"Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas" Decks the Halls with Style
Sooner or later, it was inevitable. The big mouse held fast to tradition as long as it could, but even Disney had to give sway to the CGI trend eventually. Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas marks not only Disney’s first CGI feature, but also the CGI debut of the Disney founding fathers Mickey, Donald, Goofy, etc., who are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance lately on DVD with this and The Three Musketeers. Can they compete with the Woodys and Shreks? Of course they can, these guys are the masters. For now though, this is just a tentative first step.
Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas is composed of five short self-contained holiday stories, each featuring a part of the Disney star stable. It opens with Belles on Ice, in which Minnie and Daisy clash in an ever escalating figure skating competition while Mickey and Donald look on nervously. Next in Christmas: Impossible, Huey, Dewey, and Louie travel to the North Pole to try to sneak their names onto Santa’s good list. In Christmas Maximus, Max (Goofy’s son, in case you were wondering) brings his new girlfriend home for the holidays, crossing his fingers that Goofy doesn’t horribly embarrass him. Donald’s Gift sees Donald hounded mercilessly by performances of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” everywhere he goes. And finally in Mickey’s Dog-gone Christmas, having been scolded by Mickey for ruining his Christmas party decorations, Pluto runs away and ends up joining the reindeer at the North Pole while Mickey frantically searches for him.
The most complex and probably strongest of the shorts is Mickey’s Dog-gone Christmas. In addition to the usual goofy humor, it’s the only story that has real emotional resonance. Mickey and Pluto’s mutual sadness when they become separated is the closest the disc gets to a tearjerker moment. Belles on Ice is full of stunning visuals, and although Minnie and Daisy aren’t my favorite characters it’s quite fun. Christmas: Impossible is a charming fantasy that earns major points for Scrooge McDuck and Donald cameos, although the rather un-Disney Jailbreak Bob toys that the elves are cranking out provide the only real laugh. Donald’s Gift should be the top short with Donald as the star, but the classic Donald moments are very brief and it’s a bit on the simple side. The only real disappointment is Christmas Maximus. The old Goofy shorts are some of the funniest things Disney’s ever done, but here his antics are shoehorned into what could be a Dawson’s Creek episode, and a horribly lame pop song that plays throughout ruins the short.
The Disney megastars are all presented largely the same as they have always been over the years. The voices are all impressively dead-on, with performances lively enough, even though the simple scripts don’t require much in the way of acting. There are a couple of minor personality quirks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sweet-natured Minnie and Daisy get as aggressive as they do in Belles on Ice, but perhaps that just means I haven’t seen enough of the classic shorts. Uncle Scrooge lamenting being left off Santa’s good list as life’s greatest setback seems rather out of character for the cash-crazy coot. Perhaps a tiny bit of the Christmas spirit seeped into him (or maybe it’s just a fragment of underdone potato). Donald’s wild temper tantrums are toned down a bit from his heyday. Although there are several instances in which you’d expect him to explode, he only truly loses his cool once.
Of course what everyone really wants to know is how the characters look in their jump to CGI. Despite my great skepticism of the medium, I have to say the results look pretty darn good. This is impressive CGI for a direct to video feature, blowing away others I’ve seen lately like G.I. Joe and Popeye. As is usually the case with CGI, there are jerky moments here and there and some backgrounds are a bit basic, but overall it’s not too far from theatrical quality. Thanks to the simple designs, the characters all look and move almost exactly like they do in cel animation. The sole weak spot I noted is that Uncle Scrooge’s hair looks like a bad toupee that has been loosely glued to the back of his head. The art design doesn’t really stand out, but perhaps that’s because it reflects classic Disney charm so well. Santa’s workshop is admittedly a bit of a letdown, as it turns out to be a rather threadbare room barely the size of a junior high cafeteria. I thought surely the North Pole as imagined by Disney would be something far grander than the Magic Kingdom itself. Perhaps there’s a message to that, simple wooden cup and all that. On the other hand, the animators really show off their stuff in the virtuoso skating sequence with the camera whipping up, down, and around at high speed as the skaters pull off various intricate moves.
Being a huge Donald fan, for me the film’s highlight had to be Donald doing what he does best: wreaking wanton destruction. After the constant repetition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” nearly drives him insane (and for Donald that’s a short trip), he sneaks through an unmarked door in the shopping mall in the hopes of finding some peace and quiet. Before he can breathe even a momentary sigh of relief in the dark room, the lights flash on, revealing a stage full of motorized puppets that quickly launch into a deafening rendition of the very same song all around him. Donald goes hog wild, savagely demolishing everything in sight just as the curtain rises to reveal the audience, including a mortified Daisy and his nephews.
Special features are fairly good for a direct to video release. There are several deleted scenes in storyboard form with lengthy explanations from the creators as to why they weren’t used. Most of them aren’t terribly interesting, but there is one scene that was fully animated and stands out as one of the best moments on the disc. In this short clip from Mickey’s Dog-gone Christmas, we see a dejected Mickey wandering the streets of town seemingly despairing of ever finding Pluto when he passes an electronics store window full of TVs. He holds his Lost Dog flier up to a video camera so it’s displayed across all the screens, plaintively hoping that someone will notice. Backstage Disney Inspiration on Ice shows how the animators used Michelle Kwan’s maneuvers to create models for the figure skating scene. And the games, well, stink. Even for kids. Santa’s Workshop Challenge is, get this, a quiz about morals and respecting your parents. Because, you know, there’s nothing that excites kids more than reading Miss Manners columns. I didn’t know Disney was in the family values indoctrination business. Guess What Donald is Singing turns out to be harder than it seems, because apart from Donald being only slightly more intelligible than Bob Dylan on acid, I’ve never heard some of the songs before in my life. They could be unreleased Bee Gees demos for all I know. Santa’s Sort involves, uh, doing something with presents and chutes, but it must require the lively brain of a five year old to play because I couldn’t figure out the controls.
It’s Disney, it’s Christmas, it’s Mickey and friends; quite frankly you can’t go wrong. Kids will eat up Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas , and even older fans of the veteran characters will find much to enjoy. Don’t be put off by the CGI, everyone still looks the same and after a while you hardly even notice it. The stories could definitely be funnier, but the emphasis was probably on crafting heartwarming holiday tales and that effort was undoubtedly a success. The real question is where, if anywhere, this DVD will lead for this ensemble. A return to the big screen for Mickey? Time will tell, but if I were Mr. Shrek I wouldn’t fire that personal trainer just yet.