Though it lacks the iconic humanism of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the handmade charm of Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, and the gawky rosiness of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated catalog, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol may be the most festively joyful of all made-for-television holiday specials. Jim Backus’s senescent title character, bumbling his way through a play-within-a-cartoon so as not to lapse from his ignorant-of-ubiquitous-disaster Taoism, isn’t exactly Alastair Sim. But his vocal performance applies key elements of Sim’s violent emotional metamorphosis within a more familiarly benign context, and, especially considering Magoo’s lack of facial expressiveness, it’s no less effective as a communal call to action. This, along with the brief running time, makes the special an ideal distillation of Charles Dickens’s values for children, even if the suspicious selfishness of the original text’s denouement remains to complexly cut the treacle.
Rather than truly championing compassion, the classic narrative subtly swaps money for various forms of abstract currency; one isn’t truly “rich” unless they’re noticeably generous to the full extent of their means. It’s ultimately not Tiny Tim’s premature death that converts Scrooge but the rather schoolyard-grade epiphany that unless his attitude changes, he’ll die an unloved pariah. Of course, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to get himself out of debt, and drew upon a ghastly childhood as a penniless factory waif; the miser Ebenezer Scrooge is the personification of his financial and patriarchal angst, folded in a phyllo-thin wrapper of Judeo-Christian moralism. And Scrooge’s ardor for gold is, unlike the innate nefariousness of a more traditional bogeyman like the Grinch, shown to be cultivated through years of penury, alienation, and competitive environments both economic and sexual. But when a beauty like Belle, Scrooge’s young adult sweetheart (depicted by Magoo and Company as comically thin-waisted and big-bottomed), dumps him for his ostensible greed, we feel Dickens’s jaundice contrivedly leaking in. Sex and money just can’t coexist—that simply wouldn’t be fair.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol efficaciously downplays much of the foolhardy “love is wealth”-isms by focusing on Scrooge’s blindness—which is easily accomplished, given Magoo’s infamous ocular dysfunction. Backus/Magoo portrays Scrooge less as a man who’s seen the truth and rejected it with a hardened heart and more as an ignorant miser incapable of grace-related discourse. When solicitors drop in to accept donations for the needy, he’s just finished singing a manic paean to a chest full of doubloons. (“Little eye poppers!” he shrieks, literally using one of the coins as a monocle.) He likewise scolds Bob Crachit (Jack Cassidy) for sneakily attempting to procure more coal for his office furnace not because of some sadistic desire to see his employee shiver but because he sees each mound of burning carbon as a disintegrating profit. The goal of the ghosts is thus not to scare Scrooge straight or to melt his glacial skepticism (Magoo very rarely utters the exhausted mantra “humbug!”), but to change his perspective, to force his eyelids open. Much like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Magoo’s Scrooge is, at the top of the hour-long retelling, too unaware of his own surroundings to know how far a little kindness might go.
The notion of a little going a long way is central to the appeal of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Given that it was the first holiday broadcast specifically made for a network (in this case, NBC), it’s startling how well the animators, led by Abe Levitow, were able to transform a low budget into poetic minimalism. Scrooge’s office is speckled with sooty, texture inkblots; shades of blue and pink are repeated in articles of clothing, imagined cake patties, and hanging ornaments; and the otherworldliness of the three ghosts is established with artfully putative inchoateness. The character designs, as with those in Ernie Pintoff’s shorts, accentuate simplistically geometric noses and heads, even if the bulbous eyes and diminutive noses of the remainder of the cast make Magoo look like a foreign troll. The cheapness of the production also occasionally informs stirringly hallucinogenic interludes: Candles and leaves morph into other yuletide totems against stark, primary backgrounds, and when Scrooge visits his tombstone, the graveyard is awash with an acid glow.
The songs, by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill, have a slapdash repetitiveness; when Tiny Tim mentions razzleberry dressing for the umpteenth time during a Crachit family chorus one wonders if they weren’t knocked off during five minute breaks from writing Funny Girl. In fact, the entirety of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol often appears the product of talented haste (an unsurprising quality given that the special was produced in an astoundingly brief six months), but this only underscores the weight of its ethereal message. Much like the Crachits, who can’t afford a Christmas hen or tree, producers Henry G. Saperstein and Lee Orgel make up for their lack of resources with shrewd, forward-looking optimism. I could listen to Paul Frees voice even more than the five characters he performs here, and the rushed energy of the spatially reductive backgrounds mirrors the urgency of Scrooge’s journey. His lesson, finally, isn’t so much that money isn’t important, but that it’s best used as a lubricant for social contentedness; when it clings to its owner, it rots. TV execs the nation over got the message, mostly in the form of Magoo’s outstanding ratings share—and a well-funded industry now brimming with holiday cheer-wielding cartoons was born.
One of the pleasures of high definition video is enjoying flawless telecine transfers of purposefully flawed images, and the measured crudity of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol is rendered here with glorious sharpness. The aforementioned color schemes organize the screen with an effusive, earthen deepness unadulterated by combing jags or celluloid deterioration, and the animation's stilted fluidity eventually takes on a loveable uniqueness. It's a remarkable restoration, one that actually dissuades from pining for childhood; syndicated broadcasts on the Cartoon Network could never look like this. The 5.1 sound mix is quite good, but I still can't understand a damn thing the creepy trash peddlers say after they've raided Scrooge's deathbed.
The most valuable extra here by far is the liner notes, a chunky excerpt of a book-length history of the production written by Darrell Van Citters. The audio commentary by Gerard Baldwin reiterates some of that content while intertwining interviews with key cast and crew members, but Baldwin's weirdly hyperactive voice can be a challenge to keep up with. This issue of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol also replaces all of the original DVD's lackluster extras with storyboard and sketch montages, as well as a song demo of Scrooge's first musical number by the composers. It's nothing essential (and none of the supplements are in 1080p), but the anecdotal heft of the booklet is worth updating your old discs.
Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol is both a quirky retelling of a holiday classic and a drinking game waiting to happen: Every time "razzleberry dressing" is mentioned, take a shot. You'll be happily plastered by the second commercial break.