A Special Kind of Special

How a little Christmas magic created a miracle in Japan


Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer standing next to the mascot of Studio Ghibli, Totoro. The picture is a reference to the most famous scene from “My Neighbor Totoro.”

Jakob Fisher, Editorial Cartoonist

I suppose it all started with the shows, a very special type of show, shows to make the happy, happier, and the giddy giddier. For when the first show is a Christmas show, well, something magical is bound to happen.

Rankin/Bass Productions (RB) is responsible for creating a large portion of our favorite viewing traditions. Who does not remember watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, or Santa Claus is Coming to Town? Think of a holiday TV special, and the Rankin/Bass company was probably involved. Their trademark “Animagic” has left its place in animation history but not in the ways you might expect.

Cartoonist and animator Charles Brubaker said, they started out as Videocraft International, Ltd. and became one of the first companies to outsource the majority of their work. They had no animators on staff, instead having the animation done in Japan and sent back. It was almost unheard of at the time despite being fairly common practice now. What is really surprising, however, is some of the studios they ended up influencing.

Apart from stop-motion, RB was also creating Saturday morning cartoons on the side. Brubaker explains that the main studio RB chose to work with was a small studio called Topcraft. Though they started out small with TV shows and specials like Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, eventually, they moved to full length movies. The most popular, as listed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), are The Hobbit (1977), and The Last Unicorn (1982).

Topcraft had little business besides their projects for RB. Occasionally they would do work for other studios but nothing substantial. According to TV Tropes, they were on a serious downward spiral. That is, until Hayao Miyazaki chose them as the producers of his film Nausicaӓ of the Valley of the Wind. It was a phenomenal success, firmly cementing itself in Japanese pop culture. Released in 1984, it was not enough to save the studio, and it closed the same year. However, Miyazaki took around 70 percent of the employees to form his own company: Studio Ghibli.

Because of RB’s business practices, they inadvertently created one of the largest animation studios in history. Of course they were forced to move on to a new studio for further projects. TV Tropes said they worked with Pacific Animation Corporation (PAC) to make ThunderCats, one of the most popular cartoons of the 80s. Then PAC was bought out by Disney to create Walt Disney Japan. The rest of the industry had caught on to the outsourcing RB had pioneered years before.

Rankin/Bass Productions is currently owned by Warner Bros. Television. The last movie they ever made according to IMDb was Santa, Baby!, released in 2001. Reviews were mixed at best, and it fell into obscurity as soon as it was released. Now, RB is a shell company, only alive from the royalties they collect from yearly Christmas screenings of their specials. Seasonal reminders of a holiday monopoly the likes of which the world may never see again.