Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays, from The Penguin in the Machine!

Happy holidays to all of you folks, from here at The Penguin in the Machine! This year, I’ve finally succeeded in convincing my family to carry through with a holiday tradition that I had intended to start several years ago—a reading of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on the nights preceding Christmas Day. It’s an alternative to watching any of the dozens of adaptations of the famous little story. Disney has their recent adaptation, with Jim Carrey voicing Ebenezer Scrooge, which--if I’d been able to finagle my way out to see it--I would have posted a review of that.

In that spirit, though, I’ll take a quick glimpse into the past to a few variations of A Christmas Carol that I’ve seen across the years. So, as a present to assist you with your holiday movie choice, I present several quick film reviews of Christmas Carol adaptations.

Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
“Harold and the Purple Crayon” has a more vibrant color palette--and better animation, frankly--than this 1960s mash-up of poorly scrawled animations over bland, minimalist washes of monochromes. There is some bizarre desire that the characters all seem to possess for “razzleberry dressing,” perhaps the concoction that drugged the writers and artists into swirling together sub-par musical numbers and shallow characterization. As far as animated/children’s renderings of Dickens’s classic go, there are many renditions that hail to the original and still provide solid characterizing. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is as blind to development as its titular character.

A Christmas Carol (1984)
George C. Scott produces an iconic performance of Ebenezer Scrooge--tough, austere, distant, and yet harrowingly soulful as the ghosts trawl this lost man through the snares of memory and personal history. The aesthetic of the film grounds itself in authentic, Victorian design, and the shots--which ground the narrative in a series of tight, dark shots--reminds the viewer of the political and economic constraints of industrializing London. However, the tight cinematography provides a sensation of impression, that we are trapped along with Scrooge in his crucible.

Scrooged (1988)
Billy Murray stars as the unsympathetic, grouchy network executive Frank Cross--a name square and taciturn as anything that Dickens could conceive. Karen Allen, as Claire Phillips, plays against Murray’s stalwart, capitalist exec; Allen’s character works in a homeless shelter, while Murray’s Cross proposes films such as The Night the Reindeer Died to a board of directors. The movie whimsically moves between layers of watching and viewing, mimicking the very medium with which it was produced--film. Viewed as good fun, Scrooged is a lighthearted, but entertaining, modern treatment of the Scrooge narrative.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Surprisingly, director Brian Henson assembled a cast of Muppets in one of the most loyal renderings of the holiday classic. The greatest alterations are those inserted to account for the idiosyncrasies of the Muppets; the most obvious of these concerns Gonzo (playing Charles Dickens) referring to the Marleys (as opposed to just Marley) being “dead to begin with.” (Statler and Waldorf play the “Marley Brothers,” hence the change.) The Muppets follow the narrative closely, sharply, and combine much of Dickens’s original dialogue with voiceover narration provided by Gonzo/Dickens and an entertaining, memorable, and lively array of musical numbers. Michael Caine contributes a strong performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, in a manner that borrows heavily from George C. Scott’s deeply affecting portrayal of the character.


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