(Just in case you're wondering. I didn't receive my review copy until well after Christmas, hence this unusually untimely review.)
Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962) is one of the more nostalgia-inducing holiday specials. Indeed it was the very first animated Christmas special, beating Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch by several years. It's a generally successful retooling of Charles Dickens's classic story, tailored for producer United Productions of America's (UPA) popular cartoon character, Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus), as well as another UPA creation, Gerald McBoing-Boing.
Classic Media's Blu-ray Collector's Edition, which also includes a DVD version, is reasonably good. The Blu-ray has some transfer issues, but overall is bright and sharp with especially good color, and fairly packed with extra features including a very well written booklet, though disappointingly, no other Mr. Magoo cartoons.
Mr. Magoo was the creation of writer Millard Kaufman and director John Hubley, both left-leaning artists who originally conceived of Magoo as a political reactionary to lampoon in the age of hysterical anticommunism and the Blacklist. Magoo's first appearance came in the theatrical one-reel cartoon The Ragtime Bear (1949). Magoo's unsavory political extremism was quickly dropped (and Kaufman was soon blacklisted and left UPA) and before long the now lovable, extremely near-sighted Magoo was starring in up to nine cartoons a year, some of which were nominated for or won Academy Awards. But the Blacklist had drained UPA of some of its best talent, and its last theatrical shorts were released in 1959.
Henry G. Saperstein, who later enjoyed a long association with Japan's Toho Studios and for them marketed Godzilla stateside for many decades, bought what was left of UPA. Saperstein seems initially at least to have been more ambitious with the company than he was in later years. In 1962 UPA produced Gay Purr-ee, featuring the voice of Judy Garland and songs by The Wizard of Oz's Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. (Chuck Jones, then still employed at Warner Bros., secretly worked on the film as its main writer and co-producer, but when Warner Bros. wound up distributing the film, Jones's moonlighting was discovered and they unceremoniously fired him.)
UPA's other big project that year was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, which first broadcast on NBC less than two months later. Many viewers incorrectly remember this as a theatrical release. It wasn't. In addition to the theatrical shorts, Mr. Magoo did appear in 1001 Arabian Nights (1959), UPA's first animated feature film. And, in 1970, UPA theatrically released Mr. Magoo's Holiday Festival to children's matinees, which combined this TV special with another made-for-television cartoon called Mr. Magoo's Little Snow White (1965), derived from the '60s Magoo TV series.
Viewers are also incorrect in remembering Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol as being feature length. It was always approximately 52 minutes minus the commercials. When broadcast these days, however, it's often cut by upwards of 10 minutes.
The edited version usually eliminates the effective framing device, which casts Mr. Magoo (Backus) as a doddering, nearly blind Broadway star who barely makes it onstage for his performances in A Christmas Carol. The stage musical within the story pretty much follows Dickens's story with one very peculiar exception. In this version the Ghost of Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) precedes The Ghost of Christmas Past (Joan Gardner). At first I thought it was a disc authoring error; dialogue ultimately confirms that, nope, that's the way it's supposed to be, though other dialogue also hints that maybe this was a last minute restructuring.
I can't imagine why this was done, except possibly as a means of introducing Tiny Tim (played by Gerald McBoing-Boing, and also voiced by Joan Gardner) ahead of the wistful Christmas Past segments. The adaptation succeeds reasonably well considering the running time, further compounded by the framing device and all the musical numbers.
Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, then concurrently working on Funny Girl, wrote the lively, clever songs, which include "It's Great to Be Back on Broadway" and "The Lord's Bright Blessing," which features Tiny Tim's frequent request for "razzleberry dressing." One apocryphal story has Styne and Merrill writing a solo for Magoo/Scrooge, but after it was rejected the songwriters gave "People" for Barbra Streisand to sing instead. A great story, but untrue.
As with the theatrical cartoons, Jim Backus's amusing, muttering performance compensates for the limited animation, though the design here is attractive. This particular show benefits from other good voice actors strutting their stuff, including Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, John Hart, and Jane Kean.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 4:3 full frame format, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol looks really nice for the most part. The colors "pop" and the sharpness is impressive, and there's nary any age-related wear in sight. My only complaint is that during "motion" (odd considering this consists entirely of animated still images) video noise is present on those parts of the frame where's there's "movement." What that is exactly and how it might have gotten there I have no idea. The show, of course, was originally broadcast in mono, but the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is an added bonus, with some material directed at the surround speakers. Closed captioning is included, along with a French audio track.
Supplements include a very good booklet about the show's production, written by Darrell Van Citters. Van Citters also provides an audio commentary track and, all in standard-def, are four very short featurettes, all five minutes or less, about the show, with storyboards, production photos, and a demo track. Finally there's a color image "signed" by Jim Backus. Some reports have referred to this as an actual autographed animation cell but it's neither of those things, just a color picture with a reproduction of Backus's signature (the actor having died in 1989, long before the advent of Blu-ray).
Some viewers so love this special they regard it as the best-ever filmed version of A Christmas Carol, though they obviously haven't seen the Alastair Sim movie (among others). Still, it's quite charming in its own way and the Blu-ray is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.