Monday, December 12, 2011

The Muppet Christmas Carol, Part 1: Bah, Humbug!

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is rightfully considered a classic due to the impact it had on our modern day perception of Christmas.  Published in 1843, this novella was the first story to focus on the festive spirit and secular traditions that surrounded the holiday season, rather than the religious and pagan history from which it was born.  The concepts of family togetherness, celebration, and generosity were brought to the forefront in the story, forever linking them in the public's minds with Christmas.

Drink and be merry!

Because of its influence, the story has been retold countless times through various media, with over 50 interpretations presented on television or in film.  Each version adheres to the same basic plot structure following one person's journey through the past, present, and future to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas.  With so many adaptations to choose from, some are bound to be over better quality than others.

Many people cite The Muppet Christmas Carol as being not only their favorite Muppet movie, but as being their favorite interpretation of A Christmas Carol as well.  I am not among those people.  As its own movie, I think it is fine.  But as a Muppet movie, I do not consider it the best and as A Christmas Carol, I find it to be severely lacking in quality.  I believe most supporters of this movie are clouded in their own sense of nostalgia, only remembering having enjoyed this movie as a young child.

But perhaps I am being unfair.  Everyone I encounter loves this film with all of their heart.  Perhaps I am just missing something.  I shall watch this film again, to see if it truly does hold up as more than just a kids' movie.  So, here we go.  This week, it's The Muppet Christmas Carol.


There are two rats on the poster.  We're in for a treat!

First, a little history.  This was the first Muppet movie to be made following the deaths of two very influential Muppet performers, Richard Hunt and Jim Henson.  As such, their more memorable characters were pushed to the background or removed entirely from the project (Scooter, in particular is completely absent).  This was also the first film to be produced under the Walt Disney Studios name, which results in a more streamlined production differing in tone from the original three films.  The movie was originally intended to be made for TV until Disney expanded the budget.  However, these changes will not influence my review in anyway.  Although Henson and Hunt are missed, their spirit lives on in the remaining puppeteers and Jim's son Brian, who directs the film.  It is still very much a Muppet group effort, even if it must suffer the burden of being made during this unexpected transitional period.

The film opens on a busy 19th-century London street in the wintertime as Muppets and humans coexist without tripping over one another.  Puppet-recycling is in full effect as many minor characters from past productions appear in Victorian garb.  As merchants hock their wares on the street, we settle on a booth manned by the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat.

Charles Dickens and friend

In the original script, Muppets were supposed to play all of the major characters, including the three Ghosts of Christmas.  Piggy would be Past, Scooter would be Present, and Gonzo as Future.  However, as it underwent revision, it was decided that the Ghosts should be more foreboding in order for Scrooge and the audience to take them seriously.  Also, a voice-over narration had been considered in order to keep Dickens' masterful language intact.  But when Gonzo got booted from the ghost role, it was decided to place him as the role of the narrator.  Rizzo had recently joined the ranks as a main Muppet character and his performer Steve Whitmire had a great repertoire with Gonzo's Dave Golez.  With Gonzo as Dickens and Rizzo on deck to provide commentary and comic relief, the comedic duo were allowed to lead the audience through the movie.

This choice is one of the movie's great assets.  Most versions try to keep the narration either through another character, as a voice-over, or (in the most clumsily fashion I've ever seen) incorporated into the dialogue.  But Gonzo presents a liveliness to the narrator that is not present in any other version and, more importantly, he cares about the story.  While Rizzo often gets side-tracked with his jokes, Gonzo is always there to keep everyone focused on the story at hand.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the erratic Gonzo is capable of deep pathos, making him the perfect choice to play Dickens.

Dickens begins his tale, introducing Ebenezer Scrooge by way of the film's first musical number.  This catchy song is cute, but I feel it fails to fully characterize Scrooge.  It falls into the common trap of telling rather than showing.


Our Scrooge (Michael Caine) calmly strolls through the singing puppets, ignoring them all the way.  Despite their claims of his many faults, we are not treated to any of them during the song.  For comparison, I implore you to check out the 1970 musical Scrooge starring Albert Finney.  During his introduction song "Father Christmas," we witness him going about town calling upon his many debtors, showing little compassion to their plights.  He is outright mean to everybody he encounters and shows no remorse at all.  Caine, on the other hand, while a great actor, does not display any signs of cruelty yet, despite what the lyrics imply.

In fact, he often seems as if he would rather be anywhere else.

Perhaps this is meant to show how disinterested he is in the lower class, but it just comes off as boredom.  This continues as he enters his office and casually tosses out a random Muppet asking for an extension in his mortgage payment.  Drawing on another comparison, Alastair Sim's famous portrayal in 1951's A Christmas Carol took his disinterest in the common man to a whole new level.  It seemed as if life had beaten him down so much that there was nothing left for him but resentment.  He showed no compassion to anyone because he was physically incapable of finding those emotions.  The human race became foreign to him and their joy at Christmas irritated him because he was unfamiliar with it.

Caine, however, plays Scrooge as a jerk who just enjoys being a jerk.  When he sends Bob Cratchit to prepare the many eviction notices due on Christmas, he seems to exhibit a villainous glee at the prospect of people losing their homes.  Scrooge may be cold-hearted and unsympathetic, but evil?  That's pushing the character a little too far.  Scrooge's main fault is that he is self-absorbed, not malicious.

Money for the poor?  I'd rather watch them starve to death while I stroke my cat.

Kermit as Bob Cratchit, like Gonzo as Dickens, is another inspired Muppet casting choice.  Kermit's humility is almost identical to Cratchit's meek yet optimistic persona.  One welcome addition to the original dialogue is when Cratchit tries to ask for Christmas day off from work.  Usually, Scrooge reluctantly gives in to the custom, decrying it, but acknowledging it nonetheless.  Here, he puts up some resistance, prompting Cratchit to appeal to his thriftiness by logically explaining he would lose more money by staying open on a day when all other businesses are closed.  That's very clever and bold for the usually subservient Cratchit.

But why he has to be surrounded by a gaggle of unnecessary rat co-workers is beyond me.

I shall conclude today's post with Kermit/Cratchit's pleasant song "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas."  Like with "Scrooge," I find that the visuals and the lyrics do not exactly match up, as the rat bookkeepers exhibit many playful slapstick as they pack up shop while Kermit sings a low-key tune.  This is one of those moments that distracts the viewer as the story is placed on hold to allow for puppet antics.


The end of the song with the shooting star presents a nice contrast as the camera pans over to a homeless Bean Bunny, struggling to keep warm in the trash.  What is a beautiful Christmas Eve night for one person is a source of extreme discomfort for another.  Despite being a background character, Bean has managed to steal the show with the most heart-wrenching scene in the film.

I hope the rest of the movie is as meaningful as this five-second moment.

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