Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

With a title like that, can you guess what this guy’s name might be?

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of nostalgic appreciation for the classic Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. To this day I still watch my favorites every Christmas season. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass discovered their niche, that is, fleshing out classic Christmas carols with a celebrity narrator and a bizarre, but unique, stop motion-animation style. They took this formula and exploited it for every penny they could, until they had jumped the Christmas tree, so to speak. Once they’d covered Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964), Frosty the Snowman (1969), The Little Drummer Boy (1968) and even an origin story for Santa in Santa Clause is Comin’ To Town (1970), they really started to run out of classic songs to adapt as cartoons. In order to keep pumping out new Christmas specials every year, they had to start making up their own stories and songs, and that’s where we start to get products with ridiculously long titles like Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey.

The celebrity narrator for Nestor is Roger Miller, the country singer-songwriter responsible for songs like King of the Road. Miller voices Speiltoe, a donkey who lives in Santa’s workshop and wears jewellery while he orders the elves around. Speiltoe also happens to be an ancient ancestor of Nestor, the Christmas donkey, without whom Jesus would never have been born.

Settle in everyone. Speiltoe strikes a seductive pose to begin his story.

Poor Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Nestor (Eric Stern) was born with a physical abnormality everyone picks on him for until one day, when his unique defect proves useful and ends up saving Christmas. Born with unusually large ears, Nestor’s cruel human keeper Olaf (Paul Frees) refuses to feed him while all of the other reindeer laugh and call him names. Give the guy a break, he can’t even walk without tripping over the ear-tentacles sprouting out the sides of his head. Luckily, his mother shares food with him; she’s the only one in his life who cares about him.

What a long-eared freak.

One night a group of Roman Soldiers come to Olaf’s farm, collecting an oddly specific ‘donkey tax’ for the Roman Emperor…. who needs donkeys, for some reason. Maybe it’s so he can tell all the ‘fellas how much ass he’s been getting. So the soldiers are unjustifiably outraged when Olaf gives them Nestor; an inferior product due to his ears. They destroy his farm and take his money. Olaf is not impressed, and throws Nestor out into the snow to die. Having fun yet, kids? His mother breaks free of her stable to rescue her son. They huddle together for warmth as a snowstorm rages into the night. When Nestor wakes up the next morning, his mother has died saving him like a tauntaun on Hoth. Well, this just keeps getting more and more pleasant! Now Nestor is on his own.

Wait, no he’s not. Soon after his mother’s passing, a weird flying humanoid baby-thing falls from the sky and lands in his path. This is Tilly (Brenda Vaccaro), the cherub. A cherub is an angel with the specific job of looking after animals, rather than humans.

“I’m a cherub,” (s)he says, “we’re supposed to be inspirational!”

SUPPOSED to be is right! Because Tilly is a lot of things, and inspirational is not any of them. This cherub thing will eternally haunt my nightmares. It was sent from God to tell Nestor that his mother’s sacrifice was a necessary evil; she had to die so he could live and fulfill his purpose. She fails to specify what his purpose is, other than that they must travel together to Bethlehem to see it through. As they make the way to the city, Tilly sings a song about treating people equally while riding on his ears and watching other animals laugh at him for being different. But before they even arrive in Jerusalem, Tilly ditches Nestor…. now claiming he doesn’t actually need to go to Bethlehem yet, but when the time is right he’ll know. The exposition express leaves him all alone again in a world that hates him. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Nestor can’t walk without tripping over his ears, but he can hold them high to create a sail for a boat. Why doesn’t he just hold them up all the time to avoid tripping?

Nestor winds up taking shelter in another stable where he is ridiculed by more animals. Do you get it yet? All that has been established so far is that people single Nestor out for having long ears. That’s the only thing that’s happened. First the animals at the stable, then the Roman Soldiers, then the creatures Tilly and Nestor run into, and now another stable. At least in Rudolph’s story you get characters like Hermey, the elf with dental-hygienist aspirations, to broaden the subject matter beyond just being a ‘make fun of the red nose’ special.

Then one fateful night in the stable, Nestor overhears a married couple seeking a creature that can provide them passage to Bethlehem. Joseph and the very pregnant Mary pick Nestor out of the line-up of perfectly capable animals, because it is ‘God’s will’ that Nestor carry them. It’s a literal deus ex machina, God from the machine. Nestor must carry Mary on his back (and baby Jesus’ fetus, by association) while they follow the Christmas star. It’s odd though, while Mary rides Nestor he never stumbles, despite how he couldn’t walk on his own before without tripping over his ears. When a terrible desert storm crops up, it blocks the guiding  light of the Christmas star. Nestor sees a vision of Tilly in the sky who explains that his big ears are highly sensitive and, since he’s the only one who can hear her, he will have to follow her voice to Bethlehem. Then Tilly vanishes, and Nestor’s mother appears in the her place. Now she is guiding him instead, and I’m not sure if she was Tilly the whole time or if Tilly just got fired by God and Nestor’s mom was next in line for the cherub job.

I don’t think an angel sent by God would get consumed by hell-fire like this.

So thanks to Nestor’s super-hearing ears, Mary and Joseph make it safely to Bethlehem only to discover there is no room for them at any of the inns. Nestor recalls his early life in a stable and leads Mary and Joseph to a barn to birth the baby. That’s right, the iconic manger scene featuring Jesus, Mary and Joseph was actually suggested by their donkey friend with over-sized ears. I think I missed that chapter of the Bible.

Hang on…. I thought it was the Wise Men who followed the Christmas star to Bethlehem. And that the star didn’t appear until AFTER Jesus was born. So what are Mary and Joseph looking at?

Now revered as a hero, Nestor skis on his ears back to Olaf, who happily welcomes him with open arms, for this is the donkey who heroically ensured Jesus was born in the right city. That’s all he really did, since the baby would have been born whether Mary was in Bethlehem or not; Nestor’s contribution was just  a bit of walking. But Nestor finally finds happiness and acceptance, it seems, living out the rest of his days with the grumpy jerk who never fed him and once threw him out to die.

Obviously this thing bears a lot of resemblance to Rudolph’s misfit-who-saves-the-day story. Just like the reindeer with the freak nose, Nestor’s retribution comes when he uses his ears during a storm. Rankin/Bass clearly ripped off their own story, and executed everything on a smaller scale by making absolutely nothing happen for the duration of this Christmas special. Nestor just gets made fun of until the final four minutes. They were even too lazy to write any music for this one. You remember all the fun songs Rankin/Bass are known for? There are two songs in this entire special. There’s the ‘Nestor was a Donkey….’ theme song sung by Roger Miller throughout as he narrates the story. The lyrics vary based on whatever the scene is but it’s just the same tune again and again. The only other song plays during Tilly and Nestor’s adventure and it’s about laughing at others when they laugh at you to make it fair. I don’t think that quite fits into God’s ‘turn proudly and walk away’ message.

Oh God…. Now there are FIVE of them!?

The film also borrows from The Little Drummer Boy in that it re-writes a Biblical story to include convenient new characters that wrap everything together. This Christmas special is nothing more than a tired attempt to keep their formula going after almost seven years of making the same TV specials. They just don’t know when to give up.

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