A Christmas Carol 1971 is a fine animated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal tale, says RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES
TITLE: A Christmas Carol
RELEASED: December 1971
WRITER: Charles Dickens (no adaptation credit given)
DIRECTOR: Richard Williams
CAST: Alastair Sim, Michael Redgrave, Michael Hordern, Joan Sims, Diana Quick, Melvyn Hayes
This brilliant animated version of Charles Dickens’ festive evergreen is a fascinating amalgam of British and American talents, which might sound like a car crash in the making but led to a truly memorable adaptation.
Director Richard Williams is perhaps not the best known name to the general moviegoing public. Those who do recall his name will likely know it from his amazing work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1988 but mention him to anyone with a deep interest in animation and they will likely wax lyrical over his talents, for he was very much an animator’s animator.
Williams’ own tale is a cautionary one, mainly pinned on his doomed attempt to produce a feature based around the Arabian Nights over a roughly 25-year period. The tale had many twists and turns, sadly culminating in his beloved, still uncompleted project being wrested from his hands by Hollywood bean-counters, before being butchered and cack-handedly completed (in more than one version) by others.
That denouement was way off in the future when Williams accepted a commission to make this Christmas special for the US ABC network. The venerable Chuck Jones (of Looney Tunes fame) came on board as executive producer, and provided two of his finest animators, Ken Harris and Abe Levitow to work on the project alongside Williams’ own team.
The film doesn’t make the American involvement at all visually jarring, taking as its template John Leech’s illustrations for the original edition of Dickens’ novella, with a dash of the style of American artist Milo Winter, whose work was used for a US edition in the 1930’s. The blend of the two makes for a pleasing composite, complimented by the sort of pans and zooms which one would have then more readily connected with live action filmmaking.
The Anglo side is bolstered hugely by the cast, with Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern reprising their roles from the 1951 version in voiceover form, and other roles filled by Michael Redgrave (narrating), Melvyn Hayes, Diana Quick and Joan Sims.
Naturally, considerable shortcuts have been made to fit Dickens’ narrative into a very lean 25 minute running time, some of which may have been necessitated by a looming deadline (It is said that Jones himself helped out to get the film completed on schedule).
For all that, it manages in some ways to be the most genuinely under-the-skin chilling of all the versions. Unsurprisingly, the creepiest section is the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, as Scrooge is confronted with his own potentially lonely demise, but an earlier moment where the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces mankind’s children of ignorance and want gives it a run for its money.
Such was the favourable response to A Christmas Carol 1971 when broadcast, and so impressed were the critics by its quality that the film was hurriedly given a theatrical release. It would win the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1972.
When one considers the plaudits given to the film, the animation legends involved in its creation and the great British performers lending their voice talents, it’s astonishing that this particular version of A Christmas Carol has been left to languish somewhat, in so much as it is crying out for a decent restoration. It deserves much more, for the worn out prints and home video recordings available for online viewing truly don’t do this remarkable effort justice.
TRIVIA NOTES: A Christmas Carol 1971’s Oscar win was the cause of some controversy, due to its origins as a TV production. Academy rules were subsequently changed to bar any entries which had not made their debut appearance as a theatrical release.
Williams’ own story had a happier coda. He eventually settled in Bristol and joined Aardman Animations as artist-in-residence in 2008. He was still working when he passed away in August 2019, aged 86. Readers with an interest in animated films will find much to enjoy in his filmography.
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