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Scrooge Month Day 10: Fred Flintstone in A FLINTSTONES CHRISTMAS CAROL (1994)

Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)Director: Joanna Romersa

Writer: Glenn Leopold, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Henry Corden, Jean Vander Pyl, Frank Welker, B.J. Ward, Russi Taylor, Don Messick, John Stephenson, Marsha Clark, Will Ryan, Brian Cummings, John Rhys-Davies, Joan Gerber, Maurice LaMarche, Rene Levant

Notes: This TV movie has become a staple of the Cartoon Network family of TV channels in recent years. Like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, this film also uses the conceit of the familiar characters putting on a theatrical production of the classic novel by “Charles Brickens”(voiced by John Rhys-Davies). The Flintstones do much more with that concept than Magoo did, though. There are a few Flintstones-centric subplots that run through the story – Fred (Henry Corden) is so caught up with playing Scrooge that he’s ignoring his friends and family at Christmas and allowing his ego to overwhelm him. Wilma (Jean Vander Pyl) is the stage manager of the play, which leaves her hands full to begin with, but things get even worse as different members of the cast come down the with 24-hour “Bedrock Bug” and are unable to perform. Adaptations of A Christmas Carol featuring classic characters seem to be cursed – like Clarence Nash saying goodbye to Donald Duck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, this was the final time Vander Pyl, Wilma’s original voice, played the character before her passing. Besides Fred as Ebonezer Scrooge (get it?), the Christmas Carol cast includes Barney Rubble (Frank Welker) as Bob Cragit, Betty (B.J. Ward) as Mrs. Cragit, Bamm-Bamm (Don Messick) as Tiny Tim, and Fred’s boss Mr. Slate (John Stephenson) as Jacob Marbley. Wilma gets called upon to play several parts as the actors drop out, including Belle and Christmas Past. The other Ghosts and the rest of the significant roles are filled by obscure or new Flintstones characters.

Thoughts: This film came out at a weird time in Flintstones history. It was the same year as the weak live-action Flintstones movie, and a year after two made-for-TV Flintstones movies which featured Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm as adults getting married, then having babies (twins). For them to step back to the classic era of the cartoon the next year was an interesting choice, but seeing as how they’ve done very little (by which I mean nothing) with the older versions of the characters in the two decades since, I imagine this film was their quiet concession that the characters work best frozen in the eternal forms they enjoyed in the classic TV series.

This is all to say: it’s a pretty good movie.

The Christmas Carol segments are relatively faithful to the book. The characters are true to themselves and they each fill the expected, suitable niche in the story. After watching nine different Christmas Carols though – eight of which are more or less straight-up retellings of the novel – it’s a nice change of pace to see this rendition. With the wraparound story, we don’t actually start the retelling of A Christmas Carol until a full 16 minutes into this 69-minute film. Once we actually get there, it’s nice to see some real “acting,” such as it is. Fred as Scrooge, for example. While it’s true he’s often a loud, obnoxious blowhard in the classic cartoons, he’s almost never pictured as being particularly stingy or cruel. In fact, the character’s biggest fault is that he goes to outrageous extremes in an attempt to provide a life far beyond his reach for his wife and daughter, hardly the actions of a traditional Scrooge. To compensate for the fact that Fred-as-Scrooge isn’t as obvious a comparison as, say, Scrooge McDuck, the movie takes its time to show you how being the star of the play has inflated his ego. Now they’re playing off an established character trait to turn his friends and family against him, making him a better fit for the part. The Fred-centric subplot runs throughout the film, whenever a scene of the “play” ends. He comes offstage bragging about the applause he’s gotten, frustrating Barney and Wilma to no end. It gets even worse when intermission hits and he realizes he left the presents he bought for Wilma and Pebbles at the store, then races out of the theatre to try to fetch them. He winds up having to break into the store, only to get busted by the police. Lucky for him, it’s his buddy Philo Quartz (Rene Lavert), who’s playing Christmas Future and needs to get him back to the theatre in time.

During Christmas Past, the actresses playing both the Ghost and Belle get sick and have to drop out, leaving Wilma to play the roles. Although we get the usual scenes of Scrooge in school, partying with Fezziwig (Barney again) and ultimately losing Belle, there’s an added subtext here. Wilma is legitimately pissed, and Fred – still focusing on his starring turn – can’t understand why.

Christmas Present is the only scene where the Bedrock Bug doesn’t cause havoc. Brian Cummings voices “Ernie,” the ghost who shows him the party at nephew Ned’s and the tender scene at the Cragit home. I know I made the same crack about the Flintstones celebrating Christmas in a time before Christ last year, but this time it’s really glaring. Barney delivers the old line about Tiny Tim hoping people remember “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” It’s a beautiful line, of course, one of Dickens’s best, and a vital reminder of the true reason for the Christmas season. But still, Barney, how can people remember a man who hasn’t been born yet?

Ah well. Sacrifices must be made in the name of great cinema.

Christmas Yet to Come is traditionally hooded and silent, and shows Scrooge the traditional scenes. The big curve ball here doesn’t come until the play is actually over, when Fred goes to congratulate Philo on his performance only to find that Philo got struck down with the Bedrock Bug, and Christmas Future was played by none other than his old pal Dino, putting in the greatest canine performance since Rin-Tin-Tin.

In the end, Pebbles (voiced by Russi Taylor) steals Bamm-Bamm’s “God bless us, everyone” line when he gets stage fright. The play over, though, everybody quickly turns on Fred. Fred apologizes to Wilma and the others for real, and they eventually, begrudgingly forgive him. This is the only spot where the movie falls flat. Although we see Scrooge going through his traditional redemption cycle, there’s never anything that indicates any sort of redemption for Fred. It’s as if Scrooge’s life lessons somehow apply to Fred as well, and work their magic on him. Even if we’re to assume that’s the case, why is the lesson only hitting him now, on the night of the performance, instead of the weeks of rehearsal leading up to the production? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Speaking of the production, let’s hear it for the Bedrock Community Players, can we? Their stage values are absolutely phenomenal. Somehow they have a full-size reproduction of the city on their stage, along with living dinosaurs and real snow, to say nothing of how they somehow make Fred and the Ghosts turn transparent in full view of the audience. I don’t mind tell you, friends, I’ve done my share of community theatre, and there have been times when we have it rough enough just trying to get the fog machine to work. If we could make our actors intangible, people would be abandoning New Orleans to see our performances in droves.

This is not, by any stretch, one of the all-time great productions of A Christmas Carol, but if you’re a fan of the Flintstones – which I am – it’s a fun little departure from the norm and worth watching each Christmas season.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and 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 6: Scrooge McDuck in MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1983)

Mickey's Christmas Carol 1983Director: Burny Mattinson

Writers: Burny Mattinson, Tony Marino, Ed Gombert, Don Griffith, Alan Young, Alan Dinehart, based on the novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Alan Young, Wayne Allwine, Hal Smith, Will Ryan, Eddie Carroll, Patricia Parris, Dick Billingsley, Clarence Nash

Notes: Paired with a re-release of the 1977 film The Rescuers, Mickey’s Christmas Carol is significant in the annals of Disney animation for several reasons. It was the first theatrical short starring Mickey Mouse in 30 years; it was the final time Donald Duck’s original voice actor, Clarence Nash, would voice the character; and it was the first time Alan Young would voice Donald’s Uncle Scrooge, a role he has continued with through the classic DuckTales TV show and every other depiction of the character right through the present day. Despite its short length, the film is remarkably faithful to the Dickens novel, keeping most of the important scenes and characters, although racing through them in the 26-minute running time. The Disney characters who take part in this adaptation include Scrooge McDuck (Young) as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mickey Mouse (Wayne Allwine) as Bob Cratchit, Donald Duck (Nash) as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, Goofy (Hal Smith) as Jacob Marley, Jiminy Cricket (Eddie Carroll) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Willie the Giant (Will Ryan) as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Black Pete (Ryan again) as one of the few versions of Christmas Yet to Come to actually have lines. Other minor characters and background extras come from various Disney shorts and films starring animals, particularly The Wind in the Willows and Robin Hood, which you may remember I talked about here once before.

Thoughts: This is the shortest version of A Christmas Carol I’ve talked about yet, and is probably the shortest I’ll discuss all month, but it’s also one of my favorites. Part of that can no doubt be chalked up to nostalgia – I was six years old when this cartoon was released, and I think I saw it in the theater, but I honestly can’t say for sure. Regardless, I am sure this was the first version of the story I remember in any detail, and as such it holds a special place in my heart. That said, it’s worth talking about even without the nostalgia factor because – again, despite its short running time – it’s really good.

First of all: Alan Young. I’m not sure how many people are aware that Uncle Scrooge has the voice of Wilbur from TV’s Mr. Ed, and I’m not sure how many would care if they did, because his work with this character is by far a more enduring legacy. Scrooge McDuck is a character who has to be firm and grumpy, but with a good heart at the core. In truth, from the outset he was a (slightly) milder version of the Dickens character Carl Barks named him after. Young’s voice performance is flawless.

The “casting” all around is good. Mickey Mouse – so long portrayed as a sweet, well-meaning everyman — is the natural choice for Bob Cratchit. Jiminy Cricket is Pinocchio’s conscience, and as such is the logical choice for Christmas Past. Willie and Pete, both nominal “villains” in their usual Disney performances, fit their roles well, with the man-child Willie making an even larger version of Christmas Present than we usually see and Pete taking real delight in his nasty work. The only one that doesn’t really seem to fit is Goofy as Jacob Marley – a character full of regret. Even if Goofy had anything to regret (he doesn’t – the character is far too innocent for that), he’s not self-aware enough to realize it. I imagine he was given the part simply because they felt the need to get all of Disney’s top three characters into the cartoon somewhere and they just couldn’t think of any other way to include him.

The only major character omitted from this version of the story is Scrooge’s sister, Fan. Considering it was billed as a Mickey Mouse cartoon, that’s understandable – kids may be able to accept ghosts and hellfire and redemption, but I doubt any parent wanted to have a discussion with their children about the potential of a mother dying in childbirth. Besides, there’s a long precedent in Disney cartoons of obvious orphans whose parents are never referenced (Donald and Mickey’s nephews and Donald himself being the prime examples).

Scrooge’s reformation is a bit more subtle in this film, although we do see the stages. After Christmas Past shows Scrooge the scene where he breaks the heart of Isabelle (Donald’s girlfriend Daisy, which must have been kind of awkward on the set), Scrooge berates himself for being foolish. A few seconds later, though, as Christmas Present preaches generosity, Scrooge stubbornly argues that he has no reason to be generous to others, as no one has ever shown such kindness to him. In response, we go to the Cratchit house, where Tiny Tim himself encourages his family to thank Mr. Scrooge. That’s all Scrooge gets from Christmas Present, though, as he’s left standing between a pair of giant footprints before a cloud of cigar smoke whisks him to the cemetery. He’s scared now, and you can feel it, but instead of asking about himself, he inquires as to Tim’s welfare. It’s a good moment, and it’s heartbreaking a moment later when we see Mickey Mouse, in tears, laying a crutch on a tombstone. If that isn’t enough to give kids watching permanent scarring, Christmas Future whips off his hood, lights a match on Scrooge’s tombstone, and kicks him into the open grave, where fire being blazing from the coffin and reaches for Scrooge just before he’s whisked home for the joyful finale.

It is still a Disney cartoon, and as such has to work in some comedy amidst the dark subject matter. The balance is good, and never at the expense of character, whether we’re looking at a verbal gag, a bit of ironic wording, or a quick sight gag. The moment where Scrooge tells Fred he’s coming to Christmas dinner after all, Fred and the horse look each other in the eye and Nash gives the line reading of his career: a simple “Well I’ll be doggone” that never fails to get a laugh out of me.

I do so love this cartoon, and not just because I got to watch it and write the whole article in less than a half-hour. It’s a wonderful rendition of Dickens’s story, even in its condensed form, and it just came out on a 30th anniversary edition Blu-Ray and DVD, along with several other classic Disney Christmas shorts, and one brand new one. If you don’t already own it, get it now.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and 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!