Friday, December 21, 2012

Mickey's Christmas Carol: Oh What A Merry Christmas Day

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has at this point probably had as many adaptations, editions and performances as William Shakespeare's Hamlet. While there is perhaps nothing new to be gleaned from adapting the story, it can at least offer the pleasure of taking a great story in interesting, fresh directions.

For me, it all boils down to four film/TV adaptations, although I freely admit I have not seen all the adaptations, and there are certainly some bad ones I could mention. There are two TV film versions that I absolutely love: one from 1984 starring George C. Scott, which almost manages to IMPROVE on the book thanks to some crucial additions and some truly awesome performances from the entire cast. Scott delivers what I think is some of his absolute best work, attacking the role with fearsome enthusiasm, yet managing to sell Scrooge's transformation powerfully by the end. The other came in 1999 starring Patrick Stewart, and it manages mostly the same effect as the Scott version, with a little more visual panache and modern style. Master animator Richard Williams made a scary-as-hell TV special out of the material in the 1970s, and finally we have our subject for today, the 1983 theatrical short Mickey's Christmas Carol.

Adapted from a 1974 Disneyland Records release that was largely a musical, Mickey's gains some larger significance today thanks to the context it was made in. It was the first new Mickey short in 30 years, a large portion of the new, younger throng of Disney animators worked extensively on it (including Dale Baer, Mark Henn and Glen Keane), it was the last time that original Donald Duck voice actor Clarence Nash would provide the character's vocals, and it was the first time the wonderful, late Wayne Allwine provided the voice of Mickey onscreen. A brief moment to pause on Mr. Allwine: he would subsequently play the role for the next 26 years until his completely unfair death in 2009, leaving behind his wife and fellow voice actor Russi Taylor, who played Minnie alongside him for all that time and continues to play her to this day. For me, while Bret Iwan is doing a fine job in the role now, Wayne will always be the best ACTOR who ever played Mickey. He gave the mouse a real soul and personality, and that's difficult to do for such a squeaky-clean character.

This is evident even in this short, which isn't actually centered on him, but Scrooge McDuck as Ebenezer Scrooge in the most obvious "casting" choice in all of animated history. Reprising his role from the Disneyland Records release is British character actor Alan Young, giving Scrooge the native Scottish burr that comics artist Carl Barks gave to the character. Young also helped write this adaptation, and much like Allwine, he is the only voice of Scrooge for me, having consistently played the role off and on for 25 years after being cast in the role again in the TV series DuckTales. Young also played the Scottish dad Mr. Flaversham in The Great Mouse Detective three years later.

After some lovely illustrated opening credits set to the one remaining song "Oh What A Merry Christmas Day", we go to the grungy, snow-covered streets of London as Scrooge trudges to his money lending business house and narrates a bit of backstory/exposition for us. It's a tad lazy, but it's the only real bit of narration in the piece, and I do love Scrooge cackling about how he buried his dead partner Jacob Marley at sea so he wouldn't have to pay for a funeral. As he walks inside, we meet Bob Cratchit, played by (who else?) Mickey.

I have to say, one thing that really helps this short stand out is that it rarely holds back on making the living conditions look absolutely miserable. Even though Scrooge's place is larger and has more evidence of wealth, it's cold and dark inside, with poor Cratchit rubbing his hands together just for a little bit more warmth. There's also great character stuff for Scrooge here: he gives Cratchit a half day off but it's unpaid (a nice bit of streamlining from the original text). He chases off Rat and Mole, visiting from Disney's Wind in the Willows featurette, by twisting their words when they ask for money for the poor. And as per tradition, he turns down the offer of Christmas dinner from his nephew Fred, here played by... Donald Duck?

It's an odd bit of casting (and not the last one for this short), but it still manages to work, as Donald *is* usually cheerful when he's not on a rage bender. Anyway, after kicking Fred out, Scrooge goes back home in another nicely gloomy scene. He reaches for the door knocker, which transforms into the face of Jacob Marley... here played by, of all people, Goofy (Hal Smith). As you might imagine, the subsequent Marley scene, while quite funny, doesn't really capture the horror of the original. Still, it's a good scene and sets the stage for the Ghost of Christmas Past, played by Jiminy Cricket (Eddie Carroll); in a fun callback to Pinocchio, Jiminiy has an official badge for being the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Now, we only get two flashbacks here (Fezziwig's party and the break between Belle and Scrooge), but they still manage to get across the essential points of Scrooge's past. The party also has a treasure trove of cameos, including Fezziwig as Mr. Toad, Huey, Dewey and Louie hanging some Christmas ornaments, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Gus Goose, Clara Cluck, and even Chip and Dale pop up. Daisy Duck also shows as Scrooge's old fiance Belle, and the scene where they break apart, while somewhat different in wording and intent, is just as sad. Scrooge begs Jiminy to stop, and the cricket admonishes him by saying he brought these visions upon himself by acting the way he did in the past.

Next up is the Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Willie the Giant (Will Ryan) from Mickey and the Beanstalk. Next to Scrooge and Mickey, the Ghosts are probably the best-cast roles in the show, and Willie is no exception, making for an excellently jolly Present. He only takes him to Cratchit's house, but the pitiful size of the Christmas dinner and the potential fate of Tiny Tim are enough. Willie even manages to be a little tear-jerking as he repeats the famous line about the empty chair.

Now comes my favorite scene in the short, and arguably the best: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, here oddly pudgy and chomping down on a big, fat cigar. The cemetery is one of the eeriest I've seen in any Christmas Carol adaptation, looking more like nuclear winter than anything else. The weasel gravediggers (borrowed from Mr. Toad) cackle about an unknown party who they're glad to be rid of, and then Scrooge sees Cratchit at a distant grave. In an absolutely stunning, heart-breaking bit of animation, a devastated Cratchit cries a single, wordless tear and lays down a crutch at the grave. It's one of the best Mickey moments in all of Disney animation.

We see it before he does, but there's still a great sense of oncoming dread as Scrooge nervously asks, "Spirit... whose lonely grave... is this?" The Ghost lights a match: HERE LIES EBENEZER SCROOGE. Then he PULLS BACK HIS HOOD, and it's a positively demonic looking Pete (Will Ryan). "Why YOURS, Ebenezer! The RICHEST man in the cemetery!" He pushes Scrooge into the open grave and laughs an absolutely diabolical evil laugh. As Scrooge hangs onto the wall, the coffin starts to sputter and smoke, and opens to reveal red light and FLAMES. Scrooge scrambles up the wall to basically escape Hell, screaming that he'll change...

...and then wakes up in his bedroom on Christmas morning amongst the sheets. The last section here is joyous and upbeat to offset the grim feeling of the last one, and Young does an excellent job with a more joyful Scrooge, although he still gets to have some fun in a scene where he toys with Bob Cratchit before revealing a sack of toys for the Cratchit kids, and the revelation that he'll be making Bob an equal partner in the business.

In the end, Mickey's Christmas Carol isn't perfect; there are spots that feel weirdly rushed or too slapsticky. But it's still a wonderful little short, and proves that you can still have an effective adaptation of this story even if it's really abridged. It's still one of my favorite animated Christmas special traditions.