The studio Rankin/Bass is best known for their classic holiday-themed television specials, the most famous of which have been released between the sixties and seventies and continue to air year-round on TV to this day, but their dive into the fantasy genre has also extended into nerdier realms like The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn, films which have entertained older fantasy fans as well.
The origin of the studio begins with Arthur Rankin, Jr. who was born in New York City in 1924. After graduating high school, Rankin studied art and design in Manhattan. At the end of World War II when he served in the U.S. Navy, he returned to NYC and found work at RKO’s international division before beginning his career as a graphic designer in 1948, working for the television network ABC. Rankin worked his way up the ranks at the American Broadcasting Company to an art director, working on ABC’s television programming for five years.
In 1952, Rankin formed his own company with a thousand productions under his belt. It was his work with Gardner Advertising that led to Rankin’s meeting with Jules Bass, an agency mailroom clerk who delivered materials to Rankin’s studio and later became Gardner’s partner. Rankin thought to combine the advertising knowledge of Bass with Rankin’s own artistic knowledge to form their own independent studio.
In 1955, Rankin and Bass founded Videocraft International to produce commercials, animated programs and feature films with Bass handling the business side and Rankin handling the creative side, although Videocraft’s name was changed to Rankin/Bass Productions in the early sixties, when they independently produced TV series like the stop-motion animated The New Adventures of Pinocchio (1960-61) and the cel-animated Tales of the Wizard of Oz (1961).
Rankin and Bass were noteworthy in the animation industry but it wasn’t until 1964 when they produced the stop-motion animated NBC holiday special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that they would achieve their first (and biggest) major success. Based on the 1949 song by Johnny Marks and narrated by Burl Ives (who voiced a mustachioed snowman in the special), the story of an outcast deer who is chosen by Santa Claus to guide his sleigh on Christmas Eve appealed to television viewers of all ages and its airing instantly became an annual tradition that continually appeals to every new generation.
From Rudolph forward, Rankin and Bass’s dream of becoming top independent TV and film producers started to come true. The duo became well known for their TV specials, which were always charming. In the sixties following Rudolph, Rankin/Bass produced The Ballad of Smokey the Bear (1966), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), the cel-animated The Mouse on the Mayflower (1968) and most famously Frosty the Snowman (1969), which told the story of a snowman voiced by Jackie Vernon who was brought to life by a magician’s hat and was based on the popular song by Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson and narrated by comedian Jimmy Durante.
In the seventies, Rankin/Bass’s string of classics continued with the TV specials Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970) narrated by Fred Astaire and starring Mickey Rooney as the voice of Santa Claus, Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971) narrated by Danny Kaye and starring Casey Kasem, The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974) narrated by Shirley Booth and featuring the return of Mickey Rooney as Santa, Jack Frost (1979) narrated by Buddy Hackett and starring Robert Morse (Mad Men) as the title character, and many others, including a number of Rudolph and Frosty sequels.
In addition to these specials, Rankin/Bass would also make feature films including Willy McBean and His Magic Machine (1965), The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967) and Mad Monster Party? (1967) starring Boris Karloff, but more popular than all of these was The Hobbit (1977), a TV movie based on the 1937 fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien (and predating Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings by a year).
In this period, Rankin and Bass started hiring the Japanese animation studio Topcraft (founded by former Toei Animation producer Toru Hara in 1971 and the animation studio which would later animate Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) to help animate their hand-drawn films including The Hobbit, until the studio went bankrupt in 1985 and the animation crew split in two and formed the separate animation companies Studio Ghibli and Pacific Animation Corporation, the latter of which would continue working with Rankin/Bass in the eighties.
Rankin/Bass would also co-produce the 1977 film The Last Dinosaur with Japanese special effects company Tsuburaya Productions, The Return of the King (1980) based on Tolkien’s final Lord of the Rings novel, and the TV films The Flight of Dragons (1982), The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985) and The Wind in the Willows (1987) in addition to the theatrically released The Last Unicorn (1982) based on the 1968 novel by Peter S. Beagle and featuring a voice cast that includes Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lee and Robert Klein.
In the middle of Rankin/Bass’s production of films and television specials, the studio continued working on animated series like The King Kong Show (1966-69), The Jackson 5ive (1971-73) and The Osmonds (1972-74) as well as their collaboration with the aforementioned Pacific Animation Corporation on the extremely popular action cartoon ThunderCats (1985-89) following the adventures of a team of cat-like alien heroes from the planet Thundera and based on characters created by Tobin Wolf.
ThunderCats was so popular that it inspired the similar action cartoons SilverHawks (1986) and TigerSharks (1987) which Rankin/Bass produced with the same crew, but these were short-lived. More successful was Michael Jelenic and Ethan Spaulding’s reboot series from Japanese animation studio Studio 4°C which aired from 2011 to 2012 on Cartoon Network.
These cartoons in the eighties would be the last of Rankin/Bass’s output before it shut down in 1987. Rankin and Bass would occasionally work together again in later years such as their collaboration with Morgan Creek Entertainment on a 1999 hand-drawn animated adaptation of The King and I and on the 2001 FOX television special Santa, Baby! (based on the song), but they would no longer create any classics like the ones they made before. Still they managed to make a significant impact on popular culture thanks to their memorable animated films. They pretty much redefined Rudolph, Frosty and Santa Claus himself with their TV specials. Plus I can literally watch those specials every Christmas and never get bored of them. They might be cheaply produced but they still have great characters and teach great lessons.