ANIMATION DIRECTOR DARRELL VAN CITTERS REVEALS THE MAGIC BEHIND THE MAKING OF THE FIRST ANIMATED CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
GLENDALE, Calif.-Mr. Magoo and Charles Dickens may have seemed like an odd match at the time but Americans of a certain age will remember that the pairing resulted in bit of pure magic. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol was the first-ever animated Christmas special, and is now the subject of a splendid new book by Darrell Van Citters. Van Citters will be previewing an advance copy of the book at the up-coming Comic-Con International in San Diego, July 23-26. The book is set for publication this fall.
With a sterling cast, whimsical animation and Broadway-caliber score all wrapped around Dickens’ timeless tale, Magoo became a fixture of the holiday season in the 1960s, but today is all but forgotten. That may be about to change as Van Citters, through interviews with the surviving cast and animation team and exhaustive research, demonstrates why the show deserves a special place in the annals of animation and television history.
Van Citters relates with wit and clarity the circuitous events that gave rise to the special. It was 1962 and television was just evolving into the public’s mass entertainment of choice. United Productions of America (UPA) had had success with its Magoo theatrical shorts, but hadn’t had similar luck in feature animation, and was looking at television for new opportunities. Enter producer Lee Orgel who came up with the idea for a Magoo “Christmas Carol” and worked tirelessly to sell it to NBC and sponsor Timex.
Orgel pulled together a truly remarkable cast. The late Jim Backus, the voice of Magoo, played the lead role, with support from Morey Amsterdam (Brady/James), Jack Cassidy (Bob Cratchit), Royal Dano (Marley’s Ghost) and Paul Frees (a half dozen characters), all working under the able direction of storied animation director Abe Levitow. Even more amazing, Orgel tapped Broadway veterans Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (who were simultaneously collaborating on Funny Girl) to write the score and lyrics with breathtaking results.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol was also an exemplar of a new style of animation. Not blessed with Disney’s sumptuous budgets, UPA had been forced to develop its own approach to animation that turned economy into a virtue. It limited animation, emphasizing design while boiling down sets and characters to their essence. When applied to the Magoo story by Levitow and his animation team, the results were simple, yet broadly appealing. The UPA style remains influential to this day.
Van Citters, a nationally renowned animation director who has worked with Warner Bros. and Disney, and currently heads Glendale, Calif.-based Renegade Animation, delves into his subject with the discerning eye of an inside expert and the zeal of a die-hard fan. He is thoroughly convincing in making the case that Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol deserves a place on everyone’s holiday shopping list-along with copies of his wonderful new book.