Underappreciated on its original release, eclipsed by its more well-loved predecessors, and unfairly lumped in with subsequent Muppet films of inconsistent quality, The Muppet Christmas Carol continues to get overlooked. It shouldn’t be. The first Muppet film made after Jim Henson’s death would have made him proud. Brian Henson and company did a fine job keeping everything special about The Muppets intact with this production. With its recent 20th Anniversary Edition blu ray release, it’s time to upgrade The Muppet Christmas Carol to “essential holiday viewing” status!
Ebenezer Scrooge is one of those roles that actors love to sink their teeth into. The roster of talent that has portrayed everyone’s favorite Christmas malcontent reads like a who’s who of the twentieth century’s finest actors. Perhaps only King Lear or Macbeth have a more impressive pedigree. It’s only natural that an actor of Michael Caine’s caliber would take a shot at Scrooge, and he is nothing short of magnificent in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Never mind the fact that the vast majority of Caine’s co-stars are made of felt, the entire production is a shining example of how the right talent with the right material can make anything work.
In this case, the source material is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. One of the most famous of all stories, and one which has been adapted to the stage and screen countless times, its themes of friendship, generosity, and redemption have become a central part of the holiday season. Many people consider the 1951 film (which starred Alistair Sim as Scrooge) to be the definitive cinematic realization of Dickens’ tale, and with good reason. Sim’s performance is iconic, the production is atmospheric, and it featured a terrifically spooky Ghost of Christmas Future. However, when discussing adaptations of A Christmas Carol, for some reason the Muppet version is often left out.
Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge is spectacular. He is never upstaged by his Muppet co-stars nor does he ever descend into broad comedy or caricature in order to “match” the rest of the production. Instead, Caine plays Scrooge as straight and as seriously as if he were performing the role on Broadway or London’s West End. Caine is appropriately bitter and menacing in the first act, but by the time Christmas morning arrives and Scrooge delivers his wonderful rendition of “A Thankful Heart,” Caine’s natural warmth and charm shines through, and his renewed vigor and joy are infectious.
While Scrooge and his relatives are portrayed by human actors, the rest of the cast is almost exclusively Muppet, and the “casting” is perfect. Kermit, of course, is a natural fit for Bob Cratchit. Gonzo portrays none other than Charles Dickens, narrating the events of the film in humorous fashion. While Gonzo’s Dickens (and his companion and comedic foil, Rizzo the Rat) can’t influence the film’s events, they can be affected by them in amusing ways. The cranky Waldorf and Statler as the ghosts of Jacob and Robert Marley are a hilarious highlight. But it’s the original creations of the three ghosts which deserve special praise. The ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past is a nice blend of special effects and puppeteering, and the foreboding and silent Ghost of Christmas Future pays tribute to the version seen both in Alistair Sim’s and Mister Magoo’s versions of the story! However, it’s the Ghost of Christmas Present that steals the show. An enormous, jolly, bearded creation with a familiar “ho-ho-ho” laugh and demeanor, the Ghost of Christmas Present might just be the visual highlight of the film.
Sharp-eyed Muppet fans will be able to spot most of their favorites in the scenes in the crowded town square, all of which are masterfully choreographed and realized. Personally, I can’t get enough of Fraggle Rock‘s shaggy dog, Sprocket, happily singing along on the choruses of several musical numbers. This world is created, in true Muppet fashion, with absolute sincerity. It’s that sincerity which might just be the ultimate strength of The Muppet Christmas Carol. This complete and total belief that the filmmakers have in the world they’re presenting to us, as well as the reverence for the source material and the spirit of the season, shines through in every frame.
The songs are mostly excellent, with Caine’s moving rendition of “A Thankful Heart” being the biggest highlight (despite Caine’s shortcomings as a singer). That, along with the grand finale, “When Love is Found,” really get to me, and I found myself fighting happy tears on my most recent viewing. It’s amazing that The Muppet Christmas Carol finds time to be funny amid all the touching and poignant moments, but it does. Waldorf and Statler appear at just the right times, Gonzo and Rizzo function as a hilarious chorus, and any time you think things are getting too heavy, there’s another piece of Muppet slapstick or background sight gag just around the corner to take the edge off. Miss Piggy, despite a relatively small role as Emily Cratchit, steals every scene she’s in (in true “ham” fashion), and her final “confrontation” with Scrooge is delightful.
I feel as if I’m exhausting my supply of superlatives trying to convey how good The Muppet Christmas Carol makes me feel at this time of year. It’s easy to get fatigued by the holiday season, and maybe the word “humbug” isn’t far from your lips. The Muppet Christmas Carol should work as a tonic for the holiday skeptic’s soul. I should know, as I’m one of them. Conventional wisdom generally regards the first three Muppet films, The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan, as the standard for the big-screen franchise’s quality, with subsequent films delivering diminishing returns. It’s time to reevaluate that, and to make sure that The Muppet Christmas Carol is always a part of the conversation when discussing the Muppets’ finest moments. Twenty years after its original release, The Muppet Christmas Carol suddenly stands revealed as, not only one of the best Muppet films, but as one of the most heartwarming and inventive adaptations of Dickens’ story.