A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)

This seventy-minute TV movie falls in a microgenre in which preexisting characters are acting out a version of A Christmas Carol as part of a play or movie. The original is of course the Mr. Magoo special, though Looney Tunes, Disney, and The Muppets all attempted a similar premise, with varying levels of fourth wall breaks. I'd argue this is a distinct approach to homages in which characters are visited by spirits or in some other way put through a Dickensian trial as themselves. In this case, the characters are treated as actors playing the cast of A Christmas Carol.

Well, sort of. Flintstones Christmas Carol alters the formula very slightly in a couple ways. First, it embraces the play-within-a-play motif to a far greater extent than its predecessors. Magoo's Christmas Carol acknowledges the play mainly in an introduction and conclusion, but makes few references throughout. Mickey's Christmas Carol includes no explanation whatsoever for the casting choices (though I'd argue it's implicit, and even more so in the cast list on the recording the film is based on). Flintstones, however, includes an ongoing frame story about its stars mirroring the one in the play. In this way, it's almost structurally more like the 2017 special, A Christmas Carol Gone Wrong, though Flintstones adheres far closer to Dickens' text than that would. All that despite the other alteration to the formula.

While this is sort of A Christmas Carol, it's not entirely the same, due to being (at least in theory) set long before the birth of Charles Dickens. All this is of course more a commitment to an ongoing joke than a serious attempt to construct a believable setting. The Flintstones is at heart a satire of 1960s suburbia set at the dawn of time, and the use of anachronisms with "stone-age" names and appearances should be viewed as lampshading the absurdity of the premise. In this case, that means characters have names like Ebonezer Scrooge, Bob Cragit, and Jacob Marbley (oddly, Belle, Fan, Tiny Tim, and Fezziwig were left unchanged). The weirdest name change, however, might be Scrooge's nephew, renamed "Ned," likely in order to avoid confusion with Fred Flintstone, who's playing Scrooge.

Even more surprisingly, Dickens's dialogue was kept mostly intact, aside from a usual number of cuts, minor tweaks, and the aforementioned name changes. Most of the dialogue alterations were done to update antiquated phrases and terms and retain meaning: functioning as a relatively accurate adaptation appears to have been a priority.

Likewise, changes to the story had some thought behind them. For example, there's an added section near the beginning where Scrooge's hat is knocked off his head by a kid throwing snowballs. The hat is then run over by a carriage, the kid is apprehended, and Scrooge has him work off his debt by shoveling his walkway. It's a throwaway bit, but it harkens back to the 1938 MGM adaptation, which featured a similar sequence.

Perhaps the largest change within the play came at the end, when Scrooge and Belle reunite. However, even this occurred in a way that respected the source material. The scene is adlibbed by Fred Flintstone to cover his surprise seeing his wife, who'd previously appeared as Belle, show up as a charity collector (more on the double casting later). The director laments backstage none of this is in his script as Scrooge takes "Belle" with him to visit his nephew. To make sense of this, we really need to step back and look at the frame story about the performance and Fred.

The premise here is that Fred has been cast as Scrooge in the community theater production, and the starring role has gone to his head. He boasts constantly and ignores his responsibilities as an employee, husband, and father. Further, he fails to recognize the contributions of others, most notably his wife, Wilma, who's stage managing the production and taking over as costumer because the person who previously had the role is out with a flu.

On Christmas Eve, Fred realizes he forgot to buy any presents for his family. He races to a department store prior to going to the theater and leaves his purchases behind, planning to pick these up later. In the process he forgets to pick up Pebbles at daycare. Wilma is of course furious: all his friends are. They constantly refer to him as "a Scrooge," which he dismisses.

I should also mention the movie's most bizarre side character, Maggie Magma, who works with Fred and is originally cast as Belle. She's depicted as beautiful and extremely eager to practice the "love scene" with Fred, who's equally interested. They never actually get to "rehearse," and she comes down with the aforementioned flu before being in the play, but everything about her is baffling. The movie kind of implies Maggie's interested in Fred, who at the very least finds her attractive. It's played for laughs, of course, but I'm baffled why it was included at all. As far as I can tell, Maggie is a new character who never appeared again - maybe they were considering developing her into a rival for Wilma, then thought better of it?

As the play progresses, more and more actors come down with the flu. Wilma is already playing the Ghost of Christmas Past when forced to go on as Belle. Then at the end, she has to fill in for one of the charity collectors, leading to Fred's confusion and the adlibbed ending. Barney, meanwhile, plays Bob Cragit, as well as Fezziwig. The kids appear as the Cragit children (with Bam-Bam playing Tiny Tim). Minor Flintstones characters play Marley's ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and briefly the Ghost of Christmas Future, though Dino takes over that role (again due to the flu).

Circling back to that frame story, there's a sequence during intermission where Fred leaves the theater to try and pick up his gifts, only to discover the store has closed. He breaks in to try and find the things he bought, but is found by a cop dressed as the Ghost of Christmas Future (he was on his way to the theater when he heard the silent alarm). He believes Fred's story and returns him to the theater.

Fred's redemption is scripted to occur during the play itself, with him realizing the error in his ways and making amends. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work narratively, as there's no obvious catalyst for his change of heart. He just kind of realizes he's been acting like Scrooge and needs to be better at the same time Scrooge does, because this thing's only an hour and ten minutes long.

After the show, he's gracious when Wilma is called out by the director as the real star who saved the show by stepping into multiple roles, both on and off stage. His gifts materialize thanks to the kid he left them with showing up at the theater. Then he comes down with the flu that's been going around.

Setting aside whether any of this is enjoyable for a moment, I respect what they were trying to do. Telling parallel versions of the story simultaneously isn't easy, particularly since they committed to retaining the entirety of the original (minus the usual cuts). The lack of follow-through is disappointing, of course: we really needed to understand why Fred changed for this to work structurally, and there's really nothing substantial here.

Visually, this does a good job retaining the background texture of the series. You can tell it was made in the '90s, rather than the '60s, but it's enough like the original to feel like an extension. Having recently seen some updated Looney Tunes cartoons, this was a welcome design choice.

I also appreciate that they're actually utilizing the setting to do something different with A Christmas Carol. While the dialogue and story are mostly unchanged, the props, sets, and references all of course reflect the world of The Flintstones. If you're going through the trouble of recreating Dickens using cartoon characters, you might as well use the cartoon stuff. The absence of this is my main issue with Magoo's Christmas Carol: I'm glad this doesn't repeat the same mistake.

Speaking of Magoo, both that and this play fast and loose with the logic of its show within a show. Flintstones does more to establish and maintain the idea there's a performance going on - it cuts to backstage several times to flip between narratives - but whenever the choice is between sticking to that reality and exploring the world of A Christmas Carol, it does the latter. This is most obvious in the sequence where the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge his past self. After some brief sequences establishing Fred changing costumes quickly, it drops the pretense and allows both versions of Fred to appear simultaneously. Then, when Wilma takes over as Belle in addition to the spirit, both of them appear, as well. Then again, the spirits are also translucent, so take all of this however you'd like.

As a whole, this is more interesting than good, and when I say "interesting," I mean "interesting to me, a guy who's watched dozens of versions of A Christmas Carol in the last 12 months." If you're tuning in to be entertained, you'll probably get bored with the dual stories and the cheesy jokes. This is really only for people who have a great deal of affection for both The Flintstones and A Christmas Carol: if you're less than enthusiastic about either, you're in for a long 70 minutes. That said, I'm impressed with the attention to detail that went into this. Things like the callback to the MGM movie and the way it lampooned versions that reunite Scrooge and Belle imply this was made by people who are familiar with the history of Dickens's classic. That counts for something; it just doesn't count for a recommendation.