Lost Cels Entry #6: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – The Movie

“Gawsh, sir!  Err, I mean… gawsh!”

In “Lost Cels”, we take an in-depth look at the animated films and TV shows that failed or have been somewhat forgotten by time in order to see if they deserve their less-than-stellar reputations.

06] Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie

Director: William R. Kowalchuk

US Release Date: 16th October 1998

Budget: $10 million

Gross: $113,484

October the 16th 1998 is not an especially important date.  A rudimentary Google search turned up little results of note.  The most famous death on that date was that of Jon Postel, one of the American pioneers of the Internet.  The sole interesting news story, according to On This Day.com, was Former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, being arrested in London on a Spanish warrant over murder charges.  The Billboard Hot 100 number 1 on that day was “The First Night” by Monica, to be replaced 24 hours later by Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week.”  Cinema releases that weekend were led by the absolutely disastrous and deservedly forgotten rom-com-fantasy-horror hybrid Practical Magic (starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman), and the fourth instalment of the Chucky franchise, Bride of Chucky.

But that date is important for us, because it is the release date of our subject today.  It was the date in which an independent animation studio, having started from small beginnings in the Direct-to-Video market, was attempting to make a crossover into the bigtime.  They had partnered with a prolific if largely unsuccessful Californian independent distributor and their debut theatrical feature was going to release in just over 100 theatres, at a time where audiences had finished with Antz and had little else similar to it on the horizon.  It boasted big-name celebrities in its voice cast like John Goodman, Eric Idle, and Whoopi Goldberg; the story they were basing their film on is one of the most well-known in all of the world; and they had even partnered with a fast-food chain (Wendys) to create some promotional tie-in toys like all the big animated movies do.  So, on October 16th 1998, GoodTimes Entertainment released Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie.

Believe it or not, this decision does not improve much when I tell you that the early release date appeared to be because the film was getting its VHS release in mid-November.  Rudolph would open being crushed by animated movies that had been out for 15 weeks beforehand, and close barely a month later having only just doubled its opening weekend gross and recouped just over a hundredth of its production budget.  However, that inexplicable release date turns out to be one of the least interesting things about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie.  A theatrically-released motion picture in the year 1998 that looks, feels, and acts like something made at least 15 years prior, created by a studio founded by the offspring of a Syrian immigrant with roots in the distribution of Latin music, that was eventually sued by none other than the all-powerful Disney and somehow won, but would soon after leave the animation medium altogether for a different sort of niche.  Frankly, if the bizarre release date is one of the least interesting things about Rudolph, then the film itself may very well be the least interesting thing.  We’ll come to it, but first we have got to talk about GoodTimes Entertainment.

GoodTimes Entertainment was the brainchild of brothers Kenneth, Joseph, and Stanley Cayre.  The trio’s father was a Syrian immigrant who, in that most American of American Dream stories, moved to America to start a new life, initially selling whiskey and cigarettes on Caribbean pleasure boats in the 40s before owning a souvenir shop in Miami Beach.  The brothers spent much of their early lives running various small businesses – including, but not limited to: a Miami-Bahamas cruise ship duty-free shop, a Puerto Rican nylon factory, and a pantyhose factory in Florida – before they stumbled into their big break.  See, in the late-60s/early 70s, Joe had been working at one of their cousins’ factories, making the cartridges for 8-track cassette tapes, and said cousins also had licenses from both Mexico CBS and RCA to sell Latin music on those tapes.  The cousins, however, had been manufacturing too many tapes, and asked the trio if they would help shift the excess stock across the border.  The Cayres agreed, started making some inroads with radio stations and distributors, before being hit with a Cease & Desist order by the record companies due to none of this being legal.  Their response: to fly to New York, apologise, and then buy the American distribution rights for themselves legally.

And so was born Caytronics Distributing, followed by Mericana Records, and then, in 1974, SalSoul Records.  You might know them as one of the vanguards of disco, the label that put out the first commercially-available 12-inch single “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure, and one of the homes of underrated girl-group First Choice, amongst other things.  We’re going to skip ahead a little bit due to time – I could go to 4,000 words before we even hit GoodTimes, and I’m pretty sure I’ve already butchered some of these facts, so here’s an in-depth interview with the brothers about their lives up to the end of SalSoul – so, suffice it to say, although the label survived the racially-and-homophobically charged disco backlash of 1979, dwindling margins eventually led to them shuttering the label in 1984.  The brothers needed a new business venture, and Joe had narrowed it down to two competing innovations with emerging markets: cell phones or home video.  Kenneth and Stanley decided on home video.

By the mid-80s, VCRs were beginning to become a standard appliance in the homes of middle-class suburban American families due to declining entry costs and the dominant victory of VHS in the format war with Betamax by 1980.  VHS tapes, however, were still incredibly expensive: most studios charged upwards of $90 per film to buy, so most consumers would rent instead (it took until Paramount priced Top Gun at $26.95 in 1987 for studios to beginning dropping the price of buying VHSs).  Further research led the Cayres to discover that most people would only be willing to buy a VHS at around about $10 a go, which limited their line-up options significantly, but they pushed onwards regardless.  GoodTimes Home Video was launched at the 1984 Consumer Electronics Show with a line-up of 25 public domain titles that the brothers bought the rights to, made copies of, and then sold on tape at $14.95 a go.  Initial sales attracted the attention of supermarket juggernaut Walmart and the two partnered up, which is where the company really started hitting its stride.

Throughout the late 80s, GoodTimes’ original material – they did eventually acquire licenses to distribute other studios’ films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but we’re focussing on in-house productions – predominately consisted of fitness videos.  Their old (now archived) website even proudly boasts about the company’s first big success being 29 Minute Workout starring Miss Connecticut of 1985, and whilst that was a market they continued to find success in (they even produced a workout video starring Mark Wahlberg when he was still Marky Mark of The Funky Bunch and it is exactly as something as you’re thinking it to be), the 90s brought about increased competition.  VHS prices at large were coming down, studios were becoming less hesitant about releasing their films to commercial retail, and other budget VHS companies were seeing the (relative) success of GoodTimes and launching competition of their own.  GoodTimes needed something new, so, in 1990, they really got into the animation game.

Now, GoodTimes had distributed budget animation before – during the 80s, they provided American distribution to a trio of made-for-TV animated Charles Dickens adaptations by Burbank Films Australia – but the 90s represented a proper full-on dive into the realm of animated feature production for the company.  The Cayres invested $70 million into the production of 30 direct-to-video animated features, although it is important to note before we move forward that GoodTimes themselves weren’t producing or making these movies, you won’t find any of their names on the credits of these things; merely funding them.  The actual production side of things was outsourced to various small-time American studios with Korean and Japanese connections, first Golden Films and later JetLag Productions, in order to keep costs down and production rates high.

Just in case you were starting to catch a whiff of mercenary about this new venture, because of that last paragraph and also every single other thing I have written up to this point, then allow me to list off the names of the first five films produced by the GoodTimes-Golden Films partnership: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, Sinbad, and The Little Mermaid.  All of these were released throughout 1992, with another three also being released that year, all last about 50 minutes, and all of them are blatantly designed to piggyback off of the resurgent Disney, with only Sinbad of those listed not having an equivalent Disney offering.  Of course, the content of these films rarely had much to do with their Disney equivalents, but their box art, marketing, titles, and everything about them were designed to leech off of the superstar Disney versions – just take a look at some of these side-by-side comparisons of their box arts for further evidence – and hoodwink or take advantage of confused or cash-strapped parents wishing to appease their children at a time when Disney was riding high and properly embracing the home video market.  Then if anybody were to try and, say for example, sue GoodTimes over this, the company could simply declare that the source materials they were specifically adapting were in the public domain and, therefore, they were doing nothing wrong.

I mention such a hypothetical scenario because that is exactly what happened.  GoodTimes were sued by Disney twice in successive years over intentionally misleading packaging of their films.  In 1992, over Beauty and the Beast, which GoodTimes lost but received no penalty for, instead being ordered to have their name printed on the front cover in order to sufficiently differentiate the films.  And again in 1993, over Aladdin, this time with the judge fully ruling in GoodTimes’ favour.  GoodTimes, now partnered with JetLag Productions, would continue to produce these off-brand distaff counterparts at will, even ones for original Disney properties (The Lion King vs. Leo the Lion: King of the Jungle) and upcoming Disney movies that weren’t yet released by the time the GoodTimes version had hit store shelves (their Pocahontas debuted on video a full eight months before Disney’s version was released in theatres).  For his part, Joe Cayre, at the time, was unrepentant about the whole thing.  “If [Disney] spent so much money to create a big to-do, what better time to put it out?  And it being a public-domain vehicle, there’s nothing wrong with that.”  To be fair, they were just reflecting Disney’s cost-cutting choice of source material excuse back at them, but still.

These films are terrible.  Just terrible.  I don’t think I’m blowing anyone’s mind by telling you this, but these are terrible films and they are terrible for exactly the reasons you’re expecting.  The animation is astoundingly cheap, empty, frequently recycled, and often off-model.  The storytelling is lazy and hackneyed, with accompanying levels of dialogue.  The voice acting, even when delivered by greats of the form like Kathleen Barr or Andrea Libman or Terry Klassen, is abysmally stilted, not helped by editing and direction that can leave these incredibly awkward gaps of silence between lines which cut off the flow entirely.  The songs – early collaborations with Golden Films relied largely on classical music cues with only a solitary song to call their own, whilst JetLag productions upped the original song tally to three per film – are instantly forgettable.  And, worst of all, there is no trace of passion or soul in any one of these productions.  They reek of their cynical, market-exploiting, money-grubbing origins, and the studios and personnel set to work on these things, perhaps suffocated by a likely-accelerated production schedule, found no way to sneak in some kind of artistic life to counteract that.  GoodTimes animation, in every facet of their existences, were designed to be cheap disposable impulse buys; which, at least, they were successful at.

So, with all of that said, and a clear business model in place: why on earth would they make a theatrical feature film?

Sources on the creation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie are scarce to non-existent.  The film exists, out there in the wild, but I can find very little information about the film otherwise, save for some assorted unsourced IMDb trivia.  So, I could not tell you why GoodTimes decided to produce this film in-house, at a significantly higher budget than their previous animated features – if we were to assume that every one of the planned 30 GoodTimes films received an equal share of that $70 million investment, then that puts each film’s budget at $2.3 million and makes Rudolph’s budget over 4x the average – and for a (brief) theatrical run.  Most of the lead creatives involved in the production did not come from or go on to anything of note before or afterwards, meaning that information about them is largely non-existent, and even though I stumbled upon that prior-linked Wendys tie-in, I otherwise could not find a single piece of press or promotional material from around its release beyond a scathingly apathetic Variety review.

Therefore, I can only speculate based upon this one suspiciously-fawning company history profile that I’ve been frequently cross-referencing throughout so far.  The 90s were simultaneously strong and shaky for GoodTimes.  Their animated features were strong sellers, but their contract with JetLag Productions ceased by the end of 1995.  Their expansion into the realm of videogame publishing was an inarguable success – GT Interactive, I shit you not, published DOOM II, Quake, and the original Driver back in the day – but they took that division public in a misguided attempt to raise the money to acquire developers, and that meant things on that end were a total mess by 1999.  Meanwhile, with the home video market now tried and tested, GoodTimes couldn’t acquire many new releases from the public domain, since most studios were simply putting those films out themselves, and sales of their fitness videos were declining sharply.

GoodTimes responded the way that a company with the kind of track record I have meticulously recounted to you over the last 2,000 words would respond: by throwing an almighty amount of shit at the wall and hoping something stuck.  The Cayres dipped their toes into live-action filmmaking with the $5 million Pocahontas: The Legend in 1995 – good lord, this company and their Disney fixation – and the fact that this is almost definitely the first time you’re hearing of this should tell you how that went.  They bought up the rights to Late Night with David Letterman for the next decade, they created a children’s book publishing arm in 1995, they tried to merchandise Naomi Judd.  And, somewhere in the tail-end of all of this, they made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie, their only feature-length theatrically-released animated movie.

NOW THEN…  Contrary to the impression that you may have gotten, I did not just spend upwards of two-thirds of this article talking about GoodTimes Entertainment purely because their entire existence fascinates me so.  It does, it does so very much, but that’s not the only reason.  I related to you, in step-by-step, digression-filled detail the history of GoodTimes Entertainment, who were also only one of the three production companies involved in Rudolph and whose main faces had absolutely nothing to do with the film, because the picture it paints of the company explains directly and satisfyingly why Rudolph turned out the way that it did.  You’ll have seen the clips dotted around this article, you may have even watched the full film embed, and you’ll have probably assumed that the reason why Rudolph is so utterly inept and so empty of anything of note to discuss or recall is because nobody involved with its production cared in the slightest about anything other than the eventual profit margins.  Then you will have read the accompanying text here and discovered that, yes, that was exactly the case, surmising that we can now all go home.

I’m honestly rather disappointed, in both myself and the film we were ostensibly supposed to be talking about.  My intention with Lost Cels, after all, was to find critically mauled or just-plain forgotten animation and offer it the same kind of deep-dive criticism and evaluation that other animation experts afford Disney or Pixar films, yet I can’t offer that with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie.  Sure, there is stuff I could rag on and pick to pieces, but they’re surface-level criticisms noticeable to people with functioning eyesight and hearing.

For a 1998 film budgeted at $10 million, it looks like something sent directly to TV in the mid-80s, with terrifying off-model facial expressions, empty lifeless boarding, frequent lipsync failure, blatant instances of looping, sound effects failing to correspond with actions on-screen, amid a litany of other flaws.  The film is filled with charmless thin characters, including a supposed “main” one, Leonard the Polar Bear, who doesn’t even appear until almost 50 minutes into this 75 minutes-and-change movie.  Its plotting is horrendous, with holes appearing more frequently than they do on a poorly-maintained country road, because nobody took more than one pass at the script prior to entering production.  Examples include: if the spirits could talk to our cast all along, why did they not tell Rudolph about how he can control his nose sooner, or tell Santa and co. where Rudolph is when he runs away, or intervene in any way at all outside of one scene?  Why does Stormella – our villain, voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, the only Black member of the cast, and the fact that she’s voicing the Before sketch in a child’s colouring book is the funniest thing about this movie – not simply cast the storm immediately if she hates Santa so much, instead of tying it to a forbidden bridge and therefore having to wait two whole years to enact her revenge?  Is she that desperate to hold the artifice of a moral high ground?  Why do the Elf Judges disqualify Rudolph for accidentally blinding Arrow, on the grounds of harm, yet Arrow hospitalising other reindeer and elves in the same race is a-ok?  And so on and so on…

Oh, and there are also original songs, mostly performed by famous musicians instead of the cast, although John Goodman is still forced to sing the Santa number himself.  Despite those ostensible big names listlessly warbling through them – Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes of “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” sing the credits version of what is even referred to in brackets as a “Love Theme,” whilst the Pointer Sisters apparently handled another song – they’re melodically inert and lyrically Baby’s First Rhyming Dictionary.  (Sample: “It’s Christmas Town/Christmas Town/We’re up here in the North/Making toys for you until December 24th.”)  The front cover of the VHS release, in Britain anyway, proudly touts the inclusion of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Clark Gable and “A Wonderful Christmas Time” by Wings, in case you want an indicator of how much faith they had in their own soundtrack.  The Wings inclusion, despite blundering the name of the damn song, could be seen as a sneaky way of making their own songs sound better; instead, the reverse occurs and “Wonderful Christmastime” is arguably the highlight of the entire movie.

So, it’s bad.  Of course it’s bad.  Even when you set aside the inherent difficulty of adapting Rudolph for a feature film, since there really isn’t a whole lot to work with there (the song’s survived because of the simplicity of its story and melody), and the overhanging legacy of the iconic Rankin & Bass specials – which, as somebody with no nostalgic attachment whatsoever, I find to be meanspirited works that have aged poorly – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie is still a near-zero effort, lifeless waste of time designed to mug parents looking for cheap stocking-fillers for their kids at Christmas, and precious little else.  The single most-interesting thing to come from the movie itself is Rudolph’s constant usage of “gawsh” whenever the boy is surprised, which is a lot, and that’s only because, as I was watching it and before I started doing additional research, it made me wonder if GoodTimes had some sort of fixation with Disney to try stealing one of the Mouse House’s most iconic creation’s catchphrases for themselves…  and, err, we know that I was weirdly kind of right in that department.

But that kind of grasping at straws for something interesting or unique to talk about as I was watching Rudolph did lead to one inadvertent realisation: there’s honestly not a lot separating Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie, a film released almost 20 years ago (and somehow feels older than that), from today’s D-tier animation lot.  Take, for example, nWave Pictures’ The Son of Bigfoot, which came out here about two months back.  It is absolutely terrible, and in many of the same ways that Rudolph is also terrible.  Terrifying character designs – I sent one of my friends the trailer and she remarked in horror that they look like when Vlad tries to turn into animals in What We Do in the Shadows; she’s not far off.  Frequently low-quality animation.  Awkward pacing of dialogue.  Excessive amounts of one-note characters.  Trainwreck plotting that mashes up done-to-death Chosen One bullshit with even more done-to-death “just be yourself” moralism.  Useless female characters who exist to be put in peril and little else.  Extended montages set to instantly-dated pop songs.  Superfluous villains that make no sense – instead of being the government, Bigfoot’s villains are an evil hair company that nonetheless function exactly like the government would in this story…

I used Son of Bigfoot as my example there only because it was the most recent one I’ve seen and therefore is still sort of clinging onto scraps of my memory.  Truth is, though, that I could have used Monster Island, Capture the Flag, Rock Dog, The Jungle Bunch, Robinson Crusoe, or any number of similar cheap foreign animation imports to make my case.  Due to their nature as foreign animation, I want to refrain from potentially impugning the integrity of the filmmakers responsible for these – there’s every chance that these are sincere artistic efforts aiming to be the best films they can be, although I fear that expressing this kind of benefit of the doubt is itself super-condescending and nationalistic of myself towards North American animation.  But the reasons that they keep getting UK cinema releases are tangibly and inarguably the same as why GoodTimes pumped out works like Rudolph and Thumbelina by the bucket load in the 90s.

Licensing foreign animation that’s already been made is dead-cheap, dubbing them (especially with mid-level professional voice actors) is relatively quick and inexpensive, and even if they make very little in the cinema – Son of Bigfoot, to carry on our earlier example, made exactly $30,355 in its opening weekend in the UK – then that’s at least a return, and everything else can be made up on home video and selling on the streaming rights.  It’s not exactly a one-to-one comparison, given that companies like Entertainment One aren’t pumping their own money into the initial creation of these films like GoodTimes were, but the principle is the same: companies seeing animation as little more than easy bucks to be made off of kids who, as we all definitely know, have no taste and no ability to discern quality from shite.  Whilst I do find films like these fascinating every once in a while, their existences mostly sadden me, since we’re 20 years on and yet this cottage industry is still plugging away, only it’s now infecting theatres AS WELL as home video – look at this shit, this was made five years ago, this is real, look at it, look at the horrifying Dog-Man abomination, GAZE INTO IT, GAZE INTO THIS ABYSS OF TERROR.

So, yeah, what’s most unique about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie is how thoroughly ordinary it is, and what’s most interesting about the film is everything to do with the company surrounding it before and after.  Rudolph bombed in theatres, as mentioned, but presumably made at least some of its money back – I say presumably because there are no figures available for its home media sales, so I can only speculate based solely on the fact that the film did not disappear into a hole for all eternity and I was able to acquire a copy for the purposes of this article.  It was reissued on DVD once that became the new home media format du jour, and lives on after being uploaded in full to YouTube where it remains to this day (presumably because whomever currently has the copyright doesn’t want to have to admit to doing so) with a lifetime viewership of (at time of writing) 15 million.  There was also a CGI sequel-ish in 2001, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys, which went straight-to-video and was a direct sequel to the Rankin & Bass special that The Movie ignored.  Maybe we’ll cover that some other year if it’s interesting enough; I haven’t seen it yet.

To end, then, since I’ve full-on admitted that Rudolph is a side-story in its own article: what happened to GoodTimes Entertainment?  Well, Rudolph marked the end of the company’s prolific 90s output of animated shovelware, although they did release two more – one being an animated version of Ben Hur starring and co-produced by CHARLTON HESTON, WHAT THE HELL?!  But it was a new decade, GT Interactive had been sold to Infogrames in 1999, so GoodTimes found itself a new market niche to venture into… Christian video.  Yes, see, GoodTimes had acquired the home video distribution rights to the low-budget 1999 Christian thriller The Omega Code, a film that Variety called “a ham-handed, flat-footed B-movie that makes The Omen look like Citizen Kane” but had decent-ish (considering) legs at the box office.  GoodTimes’ investment apparently paid off, and they subsequently signed a distribution deal with the film’s production company, Gener8Xion Entertainment (my spellchecker really hates me today), for the next decade, intending to release four productions by them per year of the deal.  They also stole former Polygram Video president Bill Sondheim to become their new president in 2001.  Things, according to that aforementioned suspiciously-fawning source I’ve been quoting from, were looking up!

GoodTimes filed for bankruptcy in 2005, with its assets being sold to Gaiam, Inc., a lifestyle company mostly focussed around fitness and such.  They chose to close GoodTimes completely.  Gener8Xion Entertainment have made a grand total of six films since that decade-long deal was signed; four of them after GoodTimes filed for bankruptcy.  By that point, however, Joe Cayre had already moved his attention to his next venture: real estate.  In 2001, he partnered with Larry Silverstein and Lloyd Goldman to buy the World Trade Centre, at the same time he was running Midtown Equities, a New York-based real estate firm he founded in 2000.  Nowadays, he’s apparently responsible for the creation of Midtown Miami, a giant multi-billion dollar mega-project that I am not going to go further down the rabbit hole on because otherwise this article will never end.

…look, I really do not know how to end this.  How am I supposed to?  I set out to make a fun, low-effort Christmas special based on, what I rightly assumed was, a low-quality slapdash little thing by a studio that, I wrongly assumed, was nothing particularly special, and then I find all of this!  Disco labels and pantyhose factories and Mark Wahlberg fitness videos and videogame publishers and Disney lawsuits and ONE OF THE PRINCIPLE FUNDERS OF THIS MOVIE CO-BOUGHT THE WORLD TRADE CENTRE!  Rudolph could have been fucking Inside Out and it still would likely have paled in comparison to everything else that the studio surrounding it was involved in!  My original notes were completely discarded by, like, the fourth day of my inadvertent research dive!  However I was going to end this disappeared the second I was sitting through painful prolonged stretches of The Omega Code, if not earlier.

So, err… merry Christmas!  And… yay, capitalism?  *awkwardly raises thumbs up in uncertain questioning confusion*

Callie Petch is here tonight and that’s enough.

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