Film Advent Calendar – Day 17: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Round about the same time Patrick Stewart got comfy aboard the Starship Enterprise, he embarked upon a one-man stage version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and eventually, in 1999 we got a screen adaptation which was a solid, faithful, competently-made film. The thing is, even by the late ‘90s I had already decided, in my videogame-addled mind, “Oh come on, surely nothing can top the Muppet version. Why even make this?” Now I’ve had time to reflect, and about seven billion more iterations have been and gone, let’s get a fresh pair of peepers on this doozy and see how it holds up. I mean, it’s been nearly a year since I last watched it…

1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol was my first foray into Dickens’ tale, and even with no basis for comparison, was utterly delighted with what the Henson Company gave us. Here we are 26 years after the original’s cinematic release, and I must have seen it every Christmas ever since it had aired on TV. It’s a wondrous world we live in when kids are being taught that Charles Dickens has wisecracking sidekick rat, or that Jacob Marley had a brother called Robert (a joke which went way over my head until many years later).

Y’all know the drill (and if you haven’t, what are you reading this for? Go and watch it. Not to show my hand too soon, but this movie is an absolute flippin’ treat), it almost feels redundant to lay out the premise in 2018, but here goes anyway… Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) is notorious about town as having all the festive spirit of a wet lump of coal, until five festive spirits (that’s right, not three, not four, but FIVE in this version, pub quiz purveyors!) swoop down on Christmas Eve to deliver the visionary kick up the bum Scrooge so desperately needs.

As someone who always felt a bit old before their time, The Muppets has for years been a franchise I’ve always admired. The always-fascinating multi-layered “production-within-a-production” aspect and constant fourth-wall breaking always appealed to me, but their brand of chaotic comedy always felt earned, never played to the lowest common denominator by winking at the camera, and always managed to strike a perfect balance between the anarchic, sarcastic humour, and the childlike whimsical heart that has proved to be a timeless, engaging combination since 1979’s The Muppet Movie. No better have I seen an example than in this film, with the extra added layer of being an adaptation of a 175-year old text.

And what an adaptation it is — A Christmas Carol is arguably one of the most adapted stories ever written, and handled by a lesser IP, could have quickly devolved into something little more than cheap parody. A better example of that would be A Blackadder Christmas Carol, which cleverly flip-reverses the role of curmudgeonly Ebeneezer and turns him into a do-gooding doormat who ultimately learns that “bad guys get all the fun”. Here, Kermit and co. play it surprisingly earnest, and the jokes (while plentisome) are mercifully spared when pathos and emotion (something that the story has in droves) are the order of the day. Take special note of the very end of the song “One More Sleep”, which transitions from jolly whimsy to heartbreak as we close on the soul-crushing image of little Bean Bunny sleeping rough.

Nyuuu!

Michael Caine is clearly having a whale of a time, proving to be not only a cannily-cast Mister Humbug but also a real sport performing alongside the colourful cadre of felt buffoons. Even the Muppets themselves seem tailor-made for the Dickensian roles afforded to them: Sam the Eagle is excellent as the no-nonsense headmaster of young Scrooge’s school (even if he gets a line wrong at one point!), The Electric Mayhem get an extended cameo in one of the festive flashbacks, and Kermit, Piggy et al are superb as the Cratchit family; even Robin as Tiny Tim effortlessly struts along the tightrope between adorability and schmaltzitute. And come on, Fozzy Bear as “Fozziwig”? How perfect is that? It wouldn’t surprise me if the entire production of this movie grew from someone noticing that.

Musical Muppetry

As is the tradition with most Muppet movies, we are treated to a stirring buffet of delightful musical numbers, all of which are pitch-perfect in keeping with the holly, jolly, yuletide vibe. The fantastically scene-setting “Scrooge”, or “There Goes Mister Humbug” as I’m pretty sure everyone refers to it, which, as with even the best of Disney’s offerings, does what surprisingly many musical numbers fail to do well, in conveying and establishing characters and plot. We only get a single line of dialogue, all together now…

If they gave a prize for bein’ mean, the winner would be him.

…but that’s all we need! The imposing march, the dark, Dickensian sets, the entire town congregating to heap hatred upon this most unanimously-unliked stalwart of stinginess.

Another showstopper, “Marley and Marley”, has possibly the only other two Muppet mainstays who could hope to match Scrooge on the miser-o-meter, Statler and Waldorf, giving their best put-downs and sarcastic snubbery, but still expertly setting up the ticking clock that Scrooge is “doomed” should he not mend his miserly ways. This film is really dark when it needs to be!

Quite possibly my favourite number is “It Feels Like Christmas” courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Easily the jolliest singalong piece of the movie, it’s also the song that finally permeates Scrooge’s impervious puss. Behold…

Image: ohmydisney.com

Look at his little face! How can you not get into the groove with that guy?

When Iconic Songs Are Gone

Infamously removed after the VHS release, Belle’s lament, “When Love Has Gone”, love it or hate it, is crucial in fully establishing, some might argue a little too cruelly, the reason for Scrooge’s small heart (something which was handled with all the dexterity of a drunk chainsaw juggler in Ron Howard’s 2000 Grinch monstrosity), and it’s a real shame that it’s not readily available on modern UK releases, even as an optional extra. It’s certainly one of the saddest songs in the movie, along with Tiny Tim’s portentous “Bless Us All”, but by removing it, the reprise “The Love We Found” at the very end of the movie is denied its emotional payoff. I know he’s not the life and soul of the party, but the spirits really put poor Scrooge through the wringer, don’t they?

Bless Us All is another song which begins sweetly, but ends with sadness, Tiny Tim succumbing to a cough during the final verse. Note the reactions of Belina/Betina as he finishes and Emily comes to comfort him – it’s surprisingly emotional stuff, especially when Scrooge finally comes to the realisation that Tim is not long for this world.

Speaking of sadness, a sixth spectre hangs over this movie as it was produced so shortly after the passing of Jim Henson, although his son Brian wields the directorial torch with aplomb, and I never once questioned Steve Whitmire’s portrayal as Kermit-as-Bob-Cratchit. Dave Goelz is on fine form as Gonzo-as-Dickens, and is the hardy glue that holds the briskly-paced movie together.

Fascinating trivia I later learned about the film much later was that the three ghosts of Past, Present and Yet-to-come were initially cast as Scooter, Miss Piggy and Gonzo (!) respectively. I’m so grateful the filmmakers opted for original, more traditional depictions — could you imagine Gonzo miming towards Ebeneezer’s Grave, probably with a chicken or two in tow? While Caine gives a wonderfully earnest performance, it would have taken an actor of his calibre to keep a straight face. Still, it would have made for a fantastic blooper reel. Even Gonzo and Rizzo’s shenanigans take a back seat during the latter ghost’s foreboding scene, and Caine gives his all, obviously greasing his training chops for all that graveside crying he had to do in The Dark Knight Rises. Did Chris Nolan ghost-direct this scene? Heh, “ghost”…

In summary (and wintery)

I could rattle on about this movie all day, but I’m already closing in on 1,500 words here… It’s no secret that I absolutely adore The Muppet Christmas Carol, it is quite simply the most joyous, heartwarming festive film I’ve ever seen and (along with the Snowman) should be made mandatory viewing for people of all ages on an annual basis.