David’s Favorite Films, #20: THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL

Just in time for the holidays, I geek out on my favorite Muppet film.

It’s good to be heckling again…It’s good to be doing anything again!

–The Marley Brothers

The first film released after the death of beloved genius Jim Henson, The Muppet Christmas Carol could have been a dismal failure. An extremely nervous Steve Whitmire was taking over the voice of Kermit, and there was real concern that the essential spark Henson gave his creations would be missing. Jim’s son, Brian, set out to honor his father and make a Muppet film of bigger scope and ambition that had ever been seen. But more than being an expensive flop, it’s nearly perfect — and a perfect Christmas film.

One of the many remarkable things about The Muppet Christmas Carol is how true it is to Charles Dickens’s classic novel. It’s definitely goofy and silly, stacked with the sight gags and vaudevillian punchlines we’ve come to expect from the Muppets, but the bulk of the dialog comes straight from the original novel. By utilizing the tag team of Gonzo and Rizzo as (respectively) the narrator and his disbelieving sidekick, Dickens’s most memorable turns of phrase are preserved. Gonzo claims, naturally, to BE Charles Dickens, and drags Rizzo around London — and through time — to follow and comment upon the story. It’s a delightfully clever conceit from longtime Muppets writer Jerry Juhl, and leads to some of the film’s best gags.

The Muppet casting is perfect, even effortlessly so, but standouts include Statler & Waldorf as the Marley Brothers (obviously there’s only one in the novel, but come on); Fozzie as — naturally — “Fozziwig,” Bunsen & Beaker as the charity collectors Scrooge mistreats, and Robin the Frog in the lynchpin role of Tiny Tim. But even more impressive is the slew of completely original Muppets created for the film, and its bleak and foggy vision of London. Many of them are downright ugly, but they all feel of a piece with the story and art direction — and manage to create memorable characters in their own right, alongside the more familiar Muppets we see as simply playing a role (“Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit,” the credits cheekily tell us).

In particular, the three Ghosts of Christmas are stunning. Christmas Past, the child, is a technological marvel, filmed through water and representing true cutting-edge special effects (certainly by 1992 standards, but it still holds up.) The jocular Christmas Present is enormous, but exquisitely performed; and the wraith-like Christmas Future is one of the creepiest memories of my childhood — so creepy, that Gonzo and Rizzo would rather not stick around. Juhl and Brian Henson don’t shy away from the more macabre elements of the story, no matter the film’s audience (“It’s alright, this is culture!”), and it’s to their credit that it never feels like tonal whiplash. The rising tension while Scrooge sits alone in his room — which, again, feels quite distant from what one expects from a Muppet movie — gives way to the comedic appearance of the Marleys, but that melancholy feeling never goes away, as the story travels through horror and heartbreak to its well-earned conclusion.

But what of Scrooge himself? Here was a real coup: Sir Michael Caine, who plays the role completely straight, never giving a sign that he’s acting against goofy pieces of felt. His Scrooge is fully human in every sense of the word, and he plays both sides of the role — the “grasping, covetous” miser and the broken man within who comes to seek redemption — with a three-dimensional power and grace. There’s always a temptation to over-do it (or worse, phone it in) when your co-stars are puppets, but you can tell just how seriously Caine takes the role, which makes his ultimate despair in the graveyard that much more moving. It goes without saying that between all the many incarnations of this character, Caine — the first ever truly dramatic performance in a Muppet production — is my favorite.

The missing piece of the puzzle, after the wonderful screenplay and performances from human and puppet alike, is the music. Brian Henson managed to secure the biggest “get” of all in the brilliant songwriter Paul Williams, who elevated the first Muppet Movie to classic status but hadn’t returned for any of the following films. His melodic contributions can’t be overstated — the songs are immediately catchy and memorable, by turns funny and earnest, and while none of them reach the heights of “The Rainbow Connection,” they don’t have to. There isn’t a single bad song in the entire film, and along with the score from Miles Goodman, just the sound of French horns (and “Good King Wenceslas,” which frequently recurs) takes me to the Christmas season more quickly than any sight or smell. The Marley duet, Tiny Tim’s solo “Bless Us All,” and Christmas Present’s “It Feels Like Christmas” are fantastic numbers all on their own, even leaving aside how they enrich the story.

For kids of my generation, this is Christmas, and with each passing year the film grows in esteem. It manages to impeccably capture both the spirit of Dickens and the spirit of Jim Henson, and show that they — perhaps — aren’t so far apart. They both believed in the inherent goodness of people, and the role of the artist to tap into that goodness to inspire others. In truth, it was a perfect match, and one unlikely to ever be repeated. The fully glory of the Muppets may now be a thing of the past, but Christmas Carol is their greatest achievment, a rousing climax to signify the end of an era.

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