Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983) [Revisited]

Yes, we discussed this back in 2010, but at the time we weren't really even doing reviews, let alone any kind of serious reflection or analysis. I'm working my way through the canon of Christmas Carol adaptations, and I felt I needed to give this a re-watch, anyway, so let's take another look at Mickey's Christmas Carol, the version I once considered the best adaptation out there.

A little background. This is directed by Burny Mattinson, who'd go on to make The Great Mouse Detective. Those are his only directing credits, but he's worked on numerous other Disney projects dating back to 1953. And, incredibly, he's still with the company - he worked on Ralph Breaks the Internet. Guess he likes it there.

It's based on a 1974 album, An Adaptation of Dickens' Christmas Carol, featuring much of the same dialogue (though with a few substantial changes). Mickey's Christmas Carol was released theatrically with reissued Disney films (The Jungle Book in England and The Rescuers in the US) - sort of an incentive to go see something you'd seen before.

The legacy of this is pretty complicated in and of itself. Scrooge became the central character in DuckTales four years later, which in turn became the template for the rest of "The Disney Afternoon." And of course, The Disney Afternoon was a major influence in turning around the then-declining state of TV animation.

For our purposes, this also had a lasting influence on its source material, or at least expanded the ways that source material could be adapted. Forget the fact the characters are cartoon ducks and mice: that's trivial. The real way this deviates from other adaptations of its era is this throws out the dialogue of the original.

Virtually every version I've seen made prior to 1983 tries to remain faithful to Dickens's language. There are additions, cuts, and alterations, but they almost always center around turns of phrase and exchanges pulled verbatim from the source material. Mickey's Christmas Carol, on the other hand, starts almost from scratch. A couple lines survive, but unlike Magoo's Christmas Carol, which treats its animated characters like a cast in a play, Mickey's rewrites the script around its IP.

The names, setting, and plot are all intact, so technically this certainly qualifies as an adaptation, but it more closely resembles subsequent homages, such as Ba Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas or Blackadder's Christmas Carol, and can probably be credited for opening the door for that style of loose, comedic reimagining. It's not actually the first cartoon to do this - Bug's Bunny's A Christmas Carol came out four years earlier, but that was much shorter and clearly an homage. Mickey's is an actual adaptation, albeit a truncated one.

It's easy to see why this attracted imitators. This is really quite good. The writing is clever, using modern speech to tell its story quickly. The cuts, of which there are many, are smart, paring the narrative back to its bare essentials to fit the runtime without feeling at all rushed. The pacing here is beyond reproach: Mickey's Christmas Carol is genuinely exciting and engaging throughout, arguably more so than any other adaptation.

The animation is probably best described as Disney's house style. While it has a bit of Dickensian atmosphere added, it doesn't look appreciably different from other Disney animated shorts. It's perhaps a little darker, particularly when it gets to Christmas Yet to Come. Until that point, the short heavily prioritizes comedy over drama or horror, but the bit where Pete (as the ghost) pushes him into a grave erupting with hellfire is scarier than you'd expect. That doesn't change the fact this is ultimately a comedy, but it makes for a striking moment.

It's also one of the few times the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come speaks in any version. That's just one of many notable departures, starting from the opening, which forgoes the standard "someone opens a copy of A Christmas Carol" intro sequence. More notable, this is the only adaptation I can think of where Scrooge doesn't give Bob Cratchit Christmas off - here he offers him a half day at docked pay. The Christmas Past section, meanwhile, starts with Fezziwig, cutting Scrooge's school days entirely. Similarly, we don't see Fred's party in the present or anything outside of the cemetery in the future (though there's a short added bit with grave diggers to fill in the missing exposition).

This is a fairly unusual entry among versions of A Christmas Carol. Other versions attempt to streamline the story, but doing so through recognizable characters and updated speech makes for a very different experience.

Regardless, it's enjoyable to watch. The sight gags are funny, the characters likable, and the animation holds up. Is this the most gorgeously realized version? Nah, the 1971 short has it beat, hands down. But this is far more coherent and consistent. The 1971 version is better as a piece of animated art, while this is a better animated short, particularly if you need something kid-friendly.