The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Lookback/Review

Next up in our lookbacks at classic Christmas specials: The Little Drummer Boy may have been dropped from the regular, Christmas TV lineup, but the stop action is still awesome all these years later.

When I saw the list of Christmas shows that were up for review, I chose The Little Drummer Boy mainly because I didn’t remember it. I was pretty sure I’d seen it, at some point, but couldn’t even remember the basic story line of the stop-motion animated film, produced by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass (also famed for Rudolph and Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, among others). This Christmas special has fallen by the wayside probably because it has some heavier Biblical references that kids are most likely not into nowadays and it lacks the “festive” atmosphere that many of the other animated specials have.  Still, it was good to see it…you can watch the entire twenty-five minute show on YouTube without any commercials!

The drummer boy in this case is named Aaron; he is wandering through the desert when he is spied by the fat, greedy Ben Haramed and his dopey assistant, Ali.  Aaron is playing his drum while his animals (a donkey, camel and lamb) dance along, looking kind of silly with the stop-motion action. Ben Haramed decides he is going to capture the lot and take them to Jerusalem as performers to make money for him. Surprisingly, Haramed subdues Aaron while Ali ropes all three animals. Aaron tells Haramed that he hates all people and doesn’t want to go to the city. We learn via flashback that Aaron received his drum as a birthday gift from his parents. He used to be a “happy farm lad,” but when bandits stole the family’s sheep, killed Aaron’s parents and set the house on fire, Aaron became a bitter little orphan wandering the desert with the three animals he had left. Although they don’t show the actual killing of the parents, this is NOT a happy scene and I can see why this might have been dropped from the regular, more upbeat, Christmas viewing schedule. Back in the present, Haramed gathers a crowd to watch his various performers…who all suck, except for Aaron. Aaron uses his drum to get the animals to perform a musical number for the crowd, but when they cry out for more, Aaron becomes enraged and tells them off. When you tell off a big crowd of people, they tend to run you out of town, which is what happens next, so the troupe is out wandering the desert again. But wait…what’s this? Haramed sees an encampment up ahead, which belongs to none other than the Three Kings of the Orient. He tries desperately to convince them to watch his show, but they are already packing up, insisting on moving along to follow the star of Bethlehem. Haramed lucks out when the kings’ camel is too exhausted to go on and he sells Aaron’s camel to the group. Haramed does offer Aaron a cut of the money, but Aaron refuses to take it and stalks off into the night with his sheep and donkey. The ending, of course, finds Aaron at the stable where the baby Jesus has just been born…but there’s a little twist, as the sheep is hit by an oncoming chariot. Aaron pushes through the crowd, begging for help, and in return for playing his drum for the baby, his lamb friend is healed. While he is playing, the Vienna Boys Choir is singing the song The Little Drummer Boy  and I have to admit that for a minute I got a little teary-eyed because the lamb was hurt and I like that song and you can all just shut up because I’m a big pansy, okay? Two of the best lines:  One king tells Aaron, “Your gift, little drummer boy, out of the simple desperation of a pure love, is the one favored above all.”  At the very end, the narrator adds, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Final review:  Although this is a classic tale, the show itself is outdated. No one cheers for the Little Drummer Boy; kids want characters like Rudolph, Frosty and even The Grinch. However, it has some truly touching moments near the end and you can’t deny that the Rankin/Bass stop-action animation is still pretty cool, especially since this was made in 1968.  Some of their other shows might be more popular, but this is definitely worth twenty five minutes of your time.