On the night that Jesus Christ was born young peasant boy Aaron (voiced by Teddy Eccles) ambles along the desert beating his drum to the delight of his dancing animal friends Samson the donkey, Babba the lamb and Joshua the camel. Amazed at this sight crooked showman Ben Haramad (José Ferrer) abducts Aaron and forces him to perform as part of his travelling circus. However, Aaron hates people as much as he loves animals. His surly attitude towards the crowd gathering to hear him play provokes the people into driving the circus out of town. Wandering the desert they happen across Three Kings who have journeyed far and wide following a star that hovers above the town of Bethlehem.
Inspired by the famous Christmas song by American classical music composer and teacher Katherine Davis (itself based upon the traditional Czechoslovakian carol: “Carol of the Drum”), The Little Drummer Boy was one of the more overtly religious stop-motion animated holiday specials made by producer-directors Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. Although not solemn as such, what with the inclusion of comic animal antics, the tone was more reverential than usual leaving less room for the kind of quirky, subversive humour that marked the team’s previous seasonal outings like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). This was to be expected given that while their early stories were inspired by yuletide novelty tunes, in this instance the plot drew as much from the gospels as Davis’ song.
To the filmmakers’ credit the story manages to be reverential in a manner that is inspiring rather than suffocating or didactic. A typically ingenious and poetic screenplay by regular Rankin-Bass scribe Romeo Muller hinges on an eloquent theme that springs directly from the core message underlining the Christmas story: forgiveness, peace and love. Our hero harbours an abiding hatred of all mankind since bandits murdered his parents. Empathy proves a prominent theme throughout the course of the story as gradually Aaron’s heart and mind are opened to the notion of a far greater emotion binding all living things together. Davis’ timeless carol has been covered by everyone from the Trapp Family Singers to Jimi Hendrix. For their animated short Rankin-Bass secured the services of the Vienna Boys Choir whose ethereal rendition of the title song creates a suitably spine-tingling, Christmas-y atmosphere. Meanwhile the plot itself, though undeniably slight (this was a thirty minute short, after all), exhibits a pleasing generosity of spirit along with a willingness to empathise with even the most dastardly or seemingly hard-hearted characters. There is one subtly affecting moment when one of the Three Kings tells Ben Haramad that he drives a hard bargain, only for him to reply that he has had a hard life.
Almost every Rankin-Bass animated special up to this point could boast a celebrity voice cast. Here we have Greer Garson, Academy Award winning star of Mrs. Miniver (1942) narrating the story in crisp, authoritative fashion while José Ferrer gives an unexpectedly exuberant turn and even sings a few songs as Ben Haramed. Animation buffs may recognise such familiar voice actors as Paul Frees and June Foray among the supporting players. Aside from Katherine Davis’ famous carol the rest of the music composed by Maury Laws with lyrics by co-director Jules Bass proves equally captivating. The stop-motion animation may seem primitive by modern standards but is handsomely crafted and quite ambitious, charming in its eloquence and intricacy in a manner that foreshadows the similarly engaging The Miracle Maker (2000). Remarkably, a decade later Rankin-Bass produced a sequel: The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976).