The Island of Misfit Toys

Hermey and Rudolph in a scene from the movie "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Hermey and Rudolph (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV Special,” public domain)

By Chuck Sanders

My first encounter with the heroic epic genre was in 1966 when I saw “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the hour-long stop-motion movie produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin. This film is shown, without fail, on network TV every December. Even on black and white TV, the Abominable Snowmonster is absolutely terrifying to a five-year-old. Rare is the year since then that I have not watched this charming film. Indeed, I stumbled onto it just a week ago…

The Abominable Snow Monster holding Rudolph in its hands.
The Abominable Snow Monster and Rudolph (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV Special,” public domain)

As in The Odyssey and The Aeneid, the Rankin/Bass Rudolph epic is narrated by a detached third-party (i.e., Sam the Snowman), who draws in the viewer with a proem (a formal preface). Sam’s proem closely resembles a classical invocation of the muses. There is, of course, a heroic quest: Rudolph and his friend Hermey (elf and would-be dentist) are banished from North Pole society and journey into the great white void in search of self-realization. They have a series of adventures, including a foray into the underworld (the cave of the Abominable Snow Monster) and an encounter with death (a seemingly unsurvivable fall from a precipice). They face dangers but also make unforeseen friends—most notably the prospector Yukon Cornelius and his sled team of pet-looking dogs. Ultimately, bright Rudolph and clever Hermey achieve their quest, using their perceived inadequacies to triumph over their enemies and former detractors. As in many other epics the “Reindeer” saga even includes an enumeratio in which Sam musically lists the names of the reindeer that make up the flying sleigh team.

The prospector Cornelius and his team of sled dogs. Hermey is on the sled with Cornelius.
Yukon Cornelius and Hermey (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV Special,” public domain)

One of the stops on Rudolph and Hermey’s quest is the Island of Misfit Toys, a sort of orphanage for unwanted toys with unconventional features such as a square-wheeled train and a water pistol that squirts jelly.  Being misfits themselves, Rudolph and Hermey request permission from the stern but kindly King Moonracer to dwell on the isle. They are allowed to spend the night, but the king explains that—as living creatures—it is not appropriate for them to live among the toys. Yukon observes: “Even among misfits you’re misfits!” It all works out in the end when Rudolph returns with his blizzard-defying beacon as the head of the flying sleigh team to pick up the toys for placement with children of eclectic taste.

The Island of Misfit Toys has been on my mind a lot lately. This is partly because the membrane proteins we study don’t behave the way well-bred proteins ought to behave. They are misfits and a source of endless vexation. It is also so easy as a scientist to personally identify with the trials and tribulations of misfits. Scientists at all career stages encounter faculty who give us a rough time at meetings, cells that will not grow, editors that tell us our work is unworthy of review, an endless series of new and un-funded regulatory requirements, unsympathetic reviewers, and many other challenges and setbacks. We’re all misfits!

Nevertheless there is a lot to be said for being misfits. There is a glory to our sometimes scruffy careers. Being a scientist may not always be a bed of roses but we certainly are having fun. While most of the low-hanging-fruit projects were polished off long ago, the fact that all the good projects are now Island of Misfit Toys material is exactly what makes them so interesting.

An assortment of misfit toys from the movie "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." There is an airplane, a train, a doll, and a plush dog.
Misfit Toys (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV Special,” public domain)

One of the most touching features in the “Reindeer” epic is when Rudolph’s mother, along with his girlfriend Clarice, bravely depart the North Pole into the barren waste to search for Rudolph and Hermey, only to themselves be ensnared by the Abominable. Without hesitation Rudolph and his friends risk all and use their combined talents to rescue them from a cruel fate. It’s all so moving that even the cold heart of the Abominable is melted. I hope that we will all look out for each other in the very same way. To quote Hermey when he and Rudolph first met: “Let’s be misfits together!”

Happy holidays from the School of Medicine Basic Sciences!

I thank Wade Van Horn, Becky Sanders, Raluca Cadar and Shannan Cunniffe for their edits and helpful comments. It is noted that Jules Bass passed away on Oct. 25, 2022. For any other Rudolph geeks out there, check out this this later-cut scene from the original 1964 version. It provides a satisfying resolution to the prospecting aspirations of Mr. Cornelius.

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