The Curious Conundrum of the Woodland Creatures in ‘Frosty the Snowman’
Frosty the Snowman is a 1969 animated children’s television program about a living snowman and a little girl who struggle to elude a greedy magician who is after the snowman’s magic hat.
One of the best things about Christmas is the weeks just prior, the proverbial journey let’s say, when you can sort of let down your guard and haplessly indulge in all the kitsch and such that makes celebrating the whole thing that much more fun. You know what what I’m talking about, the spontaneous outbursts of sappy holiday songs, donning that ridiculous sweater, eggnog for goodness sake, and of course, Christmas movies. Back in the day, long before the internet and streaming services, getting to see your favorite holiday flick was a yearlong wait, which made them all the more special, and for certain, one the most anticipated was the Rankin/Bass classic Frosty the Snowman. It’s great fun, even if it has one particularly very, very strange moment.
Based on the song of the same name, first recorded by Gene Autry in 1950, the story follows the adventures of the titular Frosty and an elementary school girl named Karen. The day before Christmas, on the last day of school before the break, the teacher has hired a magician named Professor Hinkle (voiced by Billy De Wolfe) to entertain the kids with some tricks. Too bad he’s just awful and can’t get a single thing to work, dropping cards and eggs all over the floor. Messy, messy, messy. In his magician’s top hat is a rabbit named Hocus Pocus, a rebellious little critter that won’t play along, causing the Professor to throw the hat away, claiming the only good thing it’s good for is the trashcan. Future ownership debate closed.
As the bell rings, the kids scramble to get outside and play in the new snowfall, knocking over the untalented magician. They set about building a snowman, using coal for eyes and a button from one of the children’s sweater’s as a nose, and corncob pipe. Settling on ‘Frosty’ as a name, the hat with Hocus inside, catches a gust of icy wind and plops down on the snowman’s head, instantly turning the creation (voiced by Jackie Vernon) into a living breathing thing. “Happy Birthday” it calls out. Happy birthday.
Shocked, the children decide that the hat must be magic, and as another wind blows it off and back into the hands of Hinkle, he decides he wants to keep it, thinking it could make him a millionaire. However, Karen (voiced originally by June Foray and later by an uncredited Suzanne Davidson) claims he’s thrown it away and it belongs to Frosty. Naturally, he wants nothing to do with this, calling the children silly, silly, silly, and storms off, though Hocus pulls a fast one on the inept entertainer, switching the hat for a wreath, before heading back to the schoolyard. Alive again, Frosty celebrates but it’s soon obvious that the temperature is too low – he’s going to melt – so the kids, led by Karen, make a plan to get Frosty to the only place they know he’ll be safe: The North Pole.
The great Paul Coker Jr. was hired to design the characters and backgrounds of the short film, the filmmakers wanting to give the production a Christmas greeting card feel, and truly, aside from the song, which is scattershot played throughout, the animation (produced by Mushi Production in Japan) is what sells this little gem. Big bold colors and lots of over-exaggerated actions keep this always eye-catching for youngsters, the film always aimed squarely at these developing minds. Frosty is ever inviting and the whole premise is packed with opportunities for imagination. The film even tackles some important themes along the way, including loss, friendship, consequences, and responsibility.
Professor Hinkle is a terrific bad guy as well, his smarmy, selfish personality and spider-like movements make him easy to dislike. I remember as a child even kind of feeling fearful of him whenever I saw him, his condemnation of the children and betrayal of Frosty something that is played up very well in getting the audience to boo his every appearance. De Wolfe layers him with some deviously sneaky mannerisms in that tinny voice, making him a timeless villain. Still, for a long time after I would go around the house a kid saying, “busy, busy busy.” Who am I kidding? I still do.
So, one of the biggest questions I’ve always had about the film was the woodland creatures. Late in the story, as Karen is near death from the freezing temps as they make their way north, she, Frosty and Hocus stumble upon a group of animals decorating a tree in anticipation of Santa. That’s already a huge bag of huh?, but the larger issue is what they do next. Frosty, unable to keep Karen warm, outright says that soon she’s going to be a goner, which is pretty traumatic stuff when you’re a little kid. Fortunately, that’s not a problem because the animals all come together – deer, chipmunks, racoons – gather some kindling, and, rubbing a few sticks together, start a fire. Seriously. That’s a thing they do. They start a fire.
Up until now, sure, we’ve had to swallow a bit of magic to get the story rolling. A hat with special powers is able to bring a pile of snow to life. I got it. I’m in. And that’s fine because the film is still playing by some very basic but authentic rules. Winter is cold, people need money, there are laws and officers to enforce them. A walking talking snowman is a highly unusual thing (unheard of in fact) and the filmmakers even show adult characters reacting wildly to the site of him, one straight-up fainting. The animated world that Karen lives in is grounded. As a kid, I could identify.
But then, this? Animals in the forest are decorating with the same ornaments people use, which begs the question of where and how did they get them? Are gangs of forest beasts taking runs into town at night, making off with decorations from people’s backyards? These aren’t Santa’s special animals or creatures who work at the North Pole, they are in fact awaiting his arrival. What’s more, they have the power to make fire. Fire. And they even have the forethought to build it in a clearing away from the trees. That’s critical thinking based on experimentation and experience. These animals are fire safety trained.
They clearly like the fire, too. A chipmunk is seen warming his little paws. And check out the pride in that deer’s face (above). This isn’t the first time she’s done this. Fire is a way of life for them. So if animals in the forest can start fires, decorate elaborate Christmas trees, and communicate species to species, one must ask, what else can they do? It’s never explored of course and the animals are all never seen or heard from again in the story. They just disappear. We don’t even know is Santa stopped by. What happened to the animals?
So right away, you might be saying to yourself, “Hey, it’s a kid’s movie. Relax. It’s got Santa Claus in it.” And that’s true. A very cool Santa at that. But even with him on screen, the old rules still apply. It’s life or death for both Karen and Frosty, their physiological make-ups making it impossible for them to be together for any length of time. It’s a friendship defined by constant fear of demise, which might sound dark in description, but is a great metaphor for finding balance and compromise, a lesson children certainly can benefit from. The film’s excellent finale is one of my favorites in the genre, where Karen and Frosty are trapped in the greenhouse, captured by Hinkle. It’s a wonderful moment of understanding and sacrifice … with a touch of magic.
Frosty the Snowman is a must-see Christmas movie the whole family can enjoy. It’s packed with great moments for children to soak in that should inspire their creative sides. The songs are catchy and the animation really fun. Most kids are going to overlook the conundrum of fire-wielding wild animals in the woods – and maybe a lot of parents as well – but next time you watch, pay attention and see if you feel the same.