Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
The term “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has always evolved in shape or form around the holiday season. It started as a 1939 poem written by Robert L. May and made into a popular song by Johnny Marks a decade later. But, the most iconic story about was the 1964 stop-motion special by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. Since its debut (and a revised ending after viewers’ complaints) the special became a beloved Christmas classic for its memorable characters, simple yet creative storytelling, limited but crafted puppetry and animation, and timeless songs. It was so cherished that Rankin/Bass spawned loose yet effective follow-ups to the character, whether being Rudolph’s Shiny Year and the crossover film Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. Not to mention the countless merchandising and parodies of the special itself years later. Then again, there will be moments where an ageless special would get too commercialized . There are some harmless and acceptable exceptions like toys, decorations and commercials. But, sometimes it would go so extreme that they forgot to put effort or why the special was...special to begin with. One recent example is a video game on the Nintendo DS and Wii, which both received strongly negative reception. Making a video game tie-in is one thing, but making a sequel sometime later after creating something different is a different story.
GoodTimes Entertainment, as you all may remember, was a home video company known for distributing low-budget animated films that are easily mistaken for Disney movies. Around that time, they attempted of adapting the story of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the big screen with a lot of hyped-up marketing and promotion. Unfortunately, the movie performed abysmally at the box office with a limited theatrical release. Despite the movie selling better on video and grew a small cult following years later, GoodTimes Entertainment believe they could win back the mainstream audiences by making a sequel and entering into the computer animation world, which was becoming trendy around that time. However...instead of continuing the story with characters from the 1998 movie, they decided to make a sequel to the original Rankin/Bass special with returning and new characters added. This...turned out to be a big, scratch that, a HUGE mistake to both the name and the company itself. Whenever you think of a Rudolph project that shows little care and cashing-in on the character itself, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & The Island of Misfit Toys is the primary subject that comes to mind.
When the mysterious Toy Taker (voiced by Rick Moranis) steals toys from around the world, Rudolph (voiced by Kathleen Barr) and friends must save them before Christmas.
A Dim Lit Story
First off, the title of the movie sounds like a mouthful. It is quite reasonable to never judge a book by its cover. But with a deep analysis, the subtitle doesn’t seem to contribute much to the story. This title acts like the place we deeply remember doesn’t exist and this almost acts like a reimagining. In actuality, the island and its concept still do, and the only plot significance it has is that it becomes the villain’s target location for the climax. In other words, the title felt like an afterthought.
Speaking of afterthoughts, the idea of using the Rankin/Bass characters for this sequel was used at the last minute. It is highly evident because there was once a German video cover where Rudolph takes up the focus with his 1998 design. If you look behind him, you see Hermy the Elf and the others having their Rankin/Bass designs. Not to mention, they put the number 2 in the title to remind its audience that is a sequel. In fact, the movie was actually directed and written by the SAME people from the 1998 movie! Generally speaking, one of the main issues with the movie is the confusion and lack of continuity.
As for the actual story, it is nothing too special worth talking about. It is your typical saving-the-day story with crime-solving mystery elements thrown in. Conceptually speaking, there are moments in the story that don’t sound that bad. For starters, it is kind of neat seeing Hermey, Clarice, Yukon, the Bumble, and others back after so many years. That is because there were absent and never mentioned in the official Rankin/Bass sequels. To writer Michael Aschner’s credit, he attempted on expanding the world and giving certain characters, like Clarice, some development. However, when it comes to the execution, these attempts come off as unnecessary and the characters’ arcs are easily predictable, which will be discussed soon. Like any follow-up, there are many call-backs to the original, but they don’t feel as authentic as the special presented them. Heck, GoodTimes Entertainment didn’t even bother consulting Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass for creative guidance. Is it funny? Not even close. Outside maybe a couple of one-liners and chuckles from Yukon and/or the Bumble, most of the “humor” is poor slapstick with an over-abundance of distracting and stock cartoon sound effects. On the flip side, as weak as the plot may be, the movie still has an inoffensive and harmless tone along with a message about children outgrowing toys. The only downside to the tone is that the message is executed much better in other films, including Toy Story.
Cheap and Lackluster CGI
An important factor to address about the Rankin/Bass special is its stop-motion animation quality. When watching the technicality with a straight face, the movements are choppy and the lip-syncing doesn’t match what the characters are saying. So naturally, with technology advancing many decades later, the use of computer animation would make it better...right? Technically...yes...but...when you really think about the execution and appeal, the computer animation is absolutely WORSE than the original! How is that possible, you may ask? The answer is quite interesting. Yes, stop-motion animation is theoretically bad by today’s standards, but it was very excusable for the time because back then, animation was very expensive to produce for television and they had to cut corners in order to speed up production. It was executed awkwardly yet the creativity in constructing the puppetry, the sets, and artistry made up for it.
With that said, let’s talk about computer animation. Despite the fact that the character designs and environment remain true to the source material, they do not translate well into computer animation. Even a couple of characters’ designs went through measly changes. If you look at the cover, Rudolph looks younger and different than he looked in the original version. The same goes for Clarice. True, in the Rankin/Bass sequels, Rudolph’s design was different too. But to be fair, the original puppets were lost, damaged, or auctioned sometime later. Most of the characters’ textures look the same whether it is the skin, animals’ fur, clothing, or hair. They look more like clay than what the puppetry provided. The only exclusions are Yukon’s beard and the Bumble’s fur. Strangely enough, it follows the recycled character design motif where Santa’s reindeer and elves look the same, except for Comet and the tall elf named Hank obviously. Thanks to the poor rendering system, the character animation looks stiff and their facial expressions feel restricted half the time, especially with Hermey. It feels like a cutscene to a first-generation video game console whether you would rather play the game instead of watching it. Regardless of being a direct-to-video, the quality suffered for being released around the same year as Shrek, Monsters, Inc., and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Their animation may have aged, but they still look better than this!
One aspect of the original that stays faithful is the designs of the Misfit Toys themselves. While the familiar ones like, Charlie-in-the-Box or Dolly, resort to cameos, the new toys on the island include a kite that is afraid of heights, a piggy bank with no coin slot and a boomerang that doesn’t return. Admittedly, that toy alone is genuinely funny as we see the boomerang flying through the scenery during the movie.
Many of the arctic and tundra landscapes in the North Pole are stale and repetitive. Recognizable locations, such as Christmas Town, the workshop, and the Island of Misfit Toys don’t feel as immersive as they once were. One of the new locations Castaway Cove could be a hypothetical setting for lost toys being repaired and performing cosmetic surgery. On the other hand, it feels like a clone to the Island of Misfit Toys down to where the characters even stated that would find homes for the toys Queen Camilla has raised. The only stand-out locations are the Toy Taker’s blimp and Yukon’s Peppermint Mine because they are ambitious set-ups for the climax and action scenes. While the “fight” on the blimp is underwhelming, the mine cart chase in the Peppermint Mines does provide some entertainment. Again, it feels like playing a video game instead of watching it.
A Group of Bland Misfits
The characters you cherished are back...and they have definitely changed whether for the better or worse. Starting with our titular character, Rudolph is the kind and heroic reindeer who is under pressure and depressed for the townspeople treating his nose like a gimmick and desired to be normal. It is not a bad idea for Rudolph to have a conflict like this, but his character arc is executed as an off-color rehash of the original tale where it leads to the deprived “be yourself” message. Heremy the Elf is Rudolph’s best friend who is now the North Pole’s D.D.S. with an all-terrain vehicle/office and nothing else new about him...except an out-of-nowhere side-plot of him having a crush on the Tooth Fairy. Yukon Cornelius is the eccentric prospector who now runs a peppermint mine and aids Rudolph on his adventure during the third act. The Abominable Snow Monster a.k.a. “The Bumble” is the reformed antagonist from the original special and now acts like Willie the Giant from Mickey & the Beanstalk. Both respective characters do get a laugh for retaining their over-the-top personalities. Santa Claus is no longer the debatable grouch from the original and is became a generic, kind stereotype of himself.
The most “developed” character of the cast is Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice. To the character’s credit, the movie tried to give her a more active role than a damsel-in-distress, along with a sub-plot of learning to fly like Rudolph. As interesting as it sounds, her story and motivation feel redundant since she still likes Rudolph for who he is, and learning to fly in order to impress him is pointless. Other characters like Mrs. Claus, Comet, King Moonraiser, and the Head Elf are reduced to minor supporting characters except for one scene involving the elf Hank. You know that tall elf with the glasses? His scene alone and “significance” are ridiculously funny.
For the new characters, we have our narrator Scoop T. Snowman; not Sam the Snowman. Outside of being a reporter for the Christmas Town Chronicle, he is your basic narrator. Queen Camilla is the fashionable yet hospitable hippo ruler of Castaway Cove. As for our main baddie, The Toy Taker or “Mr. Hibbie-Jibbies” is the shrouded toy kidnapper with a hypnotizing flute and a blimp, Without giving away his identity and motivation, let’s just say...Toy Story still executed the moral much better.
Unlike the 1998 film, there aren’t much celebrity actors as before. The only credited celebrities are Richard Dreyfuss, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Rick Moranis. On a lighter note, the aforementioned actors did offer some tolerability and personality to their characters. Rick Moranis as the Toy Taker almost came out on top as a goofy villain but the over-dubbing vocals from another actor hinder it away. His role as Lord Helmet in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs had more dignity than this. The rest of the actors are the same Canadian voice actors from the 1998 film with Kathleen Barr returning as the voice of Rudolph. As much she did her best simulating Billie Mae Richards’ voice, Kathleen sounds flat and disinterested at times. Other voices, like Scott McNeil, Garry Chalk, and Lee Tockar, did a serviceable job capturing the characters’ voices.
Botched Music and Songs
Remember how much timeless and unforgettable the songs in the special were? Good luck remembering these songs because they gave us the opposite effect. The music and songs were provided this time by Bruce Roberts and Diana B. To get the most annoying element out of the way, the musical score is terrible. As light-hearted and whimsical as the 1998 film was, at least, the rest of the score had an effort to make it sound like a movie. The whole score is stereotypically infantile and way too catering for little, little kids. It’s like listening to a Saturday morning cartoon for toddlers and even their music sounds more tolerable than this. We do get the iconic song performed by Tony Bennett, which is okay enough of a rendition to listen alone. Although, we could agree Tony could offer more than he was given. “Beyond the Stars” is a dated pop song that is supposed to be a love song involving Rudolph and Clarice. “Keep Your Chin Up” is a bland and forgettable motivational song that is simply filler that could’ve been easily edited out of the final product. Do NOT expect the original “Island of Misfit Toys” song in this sequel, they shamelessly butchered it. “Beautiful Like Me” is Queen Camilla’s song about her kingdom with accompanied background finger-snapping. “The Toy Taker” and “Mr. Cuddles” are both songs performed by the villain himself. The first song is a sadistic number about being a trustworthy owner and the other is a poignant number on the villain’s backstory. Lastly, “Best Christmas Ever” is your inoffensive, bubbly number that everything is okay, but doesn’t feel like the “best” number to end the movie on. If you going through that trouble making these songs, why even try?
If there was any Rudolph movie that the mainstream should truly forget about, it’s this one. The 1998 movie was more tolerable to sit through than this. Yes, it was a sell-out and failed at the box office. But, at least, it was different. At least, there was ambition. At least, there was some talent. AT LEAST, it was a retelling and not a rehash. GoodTimes wanted to continue the story of Rudolph and this was the wrong direction they took and cost them big time. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & The Island of Misfit Toys is a forgettable, embarrassing, and desperate continuation of the timeless special with a weak story, poor animation, bland characters, and forgettable songs. It may have some ideas and decent casting; it’s not salvageable to make it “okay”. This sequel is the reason that no other Rudolph animated project was made afterward. As for GoodTimes Entertainment, the company eventually got bankrupt. With sincerest apologies for being negative towards something as simple as this, this sequel shouldn’t have existed. If GoodTimes wanted to make an actual sequel to the 1998 film, that would’ve been fine. Instead, they used the Rankin/Bass characters as a marketing ploy for attention and make a quick buck off of it. Is it the worst Rudolph special? Honestly...yes and no. Yes, because of its existence. No, because to its credit, once you get past the production values, the movie is harmless enough and the crew isn't personally the blame. Similar to the 1998 movie, the crew tried their best to give than what the studio demanded. If you are a die-hard fan of Rankin/Bass special, skip this movie and stick to the original and its sequels. Younger children might find it okay, but not for older audiences. As mentioned before, Rudolph’s future may be dim but his fans will continue to make him glow.