A Christmas Carol (1969)

This 45-minute-long Australian animated adaptation of A Christmas Carol is sort of a mixed bag, which frankly is quite a bit better than I was expecting. It stars Ron Haddrick as the voice of Scrooge, apparently for the first of two times - he's credited in an animated '80s version as well (no promises, but I'll try and get to it).

I'll start with the visuals. The backdrops vary in quality and style from scene to scene. At times, they look like pastel crayons, like something out of a children's book. But there are also moments, particularly some early establishing shots, where they're more evocative, almost like it's mimicking Van Gogh. I have no idea how intentional that was, but a few of the scenes are surprisingly atmospheric for a low-budget animated special from this era.

The character animation is at least easier to summarize: if you've seen early Scooby-Doo, this is virtually indistinguishable. That's not a bad thing! Scooby-Doo featured good character animation for its time, and this keeps pace. But the halfway point between realism and caricature is maintained. More than that, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come looks so much like a generic Scooby-Doo villain, I half-expected Shaggy to walk in front of him holding an oversized sandwich.

Let's turn to how this approaches the source material because that's where it becomes interesting. Overall, it follows the basic outline, but that of course describes virtually every version I've come across. Where this deviates is what it cuts and leaves in: most shortened adaptations focus on the past and trims the Future to its bare essentials. This does the opposite, rushing through the Past and Present and adapting virtually all of the fourth Stave. They still cut back scenes in that section, but all the significant moments are present - the business associates, the pawnbroker, the body under the sheet, the Cratchits mourning Tim, and of course the grave. In contrast, the last time we see Fred or any reference to Scrooge's family is in Scrooge's office at the beginning.

This also places a great deal of weight on the scene with Marley's ghost, here reimagined as a ghastly, skeletal monstrosity. It's an odd choice, but in some ways a clever one - it actually plugs a plot hole in the source material where Scrooge doesn't recognize his own partner.

I like this scene quite a bit, incidentally. Same goes for all the spirits, though the designs for Past and Present are more alike than I prefer (Past is basically Father Time, while Present is Father Christmas).

The other major change is a structural one, and it ties into the decision to severely reduce Fred's role. With that subplot more or less excised, all that's left is the Cratchits. They don't expand any of this, but they do adjust the weight. Scrooge learned nothing and shows no remorse or sign of improvement until he asks if Tim will live. This alters the story from one of gradual transformation to one where he pivots at a key moment.

I don't consider that change intrinsically good or bad, but it does fundamentally alter the story through a relatively minor alteration.

Let's move to a few things I do think are fundamentally bad. First, there's Scrooge's voice. He speaks in a sort of high-pitched, villainous way - I honestly paused to check if it was Christopher Collins playing the role a decade and change before being cast as Starscream (it's not: the lead is Ron Haddrick, who's apparently a respected Australian Shakespearean actor). I'm assuming he's exaggerating his voice to emphasize how bad Scrooge is prior to his redemption. Personally, I think that's a mistake.

I wouldn't love the choice even if this were a straightforward kids' production. And the thing is... it really isn't. Sure, it's animated, but tonally it leans towards the darker end of the spectrum. It's not extremely bleak, but it's also more interested in the scary stuff than the comedy (as evidenced by the fact it cuts the past and present short to make time for Marley and the Future). This leans more towards horror and drama than comedy, despite Scrooge's cackling voice, a bizarre subplot about sneezing (more on this in a moment), and...

Okay, let's back up and address the one scene with Fred that survived. This is the moment in Scrooge's office where they argue about Christmas. And in this version, they do so in song.

It's the strangest sequence in an already strange special, because it's completely out of place here. Conceptually, it's very similar to the song the two characters shared in the 1956 live broadcast of The Stingiest Man in Town starring Basil Rathbone - I suspect it's an homage to that production. I'll note the end of this version, with Scrooge going to Cratchit's with gifts, also resembles the finale of Stingiest Man, though there are definitely changes (this has Scrooge invite himself to dinner with the Cratchits, which I've never seen before). Interestingly, other elements overlap with the 1959 version, which also starred Rathbone (both this and the 1959 version feature a free-floating hand bell, similar cuts made to the scene with Scrooge and Marley, and the design on the Spirits of Christmas Past and Yet to Come are virtually identical).

Before wrapping up, I want to address the sneeze. This is actually a running character quirk in which Scrooge snorts powder off his wrist in an attempt to sneeze but is physically unable to do so until he improves as a person. If you stopped reading at "snorts powder," you see why this left such an impression on me. I'm assuming this act wasn't as tightly associated with drug use when this was made, but... uh... what were they going for, exactly?

Okay, one more recurring character quirk. Scrooge carries around a coin, which he plays with throughout the special. Around the same time we get an explanation about the snorting, we're also told it was the first golf sovereign he ever earned. This also becomes a symbol of his growth when he tosses it to the kid outside as payment for the Cratchits' dinner, but really I'm more interested in a similar object owned by a different Scrooge. Based on a quick Google search, Scrooge McDuck's #1 dime has been around since the fifties, so if there's a connection, this is referencing Carl Bank's comics. Or it could easily be a coincidence.

This special is better than I expected for the era, but it's a long way from the best animated Christmas Carol out there. I like that it embraces some darker aspects of the source material, but the lack of consistency makes this difficult to recommend.