Santa Claus is Comin' to Town came to ABC first in 1970, when Rankin/Bass was firing on all cylinders. The visual difference between this production and that of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is considerable, especially with regard to the immense, detailed sets and more intricate characters, designed by Paul Coker, Jr. Yes, there is the same animation "on two's and three's" as well as a few modest effects, but everything clicks within the brisk 51 minutes, none of which seem padded.
When I asked him to name a favorite special (in The Cartoon Music Book) Musical director/composer Maury Laws called this his favorite, because he thought every element was perfect, from the cast to the script to the overall feel. Fred Astaire proved added another dimension to his legendary career as one of the best narrators in any special. Mickey Rooney's bravado was ideal for the young Kris Kringle. Keenan Wynn's Winter Warlock was memorable (especially when he gets the choo-choo). And our beloved Robie Lester (read Mouse Tracks for more about her) was the show-stopper when, as Jessica, she undid the proverbial bun and belted out her solo, a great tune in a score that hasn't a dud in the bunch (though sadly, in today's more creepy times, "Be Prepared to Pay" may seem to take on an odd -- thoroughly unintentional -- connotation).
Santa Claus is Comin' to Town is so spectacular that it's the visual crown jewel in the trilogy with Rudolph and Frosty. And sure, it adds yet another set of myths to confuse those trying to figure out the origin of Santa.
In this case, the story springs from the mind of writer Romeo Muller, but I wonder if, like Rudolph, this special contains a nod to its cultural context. In 1970, Richard Nixon was president, the war was raging and the counterculture was questioning. Kris and Jessica become outlaws and get married in a forest like hippies (since no town would welcome them), and the Burgermeister does resemble Nixon a little. I even noticed that, when Kris says "It's not even safe here," they're standing among the burned remains of what might have been their small camp -- we get a quick glimpse and then it's gone with no other mention. This is the story of Santa as a revolutionary against political oppression.
Okay, enough with the term paper hypotheses. This is Rankin/Bass at their best and glows like a shimmering holiday display on Blu-Ray.For more about Rankin/Bass and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, check out the books and blog of author/expert Rick Goldschmidt, who helped save the peppermint mine scene.
NOTE: If you have the original DVD of Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, you may want to hang onto to it, though, because the Blu-ray contains no extras.