A Christmas Carol (1971)

This 1971 British TV special was subsequently given a brief theatrical showing, making it eligible for the Academy Award for an Animated Short, which it rightly won. It's easy to see why - with all due respect to Mickey's Christmas Carol, I've got a new favorite animated adaptation. It's directed by Richard Williams, the genius who handled the animation side of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and spent decades working on The Thief and the Cobbler, a legendary animated production that was never properly finished. Ken Harris and Chuck Jones worked on this as well, in case being directed by one of the greatest animators in history wasn't enough.

Stylistically, this is based on illustrations accompanying classic versions of Dickens's book. To put it another way, you will recognize these characters. In a similar vein, they got Alistair Sim to reprise his role as Scrooge from the 1951 production. This is, without a doubt, the most impressive half-hour version of A Christmas Carol I've ever encountered, either in live action or animation.

Some of the animation in this rivals that of The Snowman, so we're clear on what league this is in. I'll even take that a bit further: looking at some of the flying sequences with The Ghost of Christmas Present, I suspect this was the inspiration for many of The Snowman's iconic visuals. This is astonishingly complex, showing off elaborate, detailed movement and changing angles decades before computer animation made that commonplace.

This also features designs that are lightyears ahead of other adaptations. The Ghost of Christmas Past, in particular, is by orders of magnitude the best recreation of the character I've seen. Likewise, Christmas Yet to Come puts other versions to shame. London is more stylized and atmospheric than ever. It's a world of sketch marks, charcoal, and shading.

Tonally, this leans heavily into the horror elements of the source material. This is darker and scarier than almost any adaptation I've come across - it conveys the supernatural fear felt by its protagonist as he glimpses things beyond his imagination. This is most evident with the Ghost of Christmas Past, who's almost alien in design in keeping with the source material.

Unfortunately, there is a tradeoff for all that. Visually and tonally, this special is unmatched. But at 25 minutes long, obviously it's going to rush, and both story and character are sacrificed. I'm not complaining: if you want to get the full tale, there's no shortage of feature-length versions: their priorities were absolutely in the right places. But it should be noted this doesn't really create a meaningful emotional connection with Scrooge or even the Cratchits. It's using the medium of animation to create moving illustrations for people who know the story, rather than trying to tell the story in its entirety.

I don't consider that a mistake, but it is ultimately a limitation. Nothing can eclipse this visually, but many other animated adaptations manage to create a more compelling story. This is more impressive than Mickey's Christmas Carol, hands down, but don't expect the characters to be in the same ballpark. This is very much focused on each moment in isolation, sacrificing continuity of character and occasionally tone to make each section as interesting as possible.

This does make casting Sim as Scrooge come off as overkill. It almost feels like they brought him in for name recognition, rather than because he'd be the best choice to voice the character. I actually think Michael Hordern's Marley - also a reprise of his role in the 1951 adaptation - was more effective. In fairness to Sim, Marley appearing for just one scene meant he wasn't kneecapped by having to jump from one emotion to the next without meaningful transitions.

The criticisms in the last few paragraphs are intended to assess honestly the merits and flaws of this special in its entirety, not to detract from this as a work of art. The animation is more than enough to recommend this on its own, same goes for both the design work and the tone. This is a moving portrait of A Christmas Carol fixated on one of its least explored aspects: that of a ghost story. It's unnerving, beautiful, and fascinating in that respect, even if the limits of working this into a half-hour prevent it from connecting as a complete story.

Track this down and enjoy it for what it is. I've seen a lot of adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and even with its shortcomings, this ranks among the best. More importantly, the take is utterly unique among modern retellings.