Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (2022)

Netflix's new animated version of A Christmas Carol isn't a direct adaptation of the source material, but rather a loose remake of the 1970 theatrically released musical, Scrooge. When I first found out this was coming out, I was baffled as to why anyone would opt to do this. The book is public domain, so the only real reason to pay for the rights would be to gain access to the songs, which are - in my opinion, at least - among the movie's weaker aspects. There are also a handful of deviations from the source material made in the musical, but I found it hard to believe these would be appealing enough to warrant using it as a template.

Perhaps the makers of this agreed, because the largest deviations are altered or removed and the songs are trimmed back, reimagined, and almost as often as not replaced with new versions. Further, the music here is secondary: I didn't try and time it, but I'd roughly estimate singing compromises between a quarter and a third of the runtime. The music was given far less weight than in the 1970 film. And what's left clashes tonally with the style of the art (though tonal clash is going to be a running theme in this review). All of which returns me to my original question: why was this made like this?

I find it hard to wrap my mind around that question, in part because the designs and animation here are gorgeous and more importantly unique and original. Think steampunk oil painting then give it a makeover using '70s record cover labels with Disneyesque character designs and you'll have a vague idea of what this looks like.

The '70s record cover aspect is likely the key to a lot of this: Lindsay noted some sequences reminded her of Guardians of the Galaxy, and she's not wrong. This uses space imagery for the world of the spirits and Present in particular is alien in appearance (more on that later). In addition, the music has a '70s flavor, leaning heavily on pop music and even disco for the now completely different, "I Like Life."

Perhaps the '70s influences were a nod to the decade the live-action musical was released. If so, it's an odd choice, as the musical really wasn't entrenched in that era. It was a pseudo-sequel to the 1968 film, Oliver!, itself an adaptation of a stage musical from 1960. And stylistically, most of the songs in the 1970 musical feel like throwbacks to the '50s or earlier. The exception to this was the movie's central love song, Happiness, a fairly typical love ballad for the time.

By now, you may be wondering what elements from the '70s musical made it into the remake. From a story perspective, the answer is not many. The new movie starts with a new opening centered around Fred. It's somewhat reminiscent of the 1938 MGM production, but that shouldn't be a huge surprise - the MGM was clearly an influence on the 1970 film. Scrooge is introduced soon after, now with a large dog named Prudence in tow.

Prudence, it should be noted, was left to him by Marley, which is as good an excuse as any to saddle the character with an animal companion. This is a fairly common trope among animated versions of A Christmas Carol, and I always find it somewhat cloying. Interestingly, Scrooge is virtually always kind to these companions, clearly preferring their company over humans. Prudence is no exception to this rule: Scrooge seems to care for the dog, who in turn loves her master, even while she judges his actions, clearly serving as a cue for the audience.

We do include one detail from the '70s film at the top: Scrooge now explicitly works in loans, and we see him negotiate with a client who owes him money. The '70s film had him interacting with several, but this trims it down to just a toy seller, who he gives a 2-day extension in exchange for doubling his debt. Scrooge notes this in a black ledger mirroring one from the earlier musical.

I do want to call out a decision in this adaptation I like. While Scrooge is of course relentless and unyielding, he's not played as outright evil or sociopathic. Watching him interact with people, you can understand how he'd see himself as the hero of his own story, a hardworking man who does well for himself by being smarter than those he does business with. Even at the start, you see him struggling with the consequences of his decisions as he watches Cratchit interact with his kids. He's not entirely heartless here, which I think is a better way to approach the story.

That said, I'm always annoyed when versions have Scrooge deduct money from his clerk for not working Christmas Day. It's a trivial thing and obviously a subjective gripe, but Dickens had Scrooge pay Bob for a reason: to shame and embarrass anyone who doesn't offer similar paid time off and imply they're worse than Scrooge.

Scrooge gets a short song about disliking Christmas due to the pain the holidays brought him over the years, and the sequence transitions into Marley's appearance. Visually, the ghost has been redesigned with icy blue flames and sparks of lightning that resemble effects from the Ghostbusters franchise (a reference I suspect was intentional). His interaction with Scrooge is brief, but effective. I absolutely love how this scene looks.

Prudence is still present (the dog goes on the whole journey, in fact, which is a bit unusual - usually these animal companions are left behind for Stave IV), and Marley at one point calls Ebenezer Prudence's "Uncle Scrooge," in what I assume is a reference to the Disney character. The moment is a tad jarring, all the more so because - again - this really looks like a movie Disney could have made (far more so than the 2009 film they actually made with Jim Carrey).

Soon after, we meet the Ghost of Christmas Past, and her design is the stuff of nightmares. She forms from melting candle wax in a somewhat grotesque sequence. Perhaps in order to mitigate this, they give her an affable personality. She's ultimately a comical presence with an inquisitive nature and the ability to shapeshift at will. I understand why they went this route - if they'd doubled-down on her fantastic entrance and genuinely unnerving design, they might have scared away some kids. But this half-measure just undercuts the great design work and contributes to the feeling this movie fails to settle on a tone.

She pulls Scrooge into some sort of surreal time vortex swirling with colors and spectral gears. It's all sort of mishmash of Doctors Who and Strange. When we arrive in the past, the childhood the spirit presents is closer to that of Charles Dickens's than Ebenezer Scrooge's. Instead of studying in school, we see him working in a factory as a child. We also discover his sister was sick with a disease similar to that of Tiny Tim, an idea the movie will return to on several occasions. I think this is the first adaptation I've come across that tries to connect Scrooge's sister with Tim Cratchit.

Scrooge is apprenticed with Fezziwig, but in another odd twist we don't actually see him interact with the old man until after he's left his employ and started working for Jacob Marley. Instead, we see Fezziwig invite Scrooge to a Christmas party, where he interacts with Fezziwig's daughter Isabel. Parts of this are drawn from the '70s musical, in particular a dream sequence between the two, but the order of events and context is new, though it fits in a truncated version of the song, Happiness. On top of everything else, this is now occurring just before Scrooge's sister will die in childbirth, a fact disclosed to us but not shown. The movie goes out of its way to inform us this happened on Christmas Day (hence Scrooge's dislike of the holiday), but there's no scene showing the event. My guess is there was at one point supposed to be and perhaps it was dropped for being too dark.

We of course do a brief bit about the end of Isabel and Scrooge's engagement, though it plays out a little differently, omitting the actual end in favor of showing them at the brink of breaking up. There's also a section in here showing that Scrooge and Marley evicted the Cratchits when Bob was a child, something Scrooge had no memory of. This serves to draw a connection between his childhood and Bob's, which - again - is an unusual choice.

The spirit crumbles away in a sequence even creepier than her appearance, including a bit where the back of her head breaks away until we're looking at Scrooge through her crumbling face. That said, she keeps talking and seems bemused by the whole thing, only slightly annoyed her time with him is up so she can't see more of his past.

Following this, we're thrust directly into Christmas Present, which is nothing like any version I've ever encountered. Rather than being set in Scrooge's home, the sequence plays out in a massive hall seemingly set in outer space. The enclosure does contain elements inspired by classic renditions of the feast, but it also sort of resembles the Galactic Senate from the Star Wars Prequels, so take from that what you will. The spirit Scrooge meets here initially appears as a giant... and I do mean GIANT. He makes the spirit in Mickey's Christmas Carol look small in comparison, though we quickly learn he can change size at will, often appearing in miniature. His complexion is somewhat statuesque, though he's also somewhat alien in appearance. I'm not sure what they were going for here: maybe he's inspired by modern art as a nod to the concept of the present? Regardless, it's notable from his description of himself that he seems to be less a spirit of Christmas Present than the Present in all forms. He never mentions his older brothers, and he specifically says he loves this time of year most, implying an existence through others. There are elements of Father Christmas left in his design, but they're not at all prominent, and confusing the matter more, he's far from alone.

His hall is full of tiny, spritely spirits that look sort of like a mix of Stitch and the "elves" from The Christmas Chronicles with pixie wings. Again, these are incredibly alien in appearance, as is the place they live, and that seems to be intentional. This is where Present delivers the disco remix of "I Like Life," a prominent song from the 1970 version. The imagery and lights evoke '70s space iconography appearing on album covers and science fiction from the era, which seems to be the conceptual idea they were aiming for. It's all incredibly weird and awkward in context, though - for what it's worth - kind of entertaining on its own merits. 

That's the tradeoff for a lot of this movie, in fact. The music, in particular, was fun to listen to; certainly more so than the boring songs of the '70s film. But it all feels largely imposed on the story, offering no real insight or development, and as often as not pulling you away from what's actually occurring onscreen. The movie's never boring, but it's still a disjointed mess.

Once we're through that, we hit the two main story beats of the Present section - Cratchit's dinner and Fred's party - though we do them out of order. There's not much to say about these, aside from Fred's scene is rushed and the Cratchits is a bit overdramatic. Everything else is cut - there's no journey to see the wider world celebrating, and no appearance from Want and Ignorance.

The transition to future seems slightly lifted from the 2009 Carrey movie, though it's not exactly the same. We see Present transform into Future via what I assume is supposed to be hellfire. The sprites accompanying him transform, as well, turning into demonic imps.

The future starts out by following the '70s musical fairly closely. We do the whole comedic bit where Scrooge thinks his life is being celebrated when a crowd has actually gathered to cheer his death. The song, "Thank You Very Much" is updated and a huge improvement, but it's far closer to the original than "I Like Life." This sequence ends at the cemetery, which then proceeds to play out in a somewhat similar way to the original book, with the addition of... well... a lot of scary shit. Marley makes an appearance here, along with big, icy protrusions (these accompanied his earlier appearance, as well). Scrooge is wrapped in chains and pulled into the grave, despite Prudence's efforts to save him. He falls alone into the abyss of swirling colors and gears and flashbacks... you get the idea.

For those of you wondering, this doesn't include the absurdly silly bit in hell from the '70s movie. Yes, I was disappointed, too: the people who made this are cowards. But the color scheme of the expanse Scrooge fell through (hell, the color scheme of all the spirit time travel sequences) feels like an homage to that scene. Same goes for Marley's reappearance and the demonic imps.

Scrooge of course then wakes up in bed. There's a brief moment where he wonders if it was a dream, but some spectral imagery seemingly puts that to rest. Then, resolving to be a better person, he finds some kids and hires them to help him put on a giant Christmas party for literally everyone, allowing them to wrap everything up in a single scene and another song from the original (one I believe is extended here, oddly enough).

Yeah, so this is weird as hell. Granted, so was the '70s musical, but that was weird as hell in conventional ways - it was structured like a musical, filmed beautifully, and cast badly. This is just a jumble of random influences and ideas tossed together. Stylistically, the designs feel closest to the 1971 animated version, with perhaps elements from the 2009 Carrey film mixed in. Again, this looks great.

But the dialogue pulls from comedic versions, most obviously the 1970 one it's theoretically a remake of, but also everything from the 1938 film to the 1983 Mickey short. Jokes permeate the movie, but the tone still drifts towards that of a somber ghost story.

Meanwhile, the songs undercut it all. There aren't enough to drive the movie, and too much of what's here doesn't align with the dominant tones or themes. It would be clear these songs were intended for a very different version even if I didn't know that going in.

The best description I can offer might be that it looks and feels like a Disney movie from the 2010s (think Tangled) constructed entirely by an AI. The pacing for how the musical numbers are interspersed feels very much like a modern Disney musical, but neither the music nor lyrics work at all with what's going on. It's like this film was constructed formulaically by a computer incapable of understanding context.

And that's a hell of a shame, because I really can't stress enough how good it looks. This is by far the best-looking modern adaptation of A Christmas Carol - nothing else even comes close. If they'd used this style alongside a fairly straightforward version, they'd have produced hands down the definitive version of the story. Luke Evans is fantastic in the lead: all they needed was a better script.

With all its problems, I still think the visuals alone are sufficient for a lukewarm recommendation. This really does look incredible, and - as long as you can stomach having the songs wrong for the story - they're not at all unpleasant to listen to.

But this could have and should have been great. It's absolutely astonishing to me they saddled themselves with elements and songs from the 1970 film, a version mainly salvaged due to its sets and costumes, namely the things that didn't come with the rights and are irrelevant in animation. Netflix effectively wasted the money they spent on the rights, only managing to sabotage their production. For the life of me, I just can't wrap my head around it.