Toon Musing: Christmas Carols
When the winter solstice rolls around, those inclined to celebrate Christmas generally tuck in with one or another version of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. What determines a celebrant’s preferred version? Everyone has his of her own reasons, from faithfulness to the original text to how cute the performer portraying Tiny Tim is. Let me bore you with my predilections!
I personally look for several things: the ghost of Marley has to be pants-crappingly scary. It needs a good Ghost of Christmas Present (jolly, hail-fellow-well-met and all that, but also prone to bouts of foam-flecked outrage… much like the holiday season itself!). A complete version should include the spectral Twins, Ignorance and Want. Scrooge’s redemption should be believable. And Tiny Tim must be appropriately adorable, of course. Here’s a bunch of capsule reviews, in no particular order:
The 2004 musical version, with Kelsey Grammar as Scrooge, has lots of street life, but it seems to be sunny far too often, and the cast is stuffed with American TV stars taking their best British accents out for a stroll. Meh.
In the 1999 version, Patrick Stewart is Scrooge. Pretty faithful and complete, with a great Marley and Joel Grey as a terrific Ghost of Christmas Past. Still, kind of dour, and the redemption feels forced, and Stewart chews a little too much scenery with the whole remembering-how-to laugh bit.
George C. Scott played Scrooge in the 1984 version. Fabulous Marley, Great Cratchitt in David Warner, Roger Rees as nephew Fred; what a cast! But Edward Woodward’s Ghost of Christmas Present is flat-out nasty, and I don’t believe Scrooge’s redemption, mostly because he seems to be having too much fun being a bastard.
The 1938 version with Reginald Owen is mostly okay, with a pretty good Ghost of Christmas Present (though a bit short on the outrage, and the Twins don’t make an appearance, alas). Unfortunately, it’s a little comical to see fireplug-shaped Bob Cratchitt trying to tote a gangly tween Tiny Tim around on his shoulder.
I’m of the opinion that a little Jim Carrey goes a long, long way. The 2009 CGI version has him playing Scrooge at all his various ages and all the ghosts. Gary Oldman, whom I have a much higher tolerance for, plays Cratchitt, Marley, and… (according to the credits) Tiny Tim. Ooookay. This version was, like Polar Express, designed to be watched through 3D glasses, and also like Polar Express, is noisy, frenetic, and deeply creepy. It’s Dickens in Uncanny Valley! Ugh.
I always try to catch the 1970 version with Albert Finney. It’s not terribly faithful to the text, but it’s a guilty pleasure nonetheless. The production is very lush and replete with street scenes in labyrinthine sets packed with quaintly-garbed extras who periodically burst into song and dance. Yes, it’s a musical, with some really good songs, thank you very much. It was one of the musical adaptations of Dickens’ classics (think: Oliver) and is unabashedly over-the-top exuberant. It has my favorite Ghost of Christmas Present (though again, no Twins). Tiny Tim is cute as a bug. Alec Guinness is precious as Marley, and Scrooge ends up in Hell (prior to redemption, of course).
Most people’s favorite version is the 1951 version with Alastair Sim. It’s one of the most faithful and complete. Marley’s not so much scary as really shouty; Cratchitt is again rather short and stout, and again paired with a not-so-Tiny Tim; and Christmas Present, though jolly, is also blandly preachy and is dispensed with too quickly, though the Twins make an appearance. (Yay!). The thieves also appear, and they are a hoot. Plus, this version has one of the funnest Scrooge Redeemed bits.
There are other versions out there, There are American versions and modern-day versions and a Disney version and a Flintstones version and Muppet version and a Star Wars version and innumerable “very special episode” TV series versions; the few of ‘em I’ve seen, I don’t care for— I guess I’m a purist. Though not some fanatic. No, definitely not a fanatic. I just have opinions.
Perhaps there are a few folk out there who are unfamiliar with A Christmas Carol. Perhaps you’re wondering why this column, ostensibly about cartoons and comics, is droning on about this old Dickens chestnut. Well, I recently rediscovered a version of the tale I watched as a youth that is faithful, more or less complete and impeccably produced… by Chuck Jones, of Looney Toons fame. Alastair Sim again stars, and it was beautifully animated by Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) in an approximation of the scratchy, sketchy style of the old engravings that accompanied the original published work.
It is not available for purchase, but you can see it here. Its flaw is that it is less than a half-hour long; as such, it feels terribly rushed and excises great chunks of the text, though it tries to touch all the bases, however perfunctorily. The major draw is the art and the visuals, which are sublime. The flying scenes are disorienting, Marley is frightening, and the Twins are quite unsettling to behold. And for those who are just getting acquainted with the tale, it’s a really quick introduction.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.