaning of the season of giving.