The Muppet Christmas Carol Review
After the death of Jim Henson there was concern about which direction the Muppets would take. The Jim Henson Company now under Disney’s wing found a solution by having the Muppets star in their interpretation of classic works of literature. The first of that kind and the first film to be released after Henson’s death was The Muppet Christmas Carol. It was directed by Jim Henson’s son Brian Henson, written by longtime Muppet writer Jerry Juhl, executive produced by longtime Muppet puppeteer Frank Oz, songs written by longtime Muppet songwriter Paul Williams, and starred Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. The film was released in 1992 and was fairly well received and did make a profit at the box office. This is an excellent film. I can’t really find anything wrong with it. This is my favorite Muppet movie. This is also my favorite Christmas movie and adaptation of the classic Dickens tale.
I am going to have a story section because I’m going to talk about really impressive storytelling techniques that the film uses to put their own definitive stamp on the story and make it special and better than most other retellings. One is the opening shot. The opening shot with the opening credits is basically a camera that constantly pulls back revealing the city and it is a fairly grimy and rundown 19th century English town fitting right in with the descriptions in your typical Dickens novel. Without any characters, Muppets or dialogue they already establish their setting and their authentic Dickensian mood.
On the subject of authenticity let’s talk about possibly the smartest thing that this film has done for storytelling and pacing: Gonzo’s narration. Having Gonzo play the role of Charles Dickens our de facto narrator the film could perform the Muppet tradition of 4th wall breaking as well as giving certain scenes a very nice flow. The best part is that the majority of his narration is actual passages from the novel. Even a good percentage of the dialogue is direct lines from the book.
Rizzo accompanies Gonzo for comic relief purposes while Gonzo being the narrator is the straight man. Their characters function like a Greek Chorus that comment on the action and give insight to the characters and the situations. Gonzo and Rizzo’s appearances create the lighthearted Muppet atmosphere while maintaining the mood that Dickens originally intended the story to have. This balance of mood and the inclusion of narration are very hard to pull off and this film nails it. The mood is balanced by having the audience laugh when they’re supposed to laugh, get scared when they’re supposed to get scared, and cry when they’re supposed to cry. The narrations are quick and don’t overstay their welcome while also being insightful and meaningful so that the audience doesn’t fail to see the point in their inclusion.
The Muppet characters as well as the human characters (especially Michael Caine) are perfect for their roles. That’s right, no (Goofy as Jacob Marley) miscasts to found here. Also another thing that is excellent is that there’s no conflict of character. What I mean by that is when an already established character is playing a character in a story (i.e. character of Scrooge McDuck playing the character of Ebenezer Scrooge) tends to be him or herself instead of playing the character in the story. That was a problem I had with Mickey’s Christmas Carol with the Disney characters being themselves inside the story of a Christmas Carol instead of playing the character.
Here we don’t have that problem. Sure the Muppets add their own quirks and nuances to their characters like all actors do, but it’s never too distracting and out of character. When I see Kermit as Bob Cratchit I know it’s Kermit. It’s obvious that it’s Kermit, but he doesn’t act like Kermit. He is Bob Cratchit! Elements of Kermit are added, but he is the character of Bob Cratchit! This film recognizes that it is the story of A Christmas Carol first! It just so happens to have Muppets as some of the major characters. The Muppets are used in a rather conservative manner so that the film can follow the story of how a cold hearted man can find the love and kindness that was hidden deep within and to celebrate this newfound happiness at Christmas. What better way to find the kindness and love within than by having your interactions with the Muppets show you the way!
EBENEZER SCROOGE: played by Michael Caine
This is my favorite Scrooge. He hits all the emotional moments perfectly. When Marley shows up he shows disbelief and when Marley’s proven real it turns to terror for his very soul. I love the subtleties to Caine’s performance. When he’s in the past he tries his best to maintain his composure, but the nostalgia compels the character to react and when he’s faced with regret we start to see that cold demeanor fade and that the first step towards his redemption is recognizing and being remorseful for his past decisions and behavior. When he’s in the alternate present his coldness breaks again when he fully experiences the joys to be found in the holiday of Christmas. In the alternate future when everything has come to pass it’s the final straw and he breaks down and makes the oath to honor the ideals of Christmas. He makes the audience care about him and most importantly forgive him. It’s certainly one of his finest performances.
KERMIT THE FROG as BOB CRATCHIT: performed by Steve Whitmire ROBIN as TINY TIM: performed by Jerry Nelson
Kermit does a fine job playing the overworked and under paid humble employee of Scrooge. He has that charm and inherent kindness that makes him perfect for the role. He is the model of humility that Scrooge comes to appreciate.
Robin plays the role of Tiny Tim. His performance is very solid and he embodies the pure goodie goodie that is the impetus for Scrooge to change. There’s really a commitment to performance on the part of Jerry Nelson. When he’s talking or singing there are moments where he struggles to get the words out thus reminding us of Tim’s condition throughout the performance.
GONZO as CHARLES DICKENS: performed by Dave Goelz RIZZO as RIZZO: performed by Steve Whitmire
I already talked about these characters at length, but I will say that they are funny and entertaining and Gonzo is actually insightful. To be honest he’s one of the best narrators I’ve seen.
WALDORF as ROBERT MARLEY: performed by Dave Goelz STATLER as JACOB MARLEY: performed by Jerry Nelson
Now these two are perfect for the Marley Bros. (Yes they added Robert Marley simply because you can’t separate these two). I love how they added heckling to the list of bad things the Marleys did. While they may not really be truly frightening their base personalities are consistent with the Marley character and due to their chains constantly wrapping around them and pulling them away suggests that on a level they are suffering.
GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST: voiced by Jessica Fox
This isn’t your typical Muppet character. In fact this spirit is more of a special effect. The spirit fits the description in the book and is more of a ghost doll. She has a relatively monotone voice reflecting the indifference that she has toward the past because she knows that one can’t change the past, but that Scrooge can learn from his past and make a better future.
GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT: performed by Jerry Nelson
This is the only spirit character that you could consider a Muppet. It was actually considered to have actual Muppet characters be the spirits, but the decision was made to have the spirits match the book. This was the one spirit that they could take liberties with by giving him classic exaggerated Muppet features. He is cheerful and very pleasant to be around and this was the spirit that Scrooge had a lot of fun being with. This spirit showed him the beauty of Christmas and he introduced Scrooge to the Cratchit family. Another thing that is very interesting is that this is the only Muppet character to just flat out die (to my knowledge). He doesn’t even die in a comical way like getting eaten by a Muppet monster he just dies.
GHOST OF CHRISTMAS YET TO COME: performed by unknown puppeteer
The last and the most important spirit. This spirit is just like the book. He is always hooded and cloaked, has a foreboding presence, he doesn’t say a word and only points the way to what Scrooge needs to see. The atmosphere is absolutely nailed. It’s foggy, rainy and a very unpleasant and bleak future. The entire 3rd Act was nailed.
The score is very well done and this is a fully fledged musical. Without any further delay let’s look at some great songs by the great Paul Williams.
This opening number is a great way of not only creating that gritty Dickens mood, but it also builds up the character of Scrooge excellently. It also shows the audience how the townspeople really feel about Scrooge. Parts of Gonzo’s narration are seamlessly added to the song having it act like a transition to the next verses of the song. I also like the fact that despite they have this dark mood they still add that Muppet humor such as the carolers saying that “There must be a good man inside” they look at each other “Nah” I love that!
This is a song that is used more to establish Bob Cratchit as a very kind soul who truly loves and believes in Christmas as opposed to being the clerk who said a few lines in the counting house and then shows up in the middle of the 2nd Act. It also shows off creative puppet work with the book keepers (rats) closing up shop.
This is the Marley Bros. song where they warn Scrooge about their fate and how if he doesn’t change he will meet a more terrible fate. I like how they are actually dragged away by their chains showing that as far as free will goes they don’t have it and they are owned by their chains.
This is one of my favorite songs in the film. Unfortunately during the theatrical release of the film this song was cut. This song fell victim to the same crap that almost killed “Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid. Kids fidgeted because it was a “mushy romance scene” . Luckily this song made it to all home video releases. I like this scene because it is genuinely emotional about how Belle (Merideth Braun) breaks up with Scrooge because he becomes more obsessed with money and business than her and that he has slipped away and ceases to love her. The song is beautiful and sad. My only problem is with the scene. There’s not much action she just stares into space and sings. I mean couldn’t they have made her take a stroll to clear her head or walk away and Scrooge follows her and she sings to tell him it’s over? This staging problem isn’t solved until Michael Caine starts singing with her and that’s the first real crack in the miser and he feels genuine pain and regret and is the first real sign that Scrooge has given the audience so we can forgive him.
This is a song that the second spirit sings to show Scrooge the love and positive things that happen on Christmas and that Christmas isn’t just confined to one part of the year, but whenever happiness and joy is present.
The Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge to the Cratchit home and we see Tiny Tim and Bob walking home from church and they sing a very short reprise of Kermit’s previous song. This is a very sweet moment that shows the relationship between Bob and his son making the bleak future even sadder. A short, but very sweet scene.
This is my least favorite song of the film because it’s very sappy and cheesy. It’s basically the Cratchits singing about “Peace on Earth” and “Love everybody”. The message of the song is very good, but its execution was so lazy and cheesy, but it does work on some level. It may be the weakest song in the film, but it does work with the film and its themes.
You know I think this song might have inspired the “That’s How You Know” sequence from Disney’s Enchanted (one of my favorite movies, if you haven’t seen it you must) because Scrooge starts singing about how he’s changed for the better and his positive aura is so magnetic that throughout the song he has a bunch of people following him and singing with him. The song basically shows him spending most of his Christmas day buying and delivering presents to everyone even his old headmaster (played by Sam Eagle) and his first boss Fozziwig (played by Fozzie Bear). The song ends when the parade reaches Bob Cratchit’s house and Scrooge gives Bob and his family the surprise of their lives.
This is my favorite song in the film. I love it because it takes a song that represents a painful and sad memory for Scrooge and it becomes a positive one. It shows that Scrooge may have lost love in the past, but now it is found in Tiny Tim and all the people of the town. It shows that even if love is gone, love can be found again if we open our hearts enough. This song gets to the root of the story’s themes and the themes of Christmas itself! A beautiful song.
I love the sets for this film. They capture that Dickensian atmosphere and even when I was watching it on VHS they are still quite detailed and impressive. The film also proves that these are the best puppeteers in the world and the Muppets are given such life and emotion we don’t care that they’re puppets and we take the value in the characters and emotions that they convey. There are even very tiny little moments that add to the heart of the film. My favorite example is when Beaker gives Scrooge his scarf after Scrooge apologizes to him and Bunsen Honeydew. Scrooge is witnessing the kindness of other people first hand without a spirit and it’s absolute genius that the film does this to show that the spirits were truly right and Scrooge feel even better.
This is my favorite Muppet Movie as well as my favorite Christmas movie! This is one of the most beautiful and faithful adaptation of the classic story and has the most caring heart and the best humor that only the Muppets can provide.
VERDICT: 5 prize turkeys out of 5
Join me next time where I close out the year with a few lists of my favorite films of the year with a few OSCAR predictions and to close off the year I am going to review one of my favorite anythings of all time. I know I refuse to shut up about how ungodly AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It is, but I can’t help it! The end of the year is my review of KINGDOM HEARTS 1 !!