There are so many film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that it’s tough to keep track of them all. But most of them have one thing in common: they tend to scare the crap out of children—even the 1988 comedy “Scrooged” and Disney’s 2009 mo-cap adventure starring Jim Carrey.
The kindest and gentlest “Christmas Carols” tend to omit Dickens’ Victorian brooding (which makes for a shorter runtime) and tone down the three ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge to shake him out of his miserly bitterness and teach him the meaning of Christmas . . . and life.
The 1994 TV special “A Flintstones Christmas Carol” is one such offering, as is “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962) and Jim Henson’s delightful 1992 adaptation, “The Muppet Christmas Carol.”
But the best “Christmas Carol” for kids remains “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” which was released in 1983 as a 26-minute cartoon that was shown in theaters with a reissued screening of “The Rescuers”—the first time a short film starring Mickey Mouse played on big screens since 1953. Though “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” didn’t win, it was also the first time a Mickey Mouse cartoon received an Oscar nomination since “Mickey and the Seal” (1948).
Mickey plays Bob Cratchit, the underpaid and overworked clerk of skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge (Scrooge McDuck), who tells alms collectors, “I worked hard for my money. Why should I give it to the poor?”
Scrooge gives Cratchit just a half-day off for Christmas, and docks him half a day’s pay. And he tells his nephew (Donald Duck) he has no interest in celebrating Christmas with his relations.
But when the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley (Goofy), tells him that what awaits him in the afterlife are a matching set of chains because of his selfish ways (then trips over a cane—H-juck!—and tumbles down a flight of stairs) it gives Scrooge a start, but lets small children know that, Hey, this ghost stuff isn’t so scary after all. There IS a progression, though. The spirits of Christmas that Marley warns will haunt his partner that Christmas Eve begins with the not terribly scary Jiminy Cricket as the Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes Scrooge back to a time when he liked Christmas (and people) more. Then comes Willie the Giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk” dressed as the Ghost of Christmas Present, who’s a little more imposing but still as goofy as Goofy. But those two pave the way for a scarier Ghost of Christmas Future, played by Mickey’s frequent cartoon nemesis, Pete, whose shrouded visit is accompanied by a little fire and brimstone.
Even so, the whole episode isn’t nearly as long as other film adaptations, and the result, again, is a kinder, gentler “Christmas Carol.” Burny Mattinson (“The Great Mouse Detective”) directs this one, which enlists a number of animators and creative talents (among them, John Lasseter) to bring Dickensian London detail to cartoon life. Disney also ratchets up the festivity with an opening song, “Oh, What a Merry Christmas Day,” that’s reprised at the end.
If you’re wondering how Disney is getting away with packaging a 25-minute feature as a stand-alone title, it’s because the House of Mouse was generous with the addition of winter-related cartoons—one of which is brand new.
Donald Duck and his three nephews star in “The Hockey Champ,” a 1939 animated short that revolves around Donald trying to show Huey, Dewey and Louie how he won a trophy for playing ice hockey . . . after they razz him about his figure skating.
In “Pluto’s Christmas Tree” (1952), Mickey brings home a tree that contains mischievous chipmunks Chip ‘n’ Dale, and of course they drive poor Pluto crazy. Donald Duck, Goofy, and Minnie Mouse also make an appearance in this one, which, like the other bonus shorts, runs 7 minutes long.
“The Art of Skiing” (1941) involves Goofy (who else?) trying to demonstrate the basics of downhill skiing to an audience, with a final ski jump landing Goofy pretty much where he began his day. An announcer gives him a hard time, and a yodeler also plays into the action.
“Corn Chips” is a 1951 short that features Donald Duck trying to trick Chip ‘n’ Dale into shoveling the snow off his walkway, but they get their revenge when they sneak inside the house and disrupt his relaxing popcorn snack.
But the best of the shorts is the newest one, “Yodelberg,” which will also air on the Disney show “Mickey Mouse” on October 29. This 2D animated short borrows some tricks from other studios, and like the “SpongeBob” cartoons incorporates some photorealistic footage into a cartoon that combines a retro 1930s style with some contemporary tricks—especially when it comes to the Yeti that will have young viewers thinking of the Expedition Everest ride at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom—just as the quaint yodeling aspects might remind them of their experience at the German restaurant at Epcot. It’s the most striking and stylish of the cartoons, and the boldest.
By the time you add those cartoons, presented in HD, to this 30th Anniversary presentation of the G-rated “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” you end up with a respectable (but still admittedly brief) 58-minute entertainment package that ought to become a part of many families’ holiday film rotation—especially if you’re a family with small children.
“Mickey’s Christmas Carol” was always rough-looking (witness the top photo), but it’s been digitally restored and now looks wonderful on Blu-ray. Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, it offers plenty of detail and really draws attention to the period-looking backgrounds. Colors aren’t Dickensian drab, but rather a compromise between his Victorian England and the bright world of Disney animation. But the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is a good one, with nary a blemish.
This old cartoon got more of a visual makeover than it did an audial one. “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” offers only English Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, with additional audio options in French and English and subtitles in English SDH, Spanish and French. It all sounds clear and pure-toned, but also noticeably front-heavy.
Aside from the bonus cartoons, this combo pack includes a DVD and Digital Copy, along with a Disney Intermission program in which viewers who pause the film are invited to sing along with Mickey and the gang with three Christmas carols: “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” and “Jingle Bells.”
Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday classic, and I can’t think of a better way to introduce young viewers to the cautionary tale than by popping a Disney adaptation that won’t scare them as much as the other versions. And the bonus? Disney hits all the plot points but doesn’t drag the first act out the way that other film adaptations do. It’s perfect for shorter attention spans, though young viewers will still get the gist of Dicken’s tale. The only downside is that, given the runtime and despite the bonus cartoons, it’s still steeply priced.