A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004)

I almost skipped over this one. It's one of several produced in part by Hallmark Entertainment, and I haven't been particularly impressed with the others I've seen from them. And while I want to see as many adaptations as humanly possible, the reality is there are a lot of these out there. Since it's impossible to see them all, I've been prioritizing the best regarded, then mixing in as many that seem notable or unusual as possible. On the surface, this one seemed pretty unremarkable, and I hadn't come across any diehard fans or proponents. 

It stars Kelsey Grammer, who has a less than stellar track record for choosing Christmas movies, and an even worse record when it comes to this particular story. On top of that, I'm not a fan of the guy as a person (his politics are awful, and - before anyone asks - given how bad the world's gotten, I absolutely think it's fair to let that factor into your opinion of a celebrity). All that said, he's certainly a capable actor - more on that later.

Despite all that, it was a musical, which put it on Lindsay's radar, so we gave it a shot.

And... it's good? Not great or groundbreaking, mind you, but honestly pretty good for what it is, all things considered. I'd rank the songs above those in any other musical adaptation I've come across to date. And the leads deliver great comedic performances. There are definitely some "buts" coming, but let's hold those until after we discuss what this is and how it changes the story.

A Christmas Carol: The Musical is an adaptation of a stage musical written by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens. If you recognize Menken's name, the answer is "yes, this does sort of feel like A Christmas Carol got shoved through whatever machine churned out the '90s Disney films." And that's far from a bad thing! Like I said, the songs in this are as good as I've come across in musical adaptations of this material (at least in my opinion: Lindsay's got a more nuanced opinion on all this).

Let's move on to those changes. There are a lot this time, starting with the setting of the first section. Rather than place the action in Scrooge's office, this moves everything to the Exchange. All the normal interactions occur, many of which mid-song (while this has some traditional dialogue, it leans far closer to an operatic interpretation than most musical versions). Bob Cratchit is accompanying Scrooge as his assistant, which is somewhat unique: I've seen several versions introduce the Exchange at the beginning, but I don't recall ever once seeing Cratchit present. There are also two new significant characters: a grieving widower and his young daughter who ask Scrooge for an extension on a loan. They'll be back later.

Odder still, the three spirits get brief introductions here, albeit in civilian identities. They're easy to spot, as they're given significant parts and find ways to work their themes into lyrics. This does mean the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be (easier to rhyme I guess) gets to speak. To be fair, she only does so here and at the very end, after Scrooge is a changed man: she's entirely silent in the future.  

I almost expected Scrooge's office would be cut entirely, but he stops by briefly with Fred in tow. Still, we never actually see Cratchit in said office: Scrooge has already dismissed him by this time. Bob is sick with a cold in order to allude to the cold conditions he endures, since the film is not actually showing those scenes.

The Marley sequence adheres relatively close to the story as far as plot is concerned, but tonally and conceptually it's a large departure. He's played by Jason Alexander, who offers a far more comedic spin on Scrooge's dead partner than is typical. There's also a song where he summons a bunch of other ghosts who were similarly punished to join in tormenting Scrooge. This is an odd sequence: depending on your perspective, it's either silly fun or grotesque body horror (decapitated heads, cavities in torsos filled with coins, etc.).

The Ghost of Christmas Past is played by Jane Krakowski, who's incredibly funny, a good casting choice, and - as a side note - she rumored to be involved romantically with Kermit the Frog. She appears from smoke coming off a candle by Scrooge's bed, then hands him a magic book which shows him himself going back in time to see...

Okay, this bit gets a little muddled. The book's supposed to be showing the images, but they could just shoot the scenes normally, so they tried to have it both ways (I suspect this is one of several issues this developed in the transition from stage to screen). More notable is Scrooge's backstory, which is completely overhauled.

The new defining moment of his childhood comes in the form of his father being sent to debtors prison, an event which irreparably broke his family and left Scrooge with a lifelong phobia of poverty. Elements of this are borrowed from the life of Charles Dickens, though I don't believe the consequences of his father's conviction were quite so final (Scrooge's family is basically split apart, and his relations die while separated, one at a time).

We move on to Fezziwig and meet Scrooge's love interest, Emily (perhaps they thought the traditional name, "Belle," would invoke Menken's involvement with Beauty and the Beast). We jump ahead a few years and find Scrooge and Marley fixated on business. Fezziwig comes to them for a loan, and Scrooge coldly turns him down. Emily then breaks up with Scrooge due to his obsession with money, though he tries to argue his point, and...

Okay. Here's where we kind of run into a problem with Scrooge's new origin, because... he's kind of right? I mean, he's wrong to be cruel, but his fear of poverty is the result of trauma inflicted on him by an unfair system that penalizes people for their lack of wealth. Scrooge equates poverty with death, because as a child he witnessed just that result. Emily's argument that all they need is each other does feel a little na├»ve in context.

I feel like the writers realized they could incorporate some of Dickens's life into the story but didn't stop to ask themselves why Dickens didn't do so himself. It's not a huge deal, and the new version makes for some interesting sequences, but it does somewhat break the moral at the heart of the story.

After this, we see Marley die after working on Christmas Eve. Scrooge is there when it happens, and we see it affect him in both times: this Scrooge really did care about his friend. After that, there's a brief bit where Scrooge extinguishes the candle, so Christmas Past vanishes for good.

Next we're onto the Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Jesse L. Martin, who I mainly recognize from The Flash (though interestingly both he and Krakowski appear in the 2008 TV Muppet movie, Letters to Santa). This section includes a new scene in which Scrooge attends a Christmas play where the ghost sings about Christmas. This sequence is unusual in that the other people present are able to see and interact with Scrooge. The girl from earlier is present, and at the end Scrooge gives her a small gift he'd caught after the spirit tossed a bunch into the audience.

Next, we do a musical montage that takes us through the Cratchits' home and Fred's party. Scrooge learns about Tiny Tim and begins to undergo a change of heart. But of course we still need to do Christmas Yet to Be.

This spirit is played by Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin (who made some of the greatest films in history but not one Christmas movie, goddammit). She is mainly here as a dancer, and - despite getting far less time than the other two - she manages to leave an impression. Her character is dressed like someone out of Willow, but it works here, largely thanks to Chaplin's presence on stage.

The other elements in this sequence are less successful. The main issue is hardly unique to this scene, but this is where it's most evident: they're trying to fit a stage musical shaped-peg through a camera lens-shaped hole, and the results are awkward. The song they're adapting is clearly designed to sort of play out as a montage of events Scrooge is seeing in the future: his business associates laughing about his demise, people stealing his belongings from his dead corpse, the Cratchits mourning Tim... you get the idea. Only it's all occurring more or less at once here. On stage, you'd do this by wheeling out new set pieces as the song goes on. Here, they did... that. More or less, they just staged this the exact same way they'd have done it on stage.

Making matters worse, there are a bunch of grave diggers serving as a chorus, and they shovel... nothing. They're shoveling, but there's no dirt, because they're on a stage, not a location. For this scene, the production kind of transforms into a filmed version of a stage musical. It just doesn't work in context.

The scene is weird. We see Scrooge's dead body lying in the bead, which feels like a continuity error given his delay in acknowledging he's the one who died. The scene ends with a bunch of characters from earlier - including the girl from the beginning, as well as Scrooge's mom and sister - showing up to imply salvation. Eventually the casket starts glowing and seems to explode, then the ghost covers Scrooge with cloth, and he wakes up at home.

The resolution is rushed but otherwise fine. We wrap everything up on Christmas day, with Scrooge heading over to the Cratchits' in person. He does a brief fake-out before revealing the turkey and promising to raise Bob's salary and help him. Then he crosses the street to his nephew's house, which... you know what? Sure, why not.

The movie's largest issue is the tension between stage and film I mentioned a moment ago. This permeates a great deal of the runtime and is exacerbated by obvious visual effects used for transitions and then dropped. The movie sort of shifts back and forth between feeling like a slightly modified stage musical and an actual movie. This was a problem with a lot of musicals from this era (anyone else remember the 1999 Midsummer Night's Dream?). And this has the added strike against it of being made on a TV budget, so the effects look cheap. It makes the experience uneven and the movie hard to become engrossed in.

There's another side to this coin, however. It doesn't manage to embody the best of either world, but it does succeed in avoiding the worst of either, if that makes sense. It doesn't fail as a movie, because its limitations there are offset by the theatrical components, and it includes just enough set work and direction to avoid feeling like it was thrown together last minute.

The designs sort of occupy a middle ground, as well. Costumes and sets feel like an average of what you'd expect from a movie and stage version. This is brighter and more colorful than most interpretations, which feels like what you'd expect from a play. But the sets are scaled up (some impressively so), and augmented with what appear to be virtual backdrops (to mixed success).

In the lead role, Kelsey Grammer delivers a solid performance. He has the physicality, the personality, and the singing talent to pull this off. He conveys Scrooge's emotional journey, selling the changes that occur through the Present section. I don't much care for Grammer as a person, but there's no denying he's good here.

Let's talk about the cast. I already touched on the spirits, all of whom were inspired choices. The movie went with non-traditional takes on the three ghosts, and I think it paid off. I like what each brings to the role, and they're a lot of fun throughout.

Likewise, Jason Alexander is always a fun addition. Jennifer Love Hewitt has a small role as Emily, but she's good as well. Overall, it's a good cast.

This is a very unusual spin on the material, and not everything works. But some decent music and good performances make for a solid movie overall. It's limited by its budget, but as a whole, it's far better than I anticipated. I wouldn't quite call this an unconditional recommendation, but I'm genuinely shocked it comes as close as it does.

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