Then one day pre-Christmas, Yahweh came to say / “Nestor with your ears so long, won’t you guide my unborn son along!”
In the early 1960s, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass formed a company originally known as Videocraft International. The Toronto-based studio began by focusing on a process then called “Animagic,” a stop-motion procedure usually farmed overseas to largely uncredited Japanese animators (who would later make a mass exodus to Studio Ghibli, of Spirited Away and Ponyo fame).
Videocraft’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an enormous smash right out of the gate, and the company followed suit with several other long-running Christmas specials including Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Frosty the Snowman.
You know these guys
While the studio dabbled in specials – and even feature films – with non-Christmas themes, it became fairly clear by the mid-’70s that Holiday specials were going to be its bread and butter. So what’s a studio to do when it runs out of Christmas tunes and legends to turn into animated specials? Well, after spinning off Rudolph and Frosty sequels, they made up a tale of their own.
Man, I loved this special back in the day, but Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is fucking frightening! I mean, I’m pretty hard-pressed to come down on Rankin-Bass for almost any reason…but Jesus Christ, you guys?!
Shots in this sequence were reused from Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
I’m well aware the duo probably didn’t have all that many Christmas jingles to retrofit into an “X the Xmas Y” formula, but did they really have to concoct a tale so unrelentingly cruel and wrought with tragedy that it’s… well, actually pretty befitting of its biblical setting, come to think of it.
Sty, Sweet Sty
Seriously, all the crap Disney takes for its past comedic depictions of animal cruelty and murdering the parents of its heroes in plain sight can’t hold a Menorah candle to the bloodcurdling heartbreak Nestor has in store in just twenty-four minutes.
I mention this not as a criticism, but as almost a warning to others who care to watch it. I was completely convinced that I was settling in for nothing more than a lighthearted Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer rip-off.
“Yeah, I’m standin’ on your ear. Do somethin’ about it!”
Nestor starts off with yet another celebrity introducing our titular hero in song.
Roger Miller, serenading you into depression
Roger Miller, the singer songwriter behind twangy country hits like “King of the Road,” voices Speiltoe, and he does a helluva a good job convincing the audience they’re not about to see things that will be burned into whatever portion of your brain gets referenced every time your body decides it’s time for a nightmare.
Livin’ like an ass ain’t easy
Nestor is mocked mercilessly for his obvious condition, but since we’ve all been conditioned to anticipate that his deformity will save the day a mere twenty minutes from now, you’ll probably assume you can roll with his punches.
Thing is, the woodland creatures’ jabs are far more unrelenting than those in Rudolph. Plus, without a Clarice or Hermey to alleviate Nestor’s pain, his torment is absolutely heartbreaking to watch.
And not just because you’ll see the first of many shots of Nestor crying his eyes out.
Nestor is trying to break your heart
The song, “Don’t Laugh and Make Somebody Cry,” digs deep into how much it sucks to be Nestor, and it’s accompanied with elongated montages of animals laughing loudly and being unbelievably cruel to the poor jackass.
Humans aren’t any nicer
His mother is his only sanctuary. Even Olaf the stable-hand refuses to feed Nestor on account of his ear-induced uselessness, and the poor kid would go hungry if it weren’t for his mammy.
A rare smile
Yet even after all that heartbreak and peer rejection, what depressed me even more was that the special makes a point of saying that the only time anybody was nice to Nestor was around the Winter Solstice.
As if his life before this moment never even happened
This hit me in a strange way, as it reminded me of instances in grade school where I can recall everyone being nice to a kid around Christmas or his birthday, only to treat him like a shit-based swastika the other 364 days of the year. It brought back this strange sense of pain and pity at the idea that a rotten lot in life has nothing to do with your behavior, just…. Depressing!
And in come the Romans! Ever the harbingers of bad news in biblical times, a soldier arrives to buy livestock for the Emperor’s service. Of course he ends up simply stealing them, but not before interrupting Nestor’s single day of sanctity by once again pointing out that his ears are, in fact, larger than regular-sized ears.
This is the last straw for Olaf, familiarly voiced by Paul Frees, who chucks Nestor out on his, erm, ass to die in the snow.
Perk to having long ears #1
Fortunately, his mother comes to his rescue, offering calm and warmth throughout that furiously cold winter night.
Ahhhh, everything’s cool now, right?
“As savagery often does, it left beauty in its wake,” says Speiltoe cheerfully, as if we’re about to catch up with Nestor and his mother cooking three-egg omelets over a cracklin’ morning fire…
Yeah…your Mom’s dead, dude.
And it’s pretty much your fault. I don’t know why, but I didn’t remember this. Bear in mind I’m the closest thing to a “Professional Christmas Special Commentator” the internet’s got going… But I was so goddamned gutwrenchingly depressed by Nestor at this point, I damn near turned it off. An industry first!
Nestor wanders the forest looking for a reason to live, only to find snow and more snow and ears that continue to trip him up every third step. Fortuntely, an angelic creature appears out of the blue to give him a mission.
Did you know that whereas angels guide humans, cherubs guide animals? Me neither! But truly I appreciate the heavenly Tilly for finally making the distinction. And in another Christmas miracle, Tilly also ties back into yesterday’s special, as she’s voiced by Brenda Vaccaro, the voice behind Johnny Bravo’s mom!
She playfully tugs Nestor’s ears as they sing-songedly make their way to Bethlehem, where some sort of surprise awaits him. This scene brought me right back into whimsy, as it’s a warm – and snowless – montage of Nestor acting happily for the first time since the special began.
Bears are jerks too
Sorry, I just gotta show you some more, because Lord knows I need the pick-me-up at this point in the special.
Astounding stop-motion work here
Big Ear perk #2!
Once in Bethlehem, Tilly books it back to heaven and Nestor wanders aimlessly, once again subjected to the mockery of his peers. Somehow he ends up on the auction block, where he continues to be undesired thanks to his unsightly ears.
You might recognize the camels from The Little Drummer Boy
That is until one day a poor carpenter shows up looking for something his pregnant wife can ride on – Shhhhh, don’t ruin it for everybody yet!
“Do you accept prayer?”
Some broke ass-couple going under the names of Joseph and Mary need a lift, and they’re not picky about the paint job.
Unfortunately, the trio gets caught in a sandstorm, and the narrator tells us that Nestor considers dumping the fat lady and heading into shelter. But then: a guiding light…
Screw the humans
Both Tilly and Nestor’s mother appear to him, telling him to listen. Galdurnnit, big ears probably mean big listentin’!
I suppose you could call it a manger
Nestor guides the couple through the storm and into the city. With all the hotels full, he figures a stable is as good a place as any – why, they’ll be as happy and warm as he used to be, nestled next to his mother in the hay,
Home at last!
Nestor gets them where they need to go, but doesn’t even stick around. Three wise looking men show up, but all they want to do is adulate this new born baby instead of the little burro who rose above the odds and boldly got the couple to safety.
“Oh wait, I hate you guys!”
Having turned his perceived weakness into a fucking superpower, Nestor heads home with his head held high, right back into the welcoming arms of… his tormenters. Huh, I guess word gets around
Nestor is commemorated with his own piece in the Nativity scene
Big time… almost.
This is all you ever see of Jesus H. What a tease!
The Baby Jesus is never actually seen, but with the angels, shinging stars, and alleged virgin cargo, his presence is heavily implied.
He’s here, but you gotta remember, the events of this story predate Kringle by several hundred years
I’m still pretty baffled as to why Rudolph- I mean Nestor, headed back to the place where people hated him. That logic aside, it still makes for a pretty happy ending, especially once you consider it comes after what could be the most morose first act of any Christmas special in the history of both Christmas and television. That said, the songs are enjoyable, and even though the mouths of damn near everybody appear a little more low-rent than usual, you can certainly see the evolution in Rankin/Bass’ craft. They appear to have mastered the art of suspending objects in air, making for numerous feats of stop-motion awe, and the camera swoops and pans in ways I’d have to imagine blew pre-Matrix audiences away. It can be a bit depressing, but Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey is the furthest thing from a waste of your time in December.
PRODUCT INFORMATION (Shop Amazon through us – it helps!)
Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey appears on a no-frills disc from the Warner Archives bundled with The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. It also shows up alongside other bonus specials on discs that have fallen out-of-print, however, I suggest you move your butt and buy the miraculously still available Classic Christmas Favorites set. It contains TEN specials, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Frosty the Snowman, and a bunch of others well worth owning. You could try your luck with the out-of-print discs, but hey, I already gave you my two cents.