Disney’s A Christmas Carol, favorably reviewed by GeekDad’s Jason B. Jones, is but the most recent in a long line of screen adaptations of Dickens’ classic. And through the years, I’ve argued with many fierce partisans over their favorites.
There’s the 1951 black-and-white version with Alastair Sim, considered by many to be the defining Scrooge. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who will always think of Dickens as a writer of quiet little black-and-white Hollywood films.) Some geeks I know might prefer The Muppet Christmas Carol , with Michael Caine as Scrooge to Kermit’s Bob Cratchit. And of course, there’s the powerful version starring Captain Picard, I mean Patrick Stewart, and a creepy Joel Grey as The Ghost of Christmas Past. (Stewart has also done a wonderful one-man reading of the story.)
But in my opinion the version against which all others must be judged is the animated musical TV special, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. First aired in 1962, Magoo’s Christmas Carol was the first animated Christmas special ever televised. And it ushered in a Golden Age of animated Christmas specials — Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown among them. Mister Magoo, voiced by Jim Backus, was the middle-aged, myopic hero of a half-hour limited-animation kids’ show. Kind of funny, but not one of my favorites. So what made Magoo’s Christmas Carol special?
Now my friend, animator Michael Sporn, has blogged about the UPA Studio film’s “glorious” backgrounds. Earlier this month he caught a screening and panel at the Paley Center (formerly the Museum of Broadcasting) which included the author of a new book about the production. And it does have some great, broadly drawn comic images.
Yet what makes Magoo’s Christmas Carol a standout is the acting and the music. The score is worthy of a Broadway show, and no wonder — it was written by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill, who went on to write Funny Girl. (In fact, IMDB claims that Funny Girl star Barbra Streisand’s hit “People” was originally written for Magoo.) And Magoo’s Scrooge hits all the high points of any Christmas Carol. In fact, I have to say that Magoo is, by far, the most sympathetic Scrooge of all time. I defy anyone to watch the young Scrooge sing “When You’re Alone in the World” and not tear up.
At the same time, this is a Christmas Carol that is accessible to any age. It is the most cartoon-y of cartoons, not sentimental in design at all. And in a way, that may be what gives Magoo’s Christmas Carol its power. Because by being funny, and cartoon-y, and full of great music, it lets kids open their hearts to the suffering of others in the most non-threatening way possible.
And isn’t that what Dickens’ Christmas Carol is all about?