Universal has released Barbie in A Christmas Carol, a CGI-animated take-off on the endlessly adapted Dickens' holiday classic. While offering absolutely nothing new in regards to this deathless literary masterpiece, Barbie in A Christmas Carol is brightly hued, and somewhat speedy in its construction, and no doubt the little girls it is aimed at, will love it.
Incorporating a framing devise in Elise Allen's script, Barbie in A Christmas Carol begins with present-day Barbie (looking noticeably more...busty than I remember her from past outings) hurrying along her little sister Kelly, who doesn't want to go to the hospital charity ball on Christmas Eve. Kelly would rather spend Christmas Eve at home with Barbie, drinking cocoa, baking cookies and singing carols. When Barbie tells Kelly the event is for a good cause, Kelly, rather arbitrarily, says she hates Christmas (I assume because she didn't get her own way?), prompting Barbie to tell Kelly a story about her Christmas snow globe that Kelly has been playing with and admiring all evening.
Back in time, in Victorian London, singer Eden Starling (who looks an awful lot like Barbie) is the toast of the town. Performing Christmas carols in a powerful operatic voice to appreciative audiences, what her fans don't know is that Eden is quite the diva, and a mean diva, at that. Her production crew, including girlhood friend Catherine (who sews her beautiful costumes), Freddy the magician, Maurice the juggler, and Ann and Nan, twin ballerinas, depend on Eden for their livelihood, but they don't enjoy Eden's mean-spirited demands - particularly her new edict that all Christmas travel plans are off in order for the team to rehearse Eden's new stage production. Everyone will have to work, even on Christmas Day. When her friend Catherine tries to talk Eden out of this idea, Eden imperiously threatens to fire her and the rest of the crew if they don't do as they're told.
Of course, as anyone who is familiar with Dickens' A Christmas Carol knows, Eden is then visited by four spirits (first, her deceased Aunt Marie, who warns Eden of the upcoming visitations, followed by the Spirits of Christmases Past, Present and Future). Aunt Marie tells Eden she made a mistake in raising Eden to believe that "in a selfish world, the selfish succeed," a credo that has helped Eden rise to the top of her profession, but which has also cut her off from humanity, and specifically, from the closest friends who truly love her. Will Eden learn her lesson before the Christmas Eve night is through, and change her impending grim future?
Dickens' Christmas chestnut is so foolproof in its design that no matter how many times I see a new film adaptation come from it, the author's beautiful message of regret, hope and never-too-late spiritual rebirth shines through, regardless of the degree of success of the actual production. It's a such a powerful, deeply moving story (and if read properly, a truly frightening morality tale, masquerading as a Christmas ghost story), that even sunshiny Barbie and her friends can't dilute Dickens' intentions (if I had to pick a favorite adaptation, I would go with George C. Scott's 1984 TV turn as Scrooge). And indeed, Barbie in A Christmas Carol ultimately succeeds in the end because it doesn't mess around with Dickens' Christian message: you had better care about something outside of yourself; you had better give of yourself to something bigger than your own selfish wants - or be prepared to face a lonely, forgotten death, and eternal suffering for your soul.
Now, of course, Barbie in A Christmas Carol doesn't mortify its intended audience by going the usual route with these Christmas Carol adaptations, having Eden/Barbie facing the terrifying specter of the Grim Reaper/Ghost of Christmas Future, who points to Barbie's ultimate destination: an untended, cold, desolate grave (or in the case of TV's The Odd Couple, the more terrifying sight of Oscar Madison's sloppy grave, complete with a mountain of dirty clothes obscuring the tombstone). That might leave the little girls watching Barbie in A Christmas Carol a bit more upset than Mattel would like (crying girls thinking that Barbie died aren't exactly going to queue up to buy their latest holiday Barbie). That ameliorating nod to marketing does rob Barbie in A Christmas Carol of most of its potential impact (Eden/Barbie at the end merely faces the end of her singing career and relative poverty). But the sight of Eden encouraging her ugly, fat cat Chuzzlewit to catch a rat as his only opportunity for a Christmas dinner, should scare the dickens out of the little girls watching the show.
And while the framing story of Barbie giving Kelly a lesson in humility didn't seem all that necessary to the film (Barbie keeps interrupting the tale to remind Kelly not to judge people - a sentiment right out of the original story that really should have come from the other characters interacting with Eden), Barbie in A Christmas Carol is filled with very pretty singing (thankfully, no new songs are used here; only traditional Christmas carols such as Joy to the World and O Christmas Tree), and a pleasing visual design. Abandoning the usual pastel softness of other Barbie outings, Barbie in A Christmas Carol is agreeably dark (in accordance with depicting Victorian London), with deep reds and blues and grays that give the film a weightier holiday feel than I was expecting. I can't say the CGI animation is the greatest...because it isn't (the characters' mouth movements are seriously out-of-whack with the soundtrack, while Barbie's cat, Chuzzlewit, is a most unappealing animated blob, looking more like a hydrocephalic groundhog than a cat), but little girls won't care if this doesn't match up with big-screen CGI animation efforts. They just want to see Barbie, and look at her pretty clothes, and hear her sing. And they get that in Barbie in A Christmas Carol, along with, perhaps, a gentle reminder of a very important Christmas message.
The anamorphically-enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen transfer for Barbie in A Christmas Carol is fairly strong, with only minor interlacing noticeable at times; a crystal-clear, sharp image, and strong color values. A good-looking cartoon.
There's a strong, Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track that has some nice separation details at times (with some directional effects here and there), and an agreeably full recording level for the songs. There are also English, French and Spanish 2.0 audio tracks that will do the job for any girl watching this on her little bedroom TV. English subtitles are available.
A mixture of self-promotional and true "bonus" features are included on the Barbie in A Christmas Carol disc. First up is Barbie and the Diamond Castle Secret Scene (4:35), which is basically a clip/plug for that Barbie DVD film. Next, Christmas Carol-oke Party features clips from the film's song interludes, with subtitles so your child can sing along. Carols included are: O Christmas Tree, Deck the Halls, Jolly Old St. Nicholas, Joy to the World, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and Jingle Bells. Chuzzlewit's Jingle Bells Music Video, running 1:51, is an annoying little extra with the unattractive cat meowing the famous carol. Certainly the most fascinating extra here is Collecting Dreams: The Making of the 2008 Barbie Collector Holiday Doll, running 11:26, which shows Mattel giving a mother and daughter collecting team a V.I.P. tour of the Barbie design center. It's a clever little promotional item (I love how they "reveal" an exclusive new Barbie coming out in 2009 - but only to the mother and daughter, not we, the viewers, as we see the delight on their faces. Nice hook, that), but also a fascinating look at the skill, talent, and dedication from a big team of creative artists, that go into designing those fabulous dolls.
Little girls (and come on, admit it: you moms, too) who love all things Barbie will no doubt enjoy Barbie in A Christmas Carol, a nicely-designed holiday outing for the soon-to-be 50 year-old doll. The traditional carols are sung beautifully, the colors are agreeably arranged, Barbie is sweet and knowing, as usual, and little girls might even get a much-needed message about the true spirit of Christmas, slipped in among the somewhat herky-jerky CGI animation. An excellent stocking stuffer for little girls. I recommend Barbie in A Christmas Carol.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.