Popularly referred to as ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ the holiday season is one which is most often associated with joy, laughter, and family fun. Despite the emphasis placed upon forgiveness, charity, and togetherness during this season, however, some of the most beloved holiday films are surprisingly dark in their emphasis upon the prejudices, greed, and malice that all too often consume humanity through all seasons. This week, I will be reviewing three films from masters of holiday animation Rankin Bass that will take you on a journey to the darkness that lies just beyond the holiday lights.
|Who you callin' misfits?!|
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer: No list of unsettling holiday tales would be complete with this most beloved and notorious film. While the film appears to be an anti-bullying parable on its surface, a closer look will reveal that the film actually perpetuates the very cruel behavior it is supposed to denounce. Throughout the film, Rudolph is subjected to bullying from virtually everyone he meets from his parents, to his teachers, to his classmates, and most disturbingly from Santa himself. From the moment of his birth he is singled out for his unique appearance which earns him instant contempt from both his father, Donner and Santa (whose constant misery makes Charlie Brown look upbeat). Making matters worse, Rudolph’s mother (who is tellingly never given a name) enables all of Donner’s efforts to decimate their son’s self-esteem without raising a single word in Rudolph’s defense. When he enters school he is met with similar disdain by his teacher and classmates alike despite the fact that he excels in his studies and is nothing but kind and pleasant to his classmates. Rudolph suffers what is perhaps his most devastating blow when Santa scouts his class for talent and rejects Rudolph after just one glimpse of his noteworthy nose before going on to publicly blame Rudolph’s parents for his supposed handicap. While schoolyard bullies and difficult teachers are familiar staples of children’s entertainment, the uniform ridicule that he is subjected goes above and beyond mere growing pains to the point that he is regarded as a social pariah for a defect that he is in no way responsible for. Although he does find solace in the friendship of fellow outsiders prospector Yukon Cornelius and Hermey the elf, Rudolph continues to blame himself for his inability to fit in and eventually resigns himself to a life of solitude where he imagines his nose won’t be able to cause any trouble. Although his nose eventually allows him to save the day when Santa needs a light to guide him through the fog, the film fails to deliver upon its promise of denouncing bullying as no one apologizes to Rudolph for their treatment of him and his former enemies praise him for his ability to be of use to them rather than because they have learned valuable lessons in tolerance. This lack of contrition is hardly surprising, however, when viewers consider the fact that the prejudices Christmas Town's residents extends beyond reindeer to defective toys who are exiled to a distant island in a social policy straight out of the Third Reich. Most of us dreamed of visiting the North Pole as children, but one viewing of this holiday classic will have you seeing the winter wonderland as the stuff of childhood nightmares.
|Let's just say he's ahead of the fashion curve...|
Nestor The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey: Marketed as a child-friendly take on the biblical tale of Christ’s birth, this film could best be described as Rudolph on steroids. Much like Rudolph, the title hero is an animal whose physical appearance makes him the subject of constant ridicule. While unlike Rudolph’s nose Nestor’s long ears are an actual nuisance which regularly cause him to trip and fall, the treatment he receives from his fellow barn animals is almost identical to that which Rudolph is subjected to. The one advantage Nestor seems to have over his reindeer counterpart is the unconditional love and support of his mother. Despite his mother’s attempts to protect him, however, he is revealed to be a victim of animal abuse when early in the film his ears earn him a beating from his breeder and he is forcibly thrown out of his barn to freeze to death in a snow storm. As if this portrayal of animal abuse isn’t unsettling enough, all of the characters seem unfazed by the breeder’s behavior, implying that animal abuse is just another part of life in the Roman Empire. Nestor’s mother courageously comes to his aid when she kicks the breeder and breaks out of the barn to rush to his side. Tragically, in her effort to protect him she makes the ultimate sacrifice as she freezes to death trying to use her own body heat to keep him alive. Devastated by his loss and convinced that his mother’s death was his fault, he gives up on life until he meets Tilly, a cherub trying to earn her place in heaven. In the style of It’s a Wonderful Life, she takes him on a journey that she promises will show him the purpose and meaning of his life…and promptly leaves him in the care of a smarmy livestock salesman to once again be ridiculed by the surrounding animals. Nestor does find his calling, however, when he is sold to Joseph and Mary and transports the heavily pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. The climax in which Nestor braves a sandstorm to transport the couple is sure to have you reaching for a Kleenex as the ghost of his mother guides him to safety. At the film’s conclusion all seems to be well with Nestor as he takes on the world with a new sense of self-worth and confidence…until the epilogue in which he is shown gleefully returning to his old farm where he jumps into his abusive breeder’s open arms. While Nestor may have found a divine use for his unusual ears, the troubling final scene would seem to indicate that even after his heavenly adventure there is no escaping the hellish cycle of abuse that he was born into.
|He makes JD Salinger look social|
The Little Drummer Boy: Easily the most disturbing film on this list, The Little Drummer Boy is a powerful tale of trauma, loss, and redemption that had no business being marketed to small children. The film begins with recently orphaned Aaron traveling the desert alone except for three animals from his parents’ farm after being left to fend for himself by a society that apparently has no concept of child services. While fiercely loyal to and protective of his animals, he is quickly revealed to be distrustful of people to the point of misanthropy. As the story unfolds, it is difficult for audiences to argue with Aaron’s view of humanity as he is continually met with greed, violence, and cruelty. His misadventures begin when con-men Ben Haramad and Ali witness Aaron’s ability to communicate with his animals and make them dance to the beat of his drum. Seeing a financial opportunity, the pair kidnap the boy and take him to Jerusalem where he is held captive and forced to work as a street performer. During one of his performances he suffers a post-traumatic flashback, which reveals how his parents were brutally murdered when bandits raided the family's farm and razed their house to the ground while his parents were still inside. While the majority of the violence takes place off-screen it is still a shocking moment that would seem straight out of a news story about ISIS rather than the backstory for a children’s film. The flashback causes Aaron to fly into a rage and violently lash out at the audience, prompting Ben and Ali to flee the city with Aaron and his animals in tow. When Ben and Ali sell Aaron’s beloved camel to none other than the magi, Aaron reaches his breaking point and escapes with his lamb and donkey. Just as he is reunited with his camel, however, he is confronted with tragedy once again when his beloved lamb is critically injured after being struck by a passing chariot in a hit and run accident. While the lamb is eventually restored to good health, it is not through an act of human kindness but through a miracle when Aaron encounters the magi who encourage him to play for the newborn Jesus. Although this climax is powerful from a spiritual perspective it is completely undermined by the fact that it reinforces Aaron’s poor view of humanity as the only kindness he encounters is from a divine being. The ending also suffers from the fact that the only one who learns anything or grows to become a better person is victim Aaron. Ben and Ali never face repercussions for kidnapping a minor and forcing him into indentured servitude, the bandits who murdered Aaron’s parents are never caught, and the chariot driver is never held responsible for almost fatally injuring an animal. As a result, while the film continually repeats that there is goodness in the world it fails to reinforce this message through its characterizations, leaving viewers to conclude that Aaron’s world is every bit as bleak and cold as he perceives it to be. Finally, at the film’s conclusion Aaron is still alone, leading viewers to assume that his story goes full circle with him resuming his solitary existence with his animals even after his supposed lessons in compassion and forgiveness. One viewing of this childhood classic will forever leave its namesake song with the echo of loneliness.