Disney’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ – A Holiday Retrospective
When it comes to some of the most famous holiday stories of all-time, one often stands out amongst the rest, and that is Charles Dickens’ timeless novel A Christmas Carol. Ever since it was first published in 1843, the tale of the cold-hearted miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his journey of self-redemption has become a staple of the holiday season. This has been due in large part to the numerous adaptations of it that have been done over the years. Not only is it a staple of the theater scene, with several theatre troupes performing it annually all over the U.S., but it has also been adapted to both the big and small screen several times over the years. In fact, a new film that was just recently released, The Man Who Invented Christmas, delves into the origins of the original source material while also doing its own spin on this timeless tale. But today, we’ll be looking back upon a specific group of Christmas Carol adaptations; the so-called ‘trilogy’ of films that were primarily produced by Disney. This includes the iconic featurette short starring Mickey Mouse and friends from 1983, the beloved 1992 film adaptation that starred the Muppets, and the rather polarizing motion-capture animated version from 2009 starring Jim Carrey. Without further ado, be wary of those who proclaim ‘Bah, Humbug!’ and follow along with us as we reflect on these three unique spins on arguably the most famous Christmas story of all-time.
MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1983)
Directed by: Burny Mattinson
We start things off today with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, a 1983 featurette starring Mickey Mouse and his friends in the roles of Dickens’ classic characters. Mickey portrays Scrooge’s long-suffering assistant Bob Cratchit, Goofy stars as the ghost of Jacob Marley, and it’s only fitting that Scrooge is played by Disney’s own Scrooge, Scrooge McDuck. The short first premiered in October of that year when it was paired with a re-release of The Jungle Book in the U.K. A few months later, it premiered in the U.S. just a few days prior to Christmas; here in the states, it was paired with a re-release of The Rescuers. It was also notably the first Mickey Mouse theatrical short produced in over 30 years since The Simple Things in 1953. And while Mickey’s Christmas Carol initially attracted a mixed response from critics (including Siskel and Ebert, who both gave it a Thumbs Down on their show), it has amassed a sizable fan following over the years, and rightfully so. For many, this featurette may have potentially been their introduction to Dickens’ original story, and it’s certainly a great one to start on. While it’s only a half-hour long, it does manage to get through all of the key moments of its source material without ever feeling rushed, from Scrooge realizing what is to come of Bob Cratchit’s young son Tiny Tim to his frightening encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (played, fittingly enough, by Pete). And, of course, every Disney character is perfectly cast in their respective roles, resulting in a charming take on this classic story that properly respects its source material even though it’s much shorter than other adaptations of the story.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol can currently be seen on TV, where it has aired on Freeform (formerly ABC Family) since 2001. The featurette also received a 30th Anniversary Blu-Ray release in 2013; however, this release has been poorly received by Disney fans due to the mediocre efforts that were made to re-master it for Blu-Ray… so, perhaps don’t get that one…
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992)
Directed by: Brian Henson
1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppets film to be produced after the death of franchise creator Jim Henson in 1990. And yet, despite this, Muppet Christmas Carol (directed by Henson’s son Brian) has gone on to become not only one of the most beloved Muppets films to date but also one of the most popular renditions of A Christmas Carol that has ever been seen on the big or small screen. Like Mickey’s Christmas Carol, it’s quite possible that, for many folks, this served as their official introduction to A Christmas Carol. And, sure enough, it’s a wonderful take on the iconic tale that can quite arguably be viewed as one of the best renditions of it which, given that it stars the Muppets, is really saying something. Similar to how the Mickey version cast some of Disney’s most famous characters in the story’s iconic roles, this film has everyone’s favorite Muppets playing these parts. Kermit the Frog is Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy is Bob’s wife Emily (naturally), and both Statler and Waldorf portray the character of Marley, represented here as the ‘Marley brothers’. And as for the Great Gonzo, he serves as the narrator of the film, Charles Dickens himself, as he is joined by his longtime associate Rizzo the Rat. As for Scrooge, Michael Caine takes on the role of the surly miser and he does a fantastic job in the role, excellently conveying all of the emotional poignancy of Scrooge’s redemption arc.
The film also features an excellent collection of songs written by Paul Williams, who had previously co-written the music for the original Muppet Movie in 1979 along with Kenneth Ascher. From the solo ‘One More Sleep ‘Till Christmas’ performed by Kermit (played here for the first time on film by Steve Whitmire) to the heartwarming finale tune ‘The Love We Found’ sung by the whole cast, this film’s soundtrack is a perfect fit with this classic story. However, one song from the soundtrack ended up getting cut from the film’s original theatrical release, ‘When Love is Gone’, sung by Scrooge’s ignored fiancé Belle right before she leaves his life forever. This beautiful tune was cut from the film by then-Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who argued that the song would be too sad for audiences, even though the previous Muppet film, Muppets Take Manhattan, featured an arguably even sadder song titled ‘Saying Goodbye’. The song’s removal results in an abrupt cut during the sequence that it was supposed to occur in as primarily evident from a sharp edit in the score. It was also meant to serve as a natural counterpoint to ‘The Love We Found’, and while it was eventually restored to the film’s VHS and initial DVD releases, it was then cut again for the Blu-Ray release, the version seen on Netflix streaming, and any airings of it on TV. Still, even with this minor shortcoming in mind, the film is an undeniable classic that will surely delight both young and old.
DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Finally, we end on a more traditional retelling of A Christmas Carol that solely features human characters instead of Muppets or Disney characters. However, like the Mickey version of the story, this film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, was an animated feature. It was done in the motion-capture based animation style that Zemeckis had pioneered in the early 2000’s with films like The Polar Express and Beowulf. However, this style of animation has often attracted a polarizing response from both critics and audiences mainly due to the argument that it produces characters who fall into the uncanny valley territory. Sure enough, while this version of A Christmas Carol did perform solidly at the box-office, it ultimately received mixed reviews upon its release. And after the next motion-capture animated film that he worked on, 2011’s Mars Needs Moms (which he only produced), ended up being one of the biggest box-office bombs of all-time, Zemeckis’ animation studio, ImageMovers Digital, was shut down in January 2011 and he returned to directing live-action films in 2012. Thus, Zemeckis’ take on A Christmas Carol ended up being the last motion-capture animated film that he ever directed. Still, that’s not to say that this film isn’t worth checking out even when considering all of the adaptations of its source material that have come before it.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about this film is that it is surprisingly dark. Yes, despite the presence of funnyman Jim Carrey in the roles of both Scrooge and the three Spirits that visit the miserable miser, this film is full to the brim with incredibly frightening sequences that are arguably too intense for younger viewers. This includes everything from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s disturbing demise (complete with him being stripped down to his bones as he laughs maniacally) to the shadowy presence (figuratively and literally) of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Despite this, however, the film does have some extremely effective atmospheric moments, like when Scrooge is forced to witness the full gamut of Bob Cratchit’s emotions after the death of Tiny Tim. As for the animation, yes the character animation is admittedly a bit awkward at times as it often results in plastic-looking faces despite all the effort that clearly went into capturing the actors’ facial features. Still, the film’s excellent cinematography and non-character animation do make up for this for the most part. And to his credit, Jim Carrey does a very solid job in the role of Scrooge as does Gary Oldman in the role of Bob Cratchit (Oldman also portrays the ghost of Jacob Marley and did the motion-capture for Tiny Tim, who was voiced by Ryan Ochoa). In short, is this the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol that has ever been made? No, far from it! And as I noted earlier, the fact that this film is so dark, even by Disney standards, makes it rather hard for me to recommend it to younger audiences. Still, that doesn’t mean that I think that it’s ‘bad’; overall, I’d say that it does just enough to stand out amongst its fellow adaptations of this timeless tale.