Title: The Muppet Christmas Carol
Year of Release: 1992
Date Viewed: December 25th, 2010
MPAA Rating: G
Last month was the first time that I had diagnosed myself with Christmas burnout. It was inevitable. I blame commercialism and the media hype machine. November 1st is the first calendar date where Christmas themed music is played nonstop on radio airwaves. You can't go to any public place without hearing the 378,368,487th cover of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Houses are decorated in bright colors. Elf and A Christmas Story are aired on basic cable television almost every day. Store employees and customers become grouchy. Everyone forgets how to obey the rules of the road. These are all the signs of the holiday season and they do not go away until December 31st. That's two months of Christmas. One-sixth or seventeen percent of the year. Crazy, isn't it?
When November 1st came around, my usual reaction of excitement was replaced by bewilderment. "Didn't we just do this last week?" Nobody wants to be the Grinch when everyone else is having fun. But for the first time, Christmas no longer felt special to me. It felt too common. I was tired of unpacking decorations and setting up the trees. I was tired of watching Ebenezer Scrooge become a better person every year. I was tired of hearing Schroeder's piano solo. Yet I went along with it because it's the social polite thing to do.
And then came my annual viewing of The Muppet Christmas Carol. Despite everything I had just complained about, this movie managed to help me forget all that frustration and love Christmas once again. At least for eighty minutes.
This was the first Muppets theatrical film produced since their godfather Jim Henson passed away. This set the bar very high. The project needed to accomplish two things. It had to create a new yet loyal take on Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" novel and pay a proper tribute to Jim Henson's legendary career. Writer Jerry Juhl and director Brian Henson went above and beyond the call of duty here. The Muppet Christmas Carol offers the best of two worlds. The finest character study set during the Christmas season and a sideshow of humor that only the creativity of Jim Henson's company could provide. The only sad part is after this movie's release, neither Juhl nor Henson were involved in anything that matched this level of quality.
By sheer fate, Henson's Muppet universe seemed tailor made for Dickens' tale. Most of the characters didn't have to change their personality for the sake of the story. Kermit the Frog as mild mannered Bob Cratchit and Fozzi Bear as good-natured Fezziwig (renamed Fozziwig) were natural fits. Other characters had to be rethought a little. The normally frightening Jacob Marley is turned comical by Statler and his partner-in-crime Waldorf. And The Great Gonzo (as Charles Dickens) serves as our charismatic narrator.
But this Muppets fare is no farce. Brian Henson treats Dickens' work with the utmost respect and stays true to the necessary dramatic themes. The power of greed, true family values and redemption are still the focus point. It even had to turn dark when it had to. After a steady hybrid of drama and comedy, the movie turns completely serious during the final act. At this point, Gonzo breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience, "You're on your own, folks. We'll meet you at the finale."
One of the few characters not represented by a Muppet is Ebenezer Scrooge himself, with Michael Caine in the role. Caine's strategy appeared to be not portraying Scrooge as a heartless monster, but rather as a hurt soul. As the opening number suggests, "Look closely and there must be a sweet man inside." His actions are still as appalling as ever, yet there's a hint of sadness behind his face that made me wish better for him instead of the worst. There is a history of Scrooge actors overcompensating to act evil. Caine's performance is different because he mostly lets the actions speak for themselves. And besides, there are only so many ways to wear an angry face.
The musical numbers are written by longtime Henson contributor Paul Williams. They vary in tone depending on the chapter of the story. The most serious number "When Love is Gone" was deleted from the theatrical cut because it was deemed too somber for a Muppets film, a sentiment I agree with. However, it came at a cost. Instead of providing Scrooge's love interest, Belle, with a written background, her history was summed up in a musical number instead. A mistake. When the number was cut, the character ended up baring very little relevance to the story. A vital part of Ebenezer Scrooge's path to redemption is supposed to be his realization of past mistakes. Sacrificing the theme of lost love was a real shame, especially since the movie did such an exceptional job with the other ones. (The number was re-inserted into the movie for the pan-and-scan VHS release.)
When the topic of Christmas movies arise in conversation, The Muppet Christmas Carol is almost never talked about, probably because it's not aired on television very often. It's an overlooked classic and Brian Henson's best work since his father's passing. Various other crossover movies involving the Muppets and classic works of literature would come in the future. The filmmakers, however, lost sight of what made the Charles Dickens' project so charming. The lesson that should have been learned was: There is room for noisy slapstick humor, but it needs to stay in the back seat so that the original story can drive us home peacefully.