Friday, December 25, 2015

The Many Faces of A Christmas Carol

One of the single most famous works of literature known to man, happens to be a tale of ghosts and suffering, introspection and redemption. It is Charles Dickens' masterwork, A Christmas Carol, originally released in December 1843. It's a tale that has been read and shared and retold countless times since its debut, and I think part of the reason that it's so popular and enduring, is because even though the setting is very much 1800s "Christian" England, there is very little actual religious overtones. That influence is more subtle, and thus it is more universally relatable to anyone, because it tells a story of the value of generosity, kindness and compassion towards your fellow man.

Now perhaps more than almost any now "public domain" classic story, A Christmas Carol has been adapted in the realm of drama too many times to count, on stage certainly. But even in movie form, theatrical and later also television specials, in some shade or another the story has been retold on film easily a couple dozen times at least. And I am here today to talk about not only many of those film adaptations in general, but also more specifically a couple of my own personal favorites among those.

The 1935 film, starring Sir Seymour Hicks in the title role.

The earliest known film adaptation of A Christmas Carol was actually in 1901, a British silent film version that is now mostly lost. There were further films in the silent era, in 1908, in 1910, in 1913, and there may well have been others. Arguably the most famous of these was the 1913 version, which starred Seymour Hicks, which was re-released in the United States in 1926. As it would turn out, Hicks would have the opportunity to reprise his role as Ebeneezer Scrooge, in the sound era no less, in what would turn out to be the first truly famous and well known adaptation, in 1935's Scrooge. That version is considered by many to be the most "classic" version, and it certainly is good, with a very lively performance by Hicks.

The 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, starring Reginald Owen.

All told, the now infamous role of that hard-hearted miser Ebeneezer Scrooge, has been played by many famous names, the likes of: Marc McDermott, Sir Seymour Hicks, Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, Fredric March, Jim Backus (animated), Albert Finney, Walter Matthau (animated) Alan Young (animated), George C. Scott, Sir Michael Caine, Tim Curry (animated), Jack Palance, Patrick Stewart, and Jim Carey (animated). For that matter, many famous names have appeared as Jacob Marley's Ghost over the years, just a of few of them including: Leo G. Carrol, Michael Hordern, Basil Rathbone, and Alec Guinness. And of course the role of everyman Bob Cratchit has been portrayed by such names as: Donald Calthrop, Gene Lockhart, Mervyn Johns, Bob Sweeney, David Warner, Michael York (animated) and Gary Oldman (animated).

Mervyn Johns and Alastair Sim in the 1951 film.
George C. Scott as Scrooge in the 1984 film.
Patrick Stewart as Scrooge in the 1999 film.

There have been, of course, some oddball versions or loose adaptations, such as the 1979 television film An American Christmas Carol starring Henry Winkler (of Happy Days fame) portraying Benedict Slade, a modern American analogue to Scrooge. Or Scrooged, a 1988 film in which Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a miserly jackass of a television producer, who also goes through a Christmas Eve haunting to teach him the error of his ways. Or Ebeneezer, a 1998 Canadian television special starring Jack Palance in one of his final roles, where he plays a version of Scrooge that lives in the American Old West.

On the more fun end of the scale, there have also been many animated adaptations of different sorts, most typically as television specials. The first of these was actually the first ever animated TV-exclusive Christmas special, predating even Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, that being 1962's Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Starring the great Jim Backus as Magoo/Scrooge, and providing a fairly faithful but Magoo flavored adaptation. Then there was the 1978 Rankin/Bass special The Stingiest Man in Town, featuring the voice talents of Walter Matthau as Scrooge, and Rankin/Bass veterans Theodore Bikel and Paul Frees as the voices of Marley and The Ghost of Christmas Present. Another generally faithful version, though this time featuring a cartoon cricket known as "B.A.H. Humbug" (a play on Scrooge's catchphrase), who narrates the story. There was also the 1997 animated film, which starred Tim Curry as Scrooge, Whoopie Goldberg as The Ghost of Christmas Present, and Ed Asner as Marley's Ghost. And of course the more recently famous 2009 Jim Carey film, in which Carey himself did the voices for Scrooge and all three Christmas Ghosts, Bob Hoskins voiced Mr. Fizzywig and Old Joe the fence, and Gary Oldman voiced Bob Cratchit, Marley's Ghost and Tiny Tim.

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)
The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)
The 2009 Jim Carey CGI film.

Now, as for my personal favorite adaptations, I would honestly have to say that I do really like some of the more traditional live action films, such as the 1951 Alastair Sim movie Scrooge, or the 1984 version starring George C. Scott. Even the 1999 version starring Patrick Stewart is pretty solid, if nothing else because Stewart gives a typically great performance. However, it would seem that my favorite adaptations of the story, are less traditional.

For instance, I really like the more recently discovered (by me that is), 1971 animated television special, which was directed by none other than animation wizard Richard Williams (of Raggedy Anne and Andy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? fame). It stars Alastair Sim reprising his role 20 years later, and it features what you expect from Richard Williams, that being fairly incredible and high quality animation, the likes of which you simply didn't see in the vast majority of made-for-TV specials. The ghost scenes with Marley and the other lost souls, as well as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, manage to be very chilling for a "family special", most especially, and in general it features a very quasi-realistic, almost sketched look to it. It's a darker take than many, but it's very well done, and clocking in at less than a half-an-hour it still manages to be very faithful to the book.

Alastair Sim in animated form.
The Ghost of Jacob Marley.
Lost Souls, hardly typical "family film" fare.
Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I also really enjoy the short Bugs Bunny's Christmas Carol, which was a segment in a larger 1979 TV special Bugs Bunny's Looney Christmas Tales. Only the typical classic animated short length of around eight minutes long, it of course is a super condensed version of the story. But just for nostalgia and hilarity's sake, seeing the various Looney Tunes characters acting out the story is worth it in itself. Bugs Bunny just kind of plays himself, causing merry mayhem and somewhat "narrating" the story. Yosemite Sam plays the role of Scrooge (naturally), and Porky Pig plays Bob Cratchit. The Cratchit family is portrayed as also all being pigs, except for Tiny Tim, who is hilariously played Tweety Bird. Sylvester the cat also has a cameo as Scrooge's cat, because why not. Instead of featuring actual ghosts, this story has Bugs "haunting" Scrooge himself, trying to get him to change his ways, to help save the Cratchit family. It's a typically irreverent and lighthearted Looney Tunes affair, but it's a nice addition nonetheless.

Bugs and his carolers. 

Bugs haunting Scrooge.

Scrooge sees the error of his ways.

My second favorite adaptation of all time, is also actually the very first version of the story I ever remember seeing on TV, in my very early childhood in the 80s. That, of course, being Disney's 1983 short film Mickey's Christmas Carol. Not only is this version in general an excellent take on the story, but it's also very notable for a couple of key reasons. The first being the fact that this was the first theatrical Mickey cartoon since 1953, thirty years prior. The second and arguably bigger issue being, that it was the cartoon that really launched the character of Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge had appeared in 1947 in Donald Duck comic books, and would go on to popularity in his own comics over the years, which would be the foundation for many elements that would later be used in the famous DuckTales cartoon series. But beyond a 1967 educational short called Scrooge McDuck and Money, this was the first real animated treatment the character got, and it was certainly the one that made him infamous and really gave life to the character.

Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit.

Scrooge McDuck as arguably the best Ebeneezer Scrooge of all time.

Donald Duck as Scrooge's nephew Fred.

Rat and Mole as the charity collectors.

Only around twenty-six minutes long, it is, again, still fairly faithful to the source material. There are no extraneous songs, just the straight up story told. However, there are many awesome cameos by various Disney animated characters, not only Mickey characters, but others as well. Some of these are Rat and Mole from A Wind in the Willows, Willie the Giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk, and Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio. Now of course Scrooge McDuck is naturally the star of the show, and his voice actor Alan Young honestly plays him as one of the best performances of Scrooge in film history, in my humble opinion. And I think that is what makes this version so special, is that even though it's a cartoon, featuring known Disney characters, it takes itself seriously, and manages to provide some very dramatic and emotionally touching moments, conveying all the key points from the classic tale. It is a version I have always loved, and to me as a child, until the next/last one coming up eventually took its place in the early 90s, this WAS A Christmas Carol to me, as they would typically play it in The Disney Channel every year.

Goofy as the ghost of Jacob Marley.

Jiminy Cricket as The Ghost of Christmas Past.
Willie the Giant as The Ghost of Christmas Present.

Pete as The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Scrooge redeemed, enjoying Christmas with the Cratchits.

So as for what is arguably my top favorite adaptation of the story, though honestly it's fairly neck-and-neck with the Mickey one. In 1992, when I had just turned 11 years old, the Jim Henson Company came out with their own version of the story, and the fourth theatrical Muppet movie overall at the time. It too was notable for a couple of key reasons. The first being, that this was the first big project directed by Jim Henson's son, Brian Henson. The second being, that this was also the first major Muppet project completed after the tragic pneumonia death of Jim Henson in 1990, as well as since the death of fellow long-time Muppet puppeteer Richard Hunt who passed in 1992.

So it definitely has that sentimental note going for it, as it was dedicated to their memory. And all things considered, Brian Henson really gave his all, and did an excellent job with this film. In many ways it was, at the time, the biggest Muppet film production they had done. It was certainly jarring to me to hear someone else other than Jim play Kermit the Frog, but Steve Whitmire did his best, and while he'll never be THE voice of Kermit, he has since really made the role his own.

Gonzo as Charles Dickens, and Rizzo the Rat.
Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit, and Robin as Tiny Tim.
Sir Michael Caine as Scrooge, Dr. Honeydew and Beaker as collectors.

Like the Mickey version, this version features many cameos by various Muppet characters, and like the Mickey version, they manage to fit just about every major beloved character in somewhere. For instance, Fozzy the Bear is Fozzywig (instead of Fizzywig), Scrooge's first employer from his youth. And during Fozzywig's big Christmas celebration, members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band are the band playing for that party. Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his lab assistant Beaker are the charity collectors, etc. And Gonzo, in a unique twist, plays the part of Charles Dickens, the book's writer, narrating the story to the audience as we go along for the ride. The characters that almost steal the entire show, at least for me, however, are Statler and Waldorf, the old hecklers, as the Marley Brothers, Jacob and Robert. They made Marley two people, instead of one, just so they could have the hecklers play the roles, and you know what? It works in spades. In the Fozzywig past flashback scene, in fact, they are shown as their younger selves, doing none other than, you guessed it, heckling the party. And their "Marley and Marley" musical number when they confront Scrooge is just awesome.

Bean Bunny as a caroler.

Sam the Eagle as young Ebeneezer's teacher.

Good ol' Fozzywig, the jolly proprietor.
They're Marley and Marley.

Aside from making Jacob Marley into the Marley brothers, the film is a really faithful adaptation of the book, for the most part. Though I will say, as an aside, one element that many of the adaptations of this, outside of a few of the purely live action ones, tend to ignore, is that of Ebeneezer's sister Fran. When The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back in time to look at his memories, we see that he had a sister, Fran, whom he loved dearly, and they were very close. She later died in childbirth, giving birth to Scrooge's nephew Fred. The story subtly hints that this was in fact the tipping point that turned Scrooge from his brief respite as a happier young man in love with his fiance Belle, into the colder man who became obsessed with money. It's also left unsaid that perhaps it was the fact that Fred's birth killed the sister Scrooge loved so dearly, as to a possibly key reason why he is so cold towards his nephew.

Beyond that aside about the sister Fran though, this is a really great movie. It has the typical Muppet song and dance type numbers you would expect, but I will say, that one thing about the musical nature of Muppet films, at least the older ones, is that they always seemed organic, and were never annoying. I do not, personally, always love musical numbers in films, especially feeling that later Disney movies basically would pause a story to have what amounted to a music video, before resuming the story. With older Disney films, as well as old Muppet films, I feel like they did it right, as the musical numbers grow out of the story, and the singing and dancing happens as the story continues to unfold, instead of having that artificial pause where everything in the story stops just so people can sing. And this movie's music, especially the "Marley and Marley" number, are really fantastic, for the most part. I would say that as a whole, this is just a really well done Christmas movie, and the perfect thing to put on for this time of year. Which, of course, was why I listed it as one of my Top Ten Christmas Movies.

Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Observing Tiny Tim with the Ghost of Christmas Present.
The Climactic scene with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Christmas with the Cratchits....and Company.

To wrap this up, I must say, it is somewhat unique for me, as this story is concerned, and how much I seem to not mind seeing a plethora of different versions of it. I watched no less than at least four or five different versions that I had either never seen or hadn't seen in a long time, before writing this. And while certainly I will say that I could definitely see myself getting burnt out on it, it just seems to be a story that I really love, and thus don't mind seeing various takes on it. So then the question remains, WHY do I love it so much? I think one thing about it, is obviously the ghost and supernatural elements. I have always loved stories about monsters and magic, for as long as I can remember, and this is arguably the most famous "ghost story" in modern history.

But I also just think that the character of Scrooge is so compelling, and the story just takes you on this complete ride. Like, Scrooge represents what most of us, the Cratchits of the world, hate: that overbearing, uncaring boss, who has plenty of wealth themself, but they do nothing of value with it, while the rest of us struggle just to get by. But then we learn that the truth behind Scrooge is not as simple as just being a miserable old man. He was, in fact, a very sad, hurt and lonely boy in his childhood, his mother dying, his father growing cold towards him and sending him away to boarding school, etc. And he had a chance at a better life, to be better than his father, as a young man, and he met the love of his life, and had a great boss, etc. etc....but he wound up turning cold anyway, lost his love, became obsessed with money, and became a worse man than his father had been. And yet, during the course of a wild night with ghosts and revelations, we get taken along as Ebeneezer is faced both with the best and worst elements of himself, as well as the best and worst elements of humanity. And in the end, he breaks....for the better. He changes his heart, and dedicates the rest of his days to helping people like Bob Cratchit.

And I think ultimately that is the hooking point of the story. It's a tale of redemption, as well as a morality lesson in the virtues of human compassion and empathy. But it doesn't beat you over the head with it's lessons, instead being entertaining and personable. It touches you with it's very human characters, and leaves you feeling both the weight of sorrow and misery in the world, but also the hope that it can be changed for the better. Which I would have to say, to me, is perhaps the best way to explain what the so-called "Spirit of Christmas" is all about. Beyond any religious meanings it may hold for some, on a very secular and universally human level, the "Spirit of Christmas" is about the fact that while we humans have gone out of our way to make our world a rather hellish place in a lot of ways...we humans also have it very much within our power to change that, to be better than we are, and to, in the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "Be Excellent to Each Other". That's a message I think anyone can take with them.

So in the spirit of the day, go watch one of these versions of A Christmas Carol, hold close people you care about, and be good to people in general.

And Merry Christmas everybody. See you next year.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Illustrated Gaming: The Art of the NES

The last time I visited this topic, I talked of the incredible and in these times increasingly rare art-form of video game box art. I pointed to many great examples from the Atari 2600, NES, SNES and even Sega Genesis. Speaking in a more general sense, I pointed out the basic nature of how for the first good decade and a half or so of video game home console history, games would more often than not, come with truly amazing hand-drawn artwork, on the boxes, the booklets, promotional art, etc. That has, these days, become more rare, and started to become so in the mid-90s with the Playstation and Nintendo 64 generation of consoles, as hand-drawn art began to become replaced by  renders of three-dimensional graphics instead.

Today I'm going to spend some time discussing the art of one console in particular, my personal favorite console of all time: The Nintendo Entertainment System (aka NES). The Atari before it had some great box art, fantastic really, as did it's contemporaries such as Collecovision, Intellivision, etc. They almost had to have great art, because showing off the in-game graphics was not all that impressive. But while the NES certainly had far more impressive graphics to display, most companies still chose to have hand-drawn art to promote their games instead, and it was a very wise choice, as far as I'm concerned. For my money, the NES had among it's roster, some of the greatest games ever made, and many of those had some of the greatest box art ever drawn. For that matter, there were many games that were themselves absolute stinkers, that still possessed bad ass box art to lure unsuspecting buyers in.

To begin, I'll discuss the NES' launch in 1985. The system launched with around 18 games within its launch window, and almost all of those were either Nintendo developed or Nintendo published games. In fact, third party games would not surface for the console until midway through 1986. But those initial crop of Nintendo games, all had a uniform look, now dubbed by collectors as the "black box" look, and it was a more unique approach in the market at the time, as they basically displayed accurate portrayals of in-game sprite graphics, showing buyers exactly what they would be getting.

Below are some examples:

THE game of the 1980s (besides Pac-Man)

The birth of Luigi, and the concept of "The Bros."

One of the two R.O.B. games.

So as you can see, these boxes just show depictions of the actual in-game sprites, and thus people see exactly what they're buying without even looking at the back of the box. While I absolutely prefer hand-drawn illustrations, I will admit that there is something very nostalgic and charming about these early NES boxes.

Moving right along, now we're going to look at a few of the very early Capcom boxes, and the evolution they themselves took as they got deeper into the NES life-cycle. Keep in mind, that for all intents and purposes, Capcom had almost exclusively been an arcade game maker before this, and so the Famicom/NES was where they really first cut their teeth on home console gaming. Hence the reason many of their original NES games were arcade ports, outside of the first Mega Man.

Capcom's first NES game.

The hard as nails arcade port.

The Original North American box art.

The FAR superior PAL (European) box art.

Now as you can see, Capcom had their own version of that same "themed" early NES box art style, with the odd (but very 80s, and pretty cool) vector graphic grid behind the art itself. But as you can also no doubt see, just look at the contrast between the cheeseball artwork that our North American version of the original Mega Man got, and now look at the absolutely bad ass artwork that the European version got. Not that the original NA art is bad, really. It's quaint in it's own way, but it looks silly compared to the PAL artwork, which actually LOOKS like Mega Man, arm cannon and all, and the bosses LOOK like the bosses from the game, etc. Not only that, but it's just incredibly well done art in general, like a painting.

Of course, Capcom wasn't alone in this. As it so happened, many European games, but NES games especially, seemed to have a way of not always, but often getting far better box art than we in North America did. Perhaps it was some way to make up for the fact that the PAL region generally got games later than we did, such as the fact that while we got Mega Man in December of 1987, Europe didn't get the first game in the series until 1990. Here's another example, from Nintendo themselves:

The original North American NES release.

The gorgeous PAL region art.

The pretty awesome NA re-release.

Now to be fair, in Metroid's case, the original release box art is alright. It's keeping more in time with the original NES releases from Nintendo, just as certain other games like Kid Icarus did. But there's no denying that again, the European box art is SO much cooler looking. Though the American re-release did feature some sweet art of Samus though, so that's pretty "radical", dude.

Jumping forward, while we already looked at the beautiful art for the original Castlevania in the first article, it's very much worth taking a glimpse at other Konami box art of the era, because they had a real knack for great artwork.

Totally reminds me of an Atari 2600 painting.

The action sci-fi classic.

Also known as Salamander. Great art.

And of course, more awesome Castlevania art.

It's clear to see that Konami had a fantastic artist or artists working for them back in the day, as they continued to have awesome art like this on through to the Game Boy, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo as well. Once again, especially looking at Castlevania III, you can see how the art is both complex yet simple, and manages to convey what the game is all about, and what you can expect in the adventure: A group of heroes, fighting monsters, and all of their unique abilities are succinctly on display for the buyer to see. That manages to work on both a great marketing level, because it is the kind of image that really makes the game seem awesome and gets you hyped to play it, but it also works on an artistic level, because the artwork is true to both the spirit and nature of the game.

The art for Gradius and Contra both also work on that basic level, as you can clearly see from the artwork that in Gradius, you play a ship, fighting other ships in space, and in Contra, you play human soldiers, fighting against aliens (though to be fair, you mostly fight guys and robots, but still, there ARE aliens). Lifeforce, on the other hand, while it has great art, just by looking at that box you would not be able to tell what the hell the game itself is about, without turning it over and seeing the screen captures of actual gameplay on the back. You would have no idea that Lifeforce is fundamentally another horizontal space type shooter like Gradius. But that's okay, because it's still amazing artwork, and it is the kind of arresting image that would jump off of a shelf and grab a buyer's attention, causing them to want to know what the game is about. And at the end of the day, that is the first and most important job of cover art when it comes to anything, be it video games, movies, books, comics, etc.: Grab the buyers attention.

So let's take a quick look at some other NES arcade ports:

Are you a bad enough Dude to save the President?

Where did the hair go?

Hella 80s.

The Kaiju classic.

Those are some very different art styles on display, though they tend to accurately portray the games they represent. Again, much like the Konami boxes, these pieces of artwork very succinctly tell the buyer what the game is about, in one image. In Bad Dudes, you're a couple of guys who have to beat up some folks. In Ikari Warriors, you're a couple of soldiers who have to shoot up some folks. In Road Blasters, as the name itself implies, you play a car, racing down a highway, that can also shoot other cars while it's driving. And of course in Rampage, you play giant mutant monsters, who climb and smash buildings. All very accurate, and very artistically sound. I would say that Road Blasters has the least elaborate and thus potentially least cool looking art, but to be honest it does its job, representing both the facts of the game, as well as the 80s era from which it was born.

There is so much more box art to look at, even just on NES, as the NES itself, I feel, had arguably the highest volume of great box art to be found in gaming history. But I purposefully held back on showing or discussing some, simply for the sake of possible future articles, either about those games in particular, or maybe even more box art articles. But I'll wrap this one up for now, by leaving you with just a few more great examples of the varied and stylish kinds of art you could often find adorning NES games in that late 80s to early 90s era.

He's a huge guy who can breath flames. Fighting dinosaurs.

The awesome art for the original classic.

Better than Ninja Gaiden? I'd say so.

The original game that helped innovate a genre.

A top contender for most bad ass box art ever created.

So there you go. All of those games are well represented by incredibly artwork. Though I must say, even though it's a great game, Wizards & Warriors is a slight case of false advertising, as that art is SO bad ass, but the game itself, nor even the main character, looks anything like that. But it's incredible art just the same, and for that it deserves a powerful 80s high five.

I hope you enjoyed and are even inspired by this great pulp art of yesteryear. And by all means, check out any or all of the games pictured in this article, as they are all anywhere from good to absolutely fantastic. You have my word. Until next time, play some games, and keep on rockin' in the free world.