A Christmas Carol, abe levitow, academy awards, adaptation, allistair sim, animated, animated cartoon, animated short, animated shorts, animated special, animation, animators, Bob Cratchit, charles dickens, Christmas, christmas carol, Christmas cartoon, Christmas review, christmas special, christmas story, chuck jones, drumpf, Ebenezer Scrooge, fuck trump, ghost, ghost of christmas future, ghost of christmas past, ghost of christmas present, ghosts, god rest ye merry gentlemen, hand drawn animation, Jacob Marley, ken harris, London, michael hordern, Mickey's Christmas Carol, oscar nominated, oscar winning, oscars, richard purdum, Richard Williams, short, Tiny Tim, traditional animation, troll
Surprise, we had a tie in the shorts category! As my way of making up for the lack of reviews this year, here’s a little Christmas bonus for you all.
Last year we said goodbye to a giant in the field of animation, the one and only Richard Williams. In honor of his memory, I added some of his work to the Shelf, including this, a retelling of A Christmas Carol produced by fellow legend Chuck Jones with animation by Abe Levitow, Ken Harris, Grim Natwick and Richard Purdum among others. Adding to this auspicious company is Allistair Sim and Michael Hordern returning to voice Scrooge and Marley twenty years after playing them in the iconic 1951 film adaptation; it’s not Christmas in my household until I watch it with my father, the tree glowing in the corner as we huddle together in the dark in front of the TV, so hearing these voices again is a special treat.
Of course, since this is a Richard Williams’ production, there was no shortage of drama behind the scenes. Williams was a man who expected nothing less than perfection from his employees, and his stringent standards nearly proved to be his downfall (not for the last time either, if you know what happened to The Thief and the Cobbler). Work fell so behind schedule that the animators were forced to pull 7-day 14-hour workweeks with unpaid overtime, and the final product still wasn’t ready until one hour before the deadline! The results, however, speak for themselves. This is a beautifully crafted feature. Though Williams and crew had to resort to some rotoscoping to finish the job, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where they did.
This short was originally made for television, but the high praise it received emboldened ABC to distribute it theatrically. It would go on to be nominated for and win the Oscar for Best Animated Short the following year. This also gives it the distinct honor of being the only version of A Christmas Carol to win an Academy Award. Imagine, 200+ versions of the same story made over a period of nearly a hundred years yet only one gets that kind of recognition! Members of the Academy chafed at the idea that a short first shown on television took home the gold, and would quickly change the rules so that any future works that premiered on TV would not qualify for a nomination.
Despite its accolades and the high-profile names attached, Richard Williams’ Christmas Carol is surprisingly hard to find on home video. The version I watched for this review came from Youtube via TheThiefArchive, where you can find all things related to Williams uploaded for posterity.
So, classic story, some of the greatest animators of the twentieth century, all brought together by a man whom I consider the definitive Mad Genius of animation. What’s the worst that could happen?
It’s the day before Christmas, and while all of Victorian London is in a festive mood, miserly old Ebeneezer Scrooge is being his usual humbug self. He overworks his poor employee employee Bob Cratchit, turns away two kindly gentlemen collecting donations for the poor, and declines his nephew Fred’s invitation to dinner –
Watching this version of A Christmas Carol, it struck me how Dickens’ writing has risen to the level of Shakespeare in just how instantly recognizable it is. The lines, characters, story and message continue to resonate with us centuries after it was first told, and that’s why we still love seeing new versions; at the very least, it’s nice to watch a new generation of great actors say these immortal phrases. Seeing how it all plays out in this short, however, made me appreciate the adaptations that don’t rely so heavily on the original text and aren’t afraid to play around with it. Look at Mickey’s Christmas Carol: nearly all the dialogue there is new with a sprinkling of familiar phrases, yet it still captures Dickens’ spirit entirely. This short, on the other hand, retains as much from the book as possible; due its length and brisk pacing, however, everything happens so fast that there’s very little emotional impact. The perfect example of this is when Scrooge talks with the charity collectors. At one point he takes over their lines just so the scene ends quicker.
At the close of the day, Scrooge leaves his counting house and makes the lonely trek back home. I don’t know whether it’s the quality of the print or if it was intentional, but how Scrooge’s abode is depicted in this version is easily among the creepiest: pitch-black backgrounds, dim sketchy light that renders everything monochrome, and every minute noise sounds magnified. They even keep in the oft-excised ghostly hearse that rides past him up the stairs. None of this spookiness is enough to put off Scrooge, though, and he sits by the fire for his customary dinner of day-old gruel.
Scrooge’s repast is interrupted by the arrival of Jacob Marley, his former business partner. This comes as something of a shock to Scrooge since Marley’s been dead for seven years. The difference in animation between Marley and Scrooge is really what sells the supernatural terror of this scene. Marley’s animated on a choppier frame rate than Scrooge which makes him look like he’s moving underwater. It’s also an apt visualization of his description in the novel: “There was something very awful, too, in the spectre’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own […] for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair and skirts and tassels were still agitated as by the hot vapor from an oven.”
When Scrooge says he doesn’t believe Marley is real, he unwraps his headscarf which makes his jaw drop to his waist and lets out a terrifying howl.
Marley continues the scene this way, so, props to his ventriloquist skills and to the animators for figuring out how to keep costs down. He gives Scrooge the usual warning: he’s weighed down with chains he forged in life, the same fate awaits him if he doesn’t listen to three ghosts, pretty familiar though chilling stuff.
Marley floats out the window into a horrifying sight all but a few adaptations exclude. Other spirits like him, shackled to their metaphorical materialism, fill the air, moaning, forced to look upon those they should have helped in life and helpless to provide aid and comfort to them now; a cruel ironic punishment with images that make it seem ripped from the pages of Dante.
Scrooge somehow gets some sleep after that until he’s woken by the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Again, this is one of the most faithful depictions of the Ghost of Christmas Past I’ve ever seen. Constantly shifting in age and size, multiple limbs in various stages of movement, looking for all the world like a child viewed through a flickering candle flame. The animation perfectly captures the spirit’s otherworldliness. I would say this is one of the best versions of the Ghost except the voice acting is too dry for my liking. I’m not sure if this is due to the fuzzy print or a deliberate decision on Williams’ part, but she sounds like she was recorded over the phone.
Past pulls Scrooge back in time, though their flight over London’s rooftops isn’t really a magical journey. It’s like the trippy Liverpool departure from Yellow Submarine with some flashing lights added. Scrooge and the ghost arrive at the boarding school where his cruel father abandoned him in his childhood. Year after year he spent many a lonely Christmas there even as all his friends left to visit their own loving families. The mere sight is enough to move Scrooge to tears. Shame that there’s no mention of his dear sister Fan or how her untimely death ties into how he treats her son and his nephew, Fred. Past fast-forwards to Scrooge as a young man with an astounding time-lapse.
At this time, Scrooge is working for good old Mr. Fezziwig, who’s giving his employees a holly jolly Christmas party. The style of this short takes many cues from the novel’s original illustrations, and Fezziwig’s ball looks like the picture itself come to life.
Past points out that Fezziwig didn’t break the bank in putting together his parties but he still went out of his way to make those in his employ feel happy and appreciated. One of the very few things I miss about working a regular 9-to-5 job are the swinging holiday soirees we’d throw once the stores closed for the evening. It gives Scrooge some considerable pause, and he realizes that he ought to start treating Bob better.
Past exclaims her time is short and we whoosh right into Scrooge’s fiancee Belle calling off their engagement without really introducing who she is or why we should care that she’s leaving him. “When Love is Gone” this is not. I do like that when Scrooge arrives in this scene, he’s forced right into his younger self’s face, unable to look away as he makes the most selfish, heartbreaking decision of his life.
Scrooge has had enough of this trauma and puts out the ghost’s lights (literally) by squashing it with its oversized candle-hat-thing. Then he wakes up back home. But with the next chiming of the clock comes Ghost #2, Christmas Present.
Scrooge and Present visit the streets of London and watch happy families go about their business on Christmas Day. They also spy on the Cratchit family. There’s nothing particularly special or touching about this iteration of the Cratchits, just your usual “God bless us everyone” cheeriness. The one thing that stood out for me was Bob’s delivery when he tells his wife how Tiny Tim (voiced by Richard Williams’ son Alexander) wanted the people in church to look at him so they’d remember Jesus’ healing of the cripples and feel grateful. He’s so proud of his boy but is all too aware that his days are numbered. By the end you can tell he’s barely keeping it together. Scrooge asks if Tiny Tim will die; in a rarity for any production, he actively begs Present to stop when he repeats what Scrooge said earlier about decreasing the surplus population.
Then we get the scene that I’m convinced is the reason this short was made, the breathtaking moment that almost excuses the breakneck pace of everything before it. Present takes Scrooge on a Snowman-esque flight to the most desolate corners of the world where laborers forgotten by everyone allow themselves a scrap of joy on this one happy day: a community of coal miners and their families, a lone ship’s captain out at sea, and two keepers of a solitary lighthouse lift each other’s spirits spirits, their separate verses of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” blending into each other.
Following that, we spend two seconds at Fred’s party, and then we jump into Present showing Scrooge two kids he keeps under his robe –
– a boy and a girl called Ignorance and Want. Present warns Scrooge to beware of how these two little demons cling to mankind, especially Ignorance.
Scrooge asks if there’s no refuge for these juvenile hellspawn. Present responds by throwing Scrooge’s words about prisons and workhouses back in his face.
The clock strikes midnight and Scrooge is left alone with the final spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Future. While this Ghost is no different from its many filmic counterparts (black robe, no face, totally silent), it has so much presence thanks to – say it with me – the animation. It communicates everything we need to know through the calculated movements of one cold white hand. Scrooge picks up most of the spirit’s cues for us, but the way he goes on it feels like he’s putting words in his…hood.
The first vision Future shows is of three bankers hobnobbing in the financial district.
The trio of misers chortle over some putz who kicked the bucket recently, with Mr. Seal proclaiming that he’ll only go to the funeral if they’re serving lunch (preferably fish in a bucket). Next, Scrooge is shown some ne’er-do-wells pawning off blankets, bed curtains, and other goods they stole off the dead man. Scrooge isn’t getting the message so Future takes him to see the corpse himself. But he’s too freaked out to pull off sheets covering him despite Future’s silent insistence and still can’t put two and two together. The spirit only points harder at the body, as if it’s strongly fighting the urge to facepalm.
Scrooge asks if they can see some mourning connected to this miserable mystery fellow. Future gives him a glimpse of Bob grieving over the late Tiny Tim, and then whisks him off to a claustrophobic graveyard to reveal Scrooge as its most ignored, unloved inhabitant. Well, you know the rest: Scrooge insists he’s changed, wakes up on Christmas morning a wiser, happier man and does good all around.
I know I’m ending this rather abruptly and without feeling, but the short is guilty of doing the same. Despite my high praise of Williams’ body of work, there’s one problem I have with much of it that I think his Christmas Carol exemplifies: the lack of human connection. The animation is amazing, but I don’t really feel anything watching it – and when you remember that this is supposed to be one of the most moving Christmas stories of all time, that’s not a good thing. There are plenty of other versions out there that do a better job hitting those emotional beats and ingratiating these characters to us, even in the same timespace (I refer you once again to Mickey’s Christmas Carol). Richard Williams’ Christmas Carol isn’t my favorite, but it’s still worth watching to admire his artistry and the hard work of so many talented people. At the very least, it’s a must if you really want to say you’ve seen every version of the story out there.
And that’s the end of Trollnald! Not joking, the character is gone for good. I’ve planned different ways to write him out of the blog once his counterpart’s reign of terror ended and decided to tie that into something I’ve always wanted to do: plunk him into a Christmas Carol review and parody how much of a stubborn (insert expletive of choice here) he is. Let us hope he never comes back.
Rest assured, reviews will be far less political and much more merry from here on out. In fact, join me next week when we take a look at a slightly skewed take on A Christmas Carol that’s, for lack of a better word, a real duck-blur…
Thank you for reading! Be sure to stick around throughout December because we have more Christmas content on the way! If you want to get a sneak peek of what’s to come and other great perks, then please consider joining my Patreon. Special thanks to my Patrons Amelia Jones, Gordhan Rajani and Sam Minden for their support during these trying financial times.
Artwork by Charles Moss.