Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962) [Revisited]

I'm not certain I need to revisit this at all. Rereading my review from 2014, I find my opinions haven't shifted much on rewatch. That said, having seen numerous other versions over the past few months has altered my perspective a bit. And, while I'm still not the world's biggest fan of this, its place in the history of Christmas specials kind of demands it be included in this year's project of watching every significant adaptation.

I'll start with something positive I only glossed over in my initial review: Jim Backus, the actor who voices Magoo/Scrooge, delivers a phenomenal vocal performance here. He manages to simultaneously stay in character as Mr. Magoo while that character plays Scrooge, and through it all his performance is faithful to Dickens' work. I harped a great deal in 2014 on the downsides of doing this within a frame story of a Broadway production (and I'm going to again in a moment), but Backus deserves credit for pulling it off without undercutting either of his characters.

Likewise, the rest of the cast (or at least most of it) does a good job maintaining that tone. Credit should also be extended to the director, Abe Levitow, for taking so much of the production seriously. It's not uncommon to see animation try to transform dialogue into a joke, and - for the most part - that's not the approach here.

If you caught me hedging in the last paragraph, it's because there are a few exceptions. The most extreme of which are the thieves pawning Scrooge's belongings at the end. Tiny Tim also comes off far too cartoonish in how his lines are delivered.

But all of that's minor compared to some of the songs. For me, this is where the special really unravels: while it kind of works as a dramedy, it really doesn't work as a musical. That's not to say every song is awful - a few are decent enough - but on the whole they're the weakest element, and even the good songs feel out of place. They just don't fit tonally or conceptually with the dialogue. Again and again, they break the flow of the special and invite the question, "What's this even supposed to be?"

It's a difficult question to answer. The concept is that Mr. Magoo is a Broadway star performing Scrooge in a play. Only whenever we step into the play, the audience vanishes, the world opens up, and supernatural events are treated as real. This quite literally can't decide whether it's willing to commit to its own frame story.

Which in turn invites us to ask why they bothered. While a subsequent version of Mr. Magoo would retain this aspect of his character, he wasn't an actor prior to this being made. It seems to be here in order to explain why Mr. Magoo is "playing" Scrooge, which isn't a question they needed to answer. Mickey's Christmas Carol certainly didn't address why Scrooge McDuck was Ebenezer Scrooge a few decades later, and no one complained. They should have trusted the audience to accept the reality of the situation, or at the very least made less of a big deal out of it. Cutting back to the audience at the end of each section highlights the awkwardness of the decision.

I'm likewise baffled why they swapped the order of the first two ghosts. Given how closely they adhered to the dialogue overall, it feels like an odd choice with few if any advantages. It doesn't have a massive impact, but it does reduce the special's value as an introduction to this story for kids. Likewise, anyone who knows the tale is left wondering if there's something wrong with the version they're watching.

Beyond that, this is relatively faithful to the source material, with the exception that Fred and Fan are cut entirely from the narrative. What is here is presented very close to the book, down to the designs of the spirits.

Of course, that all circles back to whether or not a faithful retelling of A Christmas Carol with characters designed after Mr. Magoo and friends is actually worth watching six decades later. My instinct is to say no. The animation quality isn't bad for TV of the time, but it's a style that prioritizes cost over quality. This just doesn't utilize its medium to its fullest, either as a Mr. Magoo cartoon or as an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and the attempt to overlap the two - while conceptually neat - doesn't stand up against numerous other versions.

And, yes, that's a little unfair, because this helped open the door for more visually impressive specials and movies. But fair isn't the metric here: rewatch value is.

I really do think the voice direction and acting are worth celebrating, and I appreciate this inspiring the generation of specials that followed. But as a whole, it's too dated to recommend to anyone not interested in its historical significance as the first animated TV Christmas special of its kind.