(This ghost of Christmas past originally posted Dec 24, 2008.)
The first made-for-television Christmas cartoon aired on December 18, 1962, broadcast through the ether to rabbit ears and flickering tubes and glassy-eyed cherubs around the country. It had been a busy year: Ringo Starr joined the Beatles, somebody tried to off Charles de Gaulle, John Glenn orbited the earth, Spider-Man was invented, the Vietnam War raged, and the world teetered on (and off) the brink of nuclear war during the the Cuban Missile Crisis. So I suppose it’s not too shocking that “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” has become the show that time forgot. But it deserves more love than that.
Done in the on-the-cheap UPA “limited” animation style that has been endlessly ripped off by modern animation stylists (e.g., Genndy Tartakovsky), this inspired speed-run through “A Christmas Carol”—featuring, implausibly, Jim Backus as Mr.-Magoo-as-Ebeneezer-Scrooge—manages to transcend its Flintstones-in-Outer-Space gimmickry and deliver a goddamn amazing TV watershed. No, seriously.
“Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” was clearly made by people who cared, and does a bunch of things right that nobody today would even bother doing:
1. The songs sound like A-list Broadway material because they are: Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) went on to write Funny Girl for Barbra Streisand. Tell me “Winter Was Warm” (play clip) isn’t honestly lovely.
2. The dialogue is literary. Actual lines spoken by Mr. Magoo: “You are about to show me shadows of things that will happen in the time before us. Is that so, spirit? Ghost of the future, I fear you more than any spectre I have yet seen. Will you not speak to me?"
3. The ghosts are genuinely creepy, especially the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who invokes sonorous timpani percussion with every silent nod.
4. The story takes place within a frame narrative: Magoo is an actor making his big comeback in “A Christmas Carol” on Broadway. One of his fellow actors is UPA contract star Gerald McBoing-Boing. There’s even intermission and a curtain call.
5. The whole Magoo-can’t-see gimmick is dropped as soon as he becomes Scrooge. Whew. That was never funny.
Where can you see this minor masterpiece? There’s a not-yet-out-of-print DVD out there, but right now it’s on YouTube posted by various contributors and in clips of varying quality. It’s not the same as having it blaring in the background while you trim the tree, but it’ll have to do. My 4-year-old gives it thumbs up.