When Sean Paul Ellis and myself were looking for a Thanksgiving cartoon to review for this week’s episode of Saturday Mourning Cartoons, we returned to Rankin/Bass, the classic production studio behind such stop-motion holiday specials as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. What we found was The Mouse on the Mayflower, a traditionally animated made-for-TV movie that revisited the famous story of the Mayflower Compact, the pilgrims that signed it, and the first Thanksgiving. But we found a lot more going on behind the scenes.
This animated special, which travels back nearly 400 years to the time of the pilgrims aboard the Mayflower, was the first such project for Rankin/Bass after changing their name from VIdeocraft. But it wasn’t produced in-house. Instead, the production company commissioned a Japanese studio by the name of Toei Animation to bring The Mouse on the Mayflower to life. You’ve probably heard of this legendary animation studio, which had been creating their own original anime for years prior to commission work from the likes of Videocraft and Rankin/Bass. Toei also produced some of the most iconic artists to work in the medium. One such icon worked as an uncredited key animator on the American Thanksgiving special, a young talent by the name of Hayao Miyazaki.
Years before leaving Toei and eventually co-founding Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki worked as an animator on the studio’s various projects, including their commission work. The Mouse on the Mayflower wasn’t the first collaboration between the production studios, and much like those works that came before it, it was never aired or celebrated in Japan; the fact that a Japanese studio animated an American holiday special in 1968 wasn’t exactly shouted from the rooftops here in the States, either. But it just goes to show that, if you dig deep enough, you might just find some early work from contemporary legends in unexpected places. As for whether or not The Mouse on the Mayflower was up to Toei’s standards–or whether its narrative holds up at all in 2019–you’ll have to listen in to find out.
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