As related in my previous review of The Jolly Frolics Collection, animation studio UPA revolutionized the animation world with the stylish simplicity of their visual aesthetic. The animators at UPA drew heavily on modern art and marketing to create an aesthetic style with great visual flair that was also cheaper to produce than animation had been traditionally. The innovations of UPA reverberated throughout the industry, and the influence of their aesthetic can even be seen in the work of industry giant Disney. But their influence extended beyond their aesthetic and its industrial ramifications. UPA also crafted the first-ever animated Christmas special produced specifically for television, paving the way for the likes of Rudolph and Frosty with their very own Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). This UPA classic is now available in a terrific Blu-ray/DVD combo Collector’s Edition, which far outshines any previous release of the program.
One thing I find particularly interesting about Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is that UPA was obviously reluctant to outright recast their lovable, near-sighted superstar as the contemptible character Ebenezer Scrooge. Instead, they positioned their rendition of the Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, as a Broadway performance in which Mr. Magoo just so happens to star. Magoo’s trek to the theater and curtain call at the conclusion of the program serve as a wraparound to the otherwise faithfully Dickensian narrative. Additionally, the camera occasionally pulls back throughout to reveal the animated audience as the curtains close and reopen at act/commercial breaks. The producers of the play within the program then justify the near-sightedness of their Scrooge by insinuating that the character is so unbelievably tight-fisted that he won’t even buy the glasses he needs to see properly. Apart from the Broadway wraparounds scenes, which some viewers are perhaps understandably cool on, this cross-mediated rendition of A Christmas Carol is absolutely delightful, ranking up there amongst the best of them in my opinion.
Adding depth to the picture, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol has a significant religious bent, not unlike A Charlie Brown Christmas after it. The Cratchetts in particular are a religious bunch, and their song “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” provides a powerful spiritual counterpoint to Scrooge’s distinctly capitalistic drives. This dichotomy between piousness and greed within the piece not only makes it a far more mature work than you might expect from an animated Christmas special, but it ultimately makes for a far more meaningful and affecting “God bless us, everyone” than you typically get in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
As the mention of “Lord’s Bright Blessing” above indicates, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, like most holiday specials that followed it, is a musical. The musical numbers, written by Funny Girl collaborators Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, are moving, beautifully-crafted tunes, sung very naturally by the performers. The natural, unpolished roughness of the performers’ singing voices ultimately brings the animated characters to life in a way that very few animated films can do.
Special features on the Collector’s Edition include audio commentary featuring interviews with the film’s animators, hosted by author Darrell Van Critters; a production montage slide show; storyboard sequences; and a song demo featuring Styne and Merrill singing Scrooge’s “Ringle Ringle” set to the actual footage from the special. The synching of the song with the footage is quite impressive, and shows just how precise the duo’s compositions for the piece were, in spite of their apparent looseness. The set also contains some nice memorabilia including a reproduction a still from the program signed by Jim Backus and a 14-page booklet featuring some insightful excerpts from Van Critters’ 2010 book on the special, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special.