Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Rankin/Bass Productions

Rankin/Bass Productions, known originally as Videocraft International, was first created in 1960 by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. While their studio was located in New York City, a lot of the productions were made in Japan, namely Toei Animation, Crawley Films, and Mushi Productions. Later in the 70’s, Japanese studio Topcraft would also help out. Topcraft would go on to become Studio Ghibli. Rankin/Bass is most known for their holiday specials and use of stop-motion, or what they called, Animagic. The studio was a success for most of the 60’s and 70’s thanks to their TV specials and use of famous actors for roles such as Jimmy Durante, Paul Frees, and Burl Ives. They didn’t limit themselves to TV-movies either, as they did TV shows through the 70’s and 80’s, most notably Thundercats. Though they aren’t the most well known out of their catalog, or even for animated films in general, the company produced five animated movies.

The first of these movies was 1965’s Willy McBean and his Magic Machine. This was a stop motion film that focused on time travel. Two years later they made another stop motion film, Mad Monster Party, which had one of the last performances by Boris Karloff. While this was not explicitly a Halloween movie, it is considered to be part of Rankin/Bass’ holiday specials, though this is one of the lesser known ones. This film was well received at the time and is now considered a cult classic. Coming out the same year, but traditionally animated, was The Wacky World of Mother Goose. It’s exactly what you think it is.

Now here is where things get interesting. Not that those films weren’t, but Rankin/Bass’ next film is probably their most well known and I honestly forgot they had a hand in it. Released in 1982 and co-produced by Topcraft, The Last Unicorn had an all-star cast that included Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, and Christopher Lee. Peter S. Beagle, the author of the book, had received many pitches over the years to adapt the novel, including Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez, but it wasn’t until Rankin and Bass approached that a deal was made. The screenplay was written by Beagle himself and he found the finished product to be better than he thought it would be. The film was released to decent reviews and ended up pulling in over $6 million in the U.S. Not too bad for what is probably one of the weirdest kid’s movies I’ve ever seen. That being said, this movie has gained a cult following over the years. Of all the movies I’ve covered so far, this is the first that I own. It’s definitely worth watching in my opinion. The studio basically stopped producing anything after 1987, with the exception of working with Crest Productions on 1999’s The King and I. I felt bad enough giving Rankin/Bass animation credit on any of these films, and that one was for sure done by Crest. Rankin/Bass may have been the ones to pull it all together, but if we’re talking about the ones that animated the films/TV shows themselves, then credit should really go to all the Japanese companies that worked with them, in my opinion. While the studio officially closed in 2001, their back catalog lives on through TV specials shown during the holidays. Heck, I just watched The First Easter Rabbit, and The Easter Bunny is Comin’ to Town on Easter with my son! Yes, they were from old VHS tapes and the quality was terrible. Today, the catalog is split between the pre and post 1974. The pre-1974 was bought early on by GE and eventually through many acquisitions is now owned by Universal (Dreamworks). The post-1974 collection is now owned by Warner Bros. Universal has all the main holiday specials in their catalog, so they kind of win.

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