Appellate Judge Tom Becker's Christmas feast was almost ruined when someone let the razzleberry dressing boil over.
TV's first animated Christmas special!
While it might not have the quite the same nostalgia cachet as A Charlie Brown Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol has them beat in at least one respect: It was the first animated holiday special.
First broadcast on NBC in 1962, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol was an instant hit. Fifty years later, it's easy to see why. This is an utterly charming musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic. Despite it being a cartoon that features a familiar character—one who's known for his comedic adventures—Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol is neither silly nor condescending; it's a pretty faithful telling of the tale.
Magoo plays the avaricious Ebenezer Scrooge, a wealthy and miserable miser in Victorian England. After spending Christmas Eve day debasing his lone employee, Bob Cratchit, and railing against the season of giving, Scrooge is visited by a series of ghosts, including the wretched spirit of his late partner, Jacob Marley. Throughout the night, Scrooge revisits his past, gets a glimpse of what might be things to come—and gets to see the loving Cratchit family, including their sickly but perky son, Tiny Tim.
I'll admit, I checked out Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol for the nostalgia rush; I was surprised that what I found was a genuinely well-done, affecting production that was thoughtful, entertaining, and quite moving.
To circumvent the problem of having a well-known cartoon character playing the part of Scrooge, the program is framed as a theatrical production. Quincy Magoo is an actor here, appearing in a stage production of A Christmas Carol. The production is bookended with scenes of Magoo doing what Magoo did best, causing havoc thanks to his nearsightedness.
The actual production begins with a curtain rising in a theater. Like any good musical, we open with a song—"Ringle, Ringle," in which we learn of Scrooge's greedy nature. It's a good number, and it sets the tone for the production.
There are about half a dozen songs in Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, and not a dud among them. The songs were written by the great Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Styne and Merrill would go on to do the music for the Broadway hits Funny Girl and Sugar; both also had separate successes, including Gypsy and Hallelujah, Baby! (Styne) and Take Me Along and Carnival! (Styne). The music of Styne and Merrill gives Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol a classic Broadway feel, with a rousing, yet intimate, production number ("The Lord's Bright Blessings"), a pair of lovely ballads ("All Alone in the World" and "Winter Was Warm"), and a comedic number for some villainous side characters ("We're Despicable").
Although the special was aimed for families, this version of the story doesn't scrimp on material that might be a bit disturbing to sensitive young ones. Scrooge rails about poor people going to workhouses; Tiny Tim's infirmity and possible fate are presented without sugarcoating; the ghost of Jacob Marley is a miserable spirit who howls in agony, and the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come is a frightening reaper figure who abandons Scrooge in a cemetery. Dickens' themes of loss and redemption are intact here, as is a good amount of the language of the source material; those watching this with young children might consider pausing from time to time to make sure they're taking it all in.
Jim Backus (Gilligan's Island) voices Scrooge/Magoo here, as he voiced Magoo in the dozens (if not hundreds) of Magoo cartoons through the years. Since Magoo is an actor here, the production doesn't trade on the usual Magoo slapstick antics involving poor eyesight; in fact, save for the bookend scenes, and some business near the end (after Scrooge's redemption), there's no mention at all of nearsightedness.
Jack Cassidy (The Eiger Sanction), who made a career as a star of Broadway musicals, voices Bob Cratchit, with Morey Amsterdam (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Royal Dano (The Outlaw Josey Wales), and voice artist Paul Frees (Frosty the Snowman) taking on other roles. The voice work here is overall outstanding.
I hadn't seen Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol in years; in fact, I remember it turning up at odd times—Sunday afternoons, for instance—rather than the prime-time slots that other animated specials received. I also know that, through the years, time was cut from the program to make room for more commercials (there was no way a 52-minute cartoon was going to fit into an hour timeslot as the years went on).
Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol: Collector's Edition (Blu-ray) comes from Classic Media, and it's a fine disc. We get the complete, 52-minute program. The high-def transfer is excellent, with vivid colors, excellent detail, and no discernible print damage. This is really a top-notch image. The Dolby TrueHD audio is also very good, even if the production wasn't created with "surround mix" in mind.
Classic Media offers a great slate of extras. There's a fairly hefty booklet with essays by Darrell Van Citters, who wrote the book Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special. The booklet, which I'm guessing is excerpted from (or at least based on) the book, offers a comprehensive background on the production. Van Citters also hosts a commentary, in which he interviews a number of people involved with the production. In addition, there are storyboard sequences, a demo of Styne and Merrill performing "Ringle, Ringle," plus a postcard-size reproduction of Magoo's Scrooge with Tiny Tim (signed by Jim Backus!). A DVD copy rounds out this excellent package.
While Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol might have nostalgia written all over it, it's a terrific holiday special in its own right—I'd put it right up there with the beloved Charlie Brown and Grinch. Classic Media has put out a great package, making this an easy rediscovery. Break out the razzleberry dressing and waffleberry cakes, this one's a keeper.
Highly recommended—and not guilty.
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