The Muppet Christmas Carol
Reworking a classic of literature to accommodate a popular star or franchise is sometimes the first sign of desperate measures, an attempt to artificially inflate their waning status. Sometimes it’s purely about the easy cash grab. What studio doesn’t want the pay-off of a Christmas perennial? That this (fourth) big screen Muppets outing was also the first significant incarnation of the characters following the death of their creator might have been a portend of woe (albeit, the idea was Jim Henson’s, in the wake of Disney’s purchase). Yet The Muppet Christmas Carol might be the best. It is undeniably the one with the longest afterlife; the movie wasn’t even a big hit on first release.
Jim’s son Brian Henson called the shots on this return to Muppetdom, ably accompanied by many of the series’ regulars. Jerry Juhl, who had written for The Muppet Show and co-scripted several of the earlier movies, adapted Charles Dickens’ novella. He did so with a fair degree of fidelity, referencing many of the original lines (not just the de rigueur “Bah! Humbug!”). The major alteration, aside from enabling various Muppets to take supporting roles, is the inclusion of Charles Dickens (played by the Great Gonzo himself) as narrator, ably supported by Rizzo the Rat. It’s the metatextual element that lends the movie its personality and tone. This knowing quality, inviting the audience in on the joke and providing humorous commentary to developments, is intrinsic to the success of the Muppets. Without them, Christmas Carol would be a little too respectful.
Also noteworthy is that this is a musical (previously attempted in the 1970 Albert Finney adaptation). The songs were penned by Paul Williams (who also contributed to the first Muppet Movie, in which he cameoed). They aren’t a bad selection, as these things go, and include several that lodge in the memory after the show is over (When Love is Gone, Marley and Marley and It Feels Like Christmas). More arresting is the sight (and sound) of Michael Caine, revealing his previously untapped potential as a singer. Tellingly, we haven’t heard much of his musicality since (his rendition of My Way in Little Voice is fantastic, however). Put it this way; Caine’s no previously undiscovered great, but he isn’t tone deaf either.
The former Maurice Micklewhite’s appearance here is rightly regarded as one of the few bright spots of quality during his ’90s drought. He had a long-established rep of signing up to star in any old dross (The Swarm, Jaws: The Revenge), but the truth is he was rarely a couple of pictures away from something decent. Aside from A Shock to the System (1990) and Blood and Wine (1996), there’s barely anything worth mentioning on his CV until Little Voice saw him rediscovering his mojo in ’98. This was a period where he was willing to be directed by Michael Winner (in dual roles, with Roger Moore!), play the villain in Steven Seagal’s eco-themed directorial debut and sullying the memory of Harry Palmer in a couple of cheap direct-to-video belated sequels. But he’s great as Scrooge; reliably menacing and venomous as his initial incarnation (this is the man who played Jack Carter, after all) and subsequently infused with warm-hearted brio. Needless to say, Caine is such a pro he plays the whole thing very straight. He leaves it to his felt co-stars to (not always successfully) attempt to upstage him with their hijinks.
There are a few other human cast members, most notably Steven Mackintosh as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, but this is really about special guest star Michael Caine. Except that Caine is the actual star. In this respect, the picture takes a different path from previous Muppet ventures, where the humans were the game straight men supporting players.
The Ghosts we meet might be the least successful element of the production. Marley and Marley (now brothers to accommodate…) are amusingly incarnated as Statler and Waldorf. The Ghost of Christmas Past is an ineffectually ethereal girl puppet, Christmas Present is a portly bearded type (apparently modelled on the 1951 Scrooge) while Christmas Yet to Come is your standard faceless cowled figure with a beckoning hand. With the latter at least, they can’t go wrong. While it is admirable to allow the story to speak for itself (“You’re on your own folks. We’ll meet you at the finale” exclaims Gonzo, as he and Rizzo fearfully retreat upon the arrival of Christmas Yet to Come), it’s a disappointment that the Creature Shop was unable to design more distinctive spirits.
Dickens/Gonzo: Once again, I must ask you to remember that the Marleys were dead, and decaying in their graves.
Nevertheless, the on-going commentary is frequently very funny. From Rizzo questioning how Dickens is able to explain what is happening before we see it (“I keep telling you, storytellers are omniscient. I know everything”) to concerns over whether the kids will be scared (“No, it’s all right. This is culture”). Rizzo, who first appeared at the tail end of The Muppet Show, is a constant delight, such that Gonzo must assume an unlikely dependability (“I knew you weren’t suited to literature” he tells the Rat). Statler and Waldorf still manage to get in a few choice heckles (“Leave comedy to the bears, Ebenezer”, they tell Scrooge, who has just quoted Dickens’ original “more gravy than the grave“; the original character of Fezziwig, Scrooge’s first employer, is now embodied as Fozziewig). On Gonzo’s suggestion, Sam the Eagle (as younger Scrooge’s Headmaster), restates “You will love business. It is the American way” as “It is the British way”.
Of course, Kermit and Miss Piggy are essential ingredients. They dutifully appear as Bob and Emily Cratchit, and their male and female offspring are frogs and pigs respectively (which seems entirely appropriate). The Muppet Christmas Carol might not be the most essential version of the tale but it’s definitely one of the most likeable.