1980's, A Christmas Carol, adventures of ichabod and mr. toad, animated, animation, black pete, Bob Cratchit, charles dickens, Christmas, christmas carol, christmas classic, christmas story, daisy duck, Disney, disney animated, disney animation, disney review, Donald Duck, ducktales, Ebenezer Scrooge, ghost, ghost of christmas future, ghost of christmas past, ghost of christmas present, ghost of christmas yet to come, ghosts, goofy, graveyard, graveyard scene, Jacob Marley, jiminy cricket, London, magic, Mickey Mouse, Mickey's Christmas Carol, Minnie Mouse, mole, mr. toad, Peg-Leg Pete, Pete, rat, Scrooge McDuck, the wind in the willows, Tiny Tim, traditional animation, Uncle Scrooge, willie the giant
Some stories are so timeless, so resonant, and so iconic that they deserve to be retold for every generation.
And then there’s Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, which according to IMDB has nearly 200 adaptations. If you decide to watch one a day, it’s almost enough to see you through to next Christmas! And do I need to recap the story of A Christmas Carol? It’s so ubiquitous that the only people who don’t know it must have grown up under a rock. That’s the only explanation I’ll accept.
I wouldn’t call this over abundance of A Christmas Carol a bad thing, however, as each version manages to bring something unique and memorable to the original tale. Like with Peter Pan, there’s one for every generation – well okay, more like five, but you get the idea. It’s great to see people discussing which one they believe is best because there’s no shortage of fascinating takes out there (As for me, I find the best straight adaptation is the 1951 version with Alistair Sim, the best take with a twist is the Muppets one, and the best modern day/parody one is Scrooged). But of course we’re here today to talk about one particular adaptation many have grown up with. For some, it was even their very first exposure to A Christmas Carol. I should know. It was for me.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol actually began as a read-along record album produced in the 70’s and narrated by Scrooge McDuck himself. There’s little differentiating it from its eventual animated counterpart, though the cast of holiday haunts is slightly altered – jolly old wizard Merlin from The Sword in the Stone is the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Snow White’s Wicked Witch takes an even more frightening turn as the Ghost of Christmas Future. In an attempt to revive Mickey Mouse’s waning popularity, it was decided that the story would be perfect fodder for a brand new short. It was originally supposed to premiere on television as a regular holiday special in 1982, but after an animators’ strike delayed production, the short was given a theatrical release one year later alongside a re-issue of The Rescuers. So yes, Mickey’s Christmas Carol was technically the Olaf’s Shoehorned Holiday Adventure of its time. I’m happy to say it earned a much more deserved positive reception, however, even gaining a Best Animated Short Oscar nomination.
We open with some credits playing over some nice drawings of our animated cast done in the style from Dickens’ era. “Oh What a Merry Christmas Day”, the song that serves as our theme to this short is nice though perhaps a bit too subdued and sweet seeing how we’re about to dive into one of the most famous ghost stories of all time. Maybe it’s just my inner child recoiling from what I know is on its way. As for the credits themselves, I’m startled by how many big names in animation and film are boasted now that I’m old enough to recognize them. There’s an odd mix of firsts and lasts in this short that add a touch of poignancy to it overall. It’s the final time Irwin Kostal would provide an orchestral score for Disney (having previously provided the soundtracks for Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and more), and the last performance from Donald Duck’s original voice actor, Clarence “Ducky” Nash, before he officially passed the role to Tony Anselmo. On the flip side, Wayne Allwine makes his debut as Mickey, as does Alan Young as Scrooge, and much of the newer animators such as Glen Keane, Mark Henn, Kathy Zielinski and Randy Cartwright would go on to provide some of the most iconic characters of the Disney Renaissance. (Oh, and there’s also some nobody in there going by the name of John Lasseter. Probably not even worth mentioning.) All of them are working under Burny Mattinson, a story artist that’s been around since Walt’s time and is still working at Disney to this day. This short gives us a fine mix of old and new talent; all things considered, it’s a passing of the torch that went over much, MUCH better than The Black Cauldron did.
London, late 1800’s, the day before Christmas. Everyone’s got the spirit except for Mr. Humbug himself Ebenezer Scrooge, portrayed appropriately by Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge is acting his usual skinflint himself, taking pride in pinching every penny in his drafty old countinghouse. It’s this characteristic that separates this incarnation of Scrooge from many of the others and makes him a joy to watch. There’s glee in his greed. He takes smug delight in swindling others and raking in the profits, even while reminiscing over his late partner Jacob Marley (“He left me enough money in his will to pay for his tombstone – and I had him buried at sea!”)
Of course, one can’t talk about Scrooge McDuck without shining a spotlight on his voice actor, Alan Young. I was surprised to learn how much of a hand in he had in creating this short; he not only acts in it but helped write and produce it! It goes to show how much he cared about the character. He does a great job of course, and his passing has left behind some big spats to fill – so big in fact that the only person qualified enough to do so is the Tenth Doctor!
Also, when I found out they were doing a Christmas episode that payed homage to Mickey’s Christmas Carol, I flipped my lid. Can’t wait to see how it plays out!
Scrooge’s only other employee is humble Bob Cratchit, played by Mickey Mouse. One of the common complaints about this short is that Mickey’s name is in the title yet he’s relegated once again to a supporting role, in the feature that’s supposed to be his big comeback no less, and I can sympathize. I’ve already mentioned it in my list of favorite Mickey shorts but that attribute is an unfortunate symptom plaguing much of the mouse’s oeuvre. But I suppose Mickey just wasn’t mean-spirited enough to take on the role of Scrooge. It’s difficult to imagine him doing deeds worthy of being haunted by guilt-tripping ghosts.
Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Donald Duck) enters for a friendly visit and to invite him to Christmas dinner, but Scrooge gives him the boot. This would have been a perfect opportunity to show Donald’s infamous temper and milk some laughs out of it, but in this unusual instance, Donald’s both completely in character yet also out. He’s either super devoted to his part or he must be taking some really good anger management classes on the side. Soon after, Mole and Rat from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad come in asking Scrooge for a donation to charity. Scrooge plays up his refusal as if he’s doing them a favor, ensuring they’re not out of a job if those poor people they’re collecting for are put out of destitution, and they’re shooed out faster than Jeff Sessions after the primaries.
When it’s closing time, Cratchit dares to ask for the next day off. Scrooge acquiesces, but docks half a day’s pay. And he makes Cratchit do his laundry too. I must say it’s the most honest Disney has ever been about what it’s like to really work for them. Scrooge trudges home alone later that evening and finds an eerie sight upon his arrival – the door knocker changes into Marley’s face and moans his name.
Well the good news is Scrooge isn’t another victim of Practical Jokers. The bad news is these supernatural shenanigans continue as he makes his way up the lonely staircase of his house and into his parlor, thoroughly unnerving him. The source of this paranormal activity is the chain-bearing ghost of Jacob Marley, played by Goofy, which is pretty macabre in hindsight. Think about it. Goofy, beloved klutz and family man, DEAD, his ghost doomed to walk the earth. It adds another level of morbidness to this dark story. Then again, A Christmas Carol is one of the most beloved holiday fables of all time, and all the most cherished Christmas stories have an extreme dark side to them. Rudolph features bullying and child abuse, It’s a Wonderful Life delves into existentialism, at least three different versions of Babes in Toyland climax in attacks by hordes of monsters, and the ending to The Snowman is such a downer that I didn’t bother to include it on the Shelf. Even the Nativity, the biblical tale that’s responsible for this holiday in the first place, is marred by King Herrod’s massacre of the innocents. I suppose the reasoning for all this is you can’t have the light without the dark to oppose it, and the closer you get to that light, the bigger and darker that shadow becomes.
Marley tells Scrooge the reason he’s come: tonight he’ll be visited by three spirits.
The only way Scrooge can avoid a fate like Marley’s is if he listens to everything these ghosts have to say. Marley says farewell and because Goofy can’t go two minutes without befalling some mishap, he exits with his trademark holler.
I could never get tired of that yell.
Scrooge heads to bed eager to put this spirit nonsense behind him. But it’d be a poor story indeed if it ended there. What I love about the Ghost of Christmas Past’s entrance is that it subtly clues you in on his identity before you even see him by replicating his entrance from his movie. It starts with a wide shot of Scrooge’s bedroom, then the camera hops on the floor, zooming in closer with each leap, the background changing to match the size of scope and detail. The spirit, Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, awakens Scrooge. Scrooge expresses disappointment on learning the identity of this new interloper (“Oh, I thought you’d be taller.”) which doesn’t sit well with Jiminy.
Jiminy takes Scooge on a flight over the rooftops into the past and lands them in front of a familiar place of business: Fezziwig’s, where Scrooge first worked. Fezziwig himself, played by Mr. Toad, is throwing the most swinging Christmas party in London attended by only the most obscure beloved Disney characters – Chip and Dale, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, a handful of background extras from Robin Hood, The Aristocats and Ichabod and Mr. Toad; if you’re a diehard classic Disney fan you will be extremely serviced.
Young Scrooge himself is in the corner, too shy to ask to ask his dream girl Isabelle to dance. I should note that Isabelle is played by Daisy Duck, Donald’s girlfriend, which makes her being paired with her boyfriend’s uncle just a bit odd. Apparently in the Finnish dub they change her character entirely – instead of Daisy, she’s Scrooge’s old flame Goldie O’Gilt from the Carl Barks comics and DuckTales series, which makes more sense. Had this been made today they probably would have gone that route, but back then they were most likely strapped for recognizable characters to fill the role.
Isabelle flirts with Scrooge, eventually coaxing him out on the dance floor and under the mistletoe. But this kind of innocent first love is too good to last. Time passes and Scrooge watches himself succumb to his burgeoning greed, distancing Isabelle in the process. The final heartbreak comes several Christmases later when he forecloses the honeymoon cottage she was hoping they would move to – after her last payment came in one hour late. Insert Lehman Brothers/Wells Fargo/standard corporate America joke here. Jiminy reminds a disheartened Scrooge that he has no one to blame for making these sad memories but himself. Scrooge awakens in his bed regretting the love he’s lost, but his night is far from over.
No, thankfully it’s someone much, much friendlier: the Ghost of Christmas Present played by Willie the Giant (take THAT, Edgar Bergen!) Also, kudos to Glen Keane on a job well done animating the big galoot. Despite giving Scrooge quite a fright, Willie shows him a sumptuous feast representing the generosity of mankind that has me drooling like Homer in a donut shop, replete with fancy Christmassy foods like roast turkeys, mince pies, and suckling pigs.
Scrooge doubts that there’s anyone out there willing to show him the same spirit of generosity and kindness, so Willie sticks him in his pocket and carefully treads through the London streets until they reach Bob Cratchit’s dilapidated cottage. In spite of their extreme poverty and canary-sized dinner, Bob and his kids are grateful for what they have. Though Minnie as Bob’s wife doesn’t even get a line of dialogue. Considering how vocal Mrs. Cratchit is about Scrooge’s abuse of Bob in the original story, it’s kind of a missed opportunity to let Minnie show some of her usual spunk.
And of course there’s Bob’s son Tiny Tim, the posterboy for every innocent heartwarming sickly child, who expresses his genuine gratitude towards Scrooge without ever having met the guy. Willie warns Scrooge that if circumstances don’t change, then by next year the crutch will be abandoned, Tim’s seat will be a vacant one, and it will be a very dark Christmas indeed.
The street fills up with smoke and Scrooge finds himself in a somber graveyard. His new companion, the Ghost of Christmas Future, is a large, silent figure with only his eyes visible from his hood. He points Scrooge in the direction of a small tombstone on a hill where the Cratchit family is silently mourning – well, all except Tim. I don’t think I need to tell you what happened to him.
Look at that face. LOOK AT IT. Why does this one image manage to evoke so much emotion from even the most hardhearted soul? It’s a rare moment where Mickey Mouse, the most upbeat, constantly smiling Disney character, is sad, and not in an “Oh darn, we need a to find a Mouseke-tool to solve this problem” way. The loss of someone he cares about so deeply has crushed him beyond words. Without having to say a thing, he captures every ounce of sadness from this scene’s literary counterpart and outdoes almost all the filmic versions. Is it any wonder this screengrab popped up everywhere after Wayne Allwine’s passing?
And things get better and better from there. Nearby a couple of gravediggers, played by some weasels from Mr. Toad, are chuckling over the resident of the latest plot they unearthed; apparently he was so unpopular, nobody showed up to his funeral. Scrooge asks the spirit who the poor soul in that open grave is, and…
The Ghost of Christmas Future reveals himself to be Pete, Mickey’s longtime arch-nemesis. While striking a match on the tombstone to light his cigar, he illuminates the name inscribed –
Holy crap, is this terrifying. The scene only lasts 30 seconds, but to this traumatized child it felt like an eternity. An eternity of helpless, undiluted terror. It petrified me to the point I refused to have anything to do with Mickey’s Christmas Carol for years. If it was on, you’d find me hiding somewhere in the other side of the house. The Little Golden Book we had remained firmly shut before it was eventually given away along with the VHS tape. As an adult…I’ve gotta admit, it’s still pretty darn scary; it’s almost enough to put the fear of God in me, at least for a while. I mean I can appreciate a good scary scene in a Disney feature but JESUS this is pushing it. Then I really got to thinking, what is it about this scene that petrified me so…you know, apart from Scrooge holding on for dear life above a pit of flames screaming he can change while Pete stands over him wreathed in smoke and embers laughing mercilessly?
Here’s the thing: I was raised Catholic; not so strictly that I’m a bible-thumping conservative, but enough to leave a profound influence on my life. My education was primarily in Catholic schools, I grew up in a white Catholic community, and my paternal grandfather passed away while I was very young so I knew all about the concept of going to Heaven when you died if you were good all before I was potty-trained.
What those preschool lessons on the afterlife DIDN’T include, however, was the OTHER place you could plummet to when you died.
And this, this one horrifying dangle above that coffin spewing fire and brimstone, was my first eye-opening, pants-browning glimpse of Hell itself.
On the other hand, after I revisited this short, that small twisted part of me that’s into Disney’s dark side made me realize how much I would LOVE to see them do their take on something like Dante’s Inferno. Too bad they’d never have the balls to –
Anyway, seconds before he’s dropped into the ending of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Scrooge mercifully reappears at home. It’s Christmas morning, and after being spooked repeatedly, forced to relive tragic memories, and barely escaping eternal damnation, it has never looked more beautiful. Scrooge runs about London still in his dressing gown enthusiastically righting all his wrongs – he donates more gold to Mole and Rat than they can carry, lets Donald know he’ll be joining him for dinner that evening, and picks up some toys and a sizable goose before dropping by the Cratchits. Feeling a bit prankish, he plays it up as he’s about to punish Bob for not showing up to work, though he can’t keep up the charade long with dear Tiny Tim around. Scrooge announces he’s raising Bob’s salary and making him his new partner, and in return he’s accepted as part of the family.
In their review of Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert criticized it for being a soulless march through the motions. While I can understand where they were coming from – when you’re a professional film critic you have to sit through lord knows how many iterations of the same story – I wholeheartedly disagree with their statement. That instant familiarity with A Christmas Carol works in the short’s favor. Mickey Christmas Carol’s biggest flaw, which is how much is condensed from the book, is also, paradoxically, its greatest strength. Filler and scenes which have been paraded out year after year have been whittled down to their essence; we still get the same emotional heft without it dragging on for too long or retreading too much of Dickens’ same familiar prose. That being said, I would have appreciated one or two moments slowing down for a bit to really let those feelings sink in, though I acknowledge there’s only so much you can do in twenty minutes of animation.
Despite dissonance among audiences and critics, Mickey’s Christmas Carol has since gone on to be a standard for Disney and Christmas Carol fans alike. It also succeeded in its mission of bringing Mickey back into the limelight, even if he is basically a secondary character. And for all the flak I give this short for traumatizing me in my early youth, I’d say its earned its right to be considered a classic. I count it among the specials I have to sit down and watch this time of year at least once. A couple of years back I came across a VHS tape at a goodwill store and had to pick it up for myself just for the nostalgia. Great voice acting, stellar animation, and an all-around splendid retelling of a timeless story that leaves its own mark in the pantheon of Dickens’ adaptations. If I ever have kids, I’d be perfectly happy with this being their intro to A Christmas Carol.
Well, that or the Muppet version. At least that doesn’t have Michael Caine nearly plunging into the inferno.
Thank you for reading! What’s your favorite version of A Christmas Carol? Let me know in the comments! If you’d like to support me and see more reviews, consider supporting me on Patreon. I’ll be back on December 13th to review the next holiday special you voted for!
Artwork by Charles Moss.
And yes, that Mickey Mouse Inferno comic is real. And they have an English print available.