God bless us, everyone.
Here’s an animated adaptation that most folks aren’t aware of. I didn’t know about it until earlier this week. While considering the depictions of the supernatural in “Carol” adaptations, I found it curious that no animated special attempted to design the Ghost of Christmas Past as Charles Dickens devised it. Perhaps the animators felt beneath the challenge:
“It was a strange figure — like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white, and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.
Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.”
I decided to search through the multitude of “Carol” cartoons to see if any of them got it right. Well, it turns out that one did, and wouldn’t you know it? It was made by Richard Williams, the same man who would go on to direct the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
This adaptation, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1971, dares to illustrate Dickens’ story in a realistic style, which makes the supernatural elements all the more frightening. Just as Dickens wrote, Williams’s Christmas Past shifts shape and appearance, and leaves an eerie trail of afterimages in its wake. It moves and speaks in a flat, distant manner, and the effect is as disturbing as it is beautiful.
Oh, and speaking of disturbing:
The contrast between the realistic living characters and the freakish specters works greatly to the cartoon’s benefit. It reminds me of the old John Hurt “Storyteller” programs that Jim Henson produced in the 1990s. Seeing the man behind the Muppets spin tales about death, devils and dragons created a thrill in me. I thrilled for a future in which genius creators such as Henson could graduate from children’s fairytales and tackle dark, grandiose epics. It never came to be, but it was nice to wonder at.
Williams’s “Carol” is born of that same desire, I believe, to pull the general view of cartoons away from the safe sweetness of Walt Disney. Indeed, this cartoon feels more like a the work of artists who wanted to experiment, to follow their own minds, to make something unfettered by stifling market-think. I daresay that the final result suffers a bit for this: the cartoon is prone to navel-gazing, and even the most powerful moments from the book are made limp by the lingering direction.
This is not a Top Cartoon, but I still think it’s worth your time. It is a marvelous, moving art exhibit made by folks who live to share their imaginations. It will show you things that you’ve never seen before, so I pray you won’t miss out.
“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.”
Day Twelve, The Letter-Writing Campaign: I’d like to preface this post by warning that it might sound crazy to you. It sounds a little crazy to me, too, but I insist that it is absolutely true.
I was an atheist for most of my life, but I wasn’t one of those arrogant, fedora-wearing pricks who take joy in deconstructing people’s beliefs. No, I was just a man who, having learned of the atrocities, iniquities, and warped values of humanity, decided that there couldn’t possibly be a God. The lives we lead are completely out of balance: we work ourselves to death or coma-like states, we ignore the suffering of others, and we spend our earnings to emulate and worship those who exploit us. I could reach no other conclusion but this: there is no plan here. Nobody really knows what he’s doing. Life is a meaningless parade of lunacies. We are cosmic accidents, burning our precious lives away on a Mobius strip in the unforgiving dark of space.
That’s what I used to believe. That changed this summer. I was kneeling over the edge of bathtub filled with hot water, holding the edge of a chef knife to my wrist, when I realized that I couldn’t afford to think this way anymore.
It started with a comedian. Doesn’t it always? I listened to the audiobook Me of Little Faith by Lewis Black. In particular, I listened to the chapter titled The Psychic. I had never believed in psychics before. I figured they were all charlatans out to make a buck off of the bereaved, but something about Black’s story touched me. If he could be made to believe that something could be watching us, the evidence must have been overwhelming. Perhaps there was a way I could find proof of that sort.
According to Black, the psychic Michael Bodine explained that he no real “superpowers,” as it were; he simply could see and talk to people that most of us couldn’t. These people, called guides, or angels, or whatever name you like best, were the ones who brought him knowledge of the future, or possible futures. Bodine was just a messenger.
I did some research on these “guides.” Different psychics have different ideas about what they actually are, and I suspect that none of them really know for sure. What they agree on, however, is that they are intelligent, helpful beings who can be communicated with.
So how do you communicate with one? Again, the methods differ depending on who you ask. Some say you can just talk aloud to them. Others say you can have a mental conversation with them if you meditate and clear your mind properly. Still others recommend writing letters to them, leaving them out for them to read.
I kind of liked this last idea, so when my long dark night came, I got out a sheet of paper and a pen, and wrote. I wrote a brief but desperate plea for help, to whoever might have been watching. I didn’t care who it was, if it was God, or my guardian angel, or whatever. I closed with, “I am open to you now,” and I stuck the finished letter to my bulletin board.
Not long after, things started to change. I kept on going, leaving letters out everyday, to “whoever might be watching.” I wrote about the worries and problems I had, and one by one, they were solved, often within a day or two of my writing.
I got in touch with my counselor, whom I hadn’t seen in months, and she offered to continue my therapy at a reduced rate.
My physician agreed to help me get on state disability while I worked my problems out.
I reconnected with an ex-girlfriend with whom I shared a long relationship and a hostile breakup. We were able to reconcile after years without contact.
I had to leave my apartment before my lease was up, and my landlord warned me that she hadn’t had any interested renters in months. Still, I couldn’t afford to stay there. I figured if I had to ruin my credit, that’s the way it had to be. I moved out, and less than week later, my apartment was taken. I was even able to get my deposit back.
Daylight crept back into my life. The biggest question remained, however. I needed to know what my path was. After years of decisions that continually brought me to the brink of suicide, I had to recognize what I wanted for myself. What is my dream? We all know the answer to this question, but we make mistakes, we make excuses, we make compromises, and years later, our dreams are buried so far beneath the layers of stupid bullshit that we can barely remember them.
I did remember mine, but I never believed I was good enough to make it come true. It was always there, though, that desire to make my own cartoons. I wanted to be like Jim Henson and share my characters, my stories, my imagination, with the world. I just never had the confidence. I always considered my artwork to be pretty weak and crude compared to what some of the kids are doing with Photoshop and Illustrator these days. I never believed I could measure up, so I pushed my old dream into a closet and locked it away. Still, the other paths weren’t working. I wrote a long letter asking for guidance to the one that was right.
That’s when I got the request to make a commission, and I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, I was good enough.
I know how this all sounds. I know. I could be subconsciously pouring effort into solving these problems, and then giving credit to something supernatural. It’s a possibility, but the resolution of these troubles always seemed to involve something outside my control. Perhaps this was just a series of crazy coincidences, but all in my favor?
No, it seems, or rather, it feels like communication is happening. Carlos Castaneda said that to find your true path, you have to stop listening to your thoughts, and start listening to the world around you. Only then will the answers will reveal themselves. I have much to learn, but this part seems to be true. I still don’t know what God is, exactly, but I’m pretty sure He, or She, or It, wants me to succeed, to say and do what I feel is right, and most of all, be the person I was born to be.
I believe that profound growth isn’t possible without some pain and tribulation. All the challenges I faced this year were for a purpose. I think I needed to recognize and accept that there is indeed a force greater than ourselves, one that is actually involved in our lives. My misery, and the miseries that I described in my past eleven entries, did not happen because this force allowed them, they happened because we rejected it. I don’t completely understand its nature, but I can no longer deny its existence.
Knowing this gives me some peace, and I hope that 2015 will see a personal renaissance in not just myself, but in all of the people who’ve undergone significant trouble this year. I can’t change the problems in the world, but I can change my views on them. The hope, the reality, the truth, is in how we look at things. Everything in the world has its place, and every event has its meaning, even if we can’t discern them from the TV news. I refuse to accept the falsehoods from the glass boxes as true and then use them to make myself feel bad. Instead, I will find the truth within myself, where God put it at the very beginning. I came to the edge of death, but I didn’t fall. I am alive. I am here, and even though I nearly lost everything, I can still see, hear, and feel the precious miracles that surround me everyday.
I’ve got a chance to change, and I will not be the man I was. I’ll begin again, I’ll rebuild my life. I will live to know that I’ve fulfilled my life. I’ll begin today, throw away the past, and the future I build will be something that will last. I will take the time I have left to live, and I will give it all that I have left to give. I will live my days for my fellow men, and I’ll live in praise of that moment when I was able to begin again. I will start anew, I will make amends. I will make quite certain that the story ends on a note of hope, on a strong Amen, and I’ll thank the world and remember when I was able to begin again.
God, whatever it is, showed belief in me by answering my call. I don’t know why, but I will use this chance to find out. Likewise, God gave you the power to make this holiday, this world, this life, as shitty or as lovely as you want it. Why would you want it to be bad?
The world is indeed lovely, and full of possibilities. Choose the good ones. Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, make it a Merry Christmas.