Christmas time was always fun around the Spacemonkey household back in my youth. Big dinners, cool gifts thanks in part to 80s excess and most importantly, awesome Christmas movies. Before Christmas movies turned into the continual stream of yearly blandness that we have today that is. Well, with maybe the exception of Elf. That’s actually a kind of fun film. Back then there was one film that would always be on my “to watch” list. One film that always put me in the Christmas mood. That film was, of course, Ernest Saves Christmas. I don’t own a copy of Ernest Saves Christmas, so instead, this year I’m reviewing my second favourite Christmas film of all time. The Bill Murray starring modern day adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Scrooged.
I should start by saying Ernest Saves Christmas wasn’t my favourite Christmas film. I feel I need to stress that for the sake of integrity. Obviously my favourite Christmas film is the same as everyone else’s. It’s Die Hard. Which I reviewed last year. Why do I review a film on Christmas Day of all days? Because what other day of the year am I meant to do a Christmas review on? Wait… I can set these to publish at a certain time? oh…. ohhhhhhhhhhhh.
So, as mentioned, Scrooged is a modern day (well modern for 1988) retelling of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. But, in an act of way-ahead-of-it’s-timed-ness… (That’s a phrase!) Scrooged is a meta interpretation of the story. In it Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is the head of a TV channel which is planning to present a live production of A Christmas Carol. Frank isn’t a big fan of Christmas, for reasons we’ll learn later, and his vision for how the advertising for A Christmas Carol should be focused is more than a little apocalyptic. His advert actually causes an old lady to die from shock which, naturally, Frank thinks is fantastic and intends to fully exploit. Meanwhile his secretary Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodward) is struggling to make ends meet and has a son that refuses to speak due to the loss of his father. Full of Christmas cheer yet? Anyone aware of the story to A Christmas Carol will know what follows but I’ll recap for the idiots. Frank is told by the ghost of a long dead friend that he will be visited by three ghosts each representing a Christmas of the past, present and future. Through seeing how happy he was, the troubles he has caused and is currently missing and the effect his Scrooge like nature has on future Christmases Frank learns the true meaning of Christmas.
This really was quite ahead of it’s time as far as it’s self referential humour and story were concerned. There aren’t that many films pre-mid 90s that would have tried the levels of pop culture awareness that Scrooged did. Obviously Frank is very much aware of A Christmas Carol. He grew up doing nothing but watching TV and is producing a big budget presentation of the story. His awareness of the story leads him to have a very hard time believing that what is happening is actually happening. The effect of the ghostly visitations gradually break Frank down. First he denies them. Then he lives in fear. He begins to accept and revert through the films second act. As usual Bill Murray’s ability to play the slightly unhinged is at the front of his performance. To everyone around him he’s losing his marbles. He keeps going missing and when he returns he appears to have lost it that little bit more. It doesn’t help that his boss seems to be grooming Frank’s replacement.
Scrooged is directed by Richard Donner and scored by Danny Elfman and together they manage to craft a modern Gothic fairytale as effectively as Tim Burton would back in those days. Donner has always been a very reliable director, especially skilled at adapting his style to suit the film at hand… Unlike Tim Burton. For a Christmas film Scrooged is pretty horrific and dark at times but that is the sort of elements that made some of the films of the 80s aimed primarily at family viewing work so well. They went all out to deliver every element to the degree it needed to be presented. Nothing was too scary or too emotional for kids back then. It’s really for the best. Kids are raised to never face the idea of mortality or what it means to have nothing these days. You’ll always fined that the films you probably loved most from your youth involve asking some big questions. Scrooged is one of those films. It confronts poverty, death, self loathing, the effect of negativity on others… and yet it finishes with one of the most uplifting and full of Christmas cheer scenes ever produced. It takes you through the gamut of emotions and then drops you off into a cushion of warm fuzzy feelings before you leave.
An element that really needs mentioning is how strong the films supporting cast is. Some of these names aren’t household now but a lot of the people involved were staples of 80s TV and film. Bobcat Goldthwait (Director of my last review, God Bless America) plays an assistant to Frank who despite being terrified of him is the only person in the office who has the guts to disagree with Franks ideas. Obviously he gets fired on Christmas Eve for that. Gradually Bobcat turns into Zed from Police Academy and goes on an unhinged rampage with a shotgun chasing after Frank. The love of Franks life is played by former Indiana Jones girl Karen Allen. She has always been a solid actress and fills the role of Claire just fine. Bill’s own real life family play Franks family in the film, including a easy to miss appearance by Joel Murray from God Bless America. It’s a nice touch that helps give the film a slightly warmer feel once you’re aware of that fact. There’s also a handful of cameos mostly by people who were relevant in the 80s. That sort of pop culture awareness is common now, but it wasn’t in 1988.
Overall Scrooged is a Christmas film deserving of being regarded as one of the finest. It tells it’s story effectively and does it with a fair amount of ball out swagger along the way. There’s better Christmas films out there, but not many. It’s certainly gonna be a more satisfying Christmas story for your kids to enjoy than whatever nonsense has been churned out with various Dreamworks characters in it. The score is great. The direction and cinematography are both carried out with more skill than you’d expect for a film that has a yearly shelf life of a few days. There’s a level of craftsmanship and effort on display that shows that this wasn’t seen as a disposable piece of merchandise for a studio to chuck on store shelves each Christmas. Richard Donner set out to make a classic Christmas film and I believe he succeeded with style.