Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977) – a Rankin-Bass Production – Starring Roger Miller, Brenda Vaccaro, Paul Frees, and Eric Stern.
Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is a wonderful character trapped in a less-than-great story. This is basically a Rankin-Bass snuff film given all the abuse God puts this poor donkey through.
Nestor is a donkey with massively long ears that he keeps tripping over. As a result of this, everyone makes fun of him, except his mom. His mom protects him and as a reward, dies. After she dies, a chreub from Heaven shows up to tell him if he goes to Bethlehem and suffers through a whole lot of extra abuse, he’ll eventually get to save someone’s life like his mom saved his.
As far as God goes, it’s a pretty big dick move. (And please, I’m not talking about the real God, I’m talking about God the Character. I skipped the Book of Genetically Strange Animal Fables so I don’t know how Biblically-solid NESTOR is.) Neither God nor his precious cherub Tilly show up the night before when some caricature Romans show up to take Nestor and his donkey pals away from their friends and family for grunt work. Nor do they show up when the Roman realizes Nestor is a genetic freak and starts smacking him around, and then smacks Olaf (Nestor’s owner) around, taking all their money back, nor when Olaf then takes it out on Nestor and tosses his long-eared ass (get it? he’s a donkey) out of his barn and into a snowstorm. Tilly and God can’t be bothered to show up and drop some of those yellow sun rays they like to show off when Nestor’s mom freezes to death, either.
But oh yeah, they’re there the morning after, when Nestor is alone and vulnerable and hurting and confused, not knowing where to go or what to do, and completely and utterly shattered by his mother’s sacrifice. Yeah, then Tilly the Cherub shows up to not make fun of Nestor and basically tells him that he’s got to repay his mother’s sacrifice by going to Bethlehem saving someone else’s life.
This kid is gonna say, “No?”
He’s been so abused by everyone because of his genetic oddity and the events of the previous night (everyone’s finally his friend, he almost gets sold, he gets smacked around, he gets kicked out, he almost freezes to death, his mom does freeze to death) that he’s completely vulnerable to an authority figure coming in and telling him what to do – especially since that authority figure’s proxy tells him he’s wonderful and special.
And you know, he is wonderful and special, and it’s great for God and Tilly to tell him this, but it’s hard not to see their actions as completely self-serving because they come to him not with help but with a mission, a mission that will involve a whole mess of extra abuse by a whole new set of animals down in Bethlehem. They don’t do the right thing because it’s the right thing, they do the right thing because it’s the Heavenly self-serving thing.
The whole God/Tilly angle is totally creepy and distasteful. I’m not saying they shoulda bought the donkey a new bike, but at the very least – at the very least – they couldn’t have gotten him in Mary’s hands without having to deal with all that extra abuse? Why?
Well, it’s because they want him to deal with all that extra abuse as it just binds the kid to them even more.
The real shame is that Nestor is such a good kid they could’ve saved the guilt trip and he still would’ve done it. Or they could have moved in mysterious ways to put him in position to help Mary and Joseph and he would’ve done it without the Heavenly guilt trip. Instead, when Nestor helps Mary (who’s totally worth helping and is nice to Nestor because he has kind eyes and not because he’s got a strong back to carry her pregnant self across the desert) and they get stuck in a sandstorm, God employs Nestor’s dead mother to lead him forward and to safety.
Perhaps most confusing is the special’s final scene, where Nestor returns to Olaf’s barn and is treated as a hero … by Olaf! So the guy who sends you to your death and then, as a result, causes your mother’s death now wants to hold you above his head like a hero and you’re cool with this? Poor Nestor wants to be accepted so badly (and who can blame him?) that this special basically lets Olaf off the hook because he wants to celebrate Nestor after he finds out the kid is a hero and doesn’t apologize/make amends to the kid for what he did. He just hoists him above his shoulders and everyone is, “Yaaaaaay!”? Strange.
There’s a real message you could get behind in this story – do what’s right because it’s right, like the kindness of Mary and the selfless actions of Nestor’s mom, and not because you’re guilted into obeying authority figures. Because as much as the message presented here to the characters in the story is to learn to appreciate people for who they are and what they can do, the message to kids watching at home is Obey Authority, So That You May Suffer For Their Benefit.