The Great Disney Blogathon: Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
|December 15, 2014||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, The Great Disney Blogathon|
In honor of the season, I’m taking a break from the usual Disney Blogathon to cover one of my very favorite random pieces of Disneyana. Now, lots of folks swear by The Muppet Christmas Carol or Scrooged or what have you, but for me, the ultimate Christmas Carol homage is Mickey’s Christmas Carol.1 This was a short film (but much longer than a regular short, at 26 minutes) that was played in theaters alongside the rerelease of The Rescuers, making it the triumphant return to the big screen of many Disney characters, including Mickey, who hadn’t had a new cartoon in theaters in more than 30 years. It’s been aired pretty consistently on some Disney-affiliated station or another every Christmas season since, which is where I first saw it.2 I love this short to pieces, but besides, you know, the cartoon itself, I find it fascinating because to my eyes, it’s such a transitional piece for Disney. It’s the end of the Dark Age and the beginning of the Renaissance, all in under 30 minutes.
The title is kind of a misnomer, as Mickey has a relatively small role as Bob Cratchit. Scrooge, of course, is played by none other than Scrooge McDuck, in his first major onscreen role. It’s a tour de force “performance” for Scrooge, and performance, sans scare quotes, for his usual voice actor Alan Young, who helps to imbue Scrooge with his trademark incredibly endearing crotchety miserliness. Scrooge’s actions are despicable and yet he’s completely cuddly; at one point, he gloats over his money so enthusiastically that his tail starts wagging, and I just want to reach through the screen and snuggle him.
Mickey is perfectly comfortable in his role as Bob Cratchit; he’s decent and put-upon, which is all a Mickey role needs. Minnie, naturally, plays Emily Cratchit, in a nonspeaking role. (John Grant claims in his Encyclopedia of Disney Characters that Minnie, who had not been seen onscreen since a few brief cameos in the very early 50s, doesn’t speak in Mickey’s Christmas Carol because the filmmakers were unaware that Minine could speak, but I find that claim hard to swallow. I mean, surely someone involved in this Disney production had seen at least one of the 65 classic shorts in which Minnie appears, most of which have her speak. It’s also a bizarre claim to make when you consider the historical context, seeing as how Minnie was soon to reach her zenith of popularity with Totally Minnie, the “Minnie ‘n’ Me” collection, and the completely rad Minnie bathing suit I sported circa 1986.) They have three little mice children – Tiny Tim, another boy, and a girl – and though I’m sure Disney scholars have spent years debating which is Morty and which is Ferdie (Mickey’s nephews) and whether the girl is Millie or Melody (Minnie’s nieces), really, who cares? There are three little mice children, let’s all move on.3
Speaking of Ducks: Donald plays Scrooge’s nephew Fred for obvious reasons, and captures his cheery bon vivance very well, but, I mean, he’s Fred. He doesn’t really have all that much to do. And it’s very odd to see Donald outshone by…pretty much everyone else in the movie. (Also, BFF Mackenzie pointed out to me, it’s weird to see Donald never once lose his temper.) The other members of the Duck family are consigned to the flashbacks of Christmas Past: Daisy plays Isabelle, Scrooge’s lost love, while the triplets, Grandma Duck, and Gus Goose fill out the ranks at a party. I try not to think about any of this too hard, because how could the triplets be around when Scrooge is only about 18 and also EW SCROOGE/DAISY GROOOOOSS.4
Goofy is a little miscast as the ghost of Jacob Marley; his scene is funny, but I have a hard time buying him as possessing the necessary cruelty to swindle people the way Marley was supposed to have done in life. He and Donald might have done better to switch roles if Donald wasn’t, you know, Scrooge’s actual nephew. However, the three spirits are all well chosen: Jiminy Cricket as the moralizing Ghost of Christmas Past, Willie the Giant (from the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” segment of Fun and Fancy Free) as the boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present, and Black Pete/Pegleg Pete/Peter Pete/You Know, That Bad Guy from All the Mickey Cartoons in possibly his greatest role as the terrifying Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
The rest of the parts pretty much all go to characters from the “Mr. Toad” segment of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad: Rat and Mole as solicitors for the poor, Toad as Scrooge’s old boss, Cyril Proudbottom as Donald/Fred’s horse. Angus MacBadger has a nonspeaking background cameo, along with the weasels, the supporting cast of Robin Hood, Uncle Waldo from The Aristocats, Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar, Chip and Dale, the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, and a few others. Clearly the animators were scrounging for any anthropomorphic animals they could find, which gives the whole cartoon kind of a “scraping the bottom of the barrel” feel.
Which is not to say that the cartoon is bad! The animation is lovely, at least on par with – if not better than – the next two Disney feature films, The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective.5 The soundtrack, all instrumental and choral, is great, and the voice acting is superb. But there’s still a sort of hapless feeling to the whole thing, a darkness that is on the one hand suited to the Dickensian source, but which is also, I would argue, emblematic of Disney’s animation department at the time. The Disney movies of the 80s were subpar (not counting The Little Mermaid, of course), and in general the House That Walt Built had pretty clearly lost its way. They were resting on the laurels of the past while remaining unsure of how to proceed in the future, and hey – A Christmas Carol is all about mourning for the glories of a lost past and worrying about a cold and lonely future.
The thing is, if Disney were to make a Christmas movie today, they’d slap Elsa and Tinkerbell on it and sell a million glittery pink DVDs to the little girls of America. (I am frankly shocked that “Elsa’s Enchanted Solstice” doesn’t exist. Yet.) For the Renaissance kids, they made Belle’s Magical Christmas. In 1949, we’d probably have gotten Bobby Driscoll dressed as an elf or something.
But in 1983, Disney didn’t have any recent breakout stars. Their latest feature film had been The Fox and the Hound two years earlier, and though a financial and critical success, it hasn’t exactly gone down in history as one of Disney’s more beloved films. So they were reduced to hauling out a comics character whose heyday had been over two decades prior and dusting off the supporting casts of films from the 40s. Remember, too, that VCRs had only recently become household items, so watching an old Disney movie over and over again instead of whenever it happened to be rereleased in theaters wasn’t really a thing yet. Presumably a fair amount of the audience for Mickey’s Christmas Carol’s original release was sitting there wondering who the hell Rat and Mole were.
And yet there’s a kernel of something new and exciting in there, too. Sure, Scrooge had never had a major role in animation before this – but before the decade was out, he’d have his biggest role yet in DuckTales, a show that literally revitalized television animation thanks to the cleverness of its writing and the beauty of its animation. That care, that return to appealing character design, sharp writing, and innovative storyboarding, was beginning to be seen in Disney animation after the sketchy laziness of the 70s, in little glimmers like the upcoming Big Ben chase scene of The Great Mouse Detective or the thrilling bear fight in The Fox and the Hound, drawn by a young up-and-comer named Glen Keane.
It was also the first significant work by Wayne Allwine as the voice of Mickey Mouse, a role he held for 32 years – the longest to date – until his death in 2009. He’d taken over for Jimmy MacDonald in 1977 but only in bit parts. Even though Mickey is a supporting character in this short, it was Allwine’s first theatrical outing as him, and heck, his name’s in the title. Blame it on me being a Millennial, but as far as I’m concerned Allwine is by far the greatest Mickey – yes, even including Walt. Allwine, who was by all accounts one of the loveliest people you could ever hope to meet, imbued Mickey with an extraordinary warmth and gentleness. I was born a few months after Mickey’s Christmas Carol was released and so Allwine has always been “my” Mickey; I literally wept on and off for hours when I heard about his death.6
He’s also very firmly the “modern,” Renaissance Mickey – and so it’s very weird to my voice-actor-obsessed ears to hear him play opposite Clarence “Ducky” Nash, the original voice of Donald Duck. In fact, this was Nash’s last theatrical turn as Donald, closing out the third-longest single voice actor for any character.7 The last role of Classic Donald and the first role of Modern Mickey gives the whole piece a real “passing the torch” feel. Completing the triumvirate, Goofy is voiced by Hal Smith, in his one and only turn as the Goof; there was a significant gap between Pinto “Classic Goofy” Colvig signing off in 1965 and Bill “Modern Goofy” Farmer taking over in 1987, with random interstitial actors shunted in, contrary to Disney’s usual tradition of journeymanship for its core voice actors. Fumbling, fill-ins, transitions, and the old giving way to the new; I hear my childhood in this movie, but I also hear my mother’s.
This movie, with its sepia title cards – the last animated film to bear full opening credits – feels deliberately vintage. But the promise of the Disney Renaissance is seeded in there too, with Scrooge and Alan Young, with Wayne Allwine, with the thoughtful beauty of every frame. It also sits exactly thirty years after the last of the classic Mickey shorts appeared in theaters – “The Simple Things” – and exactly thirty years before 2013’s theatrical “Get a Horse” kicked off his current absolutely wonderful YouTube series.8 It’s the perfect cusp between Vintage Disney and the slick, gorgeous, maddeningly commercial but sometimes heartbreakingly wonderful Disney of today. Watch it on the solstice, and join me in counting the days until the sun comes back.
And God bless us, every one.
- Second favorite: the Animaniacs version. ↩
- I own two copies of Mickey’s Christmas Carol. One is a grainy old VHS tape, complete with commercials and melty-sounding soundtrack, that has been kicking around my mom’s house since about 1989. The other is on DVD as part of Mickey’s Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse, a holiday special for the truly bizarre show House of Mouse, which features Mickey and the gang as the staff of a nightclub that caters to a clientele that consists of characters from the movies – so, like, you’ll see Winnie the Pooh, Maleficent, and King Louie sitting at a table watching a Goofy cartoon. The framing device of the special is that all the characters are – surprise! – snowed in at the HoM, and hijinks ensue accordingly while Mickey tries to help Donald find his Christmas spirit. It’s uncomfortably aggressive in terms of “EVERYONE MUST CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS OR THEY ARE BROKEN INSIDE” (characters who are SUPER INTO CHRISTMAS, according to HoM, include: Jafar, who is both non-Christian and hates everyone; the Beast, which, excuse you, I’ve seen Belle’s Magical Christmas and he is not a fan of the holiday; and Ariel, who is a fish), while maintaining the production values of the show (read: none). Within that framework, we are shown four shorts: Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the classic Pluto’s Christmas Tree, and two very bizarre new shorts, a Donald one and a Mickey Nutcracker thing. The latter gets bonus points for having Donald, hilariously, play the Mouse King. Still, if you can get Mickey’s Christmas Carol and Pluto’s Christmas Tree in other formats, I’d skip the HoM packaging. ↩
- I’m completely showing my bias here, because you’d better believe if this was a question between Huey, Dewey, and Louie, I’d have a 5,000 word thesis as an answer, whereas I’m being downright charitable when I say that Morty and Ferdie fill me with ennui. But the Ducks are just better! ↩
- Protip: never ever get me going on the various Duck family relationships. I HAVE TOO MANY FEELINGS FOR THE INTERNET TO CONTAIN. ↩
- It looks even better on the House of Mouse DVD, thanks to what it has to compete with. ↩
- It doesn’t help to know that Allwine was married to Russi Taylor, who has been the voice of Minnie since the 80s. Seriously, I took his death like I’d learned Mickey Mouse had actually died. ↩
- Mel Blanc holds both the #1 and #2 spots for Daffy and Bugs respectively. ↩
- There’s also the phenomenal “Runaway Brain” from 1995, but that’s more of a one-off like Mickey’s Christmas Carol than anything like a pattern. Super Renaissance-y, though. ↩