Rankin-Bass’ stop motion classic Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer was not for children. That is the conclusion of this critic after much thought recently.
Much like Looney Tunes and The Flintstones, it has become increasingly clear that Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer was in fact created initially for adults. That is because at its heart, it is really a rumination on how quickly and easily we as society toss aside those who are different from what we consider to be “normal.”
Here is just some of the evidence for that argument: We already know that Rudolph was shunned by his fellow reindeer when his “secret” was revealed by chance. Only one of the reindeer — Clarice, a young female — showed any concern for Rudolph. Rudolph’s own father and Santa were even ashamed by his nose. His own father even went so far as to try to hide it, which led to the coincidental revelation. As a result of that occurrence, Rudolph ended up embarking on a journey that led to not only a coming-of-age tale, but even more evidence of the special’s noted bigger, overarching allegorical story.
During the course of his personal journey, Rudolph encounters the “misfit toys,” who themselves were toys created by Santa’s elves. Those toys were “imperfect,” as each had some “defect” or “impurity.” The cowboy rode an ostrich instead of a horse. The water pistol shot grape jelly instead of water. The boat couldn’t float and the train had square wheels. The jack-in-the-box was tossed aside just because its name wasn’t Jack. It was Charlie. Keep in mind that the toys were created by elves, who themselves are “employed” by Santa, the authoritarian ruler to create “perfection” for “good” little boys and girls. This is a rumination by Rankin-Bass on the focus that we put on kids having the best new, shiny toys. Why do imperfections make it impossible for toys to be appreciated and loved? Again, this plays directly into the bigger observation of the message that Rankin-Bass was really trying to deliver through this allegory.
That discussion of which boys and girls are “good” leads to its own deeper discussion for another time about whether we should really continue to press that narrative to children. Does telling children that they’ll only get toys if they’re “good” really benefit them? What if families can’t afford the best new toys”? What if a family loses its home to fire or some other circumstance? We have got to eliminate that narrative that tis toys to behavior.
Getting back on the topic at hand, one must backtrack slightly to examine even more proof of how Rankin-Bass used Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer to deliver its commentary. When Rudolph went off on his journey of self-discovery, he was joined by the shunned elf Hermie.
The sub-story about Hermie the Elf is in reality an allegory about capitalism and the importance of individualism, and the impact of authoritarian rule. Hermie’s fellow elves and the head elf all made fun of him for wanting to do and think for himself. It was all about making toys for them, but he wasn’t satisfied with that. He had other plans, and was shouted down and laughed at for thinking for celebrating his individualism.
Now, add in that during his early interaction with Rudolph, Hermie builds a snow effigy of the head elf and proceeds to punch it. Yeah, let’s let kids watch that. The very act of building an effigy and essentially destroying it is really an example of the working man standing up to those authoritarian forces that hold them down. Yet again, here we have grown-up themes that are not proper for kids.
When Rudolph and Hermie finally return to the North Pole and Santa’s “kingdom,” the only “celebration” that takes place is a musical number. Santa and the elves show minimal remorse for having shunned the duo early on. Yes, they do admit that they were wrong, but their acceptance is in reality, an example of how people do not want to take responsibility for their actions. That in itself adds even more to the bigger story of how people act.
Add in that when Rudolph’s nose shines, Santa once again seems bothered by it until he “miraculously” realizes that Rudolph’s nose can actually save Christmas because it can help lead the sleigh so that little boys and girls can get their toys. Santa did not act appreciative. He acted on an opportunity, again, therein being the authoritarian rule.
The real happy ending comes as the misfit toys are “saved” from the island at which they had previously been exiled. These are the same toys that were dumped there because the elves made them imperfect to begin with. Why would elves, — who are supposed to create perfect toys for “good” boys and girls — create “imperfect” toys? They got new homes, reminding audiences again that all toys (or maybe, people) have a place and deserve love.
As the credits roll, the bird that couldn’t fly is just tossed from Santa’s sleigh without an umbrella. Watching the reaction of the elf who pulled the bird from Santa’s sack, one can’t help but think in considering what was noted here, maybe that subtle moment in itself was a commentary. Maybe this was Rankin and Bass commenting on how sometimes we think what we are doing is helping, but in fact it is just being thoughtless and anything but helpful.
Noting again, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer is not the only time that Rankin-Bass used a children’s classic to address serious, adult topics. Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town intentionally used that movie as a commentary about authoritarianism. That was pointed out in bonus content that came with some of the Rankin-Bass box sets featuring its holiday specials. To a lesser extent, Jack Frost, another Rankin-Bass special also took on the topic. Keeping all of this in mind, it becomes even clearer that Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer clearly was not intended for children, but for adults.