Walt Disney’s Century: Mickey’s Christmas Carol

In an adaptation of the quintessential holiday story, Disney brought back Mickey for a script he barely appears in.

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Walt Disney’s Century: Mickey’s Christmas Carol

This year, The Walt Disney Company turns 100 years old. For good or ill, no other company has been more influential in the history of film. Walt Disney’s Century is a monthly feature in which Ken Lowe revisits the landmark entries in Disney’s filmography to reflect on what they meant for the Mouse House—and how they changed cinema. You can read all the entries here.

The Walt Disney Company is a house built on adaptations of well-known works. Even its very first cartoon, Steamboat Willie, is pretty transparently a play off of another film, Buster Keaton’s 1928 Steamboat Bill, Jr. That’s not to diminish anything that the Mouse House has done in its hundred years of movie magic: Animation, the company’s (nearly former) stock-in-trade, is a difficult and labor-intensive process, and one figures that going with a script you already know will captivate audiences frees you up to focus on bringing imagery and characters to life. Besides, most stories are just older stories dressed differently, anyway. The magic is always in the telling.

By 1983, Mickey Mouse had long ceased to be a star in Disney features. The late ’70s and early ’80s were, in fact, a nadir for Disney’s animation studio, a time that saw talent strike out for new horizons. The Sword in the Stone and The Black Cauldron both reviewed pretty terribly. Disney animated movies, once the world standard, were in decline. It wasn’t really until the late ’80s, with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Little Mermaid, that cartoons ruled the roost again at the company, and at the box office. So in that regard, a little less-than-30-minute short animated film dropping in 1983, starring Mickey Mouse, feels like something of a small miracle.

But though his name’s in the title, Mickey’s Christmas Carol is not really a Mickey Mouse movie at all. It’s a Scrooge McDuck movie, which is fitting, of course. The whole thing is over so quickly, and yet the craft, the effort, the ingenious use of Disney’s deep bench of characters, make this endeavor a holiday classic, even if its length (and the fact it was tacked on as a short before a re-issue of The Rescuers) makes it seem perfunctory. When its artists truly care, Disney is just incapable of making something bad.

One of my favorite meta-narrative exercises is to imagine that cartoon characters are all actually actors, and that they hang around in their troupes smoking cigarettes and figuring out daycare for each other’s kids in between shows where they’re pretending to whack each other over the head, or reenacting Der Ring des Nibelungen. Bugs Bunny is the maximum-drama grand dame of the local scene (he has portrayed Frank-N-Furter for the past eight years straight), and Donald Duck the earnest yeoman who’s been in it so long that the local theater director keeps handing him big parts even if nobody can understand what the hell it is he’s saying (he will, at least, not skip out on tech week or strike). It’s how I greatly prefer to look at cartoon (or, you know, Muppet) adaptations like this: Scrooge McDuck is playing Ebenezer Scrooge, just as Mickey (and long-time voice of the mouse, Wayne Allwine) is playing Bob Cratchit.

You know the story. It’s Christmas Eve and the miserly Scrooge is hard at work dicking over London’s poor and downtrodden. He’s portrayed by the late, prolific Alan Young, reprising the role from 1974 on an album of Charles Dickens tales. For those who grew up with the character, this is likely the first they ever heard McDuck’s iconic voice, as the Duck Tales cartoon show wouldn’t air until four years later. Scrooge bah-humbugs his way through the day, borrowing dialogue directly from Dickens, all while surrounded by perfectly cast supporting characters: Donald Duck (Clarence Nash, one of the last times he ever portrayed the character before his death in 1985) as Scrooge’s nephew, the cast of The Wind in the Willows as the men collecting for the poor and, of course, Goofy (Hal Smith) as Jacob Marley’s ghost.

These portrayals are the selling point of the movie, since even kiddos know the whole story by heart. Jiminy Cricket as the Ghost of Christmas Past, the giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and perennial villain Pete as the Ghost of Christmas Future are all inspired choices, as are background characters that Disney aficionados will recognize from movies like Robin Hood.

It’s all rendered with wonderful, fluid animation that sells the emotional stakes of the story. It’s a light-hearted effort—what animated Disney movie isn’t?—but it doesn’t shy away from the darkness at the heart of Dickens’ story.

In looking back on a century of Disney, after having written so much about them over the years, it was difficult to find something during their lull period that signified their triumphant return to form (and which I haven’t already written about). Mickey’s Christmas Carol stood out because it was a brief return to the old magic—Mickey! Animation! A classic adaptation!—while also signaling, unintentionally, that Mickey’s time as a major character in film was sort of over. The movie is happy to use Mickey’s name to get butts in seats, but Mickey the character was, in 1983, far from his irreverent roots and well into the peppy and inoffensive characterization he largely still has. He wasn’t going to be portraying Ebeneezer Scrooge.

But it was undoubtedly for the best that Mickey took a backseat here. Though he is technically reprising the role, Young’s McDuck, in his animated iteration anyway, is born right here in this movie, and it would serve as a foundational aspect of one crucial component of Disney’s domination in the coming decade: Television cartoon shows. That alone marks Mickey’s Christmas Carol as a major milestone in the company’s history.

It didn’t exactly herald the triumphant return of the Mouse House to feature-length animated film, but Mickey’s Christmas Carol planted the seeds of its rebirth, even if it didn’t do much for Mickey.

Join us next month when Walt Disney’s Century plumbs the horniest and most Catholic corners of the Disney Renaissance with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Kenneth Lowe should be boiled in his own pudding. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky @illusiveken.bsky.social, and read more at his blog.

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