Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Holidaze Review: Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)

True confession: I have never, ever liked Mister Magoo.

It’s not so much that I find Magoo’s shtick—an bumbling old man wrecking havoc due to his extreme nearsightedness—offensive, though many visually impaired people do. It’s really that the shtick is so tiresome and repetitive—if you’ve seen one Magoo short, you’ve pretty much seen them all. And don’t even get me started on that live-action adaptation starring Leslie Nielsen…

It is therefore odd that I have such affection for Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

It’s not odd that it’s an animated Christmas special—those have become commonplace in the decades since, though this was actually the first fully animated Christmas special ever made especially for TV. (It was subsequently run on the big screen, as most Magoo shorts had previously been.)

What’s odd, really, is how straightforward it is.

The special does begin and end in typical Magoo style, with our hero (voiced as always by Jim Backus), strangely cast as the lead actor in a Broadway production of A Christmas Carol , stumbling about, knocking over things (and people) on his way to and from the stage.

I don’t remember these opening and closing sequences, though—maybe because they were cut out for later rebroadcasts. Network shows run shorter than they did in 1962, when Magoo’s Christmas Carol first aired--mostly so sponsors can cram in more commercials—and I’ve seen it pop up on cable in recent years with these opening and closing sequences missing.

There are a few cracks about Magoo/Scrooge needing to buy a “pair of spectacles.” There’s even good use of the tired gag within the Christmas Carol storyline (when Scrooge sees Jacob Marley’s face superimposed over this door knocker, he assumes it’s his lousy eyesight rather than a ghost).

And the story has been slightly altered: tScrooge’s nephew, Fred, is entirely absent; he order of the ghosts has been shuffled—the Ghost of Christmas Present appears first—and the ending has been condensed so that Scrooge confronts Cratchit in the Cratchit home, rather than in the offices of Scrooge & Marley.

Aside from those points, though, the “play” is all business, hitting all the major events of the Charles Dickens original with few concessions to the animated format, with none of the slapstick or broad humor of the usual Magoo cartoon. So do all the other “actors,” including Tiny Tim, who looks suspiciously like Gerald McBoing Boing, another animated character from the same studio (UPA) that produced the Magoo shorts.

There are even a few sweet musical numbers (with music and lyrics by Broadway veterans Jules Styne and Bob Merrill). The song that Scrooge (both as a child and as an adult) sings about loneliness is not only memorable, but insightful as well, giving as good an explanation as you’ll get for Scrooge’s misanthropic manner.

It also doesn’t hurt that this Christmas Carol boasts a remarkably deep voice cast, including cartoon veterans June Foray and Paul Frees and popular actors like Morey Amsterdam, Royal Dano, Les Tremayne and Jack Cassidy (as Bob Cratchit!).

Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol has gone on to be regarded as a Christmas classic—maybe not at the level of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman, but it’s certainly fondly remembered—even by people like me who don’t fondly remember Magoo himself.

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