Tis the season! With A Very Merry-Go-Round, we’ll be offering the hottest holiday takes in town.
Oh, Rankin/Bass. You can have your IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, and DIE HARD; every Christmas, I find my holiday joy in the lifeless eyes of many stop-motion puppets. From mainstream classics like the quintessential RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER to deep cuts like NESTOR: THE LONG-EARED CHRISTMAS DONKEY (yes, real), the Rankin/Bass Christmas canon carries a level of charm in its 1960s jank unrivaled by spit-shined modern classics—though homaged nicely in ELF.
Naturally, revisiting a series of Christmas shorts crafted by two white, male producers in the ‘60s and ‘70s will yield an expected amount of political incorrectness. There’s the rampant sexism (“They were sad about their friend Yukon, but they knew it was important to get the women back to Christmastown.” – RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER), regrettable portrayals of Native Americans and Jews, and a bizarre political bent whereby one’s value is not intrinsic, but is determined by one’s ability to contribute to society (see: RUDOLPH, SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN, and the aforementioned NESTOR).
But we here at Very-Merry-Go-Round headquarters are all about hot takes, and lambasting a 40-year-old Christmas short for its politics is as icy as Snow Miser’s ballsack. There’s a darkness lurking just under the surface of a beloved Christmas classic: dark magic, impending doom, and multiple generations of traumatized children. I’m speaking, of course, about FROSTY THE SNOWMAN.
Now before we go any further, this isn’t going to be one of those TV Tropes “all the Rugrats were stillborn and Angelica is haunted by their ghosts” things. The dark undercurrent of Frosty starts with the original 1950 song penned by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson. The lyric (that you probably know) goes: “Frosty the Snowman / Knew the sun was hot that day / So he said / let’s run / And we’ll have fun / Now before I melt away.” Frosty’s impending death is a theme from the beginning, and this creeping dread continues into the 1969 animated special and its sequels.
FROSTY THE SNOWMAN (1969) follows the story laid out in the original song pretty closely: a group of kids build a snowman (with their ringleader Karen, but more on her in a minute), they find a magical hat which brings Frosty to life, they cause a series of traffic disturbances before realizing that Frosty’s time is limited, and ship him off to the North Pole where he will never melt. The big addition here is the villain, Professor Hinkle: a crappy magician and owner of the magical old silk hat. He wants his hat back, even though retrieving it means literally murdering Frosty. In the climactic scene, he locks Frosty and Karen in a greenhouse where Karen presumably watches her dear friend slowly die as he melts into a puddle. We don’t see this happen, but we do see Karen kneeling over the puddle that was once Frosty, covering her face, her body racked with sobs. At what point in the melting process does Frosty stop being sentient? Immediately? Halfway through? God in heaven, Karen, what have you seen??
Now, I know what you’re thinking: does Frosty feel pain when he melts? In FROSTY RETURNS, a shady businessman releases an aerosol spray called “Summer Wheeze” which melts snow immediately on contact. When Frosty gets hit with it, he lets out a scream of agony. So one can rightly assume that poor Karen here just watched him suffer a slow and painful death before her eyes, enough that she’s reduced to tears. Of course Santa shows up to retcon the whole thing and say that Frosty’s made of Christmas Snow so he can never really melt—but the damage here has already been done to poor Karen, who is probably not getting therapy for Christmas in 1969.
Frosty can’t catch a break, as the canon seems to revolve around someone or something trying to murder him. In FROSTY’S WINTER WONDERLAND (the direct sequel to the 1969 version), Jack Frost is jealous of how much the children love Frosty and sets out to steal the magic hat. He finally does so in front of Frosty’s snow bride Crystal, blowing the hat off his head with a gust of wind, rendering him lifeless and taunting her that he’s gone for good.
Oh—you didn’t know that Frosty had a wife? Why, of course he does—crafted to his exact specifications by the same group of mystical children. Frosty brings her to life himself with a bouquet of snow flowers, which her sentience is oddly not bound to, as once she’s brought to life the bouquet is rarely seen again. She immediately weds Frosty on her first day of life and exists solely to be his companion, mother his eventual children, and live in constant fear of her partner’s untimely death which could happen at any moment if his hat gets knocked off. (She temporarily resurrects him with a magic corsage after the Jack Frost incident, but the hat remains an issue in sequels to come so we’ll call that a fluke.)
The Frost in Our Stars
All this craziness culminates in the Grand Daddy of Rankin/Bass Insanity: RUDOLPH AND FROSTY’S CHRISTMAS IN JULY. This shit is so truly bananas it must be seen to be believed, and I’m only going to scratch the surface in this article. Let’s just say it involves the goddess of the Aurora Borealis, flying snakes, dragons, a queer-coded evil reindeer, shady business practices, and an AVENGERS-style assembly of all your Rankin/Bass favorites including Big Ben the Clockwork Whale from RUDOLPH’S SHINY NEW YEAR—truly the Hawkeye of the group.
For reasons far too complicated to explain (something something evil wizard) Frosty and Rudolph travel to a seaside circus with the help of some magical amulets that prevent Frosty and family from melting in the middle of summertime to help Milton the flying ice cream man woo the lady of his dreams. (Seriously—there’s going to be a lot of “yadda yadda” in this section, I promise it’s not worth getting into.) Along for the ride are Crystal and Frosty’s two snow children, Chilly and Milly. How did these children get here? Did Karen and friends build snow children for them to their exact specifications? Did Frosty and Crystal build them themselves and imbue them with the same magic that brought Crystal to life sans-hat? Did they fuck? Never explained.
Yadda yadda, the events of the circus leave Rudolph’s nose permanently extinguished. Frosty, being the stand-up guy he is, bargains with an evil wizard to restore Rudolph’s magic in exchange for his life-giving hat. This is clearly intended as a suicide—Frosty sings a sad reprise that he can’t spend one last Christmas with his family, and when Crystal, Chilly, and Milly come looking for Frosty only to find his lifeless body, Crystal shields her children from the sight with a cry of “Look away!” Frosty has abandoned his family to save his friend, leaving the same imprint of trauma on his own children that he left on Karen those many years ago.
Also this happens
Naturally, this is Christmas, and the only thing more constant in this franchise than Frosty’s tragic death is the magical retcon—first with Rudolph returning Frosty’s hat, then by Jack Frost (also back!) resurrecting Frosty’s entire family after the death of the evil wizard renders their magical amulets powerless and they melt away in the summer sun. (“Be brave, children! You must be brave!”)
“Kate,” you ask, avoiding your family during the holidays by reading articles on Merry-Go-Round Magazine, “Why the fuck have you written this? What’s the point?”
I could make the argument that it’s in line with the ethos of Merry-Go-Round to encourage our readers to think about the content they consume, no matter how frivolous it seems. I could also argue that the real lesson Frosty teaches is that no matter how dark things get, there’s always a Christmas Retcon at the end of the tunnel. But truthfully, I just love this shit and it makes me laugh, and I hope it brought you some head scratching joy this Christmas. Now get back to your folks and put on RUDOLPH AND FROSTY’S CHRISTMAS IN JULY—that’ll teach them to try and spend time with you!