Christmas classic review: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol

(cover image courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

There is no doubting the universal appeal of Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol.

Interpreted by just about franchise going, including the Muppets, and even run in reverse by the likes of Blackadder and Scrooged, A Christmas Carol appeals because it maintains with exuberant moral certainty that the hopes and dreams we have of the festive season being a magically transformative time actually have some substance.

Whether you believe that when you look around at all the materialism and business-as-usual by a world that seems to prefer Before Scrooge to After Scrooge is another matter entirely but for a brief time we can believe that a vile and selfish man can become a richly vivacious, generous soul after a night of visits by the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marley, chains and padlocks and ledgers clanking behind him, and the three apparitions of Christmases Past, Present and Future.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, produced in 1962 by United Productions of America who introduced the eponymous character back in 1949 in theatrical short The Ragtime Bear, doesn’t stray too far from the classic formula but it does have some fun with Mr. Magoo whom Wikipedia describes as “an elderly, wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of comical situations as a result of his extreme near-sightedness, compounded by his stubborn refusal to admit the problem.”

In this take on Dicken’s immortal story, Mr. Magoo, voiced by Jim Backus of Gilligan’s Island fame, is a well-known actor fronting a clearly major production of a musical A Christmas Carol on Broadway, that famous strip of theatrical flash and glitter which he celebrates, rather comically, in the opening song “It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway” which has the character causing near pile-ups in the traffic and wandering through a restaurant next to the theatre, thinking it’s the stage door.

From the start, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol trades hilariously on the character’s propensity for causing chaos wherever he goes, all of it compounded by the obliviousness of Mr. Magoo who doesn’t ever accede to the fact that he’s done anything wrong.

He’s greeted at the stage door, when he finally gets there, thrown in rather unceremoniously by unseen restaurant staff, by the exasperated stage manager (you get the impression this is a near permanent state of being for the poor man), voiced by John Hart, who admonishes Mr. Magoo for being half an hour late.

Mr. Magoo, typically, is unfazed, essentially chastising the stage manager in return for holding things up, a fearless bout of undeserved projecting that is followed by him injuring a man who really should find a less stressful career.

For all its willingness to have riotous fun with its lead character, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is all business when it comes to Dickens’ story itself.

From start to finish, this rendition of the classic is faithful to a fault, investing Scrooge with a playful meanness that suggests, as Dicken’s intended, an un-self aware, cold and cruel soul who long ago lost sight of what’s important in life.

Interspersed with bright and cheery songs, and some quieter, sadder ones like “Alone in the World” that do an achingly poignant job of representing Scrooge as a broken soul who’s found flawed solace in his wealth, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol does a great job of telling the story over 52 well-used minutes.

Given that most Christmas specials, at least the modern ones, tend to favour a half-hour running time, this extra time gives this iteration a chance to really have some fun, whether it’s with the ghosts themselves (voiced in order of past and present by Joan Garner and Les Tremayne respectively; future ghost is silent) who exhibit some personality beyond the usual, the musical underpinnings which amplify the story’s more emotive qualities without slowing things down, or its exuberant final act when Mr. Magoo finally discovers it is far better to give than to receive.

In fact, it’s that final scene, the thrillingly uplifting part of every iteration of A Christmas Carol that exudes so much animated joy and delight that it’s hard not to join in the joy of the Cratchit family who are together, happy and finally in possession of Wooflejelly cake and Razzleberry jam, stockings full of presents and a turkey so big they’ll be eating it for weeks.

As someone who watched the special as a kid – in reruns thank you; I am old but not that old! – rewatching it now reaffirms what a classic Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is, not simply because it makes impressive comedic use of a character who sails through life unaware of the trouble he is causing but because it gets the tone just right, staying faithful to the original story while bringing its own unique spin to the tale all while reminding going to great and uplifting trouble to “bless us, everyone.”

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