A Christmas Carol (2015)

This is a one-hour musical adaptation where the lead actor, writer, director, producer, and songwriter are the same person. That's kind of impressive, regardless of how the movie came out, but it tells you a great deal about the budget. Or lack thereof.

Yes, this is one of those cases where I spend a lot of time trying to decide what kind of curve to grade on. The production values aren't in the same league as the stuff I usually look at. This doesn't have elaborate sets, intricate costumes, expensive digital effects, and the like. In short, it doesn't look or feel like a "real movie."

And that's okay. I try and approach things like this as test runs for ideas and talent. Frankly, after watching dozens of these, I'm more interested in whether original elements of these offer anything of value than I am in whether they rank among the top 30 best adaptations.

So, with that in mind, let's explore Anthony D.P. Mann's take on A Christmas Carol.

The movie starts, somewhat surprisingly, with Colin Baker dressed as Charles Dickens. I have no idea what the backstory is here - I'm guessing friend-of-a-friend or something - but Baker narrates the movie. It starts with him in black and white, complete with a filter to resemble old footage (it's not a particularly good filter, though).

Next, we meet Scrooge as he dismisses a charity collector. The ideas are in line with the original, but the dialogue is new. That'll be the general approach to the material, by the way.

Scrooge himself is significantly younger than he's typically portrayed. It's unclear whether this is a writing choice, or simply the result of the writer/director handling the role himself.

We get truncated versions of Scrooge's meeting with Fred, as well as his interactions with Bob. We also get the first song, a lament to a portrait of his late partner, Marley. Like most of the songs in this movie, it's incredibly short. These aren't big musical numbers: more like brief interludes, though their frequency and length increases as the movie goes on. This one mainly establishes that Scrooge misses Marley, and that he loved him. I kind of assumed they were lovers from the song, but the movie later clarifies a more familial relationship. Pity: lovers would have been more interesting.

Marley soon appears to Scrooge. No effects here: just an actor in makeup (that's not a criticism: if you can't afford to compete with Hollywood, simple is generally the best option). He gets a short song warning Scrooge about where he's headed, then tells him to expect three spirits. In an unusual twist, he doesn't offer any kind of timetable: in fact, he tells Scrooge they could appear at any time.

Past shows up soon after, sings another quick song, then shows Scrooge a magic lantern to justify a cut to sequences of Scrooge as a kid. First, we get a glimpse of Scrooge at school, where he's eventually found by Marley, who takes him under his wing (here's the bit where Scrooge tells the spirit Marley was like a father to him, incidentally). Next, we do the scene where Belle breaks up with Scrooge as an older man. There's of course a duet involved, though it's her and the older version of him singing in different locations.

This wraps the past, and Scrooge finally leaves his office and is accosted by the second ghost in the street. She gets a duet with Scrooge, and we're off to see the Cratchits. In this version, Tim's an only child. We get a few minutes with all of them together, then Bob and Tim get a scene talking about Christmas wishes that transitions into a song from Tim. This section is kind of painful - the dialogue is forced, and the song is corny. I wish they'd cut everything after the bit with them as a family.

Cue another song, this time cutting back and forth between Fred and his wife, the Cratchits, the Ghost, and even the narrator. This is the generic Christmas-is-magical-and-good song every musical adaptation is obligated to include. And before you ask, yes, it's destined for a reprise at the end.

We've got one last stop on our tour of the present, and it's a little off-book. Scrooge is taken to a shelter looking after the homeless. While bits of dialogue are drawn from the original, the real takeaway here is that the woman looking after the place is (drum roll please)... Belle, who never married in this timeline.

Now we're ready for the Ghost of Christmas Future, a towering woman dressed in black. Also, the color is replaced with black and white, and the whole thing starts inching towards expressionism (not an unusual choice for this section, but no complaints). As usual, Scrooge asks her if she can speak, and - in an interesting deviation from the source material - she remarks that, "With the entirety of the rest of time ahead of me, you should think I'd have more to say than any of us." She goes into a song about fate, which then transitions into another song sung by Old Joe and the (now just two) people hawking Scrooge's wares. The whole thing has the feel of a dirge, which is appropriate.

We also swing by the stock exchange for the standard sequence showcasing two of Scrooge's associates joking about his passing. In a twist, this Scrooge doesn't go through the usual stage of denial: he acknowledges they're talking about him. The Ghost returns to her song, and we transition to a graveyard for her to finish up. Also, the screen flashes red briefly at the end of her song on the word, "damned." I think it's supposed to be subliminal, but it's kind of hilariously obvious.

Scrooge sees his tombstone and acknowledges he's lost. In another twist, he's then taken to a church where Bob and his wife are mourning Tim's death. He pleads for the Ghost to save Tim, offering his life in exchange, then realizing that if he's returned, he'd be able to save Tim and countless others.

Scrooge wakes up in his office and sings a song pledging to be a better man. We then get a narrated montage showing him visiting the Cratchits and his nephew, and just in general being kindhearted. Then he goes to visit Belle at the shelter.

Cut to one year later, and he's back at the office with Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, who Scrooge has made a partner. He's also devoted his life to charitable causes. Weirdly, we don't get any kind of resolution with Belle: they leave it ambiguous whether the two rekindle their relationship or even become friends. Instead, we close with Scrooge wishing himself - and the viewer - a merry Christmas before some extraneous words of encouragement from the narrator.

So. What do I think?

Well, like I said at the start, a large part of this kind of thing is deciding how harshly to judge production values. This quite literally appears to have been largely shot in someone's attic using a handful of old props and simple costumes. It's not a major motion picture or even an independent film with decent financing. I'm not sure what the budget was, but my guess is it was made extremely cheaply. Depending on what you're looking for, that alone might be a reason to steer clear.

The cast, with the exception of Colin Baker (who it should be noted never appears on screen with anyone else and most likely was filmed separately over the course of a day - or less) feel like they're either stage actors or amateurs. That said, they pour their hearts into this: no one delivers a performance they should be embarrassed of.

Some of the singing is difficult to listen to, though. On at least one occasion, it was painfully clear a song was written outside the performer's vocal range. And, to be blunt, if I can tell that, it's a problem. On the other hand, several songs sound pretty good. The final spirit's song is a lot of fun, and it's by far the longest in the film. The songs that don't work are always mercifully short, and the majority move the story forward or provide insight into the character singing.

Likewise, with a few exceptions, the dialogue is solid. This is almost entirely new material constructed from ideas and turns of phrases from the original. I could have done without Scrooge's cliche "my life for the kid's" moment, but overall the writing isn't bad.

I also want to compliment an idea I glossed over above. I don't recall seeing another version of A Christmas Carol that made all three spirits female, and now I'm kind of surprised it's not done more often. I don't think I'm reading too much into this when I say it was reminiscent of the three fates. That's a fun twist to these classic characters.

There's absolutely good stuff here, though I can't really recommend this to casual viewers. Despite the good ideas, it really feels more like a community theater production that was filmed than a movie. That's certainly a reflection of budget limitations, but that doesn't change the impression. The bright side to that, however, is that with some expansions to the songs and some alterations, this might work really well as a stage performance. There are quite a few cool ideas and original ideas scattered throughout this. It just didn't really have the resources to come together here.