The film blogosphere has been going a little bit mad for Muppets over the last few weeks and with good reason as the new Jason Segel film opened to almost unanimous reviews and stellar box office in the US. Many folks have been going back and re-appraising the Muppet films of old as indeed, the Muppets appear to be rather the in-thing to talk about at the moment but damnit, I’ve always had a soft spot for this tale from Jim Henson’s genius creations as I was the right kind of age when this film came out in 1992, me being 9 years old and ready to see a bunch of goofy characters take us back for a re-telling of Charles Dickens’ classic story.
And hey, who can’t love a film with the title card, “Gonzo The Great as Charles Dickens”?
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Brian Henson, 1992, US
It almost feels ridiculous to give the plot outline of this story so I will just say that wicked old Scrooge is played in this version by Michael Caine and various Muppet cast characters take the majority of the other speaking roles, with new creations from Henson’s workshop taking on the parts of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.
The Muppet Christmas Carol was made in a more innocent time, when films for the family could have enough to entertain both children and adults without giving into the urge of giving out pop-culture references to fly over the heads of kids but give something for adults to knowingly chuckle about. This film was released in the same year as Disney’s Aladdin, the first film from the Mouse House to really have a go at doing all this and so in a way, you could say that TMCC marks the end of an era. If the film were made 10 years later in the time of Shrek, I think the temptation to make jokes about popular things of the time may have been too overwhelming and we could have had a bit of a mess on our hands but thanks to a real, at times pretty stark reverence to the original material, we have an effort here which feels both true to the source but also undeniably its own thing.
Much of this success isn’t attributable to the Muppets at all but instead falls on the shoulders of Michael Caine whose portrayal of Scrooge is one of the finest given on screen, though one that probably isn’t mentioned as much as it should be because of the creatures surrounding him. He makes a fantastic job at conveying the wickedness of one of literature’s great cold hearted men but when he has to convert himself, its no less effective and this is something which is all the more impressive given the rather quick turn-around the film’s screenplay gives him, the brief under 90 minute runtime and U-cert sensibility meaning that there is some stuff cut out and this makes Scrooge’s transition maybe a little quicker than is truly believable, at least in a scripting sense. Saying this though, by the time Caine is leading a bunch of Muppets to Bob Cratchit’s house, Scrooge has won your heart and Caine along with him
The Muppets themselves do get a lot of the limelight though and given the huge cast, it’s amazing just how many get a look in. It would be hard to think of a place where Dr. Honeydew and Beaker could make an appearance but as men seeking donations for the poor they work incredibly well, Beaker looking constantly terrified and Honeydew’s earnestness making their treatment all the crueler. Animal appears as a drummer in a band, Sam the Eagle turns up as Scrooge’s old headmaster, and hey, GONZO THE GREAT IS CHARLES DICKENS! I really can’t emphasise that point enough, and his and Rizzo the Rat’s contributions are lovely, both telling the story and also making sure that things don’t get too bleak for the little ones, though it’s also admirable that towards the end of the film when Scrooge is at his lowest ebb, they tell us they’re leaving as it’s just too scary and that we are on our own, a brave move for a Disney film and one all the more pleasingly blunt for us being told it. Kermit and Miss Piggy also make large appearances doing their usual stuff and they are fine but for me with my Muppet watching, the more eccentric the better.
The film is also blessed with some cracking musical numbers which make an appearance often through the film. From the opening number which lays down the groundwork for Scrooge’s background in a fun yet drably lit number which captures the mood of the world perfectly, through to Statler and Waldorf’s Marley & Marley number using these grumbling characters with absolute perfection and all the way to the celebratory final number, there’s a fair bit of toe tapping here and it all feeds into the story, there’s not an ounce of fat on these bones here and the film is all the better for them.
The Muppet Christmas Carol delighted me at 27 just as much as it did when I first saw it in the cinema nigh-on 20 years ago with a fantastic lead performance from Michael Caine, wonderful use of a wide selection of Muppets and a slightly sanitised but still very effective telling of Dickens’ story, it’s a film I watch every year and will be forcing my future children to also whether they like it or not. If they don’t, they ain’t no kids of mine.