At the North Pole, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (voiced by Billie Mae Richards) is hanging out with fellow Christmas icon Frosty the Snowman (Jackie Vernon) and the latter's cute lil' snow kids, Chilly and Milly, when the unthinkable happens. His nose stops glowing! Only for a short while although Rudolph wisely suspects something sinister is afoot. Sure enough it so happens the evil ice king Winterbolt (voice actor extraordinaire Paul Frees in one of four roles) bears a grudge against the little reindeer. Long ago the ancient entity ruled the snowy wastes until banished by the arrival of the good spirit Lady Borealis. In time Lady Borealis faded from the earthly plane. To keep Winterbolt at bay she put the last of her magic in the nose of the newborn baby Rudolph. Now Winterbolt hatches a dastardly plan to ensure Rudolph and Frosty won't stop him enslaving the world. Yikes!
The third Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stop-motion holiday special from Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass was also a sequel to the duo's cel-animated classic Frosty the Snowman (1969). Never mind Batman v. Superman, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July was a team-up for the ages, this time with a vaguely patriotic bent. The title referred to the fourth of July, American Independence Day as the crazy, convoluted plot had Rudolph team up with Frosty and family to help a struggling circus run by sharp-shooting show-woman Lilly Lorraine (Ethel Merman at her brassiest) stage a celebratory show, among many other strange twists and turns.
Original voice-actors Billie Mae Richards and Jackie Vernon reprised their iconic roles one last time alongside a roster of Hollywood musical greats including, inevitably, Mickey Rooney. Back once again as Santa Claus after Here Comes Santa Claus (1970) and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974). Indeed the Mickster would return to voice Santa one final time in the very last Rankin-Bass holiday special: A Miser Brothers' Christmas (2008). Christmas in July included an origin story for Santa. Flashbacks presented a svelte and ginger, young Saint Nick making his trek to the North Pole as stalwart studio scribe Romeo Muller shifted the character subtly away from commercial icon into an emblem of human kindness. Rankin-Bass later expanded these ideas in their intriguingly mystical The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985). Mickey Rooney sat that one out. Big mistake. Muller rewrote Rudolph's origin too, transforming his famous red nose from mere biological anomaly to a mystical talisman to ward off evil(!) We also learn Winterbolt was behind the snowstorm that nearly derailed Santa's Christmas sleigh ride till Rudolph stepped in back in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).
By this point Rankin-Bass were making the transition from cute and cuddly holiday fare to crafting increasingly ambitious fantasies like The Hobbit (1977), The Last Unicorn (1982) and The Flight of Dragons (1982). Hence Christmas in July combines traditional cosy sing-along Christmas antics with a labyrinthine fantasy story inspired by Nordic sagas and pagan ideas about nature reminiscent of C.S. Lewis at his trippiest. Muller fashions a surprisingly potent allegory casting Christmas as a light in the gloom when humanity rallies to end the tyranny of spring and bring hope for the New Year. There is an appealing emphasis on the true ideals of Christmas: kindness, generosity and love and subtle put-down of the seasonal urge to binge and spend. Poor Rudolph really does get put through the emotional wringer this time around. Framed for robbery, shunned by friends, tricked into losing his powers, he becomes a quasi-Christ-like martyr hero! Johnny Mercer's easy listening musical numbers reprise several classics from the early films (true to form Broadway diva Ethel Merman cranks it up to eleven) but also reflects the more challenging, morally complex tone as when Rudolph sings 'Bed of Roses', a song about making the hard choices in life and doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.
At a little over an hour and a half Christmas in July is practically an epic by Rankin-Bass standards. The animation is more elaborate without sacrificing the handmade charm of the original shorts, juxtaposing dragons, wizards and strange supernatural beings with delightful circus animals. No Rankin-Bass outing would be complete without an array of eccentric supporting characters. Here we have the return of Big Ben the Clockwork Whale (Harold Peary) and Jack Frost (Paul Frees again) along with newcomer Milton the Ice Cream Man voiced by Red Buttons. Milton proves the catalyst for the plot as it is his love for beautiful tightrope walker Laine Lorraine (Lily's daughter), voiced by singer-songwriter Shelby Flint, that spurs Rudolph and Frosty to lend the circus a hand. In a delightful sequence Lily sings 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' perched atop a revolving tree surrounded by dancing toys. Also memorable, for different reasons, is a bizarre scene where Winterbolt springs Scratcher (Alan Sues), the naughty reindeer, from an ice prison for evil animals! What did that walrus do?