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By Thomas Wheeler

In this day of computer animated wizardry that can accomplish marvels of cinematic magic such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and even Treasure Planet, one might wonder why anyone would bother with the seemingly simplistic stop-motion holiday specials that were once a staple of December broadcasts, and these days tend to turn up in great number on the ABC Family Channel.

I'll tell you why -- because a lot of work and a lot of heart went into those. Animated figures had to be designed, sculpted, clothed, given hair, and then moved frame by frame in conjunction with the script. They had to move their mouths, sing, dance (to some pretty cool songs), and manage to convey some level of emotion, often in pretty large groups. If you check the original production years of these specials and watch them in order, you'll see that the fine talents at Rankin-Bass, who produced these marvelous shows, got better and better at it as the years went by. This was not "Claymation", sculpted clay figures being moved around like lumps of Play-Doh. The figures used in these specials had wire armatures, fabric clothing, and "real" hair. They looked incredibly cool to young eyes, and they're still pretty impressive today. They were a major part of the holiday magic that I enjoyed as a child. Personally, I think it's a shame that this sort of production has essentially become a lost art from a professional standpoint. Because ultimately, these shows were a whole lot of fun.

Last year, Playing Mantis released a series of figures based on the very first of these specials, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." At the same time, a CGI sequel, designed to look like the original stop-motion animation (but from the previews I saw in the video that was being played in Toys "R" Us, I could tell the difference) was produced. I somehow doubt it will ever reach the same classic level of the original. Their line continued this year, but another company, Palisades Toys, picked up what is arguably the second most popular of these programs.

Released primarily to Suncoast Video (at least that was the only store in which I saw them), Palisades brought us action figures from "The Year Without a Santa Claus", including, fortunately, figures of the two most memorable characters in the show -- the brothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser.

The story of "Year Without a Santa Claus" is basically Santa's concern that fewer and fewer children are believing in him, so he decides to take that year off. Mrs. Claus and two of Santa's elves set out to prove him wrong. What follows is an incredible series of adventures that had to have been pretty hard to pull off in stop-motion. It would've likely have been impossible in live-action.

There are two boxed sets of figures. One features Snow Miser, Santa in civilian clothes, and the elf Jangle. The other features Heat Miser, Mrs. Claus, and the elf Jingle. The likenesses are incredible. The detail level is astounding. The hair is sculpted to perfection on the Clauses. Snow Miser's icy "hair" has been molded in transparent plastic. Articulation is minimal on some of these, especially with regard to leg movement, but these figures are distinctly intended more as collectibles than toys to be regularly played with.

The back of the boxes show that a smaller-size figurine collection was also available, with a much larger cast. Along with Santa, Mrs. Claus, Jingle and Jangle, and Heat Miser and Snow Miser, the assortment also featured Mother Nature, the reindeer Vixen, the Mayor of Southtown, the Dogcatcher, and the boy Iggy. If you've never seen this wonderful show, then explaining all these names would be sort of pointless. Trust me, they all have their parts to play in this adventure.

I don't know if these toys will still be available by the time this review appears, or if they'll be available after Christmas. If not, perhaps they'll be back next year. But for anyone who loved these shows as a kid, or still enjoys them now, then I most highly recommend the Year Without a Santa Claus collection!