Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an immediate hit when it was first broadcast in December 1964, when your humble correspondent was still in diapers, and it quickly became traditional holiday viewing.
So it’s a bit surprising that it took Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass a dozen years to produce a followup, perhaps because they were focused on other holiday specials, some of which also went on to become perennial favorites (Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, The Year without a Santa Claus) and several others failed to catch on.
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year picks up right where the original Rudolph left off, on the same night that that the little reindeer with the big, glowing red nose lead Santa’s sleigh on a dark, stormy night and helped save Christmas.
You’d think the poor guy could get a break after flying all around the world. You’d be wrong.
That same night, Santa gets a letter from his old friend, Father Time (voiced by Red Skelton, who also narrates), who writes that Happy, the Baby New Year, has gone missing with a week left in the old year. If he’s not found, the New Year won’t start, and it stay December 31…forever.
Santa wants to send out a search party, but who could possibly find his way in all that snow and fog? Who else? Santa tells Rudolph that “Once more, the happiness of the world’s children depends on you.” So…no pressure or anything.
And off Rudolph heads to Father Time’s Castle, the Palace of Happy New Years, and gets the scoop on why Happy ran away: Turns out the tike (who looks more than a little like Harpo Marx) has big, floppy ears and is really sensitive about them. So when everyone laughs when they see his ears, he takes off in search of friends who won’t crack up every time he takes off his hat.
Rudolph can certainly relate—everyone made fun of his shiny nose…until it came in handy for saving everyone, of course—and he speculates that nobody would let Happy join them in “any New Year’s games” (whatever those are).
Father Time tells Rudolph that Happy has probably fled to the Archipelago of Last Years, a group of islands where old years go to retire; on each island, time stands still as it had been lived by each old year.
Along the way, Rudolph also picks up allies in his search: General Ticker, whom Father Time describes as “a real clockwork soldier”; a camel named The Great Quarter Past Five; Big Ben, a whale who carries Rudolph and friends from island to island; One Million B.C., a very chatty caveman; Old Sir 1023, a knight from the days when fairy tales really happened; and 1776, a Benjamin Franklin lookalike who tells Happy that his friends call him “Sev.”
All the while, Rudolph and friends are menaced by Eon the Terrible, a vulture who wants to keep the New Year from happening so he can live forever and thus is also hunting for Happy.
Throughout Shiny New Year, there’s an odd preoccupation with abbreviated names: Rudolph asks The Great Quarter Past Five, “May I call you Quart for short?” “I’d rather you didn’t, if it’s all the same to you,” the dour camel replies. One Million B.C. insists on being called “O.M.,” and Big Ben calls Rudolph “Rudy” (how he knows who Rudolph is before he’s actually introduced himself is anyone’s guess).
If only the rest of Shiny New Year had been so interested in brevity.
The songs, with music and lyrics by Johnny Marks (who handled the same duties on the original Rudolph) are all catchy, the stop-motion animation retains its charm, and the familiar voice cast (Morey Amsterdam as O.M., Frank Gorshin as 1023, Harold Peary as Big Ben and Paul Frees in several roles) lend a comfort level to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, the script by Romeo Muller (who, like Marks, also did the same in the original) feels badly padded, with the same scenario playing out over and over again—Rudolph and friends very nearly find and rescue Happy, only to see the baby get away from them. Happy is even tricked more than once into taking a lift from Eon, who flies with the baby New Year to his desolate island for a final showdown.
There’s also the matter of Skelton, who handles the narration duties fine and even does triple duty as the voice of a baby bear, but struggles when he has to sing—and he sings several times (including a reprise of Rudolph’s theme song during a flashback sequence). He just doesn’t have the strength of voice that Burl Ives displayed in the original.
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year might have been fine as a half-hour special. However, at a full hour in length and saddled with a conclusion so ridiculously simple (if well intentioned) that it tries the patience of even the most nostalgic viewer, leaving the impression that the search for Happy was really much ado about nothing.
Rudolph’s nose may indeed be shiny, but Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is, unfortunately, dull.