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Scrooge Revisited Day 4-Susan Lucci in Ebbie (1995)

ebbieNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: George Kaczender

Writers: Paul Redford & Ed Redlich, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Susan Lucci, Wendy Crewson, Ron Lea, Molly Parker, Lorena Gale, Jennifer Clement, Nicole Parker, Susan Hogan, Kevin McNulty, Taran Noah Smith, Jeffrey DeMunn, Bill Croft, Laura Harris

Notes: Are there any words in the realm of cinema more exciting than “Lifetime Original Movie”? That’s what we have today, my friends – soap opera legend Susan Lucci as Elizabeth Scrooge in this gender-reversed TV production. Lucci’s Scrooge is the manager of a department store rather than a moneylender, but she still has her Roberta Cratchet (Wendy Crewson), niece Francine (Molly Parker) and a gaggle of ghosts. The Tiny Tim role is filled by Taran Noah Smith, at the time part of the cast of the hit comedy Home Improvement, while Jake Marley’s ghost is appropriately played by future Walking Dead star Jeffrey DeMunn. In an odd case, Susan Hogan – who played the equivalent of Mrs. Fezziwig in An American Christmas Carol, essential fills the same role here. The movie can occasionally be found on DVD under the title Miracle at Christmas: Ebbie’s Story, with hot property Smith cuddled up to Lucci on the cover, despite having little more than a cameo appearance.

Thoughts: I’ve seen a lot of different version of A Christmas Carol, but this one stands out as being, perhaps, the least exciting. The film is updated to the 90s and set in America, although despite that the writers tried to tweak lines from the original Dickens in terribly awkward ways, like the old “are there no orphanages? Are there no workhouses?” speech. For a version so far away from the original in its setting, it’s weird that they would ty to cling to the details, and that adherence to Dickens is actually this movie’s death-knell.

Like An American Christmas Carol, Ebbie’s ghosts play double-duty. This time, they’re all employees of the department store that she shafted in one way or another (disrespect, a crappy Christmas bonus, or a yuletide firing, respectively). I’m starting to think it was less an artistic choice and more a way to cut down on the number of actors they had to pay. This film is Dickens on a budget.

The made-for-TV credentials are evident from the first ghost. DeMunn’s Marley makes his appearance first by popping into the TV shows Ebbie is watching, then shows up in a glowing blue form complete with a giant 90s cellphone he stole from Zack Morris. We race through his point and get to the ghosts of Christmas Past – Jennifer Clement and Nicole Parker, who we saw earlier in the movie as perfume girls in the department store, looking like rejects from Hairspray. It doesn’t help that they actually use hairspray to zip back in time and view Ebbie’s past, where we literally hear her father tell her mother “I never wanted you.” If they want us to feel sorry for Ebbie, it comes across as too heavy-handed (especially with the clownish pair of ghosts) for the emotion to truly land. It gets even sillier when we see her very pregnant sister (Parker again) taking to her “little sister,” played by Lucci, looking a good 20 years older. Christmas Past is interminably long, sloughing through Ebbie’s destruction of her relationship with her boyfriend, the takeover of the department store with Marley, and Marley’s Christmas Eve death. Again, it’s hitting all the beats, but not doing so in any clever or creative way. If you’re not going to change up the formula at this point, you damn well need to execute it very well, and this movie just has all the tropes of a Lifetime movie with none of the charm of the better Christmas Carol adaptations.

Lucci is doing her soap opera best here, which is to say that she’s heavy on the melodrama, but light on real emotion. I can’t say it’s entirely her fault, of course – she’s doing exactly what you expect out of Susan Lucci, and doing it as well as can be expected. The rest of the film piles on the melodrama so thickly that it scarcely matters. By the time we reach the forced treacle of Tim singing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” you’re certain the film has been running for all twelve days of Christmas, even though it’s only been a little over an hour. Perhaps the most interesting (or maybe just the least boring) segment is Christmas Yet to Come, where Ebbie is forced to witness herself getting struck by a car, rather than succumbing to old age or whatever it is that usually takes out Scrooges.

This is perhaps one of the dullest Christmas Carol adaptations I’ve seen. Lucci is so flat that you don’t feel any transformation at all, and her climactic announcement that she’ll “honor Christmas” feels entirely by rote, without any passion to it. If you’re a Lucci fanatic, you may want to watch this. For the rest of us, there are much better versions to choose from.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Scrooge Revisited Day 3-Cosmo Spacely in A Jetson Christmas Carol (1985)

jetson-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Ray Patterson

Writer: Barbara Levy & Marc Paykuss, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: George O’Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Janet Waldo, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Frank Welker

Notes: This cartoon was originally made as an episode of the 80s-era revival of The Jetsons. It would later be released on its own on VHS, and has been shown as its own special on occasion since then (although to date the only place to get it on DVD is part of the Jetsons Season 2 set). It logically casts George Jetson’s boss, Cosmo Spacely (Mel Blanc) in the Scrooge role, with George (George O’Hanlon) taking the Bob Cratchit part. Their dog Astro (Don Messick) fills in for Tiny Tim after he swallows a gear from his Christmas present, which somehow results in him turning green and running a temperature. What can I say, medicine works differently in the future. Hanna-Barbera, of course, also tackled Dickens in A Flintstones Christmas Carol, and at least one other time, in the Scooby-Doo cartoon A Nutcracker Scoob, which so far I’ve been unable to locate on DVD, because clearly somebody at Warner Bros hates joy.

Thoughts: This special is a nice balance between traditional Christmas Carol tropes and the puns and goofs that Hanna-Barbera cartoons do so well. After things kick off with Mr. Spacely forcing George Jetson to work overtime, we lapse into all the main beats – Spacely is visited the ghost of his old partner “Jacob Marsley” (Blanc again) followed by a trio of mechanical ghosts who show him the past, present, and future. The Past and Future are old computers, while Present is a talking gift box. It’s actually my favorite joke in the show, and my wife’s least favorite joke of 2016. Christmas Future takes a nice twist as well – Spacely isn’t dead in the future, just out on the streets after the Jetsons sued him over Astro’s death. As far as changes go, this is the most amusing one – it would be too much for the children’s cartoon to show Spacely’s death, so instead they kill off the dog.

The special adds a little interesting backstory to the characters. In the “Christmas Past” segment, we see that George and Spacely are actually contemporaries, rather than Spacely being George’s senior. What’s more, Spacely has been bullying George and jerking him around financially since they were children. I’m pretty sure this is literally the only time in the history of the cartoon that such a thing is mentioned.

Ultimately, nothing else that happens in the cartoon is terribly surprising. It’s a standard version of A Christmas Carol, mixed in with a standard episode of The Jetsons. If you enjoy either of those things, you’ll like this as well. Fortunately, I do.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 2-Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol (1979)

american-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Eric Till

Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Henry Winkler, Dorian Harewood, David Wayne, Chris Wiggins, R.H. Thomson, Ken Pogue, Gerard Parkes, Susan Hogan, Chris Cragg

Notes: This TV movie from 1979 cast the then-34 Henry Winker, riding high on the success of Happy Days, as Scrooge substitute “Benedict Slade.” The film transplants the events of Dickens’s novel from Victorian London to Depression-Era New England, but keeps the most important beats of the timeless tale of a miser faced by ghosts to drive him towards redemption.

As usual, I don’t want to waste time rehashing a well-trod plot, but it’s worth pointing out how the film branches out at the beginning. The first real act of Scroogery comes on Christmas Eve when Slade and his Cratchit stand-in, Thatcher (R.H. Thompson) repossess the property of an African-American farming couple, the Reeves (Dorian Harewood and Arlene Duncan). They then pull the same stunt on the headmaster (Fraggle Rock’s Gerard Parkes) of the very school he once attended, and a university shop that makes the terrible mistake of selling books instead of something profitable. By the time Slade and Thatcher arrive home with a truck full of goods taken back from people who couldn’t pay, you start to feel that Slade may actually have Scrooge beat when it comes to being a jackass. When Thatcher tries to convince him to put money into reopening the town quarry, since Roosevelt has all these plans that will require slate, he thanks him by firing him. Just as Slade destroys a first edition of A Christmas Carol he took from the university shop (this bit, incidentally, made me hate the man as much as any movie villain I’ve ever seen), the visitations from the spirits begin…

Thoughts: From the beginning, Benedict Slade is a different kind of take on Ebenezer Scrooge. For one thing, the makeup job is awful. Winkler, who again was only 34 at the time, is layered under slabs of makeup that don’t serve to make him look old so much as they make him look like he’s late for a Halloween party. (There’s an unintentionally funny bit when he encounters the first ghost and accuses him of being under heavy makeup like “that man who played Frankenstein,” while Ken Pogue is playing a ghost and yet still looks more natural and lifelike than Winkler.) The film spends an inordinate amount of time with Christmas Past, I think, largely so that we can see Winkler’s face without the ridiculous makeup. He does make up for it, I should note, by sporting a bitching mustache.

Bad makeup aside, though, Winkler’s performance is actually pretty good. He’s got a nasty, bitter tone in his voice that fits in with all the Scrooges we’ve loved before, and you definitely get the impression right off that this is a man who keeps rage close to his heart. As we get his backstory, he comes across as a much more rounded Scrooge than many other incarnations – as a young man he seems earnest and sincere. His first steps down a bad path come not out of greed or spite, but because he is trying to look forward for the sake of his business while his mentor (Chris Wiggins) insists on miring himself in the past. Wiggins’s character owns a woodshop, making furniture by hand, and Slade leaves him for the sake of a company that is progressing in the direction of automation and mass production. By the time he does anything that could legitimately been seen as corrupt, he’s already gone quite far down the path of trying to do what he thinks is best for his business – and what’s more, history proved him right.

That goes a long way to selling his redemption – when he approaches Thatcher during the “Christmas Present” segment, asking forgiveness for not knowing that Thatcher’s son was sick when he fired him, you believe his contrite nature. The final scene with the Thatcher family, when Slade hands young Jonathan (Chris Cragg) one ticket after another to get him to the clinic in Australia that can cure whatever it is he’s suffering from, Winkler is nailing it. Even when Mrs. Thatcher hugs him, he pulls off a wonderful little beat where he gets anxious, not used to physical contact after all these years, that fits the character marvelously.

Writer Jerome Coopersmith picked a good time period to set the story – placing in during the Depression makes it easy to show the rich/poor gulf between his version of Scrooge and… well, everybody else. What’s more, it allows him to play a little on racial tensions in a way that Dickens never does. Although the film doesn’t make it explicit, it can’t be a coincidence that the first nasty thing Slade does is to a black family struggling to survive the Great Depression.

The film makes some interesting choices in regards to the ghosts. Rather than trying to make the ghosts creepy or ethereal, Slade is visited by spirits who take the form of the people he screwed earlier in the day. Christmas Past is the bookstore owner (David Wayne) whose copy of A Christmas Carol bit the dust, Christmas Present is Parkes, and Christmas Future is Harewood. I’m honestly not sure what the thought process is here – to give it a bit of Wizard of Oz flair? To make the interaction between Slade and the ghosts more personal, since he personally wounded each of them? Harewood in particular is odd, dressing him up in 70s-era clothes complete with a shirt open to his bellybutton and gold chains. While using “future” radio broadcasts to herald his arrival is an interesting touch, the clothes he wears would be enough to make any reasonable person fight against such a horrific future.

In the end, this is a pretty good iteration of the story. It recontextualizes Dickens in a different time and place in a way that fits the new setting, while still maintaining the spirit of the original. Although it keeps most of the skeleton of the story the same, there’s just enough of a change to the set dressing to make it feel like a different experience. It’s not my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, but it’s not a bad one at all.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Coming Monday: Scrooge Revisited

scroogeA few years ago, in a fit of what can only be deemed temporary insanity, I set out and reviewed 20 different interpretations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in one month. It was an astonishing feat of fortitude, the sort of thing normally reserved for Olympic-level competition, and when it was over, I was of course universally recognized as a world champion. However, only covering 20 iterations of Scrooge barely scratches the surface of all the near-countless versions that exist in the world of cinema. It would be child’s play to conjure up a list of 20 more takes on Dickens, right?

I am not that stupid.

I am, however, stupid enough to conjure up five more. So this year, on the week before Christmas, I’m going to give the Reel to Reel treatment to five additional Carols, five takes on the story of Ebenezer Scrooge that I didn’t tackle before. Come back Monday and you’ll see my look at the first of them. In the meantime, though, if you want to go back and look at the first 20 versions, I’ve provided handy links below:

  1. Sir Seymour Hicks in Scrooge (1935)
  2. Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol (1951)
  3. Fredric March in A Christmas Carol (1954)
  4. Quincy Magoo in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
  5. Albert Finney in Scrooge (1970)
  6. Scrooge McDuck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
  7. George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol (1984)
  8. Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988)
  9. Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1993)
  10. Fred Flintstone in A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)
  11. Carface Carruthers in An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998)
  12. Sir Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol (1999)
  13. Simon Callow in Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001)
  14. Kelsey Grammer in A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004)
  15. ??? in A Christmas Carol: Scrooge’s Ghostly Tale (2006)
  16. Oscar the Grouch in A Sesame Street Christmas Carol (2006)
  17. Daffy Duck in Bah Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas (2006)
  18. Robert Wagner in A Dennis the Menace Christmas (2007)
  19. Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol (2009)
  20. David Ruprecht in Mister Scrooge to See You (2013)

There, that should keep you occupied for a few days. See you Monday!

Scrooge Month Day 19: Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)

Christmas Carol 2009Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Daryl Sabara, Bob Hoskins, Molly Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan

Notes: This was the third film from director Robert Zemeckis in which he used his motion capture process to animate in 3D, following The Polar Express and Beowulf and preceding Mars Needs Moms, which flopped so painfully that his animation study was shut down. Although a fairly straightforward retelling of the story, he employs a lot of the motion capture tricks he’d used in previous films, such as using the same actor to play different characters opposite himself or at various ages. Jim Carrey, for example, plays Scrooge at every stage of his life, as well as all three of the Ghosts, using the logic that the ghosts are extensions of Scrooge’s own soul. Okay, I can buy that. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, plays both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and – for some reason – Marley, while Robin Wright plays both Scrooge’s sister Fan and the love of his life, Belle, which has some disturbingly Freudian implications.

Thoughts: Once there was a little boy named Robert Zemeckis. Robert made great movies in a far-off land called the 1980s, but as the 21st century began, he fell in love with a pretty girl named “Motion Capture CGI.” They had four children together before they broke up, and of the four, this is probably the best.

Part of it, let’s be honest, is the source material. A Christmas Carol is by far more classic than Zemeickis’s first or last motion capture films, and while Beowulf is a classic in its own right, he took too many liberties with that one (Grendel’s mom is hot? That’s sick.) for it to really rank. Here, though, he takes a legendary tale and gives it a pretty decent polish that makes it worth revisiting at this time of year.

One of the interesting things that Zemeickis pulls off is creating characters recognizable as the actors that play them while still giving them enough of a twist to work as animated figures. Carrey is clearly visible inside Scrooge, but his elongated nose and chin would look silly in real life. Gary Oldman can be squished down to play a short little Bob Cratchit, Colin Firth can be puffed up a bit so Fred looks comfortably plump. Carrey can also be seen in each of the three ghosts. It’s an odd choice, to have him portray the three of them, and I’m not entirely convinced of the point Zemeckis was trying to make, but Carrey’s performances as the ghosts are just fine. Christmas Past is light and airy, Christmas Present is enormous and bombastic. Christmas Yet to Come… well, he’s barely there, and that’s a good thing.

This version is also a good bit scarier than many of them, and at the same time, more in keeping with the original Dickens. Marley’s head wrapping – which was actually a tradition at the time to keep a corpse’s mouth from hanging open – comes loose, and his jaw opens up to a horrific degree. As he howls at Scrooge his mouth rattles around like something out of a zombie movie. Christmas Present doesn’t just age, as he often does, he withers away until there’s nothing left but a skeleton, its teeth chattering with maniacal laughter. Then there’s Christmas Yet to Come, who shows up initially just as a shadow – Scrooge’s shadow, in fact, in a warped and twisted form. We don’t really see much of a physical form for him at all, in fact, which is terribly effective. This is about as scary a version of A Christmas Carol as I’ve ever seen.

The scenes with the three ghosts are pretty by-the-book, but done well. In fact, one of the few times where Zemeckis’s love affair with his computer (more on that later) really works is when Scrooge is facing Christmas Present. Rather than teleporting him to the other locations, as he usually does, he turns the floor in Scrooge’s house transparent and we watch as they “fly” from one place to another. The visuals here – throughout the Christmas Present sequence, really – are absolutely top-notch, and are an example of what Zemeckis can do with his CGI at its best.

There are a lot of good things about this movie, but Robert Zemeckis brings the same problems to this as he did with all of his motion-capture films. First, and most problematic, the characters are largely expressionless. He can make a character move like a human, but he hasn’t mastered the skill of putting feeling into their eyes, which makes them seem somewhat stiff and lifeless. It’s the classic Uncanny Valley problem writ large.

What’s more, Zemeckis was so in love with the technology that he often did things just because it was possible that didn’t really add anything to the story. There’s an extended sequence where Scrooge – for absolutely no reason – is shrunk to the size of a mouse and whips around London. It reminds me of the scene from The Polar Express in which a train ticket is taken by the wind and blown around. It looks good, but ultimately, it’s a meaningless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. In both instances, I felt like I was watching the film of one of those motion simulator amusement park rides, which is pretty dull when you’re in a stationary seat. Zemeckis does similar things several times throughout the film, to the point where it starts to get actually obnoxious when you sense the first few seconds of the next such sequence.

It’s actually a shame that he never quite got a handle on how best to use this sort of technology, because when it works it works well. But like George Lucas dropping in added effects to the Star Wars special editions, Zemeckis got so excited that he could do certain things that he never stopped to think about whether they should be done. The result is like going to an industrial sawmill to cut a single two-by-four in half. It’ll work, but it’s overkill, and there are much better ways to do the same thing.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 17: Daffy Duck in BAH HUMDUCK! A LOONEY TUNES CHRISTMAS (2006)

Bah Humduck 2006Director: Charles Visser

Writer: Ray DeLaurentis, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Joe Alaskey, Bob Bergen, Billy West, June Foray, Maurice LaMarche, Jim Cummings, Tara Strong

Notes: This is actually the second time the Looney Tunes characters have tackled Dickens, the first being in the 1979 short, Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol. I would have included that in this little experiment, because at only eight minutes it would have been the easiest article ever, but it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD at the moment. Warner Bros should get on that. Anyway, in this version we see Daffy Duck (voice of Joe Alaskey) cast as the owner of the Lucky Duck Superstore in the Scrooge role. Although the Looney Tunes characters basically play themselves, they fill in the assorted Christmas Carol roles appropriately. Porky Pig (Bob Bergen) is Daffy’s assistant manager and the stand-in for Bob Cratchit. Bugs Bunny (Billy West) kind of takes nephew Fred’s place, although the role is somewhat expanded. Sylvester “the Investor” (Alaskey)  is our Jacob Marley substitute, Porky’s daughter Priscilla (Tara Strong) fills in for Tiny Tim, and the ghosts are filled up by a tag-team of Granny (the legendary June Foray) and Tweety (Begen) for the past, Yosemite Sam (Maurice LaMarche) for the present, and the Tasmanian Devil (Jim Cummings) for Christmas Future.

Thoughts: The Looney Tunes characters, traditionally, have not proven to be quite as versatile as the Disney crew. While Mickey and Company can star in more traditional versions of Dickens, The Prince and the Pauper, The Three Musketeers and the like, it’s much harder for the Looney Tunes to do so. They shouldn’t be embarrassed by this – it’s because they’re just plain funnier, and therefore it’s harder to wedge them into a drama. That said, Ray LeLaurentis managed to match them to the Dickensian roles in this film pretty neatly.

Daffy, as the head of a superstore, hates Christmas and families, mostly because he never had either of his own. Early on we see him being terrible to assorted Looney Tunes characters in assorted ways, most cleanly when he dismisses Assistant Manager Porky’s wish to spend Christmas with his family. Daffy may not be the most Scrooge-like of the Looney Tunes characters, being more of a grump than a skinflint, but he’s their biggest star that could fit the role. As such, the film doesn’t paint him as a spendthrift the way Scrooge usually is, but just somebody with a nasty disposition who decides to target Christmas with his ire.

“Sylvester the Investor” is a former CEO and idol of Daffy’s, not specifically his old partner, and he’s the character that really made the continuity geek that lives in my brain full-time struggle. There are two ways the Looney Tunes are usually portrayed: either as “themselves,” living an ostensibly normal life while going through wacky adventures; or as actors in crazy cartoons playing crazy roles. This movie seems to exist in some sort of weird in-between place. Daffy is himself, Porky, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian and many of the others are his employees. But Sylvester and the ghosts come across more like the “actor” versions of the characters. There is, of course, the possibility that I’m simply expending way too much energy trying to rationalize the structure of a Looney Tunes movie.

After Marley’s visit, Daffy continues to torment his employees, even announcing that the store will be open from 5 a.m. to midnight on Christmas Day, making this 2006 movie seem sadly prophetic. He and Bugs wind up trapped in the store overnight, though, giving us the biggest Looney Tunes star at vital points of the tale. Granny and Tweety pop in as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and take Daffy back to the Lucky Duck Orphanage where he grew up. Lucky Duck, as it seems, didn’t live up to its name for Daffy. We’re shown a Christmas where he is literally the only child at the orphanage who does not get adopted. The scene is so pathetic that even the ghosts cry for him, until they snap out of it and Tweety lays a verbal smack-down on him and Granny tells him his own lousy childhood doesn’t give him the right to ruin everybody else’s Christmas.

Yosemite Sam, who played Scrooge in Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol, here dons the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. He whips Daffy around to show him how sad his various employees are, ending it with Porky telling adorable little Priscilla he can’t be with her on Christmas. When she asks him why Daffy’s so mean, Porky tells her it’s probably because he doesn’t have a family to spend it with. She wishes on a star that Porky could spend Christmas with her instead of going to work, and Sam smacks Daffy upside the head. Seriously, Daff, when Yosemite Sam is calling you out for being a jerk, you know you’ve gone too far.

Daffy finds Bugs decorating the store for Christmas and begs him to hide him from the final ghost, giving Bugs the chance to reenact a classic sequence of brutally bad hiding places from one of his old cartoons. None of it will protect him from the Tasmanian Devil as Christmas Future, though. Although Priscilla isn’t sick like Tiny Tim, Daffy sees a future where he’s dead and the store is closed thanks to his stupid effort to leave it to himself in his will. Now all of the employees are out of work just in time for Christmas. Just to drive the nail in, Priscilla promises to visit Daffy’s grave every Christmas. Taz weeps openly and Daffy asks for a second chance.

Well c’mon, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t get one, would it?

Back home, Daffy finds a frozen Fudd who informs him it’s still Christmas, and Daffy declares there’s work to do. When the employees return to the store in the morning, Daffy starts handing out gifts: a rocket for Marvin so he can go home for the holidays, a chef for the perpetually starving Wile E. Coyote, and raises and vacations all around. His 20-second interaction with Speedy Gonzales makes the whole film worthwhile.

As Daffy looks around he almost relapses, realizing how much the raises and vacations are going to cost him, but Priscilla’s grateful words to “Uncle Daffy” cut him off. She also gets the last word – not “God bless us, everyone,” but swiping her Dad’s usual proclamation of “That’s all, folks!”

The cartoon – at a brisk 45 minutes – doesn’t spend a lot of time on the details of Dickens. Instead, it uses the classic framework to tell a story with more original characters and a lot of old-school Looney Tunes slapstick. These are timeless characters that still make me laugh when they’re done right, and for the most part, this special pulls it off. I’ve actually enjoyed the new Looney Tunes Show the Cartoon Network airs, but this slightly more traditional version of the characters is always going to be where my heart lies.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 15: ??? in A CHRISTMAS CAROL: SCROOGE’S GHOSTLY TALE (2006)

Christmas Carol-Scrooges Ghostly Tale 2006Director: Ric Machin

Writer: Sean Catherine Derek, Charles Dickens

Cast: Tim Bentink, Brian Bowles, Theresa Gallagher, Adam Rhys Dee, Keith Wickham, Jo Wyatt  

Notes: I’m trying to figure out where, exactly, I got this version of A Christmas Carol. I’m pretty sure it was on sale at Half-Price Books for a few dollars, and I got it because I’ve got a weird obsession with such things. Also, the DVD case has a liquid pouch with glittery “snow” in it, and I’m a sucker for such things. Anyway, this animated version of the story recasts the Dickens characters: the Scrooge family are skunks, the Cratchits are rabbits, and Marley is a Cricket. Past, Present and Future are a stork, a kangaroo, and a walrus, respectively. There are no voice actors credited for this movie either on IMDB or Wikipedia, which I’ve never seen before, and makes me wonder how exactly this short (48 minute) adaptation happened other than spontaneous combustion.  There are credits at the end (which is where the above cast list came from), but the film doesn’t bother to tell you who provided each voice, so I can’t even help you there. One of the above people played Scrooge. I’m betting on Theresa Gallagher.

Thoughts: Another animated version of Dickens, this one with weak computer animation rather than weak traditional animation, it’s hard to qualify the film. This is a post-Pixar world, friends. This came out the same year as Cars and Monster House, but the quality of the animation isn’t even as sharp as that of Pixar’s earliest efforts. The animation is in computerized 3d, but the coloring is flat, like it’s trying to mimic a hand-drawn effect.  I almost want to believe this was somebody’s student animation class project (made because you don’t have to pay for the rights to Dickens) that somehow got a DVD release.

We have a narrator and the characters are familiar, but the Dickens dialogue is thrown out the window immediately. Instead we’ve got super-greedy Scrooge berating Bob Cratchit over a missing farthing he’s too blind to realize is sitting on his own forehead until Fred arrives and points it out to him. The plot – for now at least – follows Dickens fairly closely. Scrooge is grouchy to Cratchit and grouchy to Fred and even blames his food for upsetting his stomach when Marley shows up. Speaking of Marley, the flaming cricket that plays the part shows even less animation than the rest of the cast. When he flails about on his chain, it looks like a toy on the end of a stick being waved around both willy and nilly.

When Christmas Past shows up, it appears first as Scrooge’s pillow, which scares the crap out of him. Cute enough. When she turns into a stork, though, she drops a joke about “pillow talk” that almost made me choke to death on the gingerbread M&M I was eating – not because it was funny, but because the filmmakers included such a (relatively) adult joke in the middle of a cartoon that, until now, seemed to be crafted to cater specifically to the 3-to-3 ½ year old demographic. Christmas Past whisks Scrooge to the past, where he sees himself and Sister Fan making the world’s ugliest snowman.

This time, for the first time in any version of the film, we see baby Fred. He’s not the cause of Fan’s death, but he is the cause of Scrooge’s isolation. Fan had promised Scrooge he could leave school and live with her, but with the baby there’s just no room for him. Young Scrooge storms out, not hearing Fan tell her baby how much she loves and misses her brother. Old Scrooge hears it, of course, but the whole thing rings pretty hollow, seeing as how these computer animated figures move at about the speed of a radio controlled car with a missing wheel. She could have caught up with him pretty easily.

Christmas Present hops onto the scene, a kangaroo, with an Australian accent because duh. At the Cratchit house we meet Tiny Tim, who isn’t even sick in this version. He still makes Scrooge feel like kind of a jerk, though, as he expresses a child’s love for the old miser.

Christmas Future, the walrus, is surprisingly funny. He sparks with red lightning and he has a broken tusk that looks like it’s been lashed together with a leather strap. And as he talks (yep, this one talks), his big jowls flap around over the tusks. His is actually the best animation in the entire film.

This is when the film goes off the Dickensian rails. Instead of dying, we see that Tiny Tim has grown up into an old, bitter codger just like Scrooge. This doesn’t seem to make any sense at all; there’s no motivation that seems in place to push Tim down that particular path. Then the movie actually makes a funny point when it gets to Scrooge’s death. In this version, Scrooge learns that he’s been crushed to death under the weight of his own gold. It’s goofy and ridiculous, and it actually entertains me for about five seconds before the character pushes it too far and changes the subtext into text by announcing Scrooge was killed by his own greed. You know. In case anybody didn’t get that.

So at the end, the Walrus of Christmas Future tells Scrooge to open his heart and he wakes up back in his own bed, and I realize with utter shock that there are still 15 minutes left in this movie. Considering how quickly everything has been rushed through, what could they possibly have to fill up that gargantuan amount of time?

Oh god. A musical number.

Scrooge starts to dance and sing about dancing and singing, informing everybody he meets that he won’t need another chance, which is swell, but the movie seems to have forgotten one of the primary rules of musicals. Namely, you need to have a musical number before the final reel of the film, or else it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Because it does.

Then there’s the last scene, which again departs from Dickens in a big way, as Marley reappears and tells Scrooge that he’s been set free from his eternal torment. Somehow, his concern for Scrooge has redeemed Marley as well. I have to admit, as deviancies from the classic go, I’m… I’m kind of okay with this one. I mean, it does somewhat undercut the notion that Scrooge had to change before it was too late, because evidently it’s never too late in this universe, but that’s not necessarily the worst message to take away from a story like this.

This isn’t a good version of A Christmas Carol, don’t get me wrong. The animation is terrible, the dialogue is weak and the song at the end is guaranteed to make you want to plunge a stake of holly through each eardrum. That said, it’s not the worst version I’ve watched either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 14: Kelsey Grammer in A CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MUSICAL (2004)

Christmas Carol-The Musical 2004Director: Arthur Allan Seidelman

Writers: Mike Ockrent, Lynn Ahrens, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Jesse L. Martin, Jane Krakowski, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Geraldine Chaplin, Jason Alexander, Brian Bedford, Jacob Moriarity, Julian Ovenden, Edward Gower, Steven Miller

Notes: Based on a stage musical from 1994 with music by Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken, this was a pretty good adaptation starring Fraser star Kelsey Grammer and several other TV actors. It managed to win an Emmy award for Outstanding Music Direction, as well as picking up nominations in various other awards, including a “Grace Award” nomination for Grammer as “most inspiring television actor.” The film entered the cable rotation and is now pretty easy to find, usually on the Hallmark Channel, at this time of year.

Incidentally, the title of this one doesn’t bother me the way yesterday’s Christmas Carol: The Movie did. Sure, it’s not the first musical version of the story, but relatively few of them have been, whereas calling something “The Movie” after it’s been filmed a dozen times… geez, come on. I guess I’m still angry at that stupid movie.

Thoughts: As a card-carrying Christmas nerd (note to self: have cards printed) and a fan of Kelsey Grammar since his Cheers days, I remember being particularly excited when this made-for-TV film premiered. I don’t know if I’ve watched it in full since its first airing in 2004, but I’ve definitely seen parts of it, and I even have the soundtrack mixed in with my Christmas playlist. (You mean you don’t have a Christmas playlist? Weirdo.) Watching the film is like a return to an old friend.

The film opens in an odd place – a musical number as the people of the town cheer for the oncoming Christmas, until a typically Dickensian family arrives searching for Scrooge and hoping he’ll show leniency. Everyone considers it a laughable notion. Although the man’s wife has just died and his money went to funeral expenses rather than rent, Scrooge is more than ready to boot them out on the street the next day – Christmas. The music begins and I’m quickly impressed by the cleverness of the lyrics. Lynn Ahrens weaves a good amount of genuine Dickens dialogue into the songs, altering or adding to it just enough to satisfy the demands of rhyme and meter. As a result, we get music that sounds very fresh, but at the same time, still cozy and familiar when we realize we can anticipate many of the lines.

The movie is billed as “The Musical,” but it actually goes a good bit further than many stage musicals do. In almost operatic fashion, the bulk of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. In weak musicals, the songs are incidental, crammed in-between plot points simply for the sake of having music. Great musicals use the songs to advance the plot and reveal the characters, which is what this one does. With its 97-minute running time, you could probably cut together every spoken line into less than ten minutes of video. The early moments all set up the rest of the film as well – music that will be echoed later, themes that are going to be woven into the narrative as the movie progresses. Taking a nod from The Wizard of Oz, the film also introduces us to the three actors who will play the ghosts early, each playing a person in need that Scrooge ignores and belittles on his way home from his counting-house.

Kelsey Grammar as Scrooge is a unique sight. I don’t know if he’s actually the youngest actor to have played Scrooge on this list, but he’s most certainly the youngest-looking, and as such he’s put under a gray wig and thick gray mutton chops that, combined with a squint, are intended to age him. It doesn’t exactly work, though. Grammar doesn’t look old, he looks like a young man playing an old man in a community theater production. (I should know, I’ve been a young man playing an old man in enough community theater productions myself.) His voice is wonderful – strong and booming, and he sings his songs with true power and ferocity. But after having listened to the music without watching the film for several years now, it’s hard for me to reconcile the image with the voice. Grammar’s makeup is just so goofy that I can’t separate the actor from the character, and that’s a shame.

Jason Alexander, best known from Seinfeld, suffers from a similar problem when he appears as Jacob Marley’s ghost. His makeup job is little better, topped off with wild hair and a good special effect when he touches Scrooge, but the pale pancake on his skin doesn’t quite extend to his eyes. Like Grammar, Alexander is actually a really talented actor and a remarkably good singer, but like Grammar, it’s difficult to get past the image of the character he played on TV for such a long time. His song, fortunately, is fantastic. “Link By Link” is a nice bit of self-damnation for Marley – chilling in a way that feels nicely theatrical. One could easily imagine this performance on stage, where the distance from Alexander would ironically make it easier to see the character instead of the actor. The inclusion of other, similarly-damned ghosts to serve as a chorus really ratchets up the intensity of the scene, and makes it more effective.

Jane Krakowski, another sitcom actor with either a very good singing voice or an excellent audio production team, turns up next as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Krakowski is dressed up like a teenage girl’s depiction of a pixie, which actually is a bit too young for her here, but she mostly pulls it off.  With a nice flying effect, she whisks Scrooge off to the past, beginning with the imprisonment of Scrooge’s own father for nonpayment of debts. It’s interesting – several of the adaptations I’ve seen have decided to extrapolate backwards towards what kind of father Scrooge had, and although none of them have done exactly the same thing with the non-character, almost every version that has touched upon Scrooge Sr. has successfully imagined a father that could conceivably have pushed Ebenezer in the direction we all know he wound up going.

Jennifer Love Hewitt pops in as Scrooge’s sweetheart, Emily. (Again, what was wrong with Belle? I don’t know why it irritates me so much when they change the character’s name for no reason, but it does.) She sings a lovely duet with young Scrooge (Steven Miller), “A Place Called Home,” that really resonates for anyone who’s ever been young and in love. The warmth is chilled, though, when Grammar’s Old Scrooge interrupts the duet, singing along with the agony of a man who has squandered the promise of his young self. Before Christmas Past ends, though, we get a shocking dog-kicking moment we’ve never seen in another version of the story: in later years old Fezziwig (Brian Bedford) asks a slightly older, much more successful Scrooge for help, and Scrooge stabs him in the back. At this point, I’ve watched various Scrooges drop their versions of Belle and mistreat Bob Cratchit over a dozen times, it’ll take more than that to shock me. Scrooge callously tossing aside good Fezziwig really does it.

Jesse L. Martin steps up next as Christmas Present. Martin’s Ghost really kicks things up from the usual versions of the character. Rather than singing Scrooge his anthem (“Abundance and Charity”) while atop the traditional mountain of food, he whisks him into a theater where he performs with a troop of living nutcrackers in front of a live audience, then forces Scrooge into the show. Grammar really hams it up here, bumbling around stage as if he’s never been on one before and is, in fact, terrified at the very notion. From there, it’s off to the Cratchits, where Tiny Tim (Jacob Moriarity) begins the first of many, many choruses of “Christmas Together,” which will practically be this film’s unofficial theme song by the time it’s over.

Unlike most Christmas Futures, Geraldine Chaplin isn’t a faceless spectre. Instead, she’s a speechless one, who mimes at Scrooge as a chorus of undertakers sing a grim song as they go about burying his coffin. The scene quickly shifts to Tiny Tim’s grave, where Bob Cratchit is singing a goodbye to his son. Seeing them lay Tim’s crutch on the wooden grave marker really is a powerfully sad moment, one that propels us right into the finale, as Scrooge sees his own tombstone and realizes that he will be left “scorned and unmourned.”

As much as I poked fun at Grammar’s makeup as the film began, by the end of it I wasn’t paying attention to the mutton chops anymore. His performance really is quite good, and the music in this film is wonderful. Ahrens and Menken created a sound that was very much in keeping with the tone of the original novel, stirring the heart and reminding us – as it reminds Scrooge – of the true meaning of the Christmas season. By the end, as a chorus of children and his late loved ones surround Scrooge in the cemetery and begin singing “God Bless Us Everyone,” we’ve completely bought in and we’re part of the jubilation Scrooge feels moments later when he wakes up in his own bed. His transformation made even more convincing as Grammar straightens up his posture and loses the perpetual scowl he’s worn for the entire film: he’s gone from Clark Kent to Superman. Y’know, if Clark Kent had been a raging jackass in the first place.

Anyway, Scrooge encounters the “Spirits” again, once more in the mortal forms they wore as the film began, and they dance off with a palpable sense of self-satisfaction as Scrooge rushes off to the Cratchit house to hoist Tim on his shoulders for a final rendition of “Christmas Together,” a song I’ve heard – at this point – approximately seven thousand times and damn it I promised myself I wasn’t going to get teary-eyed at this this time. Stupid beautiful music.

The best Christmas Carol? Probably not. The best musical version? Eh, it’s hard to beat the Muppets. But for a made-for NBC special starring (mostly) NBC stars, it’s pretty darn effective. I said at the beginning that it’s been quite a while since I watched this one, but I now realize I’ve got to work it back into the regular rotation.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 13: Simon Callow in CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MOVIE (2001)

Christmas Carol The Movie 2001Director: Jimmy T. Murakami

Writer: Piet Kroon, Robert Llewellyn, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, Nicolas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gambon, Rhys Ifans, Juliet Stevenson, Robert Llewellyn, Iain Jones, Colin McFarlane, Beth Winslet, Arthur Cox, Keith Wickham

Notes: This film, produced by the British Pathé Films and released on DVD by MGM in the United States, is among one of the more critically-reviled versions of the story. Despite an all-star voice cast, including Nicolas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gambon and Kate Winslet (who also sang the film’s theme “What If?”), it got lousy reviews in its theatrical release overseas and was largely ignored in America. But you know, you’ve gotta give the filmmakers credit for having the audacity to give this production the title Christmas Carol: The Movie, as if all the dozens of other versions that came beforehand weren’t actually movies at all, but rather live performances, interpretive dances, brands of licensed underwear or dried fruit snacks… anything but “a movie.” Really.

Thoughts: Although some releases of this movie feature a live-action bookend with Simon Callow as Dickens reading his book to a group of children, the DVD release I have cuts straight to the animation, which looks like it was done by a better-than-average Flash artist. (Which is to say: it’s still pretty bad.) But rather than starting with Scrooge or Marley or… y’know… anything recognizable, things kick off with Dr. Lambert (Arthur Cox) being arrested for his debts and leaving his wards – an entire hospital of what I have to assume are orphans – without any hope, as Lambert’s debt has been transferred to the offices of Scrooge & Marley.

As it turns out, the woman left in charge of the orphans (Kate Winslet) is Belle, an old acquaintance of Ebenezer Scrooge (Simon Callow again). She writes a personal letter pleading for mercy, which she delivers to an uncharacteristically unsympathetic Bob Cratchit (Rhys Ifans). It takes almost 15 minutes (in a movie that lasts 77) before we get to something that resembles the Dickens novel, as Fred (Iain Jones) shows up to beg his uncle to come to Christmas Dinner. The Fred design here is awful – ragged and wearing a thin cap, looking more like a waif out of Oliver Twist than Scrooge’s fairly well-off nephew.

Then we watch mice play in a bucket. Why are we watching mice play in a bucket?

I have no flippin’ clue what Kroon and Llewellyn were trying to do with this script. If I didn’t know this was a British production, I would think this was the result of Hollywood filmmaking-by-committee. Some yutz in a boardroom says he doesn’t get the story or he thinks it needs more of a hook so the audience can relate to the characters or some other stupid comment that makes you think he knows better than Charles Dickens how to tell this story, and the next thing we know we’ve got an entire hospital full of kids about to freeze to death and a couple of mice sidekicks. Then, just to make Scrooge a little more evil and to make the stakes in the story a little more personal, Scrooge dumps the bucket of water out the window right on Tiny Tim’s head, in the freezing cold. You can probably guess where this is going.

Nicolas Cage plays Marley’s Ghost, which is a bizarre choice. You cast Nicolas Cage in a movie for one reason and one reason only: so that everybody knows you cast Nicolas Cage. But the reading he gives Marley’s lines doesn’t even sound like Nicolas Cage, and by that I don’t mean that it’s not wild or crazy like many of his roles are, I mean it literally sounds like somebody else performed the voice. If I wasn’t staring at the IMDB page I wouldn’t have thought it was –

–why in the hell are the charity workers showing up after Marley’s ghost? Scrooge’s redemption was supposed to have already begun, having him denying Marley at this point is just stupid. Before everything could be chalked up to Scrooge’s greed, but once he’s already been told he has to change and he keeps rambling on about decreasing the surplus population, he just starts to sounds like an idiot.

And why are the mice riding in his pocket? Dear God, they’re going to subject us to those things for the entire movie, aren’t they?

Anyway, off to the Cratchit house, where Tim (who doesn’t appear to be crippled in this version) is exhibiting the Cough of Death, no doubt because Scrooge himself doused the kid with water, because it wasn’t enough that he was just neglectful. Nope, he had to actively murder the child. We’re 26 minutes in and I hate everyone involved with this movie.

Back in his room, the same Ebenezer Scrooge that just fatally soaked a little boy and callously refused to give money to the poor finds the mice in his pocket and cheerfully agrees to share his gruel with them, because the writers of this movie tore the page of their dictionary with “characterization” on it out when they ran out of toilet paper one day. Just as he’s nodding off, Jane Horrocks shows up as a Candle-like Christmas Past that fluctuates inexplicably between a child and a ghoulish old woman. We go from there to Schoolhouse Scrooge on the day his sister picked him up from school and introduces him to her best friend: Belle! Because nobody would believe it if he met her at Fezziwig’s like in every other version of the story.

I feel like I need to say something here: I’m not opposed to minor changes in the story in principle. If there were no changes from one version to another it would be sheer lunacy to even make another one. But I do insist that those changes make sense or bring something to the story that other versions do not. Having Scrooge meet Belle as a child doesn’t change anything. Having her present to watch his father dress him down doesn’t improve the story. The subplot with the hospital is utterly superfluous to the point Dickens was making about a man’s redemption – if anything it weakens it, because instead of doing good for the sake of goodness, now we have to wonder if Scrooge’s later good deeds all come as a result of him feeling guilty over how he treated Belle or, even worse, holding hopes of some sort of reconciliation with her.

And the damn mice. Add. Nothing.

And before we leave the past we see the reading of Scrooge’s father’s will, where he gives everything to Scrooge and leaves a pregnant Fan out in the cold and about to die, which Scrooge is perfectly happy to allow to happen. Then, in a move that would make Sheldon Cooper proud, he presents Belle with a “marriage contract” before she walks out on him. This movie strives to make Scrooge and everyone in his world as miserable and heartless as possible, except for when it comes to giving mice food. But by the time Christmas Present shows up we don’t even want Scrooge to be redeemed anymore, we want him to die of typhoid and get buried at the bottom of the river.

Michael Gambon is our Christmas Present, and he at least feels true to the character, showing Scrooge his feast and talking about giving it out in the spirit of love. Unfortunately, the filmmakers choose to waste our time showing us the mice eating a pie instead of focusing on the ghost. He flies around, showing off people making merry in a sequence that looks hand-drawn in a way that would actually be kind of charming if the rest of the animation was adequate and therefore serving as a real contrast.

Christmas Yet to Come is a similarly poorly-animated apparition, waving his arms around at a rate of four seconds per frame to show Scrooge the aftermath of Tim’s death (which, in case we forgot, Mrs. Cratchit directly attributes to him). Marley shows up to tell Scrooge he’s dead, then he wakes up alive. Ebenezer Scrooge has been redeemed, but as someone forced to watch Christmas Carol: The Movie, I have officially lost all hope.

Anyway, because the screenwriters added a completely useless subplot, as the redeemed Scrooge walks around town, Belle weeps over her empty hospital. Scrooge takes the blood money he got for foreclosing on the place and gives it to a homeless guy, because lord knows Belle couldn’t use it at this point, and then starts wandering the city aimlessly. When he gets home, Belle shows up and chews him out for closing the place down. He begs forgiveness from her and she tells him it’s not too late, which of course begs the question of why she was just dressing him down instead of asking him for help. Dr. Lambert is let out of prison and sent to treat Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit gets his raise, the damn mice ride around on Scrooge’s shoulder and I resist the urge to club a puppy over the head. The end.

The good news is that, thanks to this film, An All Dogs Christmas Carol only had to keep the title of “worst adaptation” for a mere three years. The bad news is that this version even exists. I used to think the worst thing a version of A Christmas Carol could be was forgettable. Now I’m afraid I’m going to remember this one because of how stupidly bad it actually is.

Also, buy mouse traps.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Month Day 12: Sir Patrick Stewart in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1999)

Christmas Carol 1999Director: David Hugh Jones

Writer: Peter Barnes, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Joel Grey, Ian McNeice, Saskia Reeves, Desmond Barrit, Bernard Lloyd, Dominic West, Laura Fraser, Ben Tibber, Rosie Wiggins

Notes: In the 90s, Sir Patrick Stewart performed a one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol, which garnered great acclaim for several years. The TNT Network, recognizing a good thing when they see it, then produced this film starring Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart got a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor in a television movie or miniseries and both the movie and Stewart were nominated for Saturn Awards, the big prize for science fiction and fantasy. It’s a very straightforward version of the story, with the inclusion several scenes from the novel that many adaptations omit.

Thoughts: Patrick Stewart rarely fails to bring the Awesome, let’s be honest. Even when he’s in a bad movie, he’s typically the bright spot in a miasma of mediocrity, and here I am specifically thinking of X-Men: The Last Stand. So it’s not surprising that in this made-for-TV movie, he puts forth a Scrooge every bit as powerful and definitive as Alastair Sim or Albert Finney.

This film kicks things off with Marley’s funeral, a spot adaptations don’t cover that often, and from the start we see screenwriter Peter Barnes trying to bring in some of the Dickens language into the film. Although there’s no narrator as in the Muppets film, here we have some of the narration dropped properly into the mouths of Scrooge and others – the opening diatribe about why a doornail is considered particularly “dead.” When reading the book, that tangent in the first paragraph of the first page has always felt a bit odd to me. Here, it serves to show the mundane way Scrooge treats the death of his partner and sole friend. Much of the dialogue is verbatim Dickens, and Stewart delivers each line with the power and certainty that always drips from his voice.

In the opening scenes we see that this isn’t a Scrooge that explodes in anger or mocks those foolish enough to entreat him for donations to the poor. Stewart’s Scrooge is rather quiet and subdued. Even when he threatens a caroler with a beating, his voice doesn’t raise above the level of a bitter growl. Even in his quiet moments, though, Stewart is perhaps the most intimidating Scrooge we’ve met yet. So often Scrooge is portrayed as a feeble old man. Here he moves with weight and rage that is almost visible around him

TV or no, this Christmas Carol has some of the most impressive special effects we’ve seen yet. Bernard Lloyd appears as Marley’s ghost: he has a spectral form, his hair constantly shifting as though blown by a breeze that doesn’t affect anything else in the room. At one point his jaw falls open in a rather hideous sight that probably gave the willies to a few kids watching this. On a performance level, this gives us the chance to see Scrooge interacting with that rarest of things for him – an equal. He speaks to Marley with a casual familiarity that we didn’t see as he spoke to Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant) or his nephew Fred (Dominic West). Even now, before his redemption has begun, we see that Stewart’s Scrooge is more layered than most of those who came before him.

Joel Grey’s Christmas Past is perhaps my favorite of the human actors to portray the part. He has a light air about him, and constantly stands bathed in light. It’s a twist on the “candle” conceit that many versions go with, and it suits him nicely. He comes across as a little patronizing towards Scrooge, which the old codger sort of deserves at this point in the story. As Scrooge starts to feel the effects of his own past, such as when he sees his sister (Rosie Wiggins), we see the Ghost’s smile change from one of condescension to pride that he’s having the proper influence already.

I haven’t said much about the assorted Fezziwigs in this project, because there’s rarely much to say. He’s the jolly shopkeeper Scrooge apprenticed under, he throws a slammin’ Christmas party every year, but he doesn’t have too much to do. Ian McNeice, however, really steals his scene this time around. The man brings so much joy and energy to the screen that you want to watch a whole special about him. Even his musical number plays the character as a sweet, good-hearted ham, like everybody’s goofy uncle that makes the same lousy jokes at every Christmas dinner, but you love him and you love them and it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas if they were missing. Even Scrooge himself defends the man with a real ferocity when Christmas Past dares to disparage him. Somebody at TNT take note, if McNeice is available and amenable, I want to watch A Very Fezziwig Christmas next year.

Next it’s Desmond Barrit’s turn as Christmas Present, complete with the green robes and holly wreath. Barrit is a more low-key than most Presents. He’s not loud or bombastic, and in fact he seems almost sluggish as he walks around sprinkling his “milk of human kindness” onto the food of the poor. He doesn’t have the judgment of Scrooge in his voice that many people do, but rather a profound sadness. I’ve got to say, much as I like this version of the story, I’m not really keen on Barrit’s ghost.

Christmas Yet to Come here is a shadowed figure with glowing embers for eyes. Of the ghosts in this film, though, it’s also the least convincing. The unaltered, human hands that reach out from beneath the robes to point Scrooge around are somewhat jarring, and only further serve to make you feel like you’re looking at a guy wearing a false head on top of his own like a theme park costume. The other ghosts, including Barrit’s, all have a sufficiently otherworldly (or at least Dickensian) look to them. Christmas Yet to Come looks like something a moderately-skilled cosplayer puts together on his weekend off.

Fortunately, the rest of this sequence is considerably more effective. Scrooge’s pain when he realizes he’s watching the results of his own death comes across perfectly, with Patrick Stewart agonizing over the idea of looking at his own body and asking to see emotion connected to his death. From there we cut to a young couple rejoicing in that they’ll have time to get the money to pay their mortgage now – not exactly what Scrooge had in mind. The scene in the Cratchit home is a real gut-punch, as Bob talks to Tiny Tim’s body, still lying in his bed. It’s rare we actually see the dead child – most adaptations show Bob coming home from the cemetery or visiting the grave. Something about seeing him lying there makes the scene all the more heartbreaking.

The Redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge at the end, like the bitter one at the beginning, is also a little subdued. Stewart doesn’t simply explode out of his bed, but he goes through some really clever ticks – touching his hand to make sure he’s corporeal, choking a bit before he remembers how to laugh and finally spinning into a man wrapped up with joy. Maybe my favorite bit comes when he asks the passing child to go and buy the turkey for Bob Cratchit, he actually has to take a moment to force out his newfound generosity. He’s made the decision to change, but just for a second we get a reminder that old habits die hard. Once he hands over the first few coins to the child, though, it’s like the dam has burst – he gives the man with the turkey extra money for a cab, walks through the streets depositing coins in the cups of beggars, and even engages the children in a snowball fight. He has to push the wall down, but when it’s down by God it stays down. Even then, though, it’s hard for him to knock on Fred’s door, and he almost passes by entirely. He’s willing, but ashamed at his past, and he has to overcome it. Bless ya, Sir Patrick, for making Ebenezer Scrooge a real human.

Although this isn’t the best adaptation of the novel (as I said, the latter two ghosts were really quite weak), most of the performances are pretty good, and Patrick Stewart puts out one of the finest performances as Ebenezer Scrooge I’ve ever seen. It’s worth watching this movie for him alone.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!