Today is indeed a sad day for fans of animation. Last night, at the age of 89, Arthur Rankin, Jr. passed away. Even if you might not recognize the name, you no doubt should be familiar with examples of his work. Together with his production partner, Jules Bass, Rankin practically monopolized TV network Christmas specials during the holiday season. In fact, this coming Christmas season is the 50th anniversary of the first airing of Rankin-Bass‘ classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph was the first special to use the Rankin-Bass trademark stop motion animation dubbed Animagic. Several more specials produced between the 1960s and 1980s were made using this process.
Rankin-Bass also produced several Animagic feature films, the most famous of which was perhaps Mad Monster Party? (1967) headlined by the voices of Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller and featuring caricaturizations of classic movie monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man.
Rankin-Bass also produced an animated King Kong TV show in 1966, which had aspects of it spun off into a live-action theatrical release co-produced with Toho, King Kong Escapes, in 1968.
Rankin-Bass also specialized in producing more traditionally animated specials and feature-length TV movies, in a very distinctive style that was easily recognized. Chief among these would have to be adaptations based on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien – the 1977 production of The Hobbit and the 1980 production of The Return of the King. These two TV movies featured quite stellar casts headlined by no less than Sir John Huston as the voice of Gandalf the Grey. Though they have been criticized in the past by Tolkien “purists”, they are nevertheless important because of the fact that they were the first exposure to Tolkien experienced by many – myself included.
In the 1980s Rankin-Bass produced the cult classic animated series, Thundercats which had a rich, lush animation rarely seen in American produced cartoons up until that time. Rankin served as a consultant and supervising producer for the short-lived series reboot in 2011.
The songs of many Rankin-Bass specials are etched in pop culture memory, including the main ballad of The Hobbit, The Greatest Adventure, (sung by Glenn Yarbrough) and Silver and Gold, sung by Burl Ives in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Miser Brothers Song from The Year without a Santa Claus, which every kid in my elementary school was singing the day after it debuted in 1974.
Arthur Rankin, Jr.’s passing is yet another chunk of my childhood, lost in recent weeks. As regular readers of Draconic Verses know, the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit holds a very special place in my heart, as it was the initial spark in so many chain reactions of my life. I can never even begin to thank Mr. Rankin for what he gave me.