The Importance of Mickey’s Christmas Carol
Before ever having read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, like many of my generation, I first encountered the story of a curmudgeon visited by three ghosts in a 1983 Disney featurette called Mickey’s Christmas Carol, produced initially as added value for ticket-buyers of the reissued The Rescuers in the United States and The Jungle Book in the United Kingdom. It’s significant in that it is the first original Mickey Mouse theatrical cartoon produced in over thirty years. Mickey had not appeared in movie theaters since the 1953 short film The Simple Things.
The film centers on Scrooge McDuck. I recall my surprise learning in later years that Scrooge was not created for the film. Rather, Scrooge was created in 1947 by Carl Barks for Disney comics’ Christmas on Bear Mountain. Inspired by the Dickens character of the same name, Scrooge is the maternal uncle of Donald Duck and the maternal grand-uncle of Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Within the context of the fictional Donald Duck universe, he is the world’s richest person –ahem– duck.
Mickey Mouse is Bob Cratchit. Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket is the Ghost of Christmas Past, the giant named Willie from Mickey and the Beanstalk is the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Pete, the longest-running Disney character (yes, longer even than Mickey) the Disney universe’s main tormenter is the Ghost of Christmas Future with a host of other Disney characters from the Mickey Mouse universe rounding out the cast. The short film was nominated for an Academy Award (announced at the ceremony by future Scrooge, Michael Caine wearing his Caviar Goliath II Harry Caray glasses).
The featurette is the result of the successful production of a vinyl recording released in 1974, Disneyland Records audio musical An Adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. The musical featured similar dialogue and a similar cast of characters.
While the critics’ reaction was mostly mixed, with Siskel and Ebert even reacting with two thumbs down — mainly to do with the minimizing of Mickey’s Cratchit… something in retrospect I’ve come to admire in Mickey: his willingness to allow all the characters of the Disney universe to flourish, to find their moment in the spotlight, in stark contrast to his bunny counterpart at Warner Bros.
Despite having written parts of the original cast recording for Disneyland Records and voiced Scrooge in the album recording, Alan Young (familiar to TV viewers for playing Wilbur in the campy 1960s television show Mister Ed) had not been considered for the part of Scrooge in the film. Reportedly, it was because Walt Disney Pictures believed Young would not agree to voice the character for an animated film. However, when he learned of the production from a friend preparing to audition for the lead, Young contacted the film company to request an audition. After winning the role of Scrooge McDuck, Young learned of the studio’s reasoning and responded, “Hey, I worked in television for five years with a talking horse. At this point in my career, nothing’s beneath me.” Young’s performance was praised, and he would go onto voice Scrooge McDuck for programs like DuckTales for the remainder of his life.
The film was originally broadcast on NBC (1984–1990) with 12 new additional sepia title cards illustrated by Michael Peraza Jr. to match the 12 he had done for the original film to help bridge the segments together.
In a way, this film signified a major re-introduction of the company’s signature character to an entirely new generation. The year after the release of Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells would take over at Disney as Chairman/CEO and President/COO respectively and issue in a new, ultimately successful vision for the future of the company, the main remaining juggernaut in the entertainment space. I’d argue that the release of Mickey’s Christmas Carol provided Eisner and Wells (and, yes, even eventually Jeffrey Katzenberg) with a foundational support to build the biggest and best entertainment company in the world. Effectively, by re-introducing Mickey Mouse, and by doing so with the most classic, Victorian-era Christmas story, Disney, under its new leadership, was provided with a lot of leeway to shake the dust off many of Walt’s best efforts (theme parks, television, and yes even some of their early film releases have the air of old Disney favorites… The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective, anyone?) as well as issuing in a new batch of trials and tribulations (EuroDisney, Touchstone, Pixar, ABC, The Disney Channel and the company’s efforts in syndication) which would ultimately prove so successful that it set the stage for Disney to control so many spaces that would’ve been unthinkable in 1983 (Lucasfilm, Marvel, The Jim Henson Company and what was then known as 20th Century Fox… not to mention their cruise line business).
As the Disney train continues to roll, I hope they take a charitable page from A Christmas Carol, perhaps even the last one in which it is said of Scrooge, “He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of all of us! Amen!”
Watch Mickey’s Christmas Carol: