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A Christmas Carol, explained by a 5-year-old

The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Michael Caine gathers with the Muppets for a very festive Christmas. | Disney/Jim Henson Studios

The critic at large (40) and critic at small (5) talk Mickey’s Christmas Carol and The Muppet Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s beloved novella about a miserly old man and the three ghosts who visit to teach him about the spirit of Christmas, is one of my favorite stories ever written.

I’ve loved it since I was a child obsessed with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the 1983 animated short starring beloved Disney characters in the major roles. Nominated for an Oscar, Mickey’s Christmas Carol proved a boon to the studio’s animation division at a time when it was flailing. It also became a regular feature of Christmas TV for much of my childhood, turning up every year to retell its familiar tale.

What surprised me to learn as a kid was that there have been many adaptations of A Christmas Carol, across all manner of genres and styles and characters. If there’s a beloved troupe of characters, the odds are good that they’ve taken a crack at A Christmas Carol at one point or another. Mr. Magoo has played Scrooge. Fred Flintstone has played Scrooge. Yosemite Sam has played Scrooge. And, of course, Scrooge McDuck has played Scrooge, opposite Mickey Mouse’s Bob Cratchit. I loved this story, so I consumed as many versions as I could.

My childhood also saw the release of a different adaptation of this story that has stood the test of time: the 1992 film The Muppet Christmas Carol, with Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, Statler and Waldorf as Jacob and Robert Marley, and the very human Michael Caine as Scrooge (in one of the renowned thespian’s best performances). A bit of a box office and critical disappointment at its release, The Muppet Christmas Carol has gone on to become a holiday classic for many.

But I wondered what a child of today might make of both Mickey’s and Muppet Christmas Carol, and fortunately for me, I just happen to know Vox’s esteemed critic at small, Eliza, who is 5 and 5/12. (I doubt the copy desk will let me put that in the headline. Sorry, Eliza, for mis-aging you.)

Eliza and I sat down to talk about just what makes A Christmas Carol so timeless and what makes an adaptation of the story successful.

Emily and Eliza on adaptation choices

Scrooge gives the Cratchit children gifts in Mickey’s Christmas Carol.
Disney
The Cratchit children and Scrooge celebrate a Christmas together.

Emily: When you’ve watched as many adaptations of A Christmas Carol as I have, you start to spot small, telling differences among them. Which story elements from the original work do screenwriters choose to prioritize over others? And which story elements do they leave out entirely?

Even a book as slim as A Christmas Carol can’t be adapted with 100 percent faithfulness, and any given screenwriter must make choices about whether to underline the ghost story, the good Christmas cheer, the story of an old man’s regret, Dickens’s social conscience, or the occasional stabs at dry humor. There are a bunch of possible takes hiding within this one tale, and each is as valid as the last.

Mickey’s Christmas Carol mostly chooses to make Dickens come to Disney, rather than sending Disney to Dickens. The special borrows the familiar story elements and sends them through the Disney prism, so that, say, Goofy is playing the ghost of Jacob Marley, while Jiminy Cricket plays the Ghost of Christmas Past. At the center is Alan Young as Scrooge McDuck, and his performance is the special’s greatest asset. (Young had first played Scrooge McDuck in a 1974 children’s record version of A Christmas Carol that was largely adapted for Mickey’s Christmas Carol.)

The special’s tone lurches all over the place, something that is not helped by its 25-minute runtime. It’s surprising it comes together at all — there’s no way the slapstick of Goofy should work with the creepiness of Marley’s ghost, but it kinda does — but it’s always hampered by being a Disney production first and a Dickens adaptation second. In the end, it suggests that the moral of this story is mostly “Be nice to other people, okay?” which is a good lesson to impart but not really the focus of the novella.

The Muppet Christmas Carol is altogether stronger. It doesn’t force the Muppet characters into roles they wouldn’t fit particularly well, so that Michael Caine’s work as Scrooge can have the weight it requires. (He’s one of the best Scrooges ever.) But it does allow, say, Fozzie Bear to step in as Fezziwig — or should I say Fozziwig — which is exactly the sort of tiny, comedic cameo where one of the sillier Muppets can be very funny.

The Muppet Christmas Carol finds a great middle ground between the book and the Muppets, right down to having Gonzo (as Charles Dickens) recite chunks of text from the book directly to viewers (with Rizzo the Rat on hand to provide comic relief). It’s not my favorite adaptation of this story, but it’s darn close.

Eliza, what did you see as the chief adaptation choices made by these two specials?

Eliza: The Muppet Christmas Carol looked like Sesame Street, and Mickey’s Christmas Carol was a cartoon. The Spirit of Yet to Come in Mickey’s Christmas Carol had eyes [in its hood]. The Muppet Christmas Carol one didn’t have eyes and was gray with lines. The Mickey’s Christmas Carol one was brown. Plus, when the Mickey’s Christmas Carol spirit threw Scrooge in fire, he said, “SCROOOOOOOOOGE!” and the other one was way more quiet.

Oh! I was going to ask something about Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Why did the Spirit of the Future drop Donald Duck, who was playing Scrooge, in fire?

Emily: [desperately trying not to explain hell to a child] Well, uh, it was to show he had been bad. And if he stayed bad, he would go and get burned up.

Eliza: [looking very concerned] Oh.

Emily: But that’s only if you’re bad. [disconcertingly long pause] He was pretty bad. Wait. Donald Duck doesn’t play Scrooge in Mickey’s Christmas Carol! He plays Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.

Eliza: No, that’s a smaller girl duck.

Emily: All right.

Emily and Eliza on Ebenezer Scrooge

Emily: Few characters in English literature are as memorable as Ebenezer Scrooge, who (if nothing else) shows off Dickens’s skill for naming characters with exactly the right series of syllables, such that you instantly understand who they are.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have played Scrooge over the years. It’s impossible to get an exact count, since stage adaptations of A Christmas Carol remain staples of regional theaters and the like. But the list of “notable performances” on Scrooge’s Wikipedia page is formidable, with seemingly every actor over 40 with a patrician air and stentorian bluster having taken a crack at the part. Why just this year, The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln played Scrooge from the stage of London’s Old Vic.

Scrooge has become such an immortal character because he somehow speaks to our worst and best selves. There are days when we want to say “humbug” to the world and days when we’re so full of good feeling that we could pop. We want to believe that it’s not too late to change our ways, and Christmas often brings out a fond feeling for our fellow human beings.

Eliza, did you like Scrooge?

Eliza: I didn’t like him at first, but then I liked him!

Emily: What didn’t you like about him?

Eliza: [excited] The movie is kind of like the Grinch!

Emily: Eliza! A deliberate comparison between two disparate works! That’s the backbone of much critical analysis!

Eliza: The Grinch didn’t like Christmas. But what’s different about the two movies is that the Grinch stole Christmas, and Scrooge doesn’t do that.

Emily: Yeah, you’re right. Scrooge doesn’t have that level of ambition.

Emily and Eliza on the many ghosts of Christmas

Emily: Broadly speaking, A Christmas Carol fits into a longstanding tradition of telling ghost stories during the Christmas season. Indeed, there are spooky Christmas stories stretching back to medieval times, and ghosts popping up at such a festive time of year were one of the handful of Christmas traditions hanging on in Dickens’s day.

In 1843, when Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Christmas was often treated as just another day, with few people even getting time off work — that’s why Bob Cratchit asks if he can have the day off. So A Christmas Carol is an attempt to reinstate Christmas as an important holiday on both a plot level (the characters are taught to keep Christmas every day of the year) and a more metatextual level (a Christmas ghost story would have seemed properly festive to Dickens’s readers).

But forget all that heady nonsense. I just love ghosts. What about you, Eliza? Who were your favorite Christmas spirits?

Eliza: The Spirit of Christmas Present in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. He opens the roof of a house, and the person inside goes “EEEEEK!”

Emily: I like when he goes right up next to the window, and his eye’s really big.

Eliza: And I like Jacob and Robert Marley from Muppet Christmas Carol! My favorite song is “Marley and Marley.”

Emily: Great song. A real bop. Which one of the ghosts would you want to be?

Eliza: I would want to be the Spirit of Christmas Past. Too bad I couldn’t fly for real into the past! I would go back in time to all the Christmases and get all the [Lego] Advent calendars that we’ve done. We’ve done three, and four when we’ve finished this one. I’ll get all the other boxes that have been thrown away, and I’ll bring them home to the present.

Emily: I think the ghosts are cool. I wish I could meet the ghosts.

Eliza: Me too! It’s too bad that all the people in the world can’t be the ghosts. If everybody wanted to, they could be the ghosts, but if one person or two or maybe 100 didn’t want to, they could just not be it. [pause] I wish I could just go through the screen, so we could talk and interview in person.

Emily: I’d like that! I’ll have to come visit when all of this is over!

Eliza: Then you could meet my whole family!

Emily: Well, I’ve met your mom and your dad, and I met you when you were a baby.

Eliza: Yeah, but you haven’t met my grandpa and grandma! And you’re in luck! I’ve got two grandpas and grandmas.

Emily: I don’t have any grandpas or grandmas anymore.

Eliza: Why?

Emily: [aggressively backpedals]

Emily and Eliza (and Nora) on quills

[Eliza’s younger sister, Nora, the critic at tiny who is 2 and 3/4, enters the room.]

Eliza: Nora! You should ask your question!

[Nora approaches and whispers something in Eliza’s ear.]

Eliza: Ask her!

Nora: You can’t write with a leaf!

Eliza: A leaf? Oh, a feather! Mickey and Donald Duck paint with a quill. She wants to know why they do that?

Emily: Well, they’re just writing with them. They’re not painting. People would take feathers and make the tips really sharp. Then they would dip them in little ink pots and write things down. But now we have pens, and those are just a lot easier to use.

Eliza: My drawing desk has a little circle to put a bottle of ink in, and then you can put a pen in it. It’s George’s desk. He lived in our house before we did.

Emily: Does that answer your question, Nora?

Nora: [stares]

Emily and Eliza on A Christmas Carol’s enduring appeal

Emily: A Christmas Carol is one of the most successful books ever written. Almost everyone alive knows some version of this story, and there are plenty of adaptations that have nothing to do with Christmas at all. (See also: McConaughey, Matthew, in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.) Dickens’s story is beautifully structured, appropriately festive, and just the right amount of creepy. It’s no wonder so many filmmakers have tried their hand at adapting it, though many have failed.

Eliza, why do you think this story has endured so long?

Eliza: Because it’s about Christmas.

Emily: I like the way it’s about looking at your life and seeing the things that should and could be better and using Christmas as a way to make your life better and be a better person. But I also like the ghosts. I wish I could meet the ghosts.

Eliza: Me too!

Emily: I’m gonna ask you the question I always ask you: Who is the character you are the most similar to?

Eliza: I don’t know.

Emily: I think you’re the most similar to that little bunny who carries the turkey in The Muppet Christmas Carol, because you’re nice and you like to help. Who’s your mom most similar to?

Eliza: Maybe the bunny?

Emily: I think I’m most similar to one of the Cratchits, because I have to work and work for a boss who doesn’t appreciate me, and all the ink gets frozen —

Jen, Eliza’s mom and Emily’s boss, offended and eavesdropping from outside the room: WHOAAAAAAAAA!

Eliza: Mom, you’re in the middle of the bunny and Scrooge.

Jen: That’s a good answer.

Emily: Your mom is nothing like Scrooge, Eliza. Not even a little bit.

Eliza: I know who’s like Scrooge!

Emily: Who?

Eliza: Donald Trump!

Emily: Wow. Eliza with the hot takes. I hope he’s visited by three ghosts this Christmas, who convince him to change his ways.

Eliza: Me too.

Correction: This article originally said A Christmas Carol was published in 1863. It was published in 1843. We have corrected the error.

Sourcee: Vox