“Do you know the weight and the length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It is a ponderous chain! Oh, captive bound and double-ironed! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life opportunity misused? Yet, such was I….”
Not the sort of dialogue one might expect from a cartoon, eh? A snottier animator than myself might even say that it’s not something that belongs in some chintzy UPA production, but I’m no snot-rag.
To me, cartoons have never simply been about art and movement. They’ve always been about presentation, performance, and timing: all the things that make any drama appealing. Just ask any Pixar fan his or her opinion on the studio’s success, and you’ll realize that with animation, as with all forms of acting, motion always comes second to emotion.
This is why I consider Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol to be the best of the myriad animated “Carol” adaptations. Sure, the animation is limited. Sure, the backgrounds are wildly exaggerated. Sure, the characters rarely evince their existence in the third dimension. All these stylistic qualities are unarguable, but to fault this cartoon for them would only reveal an artistic prejudice in the viewer. Magoo is beautifully drawn, finely directed, powerfully acted, and a joy to watch.
The cartoon sets up the story as a Broadway production, in which the myopic Magoo is the star. Jim Backus does some impressive voice gymnastics here, as he successfully buries the familiar Magoo dottiness beneath a surprising veneer of cruelty, sorrow, rage, and fear.
And Scrooge has much to fear. The four ghosts of the story lose none of their malevolence in their cartoon manifestations. Christmas Present grandly admonishes and condescends, and the legless, looming form of Christmas Future remains my all-time favorite version of the character. Even the childlike, androgynous Christmas Past exhibits an unsettling aspect in its final departure.
But the grooviest ghost of them all is Jacob Marley, by far. Thanks to a jaw-dropping performance by Royal Dano, Marley is sure to get the attention of everyone in the room as he laments with frightful, operatic anguish. Marley’s scene was one of the first in animation to move me to tears, but not in the way you might expect.
There is a particular moment in the scene when Marley orders Scrooge to peer through his bedroom window and behold the afterlife that awaits him. And then, several fiery threads knit themselves together: a desperate musical cue, a vision of lost souls, a horrified outcry, a somber warning, and a swelling bass tone. And it’s all constructed so well that it becomes a thing of limitless, abstract beauty: something I cannot react to except to weep. It is not Scrooge’s plight that overwhelms me, as no other adaptation of this scene has elicited such a response. No, I think that I am simply awed at a craftsman’s level — amazed and moved at this perfect achievement of effect.
Of course, there are moments later on that actually aim to yank out the tears, and I think they’re quite good too, considering the simple drawings we’re looking at. The talented musicians, songwriters, editors, and voice actors all deserve great credit for this accomplishment.
Still, Dickens’s timeless tale is the cradle of these emotional forces, and the truth is that any minor tweak to it can ruin the whole soup. Thankfully, UPA wisely treats the work with great reverence. While concessions understandably had to be made for time, much of the heady dialogue and darker scenes from the book were retained. No punches were pulled for the sake of offending a child viewer, and I think the results speak for themselves. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is by turns sad, warm, funny, wondrous, and frightening, and neither Disney nor Warner Bros. were able to pull the Carol off so well as this. The simple technical skill massed within these studios is meaningless without the innate understanding of timing, heart, and power that UPA demonstrated here.
Or, to make my point more simply, “it’s not the number of frames in the life, it’s the amount of life in the frames.”