Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001)

Well, that's certainly not what I expected.

As a rule of thumb, animated adaptations of A Christmas Carol with runtimes between an hour and an hour and a half tend to be pretty by the numbers, as far as the scripts are concerned. Occasionally they'll toss in an animal companion, but the basic story almost always sticks to the source material. I've seen quite of these now, and all follow more or less the same formula.

Until now. This one is... it's weird. Really, really weird.

Let's back up. This is a British animated movie released direct to video in the US. To the limited degree it's remembered, it's due to the relatively impressive cast, which features Kate Winslet, Michael Gambon, Rhys Ifans, and Nicholas Cage, among others. Simon Callow voices Scrooge and plays Charles Dickens in live-action segments at the start and end, a role he'd reprise on Doctor Who a few years later.

It's also worth noting this is directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, who made The Snowman (yes, THAT The Snowman). Aside from a conspicuous snowman added to the last section and a few possible references to the flying sequence in a scene where Scrooge is tripping balls with the Spirit of Christmas Present, there's really nothing in this that would imply the involvement of anyone involved with the classic special.

That's not to say this is entirely bad. If anything, I think the Tomatometer is a tad harsh at 13%. Note I said a TAD harsh - this isn't remotely good; it's just not all bad. The animation, while antiquated for the time, is a decent version of the style dominating '80s and '90s television. The movie prioritizes atmosphere, which is always a good sign, and the dialogue is taken seriously. Most impressively, they don't turn Scrooge into a caricature, something even most live-action versions do.

But (you knew there was a "but" coming)... uh... everything? Like, basically everything else you can imagine? This thing is a train wreck.

The story is completely overhauled from the start. This isn't automatically a bad thing, but if you're going to reimagine Scrooge without changing the setting or underlying premise, you need to offer something really, truly great. You're essentially advertising to the world that you can do better than Dickens: you damn well better deliver on that, because you've got our attention.

So. Let's talk about what that entails.

The movie opens with a live-action scene set in Boston in the 1860s in which Charles Dickens is preparing to recite A Christmas Carol in front of an American audience. Just as he's starting, a CG mouse shows up and scares a woman, who screams. Dickens immediately adjusts his story to include said mouse, and we cut to the fictional animated London where A Christmas Carol is actually set.

Rather than jump into the actual story, the first act of this movie is almost entirely a new creation. Scrooge is best described as a side character for the first fifteen minutes, which are far more focused on Belle, now reimagined as a nurse working at a hospital, Tiny Tim, the aforementioned mouse who is friends with Tim and is named Gabriel, and Old Joe. For those of you who haven't watched forty versions of A Christmas Carol in the past year, Old Joe is the pawnbroker who appears briefly in the "Christmas Yet to Come" section. Well, now he's a business partner of Scrooge's who manages debt collection and orders debtors taken into custody. We cut back to him and the police arresting numerous people who owe Scrooge money, including the doctor who runs the hospital Belle works at. Keep in mind, this is also the hospital assisting Tim. Oh, and Tim has pneumonia because he was singing with a group of carolers who Scrooge throws a bucket of water on.

At any rate, Belle writes Scrooge a letter pleading for his help. Gabriel and another mouse (there are two now - don't ask) see the whole thing and follow along. Belle attempts to drop said letter off at his office, but is forced to leave it with Bob Cratchit, who's kind of a dick here. He doesn't realize who she is and assumes she owes Scrooge money, so he just kind of dismisses her coldly. It's a very odd choice, all things considered. He tries giving Scrooge the letter later, but he momentarily misplaces it. The mice work tirelessly to try and get Scrooge to read the letter. I should note Scrooge sees the mice early on and is surprisingly gentle and kind to the animals from the start.

The movie moves on to the sequence with Fred, which is relatively close to the book, at least compared to everything else that just happened. Same goes for Marley, though there are a few notable deviations. First, it's set in Scrooge's office after Cratchit leaves. Also, the dialogue is updated a bit (this is the case throughout the movie, regardless of how close it's following the original). In a particularly weird change, the sequence with the charity collectors is moved right after Scrooge's visitation with Marley. They try to smooth this over by emphasizing Scrooge's skepticism of the ghosts, but it's still hard to reconcile his cavalier dismissal of the collectors right after witnessing a supernatural apparition.

Scrooge then goes home and sees the doorknob turn into Marley's face. Again, it's bizarre moving this after the full scene with Marley. But then again the mice are still tagging along trying to get Scrooge to read Belle's letter, so it's not like that's the only weird thing going on.

Gabriel the mouse also sticks around for Scrooge's trip to the past, though the other mouse gets left behind. Despite the presence of Gabriel, this section sticks at least somewhat close to the source, though it expands Belle's role by making her a childhood friend of Scrooge's sister, Fan. In this version, Fan picks up Scrooge from the boarding school and immediately introduces him to Belle, who's waiting in the carriage.

Scrooge's father also gets a scene establishing him as the source of Scrooge's issues. That's all subtext in the original, so it's not too bad a choice, but I'm not sure this really adds much of value. Same goes for an added sequence after the old man dies and Scrooge inherits the entirety of his estate. We get a little information about Fan having married against the family's wishes and having been disowned. Scrooge could have split the money with her but decided not to because he didn't like her husband.

The Present is fairly close to the original, though we get a brief look at Old Joe confiscating property on Scrooge's behalf. We also get the extended sequence I described earlier as Scrooge "tripping balls" that probably deserves some explanation. It's extrapolated from the section in which the Spirit of Christmas Present's torch brightens Scrooge's mood. Here, it's depicted with a psychedelic flying sequence with swirling colorful backgrounds. I suppose that's not an entirely unreasonable spin on the book, but it certainly feels odd.

The Yet to Come section is easily the best, and not just because it's the shortest. The whole thing is largely impressionistic, with figures appearing and vanishing in mist. It's still not great or really even good, but it's significantly better than anything else in the movie.

I should note Belle gets finagled into this sequence, as well, in perhaps the oddest way possible. The book contains a very brief sequence in which Scrooge is shown a couple celebrating his demise because it means their debt will transfer from him to someone less cruel. Here, they're replaced with the doctor and Belle, though she's heartbroken to hear of Scrooge's death. The doctor's happy, though.

Finally we reach the end. In theory, this is where the movie could have been salvaged by pulling the various threads together in the resolution. And, for what little it's worth, they do seem to try and juggle the new stories with the classic. They just don't succeed.

I should note that in this version Scrooge isn't instantly changed. In fact, he initially wakes up and is ready to dismiss it as a dream until he sees a vision of himself wearing chains in the mirror. It's not until he realizes it was all true that he attempts to change. I have mixed feelings about this concept - part of me likes the idea that we should see him struggle to transform himself, that it should require actual effort and a little bit of suffering. On the other hand, having him shown a final vision to drive home the point reduces his growth to being scared straight, rather than following a better path.

It's all academic, because the movie fumbles this, anyway. Scrooge's redemption here is boring, and the various pieces clash and fail to coalesce. Fred is cut from this section entirely, so none of the new backstory about Fan's death is resolved. Scrooge breaks ties with Old Joe, but this doesn't really go anywhere or mean much. He starts to despair that his change has come too late for him to make amends, but Belle shows up and tells him otherwise. This scene feels like the natural conclusion of this story, and it really should have been. But of course they stuck in the Boxing Day scene with Cratchit afterward. Then there's a final wrap-up for the live-action frame story in which Dickens mentions the story he's just told obviously differs from that of his book, in case that needed to be said.

Needless to say, I don't think any of this really works. The new material isn't badly scripted, but the movie is unwilling to commit to either following through with the changes or sticking with the original blueprint. We're left with a half-measure, which is never the result you want.

I'm also no fan of this sort of stunt casting. Clearly, they hired Cage, Winslet, and others as a marketing gimmick. The two of them, in particular, bring nothing to their roles you couldn't get from a professional voice actor. They're not even recognizable - I'd never have known Nicholas Cage was Marley if it weren't for the credits, which was a little disappointing. If you're watching a cartoon featuring big-name stars, you want to enjoy hearing them chew the animated scenery.

Tonally, this was surprisingly dramatic, despite the presence of the cartoon mice. The movie cut to them regularly for momentary comic relief, but on the whole, it felt much more serious than you'd expect.

The animation is fine, if unremarkable, while the designs are mostly bland. That said, they did some interesting things with the Spirits of Past and Yet to Come. But the human characters just kind of look like generic 90s cartoons. Scrooge in particular is abnormally plain looking, likely to make his reconciliation with Belle at the end work.

This is a truly bizarre take on the material. As a whole, it doesn't work, but I think there are some interesting twists and ambitious ideas throughout. They really did try and give Scrooge a little depth at the beginning, something I've been saying more versions should embrace. And the dialogue strikes me as competently written. They were trying to produce something good here; they just didn't come close to pulling it off.