The Rankin/Bass Specials as well as all the images you see in this editorial are owned by Warner Bros
Christmas Music is one of those things that we just learn to live with. It’s always the same twenty or so songs, it always starts playing the grocery stores way too early, and we hate to admit it be we all have a soft spot for some of them. Not just the COOL songs like Whatever You Celebrate by Reel Big Fish or the fun indie songs like A Willie Nice Christmas by Kacey Musgraves; not even the GENUINE modern day classics that should go in your rotation RIGHT NOW like Tell Your Mama by Aloe Blacc (listen to it RIGHT NOW if you haven’t!). No, we’ve all got soft spots for some of the ones that they keep playing OVER and OVER again each year that everyone else in the world is sick of except for you. Now for me, I’m a sucker for Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney, Feliz Navidad by José Feliciano, and of course the immortal Heat Miser/Snow Miser from The Year Without a Santa Claus. Not only has the song become a radio fixture for decades now, those characters have taken on a life of their own; more or less overshadowing the special they came and inspiring plenty of fan art and YouTube covers! Still, there’s got to be a story behind these two, right? Not only that, but did you know they made a SEQUEL to the special in 2008 all about these two? Since it’s the Holiday season and I’m all about finding random obscure stuff to shine a light on, let’s see what we can learn about Snow Miser and Heat Miser!
Who The Heck Are These Two Anyway!?
Sadly there’s not a lot of information out there on the production of The Year Without A Santa Claus; at least not any I could find. We know the writer was William Keenan who mostly wrote episodes of TV shows back in the seventies, and the composer was Rankin/Bass’s in house guy Maury Laws who wrote songs for all of those classic specials, but as to the origin of Heat Miser and Snow Miser there’s no real thread out there to pull. It certainly didn’t come from the book that the special was based on which was written by Phyllis McGinley in 1956, but then Rankin/Bass was always a LITTLE bit weird with stuff like wizards and abominable snow monsters; not to mention The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus which was based on an L Frank Baum story and looks like Santa got plopped in a Tolkien style fantasy.
So without much to go on as far as an origin story for these two, we might as well jump right into the special itself. How does it hold up? Well it’s almost impossible to separate nostalgia from these specials, especially for my generation, but I think there’s something to this that lets it stand out and still have something interesting to say. The tonal shifts are DEFINITELY awkward and the “lore” as it were isn’t well explained, but there’s a heart and sincerity to it that makes its strange moments feel that much more genuine. I was particularly struck by the sequence where they sing “I Believe in Santa Claus” just because of how overt the religious imagery is as a man reveals the tale of how he met Santa Claus one night and how it restored his faith in the innate goodness of the world. Not exactly untouched ground when it comes to Santa stories (*cough* The Polar Express *cough*), but what’s particularly fun about it is that Santa is RIGHT THERE listening to this guy rattle on about him the same way someone would discuss the day they found faith in God.
That said, I think the ending is a bit lacking as it kind of undercuts the message of the story. Granted they are following the book here, but the fact that the world is fine with Santa taking some time off and finding joy in GIVING rather than RECEIVING is a strong message to send to kids… but then Santa just decides to give them their gifts anyway. DARN THAT LITTLE GIRL RIPPING OFF ELVIS LYRICS!! Okay, perhaps that’s a bit harsh and thinking TOO critically about this special might be missing the forest for the trees. I could be snarky here and point out that half the story is about women dealing with the fickle emotions and bumbling carelessness of the men in their lives or that Santa endorses crunch by giving up his vacation and having his elves work overtime THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, but there’s an innocence to it all that works on the childlike level in which it tells its story. It’s not that we SHOULDN’T think critically about the media we consume, but that in some cases it’s worth reconfiguring that lens a bit.
But enough about all that! The reason we’re all here is to talk about Heat Miser and Snow Miser; two characters who come out of nowhere and are only onscreen for like seven minutes but still manage to steal the entire show! It really does come down to their songs, and there’s no other way to describe them other then they SLAP! They’re funny jazzy arrangements with silly lyrics, but it’s also kind of a brag song which is what puts it over the top for me. They aren’t just singing about themselves; they’re letting you know how AWESOME they are and why their preferred season is the best! The Rankin/Bass stop motion animation does feel a bit dated in certain spots, but there’s no denying just how iconic these sequences are and how much fun it is to watch them even to this day!
It’s not just the song though; the two characters are also fantastic and I always get giddy watching them snipe back and forth at each other! Miss Claus said it best when she called them giant Hams, and I have a soft spot in my heart for characters like that; whether it’s these two or their illegitimate son The Grinch.
It’s a dynamic that everyone loved so much that they made a sequel forty years later starring the two of them, so let’s see how THAT worked out in A Miser Brothers’ Christmas!
Oh wait, we’re not going to that yet? There was another version?
Yes. There was a live action version…
I’ll be honest here, I’ve known about the animated sequel for years now, but I’ve never even HEARD of this until like three days ago. It’s not streaming anywhere (not even on Amazon which is where I got my copy of A Miser Brothers’ Christmas) and it was way too late for me to get a copy of the DVD, so all I could find was some VERY grainy footage on YouTube including their rendition of Snow Miser/Heat Miser. The movie looks absolutely DREADFUL in the way that only TV Christmas Movies can, but it’s undeniable that the song is good no matter HOW bad everything else is around it, and there’s something kind of inspired by having Harvey Fierstein play Heat Miser; not just because he has the word FIRE in his name, but that gravelly voice certainly makes this version DISTINCT from any other version you’ll hear. Don’t you worry though! I WILL watch this thing in its entirety and I’ll probably do a full review of it for next year!
Now that THAT’S over with, let’s look at what I ACTUALLY wanted to talk about!
A Tale of Two Brothers –Is It A New Christmas Classic!?
Sadly there isn’t much of a story to find behind this one either. There’s supposed to be a very substantial Making Of documentary on the DVD, but from what I understand it’s mostly about the process of making stop motion animation rather than how the project came about in the first place. The only connection to the Rankin/Bass cartoon is the fact that Warner Bros owns the rights to their catalogue and that they got two people to reprise their roles; Andy Rooney as Santa Claus as well as George S Irving as Heat Miser. With Santa it’s not such a big deal as Andy Rooney was already putting on an Old Man affectation in the original, but Irving was in his mid-eighties when he recorded this and he sounds every bit of it. Still, his performance might just be better than Juan Chioran who they got to play Snow Miser and has almost none of the charm that Dick Shawn brought to the role. Where Shawn sounded like a PERSON doing a silly role, Chioran plays it up like an overly exuberant cartoon character which, fair enough, is kind of what you WANT for a cartoon, but this sequel only exists due to nostalgia for the original and the performances are just not up to par. Neither is the script by the way which is written in that way that only BAD cartoons are; condescendingly and utterly banal. I’m not about to say that Rankin/Bass’s writing was above reproach (certainly not their dialogue) but there’s definitely some magic lost in translation here.
The story of the special is that Snow Miser and Heat Miser’s constant bickering has been a thorn in Mother Nature’s side for years now, and when they SEEM to cause Santa Claus to crash his sleigh during a test run it’s the last straw for both of them. Mother Nature convinces Miss Claus to have Snow Miser and Heat Miser work as co-Santas this year while the real Santa recovers from his grievous injuries which of course leads to endless bickering between the two of them. Unlike the original special though, there’s an actual villain this time in the form of one of Snow Miser and Heat Miser’s hereto unspoken of brothers NORTH WIND; some dude with a Jay Leno chin that is responsible for Santa crashing his sleigh and is hoping to… take over as Santa?
Like I said, the script is nothing special and the performances overall sounds a bit off, but there are a few things that work. First and foremost, the animation is REALLY good! They’ve got new designs for everyone except Heat Miser and Snow Miser which is a bit jarring at first but the animation itself is much smoother than what Rankin/Bass was doing while still feeling authentic to that style. It’s no wonder the ONE special feature they added to the DVD was for the animation because it really is the best asset this movie has. That, and… yeah the song still slaps! They do it twice in this special just so you don’t forget the reason they made it in the first place, and as always it’s REALLY fun to listen to; especially with the improved animation. It’s not quite as inspired this second time around as it was back in the original special (and the singing isn’t PERFECT per se), but it is a solid sequence in terms of visual, and I am just IN LOVE with their little minion dudes! The Snow minions in particular make me laugh every time I watch the musical number as they look like little angry Neil Patrick Harris clones ready to shank you in the kneecap!
It’s good that the song still holds up because literally none of the other songs are even halfway decent. The opening and closing tracks have a weird beat to them that feels more foreboding than jolly, and the big “emotional” song repeats the line BROTHERS SHOULD BE FRIENDS like eight times. There’s an attempt to add pathos and something of an arc to the brothers’ relationship, but there’s a reason they worked as one off characters in the original special and this one seems to have no intention of growing beyond that. It’s an exercise in technical mimicry, and to that end it definitely succeeds in spots, but every place where they have to do something new like adding songs, giving the characters more depth, and writing a villain story where the first didn’t NEED one (the obstacle everyone had to overcome was cynicism and greed; not some purple dude with wind powers), it never manages to get off the ground. The musical number is fun to see and I would watch the crap out of something that had more of those minion guys, but other than that there’s not much to recommend here.
Sadly the Miser Brothers haven’t exactly lived up to the legacy that they got with their iconic song in The Year Without a Santa Claus; not just with a weird live action movie, but a subpar sequel that tried to live up to the original but failed to distinguish itself in any meaningful way. Thankfully the story doesn’t end there as the official content Warner Bros has released may have disappointed, but the fans of that song and these characters have kept that spirit alive and kicking even to this day! Rather than focus on the negative, let’s end this with what I think is by far the BEST cover of the Snow Miser/Heat Miser song of all time! AND IT JUST CAME OUT LIKE A WEEK AGO!!
Happy Holidays to you and yours, and let’s all work to make things better in 2021!