Mickey's Christmas Carolby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
The 1843 novella A Christmas Carol by author Charles Dickens has been adapted to film and television more than any other of the famous author's works, as well as it being performed as an opera, a ballet, a Broadway musical, and many other variations.
It has often been adapted into an animated format, including versions with Mr. Magoo, the Flintstones, Bugs Bunny and The Smurfs. A 1971 Academy Award-winning animated half-hour adaptation produced and directed by legendary animator Richard Williams tried to capture the tone and artistic style of the original work.
However, it wasn't until 1983 that Mickey Mouse and his friends found themselves telling the same tale on screen, based on a 1975 Disneyland Storyteller Record album titled An Adaptation of Dickens' Christmas Carol Performed by the Walt Disney Players written by Alan Young and Alan Dinehart. Actually the script was written entirely by Young with just one line supplied by Dinehart.
That one line was Willie the Giant as the Ghost of Christmas Present telling Scrooge: "We've a long way to travel and we must fly. Take hold of my robe. Duh, not back there, unless you want to fly tourist!"
Believe it or not, this was not the first time Disney characters had tackled the story. Disney artist Michael Peraza, who worked on the animated featurette, has pointed out that in a December 1949 issue of Rexall magazine, there was a two-page illustrated comic version of A Christmas Carol featuring Donald Duck as Scrooge. It was printed in black, white, and orange with verse under each picture much like the famous Good Housekeeping pages. The entire cast was ducks.
After its theatrical release attached to a December 1983 re-release of the Disney animated feature The Rescuers (1977), Mickey's Christmas Carol has been seen on ABC, NBC, CBS, The Disney Channel, Toon Disney and ABC Family (now Freeform). In addition, it has been released multiple times to various home video formats. The shot of Mickey Mouse holding Tiny Tim's crutch is seen in the opening of the videogame Epic Mickey.
The concept came from a man who made a good living talking to a horse. Mr. Ed was a hugely popular television series from 1961-1966 and in reruns featuring actor Alan Young and his talking horse, Mr. Ed, who only talked to him.
In an interview with writer Sam Tweedle in 2010, Young shared the following:
"After the show ended, I went on a little vacation and then I quit the business for a while. I had been in the business since I was 13 years old, and that was a long time. I toured America. I went to every state in the union, and then I came back to California.
"I met with a young man who I had helped out years before [after he graduated from college Young gave him a job] and he was now at Disney. [Gary Krisel who had just been promoted to oversee the product line of Disneyland Records and was given the task to come up with a Christmas album. Krisel would later go on to be the head of Disney Television Animation.]
"He came and he said 'Alan, do you know much about Charles Dickens?' I said, 'I belong to a Dickensian Society in Canada'. It seemed that Disney had made a record of the characters singing carols. They had spent an awful lot of money on the record sleeve art but the record was unsuccessful. They used all the characters in Dickens' style costumes on the cover, and they had all this beautiful art that they wanted to use on something else.
"So he said, 'Could you write a script for A Christmas Carol using all the Disney characters?' I said 'Sure'. I would have said 'sure' to anything. I was out of work. So I got a friend of mine [Alan Dinehart who had written scripts for The Flintstones and Gilligan's Island but was also a voice actor and director for many series] and I wrote Mickey's Christmas Carol.
"I said 'I'll do the characters'. So I did Mickey, Merlin, Tiny Tim and Uncle Scrooge. I got Janet Waldo [the voice of Judy Jetson] to do Minnie [also Daisy Duck and the Snow White Old Witch] and we got Clarence Nash to do the voice of Donald Duck. So we made the record and it sold every album. It was a hit."
Walker Edmiston did the voice of Willie the Giant and Alan Dinehart did some miscellaneous characters, like Ratty and Mole. Hal Smith did the voice of Goofy.
The record had music by Buddy Baker with lyrics by Tom and (his wife) Frances Adair. The songs included "Money," "This is the Way Christmas Ought to Be," "Being Tight is Not All Right," "Under the Mistletoe," "We Have Love," "What a Glorious Christmas Morning," "They Won't Know Me/What a Glorious Christmas Morning (Reprise)."
The entire record ran 36 minutes and there were some significant differences with the later animated featurette it inspired.
Merlin was the Ghost of Christmas Past while the Old Hag Witch from Snow White was the Ghost of Christmas Future. For the film, all the songs were cut and replaced with "O What a Merry Christmas Day" by arranger/conductor Irwin Kostal and Fredrick Searles.
In the original record, the fundraisers were portrayed ironically by Honest John Foulfellow and Gideon from Pinocchio (1940) perhaps indicating that these charity collectors are actually scoundrels and scammers with none of the money going to the intended poor, so maybe it was wise of Scrooge not to give them any cash.
All the artwork from the album, including sheet music for all the songs, appears in the book Walt Disney's Christmas Treasury (Abbeville Press 1978) that states in the preface to the material:
"As a storyteller, Walt Disney had much in common with Charles Dickens. Like Dickens, Disney knew how to spin a good yarn, how to blend humor with adventure and melodrama.
"Like Dickens, he knew how to draw characters from life and heighten them with comic invention. Like Dickens, he was always aware of his audience and determined to give people their money's worth.
"A Christmas Carol was a natural subject for the Disney artists to tackle, especially since one of their most successful comic book characters, Scrooge McDuck, was named for Dickens' mean-spirited old humbug."
By the way, the album specifically identifies Mickey's nephew Morty as playing the role of Tiny Tim. His sibling Ferdy plays Peter Cratchit.
After graduating high school, Burny Mattinson took a job in "Traffic" (generally delivering mail and doing errands) at Disney Studios in 1953 hoping to someday pursue a career as an animator. He became an inbetweener for the animated feature Lady and the Tramp (1955). He worked his way up to assistant animator working under Disney Legend Eric Larson. He became a character animator on Robin Hood (1973).
However, Mattinson's real passion and expertise was storyboarding. Disney Legend Frank Thomas saw Mattinson's thumbnail sketches for Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Too (1974) and asked him to help on the storyboarding for the animated feature The Rescuers (1977). That opportunity led to him storyboarding The Fox and the Hound (1981) and The Black Cauldron (1985).
He and Mel Shaw had done a lot of storyboard work on The Black Cauldron, compiling all five books of the Prydain Chronicles, but during the production the story started to veer wildly from those boards. Burny's wife, Sylvia (who was also a Disney animator), saw how unhappy he was so encouraged him to pitch his own project.
Mattinson had always wanted to do a film with the Fab Five (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto) and was familiar with the Christmas Carol record album.
He sent it to CEO Ron Miller, along with his suggestions. Two days later, he was surprised when he was called into a meeting with Miller who started the encounter by grumbling about why Mattinson had sent him this material. Mattinson felt he had overstepped his bounds and might lose his job. Miller was just joking. He thought it was a great idea and gave Mattinson the approval to produce and direct the project.
It was Mattinson's first directorial assignment, but was so successful he later went on to co-direct The Great Mouse Detective (1986).
As actor Alan Young continued his part of the story with writer Sam Tweedle in 2010:
"Later I was doing a play, and I was sitting in a dressing room with another actor and I heard him trying to do a Scottish accent. I didn't say anything, but it was terrible. So eventually he turned to me and said 'Alan, isn't this a terrible accent that I'm doing?' I said 'Yes it is'.
"He said 'You're from Scotland. Can you help me?' I said 'Sure I can help you'. So he handed the script over that he was reading and it was my Mickey's Christmas Carol script! He was auditioning for Disney! [There were no credits on the album so people working on the film project were unaware that Young had written the script or voiced the character. The irony, of course, was that to get work as an actor, Young had to work hard to lose his natural Scottish burr in the first place.]
"So I went home and I called the casting director up. I said 'Hello, it's Alan Young. You're casting for Mickey's Christmas Carol. Why didn't you ask me?'
"He said 'Oh, we didn't think you'd want to do it'. I said 'I'd love to do it! I'd like to try out for it!' So I auditioned for my own script and, lo and behold, they cast me. So from then on, I did Scrooge McDuck."
When I talked with Mattinson, he told me they hadn't auditioned anyone else for the role of Scrooge but always wanted Young.
"He loves telling stories," Mattinson told me. "He was always our first and only choice. I think there was some discussion that he might be too expensive or that he wasn't doing much work anymore, that he was semi-retired or something."
Young had appeared in a small role in the 1978 Disney live action film The Cat From Outer Space, but very little else except for some television work.
"Oh, I love the character!" Young said. "I was doing my father, really. That's the way my father sounded. Scrooge is irascible. That's all. Irascible and very tight. I played all the reputations (stereotypes) of Scottish people when playing Scrooge McDuck."
Young went on to voice Scrooge in DuckTales (1987-1990) and in a variety of other projects, like videogames. Mattinson liked working with him so much that Young was cast as Scottish toymaker Hiram Flaversham in The Great Mouse Detective (1986).
Actually, Alan Young was the third actor to voice Scrooge McDuck. The first was Dal McKennon for the 1960 Disneyland LP, Donald Duck and His Friends. Bill Thompson voiced him in the 1967 educational short, Scrooge McDuck and Money, but had died in 1971.
Said Mattinson in a 1983 press release:
"Directing Mickey's Christmas Carol was something like being Tom Sawyer. I had to get the others excited enough to paint the fence for me. The trick to getting the animators enthused is to be enthused yourself.
"People would constantly ask me 'When are they going to bring back Mickey and the gang?' Finally, I realized that the 'they' was me. My wife told me to stop talking and start doing.
"Mickey Mouse was always a Bob Crachit type: easygoing, nice and kicked back. Scrooge McDuck was a natural as a miserly Scrooge. Most of the animators weren't even born when the last Mickey short was done. (The Simple Things 1953).
"The animators had such a high regard for the classic characters and were so protective of them that we spent a lot of time discussing what each one would and would not do. They all had a high regard for the Mouse and the other classic characters.
"They took pride and responsibility in animating them as well or better than their predecessors. After each screening, we would constructively criticize one another for the good of the film and the character. I hope we'll get a chance to do other parodies and new shorts with the 'Disney Players'."
The animators included Glen Keane, who drew Willie the Giant (as well as some scenes with Scrooge and Goofy) and used the movement of his 18-month-old child as an inspiration; Mark Henn concentrated on Mickey Mouse; Ed Gombert worked on Donald Duck, Ratty and Mole (and whose work on the last two characters earned him praise from Disney Legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston who had originally animated the pair); David Block focused on Scrooge (making him in design much like Ludwig von Drake); Randy Cartwright did the work on Goofy (but also worked on the Daisy and Scrooge scene) and Dale Baer and his wife Jane's work included Scrooge's visit to the graveyard with the Ghost of Christmas Future.
The very talented Michael Peraza, who among other things designed the distinctive title cards, added some story and staging ideas for the graveyard scene, including charcoal sketches that started as a silhouette of Pete and then had him lit by the light of his cigar. That bit of business became controversial and the subject of much discussion because a Disney character, even a villain, was smoking on screen and it was almost cut.
Peraza was given one of the door knockers used in the Bank of England set in Mary Poppins (1964) to use as reference for Scrooge's door knocker that transforms into the face of Jacob "Goofy" Marley. Peraza also built various sets (counting house, Mickey's desk, Scrooge's desk, Scrooge's stairway and his bedroom) to be used as physical references for the animators.
The opening scene of the film was based on one of Carl Barks' oil paintings titled "The Season To Be Jolly".
Other animation was done by Matthew O'Callaghan, Retta Davidson, Walt Stanchfield, Toby Shelton, and John Lasseter (who worked on Jiminy Cricket and Scrooge soaring over the rooftops and came up with the business of Scrooge scrambling to the top of Jiminy's open umbrella) but some artists didn't get credit. Peraza's wife, Patty, who did a lot of the effects animation for the film, including snow gusts, fire, shadows and more fell short by about 10 feet worth of work to get a screen credit. Mark Dindal did get credit for working on effects and would later go on to be an animation director.
Burny's wife Sylvia oversaw all the assistants and the final cleanup. Layout was by Peraza, Sylvia Roemer, and Garry Eggleston. Don Griffith also did a lot of initial design work for the film setting the style for the backgrounds.
While a lot of publicity was given to the fact that this was the last theatrical film featuring Clarence Nash at the age of 79 as the voice of Donald Duck and the first theatrical film featuring Wayne Allwine as the voice of Mickey Mouse, some uncredited voice work was done by Glen Keane, John Lasseter, Mike and Patty Peraza, Mark Henn and Randy Cartwright, who supplied background vocals in some of the crowd scenes. Burny Mattinson and Will Ryan did the voice of the weasels. Ryan also did Pete and went on to do the character in DuckTales.
A lot of the publicity also centered on the return to the theater screen of Mickey Mouse.
Following his work assisting Glen Keane with the climactic bear fight sequence in The Fox and the Hound (1981), animator Mark Henn worked on a personal animation test using Mickey Mouse basing his work on the definitive work of animator Fred Moore. It was so impressive that he was assigned to animate Mickey in the film.
"Mickey is really very difficult to animate even though he looks so simple. Little things can make a big difference like if his ears are at the wrong angle or his nose is too big," Henn said. "Everyone thinks they can draw Mickey until they try it. It has to feel right. It's mostly intuitive and takes a lot of practice."
Henn concentrated on studying the classic Mickey from the 1940s and in particular was inspired by Mickey and the Beanstalk and The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
"In Mickey's Christmas Carol, Mickey has a classic look," Henn said. "He has pupiled eyes and ears that seem circular no matter which direction they're viewed from. I just dove in to doing the character. I could really relate to Mickey and didn't think of it as any heavy burden."
The film is filled with cameos of classic Disney animated characters (mostly during the Fezziwig dance scene, but also in the street) including The Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, Toby Tortoise, Max Hare, Clara Cluck, Gus Goose, Peter Pig, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, Grandma Duck, Chip'n'Dale, Huey, Dewey, Louie, Angus MacBadger, Mr. Toad, The Naboombu Secretary Bird (Bedknobs and Broomsticks), Lady Kluck, Skippy Bunny, Toby Turtle, two of the Three Little Wolves, Cyril Proudbottom, and two unnamed weasels from The Wind in the Willows, among others.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1984 but lost to the clay stopmotion short Sundae in New York that celebrated New York. It was the first nomination for a Mickey Mouse short since Mickey and the Seal (1948).
At one point, it was considered making the film a prime-time annual Christmas special on CBS, much like other popular half-hour animated Christmas shows. However, a somewhat lengthy strike during the production of the film seems to have killed that idea.
At another point, it was discussed expanding it into a feature film, but top executives felt that the film would only be able to be shown at the holiday season and so would not generate enough income on re-issues.
Ron Miller was interested in the idea and Mattinson offered suggestions for expansion, including having Scrooge pass a pet store every day on the way to work with an eager Pluto in the window. Scrooge was immune to the dog's charms but at the end would eventually bring him home to Tiny Tim.
"It came awfully close," said Mattinson whose dream was an animated feature film with the Fab Five. The Fab Five did not return to the theatrical screen until 1990 with The Prince and the Pauper.
Several products were released to tie in with the film: a picture disc, a 7-inch read-along book and record or cassette, and a standard vinyl LP with a revised version of the book (including the script) that was exclusively sold at Radio Shack stores. Hardee's was running a promotion where you could pick up a plush character from the short.
Considered one of the iconic Mickey Mouse films, over the years, ornaments, storybooks, collectible figurines, and more were made from images in the film. Even the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World had a series of window displays featuring scenes from the film.
A comic strip adaptation was produced for the Sunday newspaper strip Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales and appeared from October 3-December 26, 1982
The Black Cauldron (1985) and Mickey's Christmas Carol were the last animated films to complete production in the original animation studio building in Burbank, before the department was moved to a location in Glendale, never to return.
Goofy appeared again as a Jacob Marley like ghost in the "Wrecks, Lies and Videotape" episode of the television series Goof Troop and in the Mickey Mouse Works short "How To Haunt a House".
Next year, Mickey's Christmas Carol will celebrate its 35th anniversary, but with yet another recent DVD release, it can be enjoyed this holiday season, as well.